Stories pour out of Gabriela Lena Frank like music. Sitting on an old brown leather chair in her little house, where she lives with her grand piano, books and black Labrador retriever, she is describing her upbringing and musical education with passion and joy and not a note of calculation.
The composer has electric-black curly hair and a mind as alive as morning light. Before she finishes her cup of tea, she has described, like a magical character in a Gabriel García Márquez novel, the influence on her music of her father, a Jewish Mark Twain scholar who grew up in the Bronx; her mother, a Peruvian whose Chinese grandfather sold shovels to miners in the 1800s; her congenital hearing loss;Graves’ disease, which has diminished her eyesight; bodybuilders and Andes Mountain Indian runners; and her perfect pitch, which Frank’s piano teacher discovered when Frank was 10, after Frank informed her that a harp recording of Bach’s Prelude in C was really in the key of F.
Actually, she’s not totally deaf; she just hears things, without her hearing aids, “like your stereo is turned down,” she says. It’s her music, ranging from piano sonatas to chamber works to tone poems for orchestra, say critics, that “bursts with color and fresh individuality,” and makes “for vivid and bracing aural adventures.” She strives to make her music both complex and simple — a lesson, she says, she learned from Twain. “He writes in vernacular, in everyday speech, but he can talk about the most profound things that you will mull over for the rest of your life. That’s what I want my music to be like.”
Frank admits her hearing loss has also informed her music, made her more sensitive to inner sounds; she sometimes plays the piano and composes without her hearing aids. Graves’ disease, a disorder of the body’s immune system, has perhaps, she says, deepened her humanity. When she was first struck by Graves’, more than 10 years ago, Frank says, “It would take three hours before my vision kicked in after I slept. So to get my eyesight back meant much more than to get a string quartet to write for somebody.”
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