Lainie Fefferman is very much the opposite of the solitary, Romantic-era figure that many picture when they think of a composer. Describing herself as a “funny, nerdy, energetic person,” Fefferman freely admits that she doesn’t work well at home alone and is far more productive working in a bustling coffee shop or on a train. In fact, she gathers so much energy from being around other artists that she founded Exapno, a community center for new music in Brooklyn. For a monthly membership fee, musicians are given 24-hour access to the space, where they can compose, rehearse, and perform in a community-oriented environment. While she claims that she started Exapno for purely selfish reasons—so that she could have a place to work in the company of other artists—it continues to generate collaborations and serves as a point of entry into the New York City new music scene for musicians representing a great diversity of backgrounds and influences.
Fefferman’s other great love besides music is math; she teaches a “Math and Music” course at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn and revels in introducing her students to the music of composers such as Steve Reich by revealing the numeric patterns inherent in the pieces. While she doesn’t necessarily use math to create rigorous formal structures in her own work as Xenakis might, she says that “there’s an aesthetic to the math that I like, and I think it’s the same (on a very meta-level) as the aesthetic to the music that I like. I like things that are minimal, unexpectedly simple, and surprisingly powerful… In math and music I think it’s really striking how you can take these tiny little ideas, and they can explain huge reactions.”
This aesthetic can be heard clearly in Here I Am, Fefferman’s most recent large-scale work (not to mention her Princeton Ph.D. thesis). Written for the ensemble Newspeak with Va Vocals (Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes, and Caroline Shaw), it features nine settings of what Fefferman considers “the wonkier bits of the Old Testament.” She says she chose the texts that she has been thinking about over and over for years, and that writing pieces is for her a way to dig deeper into the material in an effort to figure it out for herself. She pulled freely from her own varied musical tastes to create Here I Am, and the combination of beautifully uncluttered music with simple yet effective staging and lighting creates a powerful musical—and theatrical—experience.
Befitting her personality, Fefferman’s own music is highly movement-focused, and all of her compositions, whether scored for bagpipe and electronics or string quartet, radiate a sense of joyfulness. “Whenever I start writing, I think I get frustrated with myself if it doesn’t have motion and energy. Even in still passages I like having a sense of tension and release that translates in the ear to a forward-thinking feeling. Someday I’m going to have to write a sad, slow, hopeless passage, but I’m not there yet!”