Field Guide


American composer Gabriella Smith was a child when her fascinations with both music and nature began to emerge. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, she enjoyed hiking and backpacking and spent five years volunteering at a bird-banding and songbird research center in Point Reyes, CA. Violin study began at age seven, and the urge to compose—to translate the natural soundscapes she heard in her head onto paper—quickly followed. By age 15, her compositions had drawn the attention of legendary American composer John Adams, who became a mentor. Composition studies at both the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and Princeton honed her musical skills, and today she is frequently lauded as producing some of the most ingenious and captivating music of the 21st century.

Described by Clive Paget of Musical America as “the coolest, most exciting, most inventive new voice I’ve heard in ages,” Smith’s music has been performed by major orchestras across the United States. Field Guide was commissioned by the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in honor of John Adams’ 70th birthday. The work premiered on August 12, 2017 in Santa Cruz, CA, with the following notes supplied by the composer:

“In the past few years, I have become obsessed with making field recordings everywhere I go. It began with my desire to record the unfolding and trajectory of the dawn choruses I remember hearing every early Sunday morning as a teenager on the drive out to Point Reyes Bird Observatory where I would volunteer as a bird bander. It would always start just as we drove past Lagunitas Creek, about 30 minutes before sunrise, and we’d turn off the music and roll down the windows and let in the glorious cacophony and cold morning air. Since then I have recorded dawn choruses and many other natural and human-produced soundscapes around the world while backpacking in the Sierras, Cascades, and Andes, in temperate and tropical rainforest, in desert, in coastal scrub, in oceans, tide pools, bays, lakes, and glacial streams recording underwater sounds with my hydrophone, and in the streets and parks and subways of the cities I have spent time in. I envisioned Field Guide as a collage inspired by these various recordings and my improvisations with them on violin and voice and experiments processing them electronically.”

Field Guide opens quietly, with plucked strings and percussion evoking the sounds of the forest floor. Bird calls and the scratching of insects create a blanket of sound over which the brass enter with an expansive, chorale-like melody, eventually ascending high above the treetops. This grand panorama eventually morphs into a more urban soundscape. Pizzicato strings and bongos create a new, more tense music, replete with the scratching of metal and electronic sounds. We are obviously deep in a city, waves of sound cascading by, like a subway rushing past as you stand on the platform. Rhythmically pulsing strings and brass eventually lead back above ground, higher and higher, culminating in a glorious, technicolor conclusion.

Program Notes written by Betsy Hudson Traba © 2020