Aural journeys with uncommon folk

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 Garcia Marquez 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.

Frank, 39, is also glad to help journalists who stammer like flummoxed tourists to categorize her. “I’m a Berkeley gringa, Latino, Peruvian, Chinese, Lithuanian Jew, deaf, short composer!” she says, laughing.


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.”

Frank’s career is on high volume. In the next two weeks, the Berkeley Symphony will debut her cantata, “Holy Sisters,” for piano and girls choir, and the Annapolis Symphony will perform her ambitious new symphonic work, Concerto Suite for Orchestra. On April 29, at the heart of a program of early and contemporary Latin American vocal music called “Andes to the Sea,” the Los Angeles Master Chorale will feature Frank’s “The Singing Mountaineers.”

In the work, based on poems by Quechua Indians, Frank stitches Peruvian folkloric rhythms and melodies, played on guitar, panpipes and percussion, into the choir’s tapestry of voices. The venerable folk-jazz Los Angeles band, Huayucaltia, whose roots run deep into Latin America, will perform the work live with the choir at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

In the last decade, Frank, inspired by her hero, Bela Bartok, the Hungarian composer who in the 1900s hiked the hills of Transylvania to hear gypsy musicians, has traveled across Peru, soaking up Andean music. Although Frank has earned renown for fusing indigenous folk music with the pointillistic, dissonant signatures of modernism, including a 2009 Latin Grammy Award in classical contemporary composition for “Inca Dances,” she admits she began “The Singing Mountaineers” on shaky ground.

“When I started working on it, I started getting scared,” she says. “We have an Andean band and a classically trained choir. It could sound really cheesy. It could sound like a bad movie score in which you have these boy sopranos and the jungle music of Ghana, and you just want to go, ‘Ahhhh!’ ”

Writing for Huayucaltia also made her nervous. “I sometimes get called an expert on Latin America music,” she says. “I’m so embarrassed. Somebody like Huayucaltia, they’re the experts. They’re so kind, they would never say that. But I was not sure what to expect when I sent them the score.”

“Well, it is extremely challenging,” says Ciro Hurtado. The founder and lead guitarist of Huayucaltia who lives in Los Angeles, grew up in Lima, Peru, playing Andean music. He admits when he first read Frank’s score, “I felt like the Incas were Martians, and this is the type of music they would have composed thousands of years ago.” But after rehearsing with Frank, Hurtado adds, he is nothing but impressed. “She has taken the essence of traditional music of Peru Andeans -- which is in her genes -- light years ahead.”

Frank, who has written for the Silk Road Project, Yo-Yo Ma’s world music ensemble, explains that her musical flights of imagination were launched by her father, who read Twain to Frank and her brother, a neuroscientist, when they were kids. Her father, an inveterate bodybuilder, also introduced her to fables and myths. Frank’s favorite were tales of the Chaski, Inca messengers who dashed from town to town in the Andes.

In her feverish childhood mind, Frank conflated the Chaski with bodybuilders -- she followed the career of bodybuilders, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, as other kids did baseball players -- a blend of cultures, she says, that formed the basis of her music.

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.”

She continues, as ebullient as ever. “I have to tell you, when I was first going through all this stuff, this pain and anger, I did not want to read a recovering cancer patient say, ‘Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.’ I would just want to bitch-slap them. But having gone through it now, I understand what they were saying. It didn’t change my personality. It just made me a bolder version of myself.”

Which is really saying something, and which you can hear in every note of Frank’s music.



Los Angeles Master Chorale

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown L.A.

When: 7 p.m. April 29

Tickets: $19 to $134

Information: (213) 972-7282 or