Bulldogs of Butler: Frank Felice

Frank Felice discusses his new album, “The Beauty of Innuendos.” Photo by Lauren Gdowski.

ANNIE FAULKNER | NEWS CO-EDITOR | aefaulkn@butler.edu

Members of the Butler community are achieving extraordinary things, both on and off campus. From first-years to alumni to administrators and back, each Bulldog has a story to tell. Read on to discover the next of our Bulldogs of Butler through a Q&A style interview.

When he is outside of the classroom, Frank Felice, associate professor of music composition, is a prolific recording artist. His latest album, titled “The Beauty of Innuendos: Four Song Cycles by Frank Felice,” was released on Jan. 28. Felice worked alongside his wife Mitzi Westra as well as pianist Gregory Martin on the project.

Felice’s eclectic compositions have been performed in 15 countries across the globe. In addition to composing, he plays bass, guitar, keyboard and vocals in Progressive Lenses, a classic progressive rock group composed of Butler professors and other Indianapolis-area musicians. In 2020, the Montana native gave a TEDx Talk on the subject of improvisation both in art and in life — producing an album throughout the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to improvise in the face of the unknown proved to be a critical skill.

“The Beauty of Innuendos” consists of four “song cycles,” or groups of songs designed to be performed together and connected by a central theme. The form arose during the 19th century, pioneered by composers such as Schumann and Beethoven; however, the form is given a post-modern twist on Felice’s album.

THE BUTLER COLLEGIAN: Tell me about “The Beauty of Innuendos.”

FRANK FELICE: For the last twenty years or so, I’ve been trying to do as many recording projects as I possibly can — and to put it out on something more than just a CD Baby, Spotify, SoundCloud sort of arrangement. Three years ago when we had the mess of the pandemic, I put out a record that is mostly string music, but also strings [and] voice. That came out literally right before the pandemic shut everything down, so it was very tricky to actually get a recording out there and get good publicity and stuff.

But that same January, Mitzi and I started recording these song cycle because, as my wife, she is just a fantastic performer — and I really wanted to make sure that there was something out there that represented both of us. So “The Beauty of Innuendos” is four song cycles, the earliest music going back to 1988 and the most recent music being revised just a couple of years ago. The style is very different from piece to piece. The earliest one [, “4 Songs of Jennifer Haines,”] is fairly conservative. The “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is really quirky and very angular, then the “4 Antiphons of Hildegard of Bingen” is very, very dramatic and tries to reflect the text that Hildegard wrote.

TBC: Can you tell me a bit about your artistic approach on this album? 

FF: Like most other things that I do, when I give a concert of my own music, I really want to have a good stylistic spread. I don’t have just one style; I’m kind of multilingual — and so I’ll have things that will appeal to one person, and then they might not like the next piece at all, but yet another a set of folks who were there will really quite like that. Having that stylistic variety is something that I crave, and I’ve done that with all the records that I’ve released, as well as when I do a recital or concert.

TBC: What do you hope that listeners take away from the album?

FF: That Mitzi Westra is one of the most incredible mezzo-sopranos in all of Central Indiana, [and that] Greg Martin is a fantastic pianist, and I really hope that there’s something that connects [listeners] to the music and the text that’s there. For instance, Mitzi just did the song cycle “Letters to Derek” at University of Indianapolis last week, and I heard many people say, “This connected with me this way.” It’s basically a number of letters that a [girl from when she was 7 to 14 years old] wrote [to] a friend of ours, and so I excerpted a number of those lines and put together the song cycle, and I was really pleased to hear that it connected with the audience.

TBC: You’ve talked a bit about it already, but what is it like working with your wife on a project like this?

FF: It’s marvelous. There’s no composer who knows how to do everything perfectly, so having a performer that you can go to and say, “Can you do this? Can you do this? Would it be better if I do this, if I set this vowel this way, will it work?” That kind of moment-to-moment feedback is just incredibly invaluable. I mean, we all hope that we get the best performers to perform our music, but I’m just incredibly fortunate that one of them lives in my house, and I can say, “Come take a listen to this. What do you think?” and she’ll go, “Yeah, don’t do that ever again,” or she’ll say “Yes, this works, try this.” That kind of thing really shapes the whole of the musical partnership, and it works wonderfully well.

TBC: How does your work as an artist interact with your work at Butler?

FF: Oh, it’s very much hand-in-hand. You often teach from experience, and if I have done things well and it works, I want to teach them that. If it doesn’t work, and I’ve fallen on my face, I want them to know, “This is what happened to me, you should probably not do that.” So all of it works incredibly well, and it’s one of the things that the school of music really looks for when they hire somebody new — is, “How can your experience and your musicianship really shape our students?”

TBC: Can you tell me about your concert at Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall on Feb. 28?

FF: [It was] essentially a record release concert. [We performed] two complete cycles from the record, and then … just a couple bit of snippets from the other two cycles. [I talked] a little bit about how they were put together, why they appealed to me and why working with Mitzi and Greg, like we just talked about, is really a phenomenal thing. It’s: “Come listen to a little bit of the record, buy the record, have some mini cupcakes, and celebrate the release with us.”

TBC: What advice do you have for Butler students hoping to pursue their artistic endeavors?

FF: Do it with joy, great abandon and really good drive to succeed. All the arts, but especially music, [are] hard. It’s hard work, and you really just have to get up in the morning and say, “I want to do this.” And keep doing it.

“The Beauty of Innuendos: Four Song Cycles by Frank Felice” can be streamed on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer, Tidal and YouTube. The album is available for purchase on Amazon and Qobuz. Additional information is available on the Navona Records website.


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