Composer Kenneth Frazelle’s music has been commissioned and performed by numerous prominent artists, including Yo-Yo Ma, Jeffrey Kahane, Dawn Upshaw, Anthony Dean Griffey, Emmanuel Ax, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Ransom Wilson, Paula Robison, John Adams, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Jan DeGaetani, and Gilbert Kalish. He has received commissions from Music@Menlo, the Ravinia Festival, and the Spoleto Festival. Frazelle first received international acclaim with his score for Still/Here, a multimedia dance theater work for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co. 


How has Covid-19 impacted your work?

In two ways. First, 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 have been canceled.


Have you been able to collaborate with other composers/artists during the lockdown?

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–one was a song cycle “Through the Window”, which explores aspects of my mother’s early life as a farm girl in eastern NC. Additionally, our fine regional opera company, Piedmont Opera, premiered a hybrid vocal/dance theatre work based on some of my Appalachian Folksong settings. It was really exciting to collaborate on a work that was custom-made for video broadcast, an innovative way for the opera company to present a Fall season virtually.     


What technology have you used to continue to do your work in a virtual world? Have you used any music apps?  Do you have any suggestions on the best way to record ensembles?

Zoom has been really helpful. It’s enabled me to engage with both private music lessons and classroom students. My technology skills are rudimentary, yet people have been really generous with setting things up.


Your compositions have included commissions from such renowned 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?

Writing for performers of great renown has been quite exciting, but I wouldn’t say it’s added 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.


In the 2015-16 season, your piano work “Wildflowers” was used in a new dance work by choreographer Brenda Daniels. Did seeing your work performed with dancers change your perspective on the piece?

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–incredibly rewarding. I’ll add that the set designs for Brenda Daniels’ dance work were based on my watercolors. Quite shocking to see 9 X 12 inch watercolors expanded to a large stage! 


Can you tell us a little about your composing process?

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 occasion, 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!


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?

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 space, hearing my music in this hallowed place, literally in tears. 


Of the many mediums and instruments you compose for… is there a favorite and why?

I love writing for just about everything–voice, chamber music, choral, solo piano, orchestral. 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. You learn!


Of your many popular works, do you have one piece that you are most proud of?

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, settings of A. R. Ammons, and pure concert music). So if I were pressed, I’d probably choose three “children.”


What would you say to other artists/musicians that are craving ensemble work and to continue performing as part of their mental health during this pandemic?

 Two things. First, continue to take advantage of technology resources (Zoom, recording apps, singing apps, etc.)–they’ve been incredibly helpful. Also, be imaginative about creating safe in-person jam sessions or rehearsals or performances. I 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. 




Kenneth Frazelle is a composer whose music, according to The San Francisco Examiner, “came straight from—and went straight to—the heart, an organ too seldom addressed by contemporary composers.” Frazelle’s distinctive voice blends structural and tonal sophistication with a lyrical clarity; he has been influenced not only by his study with the great modernist Roger Sessions, but also by the folk songs and landscape of his native North Carolina.

Frazelle’s heartfelt compositions have included commissions from such renowned performers as Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, Paula Robison and members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Recent commissions include works for tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, the Music@Menlo Festival, the Ravinia Festival and the North Carolina Symphony.

Frazelle’s song cycle “Songs of Clay and Stone,” inspired by his longtime fascination with the American Southwest, will premiere in August 2017 at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. It will be performed by mezzo soprano Kathryn Findlen and pianist Robert Brewer.

In the 2015-16 season, his piano work “Wildflowers” was used in a new dance work by choreographer Brenda Daniels.  Another piano work, “Six Drawings,” received a surprise premiere when it was performed by five friends of the composer at a birthday celebration.

In December 2014, Matthew Michael Brown premiered Frazelle’s work for organ, Aria (with Diversions), at his recital at Westminster Abbey in London. The piece was commissioned for Brown by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts.

The 2012-2013 season included two major new works. In March, the chamber ensemble Strata premiered A Book of Days, a large-scale work for violin, clarinet and piano, which the group commissioned and is performing on concerts across the U.S. Frazelle’s Triple Concerto, commissioned for the seventieth anniversary of the Meadowmount School of Music, was premiered by the Meadowmount String Orchestra in August of 2013. Soloists were Meadowmount alumni James Ehnes, violin, and Robert deMaine, cello, along with Meadowmount director, Eric Larsen, piano. 

