Program notes by Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She has been the commissioned writer for Miller Theatre’s Composer Portraits series since 2018.
Composer Suzanne Farrin’s head is full of voices.
The voices have not interfered (much) with her recent commission for the Parker Quartet’s 20th Anniversary Beethoven Project, a musical response to his Opus 13 string quartet cycle. And they have grudgingly allowed the recent Guggenheim Fellow and winner of the 2017 Rome Prize to get started on a solo microtonal clarinet piece for Gregory Oakes, which will explore the possibilities of his new instrument.
The source of this steady stream of inner dialogue comes instead from Farrin’s decade-long pre-occupation with creating an opera based on Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector’s A Hora da Estrela (The Hour of the Star).
“These people are in my head talking to me all the time,” Farrin says, referring not only to her characters but librettist Sergio Chejfec and the legendary figure of Clarice Lispector (1920-77) herself, considered by many to be Brazil’s preeminent modern writer. “I have a responsibility to do right by them.”
Titled Macabéa for the novel’s main character, the opera will earn Farrin the distinction of being the first composer to set any of Lispector’s stories in a dramatic musical form. The work has been commissioned by the Talea Ensemble with funding from the New York State Council on the Arts and the Ernst von Siemens Foundation. It is scheduled to premiere at São Paolo’s Theatro São Pedro, Brazil’s equivalent of the Metropolitan Opera, in 2025. Macabéa received development support from The American’ Opera Project’s First Chance program for new works, and the Consulate General of Brazil in New York will support a local premiere.
Farrin was joined early in the process by Chejfec, an acclaimed novelist from Argentina. It took the pair five years to adapt the story because of its slippery narrative devices; a male narrator bends gender conventions to stand in for Lispector and speaks directly to his audience. Chejfec wrote the libretto in his dialect of Rioplatense Spanish for later translation into Portuguese but passed away suddenly in April 2022.
“Every day I sit with his text,” Farrin says, “but he’s not here. I always imagined that I was working with the ghost of Clarice Lispector, who didn’t know she was dying when she wrote Estrela. Now I have Sergio, too.”
Macabéa, an impoverished and unattractive young typist with no family, raises all sorts of existential questions about identity. Invisible in the bustling slums of Rio de Janeiro, she has no sense of self beyond an occupation that she performs quite badly, her virginity, and a professed love for Coca-Cola. Still, she is hopeful. The complexities of this vacant yet faithful character extend to Lispector’s magnetic text, its mystical grammar teased into odd, abstract patterns reminiscent of Kabbalism. As Lispector biographer Benjamin Moser writes in The New Yorker, her writings are “shot through by a ceaseless linguistic searching, a grammatical instability, that prevents them from being read too quickly.”
“Lispector speaks for Brazil—she’s so very Brazilian—but she wasn’t officially recognized as a citizen until she married a diplomat as an adult,” explains Farrin. “Her family migrated from Ukraine as Jewish refugees in the 1920s following the pogroms and had to sell their shoes to pay for the passage. If you dig just a little bit, you see how complicated her life and her stories are.”
“When a space feels complicated,” Farrin adds, “that’s the interesting space for me to be in.”
Farrin has focused her attention on these kinds of complex spaces—ones shaped by how her fellow creatives navigate multivalent identities—time and time again. She says that she is drawn to their veracity, rooted in an author’s deep or what can even be a shattering self-awareness. Moreover, Farrin’s curiosity tends to be ignited by literature in which the language itself helps encode these different dimensions, analogous to the way that the physicality of an instrument offers her a unique portfolio of colors. The intersectional nature of Farrin’s materials not only unlocks this broad palette but fuels the dynamic tensions on which her music depends.
“When a space feels complicated,” Farrin adds, “that’s the interesting space for me to be in.”
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.”
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.
Il Suono (2016) (Sound) for harp and soprano fits neatly between the movements of dolce la morte. Its text is drawn from the Serenata Spirituale by Maria Antonia Scalera Stellini (1634- 1704), an Italian poet and playwright whose husband was an official in the palace of a Roman arts patron. This particular drama takes the form of a dialogue between characters that represent Music, Poetry, Sound, the Four Souls Animated by Divine Love, Reason, and the river Tiber.
“I was attracted to the transparency and abstractness of this particular excerpt, which is sung by the character Suono (Sound),” writes Farrin in her composer’s note. “I could not really decipher a meaning to these words, which I suppose was the point. Sound has no end and no beginning, and I tried to live in that feeling while writing the piece.”
The circumstances around its composition were also likely to have influenced its dreamlike quality. While at the International Centre for Composers in Visby, Sweden, during the summer of 2016, Farrin had given herself two goals: to learn to sleep and to finish this composition. Those tasks proved more challenging than she had anticipated because she hadn’t realized there would only be two hours of darkness each night.
Watch a performance of Il Suono featuring Alice Teyssier (voice) and Nuiko Wadden (harp), performed at the TIME:SPANS Festival 2020.
Time is a Cage (2007), another instrumental work slipped between vocal pieces for this performance, is the earliest composition on the program and the only one without a literary connection. As Farrin writes in her composer’s note, it is “a meditation on each of the four strings of the violin (the second one is tuned to Bb instead of A) and deals with the unsteady perception of time passing.” Multiple voices emerge from this single player, pulling away from each other like twins that have less in common than you’d expect. They appear and depart on their own schedules, as if testing how far they can stretch their connection.
Two of the pieces on tonight’s program, polvere et ombra and corpo di terra, were inspired by the writings of Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374).
