Frank J. Oteri: Considering that so many of your compositions reference Latin American themes, I thought a good place to begin this conversation would be to ask you about how your unique sense of identity affects the music you create.
Gabriela Lena Frank: That’s a really good question. It goes both ways. I think the music can be seen as a by-product of my always trying to figure out how Latina I am and how gringa I am. This has been something I’ve been asking ever since I was a little girl. Even my mother will remember me asking her, “Am I Peruvian just because you’re Peruvian? What does this mean?” The stories she told me seemed so exotic that some of it I could not connect to. But other things I could connect to. As part of that general trajectory, the music I was really fascinated with was music of Peru, because it was supposed to be my music. Then the music I started making was music that was my own spin on Peruvian culture. So I’m really affected from the inside out and from the outside in. Everything I do as a composer is true to my personality, but it took a while for all of that to come together. I’m still synthesizing it. I still don’t have easy answers to the question.
FJO: But in terms of your formative years, you were studying Western classical music throughout that whole time.
GLF: Yeah, but I didn’t have a lot of baggage with it. My first piano teacher was a refugee from South Africa, so she already had a very interesting perspective on classical music. She was trained at the Royal Conservatory in London. I was her first piano student in the mid ’70s, and we were in Berkeley, California, in the hippie heyday. Multiculturalism and diversity were already in before these were buzzwords in the rest of country. She would give me these pieces by this guy named Bach. But I didn’t know what a prelude was. I didn’t know he was writing for a church. I didn’t know people were writing for kings and queens. I thought kings and queens were very romantic—until I found out years later that kings and queens don’t always do good things. I didn’t think about that. The music appealed to me because it made the piano sound really wonderful. Music for piano was just music for piano; political baggage starts coming in later.
By the time I got to the university-level training program, I was a little more aware of the status quo associated with Western classical music, and it was something that I didn’t relate to. I went to very few classical music concerts as a kid growing up. I was bored by most of the music that I heard. It wasn’t really a substantial part of my listening repertoire beyond what I played at the piano.
FJO: So you had two completely different experiences going on with music at the same time: you the pianist playing Bach and you the listener who was not engaged with classical music.
GLF: Well, I listened to the music that I was playing. So, for instance, my piano teacher would make cassette tapes of 20 different people playing the piece that I was playing. So I grew up knowing all the great repertoire and interpreters. And that, to me, was very appealing. But it wasn’t in a historical or cultural context. She would also bring me over to her house on Sunday evenings; I would sit with her and her husband, and we would listen to art songs. I would hear German, and she would tell me about “Death and the Maiden” and about the story behind it. And I would hear string quartets and other chamber music. It was such a private relationship to the beauty of the music and its sonorous possibilities. And she’d explain to me what sonata form was, but didn’t necessarily put it in its context of how it developed out of certain forms that were cultural artifacts.
FJO: So you were listening to classical music, just not in concerts.
GLF: Not with that baggage. Then the other music I would listen to was folkloric music of the Andes. This was a very important time for Andean music in terms of its global exposure. A lot of coups were happening in nations that had Andean connections, that were part of the Inca empire. There was a big one in Chile, and stuff was starting to happen in Argentina. They were starting to send musicians out that were already fusing styles. A lot of these musicians would come up to the Bay area, and they were musicians from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. And for the first time, I’m meeting other people from these countries other than my mother. It was incredible for me. I was riveted. These concerts would always sell out. There was so much interest. Audiences were so diverse, so many ages. They were noisy. People talked during the concert. It was very engaged interaction between the musicians and the audiences. Sometimes dancing. They would wear traditional costumes, and I would have a visual for all the instruments and all the sounds that I was hearing on LPs that my parents had brought back from Peru. These were concerts that I did not want to leave, unlike classical music concerts; I was not bored. But my instrument was the piano. I love the piano. I took to the piano like white on rice. I did not identify with actually playing the panpipe. I loved the sound of it, and I loved the larger gestures I could understand. I was trying to replicate charango guitar, which is like a mandolin, but if you turn it over, it has the body of an armadillo on the back of it. These were so beautiful to me. I wanted to try and conjure that up at the piano.
