In this edition of “Composer’s Corner,” we’re highlighting Kenneth Frazelle — composer and pianist. The North Carolina-native’s large catalog ranges from solo piano works to choral music and songs, chamber music, orchestral works and concertos. Frazelle is also an artist specializing in watercolors! We checked-in with him to find out what he’s been doing during the Covid-19 era and talked about virtually collaborating with other artists, seeing and hearing his music set to choreography, along with his composing process and why “it’s very much like an athlete preparing for a marathon!”
S: How has the Covid pandemic impacted your work?
Frazelle: In two ways. Firstly, I’ve had a premiere that had to be rescheduled several times. Fortunately, this gave me a more spacious schedule to complete that work. Secondly, several commissions and residencies were canceled.
S: Have you been able to collaborate with other composers/artists during the lockdown?
Frazelle: Yes, I’ve collaborated with performers through Zoom. This has been a great resource in preparing new works. I’ve also had a couple of online premieres including a song cycle Through the Window, which explores aspects of my mother’s early life as a farm girl in eastern North Carolina. Additionally, our fine regional opera company, Piedmont Opera, premiered a hybrid vocal/dance theatre work, based on some of my Appalachian Songbook folk song settings. It was really exciting to collaborate on a work that was custom-made for video broadcast; it was an innovative way for the opera company to virtually present a fall season.
S: Is there any specific technology you used to continue working in a virtual world?
Frazelle: Zoom has been really helpful. It’s enabled me to engage with both private and classroom students. My technology skills are rudimentary, yet people have been really generous with helping me to set up things.
S: Your compositions have been commissioned from such noted performers as Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Paula Robison, and members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Do you feel extra pressure when writing for artists of such renown?
Frazelle: Writing for performers of great renown has been quite exciting, but I wouldn’t say it adds extra pressure. For every compositional opportunity, I strive to make things personal for whomever is performing, and draw upon their past performances and recordings. I even imagine that I’m in the audience, hearing and seeing specific performers on stage.
S: During the 2015-16 season, your solo piano work Wild Flowers was used by choreographer Brenda Daniels in her dance piece “April.” Did seeing your work performed with dancers change your perspective about it?
Frazelle: I wouldn’t say that my perspective on the piece changed, but that the piece was revisited with a fresh and perceptive set of ears and eyes. It’s as if combining the choreography with the preexistent music gave things a new life. Dance has a way of exploring and describing and interacting with music — it’s incredibly rewarding. I’ll also add that the set designs for Brenda Daniels’ “April” were actually based on my watercolors. It was quite shocking to see 9 X 12 inch watercolors expanded to a setting for a large stage!
S: Can you tell us a little about your composing process?
Frazelle: How a piece of music comes into being is a mysterious phenomenon. Usually something triggers an initial impulse. A rhythm, line, or shape may come to me; even a visual image. So I begin jotting down short ideas — no more than a few seconds each. Sometimes there might be dozens, even hundreds, of sketches. Then it’s as if I hit on one idea that announces itself to me (like a puppy saying “pick me, pick me!” at the animal shelter!). After I’ve committed to an idea, the real exploration begins. Ideas come easy; developing them is the real work. I usually begin composing at what is the actual beginning of the composition. On rare occasions, I’ve found that material needs to precede what I thought was the opening music. The scale of a work — its proposed length and how many musicians are involved — also affects my process. Committing to a large-scale work, you know you’re in it for the long haul, and need to pace yourself over possibly many months. It’s very much like an athlete preparing for a marathon!
S: In December 2014, Matthew Michael Brown premiered your work for organ, Aria (with Diversions), at his recital at Westminster Abbey in London. How did it feel knowing your music was being performed at this historic venue?
Frazelle: Being at that premiere, in Westminster Abbey, was a profound experience. The organist and I had the luxury of being in the Abbey several hours the evening before the premiere, just to ourselves. I paced around the whole Abbey, hearing my music in this hallowed place…literally in tears.
S: Of the many genres and instruments you compose for, do you have a favorite and why?
Frazelle: I love writing for just about everything: voice; chamber music; choral; solo piano, and orchestral music. I’ll mention that a few of my misfires happened because I was commissioned to write for a genre that I didn’t feel comfortable with — I knew in my bones that it wasn’t right. But, you learn!
S: Of your many popular works, do you have one piece that you are most proud of?
Frazelle: People often respond to “favorite works” questions with “how could I possibly choose between my children?!” I tend to agree. However, my pieces fall loosely into broad categories (Appalachian-influenced works, settings of A. R. Ammons, and pure concert music). So if I were pressed, I’d probably choose three “children.”
S: What would you say to other artists/musicians who crave ensemble work and want to continue performing as part of their mental health during this pandemic?
Frazelle: Two things. Firstly, continue to take advantage of technology resources (Zoom, recording apps, etc.) —they’ve been incredibly helpful. Secondly, be imaginative about creating safe in-person jam sessions or rehearsals or performances. I’ve enjoyed playing the piano (indoors of course) while a singer was on my front porch. The neighbors loved it! Staying connected through our beautiful art form will help us stay sane.