New music based on my poetry at INTIME festival in Coventry

Brian’s poetry to music by composer Harry Whalley and performed at INTIME Symposium in Coventry!

I love how he set the text.  Check it out!

Gods and Designers (2014) c.6′

Sop, Vc.

A setting of the poem ‘Gods and Designers’ by Brian Felsen, first performed by Peyee Chen and Anna Menzies at the INTIME conference, October 2014 in Coventry.


The Court Gossip – 5. Clamoring For Clout (Text and Scores)

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5. Clamoring For Clout

He’s a much cleverer philosopher than I am.
He’s more famous than I am.
We’re all clamoring for clout.
Neither of us wants to be left out.

Think of this dissociation.
Failures in collaboration.

Suddenly, a famine strikes!
Gives a new throw of the dice.

How can science intervene
if nature’s found its golden mean?
Does that mistake cost you hard?
Which of these two things does that mis-snake bite?

But then –
It’s a mutation!

Unpredicted variation
Snowballing acceleration
Will this new line live or die out?
Will this rhythm/rhyme jibe with the last one?
Now we’re subject to spectrums of sensations like pain
He will rebel against me and I will complain!
     My idea is not the same.

(Don’t forget the atavism.
Or the lessons of positivism.)

You think our raw sensations, if they exist, leave naught behind
     So you say…
(Made me realize what was missing from his picture of the mind and mine…)
What concerns us isn’t just the stream of thought but also it’s the feeling…
     (…feeling of being a subject to this spectrum of sensation…)
How can a system take one step back so it can take steps forward?
A fixation! A fixation!
     A fixation at the best level throughout the population
Does this preceding sentence refer to that receding sentence?
     Do these preceding lieder refer to this receding…

How can falling back turn out to have been advantageous?
     Sometimes a mistake can later bring beneficial consequences…
     Are you writing about me?

The Court Gossip – 4. The Thick Moment (Text and Scores)

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4. The Thick Moment

This patient’s spinning stories in extended present tense,
testing a possibility of selfhood that makes sense.
My rivals claim that consciousness is a nonderivative
activity that’s metaphysically primitive.

I say that we should line up the concepts of mind and brain,
so that the terms on each side have a chance to be the –

He’s still searching, casting about.
His intuition is that I’m leaving something out.
No matter if it’s a contingent,
why is it that perception’s twinned –
The phenomenal experience of red?
The taste of cheese, the pain a-throbbin’ in my head?
What is this thing called sensation?

I know that it’s been shown to be iatrogenic,
but still her symptoms are certainly authentic!
And fill her needs
for boundaries…

In the background, there’s a struggle for supremacy, and then a snap! election
Long ago there were sensory responses organized around the simulation.
     now, sensory responses enclosed inside our brains.
I, for one, would rather hear your opposition than from those who haven’t understood me.
     I – just – wait – OK – then – I disagree.
Sensation, to what does it refer? It refers to itself as it recurs in…
     For planning, you needed to make representations –

Your sensations leave no traces…
Stretching the present brings feelings of resonance…
     Stretching the present feels…

Stretched present –
Thick moment
now contained
     -ject tive present
past and pres-
ent sustained.
     New domains for an intention
     give a feeling of resonance.
only comes
     Feedback noise decay –
at the

The Court Gossip – 3. Speaking for Our Selves (Text and Scores)

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3. Speaking For Our Selves

He thinks I leave out (That he omits) phenomena!
Does he overstate (anomalous) phenomena?

I look to the left
I step up to the mirror
I look to the right
Is something coming nearer
Is he down the hall, waiting
For me to leave the bathroom
Will he come to me later
As I make it down the hallway to my room?

What are the implications
Guess how old he is?
To this loose confederation
     Don’t want to burn your bridges!
But rather than a single source,
Her clusters of speech make better sense if you attribute to alters
Separated while
Both this paper’s co-authors seek a common style!

For one of us, without verification, it’s nothing.
(I wonder if he’s trapped by this approach.)
Did I mention how I got him his job cuz I think he’s a truly great romantic scientist!

He’s my friend, and I love to work with him
To zero in on the ramifications of this case –


Explanatory fictions without supervision our task is to make descriptions of others’ behavior
     Towel, screen, curtain, seem

Shared philosophies, we have twenty years’ history – who does he think he is to write it – loose cannon!

