Gabriela Lena Frank: Composite Identity

Frank J. Oteri: How does that fluidity play out in your compositional language? How do you translate that musically?

Gabriela Lena Frank: I would say it’s a matter of degree. Some pieces will sound more or less Latin, but that can mean a lot of different things. There have been times where somebody heard something and they’re expecting a certain sound, and then there’s nothing Latin in the music itself. It’s just programmatically based on a myth, a fairy tale from Latin America. And they get a little upset. They come up to me and say, “What was Latin about that? I didn’t hear anything Latin.” Other times, it’s too Latin for them. “String quartets don’t play like that.” And so it’s fluid in the degree in which I will pull on influences.

Often it depends on what new style I have been studying. I’ve been for about four or five years now—not just casually—really getting to understand Afro-Peruano culture, which is so beautiful and such an important part of Peruvian identity. And they’re very proud of it. Part of the reason is that there are several dance groups that have come out now from Peru. Jolgorio is a big one. It’s been touring all around the States. There’s a very important scholar who’s finally being written about named Nicomedes Santa Cruz, who was like a black Peruvian Bartók. He collected stories in addition to music. He also wrote a lot of poetry. I’ve been translating a lot of his poems into English, and I’d like to set them to song. At the moment, I’m totally intimidated. They’re such blood and guts texts that I really have to be able to honor his legacy, and it’s going to take me a while to figure that out.

FJO: Now would you set them in English or Spanish?

GLF: I prefer Spanish because that’s the language that he sang in. But the English would just be for the translations.

FJO: I wanted to return to a comment you made earlier about the pentatonic scale.

GLF: The dreaded pentatonic scale. People, we’re more than five.

FJO: That scale has been used to conjure so many different kinds of ethnic music: Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, African, Latin music even. It exists in so many different parts of the world. So in a way to give it a specific ethnic identity—

GLF: It’s pointless. It’s not highlighting the uniqueness of anybody. We’ve all used it, and it’s historically part of a lot of cultures.

FJO: So then what would be an example of a sound that would be identifiably Latin? When somebody said to you that a string quartet shouldn’t sound like such-and-such, it’s too Latin, what does that actually mean musically?

GLF: Gotta ask that person. I’m still wondering what they were pinpointing in that specific instance. Although they liked the piece, they just thought it wasn’t appropriate for quartet. I don’t know. Peruvian music is so diverse that Peruvians themselves argue about what’s truly Peruvian. From town to town, people argue about who owns the true huayno, which is a quintessential Indian form. If you want one from Ayacucho, oh, they’re so sad. This was the birthplace of Sendero Luminoso; there’s a real element of tragedy. Or do you want the huayno that’s been tempered with Peruvian-African influences from the southern coastal part of Peru, Chincha or Ica? And so, within the country itself, they’re not in agreement about what it is. Huayno should be nothing more than Andean harp, a sad violin, and maybe a quena, if they can afford it. But then here I come along and say I’m going to write a huayno for string quartet. I feel that as long as I’m aware of how people are invested in different forms, I’m not being irresponsible; I can legitimately put my own spin on what a huayno is.

FJO: Now, in your trips to Peru, I imagine you bring your music with you and play recordings. Or maybe local groups there play some of this music.


Peruvian Musicians
Photo by Gabriela Lena Frank

GLF: The response has been so overwhelmingly positive to the recordings that I have brought that I feel almost embarrassed and I haven’t quite analyzed that sentiment. I’ve been able to develop a very strong language for string quartet, [but] to date I’ve not come across a string quartet in Peru that has the conservatory chops to play some of these things. But I have come across panpipe players that could do the equivalent and beyond. They can hocket a line like you’ve never seen before and never get off. And so I actually try to appropriate those virtuosic tendencies and bring it to string quartet.

I recently hooked up with Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who’s starting an amazing project called Caminos del Inka which will be the Andean version of the Silk Road project. The Camino Road—the Inca path or Inca road—is our Silk Road. It’s what united the Inca kingdom, which was the dominant civilization at that time when the Spaniards came over. He and I have had some very interesting conversations about classical music and how it finds a life in Latin America. Latin America still suffers from this awful colonial hangover. The greatest musical treasure of Latin America, personally for me, is its folkloric music, not necessarily its classical music, classical—meaning for the orchestra, for string quartets.

FJO: So would you ever think about writing for those folkloric ensembles?

