Composer, Frederick Frahm Offers Seashells
By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERUQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS - July 8, 2015) -- Around 400 AD, so the story goes, Saint Augustine was contemplating the Trinity. Having some difficulty putting his mind around the Biblical doctrine, he went out for a walk by the ocean. It was here he met a young boy who was using a seashell to scoop water from the ocean into a hole he had dug in the sand. When asked by Augustine what the boy was doing, the lad replied, "It is no more impossible than what you are trying to do - comprehend the immensity of the mystery of the Holy Trinity with your small intelligence."
Whether the story is rooted in reality, historians are unsure. But what the story does provide is a parable of discovery of deep transcendence, encountering truth, beauty, and goodness in unexpected places. The seashell becomes a metaphor for the mystery of life, the inability to fully comprehend the paradox of existence with the divine.
I recently had a seashell experience.
While attending an organ concert at a local Lutheran church, I heard the music of composer Frederick Frahm. The piece was entitled Fantasy for Organ. I was taken by the work. It combined modern tonalities with Biblical themes. To make matters more intriguing, the composer participated in the piece, narrating the poem Mysteries by Susan Palo Cherwien. Through Frahm's work, I found beauty in an unexpected place, allowing me to contemplate deeper truths about life.
I decided to investigate the work of Mr. Frahm. To my delight, he's well published. A little more digging revealed that Mr. Frahm is a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University where he earned degrees in Church Music and Organ Performance. And according to his website, "A significant portion of his extensive catalog of music for liturgy is in print and is represented worldwide by more than a dozen publishers. A full collection of sketches, manuscripts, recordings and correspondence (1982-2011) are archived in the Mortvedt Library at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA."
Yet it wasn't his background as much as his music that caused me to pause and reflect. I perused his website and Twitter account, finding music of quality, composed with consideration to a variety of modern music sensibilities.
I decided to reach out to Frederick to learn more about his upbringing and compositions. We met right before the Forth of July at a locally owned café. We talked for over an hour. I asked Mr. Frahm several question.
Your website states you grew up in Hemet, California. Were you a musical child? Were there any influences (family, friends, teachers) that helped shape your yearning to become a musician and composer?
"I grew up in a family which had deep appreciation for a variety of musical arts, but none considered it a vocation. I attempted piano as a boy, and hated it. I had to practice next door, and I didn't think very highly of my teacher. Things changed when my dad died at age 46. From there music became my solace, and I was blessed to study with a remarkable teacher who knew just how to challenge me in the best way. I listened to the Time Life Classical album collection until the records became raw. You mix my fascination with music with my Lutheran upbringing-where music was woven into our life-and you'll see that pursuing music was a natural path for me to take."
Tell me about your inspiration. Where does the muse of creativity arise?
"My inspiration arises largely from my Lutheran upbringing. In a sense, the church shaped me. However, I don't make a distinction between the sacred and secular in my music. To me, all music is divinely rooted. I see music in symmetrical shapes, much like architecture. There is a collection of patterns that help form my approach to composition. Someone once told me that my music is Cubist in form, built in sections. I like this comparison. My approach and inspiration in music is found in contrasts and symmetry. Take my piece, Fantasy for Organ. It was a break away piece for me. I built it in sections, like adding bricks to a wall. Previously, I had composed by weaving lines of music like a tapestry, but I came to find that to be imprecise. I wanted to articulate a very clear structure using silence as a mortar."
There are several living composers that write both liturgical music and music for the concert hall; Arvo Pärt comes to mind. Do you have any modern influences? Composers that help shape and define your musical sensibilities and tastes?
"I'd have to begin with Bach. Like me, Bach didn't see a divide between the secular and sacred. Bach is still the standard in both organ music and composition. Western music stands on his shoulders. Other composers that have inspired me are Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006) and Philip Glass (b. 1937). Pinkham was an organist in Boston and a fine composer. He wrote a wide range of music, from liturgical to art songs to symphonies. Pinkham's music showed me how to conserve material and to bring harmonic color to music with his use of polytonality.
"Philip Glass is a modern composer. In his day, he was considered radical, combining elements of minimalism with Avant-garde sensibilities. Like me, he saw music as architecture. Recently I performed a Philip Glass piece next to one of my compositions during church. A man approached me after the service fascinated by the structure of both compositions. Though the two pieces are different, there is an inner quality that helps bring them together. Maybe Glass' influence on me helped show a similarity."
