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Ileana Perez-Velazquez
26 Oct 2009

An Interview with Ileana Perez-Velazquez

An Interview with Ileana Perez-Velazquez

By Tom Moore

An Interview with Ileana Perez-Velazquez


Composer Ileana Perez-Velazquez was born and raised in the highly musical nation of Cuba, where she studied in Havana at the Escuela Nacional de Artes (high school) and the Instituto Superior de Artes (university-level). Later she took advanced degrees in music at Dartmouth and at Indiana University. She has a recent CD devoted to her work on the Albany label, and is presently a professor of music at Williams College in Massachusetts. We spoke on Sept. 11, 2009 via Skype.

TM: You were born in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Please tell me about your family, and about growing up there.

IP-V: My grandfather loved music, wasn’t a musician, but was connected to popular musicians from the Orquesta Aragon, which was famous in the fifties, sixties and seventies….

TM: It’s still famous.

IP-V: The Orquesta Aragon is actually from Cienfuegos. My grandfather had a business, a little food business, and the Orquesta Aragon used to rehearse next door. I had not been born yet. My grandfather became friends with them, and helped them when they were still unknown . They became very popular, and moved to Havana, where they had their career, and every time Rafael Lay and others visited Cienfuegos they would go to see him. My grandfather had strong connections with music, and loved it, but never studied it because he did not have the means. He wasn’t poor, but he couldn’t afford it.

He made my mother study piano, which she did for eight years, but she did not enjoy practicing. She didn’t want to be a professional musician, but she would play piano every afternoon at home. During the first two years of my life, she was playing, and I was totally in love with it. By the age of three I was sitting on top of the piano while she was playing, trying to learn something.

They had a deep influence on me in my early years. When I was learning my first pieces, my grandfather would sit down with me, and listen, and try to put some emotion in my playing, even if he didn’t know musically what he was talking about.

TM: What kind of music was your mother playing — classical, popular?

IP-V: Classical, although she also enjoyed playing from the Emilio Grenet compilation of Cuban popular music. When Orquesta Aragon moved to Havana, my grandfather was friends with Orquesta Los Naranjos in Cienfuegos, who were popular musicians, and once in a while my grandfather took me there to see them play. I had that popular influence, and classical influence from my mother.

TM: How far is Cienfuegos from Havana?

IP-V: These days it is three hours drive. It is a town in the south of the island, and it is absolutely beautiful with sea all the way around, inside a bay. The name means “One Hundred Fires”. It is not a small town, but it is not a big city either. In the fifties there was a very strong “Pro Musica” organization there supporting classical music. If you look at the number of musicians from Cuba at that time it is very impressive for a small island. My main composition teacher was Carlos Fariñas, who was also from Cienfuegos.

At any rate, when I was a child the trip from Cienfuegos to Havana was six or seven hours. There was no main highway through the island — everything was little back roads, and it would take forever to get to Havana when I was a child.

TM: A provincial town.

IP-V: Very much so. It is different now — I was there last August — but it is still provincial.

TM: How was it affected by the Revolution?

IP-V: Just as was the case everywhere in Cuba, a lot of people left in the early 1960s — well, not a lot, but those who were wealthy and were intimidated by the Revolution. It’s hard for me to say, since I was born after the Revolution, in 1964, and the Revolution was in 1959. What I remember was that my grandfather did not like the Revolution, and my father did, living in the same house. Luckily, my father was a very respectful man, and so would not argue with my grandfather.

My grandfather lost his business, because the Revolution nationalized everything. He was unhappy, because he had worked all his life building his small business, and then it was taken away. On the other hand, my father came from a very poor family that had nothing, and so he was very happy about it. The Revolution meant that my father could get an education, and go to the university. After graduating as an engineer, he died, when he was only thirty-seven years old. I was fourteen at the time.

To go back to your question, the Revolution affected people in an emotional way. Within the same family you could see people who had different opinions. Cubans are always passionate about their opinions, and get very emotional very quickly.

