Wildfire Hits a Crescendo in Gabriela Lena Frank's 'Contested Eden'

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A headshot of composer Gabriela Lena Frank
Gabriela Lena Frank's new composition 'Contested Eden' addresses California's wildfire crisis.  (Courtesy of Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music)

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank thinks of the climate crisis in terms of butterflies and worms.

“Growing up in Berkeley, I remember putting my hands in the dirt in the garden that we had and insects would come out,” Frank says in a Zoom call. “That's not just my imagination. Science says 60 percent of our insect life, and our bird population, is down. I remember going back and looking at old photo albums, my mom taking photos of me in the garden, and there were butterflies all around and it was just—it was different.”

Frank is an accomplished composer and educator in high demand. Her works have been performed by the Kronos Quartet and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and her festival appearances are booked years in advance—she has a waiting list that reaches into 2026.

Frank is best known for imaginative fusions of Peruvian sounds with Western instruments in pieces like Ritmos Anchinos and Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, multicultural collisions that express her own mixed heritage. Even as she kept busy with regular trips to Peru for anthropological work and running her own music education non-profit, she couldn’t shake her memories of butterfly-filled gardens. She couldn’t ignore that the land around her farm-slash-academy outside of Boonville, in Mendocino County, was changing before her eyes.

“I’m going to say 2018 is when I really woke up, when Paradise burned a couple hours from us, a county over,” says Frank. “I had musicians here at my academy, and we were literally breathing in its demise. It was just inescapable.”


She became, in her words, “intimate with grief.” Now she’s channeling that grief into her elegy for the climate crisis, Contested Eden, which premieres in an online stream on Saturday, July 31, to open this year’s all-virtual Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.

Dancers kick up ash and dust among burned trees in the mountains
Dancers choreographed by Molly Katzman perform as part of the streamed premiere of 'Contested Eden.' (Crystal Birns)

“Cabrillo, after going through their own difficult troubles with fires, came to me a few months ago and asked, ‘Would you be open to doing something about the California fires?’” Frank recalls. ”They caught me by surprise, and I instantly just busted out crying. I lost my professional demeanor. I said yes before I even had an idea.”

It was also Cabrillo’s idea to add a visual component to Frank’s piece. Contested Eden will be accompanied by a pre-recorded dance, choreographed by Molly Katzman, performed on the blackened terrain left by the 2020 wildfires in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Frank wanted to express, through music, how the threat of fires has come to rule her and her neighbors’ lives. “Every year, my husband and I … we’re in fire preparation mode 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Frank says. “We've been cutting down trees, we installed about 40,000 gallons of water and tanks, we ripped off the cedar shingles on our main house, put on stucco. That cost me like two symphonies.”

Contested Eden is about the fragility of life during the climate crisis; Frank calls it a secular elegy, split into two movements. “The first movement is essentially a prayer, and it goes super intimate. It can be played with a string quartet, just four players.“

The second movement, titled “in extremis,” brings in the full orchestra. “It builds up this big orchestral swell. And then it breaks, and as it breaks apart, you’re left with this one singing violin line up at the top. Then, over the next six minutes, it takes its time to wind its way down this one melodic arch before I pass it to the violas, to the cellos, to the basses. During this whole time, all these random bits of music are thrown up against it.”

The passage represents the psychological wounds of contingent living, where even “the smallest human error, like a flat tire, can set off the biggest fire ever in Mendocino County.” Some of those random bits of music are quotations from Frank’s previous works, snippets of melody taken out of context, like charred pages from a book landing in a backyard, miles away.

“It’s not even necessarily beautiful to listen to,” Frank says. “But that’s life in extremis. You're just trying to keep going, and bits of you are coming out that don't make sense.”

'Contested Eden' premieres Saturday, July 31, as part of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music’s virtual festival. Tickets are free to the public. Details here.