The first time I heard Gabriela Lena Frank’s music live – with Gabriela herself improvising on a piano at an intimate gathering in Berkeley, California – I was surprised and a little embarrassed to find tears streaming down my face. I know next to nothing about contemporary classical music, and I often find it too dissonant and challenging to truly enjoy, but that evening, Gabriela’s music just knocked me out. Of course, I’m not alone. The Los Angeles Times calls her work “luminous… bursting with fresh originality” while the Washington Post notes its “unself-conscious craft and mastery.”
In 2009, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Latin American Grammy for “Inca Dances,” and was featured in a PBS documentary on her collaboration with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Clearly, Gabriela is an artist in the full bloom of her creative powers, and one of the major new musical voices of her generation.She is also a wonderfully rich, realized human being, without a zot of the pretention or preciousness that could easily accompany her rare musical gifts, as you’ll see for yourself, in this conversation with Gabriela over a long dinner at my home in Richmond, California, in July 2009.
YO: As ignorant as I am about what you’ve done musically, I do have this strong sense that you are one of those rare people who can successfully integrate your individual personal genius with your energy and your actions, creating a great…
GLF: I think a lot of it comes from discomfort, and discomfort with accepting my training in music, accepting the vision that other people had for me, of music. I didn’t disrespect my teachers necessarily. For a long time I thought I wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t fit in in a certain way. Then, I started to start to live with the discomfort and say this discomfort is good, this is who I am, so I’m in that feeling all the time now and it’s just a rewiring. It’s not changing your feelings, it’s changing your intellectual appraisal of it.
I think it’s very important for teachers to do to young developing spirits, when they’re creative or intellectual — to trust their instincts and to go deep with it. We all have these ways of bucking the norm, we all have this potential. I got lucky in that whatever risk-taking spirit I have in me – I just chucked the normal path very suddenly, very early, and almost totally. Although I love certain composers in classical music. I’m not a total classical music aficionado, which is a great irony. It’s where I could get the best training, but I had to fit it into a different kind of mold.
My travel in Latin America wasn’t like a homecoming. It was very difficult – because I’m gringa – I was born here. You know, this is my country, the United States is my country. Peru is a tangential country for me. It’s where I find a lot of answers, it’s something that has always held a lot of mystery for me growing up. I had never visited Peru. I didn’t visit Peru until I was 27 years old, so 10 years ago. And it was very much tied to meeting my family, you know my mom’s family… she comes from a family of 14 children, so there’s a huge history there that I never knew.
And I think that a lot of the impulse to keep going with the music had to do with the connection to the family, because it was always Peruvian music that really interested me. You know before I was really thinking about my mom’s family that much as a little girl, I loved Peruvian music. I had a visceral reaction just to that sound – and for me that’s the greatest argument I can make for some sort of genetic memory of culture, that somehow sifted through to this little gringa girl growing up, whose first language is English.
I welded my love of Peruvian music to all this hard core musical training I got [at Rice University in Houston as an undergraduate, and then at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for a Ph.D.]. We were like athletes, what they did to us. We trained for like 8-9 hours on an instrument every day. And then we were studying all these pieces, picking them apart. Given 10-20 different interpretations of a song. We just got skills, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have a vision, you know. And unfortunately my belief is that we turn out a lot of musicians that haven’t developed their vision skill.
So what if you’re a good sous chef, that you can cut things. If you can’t devise new ways to combine food and spices, you can’t create – you can just re-enact. You’re not going to contribute. You’ll maintain a status quo, so you’ll keep programming the same pieces of music. You’ll keep upholding a certain model of European culture that itself has changed a lot, and I think coming from a place of discomfort has been very good for me and is very good when I see it in young composers now, when I go into conservatories and universities. I see that they are struggling. I look at some of their music and see that they are trying to cut out, like a surgeon, the life that’s in their music – exactly what’s making it unique, just like little hints of it. I’m like this moment. That is you, and you have to start from here and make it bigger. And I can see this look of relief on their faces. To give them that permission – they just need somebody to tell them that has been doing it. I had a couple good teachers also doing that and though they didn’t necessarily say those words I think to them it was just obvious I was gonna do that. I was already taking off to Latin America.
They didn’t know how much fear I had in doing that, ’cause I kept that to myself, I’ve always kept that to myself. I don’t feel any differently than I did when I was five years old. I just have more confidence. When I was five I wasn’t scared, but liking Peruvian music and taking Peruvian music and doing that for Western piano — no one told me you can’t do that.And then I went through a period when I was supposed to be a straight-laced Mozart pianist, you know, and just play Beethoven, play it a certain way, and then when I discarded that, it felt kind of like I couldn’t hack it, and I couldn’t have that career, so I thought oh well! I might as well go to Latin America! And then I went, and ironically, that’s what gave me more answers, gave me confidence.
YO: You are saying that when you were making the decision to go to South America, and turn away from the normal young classical music composer track of competitions, that there was a lot of fear and feeling of not being able to hack it. But even then, didn’t you have an intuitive sense that this was the right thing — that it wasn’t that you weren’t good enough?
