Life Outside the Golden Cage: Composer Gabriela Lena Frank in profile
Dayton Hare, Senior Arts Editor, The Michigan Daily
To a certain extent, creation is, at its very core, a synthetic act. Not synthetic in the sense of artificiality or fakeness, but rather in the sense that the product of creation is nearly always one of synthesis, the coming together of disparate elements to form some greater, compounded whole. Artists, like all of us, wander through life picking up the scattered pieces of the things that come to form their identities, borrowing influences and welding ideas together in endless cycles of combination and fusion. In many artists, this manifests itself subtly, but for others it can take on a more overt appearance. For some, it’s as if they take up the mantle of synthesis as a kind of mission.
More than most, perhaps, the composer Gabriela Lena Frank personifies this particular ethic. Born in 1972 in Berkeley, California, Frank came into being in a country (and city) that was flooded with the tumult surrounding the Vietnam War protest movement and humming with the residual energy of the ’60s. In a certain sense, she is the daughter of both immigrants and the optimism of that decade.
“My father was a graduate student at Cal, that’s why he went to Berkeley,” Frank said in an interview with the Daily. “He had just finished a stint in the Peace Corps, where he was stationed in Peru, where he met my mom.”
Frank’s father is a scholar of Mark Twain, her mother a stained glass artist and a Peruvian women of Chinese descent. The maternal facet of Frank’s heritage has had a profound influence on her musical work; however, the road to the complete blossoming of this cultural influence in her music was long and circuitous. Initially — though surrounded by culture and the arts through her family — Frank wasn’t even aware that she wanted to be a composer at all.
“I didn’t think I was going to be a professional musician. I didn't think that was possible,” Frank said. “I thought music was something that you did for fun, and I didn’t know any professional musicians. The most professional musician I knew was my piano teacher, and she’s a wonderful lady, she’s in her 80s, she still teaches, but she’s a neighborhood piano teacher, she’s not concertizing on the road or doing something like that.”
But Frank’s early artistic and cultural influences ran deep, and started early. Unaware though she was of the professional music world, the roots of her future began to expand even during her childhood.
“We were always a creative family, one that was invested in reading literature, [consuming] art, and so that was a powerful influence,” Frank said. “My father had the presence of mind to get me started on a music instrument when I was quite young: I wasn’t quite five, but I was already drawn to the little spinet piano that was in the house. This despite the fact that I … was born with a moderate to profound hearing loss.”
Reduced hearing notwithstanding, Frank’s early affinity for music manifested itself in ways that were indicative of a curious and creative mind. Though still without an inkling that professional music making was a viable option, already in her youth Frank was practicing some of the same modes of creation that would later form the foundation of her career. Taking influence from the traditional music of South America that she heard during her youth, Frank would include folk music and Andean elements when improvising at the piano.
“Though I was playing what my piano teacher gave me, the usual diet of Clementi and Haydn, she also encouraged my experiments with mixing styles, just improvising on my own, making up my little songs,” Frank said. “I didn’t write anything down on paper, but I was already doing some semblance of what I do now professionally.”
Despite this, Frank’s knowledge of this aspect of her heritage was primarily secondhand, and what interactions she had with Peruvian music came mostly from recordings. This period of Frank’s life was also concurrent with Andean music’s increase in popularity in the United States and Europe, as the Canto nuevo and Nueva cancíon movements began to take hold internationally. Partly as a result of this, Frank began to see musicians who “looked a lot like (her) mom.”
“My awareness of Peruvian culture was from a distance, because we did not ever go to visit Peru,” Frank explained. “[Peru] was really in troubled times, particularly during the ’80s, when Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path, it was known as — a terrorist group inspired by Maoist philosophy — was really tearing the country apart. So we stayed away.”
As Frank grew up, receiving good grades in high school and “with an eye towards Russian studies” (as a result of the intense interest generated by Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost reforms, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the slow disintegration of the Iron Curtain during the ’80s), the course of her life was permanently altered by a summer experience.
