There are a few things about composer Gabriela Lena Frank that remind me of Beethoven. Like old Ludwig van, Frank plays a mean keyboard and knows how to turn an orchestral phrase. Moreover, she has perfect pitch (ditto Beethoven), some wildly curly hair (remind you of anyone?) and, oh yeah, the uncanny ability to compose terrific music despite being almost completely deaf.
“I was born with neurosensory hearing loss,” says Frank, whose music opens the Nashville Symphony Orchestra’s program this week at Schermerhorn Symphony Center. “It was a birth defect, like being born without a finger, only I was born without some nerves in my inner ear. Fortunately, I can function just fine because I’m not totally deaf. But it’s also true that there’s more to music than just sound. There’s phrasing and rhythm, and I can feel vibrations. In fact, when I was little and got into trouble, I could feel the air move when my mother got angry and started yelling at me.”
Frank’s hearing impairment hasn’t hurt her career: in recent years, such groups as the San Francisco Symphony, Seattle Symphony and Kronos Quartet have all performed her music. And she’s received commissions from such star performers as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project, guitarist Sharon Isbin and the vocal group Chanticleer.
What’s made Frank an increasingly hot commodity is her signature style, a colorful and vital sort of classical music that frequently draws on the folk melodies and rhythms of Latin America. “My music is stylistically eclectic,” Frank says. “I think that reflects my background.”
Born in Berkeley, Calif., in 1972, Frank grew up in a diverse family of Peruvian-Jewish-Lithuanian-Chinese heritage. It was from this remarkably varied gene pool that Frank got her musical talent. “There was obviously a musical gene floating around, since a lot of people in my family had perfect pitch and could extemporize at the piano,” Frank says. “I have perfect pitch, and started picking out melodies at the piano when I was 3.”
Perfect pitch is an extremely rare ability that basically turns certain musicians into human tuning forks—people with this gift can identify any tone just by hearing it (whereas the rest of us can only name it after plucking it out on a piano). It’s a more refined kind of hearing, akin to being able to see in color instead of just black-and-white. Beethoven had this ability, so his loss of hearing had no impact on his composing. Likewise, Frank may hear less than we do in terms of volume, but she hears music with a tonal vividness that most of us can only envy.
“I can remember Gaby writing papers about how Beethoven composed when he was deaf,” says Michael Daugherty, one of the noted composers who taught Frank at the University Michigan. “She obviously works in a similar way.”
This week, the NSO under Keith Lockhart will open its program with a piece that had its origins in one of Frank’s recurring childhood nightmares. The work is called Manchay Tiempo (“Time of Fear”) and relates to some disturbing dreams she had about her mother.
“I used to have this dream in which my mother was in some kind of great and unknown danger,” says Frank. “I never understood it until I went to college and saw this documentary about Shining Path, which was a Maoist group that terrorized Peru in the 1970s and ’80s. The documentary showed frightened women who looked like my mother, and I realized that I must have seen this documentary when I was a child and internalized it. I always thought of that dream as representing a time of fear.”
Lasting about 15 minutes, Manchay Tiempo suggests a sort of eerie dreamscape. It’s a dark piece—scored for percussion and strings without winds—that opens with the rumble of a thunder sheet. The violins add a passage in harmonics, which gives the music a strange, distorted and dreamy sound. Ultimately, the entire orchestra, with its arsenal of percussion, joins the fray, building to a frenzied climax. The piece ends in quiet desperation, with a reprise of the thunder sheet over mournful violas.
The Seattle Symphony gave the world premiere performance of Manchay Tiempo last year. In Nashville, the piece will open for two other dark and dramatic works: Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor (with violinist Leila Josefowicz) and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite.