An Interview with Dror Feiler
Dror Feiler’s biography describes him as an “eye-bleeding composer of intifada and eruptive lung-bursts, music-trasher, saxophone screamer and computer terrorist.” The first time I met him, at his studio in Stockholm in 2009, all I knew about him was that he wrote loud music with gunshots. A few months earlier, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra had refused to play the premiere of a piece of his that they had commissioned, just moments before the performance—the reason being that it was too loud for the musicians.
I know more about him now. Feiler has had a life more comparable to that of a war-zone journalist than of a typical composer. A paratrooper in the Israeli Defense Forces, he later renounced his Israeli passport, as required by law, to become a Swedish citizen. He has played in prestigious concert halls and for FARC rebel fighters in the forests of Colombia. And he was aboard the Freedom Flotilla, in 2010, when it was raided by Israeli forces and nine activists were killed. (A 10th entered a coma and later died.) An avid activist and long time left-wing party member, he ran for parliament in Sweden and only lost by few hundred votes. He is no stranger to controversy, not just in art or music, but in the bitterest feuds of partisan politics as well.
Feiler’s music is strong, coarse, and deeply personal. We spoke in advance of his concert in Berlin on October 20.
VAN: You have been arrested several times and put your life in danger for your humanitarian and political activism. Why be a composer and artist at all? What do you want to achieve through art that you can’t achieve through activism?
Dror Feiler: Art is a way for us to escape the trap that the world puts us in, which is a kind of mechanical positivistic thinking that dictates you do something; it leads to good or bad results; you continue [and repeat]. With art, if it’s good, you never know the result, you don’t want to know the result, or you get many results depending on the receiver or art form.
Doing art for me is a part of activism. Though I taught myself to play instruments and improvise, I didn’t start playing saxophone until I was 22, and I started conservatory at 28. So my development as a musician was parallel with my development in political activism. People thought my music was very noisy and disturbing, but I myself was the noise—in the classical music environment. Being an immigrant, an autodidact, a person who knows what he wants to do and doesn’t want to be much oppressed by this tradition.
I want to question all hierarchical systems, in society, in politics, and in music. For example, hierarchical systems of chord progressions or equal temperament. As someone from the Middle East, I can’t understand why we must obey harmony progressions or certain tuning systems. For this you take artistic risks and social risks. For instance, I’ve realized none of my orchestral pieces have been ever performed in Sweden. Maybe I’m a very bad composer compared to Swedish composers. But I [make] a very clear aesthetic statement that is not part of the flow, whose style changes every 10 years. I stick to my ideas and put political and artistic ideas in one context. I took the risk and am paying the price, but I couldn’t do it another way. This is my way.
You mentioned your “clear aesthetic statement.” In one of your manifestos, you say, “Aesthetics per se do not interest me.” Isn’t that inconsistent?
You omitted the second part of this sentence. It says, “Aesthetics per se do not interest me, I’m interested in tools.” I meant if there is a dominant aesthetic [I won’t conform to it]. When I started, modernism or post modernism was dominant among my teachers and colleagues. I wasn’t interested in that kind of labeling, I was interested in expression. The expression in correlation to what I’d envisioned or felt, let’s say toward a musical problem or whatever it was.
In my first larger piece, “Ma’vaak” (Hebrew for “Struggle”), I stated clearly that it was not a description of the struggle but the struggle itself. It wasn’t the aesthetic that interested me, it was the labor. The labor in playing the piece, understanding it, and overcoming its problems.
For audiences who know your music and art, it seems like you are a very uncompromising person. At the same time, you’ve ran for office and European Parliament. What does compromise mean to you? Do you ever compromise? Do art and politics require different compromises?
It’s nice to be seen as uncompromising, and I try not to make compromises; but when I play saxophone it’s already a compromise because I have to accept the limits of the saxophone. So it depends how you define compromise.
