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Gabriela Ortiz
10 Feb 2010

Gabriela Ortiz — An Interview

Composer Gabriela Ortiz studied composition in Mexico City with Mario Lavista at the National Conservatory of Music, at the Guildhall School with Robert Saxton, and at the University of London with Simon Emmerson.

An interview with Gabriela Ortiz

By Tom Moore


Her vibrant music can be characterized by its exuberance and rhythmic energy. In March 2010 her first opera, Unicamente La Verdad, based on a narcocorrido (a popular narrative genre talking about the drug business in Mexico) will be premiered in Mexico City, after a workshop production at Indiana University in 2007. We spoke via Skype on February 4, 2010.

TM: You were born in Mexico City, and your parents were active as folk musicians.

GO: My father is an architect, and my mother, who has passed away, was a psychoanalyst, but they also played in a folk music group called Los Folkloristas, which was very well-known in the sixties and the seventies.

TM: How did they start to do that?

GO: On my father’s side, my grandfather is from the city of Guadalajara, in Jalisco. He was a doctor, and had a very interesting life. He studied at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and when he came back to Mexico, the Mexican Revolution had just started in 1910, and he went to fight with Pancho Villa. When he came back, because he came from a very wealthy family, the family moved to the United States, but he decided to stay in Mexico City, and he met my grandmother in Chihuahua, in the north of Mexico, and they got married. My grandfather loved classical, and saw Mahler conducting in New York while he was studying in Washington, so the musical interests of my father come from that part of the family. Because my grandfather was from Guadalajara, my father loved mariachi and son jalisciense and all this folk music from Jalisco. He started playing guitar and folk music when he was very young. He had these two sides — classical music and folk music. My mother studied piano for fifteen years. I was around music throughout my childhood.

TM: What were your first musical activities?

GO: I started by playing guitar and folk music, and joined my parents. When I was nine, my mother suggested that I start playing piano and reading music, so that I would have a more formal musical education. So I started playing piano when I was nine or ten years old. By fifteen I realized that I could compose melodies, so I knew very early that I wanted to be a composer.

TM: In addition to the folk music, were there kinds of international pop music that were part of your life when you were an adolescent?

GO: I loved all kinds of music — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. My uncle was a mathematician, and he would play the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin — I loved those bands too. I love salsa, mambo, jazz — but jazz was something that came later, not at that time.

TM: What did adolescents listen to?

GO: There were three different kinds of people. There were people who loved to dance disco — I remember people dancing to the Beegees, and Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta. And then there were people who were nostalgic for older bands, like the Who, the Doors, Janis Joplin, and all of that kind of stuff. And there were people who listened to folk music from all over Latin America.

TM: Much of the Mexican music that we hear in the United States must be from northern Mexico — corridos and so forth. Perhaps that is different from what is listened to in Mexico City.

foto-corazon.gifGO: Not that much — we listen to corridos as well. I have an opera which will be performed in March, Only The Truth, which will be done by the National Opera company here in Mexico City, and in fact it is based on a corrido, so it is interesting that you mention it. Corridos are famous throughout the whole country.

TM: Where did you study music as an adolescent?

GO: I had a private piano teacher, and studied at a private school. I also studied harmony and solfege with her. She introduced me to the Bartok Mikrokosmos which was my exposure to twentieth-century music, and this was the moment when I decided that I wanted to be a composer rather than a pianist. I realized that being a pianist would be very difficult, and that composing would be one of the greatest things in my life. I felt like music chose me — I didn’t choose to study music, but music chose me.

TM: Are there pieces from those years that you still have in your archives?

GO: Yes — obviously all the pieces are for piano, since I didn’t know anything about orchestration. I still have the manuscripts, although I don’t consider them to be part of my catalog.

TM: Please talk about your university years.