TM: Perhaps the Revolution did not have such an effect on the musical scene in Cienfuegos?

IP-V: The Revolution created a music school for children in Cienfuegos which I attended from the age of six on. It was a small school, but with good teachers. There was an excellent pianist, my teacher there, who had studied in Havana, and was very well-regarded, and she had happened to move back to Cienfuegos. She played beautifully. I still remember her playing the Revolutionary Etude of Chopin — very fast, very intense — she was a very good pianist.

TM: What was her name?

IP-V: Mercedita.

TM: Where did your family come from?

IP-V: On my mother’s side, my grandfather, who had the store, had come from the Canaries — not him, but his parents. His wife, my maternal grandmother, was one hundred percent Spanish, but I can’t say from what part of Spain, because they had been in Cuba for generations. She grew up among people who had supported the Cuban revolution against Spain. The woman who raised my grandmother, her aunt, was this amazing woman who was good friends with Máximo Gomez [1836-1905] and some of the important historical figures of the revolution. I grew up hearing all sorts of interesting stories about her bravery — she would go to a Spanish party dressed like the Cuban flag. That taught me that women could do a lot — she was an influence that showed me that I could do something with my life.

On my father’s side everything is less clear, because my father’s father also died very young — both of them died from cancer. Just a few months ago I asked my mother “Who was this guy, my grandfather?” He was a gallego, from Spain, from Galicia. My father’s mother was probably a Cuban for generations — I don’t really know.

I might have mulato ancestry on my father’s side, but I don’t know for sure.

TM: Not so unusual in the Caribbean.

IP-V: No, because we are a mixture of so many things. My sisters have blue-green eyes and dirty-blond hair, and I am nothing like that, although we are 100 percent sisters. Physically I don’t look anything like them. They take after the gallego man who was my grandfather.

TM: Were you brought up in a Catholic family? Was there a presence of the Church?

IP-V: That’s a very good question. My grandmother was Catholic — very much so, and on my mother’s side, they kept all their Catholic saints in the house, but because of the Revolution they could not go to church, because of repression against the church during the first twenty years of the Revolution — not physical repression, but if somebody wanted to go to the university, and he was a religious person, it would be more difficult to get in, because they thought it wasn’t a good thing. My grandparents were going to take me to be baptized, and when my father came in he was very upset and said that it wasn’t a good thing to be baptized, and so I was never baptized. But I was always curious about the church — I would go and look, but I wouldn’t go in.

That is something I have in common with many Cubans of my generation. A lot of Cubans ended up going to church later on. One of my sisters goes to church, and so does my mother. With the visit of John Paul II in the nineties things changed dramatically.

TM: Your mother played piano. Did you get started in music with piano?

IP-V: Yes. I studied piano all the way through to my college years at ISA — Instituto Superior de Artes. When I was there I was a double major in piano and composition. I practiced six hours a day, and performed the Stravinsky concerto. I like playing contemporary music — Stravinsky, Bartok — but I also like playing Scriabin, Chopin, Bach. I know the piano repertoire very well because I played a lot of it.

I started playing Bach when I was very little — Mozart, Beethoven, everything. I played mostly classical music, although I also played the music of Cuban classical composers, which in the last two centuries has been influenced by some elements of Cuban popular music such as rhythm and timbre.

TM: You went from Cienfuegos to Havana.

IP-V: From third to sixth grade I was studying in Cienfuegos. When I was eleven my father decided that if I were to be a serious musician I needed to study somewhere where there was a more serious school of music. In Cienfuegos I had a very good piano teacher, and very good solfege and ear training, but they only had instructors for four instruments. So I went to Santa Clara, which is north of Cienfuegos. At the time it was two hours drive. So by eleven I was no longer living at home, because I wanted to get a better education.

