Schirmer’s Newest Star: Gabriela Lena Frank



Gabriela Frank
Photo by Sabina Frank

Bay Area composer and pianist Gabriela Lena Frank became the newest addition to G. Schirmer, Inc.‘s prestigious roster last month, adding a distinct new voice to the publisher’s line-up. Frank first showed up on Schirmer’s radar at last year’s ASCAP Young Composer Awards ceremony when Susan Feder, vice president of Schirmer, heard Frank perform a movement her piano sonata. After that moment, Feder became a major force behind adding the 30-year old composer to Schirmer’s publishing family. “I was absolutely bowled over,” Feder recalls. “We got into a conversation after that and I was very, very struck by the sheer energy, invention, exuberance, and optimism of the music and of the person.”

“She’s been exploring her own roots and she has been doing so in very interesting ways: combining photography and music, and replicating sounds that she’s hearing for conventional instruments,” Feder continued. “I just thought she’s going to some very interesting places and I’d like to help her.”

For Frank, working with Schirmer has “been a dream.” Schirmer has already been spreading the word about the newest member of their roster. “Even before we signed her I was introducing her to people,” Feder remembers. Several projects that Frank had in the works before signing are taking shape with the added influence of Schirmer including a commission from the Albany Symphony Orchestra for a symphony that will open their 2003-04 season.

Also around the corner, is a recording devoted exclusively to Frank’s music, but she has run into a common problem for composers, especially since the collapse of CRI. “All the pieces are done, all the players are lined up, the studio’s lined up, there are a couple of different labels that want to put it out…We just have to get the money!” Perhaps Schirmer can be of assistance. “Schirmer tends to move pretty fast!” Frank observed early on.

They do have a reputation for moving their composers quickly through the ranks. “Schirmer grew by signing Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti and John Corigliano in their ’20s and nurturing young composers until they became the leaders in our musical community in new ways,” Feder reminds us. “And it’s very exciting to find a fresh voice.”

Frank’s “fresh voice” has been shaped by a deeply-personal mixture of cultures. Her first encounter with music was the listening to the pan pipes and charangos that colored the recordings of Andean music that her Peruvian mother had brought to the United States upon marrying her husband, an American of Lithuanian-Jewish descent. When she was just a child, the family realized that Gabi had inherited her grandmother’s perfect pitch and ability to improvise, so they did what any American parents would do when they saw a musical gift in their child—they signed her up for piano lessons. “My training as a little kid was on Bach, Beethoven,” she explained from her Bay Area apartment upon returning from a 3-week trip to Peru. “So the sonata form, those kind of forms, those kinds of sensibilities were very natural to me.”

She excelled at learning the classics and became a sought after interpreter of contemporary works, but even as a child her ear sought to go beyond the piano’s capabilities. “I do remember trying to replicate pan pipe sounds at the piano, even at that age, trying to get the same kinds of sonorities and the split tones that you might hear…I wasn’t really interested in the typical string sounds, you know typical vibrato. I was interested in the kind of vibrato that a flutist would use in Peru, which is very different.”

From a very young age, Andean folk music and the western classical music tradition were entwined in Frank’s perception of music. But it was during her undergraduate days as a piano and composition student at Rice University that she began to understand how the two could work together from a compositional standpoint. “I had a very astute piano teacher at the time, Jeanne Fischer, who introduced me to the music of Ginastera and without even taking the music and playing it yet, just looking at the score, I could identify what he was doing. I could see the guitar tunings and I could see rhythms that were very common to Latin America and it was so natural and so easy, it never seemed like I had to reconcile anything very difficult in bringing two cultures together.” And certainly her facility with integrating such divergent traditions is apparent in many of her compositions such as her piano-cello duo Ríos Profundos (hear a RealAudio sample), based on the classic Peruvian novel of the same name by José María Arguedas, or her intense cello quartet that was played by ModernWorks! and featured in a NewMusicBox webcast last year.

Of course, sometimes Frank runs into compositional challenges when trying to fit folk elements into stricter classical forms. “Sometimes I feel that in the West we’re more preoccupied with form than Asian culture, than African culture…I’m a little more western in that way, so sometimes I will try to cement something that is very folk-influenced to a western sensibility and that does not always work.” But she points out that this is what composing is all about. “You’re always trying to be more innovative and arrive at the perfect solution better than you did last time.”

But while Frank found it easy to place the two different sides of her musical heritage in the same pot, curiosity provoked her to dig deeper into her roots. She started traveling to South America to probe into the continent’s folk music traditions as an undergrad and has since become a champion of many underrepresented Latin American composers. She was a key figure in the transcription and publication of a volume of piano works by the Venezuelan composer, Ramón Delgado Palacios, and currently she is involved in a project with Peruvian ethnomusicologist Raul Romero to record piano music by indigenous composers of the Andes. “It’s very unusual. You know, these manuscripts are all over the country, usually in private collections or the descendants of them are hoarding them because they’re precious and somebody in their family was literate enough to write down the music of their rituals or their celebrations or their festivals in some rural town. Usually they wrote it for piano because there would be a piano in an old church nearby.”

And as if being a gifted pianist, composer, and researcher was not enough, Frank has also dedicated herself to intensive outreach projects in the United States. Of particular note is the three years she spent during graduate school at Michigan as a volunteer with HASTA (Hispanic Americans Striving Towards Achievement), a Latino prison group at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facilities outside of Detroit. She continues to work with prisoners at San Quentin State Prison now that she has moved back to the Bay Area.

While her passion fuels her multiplicity of activities, being pulled in so many directions can certainly be a time drain. So when she was approached by G. Schirmer about becoming a part of their roster, she saw this opportunity not only as a way to bring her music to a wider audience, but also a means by which she could continue to pursue her various projects. With Schirmer doing the legwork for the promotion of her music, she will have a lot more time to focus on her piano-playing, composing, travel, research, and outreach. “It frees me up. That’s the big thing. I’ve never really been one for a lot of networking although I enjoy people’s company, I don’t find it very difficult to do, it’s just that actually writing music and going off and holing up in South America for weeks on end is more interesting for me.” Her next trip to South America will begin in June and she will travel through Peru, Argentina, and Paraguay before ending up in Brazil in August.