“I took a music program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music over the summer before my last year in high school, and it changed my life, because I was exposed to this whole music world I didn’t know existed,” Frank said. “This idea of becoming a composer came to me right away. I didn’t know what that meant, or what it was like, but I had written my first piece down on paper, and heard it come to life at the hands of other kids my age and younger, and I was hooked, instantly. Instantly.”
Not long after, Frank was accepted to the music composition program at Rice University — a turn of events which Frank describes as “very lucky” — and began studying composition formally, a course of study that later brought her to the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, where she received her doctorate in 2001. While at Michigan, she studied with current faculty member Michael Daugherty and former faculty members and Pulitzer prize-winning composers William Bolcom and Leslie Bassett. Frank, who in addition to composing is also a prodigious and Grammy-nominated pianist, later went on to record the complete piano music of Bassett (who sadly died last year).
While working on her doctorate, Frank began to remember her love for South American folk music, and inspired by composers like the Hungarian Béla Bartók and the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera — who did similarly with their own cultures — started to combine elements of Andean music with her classical training, like she did as a child.
“I realized that I had found my mission,” Frank explained. “I wanted to, in a very general way, be as mestiza in my music as I was in my person: I’m multiracial, I’m multicultural, and I think that that’s something deeply American. I love my country, and I’m surrounded by daughters and sons of immigrants that contribute and work hard — that was uppermost in my mind then, and in the course of recent events in our country it’s uppermost in my mind now. It’s something that has become more urgent in my work as a musician, not less so.”
According to Frank, the intervening years of study lacked some of the earlier and later Peruvian influence largely because she needed to build up her musical fundamentals. But following her exposure to the music of people like Bartók and Ginastera, she started to think about it again.
“I had so much to do before I even began to blend styles … Bartók and Ginastera are still heroes to me,” Frank said. “And I studied with another [composer who blended styles], William Bolcom at Michigan, who welded turn of the century American song and cabaret with ragtime and dixie and his own personal style. So it was a natural reawakening — I’m not even sure that awakening is quite the right term, it’s more that I had to focus on getting tools.”
During her doctoral studies and after deciding on her path, Frank began to delve deeper into her cultural roots, seeking out the musical traditions of Peru with vigor. At this time she started to travel to the South American country, bringing along her mother and getting to know a branch of her family that resides on the other side of the Earth’s curve.
“While I was at Michigan I found grants — because nobody goes to Latin America for classical music,” Frank explained. “Everybody goes to Europe, you go to Austria, Vienna, Paris — you don’t go to Ayacucho, you don’t go to Arequipa, you don’t go to Lima or these places in the Andes.”
Frank and her mother went to visit their Peruvian family, and through them Frank learned a tremendous amount about the traditions and repertoire of Andean music. Frank’s mother comes from a family of around 14 children, many of whom, of course, have children of their own. These aunts, uncles and cousins are the ones who helped Frank in her effort to reconnect to her familial past.
“My family likes to joke that in any town you’ll find someone we’re related to,” Frank related. “And that was really important to me, and it’s been really moving to hear their stories and to know their experiences, and to realize that I’m the outlier, I’m the wing of the family that went north to the United States, that’s half Jewish, and I’m a symphonic composer.”
During her trips, Frank would bus around the country with her cousins, going to festivals, concerts and dances. Her mother would come with her, and together she and Frank would see parts of the country that she had been too poor to see during the years before she immigrated to the United States.
“All my trips are a little bit of ethnomusicology, I guess, but it’s actually more personal and more creative and I get inspiration by the music I hear,” Frank said. “I often will suddenly recognize [something] even though I’ve never seen it before in Peru, and I know that I must have heard it when I was growing up, either on the LPs that my dad had that he brought over from Peru, or in a concert that musicians were giving, who were traveling from Peru or Bolivia and Ecuador.”
