These defining features of Farrin’s compositions are present in abundance on tonight’s Composer Portrait program. Selections from her monodrama dolce la morte (Sweet Death), a commission by the International Contemporary Ensemble for countertenor and ensemble that premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016, set the poetry of Michelangelo, more specifically, intimate verses that the artist wrote for young nobleman Tommaso dei Cavalieri. The mutual affection between these men was anything but simple, not only because of its homosexual nature, but the power dynamics engendered by a thirty-year age difference between them, Cavalieri’s elevated social position, and, eventually, their public work together; Cavalieri would oversee the construction of Michelangelo’s designs for the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome.
Dolce la morte finds its voice through the Italian language, as do a number of the other pieces on the concert. Polvere et ombra (dust and shadow) and corpo di terra (earth flesh) are solo instrumental works that have been inspired by the Renaissance texts of Petrarch. They capture both the awe in our human existence and a painful awareness of its cruelty. As Farrin has written, her goal was to project the poems “through the lens of individual instruments, striving to express the inner psychological world behind the words.”
Lastly, the world premiere of Their Hearts Are Columns for soprano and ensemble is framed by stanzas of a verdurous French poem by Proust written in a woman’s voice. The middle movements come from German translations of mystical Sufi poetry by Rumi and Hafiz written by Cyrus Atabay, a Persian exile who lived in Germany for much of his life. Farrin chose the poem from which the work takes its title, a reflection on love and domesticity, before the pandemic, a reading that deepened as she revised the composition during lockdown.
Farrin joins the performance of this new piece on the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument. “I really enjoy playing other people’s music,” she says. “I have a duo with Brazilian guitarist João Luis. And I try to commission one new work per year to add to the repertoire. Honestly, I play the ondes because I need a break for myself. It’s a relief from other pressures.”
The musical worlds Farrin inhabits are so different than the quiet one in which she grew up. A native of the coastal town of North Yarmouth in rural Maine, young Suzanne (b. 1976) often found herself left in the company of her own imagination.
“I went back there after I had my son Luca, and we walked around the neighborhood,” Farrin remembers. “I wanted to see if the rocks and the trees were still there. The three trees that were my friends gave me different perspectives when I was sitting in them. You’d have to wear an orange vest during hunting season, so you wouldn’t accidentally get shot.”
“People in Maine are just weird,” she adds. “Being a composer is not such a big deal. It’s one kind of weird among many flavors of weird.”
Among her family members, Farrin’s two grandfathers most influenced her musical development. Grandpa Lloyd was a working jazz bassist, playing clubs to pay off his mortgage, although he never told her he was a musician. “He played 100% by ear, so I think he never said anything because he felt that what I was doing was ‘proper’ music.”
Grandpa Jack, a music lover, shared his records with her, introducing her to Kiri Te Kanawa, Count Basie, and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. He also owned a piano and enjoyed hearing her play.
The piano was a tool for Farrin to understand music’s mechanics in the form of concrete patterns that fit in her hands. “From the very beginning, my composition teachers were my piano teachers,” she explains. “That’s how I got piano lessons—because I was writing songs.”
She composed with whatever new information reached her fingertips. In recitals, she always performed standard repertoire plus one piece of her own. She wrote music for her church and, later, as a member of her school’s Computer Music Group, playing keyboards in their then-state-of-the-art MIDI band. The band director, a composer himself, encouraged her and facilitated access to instruments. When she was 16 years old, and her family moved to Colorado, she wrote for her new school’s jazz choir.
In her first year at the University of Colorado, Boulder (B.M. 1998), where she would take composition lessons with John Drumheller, Farrin yearned for more tactile knowledge. So she decided to enroll in all of the methods classes offered for the music education majors, learning a little bit of nearly every orchestral instrument in the process. Her need for embodied knowledge continued in graduate school at Yale (M.M. 2000, M.M.A. 2004, D.M.A. 2007), where her teachers were Joseph Schwantner, Evan Ziporyn, and Ezra Laderman. She studied intensively with Martin Bresnick in her doctoral year.
“It was about getting as far inside as I could,” Farrin explains. “How does a musician move when they play? How do they stand on stage? What is their body like? I found that I couldn’t really compose without knowing what the hands of the person I was writing for looked like. The way a person physically relates to their instrument—each one is different.”
During that period, Farrin befriended many musicians with whom she still has relationships, like percussionist Jason Treuting (Sō Percussion) and pianist Vanessa Perez. She also met her husband Sebastián Zubieta, who now serves as the Music Director of The Americas Society. Farrin’s affinity for languages had begun with Spanish class in middle school; she thought of it as a steppingstone to learning Italian, the language that Grandpa Jack encouraged because her great-grandmother had spoken it. She became serious about German study in her twenties, Italian in her late thirties, and has been speaking Spanish, specifically Rioplatense, at home for 25 years.
Farrin landed her first teaching position at the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College before she finished her degree, with one and then a second child at home. She also served as Composition Chair. “It’s already crazy,” she kids. “You might as well pile it on.”
In addition to finding enthusiastic collaborators among her colleagues at Purchase, Farrin was responsible for hiring composers, bringing Du Yun and Huang Ruo on board. “It’s hard to imagine me becoming myself without these other composers,” she says. “And they have been foundational to how I operate now in terms of not seeing limits.”
Today, Farrin is the Frayda B. Lindemann Professor of Music at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.
The Composer Portrait opens with “unico spirto,” (unique spirit) one of five movements from the Michelangelo cycle dolce la morte that will be presented this evening. The remaining selections, which include “come serpe,” (like a snake) “veggio,” (I see) “l’onde,” (the waves) and “rendete,” (take back) will be interspersed within a sequence of solo and duo works during the first half of the program.
One of the most influential visual artists of all time, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) also wrote sonnets, madrigals, epigrams, letters, and jokes, often in the margins of his sketches. Of his over 300 poems, thirty were addressed to Tommaso dei Cavalieri (1509–1587), more than any other person. They are the first series of poems in European history known to have been addressed by one man to another.
“You have the beautiful, young nobleman Tommaso,” Farrin explains. “And Michelangelo, who is coming on pretty strong. Of course, we’re focused on their sexuality because that’s our sensibility today. But, at the time, this love between two men was not as much of a barrier as their social class. Michelangelo was a great man—a god on Earth who sees the stone and can unlock the life that’s trapped there—but Tommaso was still untouchable, which I love as a composer because it creates productive disturbances.”
At the time she wrote dolce la morte, Farrin was obsessed with Antonio Vivaldi’s Baroque operas, a stylistic period in which the high male voices of the castrati were in vogue. Dolce’s singer occupies that lofty range, one we might hear as gender fluid, but his music is taught and searching. As Michelangelo, he articulates an anguished longing for il Signor mio (my Lord) with despair for a love that could not be consummated. Tones are bound together and forcibly bent in the well of their emotional gravity.
Farrin describes her compositional process as one of reduction—of taking away and taking away until a “more essential place is revealed,” a practice sympathetic with sculpture. She sees an analogy for dolce la morte in Michelangelo’s “prisoner statues,” on display at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. For reasons unknown, he abandoned the figures in various states of completion, portions of their bodies trapped under rough stone.
“Death feels less permanent to me than those statues,” Farrin says. “In many ways, my work is trapped in other zones that I can’t or shouldn’t reach. We tend to relate easily to Michelangelo’s perfectly chiseled men, but they are so distant to me—literally on a pedestal. The prisoners are something else. They feature bodies that long to be released into a state we can understand.”