Composer combines classical with the folkloric

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank is the daughter of a Chinese-Peruvian mother and a Jewish-Lithuanian father. She is one of the new breed of composers, combing the wide world beyond the conservatory for musical influences – which, in her case, cropped up pretty much right inside the home. Born and raised in Berkeley, Frank, 35, has been racking up commissions for new works, from Carnegie Hall to Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. One of her works-in-progress is “Cifar and the Sweet Sea,” a bounteous song cycle with texts from Nicaraguan poetry and myth: tales of seafaring adventure, an oracle, an island of Sirens. “It’s Homer, with a Nicaraguan flair,” she says. Selections from “Cifar” will have their first West Coast performances Aug. 7 and 8 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, when the Music@Menlo chamber music festival presents a program titled “Music Now: Voices of Our Time.” The Menlo festival actually kicks off this weekend with music by Handel, Bach and Vivaldi – but in the new, wide musical world, Frank is hot on their heels. I recently talked to Frank about genes, music and what it means to be a composer in the 21st century.

Q Do you consider yourself a classical composer?

A People like me are making that term problematic. When I introduce myself to people, I say I’m a classical music composer, but that I draw on a lot of folkloric South American music,and people think I’m super-cool as a result.

Q Super-cool? That’s a new adjective for a composer. Why do you think?

A Look at the times that we’re in. In California right now more than 50 percent of the babies being born are Latino. Everybody has their favorite Mexican restaurant.

Q What about the “classical” part of your job description?

A People are fine about it. And I’m very proud to be following in the footsteps – Bartok is my hero. Ravel and all the titans. But I think there are equally tremendous folkloric musicians we haven’t heard of.

Q Who’s your top titan?

A If I had to pick one to go out for a beer with, it would be Bartok.

Q When did you start exploring Latin American music and culture?

A About 10 years ago, in a serious way. But off and on since I was a little girl. In Berkeley in the ’80s, a lot of Bolivians and Peruvians played at all these venues near where I lived. And it was my favorite music. It wasn’t classical music; we didn’t even go to the San Francisco Symphony, though I took piano lessons all my life. And I liked Bach, but only because I loved the Prelude in C. It just grabbed me.

Q What music did your parents listen to?

A My dad (Michael Frank) is really into Gershwin. He’s a Mark Twain scholar at Berkeley, so we’re all big readers. My mom (Sabina Frank) is a stained glass artist; she has her shop out on Fourth Street, Berkeley. My brother inherited her talent – though he became a neuroscientist.

Q Do you feel you’re erasing boundaries between classical music and folkloric music?

A I’m a small part of a big movement. We have more Latinos coming into classical music now, and I find that very exciting. I can say, “What do you think of this and that?” I think what I’m doing might come from a private wish to understand my own mixed ethnic and racial background.

Q Are you equally interested in your Chinese and Jewish-Lithuanian roots?

A At this point in my life I’m very interested in the Latin American, but who knows what’s going to happen down the line?
I have been involved with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project and will be writing something for them again later this year. But in terms of how deeply connected I feel to Chinese music and culture through my blood – not as much. Maybe because it feels so distant; it’s my great-grandfather who was from China.
Still, I grew up eating Chinese-Peruvian stir-fry; that’s what my mom knew how to cook when she first met my dad. And I can cook great Chinese-Peruvian stir-fry!

Q You’ve described yourself as simultaneously feeling outside and inside Latin American culture.

A A lot of multiracial, multiethnic people have the same experience. People like myself… like to romanticize the motherland we’ve not visited yet. It’s a shock when we go and we realize, “Oh my God, I’m such a gringa.” I get sick from the food, or I don’t understand the customs. And there are other moments when I feel so connected.
But it’s because of the uncomfortable areas – that’s where you grow, as you resolve the discomfort.

Q How are the areas of discomfort connected to your music?

A It’s the absolute reason for the music. Every piece is because of something I’m wondering about. And that’s why I feel that I have an inexhaustible source of material for the rest of my life.

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