Lainie Fefferman discusses “Market Day”

Lainie Fefferman Picture (1)On Thursday, June 2, LABAlive will present “Boundaries,” an evening of multi-disciplinary works-in-process exploring our relationship with beauty. The evening will feature teachings by Ruby Namdar and work by fellows Lital Dotan, Shanti Grumbine, and Lainie Fefferman, who will present scenes from her string quartet, Market Day.

Here, Fefferman talks about her project and the inspiration she found in our house of study.

Tell us about your project. 

I wrote a string quartet in response to a beautiful graphic novel by James Sturm called Market Day. It’s a poignant story about a Jewish carpet-maker in a shtetl who realizes, over the course of a day in his life, that his art and craft are being made obsolete by the machines of the Industrial Age, and he will have to abandon the art-making life he loves to be able to provide for his pregnant wife in a harsh economic reality. I feel this story in such an immediate way — as a Brooklyn composer fresh out of graduate school, I face a vastly different environment than does the protagonist of Market Day, but the idea of balancing artistic passion with the realities of the marketplace feels as contemporary as any conversation I have with friends at our local bar. The music I wrote not only underscores the novel, but, in a sense, underscores my churning emotions about finding my daily place and evolving role in the world. For my LABA show, filmmaker Steve Taylor has created a film realization of an excerpt of the novel, under which I placed a recording of an excerpt of my piece, played by the phenomenal JACK Quartet.

JACK portrait [Stephen Poff] web
JACK Quartet

How do you see it developing in the future?

Steve Taylor and I have plans to expand this work to encompass the entire contents of Sturm’s novel. I will write more music; he will make more film. It is unclear now whether I will want to create a static recording of the string quartet I write to serve as a permanent soundtrack to the movie, or whether I will want to find dates where JACK can play the piece live while the film is projected. We’re working on it!

Any new thoughts about beauty?

Having spent so many months talking about the scriptural concepts of beauty in Jewish texts, I feel even more resolved in my original hunch that ideas of beauty in human appearance are now, and have forever been, some alchemical combination of an incredibly vast number of parameters (wealth, youth, power, purity, etc.) that, in the end, have little to do with an abstract notion of “the beautiful.” Why was Absalom considered so beautiful? Why Joseph? Why Esther? We spoke volumes about the beauty of these figures without knowing hardly any of the specifics of their physical appearance. I am fascinated to think how this idea extends to beauty in the non-human realm. Is the beauty of a Jackson Pollack painting less to do with the geometry of the figure and more to do with social parameters I have yet to realize? Is the transcendence of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” more to do with cultural context than with the particular combination of sine waves? I’m having fun bringing these questions into my own music-making!

Which of the texts we’ve studied so far, or the discussions we’ve had, have most stuck in your mind, and why?

Oh, man, they’ve all left a pretty sharp relief in my thoughts. I guess I keep coming back to the description of the Nazarites — that confusing combination of sacrifice, devotion, beauty, poverty, wealth, guilt, and joy…I’m still grappling.

How have they, or other texts, inspired this work?

All of the texts we read, as well as Sturm’s Market Day, have informed my notions of where beauty has classically fit into our lives as Jews, and where it might fit into my life and mind and heart as I make my way in the modern world.