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Juan Trigos
01 Jun 2010

Juan Trigos: An Interview by Tom Moore

Juan Trigos, composer and conductor, was born and raised in Mexico City, where his father, also Juan Trigos, is a noted playwright and novelist.

Juan Trigos: An Interview by Tom Moore

Above: Juan Trigos


Trigos the younger studied music in Mexico and Italy, where his professors included Castiglioni and Donatoni. As of this writing a CD on which he directs music by his compatriot Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon is about to be released by Bridge Records. We spoke by phone on January 18, 2010.

TM: You were born in Mexico City. What was the musical environment like in your family?

JT: I was born in Mexico City, but my father’s family, most of them, comes from Veracruz, where the music is very characteristic, very rhythmic, a strange mixture between Spanish, Indian and black music. Perhaps the most important thing is that my father is a writer. My interest in music and art in general comes from him, especially in my childhood years, when I used to listen to music with him and with his friends, and to go to plays at the theater. He is still writing plays, which we will talk about later. My brother Luciano is a painter, so the family is involved in the arts — my father is a writer, my brother a painter, and myself a musician.

I started school in Mexico City, and went to the Conservatory there. After that I studied at the Instituto de Liturgia Música y Arte “Cardenal Miranda” for Sacred Music. Then I moved to Europe.

TM: Could you say a little more about the music of Veracruz? Music from Veracruz from the 1940s is featured in a Disney film, Tres Caballeros.

JT: The piece played in that film is a “Son Jarocho or Veracruzano” called “La Bamba” and is one of the most famous.

It’s important in connection to my own music to know that I was in touch with Mexican folk music, and other folk musics as well. The folk music from Mexico City is not mariachi, which comes from Jalisco, but even so it is very well-known and played in Mexico City. Music from Veracruz is traditionally played by a quartet — a small guitar known as requinto, which is the one that plays solos and improvises, the jarana, also known as the guitarra de golpe, or “striking” guitar — the rhythm guitar, which has double courses, the regular “Spanish” guitar, and a very special, colorful harp, the Veracruzana harp, which improvises also. This is the classical quartet, and the players sing at the same time that they play. You can hear the solo, or lead voice, plus three voices in the chorus.

I was very close to that music. I was born and raised with this music, not consciously, but as something you have inside you. At the same time, the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and everyone else — an interesting combination. You couldn’t subtract any of it — it’s all part of my heritage.

TM: Your father, who is also named Juan Trigos — when did he come to Mexico City from Veracruz?

JT: I don’t remember exactly, I think my grandfather and the whole family left Veracruz and moved to live in Mexico City in the late thirties.

TM: Please talk a bit more about the classical music you heard as a child.

JT: At home, my father and my grandfather, who was an opera lover as well, would listen to many kinds of music — all genres — symphonies, concertos, sonatas, etc. And literature was present as well — poetry, novels, plays. Almost every day they would listen to music at home.

TM: Were there opera performances in Mexico City that you attended?

JT: Yes, I attended many opera performances, and many concerts with symphony orchestras, chorus, chamber music, and theater.

TM: What repertoire did they perform at the opera house?

JT: The usual — Puccini, Verdi, Bellini, Bizet, Mozart, etc— very classical. I saw some Wagner — Flying Hollander and Beethoven’s Fidelio. Sometimes they would do modern works. I saw La Güera Rodríguez by Carlos Jimenez Mabarak, when I was fifteen or so. Another Mexican work was La Mulata de Cordoba by Pablo Moncayo. I especially remember Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve as well.

TM: What is there from Mexican theater that had an influence on your own work?

JT: I saw classics with Mexican companies, though not so much. I remember a French company which came when I was about ten, and presented Ubu Roi by Jarry. I remember that one especially, since I was shocked by it, and asked my father if I could see it twice, even though I couldn’t understand the whole thing since it was half in French and half in Spanish. I saw many other things, such as works by Jorge Ibargüengoitia, one of our most important playwrights. Some Carballido. Many things directed by Juan José Gurrola, who died recently. He was a stage director, who played some Jarry as well, Strindberg, things like that. Actually we worked together on two operas: Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Rota’s La Notte di un Nevrastenico, he as a stage director and me as a conductor.

I saw some Mexican classics, like Alarcon, Spanish classics like Calderon de la Barca, some Shakespeare, of course. Albee, Tennessee Williams in Spanish. I especially recall A Streetcar Called Desire. I saw Opereta by Witold Gombrowicz, and that kind of theater, because my father was in the avant-garde. And of course my father’s plays.

TM: This is very interesting, since in the United States we have such a distorted view of Mexico. The list of plays that you have just given is something that you could only see in the United States in New York….

JT: Washington, possibly.

TM: In a world cultural capital….

What was your first musical instrument as a child?

