Gabriela Lena Frank, The Philadelphia Orchestra’s composer-in-residence is widely celebrated for exploring her multicultural heritage through her work. On this episode, you'll hear about her path, her position on "identity politics", and how she pays it forward.
Learn more about the Gabriela Frank Creative Academy of Music here
Hosted by Tori Marchiony. Thanks to Consulting Producer, Sofiya Ballin and Audio Engineer, Teng Chen.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Hello! And welcome back to the HearTOGETHER podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m Tori Marchiony and this is a space to hear from people working hard to build a more equitable future- inside and outside the concert hall.
Our guest today is Gabriela Lena Frank-one of the most well-regarded composers of her generation. She’s currently The Philadelphia Orchestra’s composer-in-residence; a position she previously held with the Detroit and Houston Symphonies. You just heard a bit of the third movement from Frank’s 2001 composition Leyendas, An Andean Walkabout- which brought together elements of Andean Folk and Western Classical traditions in an expression of cultural harmony.
Frank’s music often evokes her own multi-cultural identity; she’s the daughter of a Peruvian mother with Chinese heritage and a father of Lithuanian Jewish descent. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s and 80s, the young Gabi was a devoted piano student from the age of 5. But it wasn’t until her late teens, when she entered a summer composition program, that she discovered what might be possible.
GABRIELA LENA FRANK: it was a little scary to me because I had only improvised things into existence or kept them in my head. I didn't write anything down and didn't even know that composers existed. I thought they were all dead and all white. So I did this program and was at the San Francisco conservatory of music, And one of our great conservatories in the country and back in his old location on Ortega street. And, and I saw these textbooks that didn't have chemistry or algebra. They had music theory in them. And, uh, the staff lines on the chalkboard is what really got me. And that there were painted on this class with design, for music, that this was a thing I was trying to figure out what my major was going to be. I was still, my mind was still blown that I could just focus my time studying mainly one subject rather than a branch it's like, mean I could spend hours every day on music. And the kind of joy and immediacy of that told me something right away that, and I saw little kids playing music, and I wrote my first piece of music during that program.
And that was what I wanted to do. I had no idea. I didn't know any professional musicians. I didn't know how I was going to make money. I didn't know what the training looked like. I just knew I wanted to do this. And immediately when I look at my journals, I used to keep a diary quite diligently, right from the beginning. I noticed that people didn't look like me. And I also said, they need me. I just remember saying, my God, you know, the world needs me, but I also remember saying, but I'm not in shape yet. You know, I don't know what I'm doing on it, but, but they need me. And over the years I realized they needed the best version of me. And I think somehow music became my sharpest sword because of the immediacy of the experience itself. And then I just knew I had to learn how to wield that sword. Again, I was bright enough. I could have gone into other fields, but I don't think I would have had the same native joy for it that I do for music.
TORI MARCHIONY: Huh, wow. Native is an interesting way to describe your relationship with music, because it..it really was- you were making music before you could even hear it, right?
GABRIELA LENA FRANK: So, um, I am partially deaf and I was born with a, what they call a congenital. So from birth congenital neurosensory, hearing loss, they don't know why I have it. It's not something that's in my family. […] And my loss is very flat. It's some people have a moving target loss or it's one where things are getting scrambled or they have tinnitus or the highs and the lows are very different. Mine is just, just straight across, but it's significant. So I really do need hearing AIDS. in the first four and a half years, almost five years of my life. I was mostly in silence and my parents were always wondering, you know, how come she's not speaking and vocalizing right away. She started sleeping through the night when she was a newborn and that’s strange. They came and checked on me, made sure I was okay. And, and I was playing piano before I got my hearing AIDS because I could feel the piano speak to me and I have perfect pitch. So in some ways I hear very well.
And my father insisted I was not going to go to a special ed class or any of these other classes. Nobody had really brought up hearing disability yet nowadays they do test newborns on their hearing and their vision, and they can catch these things very early, but that wasn't that routine yet in the seventies. So my kindergarten teachers, she said, I think your kid is hearing impaired. She seems super intelligent and friendly and there's a piano in the room. And she goes, and she grabbed her the little kids and make them sit down with her and they play music together. I don't know how she communicates, but she can communicate. She’s bright. There's nothing wrong with her, but get a hearing checked out. And that's what it was.
I do remember my first day with the hearing AIDS and what it was like to suddenly have that element come to life. And it's one of the few times that I've seen my father, the very stoic man cry to realize that this was happening for a little girl, his youngest. And I remember going to the piano when I got home and it just sounded glorious. It was so alive and, um, rich and saturated and had elements to it. I did not know where there, like the pedal. I couldn't hear the pedal too subtle for me without the hearing AIDS, but suddenly I could give it ambiance and reverb. It was just incredible.
