Richard Felciano Richard Felciano's music was both prefaced and summarized by the title of his 1972 piece, I Make My Own Soul from All the Elements of the Earth.
One such element was magnetic tape, a material developed only a few years before his admission into the Mills graduate program in 1953. The catalogue of his music offered by The New Grove Dictionary of American Music in 1984 lists more than 30 works which use it. Another element was organ, an instrument invented two and a half centuries before the birth of Christ, which he employed in twenty pieces.
He used electronic technology (which changes daily), the violin (which has remained the same for three hundred years) and flute and tuba in And from the Abyss, Soundspace for Mozart, The Angels of Turtle Island, and Ch”d.
He used carillon in Islands of Sound and The Tuning of the Sky, handbells in Mad with Love, gamelan in In Celebration of Golden Rain, an FM tuner and transistor radio in Background Music, five flutes in Volkan, five harps in Four Poems from the Japanese, visual projections in Signs, and a recorder in Allelulia to the Heart of Stone.
He was the first composer to use television as a compositional element (in Linearity for harp and electronics in 1968) and as an audience-participation event (in Trio for speaker, screen and viewer in 1968).
By 1984, he had finished nineteen choral pieces, many of which used texts from the Bible or religious writers such as Thomas Merton (Captives), Teilhard de Chardin (Alleluia to the Heart of [the] Matter, Signs, and Hymn of the Universe), Catherine of Sienna (Mad with Love), and St. John (The Not-yet-Flower).
The result, offering one of the most important collections of sacred pieces of the time, was notable for its size and musical unorthodoxy. In Sic Transit (1970), for example, he used strobe lights and projections, tape excerpts from speeches by Martin Luther King and John Kennedy, tone clusters produced by the organist's forearms, and a grid filled with pitch and rhythm alternatives which were randomly chosen during the course of the performance. ("The major thrust," said Howard Hersh in the San Francisco Symphony Program Notes, "is the power with which he has fused his innovative techniques to the timeless elements of dramatic immediacy...Behind his music, whatever its external form, there stands a human--a humane--sensibility.")
Three-in-One-in-Three (1971) used a pair of mixed choruses, two organs, two sound speakers and tape, producing a double antiphonal effect. The encirclement of the congregation by the choruses linked the work to the stereophony in Stockhausen's Carr‚ and, at the same time, to the antiphonal singing practiced at the Cathedral of Padua in 1510. A series of short reiterative phrases was cued by stopwatch while the organ played other phrases at indeterminate points inside a series of one-minute time frames. The tape offered musical sounds and a voice which chanted the words "three-in-one" into divided channels projected through a stereo sound system. Susani was made out of an eleven-tone row in which one interval--the third prominent in the ancient carol on which the work was based--was repeated. The carol itself occurred later in the piece--after the child had fallen asleep--in a dream accompanied by the sounds of an imaginary carousel.
In The Angels of Turtle Island, an "environment" for soprano, flute, violin, percussion and live electronics, Felciano provided a "gentle, repetitive, non-exertive, trance-like" piece which explored constantly shifting timbres. But, to interrupt its trance-like character, he required the singer to shout ("suddenly, as though possessed, the voice coming in rapid explosive, irregular spurts") and to read a series of words which began "BAT t FOR KAY ZOOM BEAT BURN, KNOW, NOW..."
The work was commissioned by the NEA and the State Arts Councils of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. There was no conductor or score--the piece progressed in large measure in response to the choices made constantly by each of the players. ("Don't allow the piece to 'get stuck.' Keep new material coming" cautioned Felciano's instructions.)
Arthur Custer, writing in the Musical Quarterly, said that the nonsense words contained "hidden concrete meanings": "mee-you-mee-lie" could be read "Me-you, My Lai." "Wai-duy-we-tuo, tuo, tui" asks "why do we tuer" (or kill). The piece offers ear/eye/head music embracing several levels of meaning, said the journal, "and it works."9
The Quarterly's analysis obviously met with Felciano's approval: the score reprinted Custer's description of the music and his comment that one hears The Angels of Turtle Island as sonic heterophony--"repetitive yet changing, hypnotic yet commanding." The piece also provided a social commentary: Turtle Island is the Hopi Indian name for America, a culture which, by pursuing war, violated the constancy and stability which characterized many of its native communities.
In And from the Abyss, it is the tuba player who "speaks," making consonant and vowel sounds into his instrument until, by linking them together, he succeeds in pronouncing the words "tuba mirum" from the Dies Irae, a Catholic prayer for the Day of Judgement (when the earth will open and souls will come forth to be judged). The tuba is accompanied by pre-recorded tapes of animals and birds played at altered speeds.
In 1972 Felciano did an installation called the Municipal Box at Boston's brand-new City Hall in which observers, walking through a curtain of white light, passed into an area of white sound created by fourteen separate electronic channels. Depending on the listeners' whereabouts, they heard six channels at a time, or three or two. For those remaining in a single place, the experience became totally static (since each monitor presented a single tone, texture or reiterated pulse). Time is experienced, the piece thus told listeners, by movement through space. Louis Snyder, writing in the Christian Science Monitor said that, heard from the entrance downstairs, it sounded like an "impressionistic cloud, borne in Technicolor."
Orchestra, the piece done by the San Francisco Symphony in 1980, extended the composer's interest in the relationship of space to sound. "In the minute pauses between notes and the Grand Pauses in the central section..." he wrote, "the sound is listening to the hall."
He also told Ear that he started each piece by finding a dramatic gesture which he then subjected to a kind of stream-of-consciousness process. His concern with beginnings could have been learned from Stravinsky, who said in Poetics of Music that the most important thing was to limit one's possibilities (by establishing a starting point). Or he could have learned it from the succession of novel gestures with which Milhaud invested his music during the dadaist period, or from those which characterized the theater pieces done at the San Francisco Tape Center during the neo-dadist era. (Enthused by the advantages the studio offered, Felciano said he got up at four o'clock every morning in order to secure working-time there.)
By 1977 two doctoral studies of his music had been written--Serial, Aleatoric and Electronic Techniques in American Organ Music Published between 1960 and 1972 was submitted by J. R. Little to the University of Iowa in 1975 and The Sacred Choral Music of Richard Felciano by S. O. Christiansen to the University of Illinois in 1977. (Other Mills graduates who have been subjects of doctoral studies are William Bolcom, Stanley Silverman, Steve Reich and Richard Wernick).
He was composer-in-residence at the National Center for Experiments in Television (1967-71) and the City of Boston (1971-73) and a recipient of grants and fellowships from the French and Italian governments (in 1953 and 1958), the Wooley, Fulbright, Fromm, Ford, Guggenheim, and Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundations, and the NEA. In 1974 he received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Almost all his works, noted New Grove Dictionary in 1984, were the results of commissions.