Okay, I stand corrected. Most of us have never heard such a piece. But I have, as of last Friday, when I attended a Composition Seminar given by Kenneth Frazelle. The subject was Songs in the Rearview Mirror, a piece that exists in both of these versions. The one for Appalachian singer was written for Laurelyn Dossett; the tenor version was written for Anthony Dean Griffey. Ms. Dossett is a founding member of the Polecats, featured on Prairie Home Companion. Mr. Griffey is best known for his searing portrayal of Peter Grimes at the Met and his premiere of Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire with San Francisco Opera.
The piece was commissioned by the Reynolda House Museum of American Art to celebrate a retrospective on photographer William Christenberry last spring. Christenberry has created a body of work featuring decaying buildings in Hale County, Alabama. Series of photographs spanning decades show these buildings in various stages of neglect, gradually turning inward on themselves.
To prepare for the piece, Frazelle took a road trip to Alabama with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – James Agee and Walker Evans’s book about Depression-era Hale County – as a companion. The journey, coupled with Christenberry’s photography and Agee’s prose, conjured up some ghosts from Frazelle’s childhood growing up in rural North Carolina. The result is a set of ten songs that jump from visions of decaying buildings to ruminations on poverty to harrowing accounts of child abuse.
By flickering back and forth in time, Frazelle, who wrote the texts himself, creates an artistic counterpart to experiencing life in the rear view mirror, vivid details flying past and scrutinized as they fade away.
This perspective suits itself perfectly to Frazelle’s approach to piano writing. He has an uncanny sensitivity to the resonance of the piano, the way overlapping decays caress one another, joining hands in their journey to oblivion.
The texts range from the cheerful doggerel of the fourth song, “Kudzu” to the scorching rawness of the eighth song “In the Night.” The music is at times elegiac, as in the country waltz that buoys “Green Warehouse,” or the ruminative sonorities behind “Unmarked Grave.” At other times, though, it evokes familiar idioms, through the prism of the aforementioned layers of decay.
Griffey has performed the piece at the Kennedy Center and has plans to sing it at various venues around the country over the course of this season. I’d love to hear his interpretation. Frazelle played us a recording of the premiere featuring Laurelyn Dossett, who has learned the entire 50-minute work by ear and performs it from memory – an extraordinary feat. Her delicate, vulnerable performance, given shape by a folk singer’s raw vocalizing and expertise with the intimacy of a microphone, is a very special experience.