Reflections on the National Conference Of Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers (CFAMC), October 6-8, 2016, Mississippi College, Clinton, Mississippi, Part II

Thursday, October 6, 2016, evening – A composition master class with Frank Felice

After supper we joined CFAMC composer Frank Felice back in the Concert Hall for a master class with Belhaven composition students Tripp Stewart and Rachael McCartney, as well as recent graduate Trailand Eltzroth. Frank introduced himself and described his circuitous route in becoming a performer and composer with quick stints on the piano, drums, sax, and guitar before settling on the bass. His composition style is eclectic and changes dramatically with each composition. Stewart’s Ghost Returns is a collaboration with another Belhaven student in Creative Writing. After a couple of dramatic modulations to faraway places, the song settled into C minor almost without budging to the end. Felice commended Stewart for finding the natural accents of the lyrics and reflecting them well in his setting and for the “wild and crazy” modulations at the beginning and pleaded with him to bring them back later in the setting. He also observed how well the work peaked only once on its highest note in the piano and challenged Stewart to do the same in the vocal line, admonishing him to sing every part he ever wrote for voice. Wise advice.

In the presentation of McCartney’s Mostly Polite Polylogue and Eltzroth’s Hand Percussion Felice gave us all great lessons in composing for percussion, including his two categories of percussion pieces: “gesture” pieces and “groove” pieces. Both works exhibited a maturity well beyond expectations for first percussion works by undergraduate students. McCartney’s work, a warmly humorous response to impolite monopolizing monologues common in life and drama, presents and plays with memorable motives as it re-creates true conversation. The limitations of unpitched percussion and no “melody” seem immaterial and Mostly Polite Polylogue becomes difficult to categorize, for it is strong in both its gestures (recognizable motives) and its groove (several captivating ostinatos) throughout the work. Felice wisely counseled McCartney to remove many of her pauses and breaks and seek instead to smooth over the gaps with one of the players continuing a rhythmic groove as the others shifted to other instruments.

Eltzroth freely admitted that Hand Percussion was a groove piece. This featured some metric modulation in the spirit of Elliott Carter, but we had difficulties trying to work out the mathematical relationships! Not to be overlooked is Eltzroth’s pairing of Western unpitched percussion with African bongos and congas which are featured in solos after an introductory section. Should they be free to improvise their solos? Felice counseled Eltzroth adroitly in notating rhythms precisely and expressly giving permission to improvise because “players want to know they did a piece well, or they will play something else.” He also suggested that all three players not always be playing throughout the piece.

This master class thus not only gave three students wonderful guidance for future works but also modeled for all of us present an excellent way to uplift young composers while challenging them to greater goals in their careers. Like me, Felice believes in no or very limited revision of existing works and chooses instead to focus on new works with the lessons learned.