By Stephanie Chase

Guest Columnist

New York, NY, USA


Joel Phillip Friedman composes music equally informed by his classical training and his engagement with the vernacular. His work is characterized by rhythmic energy, a balance between expressive power and playful wit, a sense of dramatic narrative, and melodic and harmonic inventiveness.


Friedman’s portfolio includes works for soloists, small and large ensembles, musical theater, opera, dance, and film. Among the artists and ensembles that have performed his music are Paul Neubauer, Andrew Gonzalez, Susan Narucki, Alan Feinberg, Evelyne Luest, Joshua Roman; conductors Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, and Angel Gil-Ordóñez; and the New York Chamber Ensemble, New Orchestra of Washington, Inscape, and San José Chamber Orchestra. His compositions have been heard at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Bargemusic, National Sawdust, Joe’s Pub, Off-Broadway theaters, and in London’s West End.


An upcoming project is InfernoDouble Concerto, to be premiered in 2021 by the San José Chamber Orchestra with soloists Jennifer Kloetzel and Jonathan Moerschel and conductor Barbara Day Turner. Recent projects include Home, a multi-media puppetry play with Evolve Puppets; All Things Are Set Ablaze for ModernMedieval; and music for the 2018 Johansen and the 2013 Irving M. Klein International String Competitions.


Friedman has received numerous awards, residencies, and fellowships for his work and has taught composition, theory and analysis; he is further recognized for his courses on the Beatles at Georgetown Catholic and Stanford Universities and Swarthmore College. He received degrees from Boston University (MusB, MM) and Columbia University (DMA, President’s Fellow/Mellon Scholar).


Music by Joel Phillip Friedman is recorded on the Jay, Crystal, Acis, and Americus labels and published by Samuel French and Grey Bird Music. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife Jenny Bilfield – who is also interviewed in this issue of Stay Thirsty – their daughter Hallie, who is a student at the University of Hartford, and parrots Percy and Heathcliff.


STEPHANIE CHASE: How would you describe your musical style?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: My background was “eclectic,” meaning I grew up listening to and playing a wide range of music – rock, jazz, theater, and classical – but I don’t really view my style as that. I think I’m more of a synthesist and storyteller; taking what exists and interests me and then recombining and reinterpreting it into a coherent narrative whole. I like the potential for storytelling in music, even if what I’m writing is abstract and instrumental.

Joel Friedman with Percy

STEPHANIE CHASE: What classical composers have influenced you?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Beethoven has always been my go-to guy but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become interested in a Mozartian model: simple surface, complex structure. I want to tell a story and I want the audience to follow along, so simpler building blocks really can help. It’s all about how much I, and an imagined audience, can perceive. That is very relative and very much argued about by people with far more knowledge and expertise in musical cognition than I have. But I want to surprise the audience and play with expectations, which is why I love that [Stephen] Sondheim often tells young writers, “surprise me!” I’m more fascinated with what you can do with [existing] musical material than inventing a new language, or even what the material is. “Your theme can be just a major triad” – that is a rather Beethovenian idea.



STEPHANIE CHASE: You mentioned an imagined audience; how much of a factor is this for a composer?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: How you regard your own work can be very different from how it is perceived by the audience – or rather, which audience? Case in point, a number of years ago I wrote the song cycle “One Into One” originally for the soprano Susan Narucki. It was performed in a more academic venue in New York and I was treated by some of the audience like I was Barry Manilow. Two days later the same people performed the same work in a downtown theater, and I was treated like the Ghost of Schoenberg’s Past.



STEPHANIE CHASE: Context can be everything – I once played the same recital program in Bologna and then in Edinburgh a few days later. I played five encores in Italy and thought the Scottish audience was sitting on its hands, yet someone came backstage and talked about the very warm reception from the audience. And more people probably know Barry Manilow’s name than that of Arnold Schoenberg.


What drew you to become a composer?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: It started with The Beatles. Really, I wanted to grow up to be Lennon and McCartney. As a kid, I didn’t know what a classical composer was or that you could be one. I saw rock songwriters, jazz musicians, and musical theater people on TV or live, but not living classical composers. I also didn’t know that places like Tanglewood existed. While I came from an artistic family – my mother is a fine painter – it was not a musical one. And remember, this was long before the days of all the current amazing programs and opportunities for young composers and performers, and the internet, et cetera.