My father was studying at the university in Santa Clara, and I was studying at the school of music there. He was at a dorm, and I was at another, so he would visit me a couple of times a week, and I would go back home once a month. I studied there in seventh, eighth and ninth grade.

When I finished ninth grade there was a national competition in Cuba for admission to the national school of arts. I went to Havana for the audition, and was selected to continue in Havana.

At fourteen I started at ENA — the Escuela Nacional de Artes. Later the name was changed to the Escuela Nacional de Música. This is a school that is equivalent to high school level in the United States, but a school that is totally focused on music, a Conservatory. We did not study the sciences, but very deeply in music, literature, and history. My science background for electronic music I had to do on my own, later. That was a challenge!

After four years there I started at the Instituto Superior de Artes. Here people often start studying music in college, but there are no master’s or doctoral degrees in music in Cuba. We have music education at an earlier age.

TM: What was the musical environment like in Havana? Did you hear international popular music from abroad? A composer from Argentina or Brazil in the seventies or eighties might have heard Chick Corea or Yes or the Beatles. What did you hear in Cuba?

IP-V: People in the Communist Party would say that these influences were negative, so they were very much prohibited. People listening to this music were doing so illegally. I was exposed to it because I was at music school, and my friends would have recordings, but at home I couldn’t listen to it — my father would get upset. In that sense it was lucky that I wasn’t at home, so I could hear some. I did not hear as much as I would have liked to, but I did have some sense that those things existed.

Havana is more open. When I was in Cienfuegos and Santa Clara there was more of a small-town mentality. They were not open to anything like that — it was not supporting the Revolution. The artists and intellectuals lived in Havana so that made things more accessible. When I was at the Escuela Nacional de Artes I was exposed to jazz, the Beatles, and all of that. Again, not as much as I would have liked. Some of my friends would play jazz.

TM: What contemporary classical music did you play, did you hear in Havana?

IP-V: I had a wonderful group of friends in Havana who loved contemporary music. After school was over, starting at 10 PM, we would get together, and play all kinds of contemporary music. I had a friend, who also became a composer — she is now in Spain — Fernando Rodriguez. He became the president of this club. It was called the Club Federico Smith, with members a few years older than me — I was the little girl joining the group. We would stay up until 2 AM listening to “From the Canyons to the Stars” — pieces that the school didn’t play for us - the recordings probably came from Federico Smith, an American in Cuba, who had died — all kinds of contemporary music. We did not have the scores for a profound analysis of these works but I was exposed to a lot when I was fourteen.

I also read so much literature. All my grounding in poetry comes from those years. At the same time I was playing classical music on the piano, playing chamber music, singing in choirs.

Here anybody had a tape recorder — but in Cuba, oh no. Only a few had tape recorders to play anything. Not me. My family had nothing. My father had died by that point, and I had almost no money. All I had to survive at that point was the food that they put on my plate in the dormitory where I lived, and ten Cuban pesos a month which my mother would send, which was equivalent to almost nothing. So I had no way of having access to information not offered at school unless a friend liked me and shared it with me. I am not complaining because I had good teachers of classical music at school.

TM: When did you start to compose? What inspired you?

IP-V: I was always interested. At eleven I started writing little things, but I started in earnest at the school at fifteen with my teacher of harmony, who was a composer himself. His name was Enrique Berver. He had lived and studied in Paris for quite a few years, and had awareness of contemporary harmony. He would take me to his house and show me techniques that he did not present in class. And he told me I had talent. And I was like….Nobody would tell me that. Who was I? Nobody. When I was fifteen, all by myself, in the middle of Havana, with all these people. He was very encouraging.

I started, like anybody would, making short piano pieces, and then I got really into it. I loved it. I had always loved it, but before that there had not been anyone to say “Go ahead and do it!”

That’s important. I have a three-year old now, and as he grows, if I feel that he has the talent I will say “do it!”. A little person needs some support.

TM: What was the music that inspired you. You mentioned Messiaen. What else grabbed you?

