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GABI's Gabrielle Herbst on Reinventing Classical Music and Writing an Opera About Death

"I think opera’s a great way to come to terms with things that scare us."

Photos by Tim Saccenti

Brooklyn-based composer Gabrielle Herbst has always been interested in navigating different kinds of space: she grew up wanting to be an astronaut, a cab driver, and a doorman. "I still sort of want to go to space," she told me, "But I think I sort of feed that desire by making really spacey music."

That music--the product of a classically trained clarinetist turned opera composer, influenced by Indian ragas and early trips to Bali with her ethnomusicologist father—doesn't pay much attention to genre boundaries. Growing up in a family of omnivorous music fans who played Messaien alongside The Band and Bob Dylan, Herbst studied piano and clarinet for 12 years. "I heard some Bulgarian clarinet playing and got obsessed with it—in like, third grade," she laughed. She was on track towards a conservatory education and a career in classical music, but during her freshman year at Bard College, Herbst quit the clarinet in favor of pursuing expansive compositional landscapes under the guidance of new music innovators Joan Tower, Marina Rosenfeld and Zeena Perkins.


It's amazing, scary and weird," she said, reflecting on what it's like to see other musicians playing her compositions. "You see the music in a new light—you see it for what it is." Since her first compositional workshops, she's had ample opportunity to see her visions come to life on a large scale. Her first opera, Bodiless, premiered at Roulette in 2014. Her band, GABI (with Matthew O'Koren on percussion, Rick Quantz on viola, Josh Henderson on violin and Aaron Roche on electric guitar and trombone) recorded its full-length debut Sympathy—out April 7th—this winter.

Herbst's music hovers somewhere between form and landscape, expanding to fit the many different spaces it inhabits. Noisey called her up to talk opera, experimentation, and Bjork.

Noisey: What led you to form GABI?
Gabrielle Herbst: The band had been brewing throughout college. I started writing songs and recording them on my own and getting bands together at Bard. It got much more involved at this residency at the Watermill Center, that I had with my friend Allie Avital Tsypin, a performance director. She also went to Bard, and we've done a ton of collaborative works together. We were at the Watermill Center, which is Robert Wilson's art estate in the Hamptons, developing a new piece I was composing and performing. I'd brought a couple of musicians, and she had brought performers, dancers and designers. We lived in this really strange museum for two weeks. It was huge and alienating but also inspiring. I had composed before coming there, because I was trying to prepare, and then I got there and realized that nothing I'd written worked in that space. I scrapped everything and started composing in this huge gallery space. I wrote a different kind of music--a new voice for myself.


I was thinking a lot about space and architecture while I was writing the songs. I had started composing them in my tiny shoebox bedroom in Brooklyn, and even though my imagination had gone a lot of places, I was still in that room, which confined me in a certain way. When I moved into this bigger space it opened my mind to new ways of thinking, and I made the music have more dimensions. GABI is the original crew from the Watermill Center. We took the songs that were created there and started playing them in Brooklyn, and they kept developing over the years. I still feel like the music retains a certain quality from that residency.

How much of what you did at the Center is on your forthcoming album, Sympathy?
Two of the songs were written there, "Mud" and "Hymn." They're a bit longer and more involved in the string parts--more complex and composerly than the other tracks.

I tend to associate the word "composerly" with classical music over electronic or pop. How do you see yourself fitting into the classical/new music scene?
I live in multiple worlds at the moment. I'm enjoying that. I wrote an opera, Bodiless, last year; I was taking on this concept of writing an opera and thinking a lot about the traditions of opera, so it was inherently within a classical landscape. With GABI, it's been really fun to write short form and more electronic pieces.

What do you think about when you think about the traditions of opera?
Opera seems archaic, in our culture, but at one point it wasn't at all—everybody went to the opera. I was curious about why people go to the opera, and the kind of catharsis it gives people. People go to the opera to step out of their ordinary lives, and I was interested in the symbols and archetypes that opera's stories have, and how people come to terms with their own lives in terms of these very intense emotions and gestures. People use their entire bodies when they sing in operas, and have amazing virtuosic skill. My piece was very much about death, to be honest—memory and death and the idea of coming to terms with death. I think opera's a great way to come to terms with things that scare us.


How do you deal with making an archaic form accessible?

I think in all kinds of music it's a constant question:how to relate to people. Of course you want to connect to people, you don't want to just be in your head—you want to relate to people who are alive now. But with the opera, I just had a vision and I saw it through. Honestly, in New York, I know there's lots of talk about cross-pollination between the different music scenes, and there are definitely certain instances of that, but I do feel that the worlds are pretty separate. The new music/classical world does have some crossover with electronic music, but the worlds feel pretty different to me. In classical music, there are so few opportunities and so many interesting composers. I don't really know how panels work, but from what I've heard they're often kind of random. It's a super hard field. I've always been more interested in carving my own path, anyway, and not fitting into whatever path is laid out for me. I was on track to go to conservatory, but I think it's helpful in this day and age to just do your own thing.

And your work is very vocal-centric. How do you use your voice to carve out your own path?
I'm really interested in unique ways of using the voice in pop music. There are certain artists I really adore who do that—like Bjork, and Joanna Newsom, in her own way. They have really unique visions for their voices and aren't scared of carving their own path for their vocalizing. In opera, for example, you're supposed to sound a certain way and you're trained to sound a certain way—that doesn't interest me as much. I'm not interested in cultivating a proper way of singing, or assuming the proper technique for whatever genre I'm trying to exist in.

I also have this belief that listening to the human voice is something we really need in our culture right now. You connect to people through your breath. It's an important, visceral connection, and I feel like right now—with crazy amounts of social media and technological bombardment, especially in big cities—it can give people a certain ease. I like the idea of making a sanctuary for people to bathe in, and to comfort them, to some degree, while I'm also comforting myself.

Carena Liptak is innovating on Twitter.