GO: When I finished high school I went to Paris for one year. I knew that I wanted to be a musician, but my mother was telling me “Why don’t you take a year off, and think about it? Music is very difficult, you need time to know what you want to do.” After three months of being in Paris, I knew that I wanted to be a musician and I wanted to be a composer, so I went to a conservatory in the area where I was living in Paris, and then got a scholarship to the Ecole Normale de Musique. But my mother got ill with a kidney problem, so we returned to Mexico City; I gave her a kidney, and lost my scholarship.

In Mexico City I studied at the National School of Music at the University, which is the place where I now teach, the National Autonomous University (UNAM), one of the most important universities in Latin America. I studied there, and also at the Conservatory with Mario Lavista, one of the really good composers in Mexico, who studied with Carlos Chavez. Mario is a wonderful person, and a very important mentor for my career.

TM: Perhaps you could say a little about his style of music, and his approach to teaching, because Americans may not be so familiar with his music.

GO: I think that Mario has a very personal way of writing, which is something that I really admire. He has his own voice. His music is very delicate, very refined — let’s say that it is as refined as Takemitsu, but in a completely different esthetic. It’s mystic, almost religious — very beautiful music, very evocative. He’s a wonderful teacher who always respects the esthetic expression of his students, and never imposes his own point of view. He’s a very cultivated man, very sensitive, and very supportive. A really, really great teacher.

TM: How would you describe the style of the music you were writing while studying with him?

GO: Rhythm and strength are characteristics of my music, I guess. Even while studying with Mario, I had a very strong voice. I love rhythm, so my music was always very energetic, very rhythmic, and it still is. I was trying to discover my own voice while I was working with him.

TM: Who were composers from the twentieth century who made an impact on your esthetic, on your listening?

GO: Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky, Mahler — among more contemporary composers Ligeti, I admire Lutoslawski, I like Takemitsu very much. I love John Adams’ music. I like Thomas Adès, I like Kaija Saariaho, I like Ginastera, I like Revueltas very much– a great Mexican composer. I could mention many more.

TM: When you completed study at UNAM, where did you go from there? Did you go directly to graduate study in England?

GO: I got a scholarship from the British Council, and went to study in England, at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and did one year there with Robert Saxton. I then got another scholarship from UNAM, and did my Ph.D at the University of London, where I did electroacoustic music. So I ended up living in England for five years.

TM: Could you talk about your study with Saxton?

GO: Robert belongs to a European tradition where the compositional process is very important. In working with him I had to design a lot of harmonic schemes and work on the pre-compositional process before starting to write a piece. It was a rational way of processing composition. I don’t always compose like that these days — I like to trust in my intuition and my ear. However, it was interesting to work like that, to involve mathematics and other ways of approaching composition.

TM: At the University of London you were working with electroacoustic music. Was that the first time that you had been working in that medium?

GO: Yes, absolutely. When I was at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, for the first time I had a computer at my disposal, and there was an electronic class there, and for me it was fascinating and completely new. At the time in Mexico (1991) it was very difficult to have access to studios and computers , so I realized that I had to take advantage of the fact that I was there in England in order to explore that area. I did my Ph.D in electroacoustic music with my tutor, Simon Emmerson. That was the right decision. It was very interesting to work with electronics at that time.

TM: Do you feel that the same processes are relevant in constructing an electroacoustic piece, or are there other factors at work?

GO: I think it is a different process. When you write an electronic piece, you write in real time. You compose, and you hear what you are doing. You are in total control of the results. If you write acoustic music, you have to hear the music inside — you have to imagine all these sounds, and you won’t hear the music until the players are performing. For electroacoustic music, it’s different.

TM: Could you talk about a piece from that period?

GO: My first electroacoustic piece is called Magna Sin, for steel drum and tape. I had an opportunity to participate in a festival, and the producer wanted composers to write for ethnic instruments, or uncommon instruments. Other composers wrote for shakuhachi and tape; there was a Bolivian composer who wrote for charango (a very small guitar from Peru and Bolivia, made from an armadillo) and tape; and they asked me to write a piece for steel drum and tape, and I didn’t know anything about steel drums. And at the time I didn’t know anything about computers, either, so it was a big challenge.