GLF: It was both, it was a paradoxical place, because it was both at the same time. One minute it was like one, then I would careen to the other feeling…it was both…it felt good and awful at the same time. It still feels good and awful at the same time. I’ve gotten comfortable with that, you know, that it feels good and awful. Awful could be something physical, like I get sick from food there, physical rejection of my body, but then I’m feeling great because I just understood some Peruvian slang. Or I got a song before my cousins did – I realize I’m really getting something, or I could sort of identify where something came from, in an intuitive way, not an intellectual way. There’s an academic understanding of this stuff, then there’s a feeling for it. Or it sparks a response in me and I know what I’m going to do with it, and I know that I’m going to change it in a way that’s authentic but you could not even tell where it came from.
That’s the next step to culture, where you’re not just making a mirror to it, but cheaply, because you’re not doing the indigenous tools and indigenous musical instruments. We have a lot of these Westernized translations of whatever, food, music, paintings, you know whatever. And then there’s the stuff that’s the beautiful next step. That’s what happens to Latin American culture when it comes to the states, like Tex-Mex, or whatever. And it becomes it’s own thing, and it’s every bit as legitimate. There’s the charlatan development as well, but then there’s the legit,so if I’m in that right place of where it feels good and awful, feels intuitive, and yet it feels like I’m grappling with it, and wrestling with it – that’s why I compose – It’s from that I have to compose. Because the piece of music represents a challenge that I set up for myself, something I want to figure out and the answer comes at the end when I put that bar line at the end of the piece.
And kind of like with the ISO experience [Indiana Symphony Orchestra.See video on YouTube]. I have to answer to a lot of constituencies, where that piece of music can reflect something private that I’m wondering about – the musicians will never know that it’s coming from 35 years of neurosis, wondering, you know, how gringa I am and how latina I am, but they get some sort of sense of it. It could be the lyricism of it, it could be the hinting of other cultures, if it’s a trio for oboe, flute and piano, making the oboe sound like an erkencho, which is a clarinet kind of instrument from Argentina, and it keeps doing something that is totally against oboe technique, and they sound really good but they’ve never known that they have permission to do that – their teachers have always told them not to do that, and here I am demanding, with oboe lingo, to do a non-oboe kind of thing. You’re going up against a lot of different impulses in there. In the end, what filters through to the audience is some evoked image of another culture, but it’s not quite Argentinean, it’s not quite Latin American, it’s a third thing, and that’s my job, to try to represent cultural growth in that way with these kinds of ingredients, an oboe, a piano, and a Western flute.
So that only comes about because I have the discomfort, and if I didn’t have the discomfort, it would be just like laying down bricks or something in a path already determined. It would be very easy for me to take Peruvian tunes and play them straight on a piano, and give it a little oompah, oompah, you know and just do something like that, but I’m missing all the great things a piano can do. The piano can maybe fatten it out, and now it sounds like it’s several of those South American musical instruments, and I know several of those instruments. That’s gonna come from this part of the country and that’s what they do in that part of the country. I come back to the piano, and it’s like a dialogue between the two. It doesn’t quite work, and the piano fixes it. And the piano does this, but I just knock it over here, and so that’s again the discomfort, of unifying all these things that don’t belong together, that produces that piece of music
YO: I love this idea of the discomfort, because it sounds like such a Buddhist thing – do you know this woman named Tara Brach? There’s a Western Buddhist teacher who wrote a book called Radical Acceptance>, which is the best thing that I’ve read in ages. It came out of deep discomfort — her own and everyone else’s — deep discomfort with our own selves. And she’s talking about deeply accepting our own selves and our own fears.
On one of Tara Brach’s podcasts — she was giving a teaching and she said that the Buddha, when he was under the Boddhi tree, in the process of enlightenment, was tempted by a demon called Mara. The Buddha’s disciples were all around and Mara would come to the Buddha, in this dark night of the soul and Mara would come to the Buddha in all these guises, as temptation and as fear – as horrifying things. Mara was the bad force, and the disciples would be like ssssssssssssss trying to shoo him off, but the Buddha would invite Mara to tea. And that was the most powerful thing that I’ve personally ever read or heard about Buddhist thought, because I’ve heard or been taught this concept in so many different ways, but this was the first time I understood that it was something that I myself could actually do. Oh, I can invite Mara to tea – you know, I’m scared, I’m freaked out, I’m this, I’m that, I’m uncomfortable…I can invite this feeling to tea, invite it in…
GLF: I never thought of it that way, I mean, I never made the connection. I had read that also, Buddhist readings, or heard that it would be weird if you weren’t scared. And you’re gonna survive it, and the fear maybe won’t hurt what you’re trying to achieve…
YO: And it’s what is…
GLF: It is it.
YO: And you were just saying that, the discomfort itself is itself a creative place…
GLF: Yeah, create that sound…
YO: Do you come up against writer’s block?
GLF: Uh, I procrastinate. The problem is that I can get a lot done at the last minute. Which I hate, I don’t physically feel good when I do it. I’ve gotten much better about it, just working consistently. That’s my big goal over the next couple of years, just working to make that a big part of my life. I just work a certain number of hours a day, then I stop. Even if I’m inspired, I know I’m gonna pick up more inspiration the next day. I have a pretty finely honed creative apparatus up there. They don’t teach you that in school, the skill of being creative, ironically.