IP-V: Stravinsky, Bartok — I totally loved Scriabin. Villa-Lobos, from Brazil. I loved Piazzolla. I wrote a piano trio with influences from Piazzolla in the second movement. Obviously it doesn’t really sound like Piazolla. Now I am more interested in other things, but I still recognize his value.

TM: With whom did you study composition at ISA?

IP-V: Carlos Fariñas. He was a great teacher. When I first came, I always had all these ideas, and they would change dramatically, very quickly — that’s my personality. He taught me that music needs time to convey the message. You need time to develop the motive so that it can later change into something else. He was trying to put some rigor into the way that I approached my compositions. He taught me skills. There came a time when I was ready for more, but he was still that way, but I am very grateful to have studied with him in my early years.

TM: What was his pedagogical background? Did he teach serial technique?

IP-V: He was very open-minded, and did not push any esthetics on me. I studied serialism, but never wrote serial pieces. I have never written serialism, and am not interested in doing that any time soon. [Laughs]. Maybe never!!! Of course I respect the value of it, but I never had to do it. I have heard that in the USA they forced students to do that in academia.

I was lucky I never had to go through it. I had it as homework, and I did my assignments, but it was not my creative work.

We were encouraged to find our own voices, a way to express ourselves. We didn’t have to follow a particular international school, where people said “This is what we should be doing”.

TM: In Brazil, which has some cultural similarities with Cuba, as a mulato country with a strong musical culture, composers consciously consider what there is that is Brazilian in their music. Is there a tension between writing music that is contemporary and music that is Cuban? Is this something that is important for you?

IP-V: It is — it’s still important for me. I don’t have to challenge myself to do it. I think it comes naturally.

TM: Anything you write is Cuban.

IP-V: It’s not Cuban in the traditional sense. A Cuban might say “Who says that’s Cuban”? A person from the street, with no musical background, would not see the connections, because they are not clear, but I think they are there.

In the seventies, when I was growing up, Cuba was closed to foreign influences, and none of that music would be playing on the TV or radio. We did not have an invasion of pop, as you did in other countries, where the industry came and took over, and quashed the authentic local music. They could not do that with Brazil, whose music is so beautiful and so strong.

We started to have that challenge in the eighties and the nineties, but I left in 1993. Now, when I go there, I see people doing hip hop mixed with salsa. Unfortunately I don’t like hip hop…I can see its value, but musically it doesn’t capture my attention.

In Cuba we were lucky to have intellectuals who were able to write a document to convince the government that we should be able to play contemporary music, for example. In Russia, the composers had to write for the people. In Cuba I could write my contemporary music, and we had international contemporary music festivals every year. Now, playing American music on the street was something else again. They didn’t want that.

With respect to being a Cuban composer, I can think of a friend who does this more intentionally than I do. My friend will actually take material from folk music, and work with these elements, so that they are more obviously present.

My music is different, because I try to avoid the repetitive patterns that are characteristic of folk music. It’s not that I don’t like folk music, but that folk music is there, and so strong, and so beautiful, and so wonderful. Why would I need to rewrite it again? It already exists. I am trying to do something that is my own, something that I would say is more creative, but I don’t want to offend anybody, so I will say something that is more able to express myself, rather than taking repetitive rhythmic and/or melodic patterns from folk music and throwing it into my music.

TM: You finished your bachelor’s in 1987, and came to do a masters’ in the US in 1993.

IP-V: In between I was in Bogotá, Colombia. In 1990 I decided that I needed to go outside Cuba. In 1988 I won first prize in a young people’s festival in Cuba, and the prize was to go to Hungary to the Bartok Festival. In 1990 I went back and met Ligeti. He seemed to like what I presented, and wrote a letter of reference for me. I couldn’t study with him, because by then he had already stopped teaching. He mentioned Donatoni. I wrote to Donatoni, who said he would be happy to have me as a student, but that I would need to find a scholarship, and of course Cuban money had no value outside Cuba, and I did not have any connections in Italy.