I wrote the piece for a Mexican percussionist, Ricardo Gallardo, a very good percussionist, who didn’t have steel drums, so he bought one, and showed me the layout, and we took some samples, and from manipulation of those sounds I produced the tape part. The tape part functions as an extension of the live instrument.

TM: How did the two relate in the context of the piece?

GO: All the sounds for the tape came from the steel drum. One example would be register. If you manipulate the register, you can transform the sound into something that the acoustic instrument cannot do. This is more or less how the tape interacts with the steel drum.

TM: When did you complete your Ph.D?

GO: I finished in 1996, and returned to Mexico City.

TM: You are presently teaching at UNAM. How long have you been there?

GO: Since 2000.

TM: And you have also taught at Indiana University.

GO: Yes. This took place because I did my sabbatical there. I got a Fulbright, and went to Indiana, because I was working on my opera Only the Truth. When I got a Guggenheim to do the opera, I wrote to Carmen-Helena Tellez, who is the director of the Latin American Music Center at Indiana University, and she loved the idea of doing a workshop production at the university. As well as being a wonderful friend, she contributed generously to developing the work. She believed in what I was doing and applied for a grant (Indiana University New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities). Fortunately, we got the grant, and I got the Fulbright, so I went to Indiana for one year. While I was there, Dr. Freund, who is the head of the composition department, invited me to teach for one semester.

TM: Listening to the works that are up on your website, they seem to be exuberant, almost tropical — full of lots of activity — romantic, lyric. Could you speak about Patios, or some of your other works for orchestra?

GO: Patios is my first piece for orchestra, but the first version was for piano, an homage to a Mexican architect, Luis Barragán. I wrote it while I was studying with Mario Lavista — so it is one of the oldest pieces in my catalog. I went to an exhibition at the Museo Rufino Tamayo in Mexico City for work by Barragán, and I was inspired by his architecture. His work usually includes natural landscapes as a part of his own perspective. It’s very peaceful. He likes water very much — it is always present, as fountains, or as small mirrors of water. I wanted to translate the atmosphere, the quietness, the beautiful landscapes of Barragán into music. This is the original, and then I decided to orchestrate that piano version.

It’s interesting that you asked me about Patios, because it is one of the sides that I really like in my music, but perhaps it is not the most representative, because it is not rhythmic at all — it is more contemplative, and the harmony is more consonant, more about fifths — there is more of the influence of Debussy and Takemitsu. I have other pieces that are much more rhythmic, with other influences.

TM: For example, the piece that plays when you open the website.

GO: This is the end of the first movement of a piece called Altar de Piedra. This was an LA Philharmonic commission from a few years ago, a piece for four percussionists and orchestra.

TM: And has a very insistent rhythm.

GO: This is one of the most complex pieces that I have ever written — it’s very difficult for the orchestra. I have other versions of the work, including one for Amadinda — the Hungarian percussion quartet — and the Hungarian Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a wonderful version, for which we had seven rehearsals. Can you imagine!

I am not saying that I write difficult music, but rhythmically speaking that piece is very, very tricky.

TM: Tell me, is this rhythmic aspect something that expresses you, or Mexico, or expresses something having to do with latinidad?

GO: It is something that expresses me. It is natural — it is just there. Of course, because I live in Mexico, this is what I am exposed to — but basically this is me. Absolutely me.

TM: Do you ever think consciously about how your music would reflect Mexican character?

GO: When I compose, I am not trying to sound Mexican. I am just doing what I have to do. It is like an inner force that is just there, and I have to express that in sound. It probably has a Mexican identity, because it’s me, I live in Mexico, and I like my country. But I am not trying to write Mexican music — it comes out in a very natural way.

Mexico has many different composers. Arturo Marquez has been very interested in the danzon, and has been exploring that in his own work. Mario Lavista is very personal in a way, and if someone hears his music, they may not hear archetypes of Mexican music, let’s say. Carlos Sanchez’s music is very different, and so is Ricardo Zohn. Mexican composition is really strong, with many different voices at the moment. So it’s difficult to say that there is one school. We have many expressions, many esthetics.

