Gabriela Lena Frank: Composite Identity
Frank J. Oteri: One thing that we didn’t touch on at all, in terms of the formulation of your musical identity and how you interact with the world, transcends cultural differences. You grew up with hearing loss. How has that affected what you do as a composer and how you work with other musicians?
Gabriela Lena Frank: I think it’s made me feel right from the beginning that I was different. There’s a definite music gene floating around in the family. We have perfect pitch, so in some ways I hear very well. We have very good memories. So these concerts I went to as a little girl, I would come out of the folkloric concerts having memorized all the songs on one hearing. They just stayed with me, and I would replicate them at the piano. We’re all pianists, very fast fingers. We can improvise really, really well, and we can mimic styles very quickly. So that has nothing to do with hearing loss. Hearing loss is just volume.
From the beginning, I always felt like I was some sort of underdog and that it was OK for me to be unique and different in that way. I didn’t need to be so polite in observing rules, and I think that that philosophy has carried through in the multicultural leanings that I’ve taken with my music, as well. They didn’t know that I needed hearing aids when I was born. So, believe it or not, I was a very quiet child for the first few years of my life. I could not hear people’s voices so well. I vocalized but not real words, and my parents were very worried. They wondered if there was something wrong. They thought maybe it was hearing loss, but it wasn’t routine yet in the early ’70s to test newborns on their sight and their hearing. And I seemed like a happy little kid; I would imitate other kids, and I would play well. I was playing piano already, and my first lessons with my South African teacher were without hearing aids. She would play something, and I would imitate it back. I didn’t really hear the piano; I felt the vibrations through the instrument. It’s possible I got my perfect pitch that way at that formative time for brain development. Little kids learn languages very quickly and pick up things very quickly.
They identified that I needed hearing aids when I was mainstreamed into a regular kindergarten class. My teacher used to work with deaf kids. She was this little Dutch woman, real short, and she had a piano in the class. I was real bossy, and I would grab all the other little kids and sit them down and I’d give them something to do. Then I would improvise along, and I would push their hands a little higher if I wanted to do other things or a little lower. She saw how I used my eyes all the time; I was always watching other people. I would sit up very close—I wasn’t shy about that—to hear what she was teaching. And she suggested to my parents, “I think you might want to get her hearing checked out.” And they did.
I remember the first day I had hearing aids. I remember I didn’t like the ambience that I heard. Nobody was saying anything when they put them in. It was just that all of a sudden the air came to life. I remember being able to hear my breath. I remember hearing the seatbelt click in the car. It was a crk-crk, and I was going back and forth and doing a little rhythm with it. It was another marker now to rhythm for me. And we went into a fast food joint, I think we went to McDonald’s, and I was disoriented by the direction of sound. I remember hearing birds sing and it was music. I remember going to the piano and was blown away by how 3-D everything was now, instead of 2-D. It was incredible. It was really amazing.
To this day, I like to compose and practice without my hearing aids. I do both. They both stimulate different ideas, you know, with the different sensory relationship to music.
FJO: Well, I wonder if having impaired hearing has made you more sensitive toward people with handicaps in general. Is that something that’s part of your awareness?
GLF: Yeah, I think so. There is a segment of the deaf community that would consider me like a light-skinned person trying to pass. You know, they’re so passionate about deaf identity that they even use deaf with a capital D. Deaf studies has appropriated a lot from women’s studies and African-American studies, in terms of looking at their history as a people. It’s very, very interesting. But that’s not been my experience, so I don’t identify with that. My hearing loss has been something so personal that it’s not something that I necessarily politicize.
FJO: Another thing you’ve credited with shaping your musical identity is traveling. I know we talked about your journeys to Peru, but I think the influence of travel goes beyond that. We’ve spoken in the past about your being in Rome. And you joined me in New Zealand for the conference of the International Association of Music Information Centres where your music was performed. The co-existence of Maori and English traditions in contemporary New Zealand is an interesting parallel to the merging of Spanish and Inca traditions in Peruvian culture.
GLF: In preparation, I remember I was reading up on New Zealand history and about the Maoris, and I was drawing comparisons to what I knew about Peru and Latin America. One big contrast is there isn’t a lot of mixing of the cultures in New Zealand. And I think we both saw that. You saw them around each other, but I didn’t see a lot of bi-racial, multi-racial people. In Peru, they’re all mestizos. You do see some pure-blooded Indian communities, but the Spaniards mixed with the Indians so you see very, very few pure-blooded Spaniards. And I think this lends to a different travel experience as a result.
I think travel is so important, especially for composers. We’re story tellers. We’re uniting a lot of different things, and we’re coding it in music in order to give our impressions of the world. We’re going to get really anemic, really boring, and not very helpful if we’re sticking to the same stories—we don’t have a lot of experiences to draw on. And travel changed my world. It really did. I started doing it as a grad student. It was difficult for me. It was necessary for me as an academic brat to see how music can thrive outside of academia. My father’s a Mark Twain scholar at Berkeley, so I grew up very comfortable with academia and understood the politics of academia. I was excited by people learning things. But how does all this knowledge benefit anybody else? How does this help average people? So how is music that is cultivated in academia useful outside? I know that the multicultural leanings that I take help me feel like I’m connecting with the larger world. And travel does that.
FJO: I was thrilled to see that there are groups now that are programming your music in New Zealand. The Brentano Quartet even took a piece of yours on tour there this season.
GLF: They premiered it in New Zealand in November, but I heard it yesterday for the first time when they did it in Philadelphia. I’m still so emotional about it. It’s the first piece that ever scared the bejesus out of me when I heard it. I was surprised by how it sounded. It was a new direction. It’s a very muscular, dissonant, craggy, very detailed and compressed, and less accessible piece. Working on it last summer, I remember going, “God, is this of me?” It was the first time I ever had the experience of feeling like sculptors that say they feel like they’re liberating a statue from the stone. Yes, I know I was putting down all the notes and was totally intimate with what was going on, but it was so different from what I expected. And the Brentanos are amazing. They were able to deliver this new sound, this new style, this gusto and impact. What was interesting about that for me, too, was that my family was there and I’m always thinking about how they perceive my music, with all of their knowledge and lack of knowledge about classical music.
FJO: I wonder how much of a role your traveling has played in spreading the word about your music. Traveling all around is an important way to establish yourself in different communities and to get your music out there. It’s so hard for a composer from any country to break that boundary from being known inside one’s home country to having an international career.
GLF: I’ve been very lucky, because to be perfectly honest, I haven’t expended a lot of effort to get my own stuff out there. First of all, I have an incredible publisher that’s been putting energy into doing that. Second of all, my performer friends that I played with as a pianist in school are doing really well, and they travel; they get my stuff out there. I just learned that somebody, a pianist I went to school with and her husband, played a little jazzy piano-cello piece that I wrote when I was quite young, in Japan. But you are absolutely right that it is very hard to break outside even your own state or your own city, much less outside the borders of your own nation. I agree. But again, I haven’t put in a lot of time into doing that myself.