TORI MARCHIONY: Wow, amazing. Once you had the hearing aids, what music did you like to listen to? What sounds were around you growing up?
GABRIELA LENA FRANK: So the classical music I heard was mostly through my piano lessons with mostly piano classical music. And then my teachers, she was a refugee from South Africa. The soft-spoken Africaner woman at still teaching she's in her eighties. Now she was my second mother growing up until I went to college from the time I was five. Uh, she would periodically at she's a wonderful lady. She'll periodically bring me to her house on Sunday. We eat cookies with her and her husband and listen to all these old recordings. And they collected all scratchy LPs that you could buy 10 for a dollar. And that was their great joy and children absorb adults, joy, you know, adults that pay attention to them. So I really did, and it taught me patience to be able to sit through a long classical piece with repeats.
And when I heard some chamber music but I mostly listened to piano, music and keyboard, music- nothing after 1880 or so, although that was mainly because of my piano teacher's husband, who really had an antipathy for music after that period, when I had to do sometimes a new musical Clairmont for these sort of pre college competitions and or music teachers, association theory, advancement tests, and all that. Um, my piano teacher loved some of the new music stuff. Oh my goodness. A microsecond. Ooh, this doesn't it. Woo, woo. That's her husband don't tell, I know, became something that was kind of elicit and exciting, you know, like you got given an extra chocolate candy or something. And that was a very positive attitude she gave me about new music.
The other thing I heard a lot of was a certain kind of jazz plus Gershwin, popular American music. That's very popular, I think among the Jewish community, especially that from Brooklyn, Bronx, new Michele, I mean, it's sort of New York Jewish culture that I'm very familiar with name. You go to Florida for the winters or you retire go there it's a real era of, of, um, Jewish upward mobility. And then the other type was of course, the music from my mom's country and my father had bought back LPs. And then in the seventies and eighties in Berkeley and around the Bay area, there were musicians coming up from Bolivia, from Peru, from Chile, from, from these wonderful country that the Indian access access and giving concerts. And these were Latin Americanos that looked like my mother, they didn't look Mexican, or they didn't work central American. They look Indian and some of them looked like they could have been my uncles. and playing these wonderful, exotic, visually arresting instruments, like pan pipes that were as tall as I was as a little girl and, um, percussion made from animal body parts that I could identify. And so I love these concerts so much. There was something. So, um, God that this was my music, that's what it felt like.
And so, you know, I would come home and my piano teacher encouraged me to compose little competitions so that I didn't write anything down. And I had my first role premieres on her annual concert studio with sidles and I, there was always a piece by me on it that I would play from memory. And, and there would be little influences of this proven music already, things that I was imitating and putting into the music, sometimes the parts with the feather emotions of the fingers I would do at the piano and just kind of, it's like you shiver on the keys and you make the keys instead of nights, Mozart, Beethoven, passage work or something completely different. That's the kind of thing I do now. And she's responsible for that. So this marriage of all kinds of music, so early made that seem possible and doable and joyful.
MUSIC: FRANK, Concertino Cusequeno, The Philadelphia Orchestra
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): That was an excerpt of Frank’s 2012 composition Concertino Cusequeño, commissioned and performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra as part of Music Director Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s inaugural season.
TORI MARCHIONY: So you’ve been exploring and expressing various aspects of your identity through your music for as long as you’ve been doing this. And while it seems like there’s been a surge of support for that kind of thing in recent years, some people feel like there’s too much focus on identity, identity politics these days. So why do you believe that it’s important to address?
GABRIELA LENA FRANK: It’s because the pressures are great to normalize and some things shouldn't be normalized. And I think, yeah, I've been hearing that from the time I started doing my work was, Oh, that's not important, or you're playing the race card. That was the, that's what we used to say, that you're playing the race card. And I hear less that, and I hear more identity politics, which is kind of saying the same thing with new update of language. Um, what I used to call in salts are now called microaggressions. It's like, I just got another, this litany of daily, small insults, but it's just constant sort of assaults. So the vocabulary It's the only thing that's shifted and the same kind of, it's not very imaginative, the same kinds of pressures where people don't see that identity politics is ground zero. When you're playing only German composers, the identity politics is clear. It's so clear. You don't even need a state. It is that it's, it's just, this is the default. Um, so I think you have to lean into who you are.
TORI MARCHIONY: But then on the flip side I’m wondering if people have ever doubted your identity or asked you to justify or prove it. Saying like, you’re not XY or Z “enough” to write about it, to claim it.
