For one East Bay composer, its Bach to basics

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

In his newest piece, “Elohim,” composer Daniel David Feinsmith went back to the beginning. The very beginning.

“Elohim” (a Hebrew term for God) is divided into eight movements, each named for a verb mentioned in the opening passages of Genesis, e.g., God “placed,” God “hovered,” God “divided.”

The work receives its world premiere from the Feinsmith Quartet on opening night of the Other Minds Festival of New Music on Friday, Dec. 8 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Now in its 12th year, Other Minds is a showcase for new experimental music from around the world.

That spiritual foundation of “Elohim” is typical for the East Bay composer. Previous works have titles like “Solomon,” “Amalek,” “Yahweh” and “Baruch.”

Sounds like a trend.

“I’m trying to achieve a sense of closeness with God,” says Feinsmith. “That’s why I compose. It’s a spiritual practice in which I focus on God and on serving God.”

In that sense, Feinsmith follows in the tradition of composers like Bach and Beethoven, both of whom tapped into the realm of the spirit. Says Feinsmith, “When music reached its best meaning, it was in a religious form.”

But don’t expect any G-string airs or moonlight sonatas from Feinsmith. Though grounded in the classics, he is a thoroughly modern music maker. The Other Minds festival offers a forum for adventurous boundary-busters like him.

Why have his own quartet?

“For pieces like [‘Elohim’], there’s often just a premiere and it’s never played again,” he says. “That’s why I created this ensemble. You can control the way things are played.”

To that end, the Feinsmith Quartet has engagements booked through 2007. It’s the kind of “marketing” a modern composer needs to get the music before audiences.

In recent years, Feinsmith has received commissions from the Kronos Quartet, Berkeley Civic Arts Commission and the Jess Shensen Music Fund of Congregation Emanu-El, to name a few.

Considering he went into the family business, his success is no surprise. The New York-born Feinsmith comes from a long line of composers, artists and musicians. His mother was an oboist in major orchestras, while his bassoonist father composed many spiritually themed works, including pieces based on Isaiah, Noah and the Pirkei Avot.

Feinsmith went on to study with major composers like Terry Riley and John Corigliano, as well as with Indian master Ali Akbar Khan. Though he has experimented with Western and Eastern influences, today his aim is to expand serious Jewish music.

“There’s something missing in Jewish music,” he says. “I hear a lot of Jewish folk music, like klezmer, and while I love it, it’s not the tradition I come from, the classical tradition. The purpose of the [Quartet] is to commission, perform and record Jewish music unrelated to any folk and pop tradition, but which comes out of classical.”

Not every Feinsmith piece is written with his quartet in mind. “Messiah,” a new opus currently under construction, is scored for 26 instruments. It is the largest-scaled work of his career. Of course, with a title like that, Feinsmith may inspire more skeptics than hallelujah choruses. But he says his “Messiah” is nothing like the Handel oratorio.

“I believe in the Jewish Messiah,” he says. “Part of the reason I chose the name is I feel the messiah [concept] has been stolen in a sense. The Jews need to take it back.”

The one-time Zen monk still maintains a daily meditation practice, and careful listeners will detect a measure of meditative grace in Feinsmith’s work. What they may not detect is that the composer lives not in a tranquil locale like Mill Valley or Half Moon Bay. Rather, Feinsmith makes his home next to Ikea and the cineplexes of Emeryville.

Not that he doesn’t get the peace and quiet he needs to compose.

“The cool thing about Emeryville,” he says, “is that it has so much earthquake-proofing. I live in one of the quietest buildings around. I’ve never lived in a quieter place.”

The 12th Other Minds Festival of New Music runs from 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8, through Sunday, Dec. 10 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. Single-event tickets: $20-$30. Information: (415) 292-1233 or www.otherminds.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.