These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you’ll hear in the concert hall.

Nov 1, 2023

California Soundscapes: Composer Gabriella Smith

“Music can be such a powerful tool because it’s already so good at bringing people together as a community, which is so much more powerful than any kind of individual action.” —Gabriella Smith

Esa-Pekka Salonen, organist James McVinnie, and the San Francisco Symphony present the first San Francisco Symphony performances of Gabriella Smith's organ concerto Breathing Forests on November 17-18 as part of the California Festival: A Celebration of New Music. We spoke with Smith—a Bay Area native—about her music and her equally important passion for the environment.
Composer and environmentalist: That’s an unusual combination of passions.
I really never meant to be a composer. What I wanted to study was ecology, or climate science, or marine biology; something in that realm. As a teenager, I spent five years volunteering on this really cool songbird research project in Point Reyes, with an organization called Point Blue Conservation Science. The biologists that I worked with there were my heroes growing up, and what I imagined I would do with my life. But I also always loved music, and eventually I became a composer.
For a long time, I struggled with the notion that music felt so inconsequential, compared to an issue like the climate crisis, which is what I had intended to devote my life to. What I realized eventually is that while of course we need scientists working on this issue, we don’t only need scientists; we need everyone to make climate solutions an integral part of all of our lives if we’re to have any hope of a livable future. And that should include the things that we're already good at and love doing, like music. Music in particular can be such a powerful tool for this because it’s already so good at bringing people together as a community, which is so much more powerful than any kind of individual action. One of the things I’m trying to work on now is not just writing music about these issues, but actually thinking about how real climate action and climate solutions can become part of all of our lives as a music community.
Your work is often inspired by specific places or experiences. Is it important for listeners to know the backstory of your pieces?
It’s nice to be able to explain to people what I was inspired by, but it in no way means that that’s what they have to hear. Often, people come up to me with their own interpretations that are more interesting than what I had in mind. If they have a good experience of the piece, I’m happy. Taking inspiration from specific places has also made me realize that you can apply a lot of the same ways you listen to music to natural soundscapes: rhythm, shape, form, texture, color, phrasing, even accidental counterpoint between different sounds. Just writing music is incredibly joyful and coming up with the shape and sound in your head and then hearing it in real life is a powerful experience.
Your organ concerto Breathing Forests is being featured as part of this month’s California Festival. How did that work come about?
[Organist] James McVinnie and I met at a concert at Disney Hall in Los Angeles that we were both on. We hit it off, and after the final concert he gave me a tour of the organ there. I had already been talking with LA Phil about writing them a piece, and James asked if it could be a concerto for him. So, it just made sense. When I write a piece for a certain instrument, it’s always driven by having a person that I want to write for, not an instrument I want to write for.
What was it like composing for organ? Was that a particular challenge on its own?
I had never written for the organ before and knew very little about it, so James guided me through the whole thing. I asked him a bunch of questions and he recommended repertoire for me to listen to. I sent him drafts, and he told me what worked and what didn't. And then I would revise things, just generally talking about it all the time with him. He said that every organ is different in terms of registration and suggested that I would probably get a better result if I described the sound I was looking for and let him figure out how to make it happen, which I think is great. The reason that I wanted to work with him is because I trust him as a musician, and I want him to have some amount of artistic freedom.
It must be wonderful to have Esa-Pekka Salonen champion your music.
We met about a year-and-a-half ago when he premiered Breathing Forests with LA Phil. Working together on that was one of my favorite musical experiences, so I'm really looking forward to more. But also, the fact that the music director of my hometown orchestra really cares about the environment, and the climate crisis, is incredibly meaningful to me.
Steve Holt is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

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