Hechinger Encores Commission Composer Jefferson Friedman

Jefferson Friedman can’t divulge when his Encore‘s commission will be performed exactly (the National Symphony Orchestra wants to make sure the performances are a surprise to the audience), but he will say that the work will be performed in the early fall and that it has already been signed and delivered to the NSO. “This whole thing is supposed to be a surprise,” he says, explaining the secrecy, “So I took that as my leaping off point and tried to make something that’ll surprise the audience when it starts.”

The Encores commission offered Friedman a unique opportunity on several levels. “I got a call in May and finished the piece by July and it’s going to be performed this fall, which generally isn’t the case,” he explains. The instant gratification is a welcome change of pace in a process that can sometimes take a year or more from commission to performance. He also points out that “usually when [an orchestra] commissions someone for a short piece, it’s a fanfare for the beginning of the program. After the first five notes of Beethoven the contemporary piece has been completely erased from the audience’s mind, and so being last is good because you have the opportunity to leave them with your music in their ears and to give them something to think about.”

The 26-year-old composer has already picked up the 2000 ASCAP Leo Kaplan Award, a 2000 BMI Student Composer Award, and the 2001 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award, but he is still new to the pressures and constraints of a commission.

“I would hope that I wouldn’t write a piece simply because I was commissioned for it. In fact in this particular case, I think the thing that I was most proud of myself about is that I wrote what I wanted to write. I tried some stuff that I had never tried before and the commission itself didn’t hold me back just because some prestigious orchestra was paying me to do it.”

After earning a B.A. in music with honors from Columbia University in 1996, Friedman went on to study intensively under John Corigliano at the Juilliard School. The experience has had an immeasurable impact on his work. “He could say just the tiniest little thing, maybe something off the cuff that just came to his mind, and it would completely open up new worlds for me, new ways to think about music.”

“The most important thing he taught me was to have a fully formed idea about what you want to do before you start writing a piece. Not to just start writing some notes and see where it takes you but to know where you’re starting and know where your ending and know how you’re going to get from the beginning to the end.”

It’s a philosophy he’s since adopted “lock, stock, and barrel. I guess I had dabbled in pre-compositional stuff before on certain pieces where I felt it was necessary, but not to the extent that I do now. And I hope that it imbues my music with more depth and meaning than just a whole bunch of notes.”

The only other person to have had such an impact on him was David Rakowski, the man he credits for leading him to a career as a composer. Friedman explains that he took some time off from music his freshman year at Columbia. It was then that he realized how important music was to him. “I realized that I needed to have music in my life in one way or another. So I took this introduction to composition course that David happened to be teaching and sort of found my passion. It was largely due to what he taught me and his individual take on music.”

Prior to that he’d had only a slight desire to pursue a career as a composer. As a high school student he’d studied piano and clarinet at the New England Conservatory Extension Division, but acknowledges that he never felt he had a performance career ahead of him. Personally, he felt he “might have more to say about music and about the world” as a composer rather than as a performer of other people’s work. Pursuing composition “was always in the back of my mind as a possibility, but there were many other possibilities that I had thought of.”

Friedman’s career has since included performances in the U.S. and abroad, including a work at the Aspen Summer Music Festival. In 2000, he received a full fellowship to attend the Aspen Music Festival Composition Masterclass Program. Summers there have afforded him the opportunity to study with George Tsontakis, John Corigliano, and Christopher Rouse.

The setting is a far cry from life in New York City, Friedman’s home the rest of the year, and that disparity sometimes ends up in his music. “The music I write in Aspen sounds totally different than the music that I write in New York. It’s much more placid and calm and serene, and it’s got a smile on its face as opposed to the stuff in New York which is kind of a little darker maybe.” He isn’t taking off for a little cabin in the mountains anytime soon, though. “I love New York and I love what it does for me personally and what it does for my music by extension. It’s good to take a break and it’s good to get a different perspective on what you write, but I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon.”

And as far as year-round inspiration goes, Friedman finds himself fascinated by all types of things. “Art inspires me and literature inspires me. Other people’s music, popular music. I try to keep an open ear, and an open eye, and an open everything and when I’m not in the throws of composing something I try to just suck in everything I can possibly suck in.”