Going to New Mexico by way of Boonville
written by Nick Benavides
2018 GLFCAM Arnold and Babette Salamon Fellow, Cycle 6
When I saw photos of friends of mine smiling and hanging out with Gabriela Lena Frank (and perhaps a few chickens), I knew I had to join them. I’ve long been a fan of Gabriela, but I had a problem: I had never met her, and I was certain I was never meant to. It had been something of a running joke among my friends that she and I would always miss each other. I would go to performances and then I would chicken out after the show and leave without saying anything. One time we were even standing next to each other at the Oakland Airport baggage claim! I’m not necessarily shy, but for some reason I always found that my words failed me.
I considered not applying. Fortunately, her first lesson to me was in the application itself. The prompt said, “I want to know you better! Tell me about you.” I’m used to writing about my pieces, or about myself as a composer, but I hadn’t written about me as a person in quite some time. As I wrote about who I am I also found myself writing about who I hope to become. Writing it all down I finally felt like my goals were more articulate and, surprisingly, vulnerable. I didn’t like feeling vulnerable, but somehow, I trusted she would understand.
I’m so glad I did apply. The fun arrived at my front door before the week even began.
I live in San Francisco, and because of my relative proximity to Boonville I offered to be a driver. We agreed to meet at my apartment after I finished teaching my last day of classes. I pulled up on my motorcycle and Joel Ponce, Gabriela’s assistant, was casually sitting on this small brick wall, grinning and waving. As I approached, he introduced himself and said something, but I stared at him blankly and yelled, “I can’t hear you through my helmet!” Like a silent film, I watched him laugh and gesture for me to park so we could properly meet. As I removed my helmet I couldn’t help but tease, “My car broke, is it cool if we take this?” Joel just laughed some more. I knew we were going to get along swimmingly.
On the drive we laughed a lot and learned that we both speak Spanish and he enthusiastically agreed to let me practice with him. (Sadly, he doesn’t know what he signed up for and I’m still texting and writing him months later, even when traveling in Mexico City!) We spent some time listening to Gabriela’s Leyendas for string quartet, amazed that she could simultaneously write music so specific to her culture yet so universal. I remember saying, “you don’t have to know anything about Andean music to feel moved by this piece. I don’t know how she does it.”
I identify myself as a New Mexican first and foremost, and probably composer second. If you talk to me long enough, I can’t help but explain New Mexican red and green chile, which of course is definitely not Texas chili (almost always the first question). I eventually find myself talking about the weather (did you know we have thunderstorms and even snow?), the language (30% of New Mexicans speak Spanish?), and the local music (this odd mix of Rockabilly and Ranchera/Corrido?). I could go on as you might imagine.
However, there is something I’m ashamed to admit: Before this year I rarely, if ever, wrote music about myself. In spite of New Mexico being so dear to my heart, I always found myself enchanted by other influences, boxing off the Land of Enchantment and letting it touch every aspect of my life except composition. When I tried in the past, it always felt contrived.
My Cycle Six cohort was incredibly diverse. Pretty soon I was learning about the Tatars from Adeliia Faizullina, improvising on my sax with Danny Gouker on his trumpet, discussing music and ministry with music pastor Stanton Nelson, having a funky listening party with Dr. Dawn Norfleet, learning about Indian Classical Dance with Akshaya Tucker, and marveling at the playfulness of Timmy Peterson’s Duet for Body Percussion. I was in awe of their talent and intellect and I couldn’t help but notice their humility and vulnerability as artists – a trait they shared with Gabriela. Everything I heard and learned was sincere, true, and exposed. Writing it out now it feels obvious, but of course artists live a dual life that is private and public.
Duo Cortona mentored the workshops in one of the most constructive ways imaginable. It’s one thing to show a finished piece to the world, but it’s absolutely terrifying to show a half-finished piece to a few new friends. They performed our drafts perfectly, and asked questions about our intent before offering guidance that helped clarify the goal. I loved watching them work with other composers especially, as they showed their full expressive range and it was beneficial to learn as an observer.
My piece for Duo Cortona involves a good friend and librettist, Erin Bregman. She and I spent a lot of time talking about what we want to explore, and universal themes that she and I both relate to at a personal level. Erin wrote a beautiful libretto about a child who time after time asks her parents what she needs to do to be a grown up, only to realize that she doesn’t need their permission to act like a grown up. Inspiration and power begin with the self.
I began learning this lesson earlier in the spring after my first meeting with Gabriela. I was in the middle of a commission for Left Coast Chamber Ensemble and we sat down in her parents’ house in Berkeley to talk about my piece for the Academy. However we ended up talking about so much more. She told me about the importance of being true to self, digging deep into personal experiences, and creating opportunities for others as part of my art. My piece for Left Coast was only generally about New Mexico. I decided soon after to make it about my personal relationship with my grandparents and how they passed culture down to me, expecting me to serve as a link to others they will never meet, creating this eternal conversation.
I think I had trouble talking to Gabriela over the years because I wasn’t taking myself and my culture as seriously as she took hers. I didn’t have much to say because I didn’t like feeling as though my culture was dressing up my music, but I had it all backwards: my music is dressing up my culture. Even though most of my works are not explicitly inspired by New Mexico, they are a result of my upbringing there and my life experiences come through in them. Culture isn’t innate, it’s something learned and practiced and it’s worth fighting to preserve. If I want to cook sopaipillas like my grandparents then I need to practice making masa, if I want to be more fluent in Spanish then I need to speak and not be afraid of making mistakes (Gracias, Joel!), and if I want to write music that is quintessentially me then I need to be prepared to be vulnerable.
I’ve learned such a valuable lesson from Gabriela and the other composers: Whatever I do, I need to do it with conviction and with the willingness to make myself available and present as an artist. All of us are tapestries with countless threads woven in that are contributed by friends, mentors, family, culture, and ancestors. There are many stories to tell, and so long as I am willing to reveal those threads and lay bare my intent my art will be true to self.
I’ve made such incredible lifelong friends at GLFCAM, and I know that their influences on me will continue well after our Cycle with Duo Cortona has completed. They, Gabriela, and even Joel (Yes you, Joel!) have left an indelible mark on me. I hope we continue to learn from one another in the years ahead.
Nick has studied composition with Dan Becker, David Conte, Jack Perla, Pamela Quist, and Kurt Rohde and has received degrees in music at Santa Clara University (BA) and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (MM). Learn more on Nick's bio page.