Part Teacher, Part Den Mother, a Composer Fosters Diversity

Part Teacher, Part Den Mother, a Composer Fosters Diversity

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One graduate of Ms. Frank’s academy is Iman Habibi, an Iranian-Canadian pianist and composer who was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra to contribute a work this year in honor of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. In a phone interview, Mr. Habibi recalled being at first taken aback when he received the academy’s schedule. It contained relatively few musical events, he said. Instead, time was set aside for nature hikes and communal cooking. Ms. Frank’s opening question to each member of the group also came as a surprise: “Who are you?”

Mr. Habibi said, “She has this gift for making the focus on the human, rather than technical.” Unlike in a traditional conservatory setting, he added, Ms. Frank emphasized that “our stories are just as important as our art, and it’s just in the context of who I am that my music makes sense.”

Ms. Frank has funded the program through private donations and is able to offer scholarships to 90 percent of participants. The course connects composers with instrumentalists in order to develop ideas away from the pressure of deadlines — “like a scientist receiving money for pure research,” she said. Experiments are encouraged.

“We get rid of the shame of wrong notes,” she said. “We make good food and I say, ‘You get to make mistakes here.’”

Ms. Frank opens the door to applicants who might not gain entry to standard conservatories. In 2017, Anjna Swaminathan was a violinist deeply conversant in Carnatic music. But, she said in a recent phone interview, she assumed composition was closed to her because she came out of an oral tradition. Ms. Frank, though, encouraged her to apply. The mentorship, Ms. Swaminathan said, taught her how to read and write music, but also how “to create a dignity and ownership around my own voice while navigating new territory.”

Just a couple years later, Ms. Swaminathan has written a string quartet for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and an evening-length solo work for the violinist Hyeyung Yoon. On Nov. 16 she will premiere two works as part of the program “Rivers Above, Floods Below,” livestreamed by Roulette, the Brooklyn performance space.

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