Jessie Frazier, Alabama Composer

By  Phillip Ratliff |  November 30, 2010

The Validity of Mistakes

As a college music instructor, I often teach courses in counterpoint—the skill of writing two or more melodies that make sense when they are played at the same time. The procedure is simple: write a measure or two for the top voice, then a measure or two for the bottom. Go back and forth between the top and bottom, a measure or so at a time. It's amazing. Once the students learn this technique, they can write never-ending strings of counterpoint. In fact, it's sometimes difficult to get them to stop. That's because they don't know how to end their counterpoint until I tell them the secret.

Here's the secret: write the ending first, then start from the beginning and work up to it. Having the goal in front of you tells you what to do to get there. That's what Bach did; otherwise he would still be looking for a way to end his first fugue.

But I know a composer in Alabama who doesn't give a rip for beginnings and endings. He doesn't know his counterpoint; in fact, he can't even read a note of music.

Take a page out of WALDEN, change the setting to a backyard in Birmingham's Southside, and throw in an assortment of pipes, hubcaps, pot lids, and other metal "found" objects, and you will get some idea of how Jessie Frazier lives. Sculptor, instrument builder, philosopher, Zen Buddhist, and improviser extraordinaire, Frazier started off on a straight and narrow path. A former Mormon and Brigham Young University linebacker, he quit his teaching job in Utah in 1980, moved to Japan, and found himself. And this self, as it turned out, is damn strange by nine-to-five standards.

Today Frazier lives in a wooden and metal cube that he pieced together in a friend's backyard. His little hut, he says, is "completely portable," something he could move on a moment's notice should the vicissitudes of art and the necessities of spiritual enlightenment so require.

The day my friend Rebekah and I visit, he has just returned from searching construction-site dumpsters for electrical conduit. He's been buzz-sawing these pipes into resonators for his homemade xylophones, measuring the tube against a chart etched into a two-by-four. Frazier's got a system: different lengths give different pitches; the longer, the lower.

He gently strikes the tubes, and they ring with a remarkably unhomemade purity. "This is the point at which I experiment. I invent by trial and error." With mallets, he searches the scale for an interesting fragment of melody and finds one in a combination of two adjacent tubes. He then develops a sort of Indonesian-sounding improvisation out of it. "Most of what I land on is completely by accident. I look for the music in the mistakes. You have to accept the validity of the mistakes.

"Structured spontaneity," he adds. "Enough structure to create a space that things can happen in. Enough freedom to move around." He sets down his mallets. "Watch yourself walk sometime. To walk you must fall forward and catch yourself. Motion is falling then catching. In order to move, there has to be a release of control. Try to control music too much, you choke out its life, you stop its momentum.

"It all starts with a stroke or a gesture," he continues. "Reach out and strike." He picks up a mallet and hits a C-sharp on his xylophone. "Allow it to resonate, observe it, let it make an impression."

Frazier lives just around the corner from Dreamland Bar-B-Q, an oddly shaped maroon and white building in Triangle Park. From its chimney the ineluctable smell of ribs wafts through the graying sky and into Frazier's yard.

Frazier's living quarters are cozy, functional, and compact: desk, chair, and bunk bed snap together like modules. On the desk a candle honoring the Blessed Virgin sits next to a Popeye Spinach can. Primitive cave-like drawings hang from the ceiling. Totemistic paraphernalia, voodoo dolls, shrunken plastic skulls—it looks like he is inventing a new syncretistic religion.

He found many of the religious objects, something that he's very proud of—part of his philosophy of art. A statue of Mary was once a run-over soda pop can. That was before he put eyes and a halo on it. "Roadkill. That's what I call my statues made out of things I find in gutters and shoulders as I ride my bike."

Roadkill can be anything—stones, plastic canisters, cow hooves, wood—in general, the flotsam and jetsam of human chaos. But he has a thing for metal. Frazier is a magnet. Oilcans, electrical conduits, and tin cans dance around him in mysterious orbit. Mobiles of old Clubware pot lids dangle from eaves on wire hangers, along with bells, chimes, anvils, and gongs. Frazier's little corner of the earth emits a continuous, tinny ringing sound.

I first learned of Jessie Frazier when I saw him perform last September at Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham. With collaborators Monroe Golden and Craig Hultgren, he convinced U.S. Pipe and Foundry to machine a one-ton xylophone out of pig iron.

The xylophone stunned me with its tremendous tubes pointing out like cannons. Foam-covered rackets struck against the open ends of the tubes, producing a vibration that was mostly thwack, with some pitch. The xylophone was so large that to get from one note to the next, the performers had to thwack and leap, thwack and leap.

Frazier started the concert by singing "Amazing Grace" while Golden and Hultgren banged chimes and anvils.

The music was at once human and mechanical, a commingling of the sweat of the brow with the hardness of iron. Sloss is still operational, and at one point during the concert a train passed by, right outside the stage. Instead of letting this interrupt the show, Frazier, Golden, and Hultgren played along with its rhythmic clanging.

Play a C-sharp, and you get a note and just a note. Put another note with it, and there's a relationship, a distance between notes, and then it starts to mean something. Add more notes to form chords, some consonant, some dissonant and tense. A succession of chords creates a progression, an uphill struggle of tension and release moving inexorably toward a final goal. One misplaced chord, and the whole thing caves in. In my system, notes are hard to come by. They aren't accidents, and they don't float out of thin air into my consciousness. Each one I yank out of my head like an impacted wisdom tooth.