GABRIELA LENA FRANK: Yeah. Always from every angle. I got it from my goodness. I get it about my disability too, that I don't sign and that I lip read and I speak. And, and then, um, that I'm not white enough or I'm not, uh, Latina enough or immigrant enough or feminine enough or strong enough in a man's world. I mean, this is like, boy, I check off all those boxes. And that's when most people, most of us are not neatly put away in a box anyway. And so if somebody is setting the bar very low for understanding you wanting you to be a coloring book and you're going to hate, he got a color, me outside the lines, I'm not going to fit anywhere like that. So I it's much easier for me to deal with those kinds of things now, because I have certain number of years under my belt, where I survived all of that. And I did my work anyway.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Yes, you certainly did. I know, one of your upcoming projects is a big symphonic work for The Philadelphia Orchestra called Picaflor. Now I know that Picaflor means “hummingbird” in Spanish and that hummingbirds are often at the center of creation myths across Latin American cultures. Now tell me how all of that ties together.
GABRIELA LENA FRANK: So what I've done for this project, with the Philadelphia orchestra, what I propose to them when they first asked about my providing them on a large scale, have some fun at work. I said, I would love to do something about the beaker floor and I would love to cobble together different myths and make a grand new one and add some elements of my own dramatic imagination of fill in the gaps and to have chapters to the story that will begin with the eight typical pre Anthropocene prehuman Eden that exists in a magical, far away place that gets messed up because of shenanigans by its small creatures. Like the Picaflor that, the creator has created that are punished by going to an inhospitable earth and they have to find a way back to the kingdom. And along the way of doing that, they traverse these great lands of South America, meet strange beings and the encounters spawned new races, new species, and new lands, and they start bringing beautiful things to the land. And on the way back to the crater, they realize they've created a new place for themselves and all of animal kingdom beings and humankind.
So that's the whole Genesis of the whole thing. And it's meant to be a really vibrant multi-mode movement work loosely inspired by the form of the widest spring, which is really vibrant. And virtual also could be dance, could be visuals, could be a symphonic work. And we're hoping that we can also partner with some community groups in Philadelphia to contribute chapters to the story. I mean, it should be many more chapters than I can utilize in a, I forgot it's 35, 40 minute symphonic work. Um, and there's it's as an origin story, it's asking, where do you come from? Who gets to inhabit this land? And those are the kinds of questions we're asking in the U S right now, who's a good American who gets to claim this land. And I think that's where its true power will be when other people are imagining chapter two, the story that don't necessarily go into my take or what I select, but it's a way to try and spark conversations about this through the city, with different constituencies children, as well as established artists and citizens among the musicians as well. These are the kinds of questions I think, as an art citizen, I think that we need to be asking these days.
TORI MARCHIONY: Definitely. Well, I can’t wait to hear it. And I love this idea of arts citizenship, that you consider it your duty as an artist- a maker of beautiful things- to really consciously and actively engage with your community.
GABRIELA LENA FRANK: I think we have to go the extra mile when the beautiful things that we do are constantly in danger of being relegated for a select audience to enjoy only. So we need acts of citizenship to make sure that our gifts are available to everybody. And that can be as simple as volunteering at a local high school that has a small music program. And you have to be comfortable with the students, not knowing anything about you, not knowing your prizes or about your New York times article and knowing that you're composing rather than fill in a blank orchestra, that you're really doing this for its own sake and not to advance a career.
So at heart citizenship is, is not about that. And so it takes a great generosity of spirit to, to find time and to value that my Academy, I try to model that for my composers, that I see it as normal, that I have that big fancy career they want, but then they see me volunteering at the local high school and trying to find resources for them and bringing community concerts to this tiny rural town that I live in now. So I think citizenship is not complicated. It really is identifying a need that perhaps your industry does not identify and your school did not identify. And you start looking at your training in school as if it's training you for the world.
TORI MARCHIONY: I love that. And you mentioned, that’s something you pass onto your students at your Creative Academy of Music which is your vehicle for mentoring up and coming composers. Now, you launched that in 2017, when you were at a stage in your career when it would have made sense to stay focused on yourself. So how did you decide to launch the Creative Academy?