JT: You won’t believe it. I started with the guitar, since my father used to play the guitar. Well, actually, the first instrument was the voice. I would sing all day long. I still love to sing. After that, the guitar. My father taught me a few chords — the rudiments of guitar, nothing very complicated. Then I immediately switched to the piano. The voice is something more inside — not that I want to be a singer, but I like to sing, and always sang in choirs. It’s part of me as well.

TM: How old were you when you started piano?

JT: Ten or eleven — I don’t remember exactly.

TM: What music do you recall from that period?

JT: I remember Bach, of course. I think that the first sonatina that I played was by Pleyel. It wasn’t so bad — I remember it with a certain affection. And the usual stuff — the Mikrokosmos of Bartok, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart…the great masters. This part would be exactly the same in the United States or in Europe.

TM: Was there international pop music that you were listening to as an adolescent?

JT: I had contact with rock through my friends, but I can’t say that I love rock. I don’t hate rock, but it is not my music. I feel closer to folk music. The pop music that I listened to and that I listen to now is salsa and son (all kinds) — closer to folk music. I like jazz and blues, but rock is just something I don’t feel close to. I like international folk music — folk music from India, Arabian music, Japanese music, Chinese music — both classical and folk.

TM: To return to your study, you studied at the Conservatorio Nacional and at the Instituto Cardenal Miranda. Had you been singing in church choirs before you went to study at the latter?

JT: When I was a kid I used to sing at the choir of my elementary school. As a teen I used to sing in choirs in the neighborhood, to earn some extra pesos. I sang at the Conservatorio, because there was a course in the area of chamber music for which you needed to sing in an ensemble. I sang at the Conservatorio, the Instituto Cardenal Miranda, and at the Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra of Rome, especially in the areas of polyphony and Gregorian chant.

TM: These days, after Vatican II, there are very few places where you can work on Gregorian chant. This was in the early 1980s?

JT: Yes, in 1982 or 1983, and this was important because I then moved to Europe, and continued to study Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, both conducting and singing, over the course of several years.

TM: It is not so usual these days for a composer to have spent time working on early and sacred music.

JT: I was very attracted to this kind of music — spiritual, and with a very strong basis.

TM: I found a brief interview with you on the internet, where you summarized your music in four words — comedy, drama, lightness, and spirituality, and it sounds like you found all four of those in the sacred music that you were studying.

JT: Exactly. I am very close to sacred music and to folk music because it is attached strongly to the land. It is for these reasons that I called my aesthetic Abstract Folklore.

TM: This makes a great deal of sense — opera is not very far from sacred music.

JT: No, not the kind of opera that I make. I call it Hemofiction Opera, because the text is my father’s and that is the name he gave to his own literature, Hemofiction.

TM: Please talk about your study in Italy. I know that you studied with Donatoni and Castiglioni.

JT: I went first to study in Rome, where I studied chant and polyphony with Domenico Bartolucci, who used to be the choirmaster at the Sistine Chapel, a terrific musician and very well-known in Italy. I studied piano with Enzo Stanzani, organ, and composition too with Padre Giovanni Bucci. After that I moved to Milan, where I studied composition with Nicolò Castiglioni.

It was a shock to move from Rome to Milan, because when you are that age, you are looking for something, and you are not quite sure what you want. Rome is more traditional, and Milan is closer to the big cities of Europe, more open to influences from elsewhere. Particularly at that time the power of the avant-garde in Europe was terrible. Practically everything that you wrote was wrong. If you didn’t write in this kind of style or with that kind of systematic way of thinking… it was wrong. If you put two sounds together it seemed like melody. Wrong! Like Darmstadt in the early years — it was that way in the conservatories, in the academies, in the municipal schools. For the first few years I didn’t understand what was wrong about these things. I came to understand later, after living there.

At the same time I also studied at the Civica Scuola in Milan. I studied conducting with Franco Gallini. I finished studying composition with Castiglioni in ’88 and got the diploma, and continued studying composition in advanced courses with Donatoni at the Civica Scuola di Milano (Contemporary Music Department) and at the Lorenzo Perosi Academy in Biella.

I got my diploma in conducting in ’91 at the Conservatory “G. Verdi of Milan studying with Gianpiero Taverna and came back to Mexico in 1993 to work.

TM: Was it your interest in sacred music that led you to go to Italy, or were there other factors?

JT: There were many factors, but the opportunity came because I was studying at the Instituto Cardenal Miranda and I got a small scholarship to go to Rome to the Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra.

TM: Perhaps you could talk about your early compositions — are there pieces from your years in Italy that are still in your catalogue?

JT: I have dropped most, though not all, of my earliest compositions. I don’t believe in progress in music. Some of the early pieces are good, although perhaps not the best that I wrote, but they deserve to stay in the catalogue. There is Sax Sin Aliento (1988), the Quartet for Clarinet, Saxophone, Guitar and Bongó (1989), the trilogy for flute (Tres Danzas Floridas, 1989-1990). Even earlier than that there is the Gloria in Latin, which is very close to tonality, but I think it’s a very nice piece, even though it’s in that style. And I think that’s it.