The next year, in 1991, there was an international electronic music festival, and Jon Appleton came. He heard my music, and offered me a scholarship to study at Dartmouth. I said “Great!” because I needed to go out and learn more, especially in the area of electronic music, because I had learned a lot about acoustic music, but we did not have much experience with electronic music because of lack of resources and information. Technology requires money.

I went to the US Embassy, but never got a visa, and ended up going to Colombia, where I taught at the national university, and helped to organize a festival to which we invited Jon Appleton. I suggested to them that they invite him, and luckily they listened to me. Jon went personally with me to the US Embassy, and finally I got the visa after two years, and came here to study in 1993. It was a long story.

TM: And Dartmouth was very different from Cuba.

IP-V: My goodness.

TM: Very cold.

IP-V: I will never forget the snow all the way up to my knees. Every night I would leave the studio at 1 AM after I had finished my work.

TM: And a long way from any city.

IP-V: Coming from Havana, and Bogotá, and going to Dartmouth, was like “Oh my God, what did I do with my life???” But just I worked intensively for two years, and then it was over. It was a cultural shock, too. People are very different, the weather is different…everything was different. People, instead of talking to each, would send emails. That was a shock. They were in the same room, and they would send emails to each other. And I thought “What’s wrong with these people? They don’t talk, or what?”

It was a cultural shock — it’s not so bad now, but it took me a while.

TM: You went from there to Indiana.

IP-V: After two years of one-hundred percent focus on electronic music, I wanted to do acoustic music.

TM: People I knew at Princeton referred to these as silicon- and carbon-based music.

IP-V: That’s right. I thought “Give me some instruments now! I need to write for instruments again.” Indiana also has a Latin-American Music Center, with Carmen Tellez there, and all her friends — it was a group of Latino people with whom I thought I would feel more connected from the human point of view.

TM: Please talk about the works on your CD [“an enchanted being, salty waters, and infinite stones”, Albany TROY 987], which has a variety of different ensembles. I thought the titles were quite interesting.

IP-V: I love poetry — when I have the time I write some poetry.

TM: For examples, Duendes alados [Winged sprites].

IP-V: Don’t ask me where it came from, because it’s from my imagination. Duendes are magical creatures, and with wings they are even more magical.

TM: When people write string quartets, they tend to think of abstract music — Beethoven, Bartok — but they don’t think of winged sprites.

IP-V: I didn’t mean to write a “serious” string quartet. In fact, I didn’t call it “String Quartet” — it’s just a series of pieces. Of course the four movements are part of one composition, but I never intended it to be a “great string quartet” in the serious classical way.

TM: Which is perhaps liberating as you are writing it.

IP-V: Exactly. It made me have fun in writing the music, and that’s what composition should be — something that we enjoy, not just when it is performed, but the process of composing the music. It’s not a party, but it’s enjoyable in the sense that it is satisfying, and we can enjoy the entire process, as opposed to having the painful obligation of writing something great.

TM: Was it a commission by the performers?

IP-V: By the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth, which has a series of commissions. Originally it was to be a percussion quartet, for the Amadinda Quartet, but I got a letter saying that Amadinda had dissolved, and that now it would be a string quartet! How do I go from a percussion quartet to a string quartet! I was happy to do it, and that’s how it came out.

TM: Some pieces have titles in English, and some in Spanish. Is there a reason for that?

IP-V: Our Sacred Space is in English, because it is a quote from a Buddhist who wrote in English, who said that we are always at the center of the universe, and we can always feel that we are in our sacred space. In other cases, sometimes it sounds beautiful in English, sometimes in Spanish

TM: Please talk about Encantamiento, with Sally Pinkas. She is an exceptional pianist….