GABRIELA LENA FRANK: I had no plans of doing anything like this. I was really thickly in my career right in the thick of it. And um, but at this point, you know, in 2016 I had a vibrant international career. It's one of the few women of color and had carried decades of feeling sometimes exceptionally alone, even though I always felt exceptionally blessed. I always carried that, but I was very aware of being in a business where I was almost all the time needing to cajole people, to look at non-European cultures and to look my way and to love my culture as much as I love its culture. I mean, I love the music of the European standard masters. I grew up on that, but it, it's hard to be in a relationship. That's not two way in terms of the affection and regard. So in 2016, I was turning down jobs, at music conservatories. And because I just didn't feel like I was going to be able to spread my wings the way I wanted to and create the kind of training program that I think emerging composers from all demographics would benefit from. And we literally do it out of my house and it just grew from there fundraise and we have a tiny budget, but we have a big impact. I think whether the dollar amount we're able to command,and we create this space. That is the kind of America that we already are. It's not just the future. We actually are already this, but we don't celebrate it enough.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): For Gabriela Frank, this celebration doesn’t just look like sharing wisdom and time with up-and-coming composers- it means sharing opportunities, too. Several of her Academy Fellows had their compositions featured on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Digital Stage last year. Among them, the world premiere of Climb by Jessica Hunt-
MUSIC: HUNT, CLIMB, The Philadelphia Orchestra
TORI MARCHIONY: So, it’s clear that the Fellows at your Creative Academy get a lot out of it- its there anything you’re getting back- what have you learned from creating the academy?
GABRIELA LENA FRANK:: So what I have noticed during this Academy for the first time that I've been really in touch with younger generations, my younger siblings, and it's been transformative to see, wow, I really am a product of the eighties and nineties. These kinds of views that, that I grew up with, I then to see where we're different and what has not changed when I talked about my conservatory experience, I'm describing what they're experiencing now, and I'm shocked. You mean this is still taught, and this is still done this way. And marginally the population is more, more diverse. And this has been a whole generation? it's shocking to me how little has changed, but I think the biggest change is that they can find one another. I felt very alone. I felt very, even though I had great, great friends, I did, and I found many lifelines, but in terms of a shared cultural experience, I was very alone. They are not. These younger composers have found one another. They're very determined. They feel encouraged by my generation that will we'll walk alongside them. As long as we can. As many days we have left on earth, you know, to try and to help them. But that has been the biggest. And I also think the fact that they're going to live more of their life during a climate crisis is something that is existentially different and urgent. Um, when it's projected to, to be quite detrimental to our welfare as a, as a nation, it already is very harmful, but I will be an old person and there'll be my age with still many, many good years to live. And that's, that's frightening. So I, you know, there's more urgency, but there's also more support, you know, the, the winds have shifted positively and negatively, I think for, for these new generations of artists coming up.
TORI MARCHIONY: Mmmhm. Yeah, I’d love for you to say more about the urgency you feel- as an artist who’s also seen some fallout from climate change first hand. I know, back in August of last year you were going to be part of a HearTOGETHER panel discussion but then couldn’t make it because the wildfires were raging so close to your home that you didn’t know if you’d have to evacuate- smoke was taking out your internet. So did you know what you were getting into, moving out of San Francisco and out to a tiny town in rural Northern California?
GABRIELA LENA FRANK: So the first two years were really blissful. We actually had a lot of water we had and Nino LA Nina winters, and then 2017 hit and it hit with a vengeance. There was no warmup period. And we an urban neighborhood in a large city of Santa will that get completely knocked out, fire jump, a six lane freeway we're talking unthinkable things. And 2018 was worse. 2018 saw an entire account of 30,000 people wiped out in a matter of just a few hours to fire. It was moving. I think they were saying, um, 80 football fields a minute. And that's something that you cannot outrun this. This is truly otherworldly. 2019 evacuations hit the coastline for the first time. At first in order to maintain some sort of assemble as a normalcy. I did not share a lot of what was going on for fear of losing work, but I became reluctantly environmentalist over this time. But up to up to this point, it was my environmentalism was composting and going to farm to table restaurants and all kinds of fun things to do, and didn't really carry anything grim the way it does now, something very necessary.
Even when you're out of the danger, you're forever changed for that kind of experience. And meanwhile, we continue to tell our stories. You do incorporate the trauma. You do, you incorporate the fear, but you become yet more hopeful, more determined. This is when you really know what you're about. And I, in countless discussions with artists in talking about, should I just give up my job and go join a fire station CU? I mean, what, what can I do? That's really, really practically useful. This is even more necessary now to double down on art, but choose your art carefully. Are you doing things that maintain a certain kind of status quo of a bygone pre pandemic era? Or are you going to make choices to play women music or to Valente, or this is when you really revisit your chosen medium and how it can advance a humanitarian? Cause I think that's the only reaction you can take other than now the reaction is to hide your head in the sand and that is deadly. That's deadly.
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Instead, Gabriela Lena Frank channels her anxieties into her art, her acts of citizenship, and the example she sets for the next generation.
With that, we’ve reached the end of another episode. Thank you so much for joining us! If you enjoyed yourself please remember to like subscribe rate review comment share and tune back in next month for another episode of HearTOGETHER.
As we part, please enjoy another snippet of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas…
FRANK, LEYENDAS, movement 4, The Philadelphia Orchestra