91Classical’s Student Composer Fellowship is continuing, even with accommodations for social distancing. Recently the four young composers participating in this year’s program had the chance to meet composer Gabriela Lena Frank over video chat. Nashville Symphony conductor Giancarlo Guerrero joined the conversation as well.
Gabriela Lena Frank is a notable composition teacher, and a Grammy-nominated classical pianist. Through the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, a program she started in 2017, she has paired numerous emerging composers with renowned performers. She also has a Nashville connection: a recording of her music by ALIAS Chamber Ensemble was released in 2011.
The students had been scheduled to meet Frank and Guerrero before a rehearsal of Frank’s Conquest Requiem , a performance that has been postponed to later this year. It’s no surprise that the orchestra has postponed rather than outright canceled this performance. Recording new American music is a priority for Guerrero, and the orchestra is set to be the first to record Conquest Requiem.
Even in this unexpected format of a video chat rather than an in-person meeting, the answers were insightful, and each student left the call with individualized advice on moving their composition work forward. A taste of the discussion is below.
Note: These answers are edited for brevity.
Kevin Ou asked about cultural influences, and incorporating them into one’s compositions. Frank took an approach that was less scientific, and more science fiction.
Frank: A violin will never sound exactly like a Chinese instrument, right? But what if the violin and that Chinese instrument had a baby? What kind of music would that baby make? So you have to go into your imagination. It doesn’t exist, right? The composer is like a science-fiction writer. They can come up with a new universe, new civilization, new laws of gravity, new ways that action works. So maybe a creature with four lungs! And if that science fiction writer does a good job, you believe the story. You believe it more than a person that’s writing story that’s on our planet, and on our earth. That’s your job is to figure out that sort of fantasy mix. Music is incredible. It really – you can draw these connections that are surprising, and that you’ve never seen before.
Isaac Herrenbruck asked about Frank’s first composition. After demonstrating at the piano that she can actually remember every piece she has ever composed, Frank expressed her wonder at the moment she realized that being a composer was even an occupation at all.
Frank: I totally remember every single darn piece. If you gave me a little time I could sit down and rewrite all of them. Yeah, I would need a little time in my own way, and I’d make the harmonies different. But yeah, I can probably remember everything.
I think the first time I wrote down something wasn’t until I was a junior in high school. And it’s because I didn’t know it was possible to be a composer. To me, it was just a private thing I would do at family get-togethers. I was the “musical one.” You know, in a family you have the artistic one, and the book reader, and I was the one always running to the piano and making up cute little songs. No one ever predicted that I would one day have a life like this that I do now where I’m really active. But it starts like that.
A follow-up question went to Guerrero—had the maestro ever composed? He apparently attempted in college, as is generally required in a music major, but didn’t find it to be a successful endeavor.
Guerrero: In this composition class we had maybe ten or twelve of us and we all played everything. You know, I was a percussionist, we had a trombone player, we had a singer, we had a flute player. And then the final project, or I guess exam, was to write something for this ensemble, and then we were supposed to get up and conduct our own work. And so I wrote this two and a half minute piece that I called A Night At Chuck’s. Chuck was Charles Young, who is currently the dean [of the school of music] at Oberlin College. He’s a dear friend, and back in the day we used to have a lot of fun in his apartment, especially after school. So I wrote this piece in honor of our crazy nights at Chuck’s place.
And I’ve got to tell you, this was the most horrible piece of music. I’m not kidding. I remember conducting it, and listening to it, and even the teacher was laughing. I mean, this was beyond horrible. And I knew it was horrendous and I just didn’t have the talent for it. And that evening we went back to Chuck’s, and I basically grabbed all the music, and the fireplace was going, and in a very much Jean Sibelius fashion, I threw all of it into the fireplace.
And I made a vow. I actually got up on a table and made a vow. I said that I would never ever in my life ever impose any of my music on anybody else and I would basically save the world. But at the same time I also made another vow. And I said, “From here on I’m going to make a vow of championing other people’s music.”
Anna Guelcher asked Frank if she has a favorite piece in her own catalog. While the obvious comparison of asking “Who is your favorite child?” applied, Frank also suggested that there are “some children you don’t invite to dinner.” Although, pieces that don’t turn out as planned always contain a lesson for the composer. But, Frank did point out that she feels particularly close to the piece that the Nashville Symphony had postponed from that week – her Conquest Requiem.
Frank: This piece that Nashville’s doing right now is something that’s very meaningful to me. One of the things about it is it’s powerful, and yet it’s not that obviously a political work. And I think sometimes that political works that are not obviously political works are super powerful. Because they go past maybe people’s ears, or resistance. We’re so divided right now that it can be hard for a message to cross that divide. And the Conquest is one of the most cataclysmic events in all humankind’s history.
This pointed Frank to the storytelling nature of music, and the advice that composers need to observe their world.
Frank: I want you to feel like you’re going into a world as you’re listening to this story—you’re in an opera in your head.
Composers have to do more than just put down great melodies and pitches and harmonies. You need to read! You need to be interested in stories and you need to come up with something that you think the world needs to hear. So I would encourage you guys that not only do you write down your story, but you make sure that you keep reading the papers and you read history. You’re a historian. You’re kind of a journalist. You’re kind of a witness.
Nika Duncan had a very practical question: What makes a composer easy to work with? Guerrero took this question on, and gave a healthy reminder that when a piece gets passed from composer to performer, the performer needs to be allowed to interpret the music for themselves.
Guerrero: The best honor I can pay a composer sometimes is really if I don’t really reach out to them. It would say that everything I need to know is in the score that you provided. Having a composer trust me, and having the ability to really learn the piece that fits with my musical personality, is the best gift that I can get.
Frank added that she has gotten more laid back with letting go of the final product as her career has progressed. Especially since she’s often pleasantly surprised by the result.
Frank: When I step back and I let the performers have more say, I receive a lot. I receive so much. Whatever version of a performance that you have in your head, it starts to go away sometimes. You can’t remember it so well when you have what’s brilliant and real happening in front of you. It doesn’t mean you can’t have opinions, but you’re gonna learn when to separate yourself as the performer, and yourself as the composer. There’s got to be that 50/50 balance. And I absolutely agree that, for me, the music comes through me, but it’s not mine.
This is only the first half of the students’ conversation with Guerrero and Frank. Part 2 will publish tomorrow.