Kenneth Frazelle

Composer Bio

The career of composer and native North Carolinian Kenneth Frazelle shows the constant flow of a curious mind at work. His aesthetic inquiry has led to a rich and varied body of work encompassing the complex and non-tonal approach of his earliest creations, multi-disciplinary events, contemporary use of folk materials, and an idiosyncratic perspective on the classical forms of the past. These works have been commissioned by such notable performers as Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw and Paula Robison. Frazelle has been honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and he is the winner of the 2001 Barlow Prize.

Frazelle’s creative path began in the South. His ancestors were North Carolina farmers as far back as the late seventeenth century. However, his parents joined the throngs of 1950’s Americans who settled into suburban living. Music was part of his early life. “My dad had a great ear,” Frazelle has said. “He could pick up an instrument, like a harmonica or a toy piano, and pick out tunes.” Although his father died when Frazelle was only six years old, the son has vivid memories of a musical guessing game he and his father used to play.

His mother placed young Kenneth in piano lessons at the age of nine. His teacher, Mrs. Gladys Sylvester, lived in a small town not far from the lands of his farming ancestors, yet “she really knew the piano and had very good training herself. She started me on Czerny and Chopin etudes.” Frazelle’s curiosity in the music he was playing led to the discovery of a treasure trove of LPs at the local library, immersing him in the sounds of European classical music. “I started checking out Stravinsky conducting his own music, Bartok, Varese, just anything I could get hold of. I really got into classical music through the piano.”

As his piano studies progressed and his knowledge of music increased, Frazelle became motivated to compose music of his own. After a laborious attempt at writing incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the eighth grade, he became enamored with composing. Because Mrs. Sylvester did not have experience with composition, she suggested that Frazelle apply to the recently formed North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem to pursue his interests further. According to Frazelle, “That was a real turning point: to have a teacher who knew her limits, but could really whip me into shape to be able to go to this school.” He was accepted to NCSA in 1971, entering as a sophomore piano student at age 15 and switching to composition the next year. The school not only offered a stellar musical training, but also collegiality with young artists studying other media, such as dance and visual art. Frazelle s advancement at NCSA led to auditioning and subsequent acceptance to the Juilliard School in New York City in 1974.

Frazelle still considers his composition studies with Roger Sessions to be a high point of his musical life. “That was a really remarkable experience. Just spending an hour a week with Sessions was enough. It was quiet, yet intense and nurturing.” Frazelle also thrived on the artistic scene in New York during a golden age of cross-disciplinary activity. His interest in other media led him to SoHo art galleries and alternative space performances, experiences that inform his compositional aesthetic to this day.

Juilliard, however, was not altogether agreeable to the young composer. The competitive atmosphere for which the school is infamous was repugnant to him. Once he completed a bachelor’s degree at Juilliard in 1978, he felt the need to leave New York. “I had been studying formally for seven years. There was no doubt in my mind that pursuing the career track toward academia was not for me. I didn’t really have a clear vision of what I did want to do other than to write music and get out into the world. “Around this time, a friend in Winston-Salem mentioned a position at a private piano studio in town, and he immediately took it. The grind of teaching six days a week, seven to eight hours a day, had an adverse affect on his composing initially, but he soon adjusted and began in earnest a professional life as a composer.

During his time in school, Frazelle had fully absorbed the style of composing taught by Juilliard faculty members Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and Elliot Carter: dense, rhythmic and thematic materials in a decidedly non-tonal harmonic language. The music he wrote upon his return to North Carolina reflected that, with complex and intricate scores written for piano. He had an ardent supporter in NCSA piano faculty member Clifton Matthews, who had been his teacher while in high school. In fact, their relationship became one of direct colleagues as Frazelle was hired to teach part-time at his alma mater, a position he has maintained and expanded to this day.