STEPHANIE CHASE: Well, I still remember the night that the Beatles made their American debut on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and I would play their albums on a turntable in my bedroom as I went to sleep.


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Music was always music playing at home, but it wasn’t formal, and it was always stylistically all over the place: Beethoven, Bebop, The Beatles, Bernstein – sort of my Four B’s. Later, I realized that this explains a lot: I adore the development of material, love rhythmic pulse and syncopation – which depends upon a felt pulse – and I am fascinated with complex harmonies that are still somewhat rooted in jazz and a form of tonality. I also appreciate what rock gets right: the energy, succinctness, and clarity. And then there’s storytelling and narrative, which partly comes from theater. I was playing in high school bands, and outside school rock and jazz bands, but found myself writing – mainly songs at first and then jazz tunes.


Joel Friedman (right) at recording session

STEPHANIE CHASE: Did you ever seriously study an instrument with the goal of being a performer?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Thankfully, I realized after a summer intensive at the Berklee College of Music that I was not a jazz trumpet player. I spent a summer locked in a practice room like everyone else, practicing ii-V-I patterns, and it just didn’t catch fire. But I took private lessons from a great sax player and composer I met there, Mike Scott, and those were my first composition lessons. He liked what I was doing and thought it was hip – I was hip! The training came in very handy a few years later when, as an undergrad, I started writing and arranging the musical Personals with my brother Seth and his friends, who were all at Brandeis University. I was always more interested in writing than performing. But if you had known me in high school, you might have thought I’d end up in science because I spent a lot of time writing to explorer Thor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki and Ra fame – and I still have his letters! – and watching Jacques Cousteau.



STEPHANIE CHASE: If I weren’t a musician, I’d probably be a scientist of some sort because I absolutely loved my anthropology course in high school. Did you pursue this interest?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: I entered Boston University as an Anthropology major, thinking I’d go off to the Olduvai Gorge and look for fossilized Lucy. Instead, at department meetings it was mainly: “How many people in a certain demographic drink Coke?” That seemed to be the career path. I almost minored in Coastal Geology and I’m sorry I didn’t. Meanwhile, I got real mixed messages from the composition department: on the one hand the Chair looked at me, not my music, while flipping through my stack of jazz and rock scores and asked: “When are you going to write real music?” I guess I wasn’t so hip after all. On the other, when I asked to transfer in as a composition major in my sophomore year he said yes, so I really have to thank him for taking that chance with me.


However, it was an age of a real split and hostility between musical worlds. I was told not to write “that crap” and if I persisted, I should do it under a nom de plume to preserve my serious music reputation. They thought they were helpful, and perhaps for they were for the times. But it hurt, to be told what you did wasn’t valid. It was in undergraduate theory class that I found out about places like Tanglewood from classmates who spent their summers there. They also talked about “Tchaik 5” and “Raindrop Prelude” and I didn’t know what they were talking about, as in what’s a “Tchaik 5?” But sometimes I had to help those same people with their theory assignments.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I’m guessing that composition programs have changed in recent years so there’s less stigma attached to jazz and rock. In fact, the Boston Conservatory is a good example in that it merged with the Berklee School, which is noted for its jazz and rock programs.


JOEL FRIEDMAN: It has all changed. I have students who play in a band, DJ on the weekends, and want to write string quartets.



STEPHANIE CHASE: What instruments do you play now?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: These days, sadly, none. I played trumpet, and then doubled on French horn throughout high school and college. I don’t think it did me any favors because you can’t really progress while doubling instruments. I bang on the piano and being in jazz and rock bands meant teaching myself guitar and electric bass plus singing a bit. I’ve done a smattering of conducting, usually my own work; for example, I conducted all the amateur performances of the musical Personals when it toured here, in Europe on a USO tour, and before it opened professionally in New York. While in college I conducted at the Kennedy Center – recently I was backstage and ran into the show poster!



