Ed Frazier Davis is an accomplished Kansas City composer, bass-baritone singer and conductor (among other pursuits) whose work has been commissioned and performed locally and internationally. His range of musical styles is staggering, covering everything from solo piano to choral, orchestral work and electroacoustic work. Currently the Composer-in-Residence for the William Baker Festival Singers, Davis's influences are all over the map, citing Stravinsky, Sweet Honey in the Rock and Iron Maiden as a few of his favorites. Davis was kind enough to share his thoughts on being a composer and performer in Kansas City and his eclectic list of book and music recommendations.
Please introduce yourself. Where do you live and work?
My name is Ed, and I'm a composer, bass-baritone, educator, and occasional conductor originally from Chicago. Well, originally originally from a village called Rodmell in East Sussex, England, but I moved to Chicago at age 10, and lived there until I moved to Kansas City a few months ago to begin my studies at UMKC. I'm a first year DMA student in composition here, studying composition with Chen Yi and voice with Vinson Cole, and working as a Composers In The Schools (CITS) teaching artist. I'm also composer-in-residence for the William Baker Festival Singers, a member of the Kansas City Symphony Chorus, and bass section leader for the choir of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church.
Who or what got you into composing? Who were your earliest influences?
Initially I didn't want a career in music; I attended Knox College for my undergrad to pursue a degree in creative writing. That all changed when I joined the Knox College Choir, and my first semester we performed Frank Martin's incredible "Mass for Double Choir." I became obsessed with choral music, especially that of the Twentieth Century, and after collecting many eclectic recordings over the next year or so, my own musical ideas gradually came to me. I wrote my first work in 2009, a setting of Emily Dickinson (my love for literature and poetry never went away) for a cappella chorus, and my choir director/mentor Laura Lane encouraged me to keep writing. As I recall, my earliest influences were Martin, Eric Whitacre, Rachmaninoff, and Benjamin Britten, who's still one of my all-time favorites.
You have such a depth of work drawing on a variety of styles and disciplines. How has your work changed or grown since you entered the UMKC composition program?
I've only been at UMKC since August, but already I feel that my teachers and colleagues here have helped me grow as an artist considerably. For example, I've been taking a class called "Aesthetics and Analysis of Electroacoustic Music" with Paul Rudy, which has not only expanded my knowledge of electronic music (I've only composed for electronic media once before), but I'm discovering new ways to listen critically to music across all genres/media. Studying composition with Chen Yi has been invaluable, and every week I feel more confident composing for non-choral ensembles.
Where do you go to write your music? What tools do you use?
I'll use pencil and paper to sketch out a piece's structure or make brief notes about what I want to convey, but other than that the entire composition process happens in my head, and I notate everything directly into the computer. I have perfect pitch, so I don't need to use a piano. As long as I have pencil/paper and my laptop, I can compose anywhere! I usually do it at my desk at home. I once composed about 80% of a choral piece during a single nine-hour bus trip.
What inspires you about the Kansas City classical music community?
The classical music community here was what moved me to apply for UMKC in the first place! With a stellar symphony orchestra, a Grammy-winning professional choir (and numerous other amazing choral groups), many incredible local composers, and of course some thrilling new music organizations (newEar, Fusebox, KCEMA, etc), this city is practically a limitless source of inspiration.
Ed Frazier Davis's recommendations:
White Teeth by Zadie Smith. This book has remained my all-time favorite since I first read it eleven years ago. Equal parts hilarious and moving, this is a brilliantly written story about race, assimilation, identity, and family told about two families, one white and one Bengali, in London across three decades.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. An amazing, seminal work of science fiction which was an eye-opener for me in many ways when I first read it. LeGuin tackles lots of heavy themes, including anarchism, class struggle, colonization, and imprisonment.
The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. This is practically essential reading for anyone even remotely interested in music of the twentieth century and beyond. An awesome, comprehensive historical look at the evolution of music, and how understanding it is not some kind of unapproachable task.
How to Bake Pi by Eugenia Cheng. This wonderful, totally engrossing book about making math more digestible (pun intended) to people who are confused or intimidated by the subject happens to have been written by a very close friend of mine! Eugenia Cheng is also an amazing pianist, and we've performed together in Chicago many times (she's the pianist on my "Triptych," linked above). She also officiated my wedding!
My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. Many people might recognize Dr. Taylor from her TED Talk of the same name; this book goes into even greater detail about her stroke and the revelations it gave her about how the two hemispheres of the brain function.
Cathedral Classics by the Dale Warland Singers. This is the first album of choral music I ever bought. I got it mainly for the Martin mass, but every work on this recording is an absolute gem, and masterfully performed. I want Herbert Howells's Requiem to be performed at my funeral!
The Rite of Spring / Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky. Two of Stravinsky's greatest compositions for orchestra. Every time I listen to The Rite of Spring I hear something new, while The Firebird is an underrated masterpiece. It's hard to believe that Stravinsky wrote both of these before he was thirty...
12 Concertos by Einojuhani Rautavaara. Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara died this past July, and he remains one of my favorite and most inspirational composers. His work is not known well enough in America, in my opinion! All twelve works on this collection are brilliant; Canticus Arcticus is the most well-known, but everything else, especially the violin and third piano concerto, are severely underrated.
Breaths by Sweet Honey in the Rock. I don't often listen to non-classical music, but this album should be heard and enjoyed by everyone, no matter your musical background/preferences. These women create an incredible sound together, and their songs are just as powerful and resonant today as when they were first written.
The Book of Souls by Iron Maiden. Another non-classical recommendation, but I can't help it; these guys are my all-time favorite band. Most of their best work was in the 80s (my #1 favorite is 1984's Powerslave), but every song on this album (from just last year!) is still pure, head-banging gold. Seeing them perform live is one of my bucket list items!