Jefferson Friedman, Composer

Jefferson Friedman

Jefferson Friedman (b. 1974, Swampscott, MA) is an American composer who now lives and composes in Los Angeles, CA.  His music has been called “impossible to resist” by the New York Times and Sequenza 21 reports, “[Mr. Friedman] goes a lot further toward sustaining interest and tension than composers twice his age (and with Pulitzer Prizes).” 

His work has been performed throughout the United States and abroad, most notably at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and Avery Fisher Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, the Bowery Ballroom, (Le) Poisson Rouge, and the American Academy in Rome.  His piece, String Quartet No. 3, was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Contemporary Classical Composition of the Year,” recorded as the Chiara String Quartet’s 2011 New Amsterdam Records album. 

Mr. Friedman has been commissioned three times by Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra; his works March, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, and Sacred Heart: Explosion were all written for the NSO.  The Throne and Sacred Heart are the second and third sections of a planned orchestral trilogy entitled In the Realms of the Unreal, each movement of which is based on the life and work of a different American “outsider” or “visionary” artist. 

In 2007, the NSO commissioned and premiered a revised version of Sacred Heart: ExplosionSacred Heart: Explosion is based on the work of visionary artist Henry Darger, of Chicago (1892 – 1972), and the original version of the piece was composed while Mr. Friedman was still a student at Juilliard. After the premiere of the revised version, The Washington Post hailed it as having “truly eloquent moments,“ and The Washington Times reported that is was “thoroughly modern, highly intelligent music.” A live recording of the National Symphony Orchestra’s premiere was included as the only non-visual artwork in an exhibit called “Dargerism: Contemporary Artists and Henry Darger” at The American Folk Art Museum in New York, in 2008. 

In addition to his work as a composer, Mr. Friedman has performed with a number of rock bands, including Shudder to Think, and has collaborated with the electronic duo Matmos, contributing string arrangements for their album The Rose Has Teeth In the Mouth Of A Beast. Since moving to Los Angeles in 2012, he has worked on a number of film, television and live theatrical projects, including contributions to music by Danny Elfman, Craig Wedren and Deborah Lurie.

What sparked your interest in composing?

I’ve pretty much always known that I would be a musician in some way, but my first composition teacher in college, David Rakowski, was a huge influence on me. If you asked me for one reason why I’m a composer, he’s the answer.

Can you describe your process?

I do a lot of pre-composition, especially when it comes to a piece based on something else, as is the case with Sacred Heart: Explosion. I did a ton of research on Darger’s life and work, saw as many exhibitions as I could, bought all the books. Then when I start writing a piece, I create graphs that function as a kind of blueprint, graphically representing the structure, energy flow, textures, orchestrational ideas, etc. Then it’s just a matter of interior decorating with rhythms and notes.

How did you get started with composing Sacred Heart Explosion?

I was in Chamberlain, SD, in the middle of a road trip. I woke up, walked out onto my balcony, and heard this hymn playing from a church across the river. There was something about that ethereal sound that sounded like the painting, and so that was my starting point. I don’t generally quote material in my work, but since Darger’s process included tracing objects into his paintings (like the sacred heart in Sacred Heart: Explosion), I decided I wanted to trace that hymn into my piece, to represent the sacred heart. After I got back to New York, I called the Chamberlain Chamber of Commerce to ask where those bells would have been coming from. They directed me to a local church, and I called them and asked if they knew which hymn had been playing that morning. They could only give me a list of the hymns that were in rotation that month, so I got a hymnal and played through all the hymns on the list until I found the one I heard that morning. It turned out to be Jerusalem, the Golden, which is played literally by offstage chimes and harp about a quarter of the way through the piece, and which informs all the other musical decisions I made.

How did you discover Henry Darger’s paintings and why are you so interested in his work?

My sister, who is an art historian, turned me on to his work. There’s a purity and uniqueness to it that is hard to come by in the work of trained artists, and the paintings have this combination of intimacy and monumentalism that I strive for in my own work.

Can you describe your work, Sacred Heart: Explosion?

The painting is a diptych, so my piece is divided into two parts, the first musically depicting the left half of the painting and the second the right. Formally, the two halves of the painting are very similar; the sacred heart on the left is replaced by the explosion on the right, the floating angels on the left by the girls with rifles on the right. So for example, Jerusalem, the Golden, which is played in its entirety in the first half of the piece, is then musically “exploded” for the finale.

How many times has it been performed?

This version has been performed twice, a set of performances by the NSO and a set by the CSO. It has a lot of bells and whistles, so logistically it’s difficult to perform.

Now that you will have the opportunity to participate in many rehearsals and spend time with the musicians of AYS, what would you like the orchestra to focus on or  know about the piece beforehand?

Well, I would love if some of the orchestra members became interested enough in Darger’s work to investigate him on their own.

What do you think will be the most challenging for the orchestra?

There are some weird extended techniques that are tricky – the trumpets playing with their bells on the skin of the timpani, the trombone playing into the bell of the tuba, and the gong part is kind of crazy and probably needs to be memorized, but overall, there are a lot of little details in the orchestration that are difficult to get.