STEPHANIE CHASE: That’s a diverse set of performing experiences; are there any that stand out in particular?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: During my first fulltime teaching position, a student gradually roped me into being his bass player – “Dr. Friedman, it’s just one song for my jury!” – which ended up as a 28-song set of rock music from the Stones to Clapton to Eric Johnson. That was a time! I think I did a pretty good version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and the old Motown-Beatle chestnut “Money.” Somewhere there are “receipts” – the tapes.



STEPHANIE CHASE: If you played the bass line for “Sunshine of Your Love” then you played one of the most iconic lines ever!


What inspires your music – that is, do you have a procedure through which you form the basis for a work?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: It really depends. Generally, composition directly reflects who you are at the moment – what interests you and how you perceive the world – and you go through periods where certain characteristics appear and reappear in your work because you’re interested in them. But then there is a sudden change and you move on to something else. More specifically, inspiration depends a lot on deadlines! Other factors are: who has commissioned a piece; the size, scope, and type of piece; and, whether there are collaborators involved.


It’s very different to work with a librettist, a choreographer, a writer, or a director than it is to write an orchestra piece. With the former they are either the generator of the concepts or partners and sound boards for it. You also form a social unit, which – when it’s healthy – is so much fun and can really prod you to work. In writing a piece for orchestra or ensemble or soloist, you are on your own, literally, and in your head.


With each project, I try to find something that excites and challenges me to do something I haven’t done before. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done before, because there is nothing new under the sun, but I have to find a reason I want to write the piece and then figure out how to write the piece.



STEPHANIE CHASE: As an interpreter of music, I’m motivated by what is already written. Finding it within yourself to originate something must be a real test at times.


JOEL FRIEDMAN: There are many pieces I want to write but some I cannot – yet. The terror of a deadline always helps but it can be tough, especially starting; it’s the tyranny of the blank page scenario. It could be anything, so therefore it’s nothing. You need to create limitations or structure. But these don’t come from a theory assignment or textbook, they come from you and your aesthetic and experience. If that is strong and clear enough it generates a style, which is you.


Joel Friedman at rehearsal of String Orchestra of NYC

STEPHANIE CHASE: When you are starting to create a work, what thoughts do you have?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: I often imagine conceptual things; what the instrument would do, things I’ve always wanted to try in a piece, who is performing, or something programmatic. Then it becomes: can I find those notes, my notes, that fit these concepts? I need this to start making decisions and finding the piece, so to speak. But at the same time, I must be aware that some of these ideas will be loss leads - they just won’t work. I’m simultaneously holding onto my ideas, which are like miniature North Stars guiding me, but then might have to simply jettison these. Sometimes you can even write one of these concepts, spend a lot of time and energy executing it, and then find out it doesn’t belong in your piece.



STEPHANIE CHASE: Talk about this self-editing process.


JOEL FRIEDMAN: You have to be a bit cruel with your own work, be willing to cut. It’s always better to leave them wanting more. I know, instinctually, if the large-scale shape is gelling and when it’s finished – if it’s neither, then I’m in trouble. Sometimes before I begin a composition, I will do research: study pieces that do a certain thing and investigate how another composer has solved a similar idea. During the compositional process I’ll ricochet back and forth between small moments and details – a harmony, a melodic idea, a texture – and the 30,000-foot view, the structure and narrative. The two must end up relating and being in sync with each other.



STEPHANIE CHASE: You’re describing the balance of the whole as well as the details within, also like a fine painting or literary work.


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Absolutely. It’s a very weird process: I might end up cutting a detail to fit the plan or discard it because the details lead in a different direction. Like I said: it’s very instinctual, but that is based upon all the time I’ve spent doing this.



STEPHANIE CHASE: You mean that through your experiences you have learned to trust yourself?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Yes, and each piece develops its own laws and logic. I’ve been asked about “You’re so creative, how do you hear music?” The analogy I often use is you’re underwater in the ocean, and it’s light and clear enough to see well. The water might look empty but eventually, if you focus, you notice that the water is just full of things floating by: plant material; eggs and larvae; small fish. What seemed vast and empty is actually full of teeming life that you can just reach out, touch and collect. What makes an artist is to first notice that we are constantly surrounded by this teeming material, which many never notice. I guess that’s the aptitude you are born with. Second, are you willing to expend the energy to collect it?



