By Cy Gilman
Before meeting me at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on a balmy autumn afternoon last month, Forrest Eimold, CC ’22, was rehearsing the Fauré requiem, sight-reading directly from the piece’s orchestral score. I spent the first couple minutes of our conversation wide-eyed at the sheer ability required for such an undertaking. In response, my subject, an already renowned keyboardist and composer, simply smiled, said a few words about the project’s connections to other interests in sound design and composition, and minimized the accomplishment. This score had only a dozen or so lines to read at once, Eimold reminded me—mere child’s play, compared to those pesky late Romantic pieces with upwards of twenty! To truly emulate the sound of a full orchestra on one’s own, Eimold pointed out—to reconstruct the variable timbres of different instrumental parts fused and overlaid in an ensemble—it would be easier to read all of these lines at once than to extrapolate from a two-staff piano reduction.
Since Eimold and I met on a campus tour the spring before our first year, much of our interaction has resembled the scene I just described. I express my astonishment at Eimold’s prodigious and diverse musical abilities; Eimold deflects my praise and engages me, instead, in a conversation about musical history, the connections between various artistic pursuits, the creative process of composition, et cetera.
I’m far from alone in my bewilderment at Eimold’s talent. Years before we met, I remember overhearing whispers amongst the older students at music camp about a Boston phenom who had performed all 100 minutes of Olivier Messiaen’s Livre du Saint-Sacrement at 13 and learned his complete postwar oeuvre for organ in the three years that followed. For those unfamiliar with 20th-century French organ repertoire: This amounts to a combined five hours of music—all performed before Eimold had graduated high school.
Mentions in the New York Times and Washington Post followed, including praise for a performance of the organ part in what the Times called “the best Messiah in New York.” English composer Michael Finnissy, a major figure in the “new complexity” school of composition, called the young composer a “major musical genius.” To indulge in some name-dropping, Eimold’s resume is a who’s who of the contemporary music scene in New York and London: Composition tutelage from Finnissy, Robert Beaser, and Georg Friedrich Haas; piano instruction from Thomas Adès; original compositions performed by the Fonema Consort, the Mivos Quartet, the Wet Ink Ensemble, and others; an appointment as a music scholar (for piano, organ, and composition) at Trinity Church Wall Street. “To pay the bills,” Eimold plays piano accompaniment for Juilliard students’ solo performances—often sight-reading directly from an orchestral score.
But Eimold is probably right to shift my focus from accomplishments to ideas: People in the classical music world so tend to fixate on “prodigies” that one becomes desensitized to hyperbolic claims of precocious ability or superhuman mastery. But a prodigy whose teeth have been cut on the French avant-garde, who takes as much inspiration from Jasbir Puar and Stan Brakhage as from Schumann and Schoenberg, is certainly rare. The longer our conversations last, the more it becomes clear to me that Eimold is, in fact, less a musician than a theorist whose medium of choice is sound—a musical triple threat (organ, piano, composition) whose artistic, philosophical, and personal influences run the gamut from the Holy Trinity to the Third Wave.
Eimold began playing piano on a $20 Casio sampler from a local flea market before upgrading—first to a full electric keyboard, then to a century-old Baldwin upright with broken keys, gifted by a relative, a couple of years later. At 10 years old, Eimold enrolled in an all-boys Catholic school, propelled by a desire to learn to play the school’s organ. During these years, the young keyboardist spent hours of after-school free time playing on the school’s organ and grand pianos, in the absence of equivalents at home. It was also in these years that Eimold was evangelized, to the point of taking private “religion lessons” with the school’s religion teacher. It was to this teacher that Eimold came out as queer, and it was this teacher that subsequently administered the newly devout Catholic “a sort of conversion therapy.”
“I don’t mean conversion therapy in the sense of being taken to a licensed psychologist,” Eimold explained, “but it really was a sense of regularly meeting one on one with a person who was trying to get you to adjust your mindset and lifestyle.” Many inspirations for Eimold’s current artistic life—the disembodied act of organ-playing, Wittgenstein’s attempts to “work with material in order to point beyond it,” Michael Finnissy’s interrogation of Thatcher-era homophobia in English Country Tunes—began as the material through which the teenage musician responded to this experience: They “helped me come to terms with myself and the world,” Eimold explained. More recent attempts to dissolve the “conversion-therapy mindset” have come, in part, through compositions that interrogate the authorial and authoritarian relationship between composer and performer, and expose the labor element of instrumental performance.
The strange bedfellows of Catholicism and queerness, in fraught and tenuous combination, linger throughout Eimold’s musico-theoretical work. There are the figures of the Angel (Eimold here cited Agamben and the vocal qualities of Madonna—the singer, not the virgin) and the diva (Eimold quoted Oscar Wilde—probably—on the “flamboyance of the Catholic mass”). Trinities are everywhere: the triple identity of organist, pianist, and composer; the “tension between my conservatory upbringing and my sacred music upbringing and my nonmusical working-class background”; the list of three founding artistic principles, and the sketch mapping “subject, object, and rule-of-law” in a triangular diagram, both on a document entitled “artistic miscellany,” which Eimold casually sent me after the fact.
This recurrence is not an accident: Eimold, through composition, wants to “see the sort of political processes that I feel like I underwent in Catholic school, sounded, and thereby undone.” Eimold listed Madonna’s Ray of Light and SOPHIE’s PRODUCT—a record that forces pop to “dissolve from its internal contradictions”—as inspirations. “Full Fathom Two,” one of Eimold’s recent compositions, presents two electric violinists with ranges of pitches, rather than individual notes, so they must “see the notation anew.” If reading from a score enacts the written authority of the composer, Eimold’s prescribed pantomime “sounds” compositional power. In ceding the choice of the note to the player, whose performance mimics deference to an unknown melodist, Eimold’s music undoes the act of composition itself. It “points to the dismantling (unbinding) of the relationship between subject, object, and rule-of-law.”
Ultimately, Eimold rejects religious dogma through an overarching embrace of hybridity. Just as “Full Fathom Two” catches its performers in the liminal space between reading and improvisation, Eimold’s habit of transcribing orchestral scores by sight combines live composition and structured performance. And in our conversations, music emerges almost exclusively in terms borrowed from elsewhere: from philosophy, visual art, sculpture, experimental film, and architecture.
Composition is, after Paul Klee, “taking a line for a walk”; transcription is “all infrastructure”; playing piano, following Walter Benjamin, asks the question, “How do you want to be murdered?” Even on a topic as (relatively) mundane as the Columbia-Juilliard dual program, Eimold startled me with insight: “I’m a person who, for better or for worse, likes having multiple forms of structure to negotiate between. … When I call an image of that program into my mind, I don’t think about either school, but I think about the 1 train between them. A version of myself that’s perpetually in transit is something I’m very much attracted to.”
Eimold now identifies as agender—hence the absence of pronouns in this profile. Being someone “perpetually in transit” thus indicates both artistic and (a)gender identity. Both iterations—the “kind of transness between musical and artistic works,” and the kind that subverts binary pronouns—conjure a state of hybridity that ultimately undoes an authoritarian religious project. “Transness is taking control,” Eimold told me, quoting SOPHIE. “I say this as someone who recently discovered that they’re transgender. But I also think it’s true in a larger sense.” SOPHIE, Eimold explained, “doesn’t require people to identify as transgender in order to be embedded and enacting this sort of transness that we’re talking about… Something about transness contains—” Here the composer stopped to think, smiled, and returned to Wittgenstein: “Something about transness dissolves the riddle.”