FJO: So considering that you first came to appreciate classical music without fully being aware of its cultural baggage, I wonder what your thoughts are about people coming to your music. How important do you think is it for people to know about your cultural identity and how you have tried to find your identity through your music?
GLF: It’s important for me as the creator to be thinking about these things. I don’t know how important it is for other people. In a certain respect, I think everybody needs to be the owner of their own listening experience. Do they like to read a program note? Sometimes they do, they’re in the mood for it; sometimes they’re not. I don’t want people to be more accepting of the music just because it’s a “marginalized voice”. I don’t want them to be overloaded with information. They don’t need to know this. I remember I had a really nice compliment paid me recently by a violinist at a festival. She played a piece that had a lot of program notes to it, explanations about various mountain styles. It’s a violin and piano work. In chamber music, I can get really detailed about what I’m referencing, and there are even photos to go along with it and sound samples that I could give them of the instruments that they’re evoking. She listened to all of it, and she said it’s absolutely not necessary. She said it’s in the music on its own. Now, that’s how I got into music, without a lot of baggage, and so I understand that. I think for me it’s very satisfying if somebody can have both experiences like she did, where she had all the information, she digested it—it helped her playing—but she also said, “I would have loved it equally without knowing any of that.” I hope audiences feel the same way, too. I feel like performers know the music better than the audiences—they live with it—but I would have the same perspective also for a listener.
FJO: Now, can the music then somehow be the bridge for understanding the other culture?
GLF: Yeah. I’ve seen that time and time again now. I didn’t realize that’s what would be a result, but you hit it right on the nail. People come up to me so many times at concerts and say, “You’ve made me curious to know more; where can I listen to more of this music? I didn’t realize that these pictures of these colorful ponchos or a quena flute were from Peru. I saw it in National Geographic.” They make a connection, absolutely.
FJO: You said that the Andean musicians you went to hear at concerts were the first people you met besides your mother who were from Peru. So you didn’t grow up in a Hispanic community at all.
GLF: No, not really. And also, you’ve got to keep in mind that the Latinos I saw growing up were Mexicanos. They were from a culture that’s completely different. It took me a long time to finesse what it means for me to be Latina. I went through years where I tried to be Mexican. I was the president in college of a predominantly Mexican student club, and I was trying to judge their concerns and I delved into politics of Chicano vs. Mexicano vs. Tejano. Only at that point I started really thinking about what it means to be Latin American as opposed to a Latina, and how I wasn’t alone in trying to figure out this identity crisis. We’re children of immigrants. And there’s a kind of nostalgia and a tendency to romanticize the motherland. We think of some sort of pure time and we are thinking about how we don’t quite fit in with our peers, but we’re not exactly sure what it means to fit in.
FJO: But even though you have a background that’s not just Peruvian, and you grew up in a neighborhood that was not predominantly Latino, the titles of almost every piece of music by you are in Spanish.
GLF: Because that’s where I’m at at this point in my life. I love it that I’m Peruvian. I love claiming all this stuff, and part of the whole journey has been getting to know my family in Peru, as well. My mom comes from a family of 14 children, so there’s a lot of people that I’m connected to. I started traveling in Peru about ten years ago through the grace of good grants while I was in grad school. The first time I went I thought it was going to be this magical homecoming, and instead I was such a gringa! I got sick from the water. I got sick from the food. I sunburned. I got ear infections. I got lost. I lost money. I was in culture shock. I didn’t know how things worked in the country, and I felt rejected by the land. Yet there were enough moments where I felt so connected and I was so happy that I kept going back. And as I kept going back, I realized more through familiarity, but it also felt like remembering—I don’t know how else to put it—to get to understand part of my heritage, and all of that came along with knowing my family. They were so proud to see my mother having done well. She gave me all the things they didn’t have. She was able to give me and my older brother an opportunity for education and an opportunity for safety. When she was in the States, Peru was really being ripped apart by Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path group, and there are still little flare-ups of terrorist activity. There are tensions over in the Middle East, but we forget that this stuff is also still happening in Latin America.