Farrin refers to the master Italian poet and founding father of Renaissance humanism as her “gateway drug.” For a time, she says, he “became the source of everything for me. I couldn’t write a piece without him.” During a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, she immersed herself in his sonnets and the Italian language. Dan Lippel, guitarist of the International Contemporary Ensemble and New Focus Records co-founder, encouraged her to create a collection of Petrarchan compositions, which was released under the title Corpo di Terra in 2012.
Although these two pieces are instrumental solos, the texts of Petrarch’s sonnets lay a musical foundation. Polvere et ombra (2008) for harp takes its form from the syllabic rhythmic grid created by Sonnet 23; in the tradition of Italian poetry, the last word of each line forms a pattern that is repeated in the next stanza. Farrin translated these sounds to the instrument viscerally, experimenting with a practice harp in her studio. The composition is, in essence, her own reading of the poem through the instrument.
The title polvere et ombra comes from a line in Petrarch’s Sonnet 294: “Veramente siam noi polvere et ombra” (“In truth we are but shadows, only dust”). While composing, Farrin had a vision of a defiant Petrarch under a blanket of stars in the moment he discovered his own smallness and impermanence. Corpo di terra (2009) for cello expresses a similar sentiment. The title is typically translated as “flesh of the earth,” yet Farrin prefers to think of it as “earth flesh,” the living, decaying landscape Petrarch wandered.
The piece, she writes in her composer’s note, “addresses memory, reflected in nostalgic allusions to the Baroque allemande through figurations, trills, and glissandi. Pitched worlds submerge and resurface transformed, extended, or untouched as the texts swoop in and out of utterance, as memories are not fixed but have a life of their own.”
Farrin’s compositional process involved a series of “playdates” with her Purchase Conservatory colleague Julia Lichten, allowing her to create a piece with the cellist’s particular physicality in mind. “The way her hair plays with the scroll of her instrument was always on my mind as I was writing harmonics,” Farrin shares. “It was a wonderful
chance for me to be in the body of this great player whom I admire, someone that I love.”
Their Hearts Are Columns, which makes its world premiere this evening, was commissioned by the Library of Congress’s Carolyn Royall Just Fund and the International Contemporary Ensemble in 2020. The project came with one small catch: Farrin could write for any combination of players, as long as she included herself on the ondes Martenot. The piece is scored for that instrument in an ensemble that includes soprano, harp, percussion, and double bass.
Played through a string attached to a ring on the performer’s finger, the ondes was invented by a World War I radio operator and cellist named Maurice Martenot (1898–1980). He wanted to devise an instrument as expressive as the acoustic instrument he played while recreating the overlapping sine waves produced by military radio oscillators. These liquid tones, Farrin says, are ones she feels she can fully inhabit as a performer.
It was the otherworldly color of the ondes that directed her poetry selection for Their Hearts Are Columns. The opening and final stanzas of Les chèvrefeuilles (The Honeysuckles) by Marcel Proust (1871-1922) form bookends around the work as its first and fourth movements. A French prose poem that ostensibly takes honeysuckle as its subject, Les chèvrefeuilles inverts Proust’s sexual identity by using the first person feminine—is he voicing this assumed identity as a performance for his reader or unmasking his queerness?
The verses for the two middle movements, “Im Innern” (Inside) and “Nacht” (Night), are classical Persian poems by Jalāl al-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-73) and Khwāje Shams-od-Dīn Mohammad Hāfez-e Shīrāzī (1325-90) translated into German by Cyrus Atabay.
“I was reading an article—I don’t even remember what it was—and there was a quote in German,” Farrin recalls. “I thought, What kind of German poetry is this? It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever read. Rumi had been sounding very tired to me in English—it doesn’t take anything away from him that we put his quotes on our coffee mugs because we love him so much. But seeing his poetry through the lens of the German language made it fresh for me again.”
A native of Tehran, Atabay (1929-96), the son of a princess, was sent to be educated in Berlin as a child. A migrant by choice, he lived an ascetic existence, spending periods in Iran and Switzerland before returning to Germany for the final phase of his life. Atabay was himself a critically acclaimed poet; his writings drew on the traditions of the ghazals, yet he chose to write almost entirely in German rather than his native Persian. His own poems feature themes of solitude that contrast starkly with the joy and spirit of connection captured in his volumes of Rumi and Hafiz translations. One hopes that Atabay found a special peace and rootedness working on these linguistic recreations.
Farrin brings her own readings to these poems, ones that shifted during the pandemic. “Their hearts are columns—meaning the love of the people in this room are supporting this structure,” Farrin explains, referencing a line from “Im Innern.” “When we moved from normal life to a locked down life in New York City, all of a sudden, I heard them differently. Love was literally keeping the roof over our heads and keeping us safe.”
Her music is intended to peel back the layers of identity, leveraging the nuances of language and the dramatic relationships between performers and their instruments to color our perceptions.
In setting out to occupy these complex spaces, Farrin can’t help but listen to the ghosts she finds there. Her music is intended to peel back the layers of identity, leveraging the nuances of language and the dramatic relationships between performers and their instruments to color our perceptions. The best art, she would say, is one that subtracts, carving away all excess until what remains feels inevitable.
“That would be my goal—to feel like I’m distilling into an essence my relationship to the poetry. These are texts that go through millions of people and I’m just one of them—I don’t think I’m finding the universal filter for a Petrarchan text, or Rumi—or Lispector. As I sit with them, I will always be developing little fantasies through how I hear the poetry, my personal reading of it. I’m finding my own filter.”