For ACO’s Welcome Back Friends & Family Chamber Concert on September 28, 2021, we are delighted to feature Daybreak and When by composer Karen LeFrak, whose works were inspired by the native New Yorker’s memories of our shared hometown. A highly accomplished composer, children’s book author, and philanthropist, Karen sat down with ACO’s President Melissa Ngan to share her creative process, and the inspiration behind her recently released album, Gratitude.
Melissa Ngan (MN): Can you share a bit about your early musical life, and if there was a moment that inspired you to begin composing?
Karen LeFrak (KL): When I was three years old, my nursery schoolteacher recognized that I could play the piano. She didn’t play, so I accompanied the children while they sang their favorite songs. I began composing melodies soon after, and I remember that in sixth grade, during a school assembly, the chorus sang a song I wrote.
My family was not musical at all, but they arranged for me to study piano. I learned about four-part harmony by singing in my high school choir. It was my choir teacher who inspired me and had the most significant influence on developing my musical life. From then on, it was the support and encouragement from professionals in musical capacities such as conductors, musicians of the New York Philharmonic, ballet company artistic directors and choreographers, music managers, college music professors, music producers, and fellow composers. They should all be credited with playing a part in developing and establishing my career as a composer.
MN: What is your favorite instrument or ensemble to write for, and why?
KL: I find it easiest to write for piano, the instrument I am personally most familiar with. Most of my pieces begin with piano and then I am frequently inspired to orchestrate them, often adding just one wind instrument or arranging the melody for a string ensemble or full orchestra.
MN: In your notes for Daybreak and When, you describe being inspired by nostalgic memories of early mornings in your hometown of NYC. I’m curious if you often find connections between memories and sounds in your creative practice?
KL: Past and present thoughts always provide inspiration. My mom used to say that when I was a little girl, she could always tell what kind of mood I was in by listening to me improvising at the piano.
MN: In addition to your professional life as a composer, you’re also an author of children’s books. What made you want to write for children as opposed to adults, and what have you learned from the process?
KL: I have always found it easy to relate to young children. In fact, I was a nursery school music teacher when my own children were young. Writing for children started as an accident. I met a little dog who went to work with his dad, who was the principal stagehand of the New York Philharmonic. He sat on a cushion backstage and often interacted with the musicians and conductors. I thought he would be the perfect vehicle to teach children about music.
MN: You have been an enormous supporter of the arts, in addition to leading a rich creative life of your own – what role do you believe the arts will have during these unprecedented times – either for us individually or collectively?
KL: The arts provide relief and a temporary escape from the stresses of life. These universally understood mediums are now more than ever relevant to our lives.
MN: Are there any rituals or routines that you do regularly to feed your creativity and imagination?
KL: I am an early riser and love the solitude before the sun rises. In the quiet, I often listen to and edit what I wrote the day before. I often think about the past and present and those thoughts might provide inspiration for melodies that I can set at the piano when the rest of the household won’t be disturbed.
MN: And lastly, I know you’ve just released a beautiful new album, Gratitude – I’d love to know more about the project, and the inspiration for the title!
KL: Gratitude is part of my four-album project, Interlude, which features ten peaceful piano pieces in each album. The other albums are Harmony and Inspiration, which are already released, and Clarity, which is to be released in December. Each recording presents the gift of a pause in life that the pandemic created. During this time when the world stood still, one could be thankful for so many things. One is certainly appreciative of the frontline workers who tirelessly help those who are affected by the virus. In general, this time gives one the opportunity to be thankful for all the gifts life has given them. These gifts might be family, friends, opportunities, experiences, and good health, or simply the gift of life.
Listen to LeFrak’s Gratitude album on Spotify Now