FJO: You said something that I thought was interesting a little while ago about people who are children of immigrants trying to recapture this other culture, this pure culture, and one theme that pervades a number of your pieces is Inca culture. But there’s so little we know about the Incas from pre-Colombian times. In fact, there’s no surviving music of the Incas that isn’t in some way infused with the impact and influence of the Spanish conquistadors. Even the sonorities of the instruments—though certainly morphed and made into new instruments—were influenced by what was brought over. So the question then becomes: When you create something and say this is Inca music, what does that mean for you?
GLF: I remember the first time I got frustrated with how elusive my quest was, which was to understand who I was. I thought I needed to just uncover something that was static. That once I could uncover the Inca identity, I would know where I came from. I didn’t realize that the Incas themselves were a conduit. We’ve always been multicultural, we’ve always been migrating and comfortable with that. But once I figured that out, it gave me freedom. I felt like it was OK for me to put a spin on this music. It’s all right for the next piece to be something different than what I’ve done before. That said, I did look for very concrete sources in the work of colleagues of mine who were ethnomusicologists, some of whom wanted this music to be very static. They really wanted to be able to identify exactly what Inca music is. It’s very interesting to me to look at old instruments that we dig up and to look at what kinds of scales or notes are possible—taking into consideration the materials change over centuries, so you start producing different frequencies depending what fingerings you’re using. You use a Western fingering, you’re going to pull out the famous, infamous, pentatonic scale. Or if you use fingerings that you see on vases, like Mochica vases or on stone reliefs, they’re different fingerings. We don’t know how careless or how attentive the artist was who was crafting this, so really our basis for knowing what Inca music is is to look at Andean music today, which we know has changed. It’s a creative thing. It’s an elusive beast, and you have to be able to be comfortable with that. I’m more comfortable now, but I’m still not completely at ease with it.
FJO: Now, in terms of cultural heritage, in all the various biographical materials of you that appear on program notes everywhere—
GLF: It’s so crazy. I’m such a mutt.
FJO: Yeah, I love it. Peruvian, Jewish, Chinese.
GLF: And Peruvian itself is Spanish and Indian, many kinds of Indian.
FJO: So how do those other strands surface in your sense of identity?
GLF: Chino, not at all, except I have written for Chinese instruments. I was invited in by the Silk Road Project, and they didn’t even know I had Chino. That’s not why I was invited in. They were just looking for somebody that had some fluency now in combining multicultural idioms. I write for a pipa like a bad ass. I really do. And the reason is that I went and I bought a pipa. I really love that almost harpsichord-ish sound to it.
In the piece I wrote for Silk Road, I made a pun off of a name. It’s called Ritmos Anchinos instead of Andinos. We say Chino in Spanish, so ritmos and Chinos. It’s in homage to my Chinese grandfather. But it’s really Andean-ish—charango with Wu Man in mind. That girl was a Latina in a previous life. Her humor, her flamenco chops, she’s so multicultural and generous with her perspective that I felt free to do something like that. But the Chino influence is really an overlay. It’s not something I’m doing from the inside.
FJO: But this is a story that very rarely gets told. I assume it’s your grandfather from the maternal side.
GLF: Maternal side, yeah.
FJO: So he came to Peru.
GLF: But he didn’t come like the famous coolies did; he didn’t come indentured in any way to work on railroads and the gold rush. The Chinos didn’t just stop in California. They kept on going down the coast. There are huge Chinatowns now that are very, very interesting in Latin America. There is one way in which I am Chino, and that’s in my cuisine. I grew up eating chifa. Chifa is Chinese-Peruvian stir-frying. I can make lots of chifa dishes. This is the only thing I can really claim as something that’s been with me for a long time. My great grandfather is the one who’s Chinese. He came over as a man of means. He was able to pay his passage, and he set up shops in a town called Moro, which means Moor, and was telling everybody how multicultural this nation of Peru is. And Peru has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with China, sharing workers back and forth.
FJO: That’s true for other Asian countries, as well. There’s a much wider cultural exchange than most people are aware of. Peru at one point even elected a president whose parents came from Japan.
GLF: And they call him Chino: El Chino. They don’t say the Japanese guy. This very loose, casual handling of ethnicities is something you find in a lot of Latin American countries because it’s just so fluid. At the same time, it can be a very segregated society.