Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic creations inspire Andy Farber’s latest composition

John Mark Rafacz
March 05, 2020

Editor’s note: This event has been canceled as a result of the statewide response to the global coronavirus outbreak.

Patrons who bought tickets to the performance will automatically receive refunds. 

The Arts Ticket Center’s two locations — at Eisenhower Auditorium and Penn State Downtown Theatre — are closed to the public. Patrons can contact a ticketing associate at 814‑863‑0255, between 8 a.m.–5 p.m. weekdays, or via email at artstix@psu.edu.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is often credited for articulating the idea that “Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music.” When Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis performs at Penn State, the New York City big band will be building its own case for the connection between music and architecture.

“Masters of Form: From Mingus to Monk,” the concert coming April 2 to Eisenhower Auditorium, features music by 20th-century jazz luminaries such as Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. The program also includes a new composition, by Andy Farber, that takes its inspiration from 20th-century architectural giant Frank Lloyd Wright.

A man sits in a chair and props a saxophone on one knee.

Jazz musician and composer Andy Farber.

IMAGE: Photo provided

In addition to being a former member of Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Farber, who plays saxophone and a shopping list of other musical instruments, has performed with the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras; the Artie Shaw, Harry James and Illinois Jacquet Big bands; Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks; Andy Stein’s Blue Four; and a host of other ensembles.

He fronts two groups of his own: Andy Farber & his Swing Mavens, an eight-piece ensemble, and Andy Farber & his Orchestra, a sixteen-piece big band. The bigger of the Farber bands had a two-year residency at Birdland jazz club in New York City and a 10-month run as the on-stage ensemble for the Broadway show “After Midnight.”

As an arranger, conductor and instrumentalist, his work can be heard on many recordings, including four albums with him as the leader.

In an interview with John Mark Rafacz, editorial manager for the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State, Farber discussed his affection for architecture and how it factored into his composition for Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. He also touched on his family roots in music and his teaching, among other topics.

Question: You’ll be performing with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in a program titled “Masters of Form: From Mingus to Monk.” The second part of the program features your new composition “Usonian Structures,” a suite inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Why did you decide to write music referencing a famous architect?

Farber: Jazz at Lincoln Center has produced a few concerts called “Jazz and Art.” These performances featured new works, commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center, that were musical interpretations or impressions of famous paintings. That gave me an idea to write a multi-movement piece based on the work of the Bauhaus artists, particularly the architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, along with their American disciples like Philip Johnson. I happened to mention this to my friend and colleague Sherman Irby, who plays in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and he suggested I make it “an American story” and base the piece on Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. Naturally, as an architecture enthusiast, I was familiar with Mr. Wright’s works and am a fan. I also realized that there is a parallel between the development of jazz in the 20th century and American architecture.

Question: Each movement of your work is an interpretation or impression of one of Wright’s designs. Which of his famous projects did you decide to cover in your music? Have you been to each of those structures?

Farber: These are the eight movements.

I: “Oak Park Overture” (Fanfare & Blues)

A ride through Oak Park, Illinois, at the turn of the 20th century, and the beginning of Frank Lloyd Wright’s long career. I have driven through the area and seen several Wright buildings from the outside.

II: “Unity Temple” (For the Worship of God, and the Service of Man)

Wright was commissioned to design a new Unitarian church in Oak Park. The building still stands and has an active congregation. I have not visited the sight. I have seen extensive photographs and film.

III: “Taliesin” (Shining Brow)

Wright’s home in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Again, I have only seen film and photos.

IV: “Textile Blocks” (SoCal, SciFi)

There are a few of these homes that look like they’re from a science fiction film. Actually, the Ennis House in Los Angeles has been used in TV and film productions, or has inspired set designers. I have seen some of the Textile Block homes from the street.

V: “Fallingwater” (The Music of the Stream)

The most famous private home in North America. I took a private tour of the home (led) by the Fallingwater director.

VI: “Johnson Wax” (Toadstools and Typewriters)

An office complex in Racine, Wisconsin. I have only viewed stills and film.

