5 Questions to Gabriella Smith (composer)

Gabriella Smith grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and studied at the Curtis Institute before beginning a PhD at Princeton. In January 2019, her Tumblebird Contrails will be performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with John Adams conducting.

Smith’s connection to the natural world is evident in many of her works, including a new piece commissioned as part of Bravo! Vail’s New Works–on August 2, Roomful of Teeth and the Dover String Quartet will premiere Smith’s one-movement Requiem, the text of which she derived from the Latin names of all the species that have become extinct over the last century.

Why is environmentalism an important aspect of your work?

The destruction of our biosphere is the biggest issue facing humans and all species on Earth right now, so for me it would be impossible not to address this in my work. On a more personal level, I have always loved spending time in nature, hiking and observing and getting to know the organisms around me, so it is inevitable that my music is inspired by it as well. Before music took over my life, my primary passion was ecology (and still is today). As a teenager, I spent five years volunteering on a songbird monitoring and research project in Point Reyes. My plan was to study related subjects in university and travel throughout the world working on projects researching ecosystems in various places, much like the biologists I worked with in Point Reyes who were my idols growing up. Despite the fact that my dream has drifted, I like to use my music to engage the audience in a dialogue about the ongoing impact on our environment. I hope some day to combine my two passions in a more concrete way.

What was it like writing for Roomful of Teeth and the Dover String Quartet?

I have been a huge fan of both ensembles for years and have known the Dover Quartet since we were students at Curtis together. Together, they were one of the most fun ensembles I have ever written for, and the combination of voice and strings fit very naturally into my usual writing process. Because I come up with a lot of my musical ideas through improvisation, my process involves recording myself playing as much of the string parts as possible, singing to fake any wind or brass instruments, layering the parts on top of each other, and transcribing everything as I go. I like that this process connects me so physically to the music as opposed to just intellectually and allows me to participate in the music even though I’m not the performer. My music often involves a lot of unconventional techniques, many of which I invent in the improvisation portion of my process, so I was really excited to work with Roomful of Teeth, who are able to do just about anything I can dream up. Before I started working on the piece, Roomful of Teeth sent me video demos and lots of scores of works that had been written for them, so I spent months before I started writing the piece just listening to them and becoming familiar with each of their individual voices.

Roomful of Teeth--Photo by Bonica Ayala

Roomful of Teeth–Photo by Bonica Ayala

The requiem is such a specific form; how did you approach writing a new requiem, and how were you influenced by other composers’ requiems?

The piece has very little to do with the traditional requiem, which is part of why I chose to call it that—it is in a single movement, it is for much smaller forces than most requiems, and the text is simply a list of the scientific names of the species that have gone extinct in the last 100 years. I like the title’s reference to older musical ideas as well as the unexpected juxtaposition with the very non-traditional text and the non-traditional sounds in the piece. In my music, I often reference older forms and sound worlds, twisting and transforming them into something completely different—that process happens several times in this piece but is also the way I think about the relationship between the title and the body of this work. In addition, I think of this text as an update to the traditional requiem text which–though it created may beautiful works–has no relevance to me or most people, I suspect. Back then, religion was the truth and provided the answers, but now science is the truth and asks the difficult questions, some of which have answers.

You’ve written a lot for orchestra; how does the experience of writing for orchestra compare to writing for smaller forces?

Yes, I’m grateful to have had so many opportunities to write for orchestra, but chamber music has always been my first love. Even as a kid learning to play the violin, my favorite music to play was chamber music because of the communication and intimacy, the intense connection with everyone involved. Writing for smaller forces allows me to create parts that are very personal, custom-made for each musician rather than simply the instrument they play. But orchestral writing is fun for its own reasons (the scale alone is awe-inspiring), and I try to incorporate that personal touch as much as I can into orchestral writing, as well. Usually, I know the conductor and at least a few of the members of the orchestra, but I haven’t had the chance (yet) to write for an orchestra in which I know all the members.

You travel a lot; how do you find community when you are on the move or living away from major musical centres?

I feel very fortunate that I get to travel for all sorts of reasons—sometimes the point is to get away from major musical centers, from my usual community, or to get away from people altogether and spend time in beautiful outdoor places. I need that in order to be happy and sane and continuously inspired. I find community in lots other ways when I travel: backpacking, capoeira, and learning languages, for example. And I feel very fortunate that when I am living away from major musical centers, I frequently get to go back to them for concerts, so in a way it’s the best of both worlds. Right now, I’m traveling continuously for the next six weeks for a combination of concerts, friends, and nature, in France, Finland, Estonia, Colorado (for the premiere of Requiem), back home to the San Francisco bay area for a few days, and then to French Polynesia to visit family and make some underwater recordings with my hydrophone.