Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Music feature: Composer Frazelle finds inspiration in South, nature

Composer Kenneth Frazelle.


By Greg Stepanich

Even though his art has gone in a very different direction, Kenneth Frazelle will even now defend the severe modernist composers who used to dominate the world of classical music, including his own teacher at the Juilliard School, Roger Sessions.

“He did not want you to write the way he did, he wanted you to write what you wanted,” said Frazelle, who added that Sessions often wouldn’t say anything for half an hour as he studied a student’s score in a weekly lesson. “He would never suggest a solution, but he would point out things that lacked integrity or continuity. He tried to get you to write what you heard.”

Studying with Sessions was “one of the great experiences of my life,” he said, though ultimately Frazelle would find a more accessible language than that of the generation that trained him.

“I wanted to write for a bigger audience than 10 or 12 guys in black turtlenecks,” he said.

This week, Frazelle comes to the Lynn University Conservatory of Music for its Fourth Annual New Music Festival as its composer-in-residence. On Thursday, the Boca Raton school will host the world premiere of a piece Frazelle composed just for the festival: Gee’s Bend Scenes, for trumpet, piano and marimba. The four-movement chamber work was inspired by the work of the quilters of Gee’s Bend in rural southwest Alabama.

Now 54, Frazelle is an adjunct instructor at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where he attended high school, and where one of his pupils, years later, was pianist Lisa Leonard, who founded and now runs the Lynn New Music Festival.

“It pays to be nice to your students,” said Frazelle, who has kept in touch with Leonard over the years. “She was a real fireball.”

Frazelle hails from a North Carolina tobacco-farming family, and much of his music reflects regional and nature themes: Blue Ridge Airs, Appalachian Songbook, The Swans at Pungo Lake, Shivaree. He also has written numerous absolute works, including individual sonatas for cello, harpsichord and oboe, string and piano trios, a chamber orchestra concerto, a quintet for flute, guitar and string trio, and solo piano pieces.

A scene from the ballet Still/Here.
(Photo by Beatriz Schiller)


One of his best-known works is Still/Here, a ballet score for choreographer Bill T. Jones, and his oeuvre also includes much vocal music, such as solo settings of Shakespeare sonnets and poems by the North Carolina-born poet A.R. Ammons (Worldly Hopes, Sunday at McDonald’s).

Figuratively going home to find his aesthetic came about gradually, and Frazelle said he doesn’t remember quite when it happened for him.

“I do remember just connecting to a kind of music that felt timeless in a way to me, that felt archetypal and very universal,” he said. “It was a wide sound world that had a certain kind of modal music that I was very interested in.”

One of his evocative scores is called Vanishing Birds, a four-song cycle from 2007 for soprano and piano that laments the extinction of the Carolina parakeet, the precarious status of the piping plover and red-cockaded woodpecker, and draws disdain on the destruction of a pine forest.

All of this ties him to some venerable strains in American artistic thought.

“I’m not a religious person in any conventional way,” he said. “I admire Walt Whitman, the Transcendentalists, A.R. Ammons, people that see spiritual things in what’s around us and in human relationships.”

Frazelle, who was born in Jacksonville, N.C., said his father, and accountant and teacher who died when the future composer was 6, “had an innate musical ability. He sang very well,” he said. By the time Frazelle was taking piano lessons in the second or third grade, “it was pretty clear what my calling was.”

Frazelle credits his mother with supporting not just his musical pursuits, but the artistic ambitions of his sister, who studied dance, and his brother, how became a painter. “She always believed in us, and got us incredible training,” he said. “I’m profoundly grateful.”

After high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Frazelle pursued further studies at the Juilliard School, where he worked with Sessions and followed a modernist path into the 1980s. It was in 1985 that the noted mezzo-soprano and contemporary music specialist Jan DeGaetani, who was premiering a new work of his, told Frazelle she was concerned about the difficulty of the piece.

“She told me there were maybe three or four people who will be able to do this; that’s how difficult what I was writing was,” he said. “Now when someone of that stature confronts you, it’s definitely worth thinking about.”

“There was some very good timing there,” he said, because DeGaetani’s misgivings came at the same time that “my ear was opening up.”

Fiddler's Galaxy, featured on this album by
violinist Sarah Johnson,
is one of Frazelle's most popular pieces.


Frazelle has been much honored in his career, receiving a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Barlow Prize, and commissions from groups such as the Phoenix Symphony, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Nashville Chamber Orchestra.

Inspiration comes not just from outside sources such as birds and quilters, but straightforward musical ideas as well.

“Often something visual will trigger a motif, a three- or four-note cell. Sometimes I’ll just hear a rhythmic fragment,” he said. “I do a lot of watercolors in the summer, and sometimes that will lead to some musical idea when I’m not thinking about it. I’m a big believer in sketchbooks and jotting things down.”

His composing process remains largely intuitive, he said. “I don’t make a lot of graphs or charts. It’s through-composed rather than being formally organized in advance.”

And although he did buy the Sibelius software notation program for his computer – “I think I learned how to do ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ in C major” – he prefers to write things out by hand.

In May, Frazelle will see the premiere of a new song cycle – Songs in a Rearview Mirror – at the Kennedy Center for the tenor Anthony Dean Griffey. Like the Gee’s Bend trio, it looks to Alabama for its inspiration, in particular Hale County, and the celebrated work of Walker Evans and James Agee, the photographer and writer who visited the area in 1936. Frazelle wrote the texts himself, also drawing on the work of photographer William Christenberry.

In the meantime, there’s the teaching, and Frazelle said he often looks to Sessions’ example when working with his students today.

“I think about it a lot. So much of good teaching is knowing when to keep your mouth shut,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to lay back and let people work themselves out of a certain problem.”

Excerpts from a number of the composer’s pieces can be found by going to www.kennethfrazelle.com/compositions.html.

The festival

The Lynn New Music Festival, which opened Sunday with a faculty concert, continues tonight with a concert of music by young composers, including the winning work from the 2010 Florida State Music Teachers Association high school composer’s contest.

On Wednesday night, Frazelle will lead the discussion at the Contemporary Music Forum, an event that combines commentary with performances of contemporary music. And on Thursday night, Frazelle’s new Gee’s Bend Scenes will take pride of place on a concert devoted to his music. Other works will include his String Trio, Piano Trio, Lullabies and Birdsongs for solo piano, Elegy for Strings (string quintet), A Green View (for cello and piano), From the Air (chamber orchestra) and Fiddler’s Galaxy (violin and piano).

All events begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Amarnick-Goldstein Concert Hall on the Lynn campus, and all are free of charge.

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