The feeling of red
     Steam rise!
The taste of the bread
The pain in my head
Continues on as if
It goes to the same
     Round again
From where it came
     Let me do it again
But now closed off in a loop inside of the brain.

Now, private
     Cream rises
It’s private
Just Quine it
     He redlined it
Tell what you think of it
What’s he intimating?
     Is he writing about me?
How to make your many projects cooperate?

The Court Gossip – 2. epi sodes (Text and Scores)

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2. epi sodes

Never have we encountered such a patient with so many different
epi-sodes / bind!
and gaps in

So how can I attribute her actions to one consistent person, when the facts reveal such
     to one, to one
How can she achieve in integrating all of her

     We’re / here!
Gears inside of gears
     My him she
     Gears beside of gears

I was a girl who kept a diary which she would then read to find that it was written in a
Stranger’s hand.
They couldn’t diagnose it
but she held out hope
     But I hoped
someone would come with a cure for the problem;
never knew what she had –

What are you suppressing?
Whom am I addressing?

Sandy’s coming to play.

Let me tell you a story of a friend who would come when nobody else could see –
a person supervisor protecting from what comes in when I was asleep.
A fracturing of identity –

What’s the center of her narrative gravity?
     Center off-center?
The center of narrative –

The Court Gossip – 1. The Origin of Selves (Text and Scores)

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1. The Origin of Selves

The tide rolls in
The tide rolls in
Crashes over memory shoals
My eyes eddy back, back, back

The room’s shrinking

Shadows of past debris floating up time’s sea
The clock, it has come round again
Round tick round tick
She-I steps off to the shadow side
Disassociates her-me from this

I just can’t
Round again
The past has
Round again round again round again
O my god




The Court Gossip: Synopsis

Dissociative identity disorder
Image via Wikipedia


  • The patient “Mary”
  • Her “alter” Sandy
  • The writers Daniel Dennett and Nicholas Humphrey, working on a paper about her
  • The composer Brian Felsen, writing a series of art songs about them.


I. The Origin of Selves

The music opens with a flashback to childhood trauma.  Daniel Dennett and Nicholas Humphrey replay the report of the MPD patient (Multiple Personality Disorder – now called DID, Dissociative Identity Disorder) “Mary” as she re-experiences past trauma.  Her “voices” blend in with the sound of her own memory washing in like the tide, punctuated by the sound of the clock in her bedroom.

II. epi sodes

This section deals with dissociation – in MPD/DID patients, “normal” individuals, and creative collaborators.  While the music mirrors the gaps, “episodes,” interjections, and discontinuities in the personality and style of the MPD/DID patient’s “alters,” the writers marvel at the radical disjunction of Mary’s personality traits.

“Mary” at first identifies herself in the first person (“I was a girl”) before switching to the third person in the same sentence (“which she would then read…”).  Dennett and Humphrey even begin to alternate addressing themselves in the first person singular and first person plural.  They compare her case with Dennett’s concept of a “normal” self as the “center of narrative gravity.”

The observers pry information out of the patient, claiming privileged knowledge about the patient (“…never knew what she had…”) and even encouraging the MPD/DID diagnosis (“What are you suppressing?”)  All the while, poor “Mary” still suffers from childhood sexual abuse, recalling how her father or “imaginary guardian” comes, either to protect or abuse her, as she lays in bed.

III. Speaking For Our Selves

Here, normal individuals are shown as being made up of partially disjointed “selves” which communicate and collaborate to form a whole.  Dennett and Humphrey sing about how their patient “Mary” compares with a normal, “multiplex” person whose “loose confederation of selves” have to work together on larger projects.  At the same time, as collaborators on the paper about “Mary,” they are experiencing the same thing: the problem of seeking a common writing style.

Dennett and Humphrey gossip about each other and their philosophies as their own concerns about each other surface.  Just like at the end of the song epi sodes, the composer wonders whom he’s addressing with this musical work and begins to worry about whether his making an artwork about the friendship will “burn his bridges” with the writer-philosophers.

Not losing sight of the patient, the scene then cuts back to “Mary’s” feeling of being watched (which, in counterpoint, the writers indeed are doing) and her fears and memories (real or imagined) of her father lurking at night.

IV. The Thick Moment

In this section, Dennett and Humphrey elaborate on their theories of how consciousness evolved.  The writers sing of consciousness and sensation as being nonmysterious aspects of nature and biology, rather than as supernatural or as irreducible elements of the universe.  They expound upon terms of folk psychology to align the seemingly irreconcilable concepts of “mind” and “brain” and sing about how sensation and the feeling of subjective experience could have evolved (recalling Dennett’s Multiple Drafts Model of consciousness).