GLF: It’s a different kind of cross-fertilization I’ve not done a lot yet. But I’m in discussions with some musicians to do that. Most of them don’t read music, so there’s going to have to be a lot of back and forth. They have incredible memories, and they’re able to memorize anything.

FJO: You mentioned earlier how you were able to put a lot of details about performing techniques in a piece of chamber music. The bulk of your catalogue is still chamber music, but you’re starting to compose more and more for orchestra. How much detail is in those scores? How much detail could you ever have in an orchestral score where a musician is likely to look at it on his or her stand, maybe a couple of times?

GLF: Orchestra musicians may not even have the program note. It’s got this exotic Indian name, and they don’t even know what it means. They don’t know what they’re trying to conjure. It’s been a real big dilemma, but the way I’ve gotten around it is to talk to players on my own in between the rehearsals. I grab them backstage and I’ll sweet talk ‘em. And I’ll say, “Can you do this? Can you get a more breathy tone?” Or talk to the principals: “Can you tell your viola section to play this on a C string and up high and put on a sordino? Let’s add that and that will sound more like a panpipe. You know, sound more like a breathy wind instrument from the highlands of Peru. It’s got to have that.” But it’s not in the score necessarily, and that’s been a real dilemma for me.

But chamber groups, I can get it into the score and most of the chamber groups playing my stuff now live with the music for so long they want all that extra information. They’ll e-mail me and ask me even more and follow up with recordings. That said, I’ve been very blessed so far. The conductors and the orchestras that have played my stuff have given me a lot of rehearsal time. I’ve been very lucky. And they have asked for explanations and have asked for me to talk to the orchestra. We’re in rehearsal taking up precious minutes of time and union regulated hours to be able to do this. So it hasn’t been a bad experience.

FJO: You’ve done all this music for strings, but considering that you’re such an accomplished pianist—I remember this incredible recording you did of music by your one-time composition teacher Leslie Bassett.

GLF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was a killer. It was really good for me to do.

FJO: But it’s odd that despite your activities as a player, you don’t really write for the instrument that you perform on.

GLF: That’s another dilemma for me. Everything I write now is commissioned. That’s a dream—I can support myself freelancing. Particularly during some years when I was very sick and I wasn’t able to be as active as I wanted, I still had the income coming in. I wasn’t destitute. But the commissions have not been piano works, and so that has been a source of anxiety for me because I really want to get back to writing for piano. But in the last five or six years, I’ve been working on a big book of piano pieces. The idea is that they’re between one and four minutes each, and people can mix and match as they want to make a set. They all are hallmarks of some Andean style, something that really caught my fancy that I was able to really finesse at an instrument that I know well. Some of these were like sourdough starter for an actual string quartet, a non-piano piece. I think people going back will be able to identify, “Oh, that’s the main theme for this. That’s where it came from.” So it was also a compositional generative tool for all of these commissions. So I do have piano works I’ve been working on. They just haven’t gone the route of the commissioned works.

FJO: This idea of being able to mix and match reminds me of what the Chiara Quartet did with your piece Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout. They actually spread out the different movements of your piece and played them in between other repertoire on their concert.

GLF: They do it a couple different ways. One of the ways, and they checked with me to make sure I was OK with it, was to make it an actual musical walkabout. It ushers people through a concert with [music by] Zhou Long and Golijov and Bartók. I’m very proud that the idea they took to is mestizaje. It’s a concept that I was talking to them about many years ago that inspired me by a writer named José María Arguedas who lived from 1911 to ’69. He was somebody like me who romanticized the Inca past, but from within Peru. He called himself a modern Quechua man, Quechua being the Inca language. He was of Spanish heritage, very fair-skinned, but he had an evil stepmother who put him in the basement with the Indians, so he grew up speaking Quechua. He grew up very sympathetic to the marginalized, people of Peru. And so his idea of mestizaje, coming from the word mestizo, of mixed race, was that this is a state in which cultures can co-exist without one subjugating another, without one devouring another, without one being co-opted by another. And I have to believe in that. I’m mestiza. I have to believe that the white liberal guilt part of me is not being too pandering to the Latino part and that the Latino part of me is not being angry with the white part. I have to be able to feel that I’m not in conflict with myself.

FJO: Which is a very tricky navigation. In a way, using Spanish to reference something Quechua is problematic. Do you understand Quechua?

GLF: I have written songs using Quechua text. It’s taken me a while because I’ve been learning Quechua on my own. I can read Quechua if I have the help of a dictionary.

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