On Risk

written by Samantha Boshnack
GLFCAM John and Marie LaBarbera Fellow, Cycle 9

Growing up in upstate rural New York, music was a refuge.  My family moved from Queens to a remote town called Franklin when I was 7.  While I loved the beauty of the environment, I had a hard time adjusting to this huge change.  Luckily, there was a great band teacher at the school, and I picked up the trumpet at age 10.  I was immediately in love with it.  Practicing and playing felt like an escape from the loneliness I felt.  To help inspire me, my father who was a music enthusiast, played me all kinds of records  — Jazz, Latin, rock, African, classical, funk, folk and more.  I listened with wonder and loved it all.

I am always dismayed when I hear people say that kids won’t like a kind of music because it is “too complicated.”  I think music is an extremely universal language that speaks to all.  It is adults who make things “too complicated”.  We classify and over-analyze, and in the process we force musicians and audiences into boxes.  I have seen children love avant-garde music, as long as they’re not told that it’s “too difficult.” 

I am grateful to have had an open relationship with music at a young age.  I was obsessed with Charlie Parker when I was 13.  I didn’t have the musical training to know what he was doing then, but I knew it spoke to me.  And I think when you are young, you don’t ask why — You just let yourself feel it. 

I continued to play the trumpet any chance I could, but opportunities were scarce. When I applied to colleges, I didn’t know what was possible for an aspiring musician, so I auditioned on classical trumpet.  When I went for the auditions, however, I felt suffocated by the atmosphere.  I did not see any other female applicants or professors on trumpet, which felt very discouraging.  Also, I felt an immense pressure to play the audition piece perfectly.  It was absolutely nerve-wrecking and I didn’t feel happy doing it.

I found Bard College, where the motto was “A Place To Think”.  This philosophy called to me, I needed time to explore my options.  Without really intending for it to happen, I became a music major.  They needed a trumpeter in the jazz department, and suddenly I found myself playing in a multitude of ensembles.  Then, I met my mentor — saxophonist Erica Lindsay.  She taught modern jazz ensembles in which we were all encouraged to compose.  I caught the bug then, I just wanted to write.  So that’s what I did for my four years, culminating in a senior project where I created and composed for lots of different ensembles, some with strings, or piano, or horns.  It felt so freeing to create new music.  I experimented and nobody told me not to.  Erica pushed me in the right direction when what I was writing was not working.  But otherwise, I just explored this newly-acquired compositional voice. 

Upon graduation, I had but one goal — to continue to find ways to write.  I ended up moving to Seattle where I had met creative musicians who encouraged me to come join the scene. I have now lived here for 16 years, and have been very active as a composer, trumpeter and leader of three ensembles.  I was a member of the modern-jazz group Reptet for many years.  We toured the country playing new compositions.  For many years, I brought the group back to rural upstate NY where we played for elementary through high school students.  As someone from a rural area, Gabriela’s message of bringing music to rural areas really resonates with me.  Music should be for all people, not just those who live in an urban area and have the income to attend concerts. 

In 2011, I began forming my own groups.  I started with a 14-piece alternative chamber orchestra which I named B’shnorkestra.  The goal was to explode boundaries and bring musicians from many different musical communities together. The compositions incorporate improvisation and groove into intricate orchestral music.  One of the eight premiere pieces was written for a colleague who had studied Javanese singing.  The following year, when I wanted to record the piece, she had moved to Java and was working as a pasindhen (female Gamelan vocalist).  I went out there to record her vocals on the piece.  We invited her friend Sri Joko Raharjo to record gender and rebab on the track as well.  It was an invigorating experience to work with him; while we didn’t speak the same language or read the same notes on the page, we had a successful session and what he played on my composition was beautiful. 

This gave me an idea for a project for B’shnorkestra entitled Global Concertos, which I undertook in 2015.  I wrote five “concertos” for five master musician soloists from other cultures which showcased their instrument and tradition: West African talking drum, Greek clarinet, North Indian vocals, Latin American piano and American jazz trumpet.  My desire with this project was to celebrate individual expression and virtuosity of musicians outside of Western classical music. Some of these collaborations were a bit terrifying — I chose these artists because their music spoke to me, but I didn’t really know how I was going to accomplish my goal.  In my meetings with the musicians I was sometimes struck by a feeling of being an irreverent American.  Living in the melting pot that we do, we forget how much tradition has formed music in other countries.  It’s often a very sacred thing, studied thoroughly and passed through generations.  And here I was, thinking I could write compositions honoring their music, some of which I had not studied.  But I held fast to my idea that music is a universal language that helps us communicate with cultures outside of our own.  I learned a lot from working with those musicians and I am happy I took the risk. 

This GLFCAM experience is another slightly terrifying experience for me because I do not have any real experience writing chamber music in this arena.  My writing experience includes one orchestral piece and a ton of music for ensembles that includes players who improvise.  My goal here is to continue to approach writing with the same kind of “universal language” attitude, to try not to let my adult mind overthink things and to enjoy the process and the music.  Music can be a refuge, it can be something that brings people together.  When current events have us feeling numb and hopeless - I think music can help us remember the good aspects of humanity.   

In our week together in Boonville, CA as a Fellow in Cycle 9 (Just a Trio), I felt an absolute kinship with the fellow composers. I was stimulated and inspired by their music and the projects they were undertaking. The music that Gabriela writes can be felt on such a deep level, and I am in awe of how she brought us together and nurtures us as students. The resident trio (Michi Wiancko, Melissa Reardon, and Raman Ramakrishnan) was amazing and brought the music to life, helping me understand the language they speak when working as an ensemble. I am so excited for this opportunity and to hear what my fellow composers have created.


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Prolific composer/trumpeter Samantha Boshnack walks her own path. Whether blasting through the alternative sonic explorations of her 14-piece alternative chamber orchestra, B’shnorkestra, or leading her own quintet, Boshnack’s compositional voice pulses with vitality. Learn more on Samantha’s bio page.

Gabriela Lena Frank