When I ran for office, you know, it didn’t go so well, because I wasn’t compromising enough. I wouldn’t accept the rules of the game! In a campaign every candidate says they want better schools, better hospitals—no one says they want worse schools or hospitals—but they never say what they mean by that. So I decided to have a campaign with 46 different slogans, none of which had anything to do with politics. They were only quotations from people, for example Beckett’s saying, “Ever tried ever failed? Try again, fail better,” or Brecht’s quote, “It is a bigger crime to establish a bank than to rob a bank.” They were all poetic, demanding, and inspiring quotations.
What was the message behind those quotes?
I wanted to point out that you have to think. What does political action mean? What does it mean to vote for somebody? Candidates make promises and I wanted people to think about life, because an election is life, reduced to decisions.
Were you serious about pursuing office?
Had I been elected, I’d have gone to parliament because people would have voted for me. With my campaign they would have known whom they voted for. I only had one promise: that in my inauguration speech, I’d say, “I have no words to describe how I feel,” then I’d take a saxophone and play.
I also saw it as an artistic project. I travelled around Sweden, going to city centers with a megaphone and a saxophone, making speeches and playing. It was like standup comedy, except the character wasn’t funny and there were no jokes. But it was fun: I like to have discussions, challenge and be challenged. Composition is an anti-social job, so I liked the opportunity to break from that solitary work and try to unite worlds that can’t be united. It wasn’t a sacrifice.
Do you think that music, like politics, is overly institutionalized?
Of course! I am now the vice chairman of the Swedish society of composers and sit on the board of the [Swedish Performing Rights Society], so I have a better sense of what’s going on from the inside. We’ve searched for repertoire occasionally. Who do you think decides what pieces and composers are played in the large concert houses of Malmö or Gothenburg or Stockholm? It’s the big agencies. They have the conductors. If you want to work you have to pick the conductor and his or her repertoire, and then maybe they’ll take one new piece by some local composer that somehow fits in this kind of institutionalized aesthetic world.
I always ask, is the conductor who gets $100,000 for each concert 50 times better than the conductor who gets $2,000? I’m not so sure. And I’m not so sure it is good for music that you have this circus of soloists and conductors who decide what will be played and leave no room even for the aesthetic decisions of institutions. Imagine how fantastic it would be if a concert hall said, for example, “We love glissando music.” And they’d put on a whole year’s worth of only glissando music programs!
In your manifestos, you talk a lot about Che Guevara and revolution. Do you try to achieve revolution through art or in art? Why do you still write manifestos?
Because I’m trying to find a way to connect with people who don’t swim in the same water that I do. I try to do it in my music, in my art, in words and speeches, and through activism, with equal emphasis. I try to somehow share my way with people. And my way is not only music or art or activism, it’s all of them together.
I still believe people can open themselves and appreciate things they didn’t know existed before. I believe you can stand in a remote place on earth and play “avant-garde” music for people who’ve never heard it, and they will be touched. I have played everywhere from beautiful concert halls to the most remote forests. At the end of the Soviet era in a stricken Odessa, in Krasnoyarsk, in guerrilla tents of Colombian FARC fighters. I’ve played everywhere! Because I want to challenge myself. I want to see where my prejudices are and break them down, but I can’t do it all myself—I need the help of people who ask me questions. I want people to question my music: What do you mean? Why do you make this noisy music?
I recently read a fantastic text by Luigi Nono about the connection of politics and communication—or the lack of it—to listening. Many [composers] don’t listen to music. They pick something and think, “Oh, this is high bassoon and low flute like Rite of Spring, so whatever,” and they stop listening to music. The music is here and now, and as soon as you start thinking about it, it’s gone. Music is not a thing to think about—it’s for listening. Only afterwards can you think about it and analyze it.
Why do you always wear black?
Good question! I don’t know why; it has become a habit and a very convenient one too. I buy five of the same pants, and I don’t need to go searching through different shops. ¶