composer • educator

Lucky to Know You #5: Shanna Gutierrez and Mabel Kwan, my muses, my problem solvers, and curiosity comrades

Added on by Carolyn O'Brien.

I am always stumped for words when gushing about my friends, my muses, my problem solving geniuses, my comrades with the most curious nature and the two intrepid women who really will try anything. I am talking about Shanna Gutierrez and Mabel Kwan. The have both lifted me from dark days simply by being themselves. They are optimists. I am a depressive that wishes she was an optimist. Fortunately, I have the good sense and taste follow these two around. 

Shanna Gutierrez is a flutist with talent that floors me every time I hear her perform. She can bring so much soul and elegant interpretation to even the simplest of phrases. She's a fearless and ambitious programmer, a loyal supporter of new music, a generous educator for both her private students and composers via instructional videos, and an enthusiastic collaborator with as many ideas in her head as fiery sparklers on the 4th of July. Shanna will not be stopped. I mean that. I have seen and heard Shanna perform while very sick, after injured after a car accident, I'm telling you, it's very Unsinkable Molly Brown with Shanna at the helm. With what can best be described as done with loyalty, empathy and great alacrity, she has dropped everything on the spot to resolve my recital revolving door personnel problems about twenty times just in 2016 alone (and it's only March!) I have learned over the years to rely on others for help. My negative filter can render me hopeless in under thirty seconds. So, where I see cancellation, Shanna sees improvisation, adaptation and says with enthusiasm, "have you tried calling so-in-so A-Z?" and she actually has that rolodex in her head. I do not use this word lightly. I am, quite frankly, in complete awe of Shanna. My negative voice just asked me to add that when Shanna tells me to breathe, it doesn't make it want to punch her in the face. Trust me, that's a huge compliment. Oh and another thing, when I asked Shanna to play bird whistles on my recital, she could have been the naysayer flutist who would have every right to punch me in the face with "that is the oldest cliché in the book!" Instead she gushed with an "oooooooooooooooooooooooh!!! YES!" and started applauding! See? Positive filter. So, I got an inventor to make her four sizes! See this post about that.

Mabel Kwan is one of the gentlest, most elegant creatures I've ever witnessed in concert, in conversation, in life. The minute I am with her, I feel my internal wind-up anxiety motor start to ease. She carefully, curiously, and lovingly takes in everything, and always with the sweetest, heart-melting smile. She is patience personified. She often picks repertoire that makes me settle down and be very quiet. Internally quiet. The music is in fact sometimes quiet, but when Mabel plays it, there is the 'speak softly and carry a big stick' aspect, yet, her 'big stick', if we must resort to a violent symbol, is her equal and opposite, gentlewomanly nature. Her rapt attention and complete absorption into the material with which she is working is contagious, magical even. Watching her mind escape into the music I compose for her is a conversation where I feel I have been completely heard, completely loved, and without judgment. Her recent album, "One Poetic Switch" is an example of Mabel's spirit and her gift to composers who have all fallen for her as much as I have. I think my favorite composer collaboration is when she works with Fred Gifford. Those two have an intricate mind meld that intrigues me.

When Shanna and Mabel asked me to compose them, there was a lot of giggling. Yeah, ok, we girl-giggled over wine, and thought the idea was so ridiculous that we must do it simply because we'd be laughing through the entire project. They asked me to compose a piece for toy piano and bass flute. HA! Wow. That's ridiculous. Oh wait, I can kind of hear that now. Holy shit, that's actually brilliant. Yeah. I have to write that. Then Shanna started adding to it, "what I really want is an entire suite for toy piano and all the flutes from piccolo down to bass." Yes please! So, that's what I am doing. I have about four movements of the piece, Kinetic Suite for various flutes and toy piano, and have incorporated a sound sculpture invented by my brother (spoken about in previous posts) called a Gong Tree.

It wasn't all giggles for me, though, because, well, I had to go be alone to compose. That's always a scary place. Also, my ears are very picky, and I was pretty unhappy with the quality of sound from the toy pianos I'd heard. In my fantasy, I wanted a miniature celeste, not some jangly, quasi-tuned toy. I started regretting the project because the sound was kitschy, not elegant. I did some online research to see if we could do better, and I found this wonderful page of Pascal Ayerbe. After playing his virtual Michelsonne toy piano, I fantasized about finding my own, but I knew that these were scarce. In fact, the toy piano company burned to the ground in the 1970s, so these babies are very rare. I channeled Shanna's enthusiasm, though. "have you tried? . . ."

Well, my version of that enthusiasm is late night laptop research with wine and a credit card. "Eureka!" she slosh-slurred. I found an anonymous source in Paris, France. This genderless, nameless but friendly void-spirit had a rare, 37-key Michelsonne toy piano and I could have it shipped to the US for XXX Euros. I immediately spent my creditXs. This toy piano needed to be in the presence of Mabel, especially if it was going to hold up to Shanna's quiver of flutes!  Mabel and I recently played follow the leader with the Michelsonne and the Gong Tree. That spontaneous fun yielded yet another movement of the suite. I am happy to say, and prove to you in this video, that the giggles have returned!

Yesterday, Mabel and Shanna sent me a wee snap shot of their rehearsal and the infectious smiles made my day. On March 11, part of that suite will have its premiere, all thanks to my muses, my problem solvers, my beautiful, positive and curious colleagues, my very favorite kindergarten playmates, Shanna Gutierrez and Mabel Kwan.

Women, I love you madly. I am lucky to know you both.



Even a blurry photo cannot douse the bright smiles of my muses Shanna Gutierrez and Mabel Kwan.

Even a blurry photo cannot douse the bright smiles of my muses Shanna Gutierrez and Mabel Kwan.