Experimental Classical Music Exists in a World of Art: My Conversation with Ian Fiedorek, composer of Fallout Symphony

Ian Fiedorek Experimentation with classical music quietly lingers around the New York City music scene. Singer songwriter Ian Fiedorek, and the composer the project Fallout Symphony states the following about experimental culture and instrumental music in the city, “I don’t think too many people are thinking in terms of the classical structure, the four-movement structure … but there’s an incredible wealth of experimentation happening in New York generally. By nature, categorizing or pigeonholing this music can be difficult, as it should be.”

Ian recently completed the shooting of a music video for Fallout Symphony’s second movement “Jim Crow”, with the help of film directors Nasa Hadizadeh and Robert Dume of Cultured Productions. This fashion-charged short film which captures the avant-garde beauty of the song. The themes of paranoia and overcoming bigotry addressed in the lyrics – “I’m your guardian angel now, tearing this all down to timeless/ There’s an ancient bigotry that’s always set in drunken stone/ I will stop their hateful words tonight” – are emotionally conveyed in the music and video.

Watching this beautiful video, I could not help but raise the following question – why experiment with images that, while aesthetically pleasing to the eye, do not capture the historical aspect of the song’s title?

Ian answers my questions and also talks to me about this experimentation, and touches on the following for this type of musical among today’s listeners. It is my pleasure to welcome Ian to a full-length interview feature for the month of December, right here on Music Historian’s Hear, Let’s Listen.

Musical Background

Ian began studying classical piano at 7 years old and grew up a pop/rock aficionado. He appreciated classical music for its long-form structures and physical challenges, two attributes that attracted him intellectually. As a mode of expression, he states “nothing was as viscerally impacting as picking up a guitar at age 13 and writing songs. Fallout Symphony is something of an amalgam of these two components of my musical upbringing.”

After studying music at NYU and Cal State Los Angeles, Ian entered the NYC music scene as a guitarist for Harlem Shakes. Then, in 2012, he continued as a solo artist. Ian does not see these life events as transitions, but as “lateral movements between projects.” He explains: “Studying music was beneficial, but it was mostly an excuse to devote my time to making music. Performing in Harlem Shakes and other bands while working on my own material is all part of an intuitive progression in my view. I never thought in terms of ‘going solo,’ I always viewed myself as a singer, songwriter and composer who dabbled in a couple of different projects on the side.”

Harlem Shakes and Fallout Symphony differ immensely from a musical perspective. One is an indie rock band that is very performance-centric, mobile and public. The other is a 30-piece orchestra that is restricted to recording music in a studio, Ian spends hours after rehearsal mixing and editing.

Fallout Symphony is a far more insular experience than Harlem Shakes or other bands I’ve been in – there’s a moment in the timeline of production where it’s very collaborative, but generally, it’s you alone in a studio putting together the most detailed and thorough score possible, then later, the clearest final mix.”

Fallout Symphony

Creating a band is easy, and many of them emerge spontaneously in NYC. One might agree that the cultural scene in large urban and cosmopolitan areas are often saturated with the typical pop-rock band, the guitarist, drummer, bassist, a keyboardist, and a lead singer. Very rarely do we hear about symphonic groups emerging on the popular music scene. When I asked Ian about what classical musicians are doing on today’s musical scene, he responded, “I haven’t met many artists experimenting in this particular way [the classical structure].”

Ian describes Fallout Symphony as an ambitious, kaleidoscopic effort, and bold musical vision; one which mixes symphonic elements with vocals and a lengthy lyric sheet – something unusual in classically influenced music. I asked Ian about his greatest influences:

Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was an influence on me – his use of non-linear musical cues and motifs was a large reason I structured Fallout Symphony to be through-composed, in many ways quite unstructured. Only a few of my motifs loop around and appear again. Mainly, the entire 40-minute duration is all new sections. I relied on the lyrics to be the glue of continuity, helping the piece cohere.”

The song and video for “Jim Crow” Ian Fiedorek in his music video for "Jim Crow"

As I thought about what Ian meant by continuity, I recalled how the lyrics “Now I know I dress like Jim Crow,” sung after “I am your guardian angel now…” contrasted each other. I wondered whether Ian did this on purpose.

