On Friday, I attended a composition seminar given by Kenneth Frazelle on his Sonata-Fantasy for piano, a work in progress. It was a fascinating ninety minutes. Ken is scheduled to premiere the piece on May 7 at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, which commissioned the work. At this point, with just two months to go, he is maybe 70-80% of the way through the first movement, and the second movement is complete. Once he finishes the first movement, he will assess his options and dive into the third.
So this seminar was a rare look inside another composer’s creative process, as the process unfolds. Ken played the portions of the piece that he has completed so far, and shared how he got where he is, and where he hopes to go with the remainder. He fielded questions from the 25 or so people in attendance, about a third of them composers.
I’ve known Ken for almost twenty years, and in that time, my appreciation for his work has steadily grown. It is fair to say that the depth, craftsmanship and meaning of his work have also grown over that time span. Listening to him play his music is like no other experience. Rhythms that may seem fussy and complex on the page sparkle to life in his hands, with a precision that paradoxically contains boundless freedom. The harmonic language is often panmodal, but with none of the fuzziness that designation can sometimes imply: the harmonic density is always carefully calibrated, and the harmonic rhythm ranges from mercurial to infinitely spacious.
Even at this early stage, the first movement is shaping up to be a spectacular, monumental work. It opens with a series of unpredictable runs and surges that set the stage for the wide-ranging Allegro ritmico to follow. Themes are introduced and evolve in mind-bending directions. Ruminative passages suddenly morph into virtuosic explosions. Ken’s performance trailed off at the point where he said some kind of return of the opening was imminent, although he was reluctant to call it a recapitulation.
That reluctance, by the way, is pretty typical of how many composers approach creating a new work: from the inside, the creative process is one of discovery, rather than simply connecting the dots. Will the piece have a true recapitulation? It’s not out of the question. Nor is it a prerequisite for a satisfying conclusion. At this point, it is up to the composer to listen to the logic of the piece, and allow it to find its own symmetries.
As discursive as the first movement is, the second movement is thoroughly concise, but in a truly fantastical way. A series of ten miniatures, the second movement bears, even more than the first, the influence of Schumann — not in terms of language, but in spirit. Each miniature is a character piece evoking a wildflower Ken has found on his land, some of them fairly common, but many of them rarities, like the Slender Ladies Tresses (actually a kind of orchid) or the Birdfoot Violet. Many of these wildflowers are so tiny, their details are barely discernable to the human eye.
Again, the music in these minatures is tremendously focused, from the dark, brooding harmonies of Indian Pipes to the spiraling quintuple rhythms of Fire Pink. Some of them last for just a few measures, while others, like the Flame Azalea tango and the cartoonish boogie-woogie of the Viper’s Bugloss, are fairly extensive. But despite the variety, Ken’s compositional voice is evident throughout. I think I would recognize his piano writing almost instantly if I came upon it unawares, which is a compliment, not a limitation — he doesn’t repeat himself, but there are textures and harmonic motions that clearly carry his signature.
The yet-to-be-written third movement, according to the composer, may take any one of a few directions. Finding just the right complement for what comes before will be a challenge. I will certainly be in the audience on May 7 to hear the outcome.
So there you have it, a preview of a coming attraction. This is the point where I should say that this work is surely destined to become a cornerstone of early 21st-century piano repertoire, but I am too wary of the range of marketing obstacles that stand between outstanding music and widespread dissemination. I will put it this way: if this piece does not become a cornerstone of early 21st century piano repertoire, it certainly won’t be because of any shortcomings in the music. It’s absence would be our loss.