The music and lyrics then turn into a slow, surreal fugue, reflecting how the “thick moment” of the present contains the past and sensation.  In the interweaving of voices, the writers:

  • compare the stories of “Mary” with the way we spin our “selves” like a web
  • compare their theories of mind to those of their rivals
  • acknowledge that although the case of “Mary” may have been caused by the diagnosing doctor, her symptoms, for her, are real nonetheless; and
  • continue to gossip about each other’s ideas.

V. Clamoring For Clout

In the final part of the piece, failures of collaboration come to the fore.  The controversy over the validity of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) as a diagnosis threatens to overwhelm the ideas behind the paper itself.  The writers sing about failure – criticisms of positivism, failures in collaboration, and how genetic mistakes can turn out to bring beneficial consequences.

All the while, they jockey for celebrity and influence, compare each other’s fame, and poke holes in each other’s theories.  The composer imputes his anxiety about being “caught” making an artwork about the collaboration onto them, and he hears them as becoming angry or surprised that he’s writing about them.

At the very end, the piece begins to turn on itself in lines of self-reference.  The voices of the philosophers and composer have overwhelmed those of their subject “Mary,” whose “voices” are nowhere to be found.

Reviews of “View From the Strangers’ Gallery”


Bravo! I like your piece. It is fresh and different. You have your own voice…you employ a very original use of jazz, of dissonance. The work is very convincing and humorous. Looking forward to hearing it live…and more great music from both of us!” – Lukas Foss, legendary composer; Principal Conductor, Brooklyn Philharmonic, 1971-90; Music Director, Milwaukee Symphony, 1981-86; Conductor-Laureate, Milwaukee Symphony, 1986- present; guest conductor with many of the world’s leading orchestras including the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, and the Leningrad Symphony; Professor of Composition at Tanglewood; composer-in-residence at Harvard, the Manhattan School of Music, Carnegie Mellon University, Yale University, and presently, Boston University; currently Vice Chancellor of The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters

Brian Felsen’s ‘View From The Strangers Gallery’ is a most remarkable piece of art in progress — I say only ‘art’ because I’m reluctant to pin or reduce it to any given genre or medium, so far-reaching and flexible is its idiom. It is a stellar work and I’m very taken with it, both in its implicit aspirations and what’s already accomplished. Much like James Joyce instinctively reaching through linguistic art toward music and graphic art in his pursuit of a less exclusive portrayal of human consciousness, Felsen’s work has that omnivorous, inclusive, polyphonic texture which allies it with the modernist highway, still glimpsed now and again through the forest of postmodernist static. For me, a writer engaged with neurology as a metaphor for consciousness in fiction, this is vital and inspiring stuff.” – Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Novel of 1999

It is a most impressive work and your orchestration is especially fine. There are many terrific musical ideas here – I wish you much success with this work!” – Samuel Adler, author of The Study of Orchestration; composer of over 400 published works; conductor; Professor of Composition at the Juilliard School of Music

Well, I’ve listened to your CD twice…And it delighted me. I especially liked it on second hearing, picking up things I missed the first time. As a musical setting of the Multiple Drafts Model, it is insightful, amusing, full of deft touches, and more musical than I had expected. And the precision with which it was both conceived and executed was more than impressive…But seriously, you didn’t sing the soprano doing the delicious BEETHOVEN bit at the end, did you? (Your letter says you did, but that ain’t no falsetto)…Thanks for sending me your View from the Stranger’s Gallery. May it soon be given the performance it deserves!” – Daniel C. Dennett, author, Consciousness Explained, Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University

I am very excited about the piece: it has an immediate impact on a musical and human level. It is uncanny to have such an accurate, sympathetic and musical representation of what it is to be conscious! I am sure the piece will speak to people with such clarity and humanity that it will become an important part of the repertoire. I wish the piece every success, and would be delighted to have the opportunity to conduct it myself some time!” – David Murphy, Conductor, Sinfonia Verdi

What a feast of insight and creativity! Rich and fascinating…Congratulations on the good news about the reception to your piece – I’m delighted to hear it.” – Steven Pinker, author, How the Mind Works; Peter de Florez Professor, Dept. of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT

“Your piece is fascinating. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was amazed by your ability to perform it all…it is such a wild tapestry of small bits that still manage to cohere somehow (in a way that I can only sense, but not understand) and create a large-scale form, almost like a huge pile of legos that should topple over, one would think, but doesn’t. But I thoroughly enjoyed it all…I did particularly welcome the bits of extended lyricism and relief from extreme polyphony and diversity of materials when they occurred, and wondered if perhaps the very parts that came most easily to the composer were not some of my favorites. (A comment that gets sent my way all the time, much to my irritation!) All of the popular references are a delight. The piece, with all of its many voices, reminds me textually of the party scene in Les Noces…Congratulations on creating a fascinating piece of work!” – Allen Shawn, film, orchestra, ballet and opera composer; recipient of the Goddard Lieberson Fellowship for composers from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; Professor of Composition, Bennington College

Your piece is really interesting and I can’t wait to hear it performed! You explore a lot of different styles in the various sections and they all flow nicely from one section to the next, and at the same time, you managed to achieve a musical cohesiveness throughout the entire piece. Not an easy thing to do! There’s also a nice sense of balance on a number of levels from individual motives to larger structures (i.e. balance in the sense of the relationship between sections of music, not instrument volume). Frank Zappa said that one of the most difficult things to do in a composition was to achieve such balance. He equated it with the way Calder constructed his hanging mobiles–asymmetrical constructions which still maintain consistency and balance all the way from the individual elements to the entire sculpture as a whole. You did this nicely in ‘View…'” – Charles B. Kim, official composer for the Times Square 2000 New Year’s Eve Celebration (broadcast internationally on all TV networks); winner of the Otto Ortman, Frank D. Willis, and Randolph Rothschild Prizes in Composition

This piece rides the blurry line between pop and classical music perfectly. The polyphony is profound and deep. It has heart, soul, emotion, innocence, humor…A crazy collage of everything from Schoenberg to the Beatles – I’d love to hear it with Bobby McFerrin and Renee Fleming on vocals!…Above all it sounds like what consciousness feels like – it rings true.” – Martin Hennessy, composer, pianist, vocal coach; fmr. faculty member, Juilliard American Opera Center, Carlo Bergonzi’s Bel Canto Seminar and Joan Dornemann’s Opera Training Institute in North Carolina

I just finished listening to your CD with enjoyment, as well as awe for the many hours of work which it represents. I found your rhythms to be continually fascinating…the writing appeared to be natural and idiomatic for both voices and instruments. I was really taken with your idea of presenting a kind of realistic timeslice of consciousness…stunningly perceptive…a fascinating and impressive work, full of conviction and passion.” – Roy Whelden, writer, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Indiana Music Theory Review, and the Charles S. Peirce Society Transactions; Composer- in-Residence with American Baroque

“I think that Strangers’ Gallery goes very far in expressing a theory of the self and consciousness. The poetic elements rise to the immediate surface…the text has its own form, and that’s somewhat in the style of an epic poem, which has intimacy, because it’s dialogical between the reader and the author and between the authors and his characterizations. Hence, at one and the same time it reminds me of poetry in the patrimony of Plato–since it moves in the direction of a philosophical dialogue–and poetry in a mix of American traditions, namely the objective, yet intimate, reporting of Sandburg and the subjective experiences of internal and external events that Whitman offers…It’s as if the music sounds like the way William Calvin conceives the writing of consciousness as a construction paralleling evolutionary processions. Yet, there are structure/self dialectics in the text that reveal the internal as well as the external sources of the final causes of the self…” – Harwood Fisher, Professor Emeritus, City College of the City University of New York.

Captivating music, fabulous text, and original sonorities reminiscent of Henze…an extremely ambitious debut work that reminds me of Messaien’s Turangalila!” – Rudolph Palmer, Professor of Composition, Mannes School of Music

This work is musically very powerful and exciting. The structure is captivating – I’ve had an operetta based on my anti-nuclear writings years ago, but this is in a different league…extremely impressive!” – Nicholas Humphrey, professor of Philosophy at the London School of Economics; author, A History of the Mind and How to Solve the Mind-Body Problem

Felsen evokes Erik Satie, Kurt Weill, Frank Zappa and surrealist film director Luis Bunuel…and it works.” – Alternative Press magazine

I will definitely air this work if it is musically grabs me and is thematically very out-of-the-ordinary – fascinating stuff!” – Larry Nuckolls, Brave New Music, WMHT-FM, NY

