A.R. Ammons, a point of inspiration
Kenneth Frazelle has drawn inspiration from diverse and sometimes surprising sources: Cézanne watercolors, Native American pottery, the wildflowers of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He turns most often to the poetry of A.R. Ammons, with whom he shared a twenty-five-year friendship. Frazelle has set about forty of Ammons' poems since he was a student at the Juilliard School.
"I discovered Ammons' poetry while browsing in a New York bookstore in 1975," Frazelle has written. "I had no idea we both shared Eastern North Carolina roots, and were even distant cousins by marriage. The shock of that language speeding down and across the page grabbed me, and I knew it was an inevitable fit for my music. I wrote Archie for permission to set his poetry at that time, and we began a correspondence and friendship that lasted until his death. We met in the late seventies, and I was dazzled by his virtuoso wit and warmth. During his frequent visits to North Carolina and through letters, Archie gave me fatherly nurturing and encouragement."
Ammons' poetry is noted for both directness and complexity of thought, for its attention both to the minute particulars of nature and to the vast expanses of philosophical questioning. Critic Harold Bloom has called Ammons "the most direct Emersonian in American poetry since Frost." Upon his death in 2001, Ammons was among America's most honored poets, having won two National Book Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award, a MacArthur "genius award," and the Tanning Prize for "outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry."
Ammons returned Frazelle's admiration. "The range of his invention and technical brilliance is apparently inexhaustible and is accompanied by a profound depth of song or feeling," Ammons wrote of Frazelle. "The poise of that kind of forwarding can produce the highest sense of aesthetic completion."
Frazelle received his first national recognition for Worldly Hopes, settings of poems from Ammons' book of the same title. The piece was premiered in 1987 by mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and pianist Gilbert Kalish. "Though the poems are small-scale," Frazelle wrote in program notes, "the reader is drawn into their seemingly boundless areas.” Likewise, as a review in Musical America asserts, the song cycle suggests “feelings, moods and whole landscapes much vaster than itself."
Frazelle used five uniquely intimate poems from several collections for his Sunday at McDonald's, which was commissioned and performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw and pianist Jeffrey Kahane. Though the poems range from the zaniness of “babies gumming French fries” to the transcendence of “the still star bending, fixed ahead,” Frazelle has given them a specific, coherent musical shape. Images and motions are conveyed both in the piano and the voice, which are equal presences. In 1997 Upshaw performed songs from the cycle at her Carnegie Hall debut, with Gilbert Kalish at the piano.
Return, settings of three Ammons poems, began with “I Went Back”, a commission from Reynolda House Museum of American Art. Frazelle performed it with soprano Marilyn Taylor in Ammons' presence at a celebration honoring his seventieth birthday. Taylor wanted a lengthier work for her New York debut at Weill Hall the following year, and she commissioned the two additional songs. Return’s poems are those of a mature man who looks back with longing and looks forward with awe and humor. Marilyn Taylor has included the cycle on her Albany recording Return: Art Songs of Carolina with pianist Robert Brewer.
The Motion of Stone, a work for chorus and chamber orchestra, is based on Ammons' long poem "Tombstones" from Sumerian Vistas. The seven movements contemplate the inscription of names into stone and the eventual erosion of the seemingly permanent. The Boston Globe described the work as "a meditation on death, evanescence and the nature of nothingness." It was commissioned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where it was first performed in 1998 by the Gardner Chamber Ensemble and Boston University Chorus, with Ann Howard Jones conducting.
The Spring 2004 issue of Epoch Magazine, devoted entirely to Ammons, includes letters exchanged between the poet and Frazelle, as well as reproducing Frazelle’s manuscript of the song “I Went Back” from Return.
"Even though I haven't written any Ammons songs since his death," Frazelle says, "it's a lifelong project to which I'm sure to return."