This is not only true for Mexico. We have New Complexity, we have music that is more accessible — even in the States, we have Elliott Carter, we have Golijov, we have John Adams, and all of them are so totally different.

TM: Perhaps you could speak in more detail about Only The Truth.

GO: It is based on a corrido called Contrabando y Traicion (Smuggling and Betrayal), a corrido that was written in the seventies in Mexico City. It tells the story of a woman who crosses the border. She hides weed (marijuana) in the tires of her car. She travels with her lover, Emilio Varela. In Los Angeles, they get paid, and suddenly he betrays her. He decides to go to San Francisco with his true love. Then Camelia becomes very angry and kills him. And then she disappears.

This corrido became famous in the seventies through the recording of Los Tigres del Norte, and by now Camelia has become a very interesting figure in Mexican popular culture. People believe that she really exists and that she is still alive. My opera is about the construction of this myth, about this woman, about why she has become so important, why people believe that she is still alive — this is more or less the theme of the opera. I wrote the opera two years ago, it was performed at Indiana as an avant-premiere, and now we will have the Mexican premiere on March 11 at the Festival de Mexico, as a co-production with the Compañía Nacional de Ópera de Bellas Artes.

TM: Will that be recorded for CD or DVD?

GO: It will be recorded for the cultural channel on TV. We are in the middle of rehearsals, so I am very excited.

TM: Do you have plans already for the next opera?

GO: Yes, I have ideas for another opera, and have been talking to a few people, but I will keep it under wraps for now, since I am crossing my fingers that it will happen. I want to do another opera — definitely. It was a wonderful experience to write Only The Truth.

TM: Did you collaborate with a librettist on this?

GO: Yes — the librettist is my brother, Ruben Ortiz. The libretto is a compilation of texts. Ruben is a visual artist who lives in Los Angeles, and is a professor at UCSD. The concept of the opera is his idea.

TM: What other projects do you have for the near future?

GO: I have so many projects right now. I am writing a piece for the OFUNAM — the National University Philharmonic Orchestra. In September the University will be celebrating the centenary of its foundation, and the piece is a commission for that celebration. I also have commission from the Mexico City Philharmonic to mark the centenary of the Mexican Revolution. I am very busy right now writing these two pieces.

TM: Do the works have titles yet?

GO: Not yet. The piece for the university is a piece for choir and orchestra.

TM: For you, does the concept come first, and the title afterwards?

GO: It depends. Sometimes I already have the title, and sometimes not. It depends on the project. In the case of the opera, I had the title, but not the music.

TM: A question about compositional process. Some composers plan an architecture for a piece, and then fill in the details. Some start from the level of the details, and then grow a structure, perhaps a more narrative or organic approach. Are you more architectural or organic?

GO: Probably more organic. But sometimes I have to be very architectural. In the case of an opera, for example, you have to be architectural, too, because the dramatic text is giving you the overall shape of the music. In the case of the piece for the university I have a text, which gives me a layout to follow. It depends on the project. For the piece I wrote for the LA Philharmonic I wanted to explore polyrhythmic textures, so I did a lot of compositional process before I started writing the piece — I was trying to develop for getting the polyrhythms together, and the pitches of the notes…

Sometimes I am very intuitive — I start playing the piano and find something I like, analyze what I have, and then I start composing.

TM: Does your music grow from a playing approach, or a singing approach?

GO: If the music is vocal, definitely I will sing — it is very important. But I play a lot — the piano is a very important tool for me. I can’t compose without a piano — my playing is very important. Improvising is also a very important process.

TM: Are there future projects that you want to address in the next few years?

GO: I would very much like to write a piece for Steven Schick, a wonderful percussionist at UCSD. We have been talking about that. I would also like to write a piano concerto. I am also involved in collaborations, for example with choreographer Adriana Castaños from the La Lagrima Dance Company.

If I do the new opera, it will take a lot of my time.

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