“The lyric is,” Ian explains, “’Now I know why you dress like Jim Crow’ – as in, you are in ‘tattered rags.’ They have brought you to a breaking point, you are a non-entity to ‘them’… These lyrics are all of a piece I would say, or at least are intended to be so. It is about overcoming the bigotry, whether tangible or ethereal, foisted upon the “you” character in the story.”

According to Ian, if we had to identify the “you” character of the story in “Jim Crow” by watching the music video, “you” would come in the form of a tall and brunette young woman with deep set eyes. One moment, she gracefully models the most beautiful 1930’s inspired clothing, the next moment curled up in the corners of a dark room appearing frightened and confused or reaching out to touch an invisible figure.

When the video’s main character is dressed in her glamorous garb, she is often sitting down on a couch in a foyer with a piano. At this piano sits Ian, playing. In other shots, he stands behind the young woman. Both characters in the video have their own inner story stirring simultaneously. This is visually represented during the first two minutes and 30 seconds of the song in which two different coherent musical ideas are played at the same time. Although these two characters visually appear together in certain scenes, they never interact with one another, at any time within the video.

Screen shot of the music video for Fallout Symphony's second movement "Jim Crow"“Certainly, having the two characters never interact was intentional – authorial intent perhaps is not particularly germane – but I believe the male character,” who is Ian, “is something of a figment, a specter, in her [the main character’s] troubled mind.”

Then, there is the main theme of the music, a theme that talks about the inescapable oppression cast by society. In this case, Jim Crow is relevant to this theme; but I did not feel the music video reflected this theme at all. I inquired about the artistic inspiration and the intention.

“We did not want the video to be too ‘on-the-nose,’” explains Ian. “We felt, instead of literally translating a narrative of overcoming bigotry, it would be more effective to let the lyrics do that heavy lifting, and instead create a more general narrative for the video about conquering one’s own ailments and mental spooks.”

The video for “Jim Crow” was shot in one day, on a budget that Ian describes, was lower than what the final product presents. He credits co-directors Nasa and Robert for “wringing the sponge of all its possibilities.” In addition, Ian believes the video “came to fruition in the way any good piece of art does – with some really good planning and some very happy accidents.”

Ian asserts, “I believe the video as an entertaining piece of work in its own right, complements and contextualizing the music to be heard from new angles, with heretofore undiscovered wrinkles.”

The audience looking for this musical and visual experimentation

The making of Ian’s video was supported by the donations of fans and people interested in Ian’s music – a type of support that allowed Cultured Productions to put the finishing touches on both music and artwork, and the replication of the Fallout Symphony CD. When I asked Ian about receiving this support, he responded, “It is fantastic. Art exists for the community, and to have that community support its creation is a blessing.”

Through the video for “Jim Crow,” Fallout Symphony exhibits that postmodernist classical music through the help of visual imagery makes a greater emotional impact on listeners. Ian helps listeners understand that music exists within a world of art, surrealism, culture and most importantly, a community that wants to hear experimental classical music.

It is my pleasure to share with readers this beautiful video. Thank you Ian and Nasa.


Master Conductor, Christopher Seaman Demystifies the Mysterious in Inside Conducting

Christopher Seaman, Master Conductor In the foreword of master conductor, Christopher Seaman’s new book, Inside Conducting, Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich, David Zinman describes Mr. Seaman as a rare personality and a highly stimulating teacher.[1]

I read this passage after I had personally talked with Mr. Seaman on the telephone. I immediately thought that Mr. Zinman described the British conductor accurately. Aside from his kindness and positive attitude, Mr. Seaman is naturally delighted to share details about his new book and his experiences.

“So many people [often] ask me about what conductors do that I decided it was time to publish the answers the best I could. I thought it was time to answer people’s curiosities,” explains Mr. Seaman.

“This book is meant to stimulate interest and get alongside people. It is aimed at two kinds of people,” he adds. “The first are concert goers and music lovers that are curious to learn about what a conductor does. [The second] are students who are training and want to learn more.

“There is a lot of information in the book, and I hope to present it in a way that is interesting, stimulating, approachable and not intimidating. You can read it even if you have never gone to music school.”

