Gabriela Lena Frank: Composite Identity
Frank J. Oteri: How your music gets out there into the world raises the whole debate about whether or not to have a publisher. You’re still considered a “young” composer according to the way we perceive youth in so-called classical music. I know that Schirmer recently signed Jay Greenberg, who’s now 16-years old, but you’re still among the youngest composers on their roster. We’re living in an era where it’s a rather unusual thing for someone to be published by a long-established international publishing firm, especially someone as young as you are. And many younger composers nowadays—whether through their own design, their own desire, or through sheer necessity—are self-published. What made you go with a publisher? What made you make that choice, and how has that impacted your work?
Gabriela Lena Frank: I was introduced to Susan Feder [then vice president of G. Schirmer] really by happenstance. I did very few student competitions when I was a student. I just had a philosophical problem with them. I didn’t like the pieces I saw winning, which I thought encouraged especially young, impressionable composers to develop a very flashy sound as opposed to something that was going to sustain them once they weren’t “young” anymore. And it really disturbed me very deeply. Also, I didn’t have time. I was traveling a lot in Latin America on these very private, wish-fulfillment trips about myself. But the last year I was eligible—because then I was not going to be young, I was going to be too old—I applied for one of those ASCAP young composer awards and I was one of the many composers that won. I didn’t think I was going to go to the awards ceremony because I couldn’t afford it. It was a very nice award, but it’s not a lucrative award. It’s one that’s meant to encourage you to keep composing. I wasn’t planning on going, but Fran Richard [at ASCAP] managed to get some dollars for me to attend, so that was only my second time ever in New York City. This was about six years ago, really not that long ago.
I went to the awards ceremony, and Susan Feder was there. I didn’t know who she was and, to be honest, I didn’t know what Schirmer was. The only thing I knew about Schirmer was that I used a lot of the scores for my chamber music and I would just pick whoever had the fewest pencil markings, be it Boosey or Schirmer or Presser, or if I liked the look or the page turns worked out. She said, “Send me some of your music,” and I didn’t for a while because I had had the experience already of a lot of people saying send me your music. And nothing ever happens. As self-published composers know, it’s expensive to print your music, to bind it, to get it to Kinko’s, to go to the post office and then, when you don’t have a lot going on for you, it can be very heartbreaking. I mean, it’s a very hard thing to try to get people interested. So I just didn’t do it, and she kept e-mailing and so I said OK. I sent her some stuff. I didn’t send her a lot because I didn’t have a huge body of work. I sent her four works. One was Sonata Andina, the piano piece that you mentioned. And I sent her Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout that you know, a cello quartet called Las Sombras de los Apus, and the violin and piano piece, the one with the pictures, the one that that violinist said you don’t even need all of that and the music really works [Sueños de Chambi]. That was the newest work.
And by god, this woman liked it. And by god, this woman turned out to be somebody quite powerful with a strong personality and just the biggest heart of gold you can imagine. It wasn’t until almost a year later that I was next in New York City. I was pulled in for my first little playing gig. There was this one evening of like 50 pianists each playing one-minute premieres. I was one of the 50 pianists, and I stayed an extra day and went up to the Schirmer office. I had never seen a publisher’s office before, this was all very new for me. It turned into this very long meeting in which they explained to me what it meant to be signed up, and that they would like to sign me up.
This was five years ago, and tomorrow I’m going the Schirmer office to sign the next contract to continue the relationship. I was at the forefront of a new wave of signups. After me was Avner Dorman, a couple years younger—wonderful Israeli-American composer who is based in L.A. After him, Nathan Stookey and Jay Greenburg. They’re making some very smart decisions, I think, turning to composers who are going to be around for a long time. All of us with very eclectic, multicultural things to say. The five years that I’ve had with Schirmer were very much a growing-up time. I came to understand how publishers work. Now I understand how presenters work. I understand the world of the orchestra. It’s been an amazingly illuminating time about the business of music, which I was not aware of at all. I really wasn’t. I would have been happy, I think, just privately composing, writing for my friends and traveling in Latin America. But the value of Schirmer has been immense, and not just in getting my music out there. When I got sick, they took care of everything, too. I think you see a lot of publishers, big and small, that are doing more than just publishing. They act as agents, they act as networkers. I’m social, but I’m not that much of a networker. So it’s been a really wonderful, wonderful relationship.