Your oratorio impresses me as very creative and intriguing, musically as well as conceptually.” – George Graham, author, Philosophy of Mind: An Introduction; Professor of Philosophy & Professor of Psychology; Chair, Department of Philosophy; Associate Director Doctoral Program in Cognitive Science, University of Alabama at Birmingham

I like the way you use contrapuntal forms in “Strangers’ Gallery…most modern fugal composers make works that are dry, academic, and boring.” – Eric Altschuler, author (with Stephen Jay Gould), Bachanalia: The Essential Listener’s Guide to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier

I must congratulate you on your very interesting musical ideas. It is certainly novel to try and capture the conflicting elements in consciousness (and behind them the different views of personal identity) in music…you have produced something distinctly novel.” – Richard Swinburne, author, The Evolution of the Soul; co-author (with Sydney Shoemaker), Personal Identity; professor, Oxford University

The Court Gossip: Five Songs About Multiple Personality Disorder

The Court Gossip is a song cycle scored for two pop singers, string quartet, trombone, trumpet, flute, and piano.  Selections from the work were first presented at the ArtSci festival in NYC in 2001.

The fascinating history of the work:

In composing my “rock opera for orchestra” View From the Strangers’ Gallery, I collaborated with some of my favorite writers and philosophers, becoming close with two of them, Nicholas Humphrey and Daniel Dennett.  Dennett and Humphrey had worked together on a wonderful paper, “Speaking For Our Selves,” in 1989. This paper inspired many ideas important to cognitive science, including Dennett’s “Multiple Drafts Model” of consciousness; it explains how different parts of the brain assert more or less control at different times to work together on larger projects.  Although our impulses, routines, and personality traits combine to give the appearance that we have a coherent self, what we call our “self” is more of a “center of narrative gravity” than an actual physical part of the brain to which we make representations.

I found this paper to be the perfect springboard to compare collaboration among parts of ourselves with collaboration between friends and co-writers. Despite their differing ideas and writing styles, Dennett and Humphrey had written a delightful paper together. And – just like our own desires and neural functions usually help but occasionally subvert other related processes – as friends, the three of us were all talking about each other in generally very helpful and warm, but occasionally gossipy, ways.

I thought: Wouldn’t it be just smashing to write a piece of music comparing how these writers collaborate and gossip with their own paper about how our own brains do the same thing internally? And wouldn’t it be brilliant to add another dimension to the conversation by imposing myself in this manner, even perhaps including an idea of the philosopher David Chalmers (whose ideas are quite opposed to theirs) about the problem of giving a “first-person perspective” report on mental states? It seemed the perfect hall of mirrors.

So I went to Turkey once again to write a piece of music about the inner workings of the mind. This time, unlike with View From The Strangers’ Gallery, I scaled back my production requirements so it would be easier to perform. In this piece, I applied the musical language of popular song to fugal composition, which would make it more accessible than my Finnegan’s Wake-ish debut. I was extremely pleased with the results, and I was excited to fly back to America to triumphantly present Dennett and Humphrey with the piece.

There was just one problem.

Their paper had used the idea of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD; now called Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID) to buttress their argument.  And while the pieces’ composition was well under way, I discovered that MPD/DID largely had been discredited in the years since.  Some of the most celebrated case studies of MPD later had been proven to be “iatrogenic” – “illnesses” caused or invented by the doctor or treatment itself.  And the last thing Dennett and Humphrey wanted to do was to promote a musical work celebrating a paper which had referred in any way to MPD.

And so: I was left on my to promote it. It got accepted to the ArtSci festival in NYC, where we performed two of the work’s five sections, and it was warmly received. (One of my favorite writers, David Rosenthal, was there with his class and said to his students, “Now that, boys, is how it’s done!”) But that was it. And, after the conference, the work got filed with a K. Number and went on my shelf.

Musical techniques:

Like in my View From the Strangers’ Gallery, I used polyphony in new ways to illustrate the multi-layered complexity of the brain’s processing systems and recursive structures. The musical lines were shaped to illustrate Dennett’s “Cerebral Celebrity” amplification of his “Multiple Drafts Model” of consciousness, by altering which voices would “win out” in fugal competition to leave an effect on the musical development of the rest of the piece.

I also used some radical pointillistic orchestral techniques to convey the simultaneous and veiled competitions of parallel processing in conscious experience, and to make a brash analogy to the competitions of ideas, writing style, and fame which these two famous philosophers have with each other.