By Ray Cooklis
This year’s Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra “One City, One Symphony” concert will focus on a theme of home and community. So it’s fitting that the orchestra commissioned a local composer, Michael Fiday, to add a hometown flavor to the Nov. 25-26 program with a work written with the CSO in mind.
Fiday isn’t exactly a homegrown Cincinnatian. The Colorado native did graduate work and taught in Philadelphia many years, then lived in the San Francisco Bay area before becoming an associate professor of composition at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
But with well over a decade working in Cincinnati’s new-music scene, Fiday can consider himself, well, something of a native.
“This has been my cultural home for 14 years,” Fiday says. “I’ve gotten to know a good number of these people (in the CSO), and some are very good friends of mine.”
Many of those friends were at least in the back of Fiday’s mind as he composed “3 for 1” for the CSO. The program also includes Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture, Copland’s “Our Town” and “The Tender Land,” and “Escapades,” “Escapades,” by John Williams, based on the film score for “Catch Me if You Can” and featuring saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
The title of Fiday’s piece is a sly allusion to its setting – three movements for a One City, One Symphony concert. It’s also a reflection of the work’s aesthetic: three pieces that view the orchestra “as a collective body moving together toward a common goal as opposed to an assemblage of individuals going in disparate directions,” as Fiday puts it.
According to Fiday, CSO music director Louis Langrée has had an interest in programming short symphonies or “micro-symphonies,” a trend in orchestral music in recent years. CSO president Trey Devey explained the “home” concept, but “told me to write a piece that fits (the concept) only if you want to,” Fiday says.
Fiday began the creative process early this year. After a false start with a two-movement symphonic work that “ended up being too ambitious for this project,” Fiday said, “I started looking at past pieces and sketches of mine to see if I could repurpose some of it.”
He drew on an earlier work, “5 Monochromatic Dances,” for flute quartet.
“The original piece was written when the influence of minimalism was being felt in my music more concretely,” Fiday said. “Each movement focuses on one limitation, one mood or articulation. A very concentrated number of notes is used in each one.
“With the orchestra piece, I focused on getting a wider range of expression out of those notes.”
The resulting trilogy isn’t a symphony per se, but it fits that idea loosely, Fiday said –
“three movements of different character but that fit together in a big gesture.”
Each movement features a different section of the orchestra. “The first movement relies a lot on woodwinds in the orchestra. The second movement is mostly devoted to the strings. The last movement is all about the brass, big fanfares and such.”
Fiday, who trained as a classical violinist, has a reputation for bringing pop culture elements into his music. His “Dharma Pops” is based on haiku texts by Jack Kerouac with musical references to jazz great Charlie Parker. And several years ago he composed “Gonzo Variations” for chamber orchestra based on the work of journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
He has written a big rock-and-roll-influenced piece called “It Shakes My Teeth” for two electric guitars and percussion, commissioned and premiered by CCM’s Percussion Group Cincinnati. “But it needs some work,” he said. He’s working on revisions for a performance about a year from now by the noted ensemble Mantra Percussion.
So is “3 for 1” also a product of pop/rock influence, a symphonic work that fits in the classical tradition, or something in between?
“I thought a lot about that,” Fiday said. “I have a complex relationship with orchestral music. I know the orchestra and how it works. But there’s a danger of being constricted by that tradition. It’s easy when writing for the orchestra to fall into all these cliches – the crashing climaxes and things like that. The challenge for me was, ‘how do I use my knowledge of the orchestra in a way that’s fresh for me?’ The limitations of the material helped with that.”
Using pop music in classical pieces is nothing new, Fiday said, especially in America. It has been happening since the 1960s. But while it was more a superficial effect in past decades, it’s now more of a true hybrid among musical genres. And that change exposes a generational gap among composers.
“My teachers trained mostly as classical musicians, and they operated out of those precepts,” he said. “Students now are all coming in with a wide array of musical experiences. The barriers have fallen down. The thing we’ve seen the last 20 years is an erosion between art music and vernacular music.”
Composers of Fiday’s generation – he’s in his mid-50s – are caught in the middle aesthetically, which might help explain his ambivalence on where pieces like “3 for 1” lie.
“My colleagues and I in my generation feel like we’re on the fence,” he said. “We struggle to reconcile with the influence of our older teachers, but we want to be relevant with our own students, encouraging their unique voices and making sure they develop good technique.”
In turn, Fiday has found that teaching helps his own work as a composer. “Teaching, say, music theory is lecturing, about explaining material, and it goes one way,” he said. “But when you’re teaching students in composition in a studio, the ideas are going in both directions. I get great creative ideas from my students.”
Why did Fiday come to Cincinnati and CCM? “It was the chili, basically. Just kidding,” he said, with a laugh. Actually, he had visited for previous performances of his work at CCM and enjoyed the experience. When an opening came up in the CCM composition faculty, he applied and got the job.
“Cincinnati has been a good place for me,” Fiday said. “It has changed a lot in 14 years in terms of new music activity. When I came here it was mostly at CCM … not much was going on beyond the school.”
Fast forward to 2016. “We have the MusicNOW festival. The Contemporary Arts Center has a performance curator (Drew Klein), and they have a lot of interesting people coming in. We have concert:nova and other interesting series. We’re collaborating with visual arts. It’s really kind of blossomed here the last 10 years or so.”
Fiday has been part of that blossoming – working, for example, with the decade-old concert:nova, led by some of Fiday’s closest friends, also members of the CSO – clarinetist Ixi Chen and cellist Ted Nelson.
So perhaps it’s natural that in composing “3 for 1,” Fiday found a strong temptation to think of his CSO friends in writing specific parts – a temptation he has tried to resist.
“I know them. I’ve been familiar with their playing for 14 years. They are very fine players, and it is a very fine orchestra. So on one level it does inform and inspire me.
“But when it comes down to writing, I just have to face the music. Thinking about the personalities can become an intimidating distraction.”