STEPHANIE CHASE: What kind of energy is this?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Will power, focus, even ambition – in the good sense, as in creating the best work you can. And, finally, the hardest part is to fashion something of value from it. It’s more than perception and inspiration, it’s the hard work, the editing. And that takes time, experience, and some sort of training, whether you go to a conservatory or play eight hours a night in Hamburg, Germany as The Beatles did. But it’s why a John Lennon can read a newspaper with the TV playing in the background and suddenly write Good Morning Good Morning, or an Olivier Messiaen hears a birdsong and thinks, “I must transcribe that and make it into Catalogue d’Oiseaux!” It’s all there, all the time, floating around us, even if we don’t know it.



STEPHANIE CHASE: What you describe is a combination of imagination and inspiration combined with training and technique, plus discipline! It’s what all artists need, but to have these simultaneously can be elusive.


Writing music is usually a solitary experience but do you sometimes work directly with musicians?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Yes! I love it, it’s the best! First, there’s inspiration from their sound and their personality. Second, there’s guidance and reminders of what their instrument can do. Sometimes reversing or changing just two notes will take an impossible passage and make it playable. Third, composing is a lonely and energy-hungry activity; sometimes you need another soul around to remind you that we’re human and that life is wonderful, to give you shot of collaborative energy, or, perhaps, a quick kick in the pants. Working with musicians is collaboration, like working with a lyricist or choreographer. It is also humbling. They know so much – and in such different ways – than we do. The learning never stops.



STEPHANIE CHASE: That’s one of the best things about collaborating with other artists, we can learn a lot if we’re open to it. I would also think that for you, it helps makes the transition from something that’s abstract to something tangible.


Do you ever get “writer’s block”?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: I have. It’s terrible, frustrating. The worst was years ago, during my first time ever at an artist colony – MacDowell, of all places. I arrived there with what I thought were amazing concepts all worked out for a large chamber work but then found I couldn’t write the piece. I was miserable, and with only a three-week residency, I tried to force the piece into my grand plan. I basically panicked; it was not working, and I still wouldn’t let go of the really cool plan – but I couldn’t find the notes for it. The happy ending is that after that fitful start, a few years later the piece became Elastic Band, which is one of my most frequently performed works!

Elastic Band - Joel Friedman (Composer)


For me “writer’s block” is usually caused by three things: one – when the smaller details and the bigger picture are out sync, meaning that I’m writing two pieces and don’t know it yet; two – if I hold on to an idea for too long when it really needs to go; and, three – not yet having made enough decisions so I feel lost and have too much freedom, which can happen at the beginning of the process.



STEPHANIE CHASE: But you have a large output of published music so it’s clear that you found a remedy for this.


JOEL FRIEDMAN: I’ve learned to have an internal dialogue about needing to work harder to achieve an idea or needing to let it go; like the effort it takes to write a fugue versus the realization that a fugue is a wrong decision for your piece. This is a constant, imperfect process that requires much internal listening. Composing is about making endless decisions: each small one increasingly focuses the piece until it can only be the exact piece you’re writing. Composing is also about never feeling like you know how to compose!

Moveable Home - Joel Friedman (Composer)



STEPHANIE CHASE: Does it help to take a break – or let go – while you’re going through this process?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: To make these tiny and huge decisions all the time is an incredibly fatiguing process. Sometimes taking a walk or watching TV does wonders. For example, taking a break allows you to see that a passage you’ve been fixated upon might be really interesting but that it’s not for the current piece. This happens in musicals, where these are known as “trunk” songs. Sondheim has whole reviews of them; they’re great songs but they didn’t fit and service the good of the show, so they got cut.


In contrast to my MacDowell story, a few years ago, I was at Montalvo Arts with a pressing deadline for a consortium commission, only three weeks to write a string orchestra piece, and again with amazing plans! Within the first days after I arrived it became clear that the piece wasn’t obeying my commands, as it were. The frustration was rising so I set the grand plan aside and decided to have fun. I trusted myself and let the piece go where it wanted to go. Not only did I write an 18-minute piece, Movable Home, but, ironically, I ended up retaining much of my original plan! Lesson learned: trust yourself.


