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.

Roger Greenawalt on Music and Business Part 2: The Beatles Complete and Beyond

Leah Siegel sings "Oh Darling" with Roger on Ukulele In Part One of my conversation with Roger Greenawalt, I learned about the life of a record producer at Shabby Road Studios and how some producers work with artists. In the continuation, I learn more about Roger’s inspiration behind the annual Beatles Complete and his other title, the ukulele carrier.

“For three and a half years, I’ve been carrying this [the ukulele] everywhere,” Roger explains. “It’s an ongoing permanent art exhibit. This performance is forever. I also do it to constantly interact with people, and I sort of know the range of reactions.

“Today, for example, a woman jogged by and said “go on brother.” That was one reaction. A very common one I get is when a mother is with her kid, and she points me out to her child, but she doesn’t need to because children usually directly engage with me and follow me with their eyes. Then, there are those that pretend not to see or hear me.”

I asked Roger whether anybody ever approached him and asked to play his ukulele. He says:

“No, actually, the opposite happens. I’ll show you.

“Someone will come to me and say “wow that ukulele is so cool” and I will put it in their hands.” Roger hands me the ukulele to demonstrate. “I would tell you to put one finger right there and strum steadily.”

I placed my finger on the first string right on the third fret, and strummed as Roger sang an English lyrical improvisation of “Frere Jacques.”

“I’ve taught them a song they will always remember for the rest of their lives,” says Roger. “I’ve had people come back to me after I taught them the song, and they would say “I will always remember that first song.””

My personal experience interacting with Roger on the ukulele was exciting, especially when I realized playing the ukulele is really just playing a fragment of the guitar. According to Roger, many skilled guitar players express the same realization about the ukulele.

“That’s what I realized when I started playing,” he echoes.

I then asked Roger why chose the ukulele as a trademark instrument, and then why dedicated an annual music event to The Beatles.

“Multiple factors,” explains Roger. “A) People love the ukulele.

“I started playing the ukulele right after September 11th (2001) and like many people that year, I was in a lousy mood. Then, one day, my cousin who lives San Francisco – he is a book publisher and a talented amateur musician – invited me to visit. So, after the flights started up again, I took a plane to San Francisco.

“When I went to see him, I learned that he had just been in Hawaii cheering himself up from a break-up. He picked up the ukulele and started learning songs. It just made him happy; it’s this happiness machine. And, the appeal of the uke keeps getting bigger.

“B) There is the undying universal appeal about the Beatles.

“They have been a unique phenomenon throughout the years. The passing of their music from generation to generation has been frictionless. Kids continue to like their music and they keep getting bigger every year. They are the second best selling artist of the last decade after Eminem. So, these are both two good things.”

Roger continues, “Then, if there are 60 artists and they each have two friends, there is a good chance these two people will show up to watch them perform. So, there will be 60 different people in the show, and they will bring in an audience of 120.

“That’s why the event works.”

Yuzima jams with Roger at the Beatles Complete on Ukulele to "Hey Jude" Based on my experience, The Beatles Complete on ukulele does work in attracting a crowd. I remember the 2012 show, which fell on the first weekend in January. People packed the space in front of the stage, shoulder-to-shoulder. I remember singing to Yuzima’s rendition of “Hey Jude” with my sister as we stood among the crowds. To our right stood two Brooklyn bachelors sporting wind breakers and beanies, while to our left, a father was raising his toddler-aged son on his shoulders to see the musicians on stage.

However; I also do admit that outside circumstances, which are not related to music, also play a determining factor on whether the next show the following year will produce a greater turn out than the one prior. For example, this year’s show fell on a weekday, which probably prevented families from attending. In addition, it was also one of the coldest nights in January, a factor that might have discouraged many from coming out. Roger comments:

“If it was not the coldest night that day, the place would have been packed.”

Luckily, people, whether they are returning attendees, new comers to the area, first-timers, or tourists, will likely come to Brooklyn Bowl next January to hear the cheery sounds of the Beatles on Ukulele and hopefully remember it as an event that brightened their beginning of the New Year.

The same applies to many of the musicians that return the following year to perform a set. It gives them a great performance opportunity; a chance to jam with similar groups like them from the Williamsburg area; and a moment to make themselves known to a new group of Brooklynites.

As Roger prepares for next year’s Beatles Complete on Ukulele, he will also continue to work closely with artists looking to really make their big break on the New York City music scene. Roger talks about two musicians in particular.

“Lovely Liar,” he explains, “is a collaboration between me and Tatiana Pajkovic. She is tall, authoritarian, fabulous and tense. She has a Billy Holiday-kind of tone to her voice, and her style ranges from stately mid-twentieth century to French disco.”

Roger is also working with another act called Reno is Famous. Reno is a world class dancer who is a member of the Ballet Company of the Metropolitan Opera.

Roger describes her as “A very well-thought of modern dancer making her way to rock star.” He adds, “Her repertoire includes aggressive punk music ranging to electronic dystopia; a style that is much darker than Radio Head.

“This one’s really close to my heart. I’m making all the soundscapes [in her music] and it includes experimental elements of all my favorite things like strong acoustic ukulele and guitar riffs. It also includes reggae bass, funky drums, and hooks and groves…”

My interview with Roger has come back full circle to his work at The Shabby Road Studios.

In Part One, I learned of two very important pieces of advice that Roger has for aspiring professionals: musicians must always make room for business if they want economic success; and that the more an artist adapts, the faster his or her circumstances will change for the better. In Part Two, I learned about his inspiration behind playing the ukulele and the annual Beatles Complete.

Reviewing our conversation, I realize that Roger makes room in his studios for artists of all backgrounds. A musician can be inspired by a genre that is not widely heard in America, or have performance experience within a different art form other than popular music. If the artist is willing to commit to his or her craft, and willing to work with an experienced professional like Roger in making excellence in music; they will learn a great deal about how to work in the industry, and continue on their professional path with, hopefully, more confidence.