Virtual Visionaries Week 8: Art for Social Change

About the Author

Currently serving as Composer-in-Residence with the storied Philadelphia Orchestra and included in the Washington Post’s list of the 35 most significant women composers in history, identity has always been at the center of composer/pianist Gabriela Lena Frank‘s music. Born in Berkeley, California (September, 1972), to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Gabriela explores her multicultural American heritage through her compositions. In 2017, Gabriela founded the award-winning Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, a non-profit training institution held on her two rural properties in Boonville, CA for emerging composers from a vast array of demographics and aesthetics.

It began in a practice room

If ever there was a time for social activism, this would be it: Thus far, 2020 has birthed a planet-wide pandemic, cataclysmic economic decline, and a chilling reckoning with historically-embedded racial violence. In my native California, we also face a predicted worse-than-usual fire season, already made hellish these past three years from climate crisis which ominously predicts more pandemics in the future.  

Yet, it wasn’t until last week when my husband and I buried Beau, our canine companion and surrogate son of eleven years, that I finally lost it. Digging a spot on our mountainous property and burying our gentle giant, a golden-hued Pyrenees mix with an impossibly worried brow, I cried so much that I gave myself hives. At my age, that’s a particularly demoralizing first. And one that somehow elicited a weak chuckle: Now 2020 is taking our boy, too. What else can go wrong?  

While embers may burn in our civic psyche, it may take large and unmistakable events symptomatic of unbelievable times to stir one to change life habits. I am seeing this in beloved friends, spurred by recent social unrest, chagrined to realize how indebted their safety and overall good fortune are to white privilege set at our nation’s founding. When inequity hums along at an insidiously quieter pace, however, and criminality is not in plain view, social activism may, too, burn privately, witnessed only by a few.  

My first day as a freshman music composition major proved that to me with an early painful lesson that seared into my soul. I was seventeen, blessed to enroll at a music conservatory, having only discovered that such institutions even existed the year before. Thrilled, I spent the morning wandering the practice halls of a brand new state-of-the-art building (They built this just for me!) before selecting a room with a Steinway and a view. After warming up, I placed Ravel’s Jeux d’eau on the stand, beginning on page three with the perilously wide black-note arpeggios that only flow if anchored by a relaxed thumb.  

I was mesmerized, so much so that when the door flew open to reveal a scolding faculty piano professor, my brain wasn’t able to immediately skip track —“What are you doing here? What are you doing on that instrument? I’ll be talking to your supervisor!”  Dumbfounded, I realized he’d seen me through the small window in the door, and mistook me for cleaning staff, one of the largely Mexican workers who flitted in the backdrop of the school as shadows. My skin color and build has always carried the imprint of Latin America, from which my mother hails, and which didn’t pass the professor’s litmus test for inclusion.  

I was calm. And I explained. He apologized, angry. I thought, And would it be so bad if I were indeed a cleaning lady, enchanted by the instrument?  

Decades have passed since that initiation by fire when I learned that simply by existing, I might be a phenomenon. It took some years to realize that by moving beyond existing to excelling, I was doing the work of activism, rare as Latinas were who brought their heritage into a western classical canon while, say, quietly volunteering at a men’s prison with a considerable Latino population. Yet more years passed before I learned that widely impactful activism, affecting people beyond my small sphere, meant doing the work on as public a stage as possible, and, crucially, paying it forward to other artist-citizens — Three years ago, I formed a music academy that supports emerging composers from a vast array of demographics and aesthetics while offering an urgently healthier way to approach Mother Earth. It has been a transformative experience, more than equal to my professional successes.  

Activism, for me? It began in a practice room and stretches into 2020, a simply unbelievable year, one for the history books. My internal compass tells me the work isn’t done (Why, you think struggle is for the past?) and as I’ve stepped into the second half of my life, I’m resolved to retain my humor and joy through it all. It is the best possible work, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Gabriela Lena Frank, July 7, 2020

Want to hear more?

Join Gabriela this Thursday, July 23 from 3:00-4:00PM EDT via Zoom.This conversational session will delve into her post in greater depth, providing a chance for participants to ask questions and engage with the author in real time.

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