Inspired by nature, composer’s work debuts at Oregon Symphony in Salem

Gabriella Smith’s new composition will debut in Salem on Friday. (Courtesy/ Gabriella Smith)

Gabriella Smith likes to make recordings of the natural world.

The 28-year-old composer will listen to early morning bird songs or dip a hydrophone into the water to record shrimp crackling or fish grunting.

“The underwater ones are particularly interesting because they’re so inaccessible to people,” Smith said. “It’s this really vibrant ecosystem of sounds that people aren’t aware of.”

Her latest work was inspired by night dives she took in the Channel Islands off the coast of California as a teenager. She remembers green, glowing shimmers on the water, created by organisms emitting light.

Her piece “Bioluminescence Chaconne,” will debut at the Oregon Symphony in Salem on Friday, Feb 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Willamette University’s Smith Auditorium. 240 Winter St. S.E. Tickets cost $35 to $50.

Smith said chaconne is an old musical form that’s “basically just variations of a repeating chord progression.”

But instead of typical melodies and harmonies, Smith said her composition is more minimalistic and texture-based.

The first iteration lasts three minutes, and the shortest is five seconds, she said. The song lasts 14 minutes.

Smith grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and started composing at 8 years old while she was taking piano and violin lessons.

“I just wanted to figure out how that music I was assigned to play had come into existence,” she said.

When she’s creating music, she said she’ll sing the wind and brass sections and bang on objects (often kitchen items) to recreate the percussion parts. On an app, she’ll record the music and layer it.

The Oregon Symphony commissioned Friday’s piece, which will also be performed in Portland on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

Smith lives in Marseilles, France and won’t hear the song performed until rehearsal Thursday.

“I’m looking forward to coming to both Salem and Portland,” she said.

Smith said orchestra visitors don’t need to worry about following the chaconne from.

“I usually try not to put too many of my expectations on the audience I like people to just relax and have their own experience of the piece,” she said. 

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