Composer Karen LeFrak’s work draws praise from artists of many different worlds, from diva Renée Fleming to DJ/producer David Guetta. Her music has been commissioned or performed by the Mariinsky, Joffrey, and San Francisco Ballets and the Mariinsky Theatre, and at Lincoln Center, Symphony Space, Festival Napa Valley, and around the world.
LeFrak has just issued the first volume in a four-album project called Interlude, distributed by Naxos Music Group. The first album, Harmony, consists of short solo piano pieces crafted to produce a state of engaged relaxation. Played by Jorn Swart performing under the name Doeke, the album was released March 5, 2021. Three more albums, entitled Inspiration, Gratitude, and Clarity, will follow later in 2021.
With this project, the composer aims to “effortlessly reflect the power of our present moment and offer a sense of grace and healing for the new and changing world ahead.”
Karen LeFrak graciously answered some questions for us about her new release.
The project’s overall title, “Interlude,” suggests a break in the energy or the momentum of an ongoing process. The individual pieces in the first volume have titles like “Quiet,” “Beauty,” and “Grace.” Is the idea that we need a quiet interlude from all that has plagued the world over the past year? Or is it something more general?
The Interlude project embraces the state of life during the pandemic. The world was on pause. Everything stopped. We were isolated from friends, family, activities, interaction, and gatherings. This forced interlude, or “pause,” presented opportunities in a spiritual way. I found intangible gifts during this time – internal harmony which gave me the opportunity to reflect on Quiet, Beauty, Grace, and more.
Did you write these pieces during the pandemic? How has the pandemic affected your creative energy and your work?
I wrote many of the Interlude pieces during the pandemic, but some were from the time I began composing piano miniatures. When I reached back, I found several works that spoke to me about human emotions, reflections, and introspection one can experience when the world is on pause but life marches on.
During the pandemic, my creative energy has really had a chance to grow. I now write music every single morning when I wake up. This period of solitude has given me the time and inspiration to focus completely on creating music. I have worked on arrangements and relished in the freedom to experiment. And, I have been working on scoring the first children’s book I wrote – Jake the Philharmonic Dog – which has been a joy.
The word “ambient” has been applied to these pieces, but to my ear, while they’re certainly relaxing, they have elements of various musical traditions, from classical to the Great American Songbook. Are there influences behind this music that you can point to?
For these compositions, I have been influenced by composers whose music is direct, like Erik Satie. I am drawn to a soundscape that is melodic and tonal, one that conveys what needs to be expressed with a modest number of notes, but with a varied harmonic language.
As a composer, you’re known for orchestral music, ballet scores, the multimedia children’s score “Sleepover at the Museum,” and a variety of other work. How is your process different when writing for solo piano?
My creative process for all works begins by improvising at the piano or carrying a melody that lingers in my head. When I compose for orchestra, or an ensemble, I generally go on to develop the score and instrumentation out of the original piano theme, which is first notated by hand and then transcribed note by note into the Sibelius music notation software. So, in a way solo piano is usually a more intimate process for me since piano is my primary instrument that I began playing when I was very young.
The music has an easygoing nature that gives it something of a childlike air. Does your authorship of children’s books relate to your musical works?
I began composing music professionally around the same time I started writing children’s books, but they aren’t always related. I was a nursery school music teacher when I first married, so I find that foundation helps my music connect with children when I score children’s stories. For these compositions, I work to find a musical language that is easily processed and accessible to young people.
On the other hand, this album of piano miniatures is meant for all ages and to be more reflective and at times, almost sorrowful. One piece on the record, “Beauty,” has a childlike reference, but I think my personal mark as a composer is infusing easygoing melodies with harmonic complexities, modulations, and unexpected turns and nuances to create more depth.
Will there be a development, or narrative flow, from one volume to the next? For example, the title of the last one, Clarity, suggests a breakthrough after a struggle.
The albums are all self-contained, but yes, Clarity for me ends the series powerfully. It suggests that I have a greater understanding of myself, who and what I am, how the world perceives me, and what I hope to achieve in the later years of my life.
What are you looking forward to most, creatively or otherwise, as we slowly emerge from the pandemic?
I look forward to live performances, to interacting with friends, and to overcome the uncertainty that has been so pervasive during this time.
Do you have other upcoming projects you could talk about at this point?
Yes, I have just scored the first children’s book I wrote, Jake the Philharmonic Dog. And, I look forward to recording some more of my catalog of orchestral, chamber, and string ensemble music, as well as more solo piano works. As I get older, with all of the creative experience I already possess, I still find myself facing the challenge of staring down the fear of musically expressing who I am!
Harmony is available at all major online retailers.