Joel Friedman at Premiere by San José Chamber Orchestra 

STEPHANIE CHASE: That’s good advice; be flexible in your plans and trust your instincts.


Has living in Washington, D.C. affected your composition style?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Yes and no. In general, I think the amount of activity on the East Coast is wonderful, with so many concentric rings that my performances and commissions have increased since returning east. Composing is a muscle that needs to be exercised, just like for performers or athletes. It’s hard with a teaching schedule; it means that you don’t compose much for months and then have a small window of time when you’re supposed to go into overdrive immediately.


The District is a wonderful, beautiful, complex, and fascinating place to live, even if it currently is viewed as the Land of Mordor that Tolkien described. We think of it as Government, which it is, but it’s also Southern town, a military town, a tech hub, an international and diplomatic community, a corporate center, and an epicenter for NGO’s [a nonprofit organization that operates independently of any government, typically one whose purpose is to address a social or political issue] work. Since moving here, my wife Jenny and I have met incredible people in many sectors who are quietly holding things together and doing the good work; they’re real heroes.


There’s also great music and the excellent military ensembles anchor so much but living here does have some effect. If you read my social media posts on Facebook or Twitter, you’d find it ironic that I’m not a big fan of mixing politics with art, as I believe the art often suffers in that it can yield turgid agitprop or propaganda. The more authorial humanistic and universal usually appeals to me; after all, we have news and documentaries to take care of documentation and politics. But, it’s hard not to say something these days. And as my social media followers know, I often have quite a bit to say.



STEPHANIE CHASE: Yes, we follow each other on Facebook, and I’d say that you and I appreciate both irony and humor.


JOEL FRIEDMAN: They say humor is a higher form of processing emotions and events. I’ll take that compliment! I think of social media as my liver – how I filter out toxins. Making a stand in whatever ways we can today is crucial as so much is now at stake. A certain someone is like a nitpicker in that he constantly combs through our society, forcibly separating us by finding and drawing lines over issues and people and making us choose which side we’re on. Everything becomes political. My response to what is going on is succinct: we fought a Revolution not to have a King; a Civil War not to have slavery; and, a World War not to have fascism. I love this country and that it is based upon a system as imperfect as it is – the rule of law – and not a person.


So indeed, it has affected me, and I wrote a short piano piece for Nick Phillips’ “#45miniatures” titled Bomb(ast) & Circumstance; it’s a portrait of our President in all of his bombastic, short attention-span and gaudy glory.



STEPHANIE CHASE: The President has inspired you – and I’d bet that this musical work is not a soothing one. By the time this Conversation is published the Great Question will be close to an answer. But tell me more about the music.


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Of course, it is a parody. This piece ends with a quote from the Russian Federation’s national anthem. And the current hostility expressed towards strong, intelligent women made me search for specific ideas in Hildegard von Bingen’s writings; this led to my work All Things Are Set Ablaze that Jacqui Horner-Kwaitek’s vocal trio, ModernMedieval, commissioned and performed on tour a couple of years ago.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I’m so gratified that you looked for this kind of text. 


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Yes, and the starting point of my recent double concerto “Inferno” is Dante’s famous line “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”


That’s us, that’s the world at the moment, as false leaders are peddling authoritarian-nationalistic, long-discredited, age-old “solutions.” I don’t think it’s just me or living here. I think it’s an understandable reaction for many of us everywhere.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I am thankful for having been deeply involved in a research and writing project that requires an enormous amount of focus and time, because the daily news tends to bring either a lot of grief or frustration.


Now on to the Ministry of Silly Questions: Do you ever imagine an instrument that has not yet been invented? What would it be like?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Ha! I could say that I have enough trouble writing for the existing instruments to not want to invent new ones and add to the trouble! So much already exists – acoustic instruments played in traditional and virtuosic ways, plus a limitless electronic world of synthesized sounds, samples, and sound manipulations. There’s also a decades-long tradition of having instrumentalists use what are called extended techniques like speaking, singing, moving, and playing auxiliary instruments.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I must interrupt you to tell you that I heard one of your works – I believe for solo violin? – not long ago, when I was a judge for a competition sponsored by the Concert Artists Guild. In addition to playing the instrument the performer had to sing, and I’m not sure I could do that!


