Ken Frazelle has a delightful tone of voice he uses from time to time, in asides – it’s a murmuring monotone, an understatement that signifies volumes.

That tone of voice came to me a few nights ago as we celebrated Ken’s 50th birthday with an evening of his music. It’s wonderful to hear a subtle tone of voice become a defining aspect of an artistic language. Ken has a knack for introducing ideas in the most unassuming ways – a note, repeated, blossoms into a brief, hesitant figure, which grows like a fruited vine spreading over an entire landscape.

This kind of genesis was in evidence throughout the evening – in the cello sonata he wrote for Yo Yo Ma, the enormous flute concerto he wrote for Paula Robison, excerpts from the Bill T. Jones dance piece Still/Here, and a new work Ken premiered at the piano: Inventions to Marden.

This was my first opportunity to hear the Still music of Still/Here, the multimedia work about terminal illness, much of it created by AIDS patients, which became notorious in the mid-90s when Arlene Croce, the dance critic for New Yorker magazine, wrote about her refusal to attend a performance, saying, “I can’t review someone I feel sorry for or hopeless about.”

The music, written for Odetta to sing with the Lark String Quartet and percussionist Bill Finizio, is certainly over the top. Which is to be expected – you can’t set lines like “Slash, poison or burn/Almost like burying a child/A part of me has died” with anything less than your most electrifying stuff.

By way of tribute to mark the occasion, Ken’s friends and admirers — who thronged Watson Hall beyond capacity, so that extra chairs had to be set up in the back — pitched in over $40,000 to create a Kenneth Frazelle Endowed Scholarship in Composition at the North Carolina School of the Arts. How magnificent that a little new music, like a murmured aside, can elicit a generosity of response that will benefit young composers for generations to come.

Leave a Reply