You've written a wide range of music-symphonies, chamber, organ, chorales, handbell, opera, and the like. Do you have a favorite style to compose in? Is there one form that inspires you over another?
"Not really. I enjoy all styles. My trouble is giving the style a name. I think much of what I do transcends categorization. I really don't worry about fitting in to a particular genre. Take for example a new piece recently completed, "John the Baptist." I call it a Church Opera. It won't comfortably fit into the liturgical-church service-framework. It took me about three weeks to score-just under a 1000 measures! And as I'm wrapping it up, I'm wondering just what I've created. Additionally, I've composed around 100 solo songs. And the past ten years I've worked on several chamber compositions. So I enjoy all styles of art music."
How do you begin your composition process? Do you use computer?
"I begin with pen and paper. I write the short score by hand-usually enough bars of music to get the general shape of the score into some more tangible form. I then move to the computer to continue and complete the work. I use the music-engraving program Finale. It's from this that I create a performance edition. I'll send a computer-generated score to the publishers, which is the industry standard."
Since your music is hard to categorize, how do you view yourself as a composer?"
"I simply see myself as an artist working in the Church. As mentioned, I don't make a distinction between the secular and sacred. I'm a composer who likes to expand the boundaries. The Church was where I, as an artist, chose to compose; it was what was before me. As an example, several years back I was involved in a tough period in my life. The church I served was going through some problems. I was caught in the middle. From this experience came my song cycle, Space of Night. The text is based on the American author, Stephen Crane. Crane grew up in a very restrictive religious home. The text I used of Crane's helped me work through this dark night in my life. I was composing with a broken heart. The end result is a piece that transcends categorization; it was where my art, faith, and work conjoined. In composing, I strive for symmetry and dialogue between different component-faith, art, life-and detail in the formation of a musical architecture."
You have a strong sense of the text in your music, using both Biblical and secular works. Can you talk a little about this?
"I'm drawn to text, prose and poems. I enjoy the interplay between text and music. The lyrical nature of the spoken word fits nicely with my music sensibilities, building on the architectural structure in my music."
I'm particularly struck by your work for organ and strings, Augustine and the Seashell. What's the story behind this piece?
"I was visiting Italy in 2013, Susan, my wife, and I were on a trip celebrating our 25th anniversary. Our hosts took us on a road trip through Tuscany. We saw Lucca, Volterra, and ended up in San Gimigniano. It was here that I entered the Chiesa di Sant'Agostino (Church of St. Augustine). As I looked around the church in the afternoon light, I began hearing music in my head. I wrote the first 15 bars of the piece at that moment. I thought to myself, 'this is the type of music that should be performed here.' As I studied the piece, I found that it is broken up in 3's and 5's, holy numbers. We gave the premiere performance of it at St. Luke on Ash Wednesday, 2015."
You perform upon, and compose for, one of the great instruments: the pipe organ. Why did you choose this instrument to play?
"My undergraduate work was in church music. My graduate work was in performance-with the organ as my instrument. By the time I reached college I knew organ was my choice. It was a natural fit based upon my background. The organ is so magnificent; it has great depth and breadth. There is a majesty to the instrument, covering many sounds, textures, and timbres."
Has your music been recorded?
"Yes. A British organist named Robin Walker recorded an album called, 'Works for Organ.' There are several pieces on the CD, included 'Three New Mexico Sketches,' a composition inspired by some places found in New Mexico. Another album, 'Septem Verba' (Seven Words) for organ and violin was recorded by David Felberg and Robin Walker. 'Septem Verba' was recorded here in Albuquerque at St. Luke's."
As Frederick and I continued to talk in the café, his love of music, passionate faith, and quest for the beautiful and sublime became more apparent. Though Frederick was very approachable and down to earth, the transcendence he yearns to reach though his music is a noble quest, combining "melancholy and exuberance," "austerity and density," "consonance and dissonance."
And like Augustine before him, Frederick seeks to dialogue about that which is plain and that which is opaque, where mystery and reason kiss and find new life in marvelous compositions.
To learn more about the music of Frederick Frahm, click here:
Photo captions: 1) Saint Augustine painting by Antonio Rodríguez. 2) Album of Frederick's music, "Works for Organ." 3) Sheet music for one of Frederick's compositions, "A Day in the Meadow." 4) Composer, Frederick Frahm. 5) Brian Nixon.
About the writer BrianNixonis a writer, musician, and minister. He's a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). As a published author, editor, radio host, recording artist, and visual artist,Brianspends his free time with his three children and wife, painting, writing music, reading, and visiting art museums. To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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