Bringing Agency to the Ancient: An Interview with Lainie Fefferman

Lainie Fefferman is a composer and vocalist and one of the five artists who are sharing work at Story Binge II at Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center on December 15, 2016.  We met with Lainie to talk about White Fire, her song cycle for vocalist and electronics, and what its like to grapple with old stories using contemporary perspectives and musical tools.

EIO: What is the story of White Fire.

LAINIE FEFFERMAN: White Fire is starting out as three songs about the matriarchs of the Bible telling their stories in their own voice. I’ve been thinking about ways of re-owning Jewish texts in my work for quite a while, but specifically for this project I’m looking at biblical heroines and I’m trying to present their stories in their own voices. Usually the Hebrew Bible gives you little snippets and little guesses as to what these women were thinking and feeling but I decided to make a piece that really personifies the emotional takeaway of their first person narrative for me. It’s really personal but it’s also trying to give a voice to these matriarchs that are often sidelined in the biblical narrative.

EIO: And tell us about the three different songs and about the women who we’ll hear from.

FEFFERMAN: So the first song is based on the story of Rebecca, who will marry Isaac and be one of the matriarchs of the Bible. She leaves her tribe and her family and everything she knows in order to go marry Isaac who she’s never met, and she will be the mother of Jacob and Esau, the quarrelling brothers who will claim the Jewish birthright. Her story is full of adventure but also in my mind, a bit of defiance. Rebecca is really an independent spirit and a strong character.

The second song is about Lilith who is a large figure in modern feminism.  I am taking a Jewish perspective on Lilith, the character often described as the first woman before Eve. She is mated with Adam but very quickly decides that being coupled with Adam is not for her and exiles herself from Eden.  Even at God’s request she will not return to him.  God decides that her punishment will be for ten thousand of her children to die every day*.  She will give birth to ten thousand babies and they will die every day. That’s such strong imagery and that really resonated with me and I wanted to bring out the agony of that decision. That she has the personal agency to separate herself but she has this curse to contend with and the strength to bear it.

The last song is about Miriam. Miriam is the sister of Aaron and Moses and she is one of the figures in the Bible who really has a short shrift for being a strong leader of her people through slavery and exile. I’m responding specifically to her figuring in the later Jewish thought as bringing water to her people when they are in the desert when they’re wandering.  The imagery of her bringing water from a stone to give strength to her people in the desert is really powerful to me and the song hopefully evokes that sense of power and nurturing both.

EIO: Clearly you feel like very passionate about telling these stories, and I’m wondering if you could give us a little more of a sense as to why it’s so important to you?

FEFFERMAN: This project White Fire its really important to me because it’s a new branch of my musical career. I’ve written for other people to sing, I’ve written for myself singing in a larger context, but this is just me singing alone, with my laptop. This is all my doing, all my sounds, all my processing.  I’m really out there and vulnerable and it’s exciting but terrifying.

I’ve been thinking about the part that my Jewish identity has played in my music for a really long time, and this particular project is really focused on my identity as a Jewish woman – not as a Jewish thinker, or a Jewish musician, but as a Jewish woman. Women have gotten some really crappy positioning in Jewish thought, Jewish history, Jewish social structures, and in a very tiny way, telling these stories as a reinterpretation using first person voice makes me feel as though I’m claiming the tradition. I feel empowered personally, and I hope just hearing these songs other people will find their power too.

EIO: What are we going to hear as part of the music supporting the stories?

FEFFERMAN: As part of this one-woman band aspect of my project, I wanted a way to be triggering sounds on the computer in a very physical and obvious manner from the stage. I’m going to have these orbs hooked up to stands that I will hit with drumsticks and their job is to trigger the laptop to do something, so you’ll see me hit these orbs and sometimes they’ll sound like cowbell, sometimes like a bass drum, sometimes my singing, but I made the piece in a very consciously gestural way so that in the sense it’s a choreography as much as it is performing on an instrument.

EIO: How come you decided to use contemporary electronics for stories that are thousands of years old?

FEFFERMAN: When I started thinking musically about these stories it was a very different political environment. Especially now, I feel like bringing any power I can to my female identity. This is my language: electronics, virtual instruments, sound collages, synthesizers. This is my modern language and bringing these ancient stories to my own world and my own strength feels new and fresh and topical. It doesn’t feel like a historical exercise. It feels like something I need to do to feel comfortable in my own skin, to feel comfortable as an artist making work now. Even though these are ancient stories, I do feel like it is important to treat these women like the strong actors they were and not objects being acted upon.

*Note: Lainie says “I actually chose ‘ten hundred’ as the number of babies to be killed in my lyrics. Traditional texts I’ve seen use numbers ranging from 100 to 10,000.”

White Fire will be presented as part of Story Binge II on December 15.  Tickets are available here.