But to Frazier, it's not the language of tonal diversity that matters. To him, the small, the minute, means the world. A single note is a microcosm of possibilities, and an insignificant bauble of sound like a C-sharp can wrap around his soul and loft him skyward.

You can see this love of detailed singularity in the way Frazier records his discoveries. Though he doesn't read music, he's quite a musical aesthetician and theorist, a modern-day Boethius. When necessary, he invents a notation suitable to his finds—his etched two-by-fours, for instance.

Snooping around his room, I come across a stack of diagrams curled on Frazier's little desk. Their markings are faint, like they have been fussed over for several years.

I unfurl one and try to decipher it. The pages are ruled like graph paper, with columns of note names running across the top. Some squares have been marked with an x, each chart in a different pattern. The xs represent notes in a scale, he explains, and each note is arrived at through trial and error.

"My decision to include a note in the scale comes from listening to a song and then going to my chimes and playing. I play until I find the notes that coordinate with the song, the scale of the song I hear on the radio. Other times I get the scales out of my head, from my own songs or little riffs running through.

"Riffs come to me like words come to me. Small ideas, sayings, proverbs. That's what riffs are, and that's the kind of words that come to me, too. See this?" He hands me a ROGET'S THESAURUS, a worn copy from 1947. "It was my grandfather's. He gave it to me before he died. The most important book I have, more important than the Bible or the Koran. The Bible and the Koran are both in this book. It's a key. Out of these small things, these riffs we call words, I construct." Frazier shuffles through his shambled desktop, finding a gem-clipped stack of scrap papers, each page containing a proverb. He reads, occasionally offering commentary:

Focusing on your problems so that you fail to see the space surrounding your problem. ("There's nothingness in that space. Nothing is where everything is!") The daily life is not a straight line. ("Very Confucian.") And then, finally, one I will never get: Bed-wetting is like being unable to wake yourself up from a nightmare, and then it's too late.

Frazier lays the proverbs aside and picks up the charts. "That's how I build my charts. Out of the little things, the riffs in my head. Small ideas, looking in between them for meaning, significance, the way of constructing situations in which I can improvise further."

All told, Frazier has sixty such charts, 120 if you count the blank grids. Frazier figured out that the leftover notes in his charts also form scales. In Frazier's art and Frazier's life, nothing is something, too.

From behind his clutter of icons, Faulkner novels, and stacks upon stacks of charts and scrap-paper proverbs peers the cyclopic eye of a black-and-white portable television. Sensing my amused reaction, Frazier offers an explanation:

"Yeah, I watch it, a little football now and then. Back in the old days, football was like launching into orbit. I spent ninety percent of my energy just trying to get that high. Raw energy, finding a place, a role to fulfill, that was football to me. Fell into it completely by accident. The summer before my senior year in high school, my mom and I moved to South Carolina. I had spent that same summer hitchhiking out West, to Utah. This was right after I became a Mormon. I came into South Carolina thinking I could reinvent myself, be whatever I wanted to be, nobody has to know who I really am. I had never played football before, but I thought, what the hell, I'll roll into town a star football player. Got so good at it that I won a scholarship to Brigham Young. A completely serendipitous turn of events. Amazing what our minds can set into motion.

"I still like football," he continues, "though I watch it with some chagrin. It's brutal, but it's a kind of brutality I can respect, a very honest brutality. More subtle types of brutality—gossip, possessiveness—I call them personal-sized atomic bombs. We drop those on people all the time. Brutality out of the blue, out of nowhere. We don't understand the physics of how we behave sometimes, so we end up doing these things. People don't discern. Music tells us how to engage, honestly, if brutally. The most difficult part of making music is listening, hearing the sounds, seeing the sounds as sculptures. Conversations, too: they are music. We can try to shove too many words into one without giving these words a space to grow, without stepping back and looking at this space and understanding the meaning of the words, their significance."

He picks up a shovel and begins digging in the remaining light. He seems to be making a trench. "Going to put in a little ditch for when it rains," he explains. Frazier has been having drainage problems.

His transition from composer to philosopher to manual laborer is a seamless one—it certainly doesn't require a change of clothes. Every time I visit him, he has on the same brown canvas coveralls and the same pair of Dexter work boots caked with the same Alabama red dirt. Still, there is something well-kept about his appearance, with his trimmed goatee and fancy haircut.

Maybe this is because twenty years ago Frazier moonlighted as a model in Utah while he taught high school English, before he loaded up and moved to Japan—not a spiritual quest; Frazier was lured by commercial prospects. He figured that his chiseled Occidental face would go over big there.

But things fell apart in Kobe. Low on money, his visa papers a mess, Frazier was at wit's end, a wreck. Couldn't even make it home, he was so damn broke.

"Told myself, this is what you wanted—here you are, and you aren't even here."

From that point on, Frazier has tried to live in the present. As he stands in a pile of dirt surrounded by other people's trash, it strikes me that Frazier is buried in the here and now. He's made it his art, taking someone else's then and making it a now. As for the future, who knows; best to keep your hut resting on cinder blocks—forget about cement.