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Student Joins Philip Glass, John Adams as BMI Award Recipient

Film, game and media scoring student Natasha Frank's composition 'Riven' features a hybrid score of traditional notation and abstract illustrations.

June 5, 2023 by Alex Heigl

Natasha Frank got an all-timer of a graduation present—though one that she absolutely earned. 

The TAC (Technology and Applied Composition) 2023 grad won the prestigious BMI Student Composer award for her composition "Riven," an honor she shares with not just iconic composers like John Adams and Philip Glass but also SFCM composition department faculty Mason Bates.

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The Awards, from Broadcast Music, Inc. the largest music rights organization in the U.S, judged 500 applications from young composers around the world. Established in 1951 and co-sponsored by BMI and the BMI Foundation, awards totaling $20,000 are given annually for vocal, instrumental, and/or electronic compositions.

An excerpt from Frank's "Riven."

An excerpt from Frank's "Riven."

Frank's assignment was to take Chopin's Nocturne No. 14 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 48, No. 2 and, using it as a jumping-off point, create a piece for visiting artist Sophia Bacelar. "I took a very small melodic fragment of that," she explains, singing the line, and adds, "and then took it apart and distorted it. 'Riven' means to fragment, so I like to say I tortured it."

Natasha Frank performing

Frank performs at the TAC department's "Future Is Female" concert.

Said torture comes into play with the second aspect of the piece, which involves another musician controlling the electronic processing—like reverb, distortion and stereo panning—affecting the mic'd signal from the cello. Rather than traditional notation, those elements are represented with a graphic score that renders the instructions as impressionistic designs open to the individual performer's interpretation.

Frank considers the graphic score "an accessibility thing for new composers or musicians who maybe haven't played with electronics before. If they see this, they might think it's more fun than traditional notation. Even someone who can't read the score will be able to follow and see 'oh, this is where the music's going nuts.'"

Frank's trip to BMI to accept the award and meet with other composers was the first time she'd been to New York, and she got to visit the iconic public library branch in Midtown, where her score was being donated. Between the whirlwind of finals, graduation, various orchestration and film projects, and her impending move to Los Angeles, she said she barely had time to process the win, only thinking "Oh my God, I'm here," when she stepped off the plane in New York.

Though Frank has a background in piano performance, her compositional voice was grounded more in media and film music, and so she says a goal of hers while at SFCM was to "really feel like I'd gained a compositional voice." While visiting BMI, she said composer Elena Ruehr, one of the judges, gave her a cherished bit of advice: "Never be afraid of being beautiful."

"That's been able to help me understand the sort of music I want to write," Frank says, "to find and try to tread that line between the avant-garde and beauty."

Learn more about studying Technology and Applied Composition at SFCM.