For a brief moment back in the fall of 2005, the new music community seemed all aglow over the album Rehearsing My Choir by an indie rock band called The Fiery Furnaces, formed around brother and sister Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger. I still remember Jerry Bowles gushing over it at Sequenza21. At the same time, some pundits in the indie rock community seemed baffled by it. But reading the following particularly scathing review of the disc by Amanda Petrusich in Pitchfork made me want to hear the disc all the more:
[I]t’s difficult to consume Rehearsing My Choir without taking some kind of quasi-academic, cultural studies stance, reachable only after hours of careful, dedicated, uninterrupted listening. [. . .] You can pick it apart, but can you dance to it, roll around on the floor with it, weep to it under your favorite blanket?
I wondered what Ms. Petrusich would think of the music of Charles Wuorinen, Pauline Oliveros, or Matthew Shipp—indeed, the majority of both the music I treasure and the music we have explored these past eight years on NewMusicBox. Before actually hearing a note of the Friedbergers’ music, I pondered that they might in fact be more at home under our new music umbrella than the circumscribed indie rock circles they appeared to be traveling in.
Once I bought myself a copy of the album I was instantly drawn into its bizarre sound world of kitchen sink instrumentation and Robert Ashley-sounding prosody. In fact, I did something I rarely allow myself the time to do these days: I listened to it from start to finish several times in a row. I even put new batteries in my old Discman so I could take it with me on a bus ride from New York to Boston.
But, of course, I wanted to hear more. So over the past year and a half, I tracked down everything they’d released thus far: some five albums plus a double solo album by Matthew Friedberger. While much of the material was clearly alternative rock aimed at a mainstream audience, I kept continually hearing odd quirks, like passages on Matthew’s solo album Winter Women that seemed to channel early minimalism. And the structures of many of the songs (which can last up to ten minutes) allowed for sudden, seemingly inconceivable changes that, to my ears, felt more akin to 1960s avant-garde collage technique than to most popular music. Then there were all the oddball studio effects, particularly the seamless use of backward sound throughout the album Bitter Tea.
Having immersed myself this deep, I knew I had to meet them at some point and talk to them about their music. As it happened, this summer The Fiery Furnaces have been touring across the U.S. in anticipation of the release of yet another album, Widow City, on October 9. In between out-of-town gigs, I caught up with them in Eleanor’s backyard to find out where their inspirations come from, and if they felt a kinship to the kinds of music that are regularly the focus of NewMusicBox.
Throughout our conversation, Matthew and Eleanor repeatedly stressed that what they is do is an unapologetic and rather respectful response to the traditions of rock. Yet a minute into the talk, Matthew referenced Elliott Carter’s opera What Next?, and later on Eleanor revealed that at one point her brother was only listening to Shostakovich.
Clearly The Fiery Furnaces are kindred spirits to our own musical community. In the days following my visit with them, I kept thinking of more areas I wished we would have had time to explore. There was so much music I wanted to share with them and so much more I wanted to learn about what they are doing. Indeed, while there are many lessons we can learn from each other, The Fiery Furnaces are not all that different from anyone else in our new music community. The notion of there being clear barriers between musical genres is at best critical shorthand and at worst a divisive mechanism to perpetuate a lack of understanding within the greater musical community. Many of the most interesting practitioners of any genre, even some whose music has defined the genres they have operated within, have never allowed walls to obstruct their musical journeys. Why should we?