Other early Winston-Salem works include the composer’s first forays into multi-media projects for the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. Frazelle describes these works: “In one, a piece for singer and chamber ensemble involving a lot of sea imagery, the audience was seated in a golden spiral or nautilus formation around the musicians. Another piece included large-scale projected lighting designs with instrumentalists scattered among the audience members in the gallery space.” Regarding the complex style of these works, the composer says, “It’s amazing to look at those scores: amazing first of all that I wrote them, but secondly that I was able to get as many as eighteen local instrumentalists to pull them off. It was exciting really.”

A decade later, he continued his multi-disciplinary activity in a collaboration with acclaimed choreographer Bill T. Jones. Frazelle’s music for Still/Here (1995), a movement and sound piece that deals with strategies for coping with and surviving serious illness, received international acclaim.

The first of Frazelle’s works to receive interest outside North Carolina was a song cycle entitled Worldly Hopes (1987), which uses poems by A.R. Ammons, whose words he has set throughout his career. He sent the piece to the duo of mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and pianist Gilbert Kalish, and they agreed to perform it. In the course of rehearsals, the world-renowned performers made a suggestion to the still-young composer. In Frazelle’s words, “They said it was the most difficult thing they had ever done, and that there are only three or four people in the world who would be able to perform it. They said, ‘We’re not suggesting that you change anything, you just need to be aware of a limitation you’re putting on your music by its complexity.'” He reacted to their words positively: “I was ready to take that when they said it, because my ear was already moving toward some pieces that were more notationally direct.”

The first piece to explore this newfound “simplicity” is his work for piano titled Blue Ridge Airs I (1988), premiered at the Spoleto Festival by a musician who has been one of Frazelle’s greatest champions, pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane. While still dealing with non-tonal elements, this pivotal work is also the composer’s first foray into the folk music of his homeland, which he was to investigate further in pieces such as Fiddler’s Galaxy (1990), for violin and piano, and Blue Ridge Airs II (2001) for flute and piano (originally for flute and orchestra, 1991), written for flutist Paula Robison.

Another work dealing with folk materials, Appalachian Songbook (1989-2000) for voice and piano, includes tunes that Frazelle’s grandmother and great uncle remembered from their childhoods. Equipping them with a tape recorder, he asked them to sing any old tunes that came to them. “They said they didn’t know any old songs, but I didn’t believe them. A couple of weeks later, they sent back over two hundred! They were very competitive, shouting out ‘No! It goes this way!’ and grabbing the mic from each other. Some were children’s songs that everyone knows, but there were some real gems.”

His interest in traditional music informed the melodic and harmonic language of other well-received works during the same years, including Sonata for Cello and Piano (1989), written for Yo-Yo Ma and Jeffrey Kahane; Sunday at McDonald’s (1993) commissioned by Dawn Upshaw and performed at her Carnegie Hall debut; Quintet for Flute, Guitar, and String Trio (1996), presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and performed by Ransom Wilson and Manuel Barrueco; The Motion of Stone (1998), for chorus and chamber orchestra, commissioned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; and From the Air (2000), for the Santa Rosa Symphony.

In recent compositions, Frazelle is looking at classical forms, such as the sonata, through the contemporary lens of his musical aesthetic. “To me, classical forms are very much alive, because people are writing for them.” Along with many songs, an important vehicle in his oeuvre, several pieces are for larger, orchestral forces including Laconic Variations (1997), written for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra while composer-in-residence, and Concerto for Chamber Orchestra (2002), commissioned by a consortium of ensembles including the L.A. and Nashville chamber orchestras and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Of the Concerto, The Boston Globe wrote, “Frazelle’s piece mingles academic composition with bits of twist and shout, barrel house piano and boombox favorites….The work won the favor of the audience.” The Los Angeles Times said, “it may be music for these fragile, hopeful times.” Frazelle is planning to tackle another major forum for the orchestra in the near future, that of the piano concerto. The work will be premiered by three American piano virtuosi, Jeffrey Kahane, Christopher O’Reilly, and William Wolfram. This project is currently moving into the development of a commission consortium.

Also upcoming, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company celebrates its twentieth anniversary during the 2003-04 season, during which time Still/Here will be revisited. Frazelle’s original songs will be arranged, or “remixed,” by New York City composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and sung by jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson.