BWW Interview: Felix Jarrar & Brittany Goodwin
Experimental and beautifully composed, Songs of the Soul Beams is a theatrical musical cycle by Felix Jarrar (composer, musical director, pianist) and Brittany Goodwin (librettist, stage director, Persephone) that fuses elements of opera, musical theater and dance in order to explore coping with death. The show made its debut on Sunday, June 4th in the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Fisher-Hillman Studio.
I was excited to have the chance to catch up with the promising, young directors of the show and learn more about their process.
BWW: Tell me about yourself, your background and the artistic influences for this show.
Felix:I am a composer and pianist based in Brooklyn, who works across a wide variety of styles in the classical and pop music scenes in New York. I have performed or had works performed across the US, Italy, Austria and Japan at venues such as Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall in NYC, Ehrbar Hall in Vienna, the Hard Rock Cafe in Osaka's Universal Studios and the Chiesa di Santa Maria di Canepanova in Pavia, Italy. I received my Bachelor of Arts with highest honors from Marlboro College and I'm now pursuing a Master's of Music in Music Composition at Brooklyn College with support from the Cerf Music Scholarship and the Conservatory's assistantships.
My output as a composer includes two operas, several song cycles, works for orchestra and various chamber ensembles. As a pianist, I am passionate about performing new music and will be the assistant to Ursula Oppens' ConTempo ensemble at Brooklyn College beginning in the Spring 2018.
My musical influences for Songs of the Soul Beams were Beethoven, Benjamin Britten, Salvatore Sciarrino and Leonard Bernstein. Beethoven influenced my form, Britten influenced my vocal writing, Sciarrino influenced some of the musical textures of the piano and harp accompaniments and Bernstein influenced my fusion of popular music elements with classical forms.
Brittany: I am a Brooklyn based gal-a writer, stage director, performer and dog mom.
My independent study at Wroxton College in Oxfordshire was "storytelling through the body." For instance, we would read a libretto and then watch a ballet adaptation of the show and have to decipher the storyline through movement. It was so challenging, so discussion based. Discussion is the foundation this craft is built upon.
With my knowledge of movement, I wanted to devise a story of when mortals and mechanicals mix in the afterlife. Within the confines of Felix's brilliant score, lives pockets of unvoiced music I got to explore through dance and accented gesture. I played Persephone, a good mechanic wishing to save the flickering souls while my daughter Melinoë brought them to our side.
My core artistic influence are campfire stories. The shadows of flickering light, the melodramatic flair, the heightened atmosphere-I always want to give an audience that intimacy that this story is just for them. And that's the central conceit of Soul Beams. This is a work born from the pathos of real people.
BWW: I know several cast members are dealing with the recent loss of family members. Do you want to speak a bit about the inspiration behind the subject matter?
Felix: We wrote this work because we lost loved ones during the production of my second opera The Fall of the House of Usher last year. Brittany, the director of the opera, lost her grandmother, and I lost my father. We wanted to write a work about dealing with the grief of losing a loved one.
BWW: I appreciated that the balletic elements in the show were more of the free and natural spirit of the Judson Dance Theater than the technical linearity of traditional ballet. Can you speak more about the use of dance in the show?
Brittany: The show, in spirit, is so raw and surreal to bell jar it to classical or technical confines would be against the heartbeat of Felix's music. Felix's music is truly a sonic experience, you really just let go. I devised the choreography as I felt it inside me. There are outcries written into the music and my body responded organically. I even wrote about it in the lyrics to "Disconnected," the song commemorating Felix's father: "My veins flow to the tempo of weeping."
BWW: Brittany, in particular, is a strong physical actress. Her expressions as Persephone reminded me more of Neil Gaiman's Delirium than the usually regal and solemn underworld Queen. On the other hand Melinoë, the goddess of nightmares and madness (played by the gorgeous Petra Jarrar), was the more stately, ethereal and somber presence. It's almost as if the traditional personalities of the two switched places in the show. What was the significance of using these particular goddesses?
Brittany: Felix and I chose Persephone and Melinoë to serve as narrators on the piece because of their control of the afterlife. These two are always painted in a specific way; we wanted to explore their relationship together. Melinoë is up to mischief and Persephone takes the fall for her actions.
BWW: The instrumental music and lyrics flowed together seamlessly. What was it like collaborating and how long did it take for the creation process to feel complete
Brittany: I'd say the process was about six months. We decided on stories and people we were paying homage to and what the sonic profile of their story would sound like. Felix would send me a little clip of what he was thinking and I'd just meditate on the sound and start stream of conscious writing, based on interviews of their stories and what they left behind. The first song was "Walking Past a Window", the song for my grandmother. With that song, I cut and pasted what I wrote the night she died and sent it to Felix. That song is so raw, no editing, no nothing. Just pulsating emotion and it's getting published by Sparks Publication!
Felix: We communicated almost daily for the past half year about the shape of these songs and these stories. Some of the songs, like "Disconnected", the song about the last time I saw my father before he passed, started as voice memos on my phone that I sent to Brittany so she would get poetic inspiration. Other songs, like "Lacrimosa", were poems that Brittany had previously written. She sent me that text to set. I took inspiration from her diction to create a musical landscape around the word 'gloom'. That song is one of my favorites from the cycle.
BWW: The show fused multiple artistic disciplines into an experimental, non-linear framework. The build up, climax and fall of "Tina" comes to mind with its vigorous slamming of pvc pipes and suggestive humping of chairs. Why did you choose the creative modalities and show structure that you did?
Brittany:The art of storytelling is so important to me and it's an aspect of theatre and art that, quite oft, gets lost behind the footlights. Each story has a vastly different sonic scape in the environment it lives within, the visual simply had to match.
Felix: "Tina" tells a story. I chose to incorporate many elements of popular music styles into the composition in order to paint a musical world that reflected Brittany's tech.
BWW: Were there any challenges in producing this work?
Brittany:I found this a very easy show to put on. The art of submitting work is such a vulnerable one, Felix and I have been super blessed with our response.
Felix: The rehearsal process for the show was fruitful and artistically satisfying.
BWW: What are your goals for the show?
Brittany: Well, we want it put up again within the next year. We would like to experiment with possibly having more than two singers and making it more of an ensemble. Who knows! It's such a malleable piece that everyone can identify with, pathos that everyone has shared.
Felix: We will be posting a video of the world premiere very soon on my Vimeo channel (https://vimeo.com/felixjarrar). Please follow my channel and our social media at www.facebook.com/soulbeamsongs for updates about the project. We are interested in talking with companies about producing the show, so please reach out to us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.