IP-V: And a great friend. She is a lovely person. There is actually a new version of Encantamiento out by Pola Baytelman on a CD which she will release on Albany this year [released May 2009, TROY 1116] . It sounds like a different piece. I like both. The Baytelman version is slower in pace, but the polyrhythmia is so intense. Sally’s is brilliant technically because it goes faster, but perhaps the polyrhythms are not as clear….I love both versions — it is amazing that talented performers can do this with one’s music.

TM: Please say a little about Un ser encantado.

IP-V: That’s an older piece. I wrote it while I was still at Indiana. The poetic images from the titles of each movement are what I was thinking about in writing the piece. At the time I was very interested in timbre, so there is a lot of exploration of the sounds of the percussion instruments, mixed with the sound of the piano in such a way as to make an atmosphere that sometimes is transparent and sometimes heavier and more percussive.

It’s full of rhythmic contrasts.

TM: There seems to be a narrative focus to the works on your CD. This is often something that helps to make electroacoustic music work, since rather than being tied to instrumental techniques and motives, it can be more pictorial and cinematic.

IP-V: I think it is easier for the audience to perceive the piece that way, because especially if a piece is for tape, it is harder to make a connection with whatever is going on an empty stage. If there are just two loudspeakers there, and that is all, they have to close their eyes, and try to imagine what is going on. In both cases, titles are very important, because a title can help the imagination of a person who is listening to a work.

TM: Do you continue to work with both tape and instrumental music?

IP-V: I intend to do so. In recent years I have received commissions from ensembles who want to perform my music. Right now I am writing an acoustic piece for Continuum, but after that I want to write a piece for percussion and electronics for a wonderful percussionist here [at Willliams College].

Acoustic music, in my opinion, is more likely to be preserved forever, if it is good music. We have a heritage of centuries of music, so to produce something that is likely to last, it has to be more than excellent. But, so what! I will take the challenge.

But if I play the electronic music of the sixties to my students they say “it sounds like a really old synthesizer. Those sounds are not interesting anymore. I don’t like it.” They feel no connection because the technology has evolved tremendously since then. This is a challenge that electronic music faces from the passage of time. But if I play a Bartok quartet, the students still think it is the greatest. But for electronic music, even ten years makes a difference. In the eighties frequency modulation sounds were used, but nobody wants to hear that anymore. There are one or two pieces that are references, but only in classes, because they are not heard in concerts. This is a big challenge.

So, yes, I am interested in continuing to work in the field, but I am very aware of the challenges involved.

TM: Do you have another CD of your works in the pipeline?

IP-V: I have a couple of pieces in mind. At the moment there will be a piece of mine for mezzo and piano on an anthology of works by Cuban composers — Tania Leon, Sergio Barroso, Orlando Jacinto Garcia which will be released by Innova [scheduled for fall 2009].

TM: Please talk about your vocal works — songs, dramatic works.

IP-V: Nanahual, with two versions, one for soprano, one for mezzo. The original was for soprano, but a mezzo asked me for a version, and it turned out that the one which was recorded was the mezzo version. For that piece I wrote the poetry myself, based on Nahuatl legend.

After that I wrote a piece for Aguava New Music Ensemble, based on texts by Rabindranath Tagore, Like the subtle wings of love. Presently I am working an piece for soprano, and four instruments — violin, cello, clarinet, and piano, using poetry from a young Cuban poet who is now in Miami — Carlos Pintado, an emerging poet. I found his poetry to be expressive and beautiful.

I actually wrote an opera very early on, at ISA, but it has never been performed, and since so much time has passed, I would have to review it before it went before the public.

TM: What was the title?

IP-V: I called it Inmanencia. It is based on a Latin American legend, in a poetic version by a friend. Very poetic and full of symbols.

TM: A one-act opera?

IP-V: Yes.

TM: What is your next big project?

IP-V: I take my life one day at a time. I like writing music that I know is going to be performed, and of course it is harder to get good and multiple performances of music for orchestra and large ensembles.

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