written by Akshaya Avril Tucker
2018 GLFCAM Cynthia Jackson Ford Fellow, Cycle 6
Before I joined Cycle Two in 2017 to work with violinist Johnny Gandelsman and cellist Joshua Roman, I met Gabriela Lena Frank over Skype. It only took her an hour to understand pretty much everything about me — Who I am, what’s important to me, how I write music. We chatted while I was staying at my grandfather’s house in Glassboro, NJ, and Gabriela was wearing her ultimate composer-at-work red hoodie. Some people might wear sweatshirts to chill, but when you meet Gabi, you soon realize that she regularly multi-tasks joy and efficiency — Feeding her chickens, making tea, giggling and giving career and orchestration advice all at once. She asked me all about my life before proceeding to talk about my piece.
While combing through the score, she told me to add more “Akshaya spice” to my then unfinished duo for violin and cello. “Akshaya spice” turned out to be what many composers would call “timbre” or “color”, but it was a concept I didn’t really value or understand. That is, until Gabriela started pulling timbral ideas out of me, showing me that color was a way to tell the performer and listener who I am. (More than that, she actually cared that “Akshaya” was in the spice! I was surprised and honored.) She invited me to encode personal stories or feelings — things I wouldn’t share with anyone — in musical colors. This was an exciting idea, but what on earth would my color sound like?
I grew up in a family that encouraged multi-cultural expression and curiosity about the world. My mom in particular embraced Indian philosophy, spirituality and the arts, and it had a permanent effect on the rest of us. When I was 6 years old, I started studying cello, as well as Classical Indian dance (Odissi style). So, I found myself, while growing up in a white family in Massachusetts, engaging in Indian culture — dance, music, meditation — as well as Western chamber music, orchestra, and private cello lessons. Although these two worlds stayed separate in my life for many years, I became increasingly intent on bringing them together. One result of that intention is my study of Hindustani music, integrating it into my compositions, and collaborating with Indian musicians. At present, at least, this is where I feel most comfortable — somewhere in the middle between Indian and western music.
Right away, Gabriela recognized my struggles in combining musical traditions. She had travelled down this path before me! One of the main challenges is illuminating your own style, while borrowing from other styles. I’ve had composition teachers critique my music by saying, a bit dismissively, “This just sounds like Hindustani music.” (“Just?” I would counter in my head.) Gabriela, however, understood what I was striving for. She didn’t tell me to abandon Hindustani music at all; rather, she advised me to grow my ideas deeper in both directions, telling a story that would be incomplete without either one. “What would it sound like,” Gabriela asked, “if a viola and a pan-pipe had a baby? Imagine that sound.” I think I stared at her and laughed when she said this — The image is just too perfect. Gabriela has used her curiosity and creativity to build new roads in multi-cultural musical expression, regularly welding instruments from her ancestral home of Perú with western instruments.
Gabriela wasn’t telling me to move towards one tradition or another. As I soon found out, she welcomes musicians from many, many different backgrounds to her Academy. She values all different genres as valid places to explore; a means to find ourselves within this landscape of intermingled cultures and experiences. In this place, freely creating our own sound often means letting down our barriers between one genre and another. Creating my own sound meant diving deep into my personal experience with these cultures of music and dance. It meant developing a personal hybrid — not just translating a melody from one instrument to another, a rhythm from one instrument to another. It meant more than writing my version of “Indian music” for Western musicians to play, or vice versa.
As it happened, Boonville was an ideal place to take on this personal challenge. The Academy is now etched in my mind as a place of joy and support. Both groups of composers I met in Cycle 2 in 2017 and Cycle 6 in 2018 with Duo Cortona offered hours of interesting conversation. And, as if miraculously, each group has provided support in entirely different ways, reflecting the different struggles I’ve faced over the past year. (My grandfather, composer Edwin Avril, peacefully passed away two weeks after I left Boonville in May, 2018. My violin-cello duo, Breathing Sunlight, was dedicated to him long before that.) Even long after Cycle 2 has passed, members of our alumni cohort still look out for one another — whether they’re aware of it or not! In effect, Gabriela has created a musical community much more long-lasting than the program itself.
In Boonville, I met four outstanding performers — Joshua and Johnny, and Duo Cortona’s Rachel Calloway and Ari Streisfeld. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m always a bit nervous meeting famous people, and I generally carry an underlying expectation that egotism goes hand-in-hand with professional recognition. I’m also desperately shy at times, as Gabriela and some others have discovered. But what an inspiration to meet Joshua, Johnny, Rachel and Ari. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that are so generous and kind. They have spent years honing their musicianship at such a high level, all the while staying humble, down-to-earth, and some even making their fair share of bad jokes! (Musicians true to my own heart.) They felt equally at home giving us musical advice, leading workshops at the local Anderson Valley High School, and speaking to the friendly, curious Boonville audience who arrived at the Grange to hear them play and sing. A true gift for all of us.
Did I mention that I’m shy sometimes? Well, writing music is scary — especially experimenting, falling flat, and listening to that voice inside that tells us we’re failing. None of that is comfortable. I don’t want to give the impression that the GLFCAM is about ignoring the difficult parts of writing, as we’re relaxing, snuggling with the dogs or harvesting fava leaves from the garden. Actually, under these special Boonville conditions, the love in our community turns fear into exhilaration. It’s a special phenomenon that I wish for all student composers across the country. You know, you aren’t alone, scribbling at the keyboard, whether frustrated or inspired. You can experiment without consequences at GLFCAM. If you fall, someone is there to pick you up. Gabriela, ever transparent about her own writing process, tells composers that it’s okay to be joyful. Actually, be joyful! Play around and have fun while you write! It seems to be when some of the best stuff comes out.
In one of her final emails before we arrived in Boonville, Gabriela sent us a request, asking us to bring some special spice we enjoy, some food or treat from wherever we live — an optional treat to share with the group as we cooked together. Needless to say, we took these meals extremely seriously! (Shakshuka? Saffron rice? Vegan coconut lime sorbet?) To me, these meals exemplified the phenomenon of our diverse elements creating a satisfying whole. If you’ve eaten simple, homemade food with friends and loved ones, you know how it feels to eat a meal that nourishes your soul and eases away stress. In fact, in our communities, (schools, workplaces, places of worship…) each one of us contributes a personal spice. Your personality and your ideas have a unique flavor worth sharing, just as I’m cultivating my own as a composer. So, what will you offer this meal, this musical life? Take it out and share it with us!
Akshaya Avril Tucker is a composer, cellist and Odissi dancer, whose work is greatly inspired by the musical and dance traditions of South Asia. Learn more from Akshaya's bio page.