Gabriela Lena Frank: an exclusive interview with the American composer

Stories and notions of identity are at the heart of prize-winning composer’s Gabriela Lena Frank’s music. Born in Berkeley, California, she is currently composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which performed her 2001 work Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout at the Edinburgh Festival in August

Published: August 30, 2022 at 2:30 pm
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I was 16 when I took my first formal music composition programme. I was fortunate that my first teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory, Dan Becker, had a deep love both of classical music and of music from non-western cultures and popular idioms. This, combined with my lifelong enjoyment of music as a young piano student and improviser plus my exposure to South American folkloric styles, paved the way for me to choose composition the following year when I enrolled as a freshman at Rice University.

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Imposter syndrome is real! It persisted until the last years of my doctoral studies when I began to travel in Peru, meeting my maternal family and internalising these travel/musical experiences. My music transformed and I found the start of a real ‘voice’.

I needed to write Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout. It’s an early work, the last of my student days, and such an honest piece, reflecting and refracting what I was hearing and seeing in Peru. Looking back, I see it as a kind of reconciliation of my exterior world with my interior questions about my identity and heritage. It’s been remarkable for me to see how often it is performed and in so many countries. I think it touched a nerve.

I no longer start with a blank page. After all these years, there is so much material on the cutting room floor from other pieces, often because I haven’t got the time to maximise an idea’s potential. So, I just save the good ideas for later. Often, the ideas are transformed beyond recognition in their new guises, but they have long roots in previous work.

I’ve just received the new scores to my first operaEl último sueño de Frida y Diego was co-commissioned by San Diego Opera and San Francisco Opera. I’m taking a break after this massive project, and will then turn my attention to a 45-minute symphony for the Philadelphia Orchestra called Picaflor (Hummingbird), to be based on creation myths of Latin America.

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Photo: Mariah Tauger courtesy La Jolla Music Society

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