FJO: One of the things that I thought was so cool was when I went to Baltimore for the Conductor’s Guild conference a few weeks ago, I saw that each of the publishers do a presentation. And Ed Matthew from Schirmer played La Llorona: Tone Poem for Viola and Orchestra.
GLF: Oh, he did? I didn’t even know that. That’s so great.
FJO: That kind of advocacy goes a long way. There were self-published composers there who got up and talked about themselves because, of course, you have to do that when you have no one else to talk for you. But, whether or not it’s fair, it usually doesn’t quite have the same weight.
GLF: Yeah, it’s an endorsement.
FJO: There’s a big difference between getting up there to say, “You guys should play this because it’s great music,” as opposed to, “Please play my music.” But at the same time, many composers now feel that they should not sign away their copyrights because all you ever have in your life are your copyrights.
GLF: That was never an issue for me. I remember realizing it, and I said, “Wait a second, maybe I’m giving myself away way too easily. Maybe it should be an issue.” But it was never an issue. I don’t want to own my music; I want it to be a gift to the world. I want to get it out. I don’t want to be exploited, but I haven’t felt exploited by Schirmer. When people ask me, “Should I take on this publisher?”, I would say, “Do you get a feeling that your music is just going to sit on a shelf?” Because you can’t legitimately give out your music anymore if somebody else does own it. So do you have that kind of trust in this personality? Is that person going to be around in the office or are they going to leave a year from now? You don’t know who’s stepping in their place; are they going to treat your music with respect? If so, give [the copyright] away. You’re going to gain so much more from it. You want people to be exposed to your music, and you need all the help that you can get.
FJO: In terms of what they can do versus what you’re able to do, you mentioned this score that has all these unusual things and sound. So when Schirmer prepares a score and sends it to people, is all that stuff in there?
GLF: They are amazing. They do all the technical stuff. And we’ve had to have discussions where I would want to do something in my score—like in Leyendas. I’ll want a little note saying that a particular passage is in reference to the backup flutes of a tarqueada ensemble, and I would want to put that specifically under measure 13, so that people know this is what this is about. Schirmer had never done that before. So I talked to the engravers; I talked to David Fetherolf, who runs that department there and who is absolutely amazing. He’s a wonderful guy, and he would just make the change. As long as it’s in service of the music, they’ve been very easy to work with.
Something else that we’re still finessing is a technique that I’ve used in piano music to emulate different kinds of guitar techniques. Normally, we just see one type of tremolo marking and that could be a host to a whole array of different styles. But in guitar music, there’s tremolo up, there’s tremolo down, there’s tremolo from the inside out, you break first after the top note and then do all kinds of things. We’re having to come up with some creative ways to use the vocabulary of what people already know in order to convey all of this. House styles change very slowly. It’s a little nerdy, but I like the conundrum of trying to puzzle this out. I don’t mind using the vocabulary that’s there to try to get at a new sound. I feel like that’s what I do when I write mountain music for string quartet. I’m trying to use a vocabulary that’s already inherent to the discipline to get at a totally different world.
FJO: There’ve been few commercially available recordings of your music up to this point, and we’re in this weird place right now where there seems to be a seismic change in the way people perceive the value and use of recordings. So I was curious to know what you think about having recordings of your music.
GLF: It’s funny you should ask that. The first whole month of this year I’d been fielding a lot requests from people that want to record music, chamber as well as orchestra. There are even some groups that want to do multi-disc recordings. I have enough string quartets for somebody to do a multi-disc compilation. Again, it’s an honor. I’m just beginning to get familiar with how all of that works. I’m a big one for downloading. I think it’s a great way for people to educate themselves about music and for people to take risks and find all these niches of styles, and I have no problem with getting sounds out to people.