Butler professor Frank Felice talks shop 

If you're sitting in the crowd at April 30's American Pianists Association's New Music for Piano concert, Butler University associate professor and composer Dr. Frank Felice, better known as "Franco" to his students, will be easy to pick out, looking like a regular sage, his face framed by a curly, peppered beard, surrounded by admiring student composers.

Felice challenged himself to write a piece for the upcoming concert that would work in counterpoint to the work of 10 Butler composition students, each of whom is writing a three-minute arrangement for piano.

"I actually waited to finish my piece until after my students had turned in theirs," Felice said.

Felice's five-minute piece for the APA concert, "Awakenings (Winter)," will be performed by five pianists, all finalists for the APA's Classical Fellowship Awards, using either their right or left hand alone.

"It is a very melodic, horizontal piece that has a kind of exotic flavor to it," Felice said, noting that he hopes the pianists will add their own flourishes to make the performance unique. "It's programmatic in that it can either be taken to be not wanting to get out of bed in the wintertime, or a play of wind with topmost layer of powder of snow, and I think that either of those images fit well -- both are playful, both are mischievous, and both are a little bit cold."

Felice's philosophy lends itself nicely to his career as a music educator. Rejecting the Romantic notion of artistic genius, he asserts that, for him, composing is more about form and craft than inspiration and epiphany. His e-mail signature quotes an axiom by Medieval French poet Guillaume de Machaut that reads, in part, "music is a science."

"Inspiration?" he asked dubiously. "Well, OK. But it's more about practical guidelines. Once I had a sense of the occasion for this piece, for instance, I was able to sharpen my focus. It's a piano work. So I asked myself, what does the piano do well?"

Claiming that complicated music is easier to write than simple music, Felice has tried to distill his sound lately, eliminating some of the thorny dissonance and irony of his earlier work. Critic and composer William Vollinger, writing about Felice's 2002 album Sidewalk Music, said his work from the early part of the decade was "sometimes quite moving, often funny and always interesting and enjoyable to listen to."

"If anyone in the audience comes away having made a connection with the music that is presented, that's absolutely wonderful," Felice said. "Musicmaking is now a global proposition. Music is everywhere. It is an essential part of everyone's lives."

In his own work and in the classroom, Felice emphasizes the importance of knowing musical history. "If you want to write crazed avant-garde sort of thing, great -- go ahead and do it. But learn how to do, and learn what has come before."

For any musician, according to Felice, tradition is speaking through their music more than they might ever know. "Even the Decemberists owe a tip of the hat to progressive rock," he said.

And he charts the course of another rock band, Pink Floyd, in a course that's much talked about among Butler students.

"They went from being a very Summer of Love psychedelic band, to a very progressive rock band, to a band that became a phenomenon beyond its musical underpinnings," Felice narrated.

Despite the ease with which he can discuss everything from indie to classic rock, as an artist himself, Felice prefers to elude those who want to pigeonhole his style.

"I like being known as an eclectic," he said.

In the classroom, Felice also prefers to take an eclectic approach, allowing students a share in setting the course of the day's lessons.

"Teaching is dialectic, something where there's give and take on both sides," Felice said. "The Greeks knew this, and the best teachers today know that the learning takes place in the kinds of specific questions you ask. The knowledge comes about through the discussion ... If you wake up in the morning and art is what's on your mind, go do it."

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