All roads lead to Rome, so you can come across all sorts of world travelers here. Alejandro Guarello is a Chilean-born composer with Italian – Scottish ancestry, and I was lucky to meet him through a friend around the end of his Roman sabbatical period. His portfolio comprises over 70 works and a long and distinguished roster of international awards and acknowledgements. Before going back to Santiago where he teaches music composition at the Catholic University, he agreed to a short interview.
Did you come across music when you were very young? in your family or at school?
There was nobody musical in my immediate nor extended family. I only started listening to music when I was about 16, and yes, it was mostly pop and rock. I’d always wanted to be an engineer, and entered the school of Engineering in Valparaiso. But in the meantime, my passion for music continued to grow, and in my second year of University I switched to music as I had found a passion there, something I wanted to make a future with.
Why did you decide to study composition? (and not simply an instrument, or directing)
I didn’t have much of a choice, as I had started too late. I was too old to ever become a classical musician capable of making a career of it. Anyway, what I really wanted was to invent, to create, to produce my own music.
I do direct my own works, and sometimes, though rarely, those of other composers.
How would you describe the music you compose? how should one listen to it? (emotion vs. logical analysis)
I don’t like labels, I don’t see how you can buttonhole music into categories. As I see it, there’s a path, a flow through the centuries. Music has never stopped evolving, and where I’m at you could call “contemporary” but not avant-garde, not “experimental”. If you really want to, you could make a comparison with abstract art – it’s music that doesn’t have “melody” in the strict meaning of the word, it has a … different kind of melody.
How people listen to music depends on their characters, so I can’t say if it has to be emotional or cerebral. You use what works for you, but you do have to listen to it with your full attention. At a concert that’s fairly natural, but if you’re at home, you have to stop whatever you’re doing, sit, dedicate yourself to really listening to the whole piece or CD. My music isn’t a soundtrack, t’s not background music.
Flute or percussions, which do you prefer?
I have no preferences. All instruments can be used to create something new, and this includes electronic means.
Does the human voice play a role in your music?
My music is about music, not words, it’s the music that conveys the idea of what I’m imagining. I don’t want words to tell you what I’m trying to create, the music will leave you the freedom to find your own interpretation.
So the human voice doesn’t usually come into it. I don’t use texts, unless I’ve been commissioned a piece in which I have to use an existing poem or text. I’ve also written music for religious functions, such as Catholic Mass.
Does classical music have a large audience in Chile? are there many concerts? do young people attend them?
In Chile, music isn’t taught in school, there’s no tradition of musical education. Which means it’s a cultural heritage you get or don’t get from your family. There aren’t many concert halls in Chile, and most concerts are in Santiago – an easy one hour drive from my home town of Valparaiso. The audiences are usually at least middle-aged, and any young people you see there generally go with their parents or other relatives.
And in other Latin American countries?
It’s the same in other Latin American countries, only a few large metropolises such as Buenos Aires and Sao Paolo have quality classical music.
The one real exception is Venezuela which runs the “El Sistema” state music programs. Music there is taught in schools all over Venezuela, deep in the heart of even the most isolated parts of the country. Young talents are fostered and brought up through the school network as they get noticed by their teachers. The El Sistema Youth orchestra is world-famous, and has also spawned some top musicians and directors, such as Gustavo Dudamel.
Where do you get your inspiration from? when you compose music, do you start off from technique or from an abstract idea, or a concrete one?
My inspiration just happens. It can come to me anywhere, anytime. Just like now, as we’re talking, I got a fleeting idea, a memory of something. When this happens, I write the idea down to remember it, and I’ll work on it later.
On weekends or during holidays. Remember I have a regular job as a music professor at the University. To create, I need blocks of at least 3 or 4 hours at a time, a whole day or a weekend is even better.
Do you work in a structured way – with schedules – or just when you feel like it?
I only really “schedule” my work if I’m working on a project for a client, in which case I obviously have deadlines to meet. Sometimes the deadlines can be constricting and I have to push myself hard.
For you, are there cross-references between music and the visual arts? music and nature? with colours?
I’m not particularly sensitive to visual art, so paintings or museums don’t really spark my creativity.
Nature is something else, I do find inspiration in nature, but not nature as you probably mean it, like a bucolic love of walks, hikes, autumn leaves or whatever. I’m fascinated by how nature functions, by the scientific aspects of cell structure, the microcosm of life. Hidden nature, like what you’d see through a state-of-the-art microscope or what a biology equation would suggest. The origin of life.
So it’s a mainly cerebral source of inspiration. Would you connect that to the part of you that wanted to be an engineer in your youth?
(Alejandro laughs): yes, you could say that.
Are you working on any projects right now?
I have a commission for a concert for orchestra and electric guitar. It’s more usual to have piano and orchestra, so it’s a very challenging project. It should run some 20 / 30 minutes
When’s the deadline?
It’ll keep me busy all year, and I have to set up a very precise timeline to work on it.
The piece must be finished by October of 2016, as it’s meant to be performed in public in early 2017.
Thank you Alejandro, wishing you and all reader- bloggers an excellent, creative and joy-filled New Year!
For further information: http://www.alejandroguarello.cl
Photos: part of a music score © Alejandro Guarello;
Map of Chile from http://www.infoplease.com; HeLa cells from http://en.wikipedia.org