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Wow, small world! I’ve also done that in my violin-viola duo Arias with Dance Glitch where they sing and dance – my friend Paul Emerson did the choreography – and in my new double concerto where the viola and cello soloists also sing lyrics by Murray Horwitz, who is a Tony Award winner. It’s a different kind of virtuosity for the soloists than, say, the Brahms Concerto. The soloists also use guitar pedals, so their sound palette is really broad. There are already so many possibilities!

Arias with Dance Glitch - Joel Friedman (Composer)


What I wish I could invent, or have someone invent for us, would be things that elegantly and intuitively bridge the canyon between the worlds of notation and sound. We have pretty great programs for music notation, recording, manipulating, and editing sound. The annoyance is when you want to cross over back and forth seamlessly between the two.



STEPHANIE CHASE: These music notation programs have become very sophisticated in recent years, yet they cannot tell you when you have exceeded the technical capabilities of the best musicians and their instruments. Is this ever an issue?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Yes, it can be. Notation programs cannot tell you the real limits! Nope. And, no matter how many Silicon Valley guys tout life hacks you must have! – we are not machines. In the world of Digital Audio Workstations [DAWs], sample libraries have become terrific and complex and often mimic an acoustic instrument’s limitations in range, et cetera, so it is a real danger to write for the software and not the humans. This is a problem that I see often with my students, who write as if everything is for marimba with short, incisive quantized attacks, no space to breath, perfect intonation, and indefatigable.



STEPHANIE CHASE: This can be a problem even without the notation programs. Years ago, I was the second violinist after Itzhak Perlman to perform Earl Kim’s Caprices for solo violin. In addition to writing in a very minimalist and gestural manner, there were some passages that he acknowledged as unplayable; I had to come up with approximations to make them work and keep as many of the notes as intact as possible. And his wife was a violinist.


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Wow, there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while: Earl Kim!



STEPHANIE CHASE: He was an elegant and gentle man with great imagination, and my favorite quote from him is that he wrote “expressive music using a minimum of notes.” But getting back to the DAWs and not knowing performers’ technical limitations: there is the need to breathe, especially if you play a wind or brass instrument, and until recently page turns had to be done manually and required a short break in the music.


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Besides the superhuman expectations, the software really can create airless music. I’m of an older generation that was brought up on paper-and-pencil and ears before I transitioned to digital, so I’m still hard-wired to that aural world based upon acoustic instruments played by humans in an air column. That’s important, if you’re going to use humans. But there is electronic-based music and electro-acoustic music. Many composers are blending a certain pop sensibility through close miking and amplification, and they use special hardware and software devices called black boxes that create and shape sound on acoustic instruments. It’s all different, but it’s pretty great.


I do use software – currently Sibelius for notation and I’m wondering about Dorico – and it can be a major plus. I would not want to go back to the days of hand copying with Osmiroids, Rapidographs, and with right triangles – because I’m left-handed, I lived by the nickels and dimes taped to the back of the triangle, so it didn’t smudge the ink.



STEPHANIE CHASE: My father was a composer and music arranger, and, in those days, everything started out by hand before it was published. He was a perfectionist, too – I believe if he made a mistake in ink then he tossed the page and started over.


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Vellum, ink pens, razor blades? Ugh. I know handwriting is beautiful and so human, but corrections and revisions? It is so much easier to correct and revise with software and I do a lot of both. There are fewer transposition errors, too. It has done, however, very weird things with my sketchbooks; these used to be more-or-less complete and orderly, put into those file wallets, and then into either a file cabinet or a shelf. Now? Some material is in a sketch book or two, but most is in a series of incremental files on my hard drive and in the cloud with strange titles like “Inferno Sketch 20190613H.” But my deficit of not being a good pianist has been somewhat compensated for by Sibelius’s playback of notation. My main DAW is Digital Performer, which is fantastic for film scoring.


