It is safe to assume that Phil Fried is among a small number of elementary school band directors who can boast a Ph.D. in Music Composition among his credentials. A renaissance man since his youth, Fried enjoys a career in music that spans a variety of occupations: composer, free jazz bassist, teacher, and writer.
Phil developed an appetite for the arts early in life. He was raised in a musical family in New York City, and reports that he knew he wanted to be involved in music, but didn't know how. He sampled as many creative activities as he could, attending drama school for six years at the nearby Greenwich house and trying his hand at singing (my voice changed early, so I didn't fit in choir), theater, dance, writing, every kind of art there was. He settled on instrumental music, discovering that he had both a talent and an affinity for the string bass. In particular, he enjoyed the contrast between theater's social rhythms and the relative solitude of the bass. "Theater seemed to require a lot of people, and you weren't doing anything if you weren't rehearsing," says Fried, "practicing an instrument seems like you're doing something."
The themes established during Phil's formative artistic years form a thread that runs through his current career. He maintains a diverse set of talents and interests, dividing his time between teaching, practicing, composing, and performing, and still seeks those activities that afford him creative solitude. However, even this seasoned professional can't do it all, and the balance often tips toward one pursuit or the other. "When I start composing a lot, the practicing sloughs off," he notes. His performing and compositional styles differ greatly, which perhaps explains the separate places they hold in his life, and the difficulty of finding space for them simultaneously.
Phil describes his performance style as an extension of free jazz improvisation, a style he developed with the New York Artists Collective on Renwick Street in the 1970's. The passion for solitary pursuits that initially drew him to the bass has shaped his choices as a performer. His free-wheeling solo shows are a one-hour display of virtuosic improvisation, as Phil and his upright electric bass travel easily between myriad musical styles: jazz, classical, and even some rock and roll. In contrast, his compositions are edgy, serious, esoteric, and perhaps further from the mainstream. He was classically trained, however, earning a Ph.D. at the prestigious University of Chicago. Not surprisingly, he has achieved success as a composer through mastery of many styles, writing educational pieces, cabaret songs, and symphonic works, among others. Always true to his identity as a multi-faceted artist, he also writes the librettos for his operatic works. Recently, his talent as a composer earned him the McKnight fellowship. This grants both significant professional recognition and financial reward, important tools to any successful career in music.
Teaching allows Phil to balance his artistic pursuits with service to the community. He advocates for the role of music in education, particularly in the early stages of a child's life. Teaching elementary music is very useful, he explains. He feels that young musicians require quality instruction, and that they need the best teachers at the beginning. He does the work because he believes in music education, and finds it fulfilling that his efforts have such utility. The schedule afforded to an elementary music teacher offers one other tangible benefit for Fried: it allows him to free his evenings for composition and practice. This is not to say, however, that he finds his job easy. As previously mentioned, his education is far different from that of his colleagues. While Phil is no snob, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago carries with it a certain perception. It has a reputation of being snotty. People look at me and think I'm judging them, but I'm not, he says. He occasionally struggles with the confines of educational policy, as well, and wishes that it were easier to employ unorthodox and creative teaching methods.
Phil does much of his creative work at home, which is located in the Hamline neighborhood in St. Paul. He describes his neighborhood as upper-lower middle class, saying, "Doctors don't live here, but nurses do." The lifelong New Yorker was drawn to the affordable housing in the area, though he confesses some difficulty in acclimating to Midwestern culture. It seems that "Minnesota Nice" does not exist in New York, and it took Phil some time to figure out the Minnesota way of life. However, as he says, people are people everywhere, and he and his wife have carved out a comfortable existence in the Twin Cities.
When asked about artistic communities to which he belongs, Phil struggles to come up with many. (I've never been joiner.) The American Composers' Forum has been helpful, but he doesn't mention any others, having chosen a career path that affords him artistic freedom and independence. He explains the appeal behind forging one's own way in the world of composition: You're either a University type, or a free-lancer. Universities are very much a closed society, and composers working in that world must take care to please those who control funding. Working within that system has its benefits, but the rules can constrain one's artistic impulses. Furthermore, it can create doubt as to the source of one's success or failure. For these reasons, Phil prefers free-lance work.
It is very satisfying to me that things come my way because people like my art.
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