Gabriella Smith's music admires nature with groovy joy (2023)


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Smith, an emerging young composer, has adapted his work "Lost Coast" into a cello concerto premiering this week at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

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Gabriella Smith's music admires nature with groovy joy (1)
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DoorJoshua Barone

Report fra Vanuit Los Angeles

In 2014, composer Gabriella Smith took a walk through the Lost Coast in Northern California. Populated by bears, mountain lions and Roosevelt elk, it's an area so rugged that scenic Highway 1, which runs alongside the water, must detour far inland. She kept a tide log for parts of the path following the coast. "You must be careful," she said, "not to be carried away."

The ferocity surprised her. "I felt so much awe when I was there," Smith said. And she loved the sound of the name: the poetry of the words "lost" and "coast" together, the many meanings it suggests. It was likeJohn Adams, one of her mentors would say, a title in search of a piece.

For Gabriel Cabezas, a friend and former classmate at the Curtis Institute of Music, she wrote a cello solo with looping electronics, inspired by the image of a track being washed away repeatedly. Then the piece was createda more complex, layered shot to be released in 2021. And now "Lost Coast" gets a second life, the biggest one yet: a cello concerto,premieres Thursdaywith Cabezas and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

This work and its trajectory are very similar to Smith's career. At the age of 31, she prefers to write for people she has a relationship with, although she gets more and more prominent assignments. Here and elsewhere, in addition to her fascination with the natural world, her music exudes ingenuity with an approachable personality, rousing energy and streams of joy - not to mention an infectious groove.

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"I always assume," Cabezas said, "that anyone who listens to her music will be her next biggest fan."

Growing up in Berkeley, California, Smith studied piano and violin, and at age 8—even earlier, if you ask her mother—she started writing her own music to figure out how it all worked. But she kept it a secret, convinced that what she was doing was strange, even embarrassing. She didn't know anyone like her.

It took encouragement at the time, as well as music theory lessons, from her teacher to continue. Smith was inspired by the composers whose works she learned: Mozart, Bach, Haydn. But her own pieces were nothing like theirs, if only because, she said, "I didn't know how to sound like that."


She once wrote what she thought was a Mozart duet for violin and piano until she heard it played by two classmates. "But that," Smith said, "encouraged me because it was this puzzle of figuring out how the idea was going to fit with the outcome."

Other influences entered her brain, mainly Bartok and Joni Mitchell. And she got a boost from Adams. He recalled a quiet teenager arriving at his home with a "staggering" number of pieces, all polished with plastic spiral binding. "I was impressed," he said, "that she clearly had this incredible determination at a young age."

Smith was not only committed to music. She also loved nature and became interested in environmental issues around the age she began composing. At age 12, she began volunteering at a research station in Point Reyes; the people there told her they had never been approached by someone so young, but they tried. For the next five years, she banded birds and bonded with local biologists. She even got her mother on board.

At 17, she began working for Curtis in Philadelphia, but missed the West Coast. 'I was so homesick,' she said, 'that it kind of forced me to consider not only who I was as a composer, but also as a person. I poured all that into the music and then my music started to sound like me.

Smith is gentle. But as a composer, she "fills the whole room," said violist Nadia Sirota, who has performed her music and collaborated with her and Cabezas as producer on the "Lost Coast" album. "She knows exactly what she's talking about. And if someone has clear ideas, it's about realizing them."

As Smith continued to write, Adams found her sound maturing quickly. He saw a sensitivity to the natural world that, he said, "goes all the way back to the 'pastoral' symphony." And he could see that it would be fun for both the artists and the audience. Cabezas certainly felt that: "You don't lose the sense of what music should be, but at the same time there is optimism, quirkiness and humor."

I"Tumlebird condensate spores,"a piece that Adams and Deborah O'Grady, his wife, commissioned through their Pacific Harmony Foundation, A Point Reyes Walk is translated into music of muscularity, amazement and joy. Similar adjectives come to mind for other scores, such as the 'Carrot Revolution' quartet, an instantly riveting work of sheer excitement.

Those emotions, Smith said, come naturally: "I try to put all the emotions into it, but joy is what I care about the most. It's the joy I get from the natural world, and honestly, the joy of making music."

Smith's titles tend towards the playful. Sometimes they can seem frivolous, like 'Imaginary Pancake', a piano solo written for Timo Andres. But it was inspired by a memory of a childhood summer music program where she was impressed by an older boy playing something with his arms outstretched at either end of a keyboard. She asked him what it was and he said Beethoven.

As an adult, she tried to find that music, but couldn't; she realized that her memory had exaggerated it until it became something else. So she composed based on inspiration from an imaginary play. And "pancake"? It's the image of a player leaning over the keyboard with outstretched arms, flat as a pancake.

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Smith now lives in Seattle and continues to be involved in environmentalism. She bikes instead of driving and works on an ecological restoration at a former naval airfield. There is some anger about the state of climate change in her music, such as the song"Bard of a Wasteland,"but even then the rhythms suggest underlying optimism. "It's so easy to despair," she said, "but there are all these people around us who are working on this in an incredibly happy way. We have to feel the things we need to feel and grieve the things we mourn, then we must move on."


Besides awe, there is also determination in 'Lost Coast'. The album version was created in Iceland over several sessions, combining Cabezas' playing with a few contributions from Sirota and vocals from Smith, based on her composing method of recording herself with Ableton software. “She makes music in the room,” Sirota said. "It's almost like she's molding clay."

For the concert version, Smith adapted his vocals to more traditional wind and brass lines. But it wasn't a one-to-one transfer; many sections were heavily altered and she also added a cadenza. "There are some wild parts that she rewrote," Cabezas said. "It suits the orchestral aesthetic a bit more, and she's found some places where it works even better."

Smith wants to further integrate the ecological and musical aspects of his life. Her next piece - forKronos Quartet's 50th anniversary, previewed at Carnegie Hall in November ahead of the full premiere in January -- features interviews she has conducted with others working on climate solutions. But she's still figuring out how to do more.

“I can write music, but this feels like the first step,” she said. "A lot of it feels like uncharted territory. But everyone, in every field, has to do this."

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Joshua Barone is the Associate Editor of Classical Music and Dance at CultureDesk and a contributing classical music reviewer.

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