These programs are great for hearing proportions and getting kinetic energy, and it’s also really interesting to change your process; like the way Paul McCartney would write at the piano instead of guitar, and then pick up a mandolin.



STEPHANIE CHASE: You just mentioned changing the process; are there other ways in which you change it?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Because of the nature of the music and the severe time pressures, back in 2010-11 I often wrote big chunks of the film score for the independent feature film “Red Ice” right into Digital Performer without traditional notation. Just what’s known as piano roll notation, ear, and sometimes score. I was working mostly inside the box using synthesized sounds and sample libraries; here we’re talking about an exacting sync between sound and picture in which you must move musical events around by a few frames here and there at a rate of 29.97 frames per second.


Through this, I learned that working in an environment without notated score can be liberating. For some of the sessions, I was in studio with Kaos, a San Francisco-based metal band that didn’t read notation – that was a fun meeting of the minds.


Thanks to these technologies I now have a messy work process of going back and forth between sketch books, banging on the piano, and the computer for notation or playback. But here’s another danger: digital makes it is too easy to overwrite and to rely too much on copy and paste without asking “why?” It seems to short-circuit my students’ decision-making process, and composing is all about making decisions.



STEPHANIE CHASE: What you’ve just said reminds me of a great Foreword to a book on the history of mathematics: the author writes that despite the virtuosity of today’s mathematicians, they usually know nothing about the history and context of math so it is devoid of philosophy, or the “why.”


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Yes. Certain styles clearly rely upon, even exult in, purer repetition, but computers make it so easy that fundamental techniques – such as transposition, reharmonization, intervallic manipulation, modulation, warping of motive-phrase-meter – can be forgotten. This is one of my major gripes about pop songs these days: technology and looping makes it too easy to write loop-based songs with the same four diatonic chords – such as I-V-vi-IV – copied and pasted many times for the intro, the verse, the chorus, and so on. Some of them are great songs, but I find a lot of them claustrophobic because of the repetition.


Remember Sondheim and “surprise me?” I’d love to be surprised by some of these songs. We do live in a Golden Age of audio production and teams of producers; sonically it’s often fantastic, but you don’t have to listen to arty progressive rock – just listen to The Beatles, Pete Townshend, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, early Chicago, or Earth, Wind & Fire to be reminded what can be done in a pop song, provided you are curious, have good ears, and are a good editor and decision maker. Make surprising decisions! Sometimes just an unexpected chord, or a 2/4 bar, does wonders.



STEPHANIE CHASE: For some reason, I am now thinking about Donna Summer and “I Feel Love,” which was maybe the earliest Techno-pop song to be recorded and used a Moog synthesizer and click track. Lately I’ve returned to listening to it. The whole effect was new and she’s really great, too.

After you’ve published a work, do you ever wish you could go back and tweak a few things, or are you able to completely let go?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: I do often rewrite and revise. Part of this is from working in the theater where rewrites are par-for-the-course; another part is deadlines, there’s never enough time, so I feel by the end, I’m finally ready to write the piece! And another is that I never liked the myth of the classical music genius who comes down from the Mount with the masterpiece engraved on stone tablets, like Moses. Too much pressure, as if we’re all Mozart and carrying around a masterwork waiting to be but transcribed. I’m far messier than that.


But it is a real drag if the score is already published or recorded, and then you revise. It can be a long time before that next revised performance. Of course, publishing and recording have been fundamentally transformed these days. Most of us are now entrepreneurs; we’re our own publishers, administrators, even A&R. So you can just re-edit your file, make a new set of PDFs and put them up or out. For recordings, however, that’s not as simple. As for letting go, there is a definite time for that and to get it right in the next piece. Older works are a challenge because what makes them good – I love that material, that freshness! – is inextricably entangled with their problems. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the greater good. Move on.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I think we all look back and wish we knew then what we know now.


How has the pandemic affected you professionally?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: Being so embedded in D.C., I’ve seen up close how organizational leaders are struggling to maintain equilibrium, reinvent in real time, and face very difficult decisions. For me, personally, there is this sense of everything getting blown sideways; of time stopping, projects disappearing, and the world holding its breath.


