Gabriela Lena Frank is anything but “conventional” within the world of classical composers. She has candidly compared herself to the standard composer heard today, proclaiming she is not white, she is a woman, and she is still living.
Beekeeper, gardener, origami artist, and founder of a musical academy are just a few of Frank’s titles. Not to mention, she is also a Grammy Award-winning composer and pianist who is fully booked and busy, changing the world’s preconception of classical music. If there is a glass ceiling in sight, Frank shatters it.
She is not white, she is a woman, and she is still living.
Despite her success, growing up Frank never considered being a classical composer to be a viable career path.
“…I didn’t know there was such a thing as living composers, thinking they were all bronze busts sitting on my teacher’s bookshelves. They were certainly not women, born with a hearing loss, or multi-racial as I was,” she explained.
In more ways than one, composing music shoved its foot in the door of Frank’s life. Since birth, Frank has experienced hearing loss and did not speak for the first few years of her life. At the age of five she was fitted with hearing aids, a sensation she has described as growing another hand.
In the summer going into her senior year of high school, Frank innocently applied for a composition program at the San Fransisco Conservatory to avoid a slow sedentary few months. Unbeknownst to her at the time, entering the old Spanish-style doors of the conservatory would completely alter the course of Frank’s life. The program offered an environment novel to Frank. She recalls being struck with piano music from all directions and testing the delights of what seemed like 100 pianos; a tasting curiosity like a young epicure.
Photo by Mariah Tauger
“I remember how my heart started to beat loud, thundering in my ears, because I knew everything had changed for me, my entire purpose for living and being. I think I grew up several years in that moment,” Frank reflected.
After that summer, Frank tossed out any idea of pursuing another career path; she began writing music. At the intersection of her Chinese/ Peruvian mother and Lithuanian/ Jewish father, Frank’s multiculturalism lives and breathes through her music. Her compositions, like Elegía Andina, chronicle an exploration of her Peruvian culture.
When writing Elegía Andina she was just a student in a humble apartment. However, through the process, she was transported to the great highlands and Serranos of Peru. The act of listening to the song has the same teleporting powers. With bold swells of the strings, captivating whistle of the winds and a Latin rhythmic thump of the percussion, it is as if you are trekking through the Andes yourself.
Frank self describes her music as accessible, challenging, and testimonial. This raw exposition of the value she places in her music is consistent through all facets of her life. When asked what’s on her most recent listening queue, Frank gushed about enjoying the recent works by the Fellows at her namesake Academy.
“They are doing wonderful things,” she said.
With the creation of the Gabriela Lena Frank Academy in 2016, Frank has sought to nurture a musical passion for other artists and composers who may not have otherwise fostered their talents and whose identities may not be well represented within the classical music world. With this, Frank remains reflective on her humble beginnings and the vital role she plays in the world of music going forward.
In the words of Gabriela Lena Frank, “I guess I was imbued with a quiet defiance to change up existing models, existing ways of doing things… This is healthy and good for the planet if done right.”