The Fiery Furnaces: Kindred Spirits

Fiery Furnaces
Photos by Amy Giunta

Frank J. Oteri: Most of what we’ve focused on in NewMusicBox has been new music composition, and with that in mind I thought that people interested in composition would be very interested in what you had to say about your music and the way you put it together. When I heard your album Rehearsing My Choir, I immediately thought: This is a composition. It’s through-composed and gains from multiple listenings. Really the only way I could describe it was as a “new music composition.” But it made me wonder, from your point of view, what is this music? How would you describe it to someone who’s never heard a note of it?

Matthew Friedberger: If somebody solicits a description, we like to be as plain as possible. It’s rock music. That’s what it messes with. And we’re rock music fans: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Who. It’s rock music-based. We try to play rock music and have a duty to the genre. It’s a populist movement. You can’t be too fancy with who you claim to be inspired from, especially with rock music. I know I don’t like when rock musicians describe what they’re doing with too many extra-musical and extra-rock musical influences. If they choose to make rock music, it should be a response to other rock music.

The laws and duties you have to whatever sort of music you appear to be playing are very important. That’s how you communicate. That’s how you enjoy it yourself. You write a Beatles song. You have a Paul McCartney tune, but you’re going to have one chord. Or, you write a song like “Tomorrow Never Knows.” You think of it in terms of how you’re manipulating those past records.

FJO: Robert Fripp once said that rock was the most malleable of all musics. So in a way, calling something “rock music” could be calling it anything.

MF: Well, yeah. Technically, it’s a set of performance practices, right? That’s how I identify rock music. People in leather jackets, a certain set of instruments, or no dynamic change basically, or maybe a 5 dB dynamic change. That’s what defines rock music to me. And because of that, rock music isn’t a music concerned with notes so much, but maybe a music concerned with tone colors and the performance opportunities that presents. That’s how rock criticism is mostly written. There are magazines, and book after book, and there’s not one musical example in any of them. It’s written about as a form of theater. Think of the Bob Dylan industry. Think of Mystery Train. It’s as if all the interest lies in it as performance art, not as music.

FJO: There are all these books analyzing the poetry of Bob Dylan which never go into any depth about the music. It would be great if someone were to attempt to decode the music of Bring It All Back Home or Blonde on Blonde.

MF: You know the Beatles as Musicians books? There’s no Dylan book like that. But even that book is really hard-pressed to talk about the tones on the Beatles records. What’s the guitar solo on “Taxman”? You could try to transcribe it, but you have to talk about its overdriven sound. I wouldn’t see how you could technically notate the colors of rock. And it’s even more complicated on Dylan records since they come out of this sort of Chicago imitation of crazy background/foreground relationships. Think of Chuck Berry and what he’s playing in relation to the band—the piano in the background. The strangest thing is how it’s over there on the record, the piano and his voice. You could maybe write a piece for three pianos with the snare drum fff. There’s a big problem talking technically about rock music. Maybe there isn’t, but I’m too illiterate to see how you could properly notate it, especially Dylan. It’s really the singing. And that’s where rock music is interesting, I think. It’s the different ways, the weird things people do when they sing.

FJO: So much of what makes rock rock is the performance practice—the interpretation—rather than the composition, per se. Arguably, you probably could write it all out and get some really great conservatory-trained musicians to read it back, but it really wouldn’t be the same thing. There’d be something wrong—

MF: —Unless you work with them to phrase it in a certain way, maybe—

FJO: —and, I think you’re right, the hardest thing to get right would be the vocals.

MF: The vocals are where, I think, rock fans, if they try to listen to the Elliott Carter opera of a couple of years ago, wouldn’t be able to get into it. Maybe they’re Zappa fans, and so they’d want to like it. They can like so much about it, but they’re going to have trouble with the singing. “I was going to a wedding,” or whatever the first line of that opera was, doesn’t seem right. Rock music hasn’t properly digested the lessons of Howlin’ Wolf and Dylan even.

FJO: You’ve used the word “opera” to describe your own work: Rehearsing My Choir and your solo Holy Ghost Language School.

MF: Rock opera.

FJO: Do you envision doing more of this kind of work?

MF: Oh, yeah!

Eleanor Friedberger: Matt needs to be commissioned.

MF: No, I’m gonna commission myself! It’s hard to come up with the money, you know, to record something. But there’s this guy Mike Ready, who does art work. He’s a nice illustrator, and I’m just going to do librettos with his illustrations. We’ll put them out, and the band can use them, or not.

EF: Yeah, but how will it be heard and seen at the same time?

MF: They won’t be. Maybe the arias, I mean the songs, will have the tunes notated, but it’ll just be the libretto, the words, and then the drawing of the stage set. So if anybody has any interest in one of them, then O.K., we’ll do it. The band can do one, or I could.

EF: But then the image is lost.

MF: You mean the image in the book? Well, it’s not lost, it’s still there, you can look at it. The music wouldn’t illustrate what the image was, it would add a different element. The three of them would exist together, hopefully, in an interesting way.

FJO: When I first heard Rehearsing My Choir, the first thing that popped into my head was not rock music at all; it was the music of Robert Ashley.

MF: I heard something by Robert Ashley, because somebody told me that the Butthole Surfers’ “22 Going on 23″ sounded like him. Do you know that track? It’s a found radio thing, and it’s creepy. A woman describes being abused, and there’s slow playing underneath it. I remember going to Rose Records in Chicago—it was just about to close, and they didn’t have anything by Ashley. They had a card in the CD rack, but nothing. I didn’t hear anything until years later when I bought a CD by him which I’ve only listened to once, not because it was bad, but because I was interested in his experimentation with Gertrude Stein. He was erasing every breath from the recording, so it would just be this continuous thing.

That kind of talking, in my uneducated way of understanding, would be like something you would read in The New York Times about setting prose rhythms in 19th-century Russian music. Or Harry Partch’s setting of speech. His pitch ideas are almost completely beyond me. I just don’t hear it. As a kid, I would just play the piano, and I never got past being able to play the chromatic scale on the piano. That’s what I hear. But the rhythm setting is interesting. The limit of my musical literacy is being able to read tunes. I was a bass player when I was a kid. Bass parts that you get in student orchestras are easy. And because of that you can get pretty bad at sight-reading complicated rhythms.

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