28 November 2023
By Ellie Palmer
A native New Yorker, composer and author Karen LeFrak has created vibrant, moving musical scores that have been presented in prestigious concert halls across the globe. She chats to Pianist about how and why she composes, her latest Christmas album, plus she shares some advice for budding composers and pianists...
Main image: ©Danny Sit
1. Congratulations on more than 28 million streams on Spotify and Apple Music! What does this milestone mean to you? How does it feel to resonate with such a breadth of listeners?
This is so exciting! I am honoured that so many people want to hear my music! When I started composing very late in life, I never thought in a million years that I’d find myself in this position. I am grateful.
2. Your 'Peaceful Piano' albums have been a cornerstone of your output in recent years. What inspired you to launch the project and how has it developed since its inception?
Some of my very early compositions were written for solo piano – it’s a genre that’s dear to my heart and one in which I continue to write to this day. In fact, I began writing piano music as a way for my grandchildren (whom I didn’t have yet) to know I was a composer and to understand my soul. It was just natural to launch my albums with this music.
3. Music has a profound ability to heal and sooth, and your music truly promotes a sense of well-being. What role do you see music playing in individual’s wellness routines as listeners? How does your own musical practice encourage serenity?
Music, being a universal language, has a natural ability to affect one’s emotions. I am transported to a peaceful state when I compose and work on my music. I hope others are, too.
4. You’ve written large-scale orchestral works which have been performed by some of the world’s great orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra, and Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. How does writing for solo piano differ from writing for orchestra?
Writing for solo piano presents me with many choices. I can write for the piano so it sounds like a single person singing a tune, or I can write with several voices so it sounds quite orchestral. It’s all very exciting when I get to decide on the particular sound a new piece will have. I start composing both piano and orchestral pieces at the piano! So, at the onset, the process for both is quite similar for me.
5. Could you tell us about your recently-released 'Christmas Cookies' holiday album? What other projects are currently fueling your creative life?
'Christmas Cookies' is my way of musically painting, in a chamber music setting, those holiday scenes with which we’re so familiar and love. Each piece transports the listener to a different favourite holiday event or mood.
Christmas Cookies is out now! Stream here
For most, there is a special pairing of the piano and celesta. I was also delighted to release another peaceful piano album called 'Penumbra' last month. In astronomy, a penumbra is a shadow cast by the earth or moon over an area experiencing a partial eclipse. You can hear this shadowy effect in these works which brings a new depth that listeners have yet to hear in my music!
I have more piano 'gems' in store for early in 2024. Stay tuned!
Do you have any advice for pianists who are interested in exploring their compositional voice?
One just has to begin. If the music is inside, it will pour out! And don’t be afraid to make mistakes or break the rules. Many of my pieces move from mode to mode, meter to meter, and may finish in a different key than where it started. Each work should be a musical and emotional journey. The compositional process is rooted in exploration. Fear of failure will only hold you back.
You can find out more about Karen LeFrak here.