I attest that Inside Conducting is for anybody who loves music, and those who played or are currently playing an instrument or are involved in music in some way might find it even more exciting. As for musicians training in the profession of conducting, Mr. Seaman advises students on specifics like how to correctly use a baton, what to do with the left hand when conducting, how to be more economical in their instructions to the musicians in the orchestra, and more.

One lesson from Inside Conducting that stood out to me is the balance of leading and yielding that every conductor must master. Like within any profession, including musical, controlling and managing is not enough. The individual must also learn to relinquish control and take chances in order to work with others in producing a great piece of music.

It is my pleasure to welcome Christopher Seaman as the full-length feature for this month on Music Historian’s Hear; Let’s Listen.

Conductors must master the balance of leading and yielding

“If a conductor does not give clear leadership, the orchestra does not function

as well as it can or should. As with any organization that lacks leadership, the organization flounders,” begins Mr. Seaman. “The musicians work with you [the conductor] and look to you for leadership. They also look to you to recognize and orchestrate the framework in which they can use their artistry. The musicians are the conductor’s partners, not subordinates in the creative process.”

Mr. Seaman continues to explain that conductors have to “steer between two extremes: one is to control everything so much that you take away from the musicians’ creative freedom; the other extreme is to give them so much creative freedom that the whole performance becomes a mess.

“Conductors have to steer between these two extremes all the time, off and on, bar by bar,” he enumerates. Quoting the Indian Parsi conductor Zubin Mehta, Mr. Seaman states “The balance between leading and yielding is something every conductor has to master.”[2]

“Rehearsing” is the passage in the book where I feel Mr. Seaman clearly emphasizes this balance, specifically in an experience in which a conductor might run into an orchestra of “lower standards.”

According to Mr. Seaman, a conductor, especially one who is new to this experience, might feel the need to show commitment to the music and to the orchestra through micromanaging the move of each musician. Although such a solution might seem logical, the conductor tends not to notice that he or she is restricting or preventing musicians from understanding the shape of the piece.

Mr. Seaman writes, “You may occasionally face a group that sounds so bad that you have the feeling of dragging them from note to note just to get through the piece. If some sections of an orchestra have rhythmic problems (particularly in playing late), you may feel the need to conduct every beat aggressively simply to get people playing together. This corrective style of conducting destroys the shape of any piece… if you take a chance and indicate flexibility and shape, you have the feeling that the whole thing will fall apart; so you may have to choose between square, shapeless accuracy and a well-shaped mess… but when an orchestra does grasp the shape of a piece or even a phrase, they’re music more likely to play together. So, in the end, you can usually take a chance and conduct the music rather than just the beats.”[3]

In this passage, Mr. Seaman explains that while a conductor needs to make sure the players are hitting the notes on the right beats, there also comes a time in rehearsal when the conductor must move on to additional essential components of a piece. Mr. Seaman tells me:

“If you imagine a piece, you [the conductor] want to be very clear and give direction in the beginning.”

He then supports this idea in the passage called “Rehearsing” in which he writes “An entry can be messy because whatever comes before it is either late or not together; players making the entry don’t know whether to follow their ears of your beat …[4]

“When you want an orchestra to find a particular place in the music, use a strong, clear voice and address the people farthest away, so nobody needs to ask his neighbor, “Where’s he going from?”[5]

Returning to our conversation, Mr. Seaman continues, “Then there may be a passage, perhaps during a solo, where you can be a little more lyrical and slightly loosen the reins and give [the musicians] a little freedom.”

Mr. Seaman parallels this statement with a passage in Inside Conducting that emphasizes the musicians’ need for independence and creative ownership of a piece.

“Occasionally it can be useful to leave an orchestra playing and go back into the hall to listen; you’ll get a different perspective… Playing on their own gives an orchestra confidence, so they’re not over-dependent on a conductor…

“Finally, take a chance and leave some things fluid. Don’t cross every “t” and dot every “i.” This may feel risky, but it keeps and orchestra on its toes and gives a concert an edge,” which helps the music get across; you’ll find what works best for your talents and personality.”[6]

An audience’s job is to respond

In addition to the valuable lessons Mr. Seaman provides, like the one above, he offers advice to aspiring or emerging conductors. He suggests some of the following to those looking to take on this profession: conducting a youth orchestra, acquiring keyboard skills in order to get a stronger understanding of harmony, and intensively training their own relative pitch – the ability to sing back a note that you hear on an instrument.