VII: “Usonian Home” 

This piece is inspired by Mr. Wright’s Usonian houses. I have visited several — some designed by Mr. Wright and others by his associates, like David Henken, who also designed Rudy Van Gelder’s recording studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. That studio is the most legendary in the world of jazz, and is a true Usonian space. When you hear recordings made in that studio, you actually hear the sound of the room.

VIII: “The Guggenheim” (Prelude & Blues on Fifth)

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan is Mr. Wright’s last project to be completed within his lifetime. I have been there several times over the years.

Question: What does Usonian mean and what’s the origin of the word?

Farber: USONIA literally means “United States of North America.” Not quite a proper acronym because of the “i” stuck in there to, I suppose, make it sound like a word. Usonia also happens to be the word for “United States of America” in the language Esperanto. Some believe it to be arrogant for the people of the U.S.A. to call their nation “America,” as there are many nations in the Americas.

Question: How does your new work fit into the theme of the larger program, which includes music by Jelly Roll Morton, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and George Russell?

Farber: Who knows? I mean Morton, Monk, Mingus and Russell were all modernists in their day. My music is post-modern. I draw influence from the entire continuum of jazz, plus European classical music, Caribbean music and Brazilian music. Again, I could make a correlation between those composers and Mr. Wright as being pioneers in their respective disciplines.

Question: Vincent Gardner, a trombonist in the orchestra, is the music director for “Masters of Form.” Did you collaborate with him on the full program?

Farber: I have worked with Vince, on-and-off, for nearly 25 years. However, we had no collaboration leading up to this concert. He will lead and rehearse the orchestra for the first half of the program, and I’ll rehearse and conduct “Usonian Structures.”

Question: You were born into a musical family. Your father was a jazz drummer. Your mother was an art teacher and amateur pianist. Did you want to play music from an early age, or did your parents nudge you into it? When and why did you decide the saxophone was your instrument of choice? What other instruments do you play?

Farber: Yes, my father had been a jazz drummer, but he also dabbled in saxophone, clarinet and flute. He kept his woodwinds at the house when I was small, and I always loved the sound of the saxophone best. My father’s brother, Mitchell Farber, had been a saxophone player, too, but began to concentrate on composition just before I was born. The great jazz trumpet player Donald Byrd had recorded some of Uncle Mitch’s music in the late ’60s, so those records were frequently played in my house. By the age of 4, I could sing all of the improvised solos from the Donald Byrd album “Blackjack.” Anyway, I always wanted to play saxophone, but my dad made me start on clarinet. My mother’s family wanted me to play classical music, so I studied the oboe in junior high and high school. We have a few musicians on her side of the family, with a cousin who played in the Juilliard String Quartet for nearly 50 years. Oh, and I play soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones; clarinet, flute, pretty good piano (for a non-pianist); and I am semi-competent with the bass and drums. I haven’t touched an oboe in years, and I have an EWI (electronic wind instrument) that I occasionally use for TV commercials or film cues.

Question: You’ve performed with a lot of A-list jazz musicians. You also lead an octet and a big band. What do you get from being a leader compared to being in someone else’s ensemble?

Farber: As a leader, I can perform my original compositions and form a band around players who have a similar sense of musical aesthetics. As a sideman, my job is to play my part and support the leader’s vision, which I enjoy doing, too.

Question: Besides creating music for jazz ensembles, what other sorts of compositions do you write?

Farber: I would like to compose more “classical” music, but I don’t get the opportunity very much. I have written symphonic music for TV and film. Many TV commercials, in different styles of music and with various-sized ensembles. In film, I have scored a feature, a documentary, some episodic TV and internet series — and many orchestrations for other composers.

Question: In addition to the rest of your eclectic career as composer/arranger/musician, you also teach jazz composition at Juilliard. What have you learned about the future of jazz from the young people with whom you work?

Farber: The quality of student that we see at Juilliard is on the highest levels of skill, talent and drive. I couldn’t tell you what the future holds, but I do know that there will always be swinging musicians who can play the blues. I don’t know how the next generation of jazz musicians will be able to monetize their gifts. Without support for the arts, we are in danger of losing our culture. I could go on in greater detail, but I will require a drink.

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Last Updated March 26, 2020