Gabriella Smith's music marvels at nature with grooving joy

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Gabriella Smith's music marvels at nature with grooving joy
Gabriella Smith outside the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on Friday, May 21, 2023. Smith, a rising young composer, has adapted her work “Lost Coast” into a cello concerto premiering this week at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Alex Welsh/The New York Times)

by Joshua Barone

LOS ANGELES, CA.- In 2014, composer Gabriella Smith took a hike through the Lost Coast in Northern California. Populated by bears, mountain lions and Roosevelt elk, it’s an area so rugged that the scenic Highway 1, which runs along the water, has to detour far inland. She kept a tide log on hand for portions of the trail that follow the shore. “You have to be careful,” she said, “not to be swept away.”

The wildness surprised her. “I felt so much awe being there,” Smith said. And she liked the sound of the name: the poetry of the words “lost” and “coast” together, the multiple meanings it suggests. It was, as John Adams, one of her mentors, would say, a title in search of a piece.

She wrote a cello solo with looping electronics for Gabriel Cabezas, a friend and former classmate at the Curtis Institute of Music, inspired by the image of a trail being repeatedly washed away. Then the piece transformed into a more complex, layered recording, released in 2021. And now “Lost Coast” is taking on yet another life, its grandest yet: a cello concerto, premiering Thursday with Cabezas and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

This work and its trajectory are a lot like Smith’s career. At 31, she prefers to write for people she has a relationship with, even as she receives increasingly prominent commissions. Here and elsewhere, her music, in addition to its fascination with the natural world, exudes inventiveness with a welcoming personality, rousing energy and torrents of joy — not to mention an infectious groove.

“I always assume,” Cabezas said, “that anybody who listens to her music will be her next biggest fan.”

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

It took encouragement, as well as music theory lessons, from her teacher at the time to keep going. Smith was inspired by the composers whose works she was learning: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn. Her own pieces, though, didn’t resemble theirs, if only because, she said, “I didn’t know how to sound like that.”

Once, she wrote what she thought was a Mozartean duo for violin and piano, until she heard two classmates play it. “But that,” Smith said, “encouraged me, because it was this puzzle to figure out how to make the idea match the result.”

Other influences entered her brain, mainly Bela Bartok and Joni Mitchell. And she received a boost from Adams. He remembered a quiet teenager who arrived at his house with a “staggering” number of pieces, all polished with plastic spiral binding. “I was impressed,” he said, “that she obviously had this incredible determination at a young age.”

Smith wasn’t just determined in music. She also loved nature and became interested in environmental issues around the age she started composing. At 12, she started volunteering at a research station in Point Reyes; the people there told her that they had never been approached by someone so young, but they gave her a try. For the next five years, she banded birds and bonded with local biologists. She even got her mother on board.

At 17, she started at Curtis in Philadelphia but missed the West Coast. “I was so homesick,” she said, “that it sort of forced me to reckon with not only who I was as a composer, but as a person. I infused all that into the music, and that’s when my music started to sound like me.”

Smith is soft-spoken. But as a composer, “she fills up the whole room,” said violist Nadia Sirota, who has performed her music and collaborated with her and Cabezas as a producer on the “Lost Coast” album. “She knows exactly what she’s talking about. And when someone has clear ideas, it’s just about realizing them.”

As Smith continued to write, Adams clocked that her sound was quickly maturing. He saw a sensitivity to the natural world that, he said, “goes all the way back to the ‘Pastoral Symphony.’” And he could tell that, for performers and audiences alike, it would be fun. Cabezas has certainly felt that way: “You don’t lose a sense of what music should be, but at the same time, there’s optimism, quirkiness and humor.”

In “Tumblebird Contrails,” a piece that Adams and Deborah O’Grady, his wife, commissioned through their Pacific Harmony Foundation, a Point Reyes hike is translated into music of muscularity, amazement and delight. Similar adjectives come to mind for other scores, such as the quartet “Carrot Revolution,” an immediately engrossing work of pure excitement.

These feelings, Smith said, come naturally: “I try to put in all the emotions, but joy is the one I care most about. It’s the joy that I experience from the natural world and, honestly, the joy of making music.”

Smith’s titles tend toward the playful. Sometimes they can seem nonsensical, like “Imaginary Pancake,” a piano solo written for Timo Andres. But that was inspired by a memory from a childhood summer music program where she was impressed by an older boy who was playing something with his arms stretched to both ends of a keyboard. She asked him what it was, and he said Ludwig van 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 the inspiration of an imaginary piece. And “pancake”? That’s the image of a player leaning over the keyboard with arms outstretched, flat like a pancake.

Now living in Seattle, Smith remains involved in environmentalism. She bikes instead of drives and is working on an ecological restoration at a former Navy airfield. There is some anger about the state of climate change in her music, like the song “Bard of a Wasteland,” but even then, the rhythms suggest underlying optimism. “It’s so easy to slip into despair,” she said, “but there are all these people around us working on this in incredibly joyful ways. We need to feel the things we need to feel and grieve the things we need to grieve. Then we need to go on.”

There is determination, too, alongside awe in “Lost Coast.” The album version was made in Iceland, over multiple sessions that layered Cabezas’ playing with a few contributions by Sirota and singing by Smith, based on her compositional method of recording herself on Ableton software. “She creates music in space,” Sirota said. “It’s almost like she’s molding clay.”

For the concerto version, Smith adapted her singing into more traditional lines for winds and brasses. But it wasn’t a one-to-one transfer; many sections were heavily changed, and she also added a cadenza. “There are some wild parts that she rewrote,” Cabezas said. “It fits the orchestral aesthetic a little more, and she’s found some places where that works even better.”

Smith wants to further integrate the environmental and musical sides of her life. Her next piece — for the Kronos Quartet’s 50th anniversary, with a preview coming to Carnegie Hall in November before its full premiere in January — will include interviews she made with others working on climate solutions. But she is still figuring out how to do more.

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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