Music Monday: Frank: Sonata Andina

For today's Music Monday, we remain in the realm of the living. Gabriela Lena Frank was born in Berkeley in 1972 to a mother of Chinese Peruvian descent and a father of Jewish Lithuanian descent. While some composers are eager to downplay or ignore their heritage, Frank tends to foreground it in her music instead, exploring what it means for her as a composer and human being; she's said that the music she writes "can be seen as a by-product of [her] always trying to figure out how Latina [she is] and how gringa [she is]". Many of her works borrow from Peruvian musical traditions and seek to incorporate them into more traditional Western structures.

Reading down the list of her accomplishments and awards (on either her official bio or her Wikipedia page) is a pretty breathtaking exercise, especially looking at the sheer amount she's accomplished since 2009, when she received her first Guggenheim Fellowship. (Institutional recognition doesn't always line up with artistic quality, but it's certainly nice when it does.) As far as I can tell from my (admittedly limited) perspective, there's not as much buzz about her in compositional circles as there is for some of her slightly older, more established colleagues, but if her career keeps going the way it has, I'm hopeful that that will change and that her works will be much more widely known, because they're pretty darn awesome.

And now for one of them! Frank wrote the Sonata Andina in 2000 and dedicated it to her grandmother, Griselda Cam. She describes the piece as drawing from Jose María Arguedas's idea of "mestizaje", "whereby cultures can co-exist without the subjugation of one by the other". The resulting piece isn't a (utopian?) imagining of the idea itself, but rather an attempt to put it into practice at the practical musical level. It's written for solo piano, but as with many such works, Frank wants the piano to conjure the timbre of other instruments — only instead of the strings and horns we might look for in Franz Liszt, Frank is pointing to traditional Andean instruments like the tambor, pinkillo, and quena. The first movement sets the tone for the work, starting with an ominous low rumbling and growing into a dark, almost brutal march. There are more lyrical (or at least free-flowing) interludes and punctuations, but the overall mood is one of restlessness and relentless forward motion.

Next up is the second movement, what would be the scherzo if this were a more normative Western piano sonata. But instead of a dance or a scamper or a joke, we get shimmering waves of repeated chords, boxed in by strangely inert hand-claps and tongue-clicks. It's a reprieve from the darkness of the first movement, but it also foreshadows the mystery of the third movement. Said movement definitely reveals the influence of Bartók Béla and Alberto Ginastera that Frank cites in her bio, tho without ever sounding derivative. It calls both clearly to mind, but neither of them could have written it. It's a haunting thing, built of wispy fragments that drift together and apart with a natural organic flow. Sometimes, they coalesce into brief visions of larger structures, but these always decay back into floating mist.

Keeping with the thread of Ginastera, the last movement is written in his memory. We're back to the grim forward drive of the sonata's opening, but there's more of a dancing lilt here, and there are moments that verge on joyousness, however delirious. There's a somewhat more stately interlude towards the middle of the movement, but with its shuddering accompanimental figures, there's hardly a dip in energy. After a climactic burst of activity, the music settles into a series of trembling oscillations that gradually peter out into gentle silence.