So, if Mr. Seaman talks about the practical side of this artistic pursuit, why would a music lover or a musician who has no intention of becoming a conductor, read Inside Conducting? The author explains:

Inside Conducting by Conductor, Christopher Seaman. Published in July 2013

“I talk about topics like rehearsing, learning scores, and playing instruments, economic gesture, concerto accompaniments, and more not just to teach but to gain the interest of a music lover.”

After music lovers read Inside Conducting, Mr. Seaman hopes they will be able to go to a concert, understand what does into a performance and see it with a new perspective. Then, one might ask another question – why might a master conductor feel the need to reach out to the interest of an audience rather than solely a conductor? Mr. Seaman answers, “An audience’s job is to respond to great music.”

During my phone chat with Mr. Seaman, I started to pick up bits of information that supports an opinion about classical music that I harbored for a long time – the classical music genre is not going anywhere; it is still alive and well in our musical landscape. I asked for the master conductor’s opinion on the notions few cynical critics make about classical music – that it is a ‘disappearing’ genre.

“I disagree with that,” Mr. Seaman begins. “Audiences are not disappearing. I’ve heard people say audiences are getting older. All audiences [actually] look the same as they have for 80 years, they looked the same since I started playing in the London Philharmonic at the age of 22, however; they are not the same people.

“People discover music later in life. For example, you get a job, you raise your kids, you send them to school… Then, when you are alone and have free time to yourself you say, “I’m going to give classical music a try.” You go, you try, and you might realize your musical but just never knew.

“Musical means responding to music, not playing the piano better than anybody in the world. It means responding to music and loving it. You can play all the notes correctly [on an instrument] and not be musical. As a conductor, I like people that can both play the notes and be musical.” Christopher Seaman. Photograph provided by Sally Cohen PR.

Hearing classical music live is better than listening to any record

I felt an enormous sense of comfort and relief to learn from an experienced musician that audiences for classical music are still alive and well and have not changed for the past 40 or some years that Mr. Seaman has been playing and conducting.  I asked the master conductor what about live classical music excites listeners, and he answers, “When you hear it live, you are present at the creative process. There is something about being there with the actual creation or recreation of what’s going on. No record – no matter how good the orchestra or how well produced – can replace that.”

Mr. Seaman is currently preparing for a long trip to Australia where he will be conducting. He will also return to the United States in December to conduct a concert in Orange County, California with the Pacific Symphony, and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in Wisconsin. I suggest that all classical music lovers in the Chicago, Milwaukee, and the Orange County area keep their eyes peeled on these symphonies’ websites and mark their calendars for a future performance and a chance to see Mr. Seaman live in action.

In the meantime, whether you plan to attend as a music lover, musician, or conductor in training, I highly recommend Mr. Seaman’s new book, Inside Conducting, which is also available on amazon.com and in their kindle store. Readers will gain a better understanding of a conductor’s role in an orchestra and, they just might find a little piece of themselves in some of the stories within the book. Mr. Seaman’s storytelling of his days with England’s National Youth Orchestra, experience as assistant conductor in the London Philharmonic during his early twenties, and his time with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow will also remind readers of a time they played in an orchestra as a child or the processes they experienced when learning an instrument.

At the moment, this is the only book I read in which the author, who is a working master conductor, pays the same level of attention to both student of conducting and amateurs from all musical backgrounds.

Inside Conducting bridges the interest of amateur musicians, listeners, and students with topics that Mr. Seaman says “demystifies the mysterious into something practical.” While talent in conducting will always have a mysterious element, Mr. Seaman asserts that conducting can be “much more practical than people think.”

[1] Seaman, Christopher. Inside Conducting. Rochester, NY, USA: University of Rochester Press, 2013, Kindle file.

[2] Seaman, Christopher. Inside Conducting (Rochester, NY, USA: University of Rochester Press, 2013) 239.

3-5 Seaman, Christopher. Inside Conducting. Rochester, NY, USA: University of Rochester Press, 2013, Kindle file.

[6] Seaman, Christopher. Inside Conducting. Rochester, NY, USA: University of Rochester Press, 2013, Kindle file.