Talking Shop with Kenneth Frazelle



North Carolina composer Kenneth Frazelle
Photo courtesy Fine Arts Management

“I’m not the contest winning-type,” composer Ken Frazelle protests when I reach him at his home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to talk about his 2001 Barlow Prize. “The president of the Barlow Foundation called and I said, ‘You’re kidding,’ because I feel like something of an outsider. I’m not really in the thick of things in terms of all the competitions and commissions.”

Though he also recently picked up a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship, Frazelle says the phone call still felt a little surreal. “But without a doubt, it feels good to receive the recognition. And obviously financially these things are helpful because there are so few things out there for composers.”

This year, the $10,000 Barlow prize is commissioning a sacred song cycle to be premiered by Erie Mills. Likely due to Milton A. and Gloria Barlow (whose gift established the endowment in 1983) and Brigham Young University‘s affiliation with the Church of Latter-day Saints, there is a stipulation that the text for the cycle be derived from at least one of the world’s sacred religions. But this falls in line with a work Frazelle has been thinking about writing for some time. “I haven’t really done the research for it yet, but even before Sept. 11th, I thought of doing something, of calling text from different religions that basically spoke to some of the same issues of tolerance or world issues from different religious viewpoints. And it especially seems timely now to make a larger statement.”

He intends to draw from several sources: the Koran, the Bible, and possibly some Taoist or Buddhist texts. “About all I can say now is that it will be something about interconnectedness, certain spiritual aspects, and probably deal with tolerance.”

Though Frazelle has never worked with Mills before, he says he knows her voice and has heard her in performance several times—information he considers a definite bonus to have at the outset. “Just about every piece I write now is for a specific orchestra or performer or chamber group. The more specific it is the more well formed the piece is in my mind and in my ear. Knowing it’s for a specific date and a specific vocal type definitely limits, in the best way, how I conceive of something.”

Living and writing in North Carolina, Frazelle says at times he does feel isolated from the music community, but awards like these and his residencies with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Santa Rosa Symphony keep him from feeling like he’s been forgotten in the mountains. He makes about four trips a year out to the West Coast for education programs and pre-concert talks.

Frazelle also teaches part-time at his alma mater—the North Carolina School of the Arts. Though it felt strange to be walking the same halls again, he says that teaching there has turned out to be a completely different experience from his student days, “and frankly it’s the perfect balance for me. I’m not steeped in academia at all. I just get to teach these very creative people private composition lessons and counterpoint and orchestration. There’s a social element to it that I really like, that kind of breaks up my alone work because that can make you crazy if you’re not careful. It gets me out of the house two days a week.”

Teaching composition, Frazelle has found, is as difficult as it can be personally satisfying. “It’s a really hard thing to know exactly how to teach it. I teach how I was taught, which is basically a one-on-one response to whatever work the student is doing as it’s in progress. It’s a delicate thing to figure out how much to say and when to keep your mouth shut when someone is bringing in something that’s fresh. I get a lot out of it. It’s really helpful for me as a composer to have to articulate certain things that may not be verbalized if I wasn’t teaching.”

Living in North Carolina has had its own influence on Frazelle’s music. In the late 1980s, he became very intrigued with traditional southern and Appalachian vocal and instrumental music. Based on research and the songs sung and played by the older members of his own family, Frazelle began using quotations and building pieces around these themes. “I found that there were certain modal things and rhythmic things and harmonic things that I was wanting to do in my music anyway, but it kind of gave me a doorway into some sounds that I probably would not have allowed into my music coming out of a high-modernist tradition. I mean, I was at Juilliard in the mid-’70s with Sessions and Babbitt and Carter. It was definitely an aesthetic triumvirate.”

With a little space, however, Frazelle got out from under the weight of his education and found his true musical voice. “You never really know when you’re at school what your omitting from your own music that you might even want there. These people do have a lot of influence and I was very attracted to that era of American music. Later, I think the folk music thing enabled me to find my own voice a little more thoroughly. Both those traditions—the modernist classical tradition as well as the oral tradition—are very important to me. I’m not deliberately trying to synthesize them, but both elements seem to be intriguing to me.”

It’s a puzzle of personal expression that Frazelle continues to work through with each composition. “There’s something very compelling about it to me—to try to formulate something that seems almost infinitely problematic. It’s really the way that I think and express myself most clearly and it doesn’t seem to have a solution. There’s something compelling and infinite about it. From piece to piece, I keep working out this endless set of relationships in sound. It drives me crazy, but it’s also a source of great joy. It’s a wide range of fulfillment and challenge.”