The premiere of my work Inferno: Concerto for Viola, Cello, and Chamber Orchestra, with Barbara Day Turner and the San José Chamber Orchestra, was postponed just as the pandemic windows and doors came crashing down. That really hurts and we’re waiting to see when it can be rescheduled. Other performances were cancelled, and it’s crazy to see the hurdles even for solo pieces. Last May, I was thrilled that the violinist Karen Bentley Pollick programmed my Uncle Hokum’s Fiddle on her concert at Stanford. Well, that was cancelled. Plan B was to make a video version to post online. But she spent most of the summer waiting for equipment to arrive where she currently is, in Mexico; there, things can get held up at customs and other items haven’t even shipped. I’ve also had projects and commissions basically evaporate into thin air, but it feels wrong to call someone up amidst the chaos and pandemic and say “so, about that commission…”



STEPHANIE CHASE: Last year, I had a weird experience with Barbara Day Turner and players from the orchestra. I was engaged to perform Chausson’s Concerto for violin, piano, and string quartet in San José with a pianist who eventually backed out of the concert due to scheduling issues. Barbara then engaged another pianist who lives abroad. This person encountered severe delays in getting a visa and there was a real risk that it would not come through in time, so Barbara engaged a third pianist, who lived not far away – but the day I arrived to start rehearsal this one came down with a severe stomach flu, to the extent that she went to the hospital. I ended up playing a Mendelssohn String Quintet and a solo work! But I adore Barbara and her musicians along with the lovely theater they use for performances.


Even the best of times can require a Plan B – and in this case, a Plan C and Plan D, which worked thanks to Barbara and her perseverance.


What about your teaching, has that also been affected by the pandemic?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: My teaching has transitioned to online, with all of the issues that brings up including Zoom fatigue. I’ve just started to teach a course on writing for the stage at Catholic University and I’m having to find novel ways of meet the challenges of doing this material online. On the other hand, for my annual Beatles classes at Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program that begins mid-Fall, the pandemic means not travelling there – but it is attracting online registration from all over the country and even other parts of the world! So, my classes can be larger and that’s a plus.



STEPHANIE CHASE: What music are you working on now?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: That’s a tough one. Does writing a few pop songs count? At the moment, I have a heavy teaching schedule but I’m turning to revising my double concerto. I started working once again with my lovely collaborators at Evolve Puppets in New York – I scored their last play, Home, just over a year ago – plus I’ve been talking to someone about a vocal ensemble piece that is historically based. It will require a librettist and a lot of research.

Evolve Puppet's Home - Score by Joel Friedman

STEPHANIE CHASE: What are you looking forward to the most in – hopefully – the near future?


JOEL FRIEDMAN: I think some form of normalcy. The days when we can simply gather and hug without the worry of transmission and death; when we can make plans and make music again; when we don’t have to worry about the rule of law and democratic institutions being destroyed; when we don’t care who the “Undersecretary of agency X” was, or why they were either part of a white nationalist group or shoveling our tax dollars to their friends versus actually doing their jobs. Basically, when we can safely live and love again. Everything follows from that. Know hope!



STEPHANIE CHASE: I’m with you on that. Thanks, Joel, and we wish you continued inspiration.


(Joel Friedman photograph with Percy credit: Stephanie Maysonave)



Joel Friedman      

Stephanie Chase    



Stephanie Chase

Stephanie Chase is internationally recognized as “one of the violin greats of our era” (Newhouse Newspapers) through solo appearances with 200 orchestras that include the New York and Hong Kong Philharmonics and the Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and London Symphony Orchestras. Her interpretations are acclaimed for their “elegance, dexterity, rhythmic vitality and great imagination” (Boston Globe), “stunning power” (Louisville Courier-Journal), “matchless technique” (BBC Music Magazine), and “virtuosity galore” (Gramophone), and she is a top medalist of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Recent concert appearances include music festivals in Newport, RI, Mt. Desert, ME, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Bargemusic, Music in Context (Houston), and as soloist with the New York Scandia Symphony.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.