This aspect of her identity has become one of the foremost features of Frank’s music, a quality which she has consciously embraced: “My music often is like a travelogue.”
“When I realized, ‘Hey, this is something that I can do,’ it came as a very conscious choice on my part,” Frank said. “I thought it meant I would not have much of a career, to be honest … I thought that I would be maybe a well-loved teacher somewhere.”
Now in the middle of a prosperous career, Frank has started to branch out into teaching, something which she had set aside for many years. Last year she founded an academy of music at her home, where she gathers together emerging composers for a summer of study. No longer living in Berkeley, Frank and her academy are located in the small town of Boonville, about two hours north of the San Francisco Bay area, where she hopes to foster a healthy artistic environment that will simultaneously enrich the musicians and the local community.
“It’s a very diverse crew, and my hope is to make each and every one of my composers strengthen their individual voices and their individual stories and to be able to craft a real income and a living from what they do,” Frank said. “[I also want] to try and have them become aware of, yes, working on their national and international profile and getting these great performances … but then also focusing on something extremely local, and trying to volunteer at the high school, with music, maybe an after school program, or any way that they can, because we’re not meant to be just stuck in a golden cage, we’re suppose to be out in the community, and it doesn’t mean that we’re less of a thinker or less of an artist for doing that.”
In its first year of existence, Frank’s academy drew composers from a variety of diverse backgrounds. On the academy’s first concert of premieres by the student composers, there was music by a Mexican-American composer, by a Polish and Chinese composer, an Irish composer and a Hawaiian composer, among others. To Frank, this element of diversity is extremely important.
“It was beautiful, really beautiful to see the different distinct American voices we have,” Frank said. “And they all had premieres, in this tiny little community, to a standing ovation in a packed house. It was really magical.”
Part of the uniqueness of Frank’s new academy is the extent of her personal involvement. Unlike many of summer festivals scattered across the globe, Frank’s festival opens up her own home to the students, and she is deeply involved in every aspect of the summer. Because of this, in its first year the academy was somewhat of an “under-the-radar” affair, quite intentionally.
“First of all I was thinking, ‘God, I don’t want to make this big announcement: What if I hate it, what if it takes too much time and I can’t make my deadlines?’ But you know, after the first session I was hooked,” Frank explained.
Each of the composers selected to participate in the academy was carefully selected, people who Frank had come across and been impressed by personally in some way.
“I hand picked everybody. There was no open call for scores,” Frank elaborated. “These were all composers that I had at least known something of, who I might have met briefly at one of my guest visits to their school, maybe heard just one piece of theirs. And I quietly just asked about them, were they of good character, were they going to work hard — after all, when it comes to Boonville, they’re coming to my house, I’m opening my home and opening my life to people, so I wanted to be careful about that.”
Moving into the future, the academy now has a website and is taking applications for its second year. Frank is interested in a broad variety of students, not just in terms of cultural background, but even diversity of age.
“[The program is for] anybody that considers themselves emerging,” Frank said. “You have a lot of people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, who started composing not too long ago, and are just as much in need of a boost as those in their 20s. So I’m very open. I just need to see talent, a work ethic, good character… I think it’s a myth that you need to group together artists by different levels.”
Through it all, Frank’s hope is to foster strong and compelling compositional voices from each of her students. The final destination of all of Frank’s efforts remains to be seen, but the road to it runs through her roots. Her own unique compositional voice is essential to who she is today, a composer recognized internationally for her abilities and one of the leading voices for multiculturalism in music. She is a living example of how something old can go into the creation of the new: Despite the importance that her heritage and traditional Peruvian music plays in her work, each piece she writes is uniquely her own, reshaped and informed by the past but independent from it.
“[The Andean influence] changes just because it has to mix and blend with my psyche, which was formed here, was formed in the United States,” Frank said. “I’ve spent most of my time here, in my home country. For me, again, I feel like that’s very American. We bring in a lot of cultures, eat it up and make it into something new. We’ve been doing that for centuries.”