Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The power and the glory: Frank Felice's "Power Plays" gives the glory to retiring colleague Robert Grechesky

Composer and Butler University music professor Frank Felice will celebrate his birthday Sunday with a potlatch sort of gesture: giving a new piece to the university's longtime director of bands Robert Grechesky, who is retiring at the end of the school year.

"Power Plays" is the third piece Felice has written for Grechesky, and he wants to keep secret the farewell gesture he's included in the score. Another reason for not emphasizing the goodbye in an  explicit musical way is the fact that "Power Plays" is a consortium commission that will be taken up by other high school, community and university bands on a schedule yet to be determined.

Sunday's world premiere will take place among other wind-ensemble works (the second-newest being a decade-old euphonium concerto by Eric Ewazen) at a 3 p.m. concert in the Schrott Center for the Arts at Butler. Tickets are $10 ($5 for students/seniors).

"I wanted to write a symphony for band," Felice recalled, but Grechesky had in mind a work lasting only about 15 minutes. "That put me in a kind of in-between place, where if it's episodic, you just have little vignettes instead of movements." After opening with a section titled according to "syllables that are supposed to resemble but are not really Klingon" (Grechesky is a Star Trek devotee), the linked episodes have such titles as "Powerslave," "Powertrip" and "Power Chords."

In composition and performance, Frank Felice keeps his options open.
Felice, you may have guessed, is an admitted lover of wordplay. The titles have loose connections to the kind of music each episode contains, but the work isn't programmatic, Felice said. Thus, "Power Chords" is "a little bit angry, kind of a Stravinskyan thing — chord, chord, chord." (Eat your heart out, Pete Townshend.)

The composer doesn't have a ready explanation for all of the work's titles, however. "Powertrain Warranty"?  "I was getting punch-drunk by then," he admitted.

Felice revels in the freedom of expression today's postmodernist esthetic encourages. He went through the straits of modernist orthodoxy in his student days at the University of Colorado. "At that time," said the composer, who turns 52 on Sunday, "the composers on the faculty were trying to keep us in the late-serial musical language. I liked doing those kinds of things, but I also wanted to write a 16th-century contrapuntal kind of piece. My teacher would say, 'You can't do that. THIS is the future.'"

Felice bided his time pursuing other kinds  of music, which he still plays enthusiastically. The reign of serialism "is one of the reasons I went into rock 'n' roll full time," he recalled. "All of a sudden after that the world changed." He was finally free to find his own voice, which can sound quite different from piece to piece: "The good news is I can write a  different piece every time. I want to be a multilingual composer."

That being said, "I think my Colorado professors would like 'Power Plays.'  It's a fairly dissonant musical language."

Why continue to be involved in other genres, though?  Hasn't Felice learned everything he can about them through his long foreground in music, including experience as a bassist in jazz, rock and funk bands?

"I suppose I approach this a little bit like food," he replied.  "Sometimes I want to go eat Chinese, sometimes Southwest cuisine. Classical music is a marvelous thing, but I like borrowing from a hundred different traditions to make my own thing. I can love Ligeti for its own sake, or Schubert for its own sake. There's always something new to learn, something I've never played before."

There's also something he's never heard anyone else play before, and that stimulus probably leads to the next Felice composition.