Additionally that season, mezzo soprano Kathryn Findlen and pianist Richard Masters performed Frazelle’s Songs in the Rear View Mirror at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall (its New York premiere) and six other concerts in Texas, North Carolina and Washington, DC. The Weill Hall concert also featured Richard Masters performing the world premiere of Frazelle’s Book of Blue Flowers for solo piano.

Songs in the Rear View Mirror, for voice and piano, blends personal history with a look at the American South through the eyes of photographers William Christenberry and Walker Evans. It was written for both the acclaimed tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and popular folksinger Laurelyn Dossett, who have given the work two very different interpretations. Griffey performed the piece at the Kennedy Center in May of 2010 and as part of the San Francisco Performances series in May of 2011.

Frazelle’s two-volume Appalachian Songbook, for soprano or tenor, has found remarkable popularity, with frequent performances by professional, student and avocational musicians alike. Also widely performed is the solo piano work Wildflowers, ten characterizations of native plants from the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 2010 Jeffrey Kahane performed Wildflowers at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. 

Frazelle first received international acclaim with his score for Still/Here, a multimedia dance theater work for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co. Still/Here premiered in Lyon, France in September 1994 and toured throughout the world the following two years to rave reviews. The New York Times praised Frazelle’s score: “part Schubert, part Kurt Weill, Mr. Frazelle’s songs have their own lyric beauty.” The Washington Post wrote, “Kenneth Frazelle’s music for ‘Still’…makes one think of late Beethoven string quartets and their otherworldly perfection.” The film version of Still/Here was viewed by millions on U.S. public television in addition to numerous international broadcasts.

Originally written for the folksinger Odetta, Frazelle’s score for Still/Here was reworked in 2004 for jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson to accompany an updated version, renamed The Phantom Project: Still/Here Looking On. In 2004 and 2005 The Phantom Projectreceived numerous performances throughout the country and abroad, including runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, and Sadler’s Wells in London. 

Frazelle was the winner of the 2001 Barlow Prize, the international competition administered through Brigham Young University. The award was a commission for a new sacred song cycle and resulted in From the Song of Songs for soprano Erie Mills, which premiered in 2003.

In 2000 Frazelle was awarded a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an award given to young composers of exceptional gifts. He was artist-in-residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Santa Rosa Symphony from 1997-2001, and in 1998 was artist-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In 1997 Frazelle was a recipient of the American Academy in Rome’s Regional Visiting Artist Fellowship.

Highlights of earlier seasons include the 1998-99 tour of Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax performing New Goldberg Variations, variations on Bach’s theme commissioned from a group of six composers including Frazelle, John Corigliano and Peter Schickele. Frazelle’s full-evening work, The Motion of Stone, based on A.R. Ammons’ poem, “Tombstones,” premiered in 1998 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, with Ann Howard Jones conducting the Boston University Chorus and the Gardner Chamber Orchestra. Also that year the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra commissioned and performed Frazelle’s Laconic Variations, and the Santa Rosa Symphony gave the West Coast premiere of Shivaree, which it co-commissioned with the Winston-Salem Symphony. In 1997 soprano Dawn Upshaw performed Frazelle’s Sunday at McDonald’s at her Carnegie Hall debut, accompanied by pianist Gilbert Kalish. In 1996, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented the composer’s Quintet for Flute, Guitar and String Trio, featuring Ransom Wilson and Manuel Barrueco. The nationally broadcast radio program Saint Paul Sunday commissioned Sonata for Harpsichord in 1995; it was prompted by the success of his Fiddler’s Galaxy, which has aired on the show many times and is a playlist favorite of classical stations around the country.

Yo-Yo Ma and Jeffrey Kahane have performed Frazelle’s Sonata for Cello and Piano (1989) throughout the country, and the piece has also been performed on several national tours by cellist Carter Brey and pianist Christopher O’Riley. Kahane has performed the composer’s Blue Ridge Airs I (1988) for piano at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A., the Kennedy Center and the Montreal International Music Festival.

Other works by Kenneth Frazelle have been performed by pianist Gilbert Kalish and mezzo-soprano Jan deGaetani, the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Colorado Symphony, the Kansas City Symphony, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Louisville Orchestra.

Kenneth Frazelle was born in Jacksonville, N.C. in 1955. He was a student of Roger Sessions at the Juilliard School, and attended high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he now teaches. His music is published by Subito Music Corporation.