TM: Please say a little about the quartet, for which there is a performance on Youtube. It’s a very interesting scoring.

JT: That piece was an experiment with regard to various elements. It introduced folk elements for the bongo and the guitar. The writing for the bongo was a mess — I worked for hours in order to be specific about the various attacks and colors for the instrument — whether you use the fingers or the hands, or if you keep the left hand on the drumhead. I rewrote it many times so that the symbols would be exact. I worked on the bongo articulation in combination with the guitar, and after that I put the sax. This was the beginnings of “abstract folklore” — my concept of adapting folk idioms. This piece is probably my first to use these elements. I could call this piece the matrix for “abstract folklore”. The very first version was in ’87, which was never performed, and then it was revised in ’89, and recorded in 1990.

TM: Tell me about your trajectory after returning to Mexico.

JT: When I came back from Italy I went directly to Mexico City and stayed there until 2004. I had a private studio where I taught, and also taught to the Instituto Cardenal Miranda and conducted many seminars around Mexico and the United States, and began to conduct frequently — festivals, orchestras here and there. I became conductor and music director of the National Chamber Orchestra, and conductor of the Camerata de las Americas.

TM: I had the chance to view a video of you conducting Elgar and Sibelius. Elgar in particular seems a world away from Latin America.

JT: It is very serious….but I love that music, especially that symphony [no. 1, op. 55], although nobody wants to play it. I find that symphony interesting in many ways. The music is serious, and at the same time very tender, like Dickens. It has a childlike innocence.

TM: You mentioned that you had been in Canada.

JT: Yes, for almost five years, in Toronto, working free-lance, but in particular because I wanted a spiritual retreat in order to compose my second Hemofiction opera. My first was De Cachetito Raspado (“Cheek to Stubbled Cheek”), and the second is Mis Dos Cabezas Piensan Peor Que Una (“My Two Heads Think Worse Than One”). De Cachetito Raspado has two different versions — a chamber and an orchestral version.

TM: Is there a complete recording available yet?

JT: Not yet. I have an almost complete recording of the orchestral version, which is missing a couple of scenes. The orchestra version is from 2004, and revised in 2009.

TM: The libretto….

JT: is my father’s.

TM: You mentioned that you are planning to live in the USA? Where will you be based?

JT: I am not sure yet — I am a free-lancer with many projects in various places. All of my family now lives in the US — my father, my brother, my sisters. I feel at home in the states. I know a lot of people here, and want to open a new chapter in my life. But I haven’t decided yet where.

TM: I know that you have connections with Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez and Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon. How did you come to meet them?

JT: I met Ricardo at Gaudeamus Music Week in Holland, in 1991, because we were the only two Mexicans at the festival. I heard the very first version of Ricardo’s Flores del Viento, the one with soprano and recorder. I have recorded the one with baritone and flute. We became friends, and kept in touch, and we met again in 1994 when he was teaching in Guanajuato and organized a very nice festival of contemporary music there. I had heard of Carlos, and heard some of his music before we actually met in 1995 or 1996. I had invited him to lecture at a festival that I organized in Mexico City.

Ricardo is very deep in his thinking about music, and Carlos is a very powerful composer, full of ideas, with aggressive gestures and fabulous rhythms. I consider them fine composers and very good friends as well.

They organized the Broadband ensemble, with which we recorded Ricardo’s CD for Bridge records [Cantos, Bridge 9325, released June 2010]. We recorded it last May with Broadband. In 2008 we did a nice tour to Mexico in Chihuahua.

TM: Do you find that that there are musical areas in common between your work and that of Ricardo and Carlos? In the area of rhythm?

JT: I think the three of us have in common without of doubt our cultural heritage, Mexico is always very present. We also agree on the idea of the search for self-expression by means of sensibility and inner ear and not just pure speculation.

In the rhythm, I’m not sure — if you speak about rhythm you don’t say anything. It’s like rock — there are many styles of rock and speak about the rhythm is pretty much the same. In a sense our music is rhythmic but we think in a very different way.

Ricardo’s rhythmical writing is based on the construction of small motifs that are strung together (quasi Leitmotif), and a very transparent harmony. Under an apparent simplicity, these motifs are expanded, repeated and transformed and create the form in a very contrapuntal way. He is maybe the most contrapuntal of the three. In his vocal music also uses the metric of the words. This is another point in common, the fact we both write vocal music and operas.

Carlos’s approach with rhythm is more linear, in a way. He delays and moves the accents, but not in a polyphonic sense. Sometimes he uses aspects of music from Veracruz, but it appears as lines that can be spread in one or two voices. It is something like linearity against verticality with some metric distortion.

I am more interested on principles such as the primary pulsation, the resonance and the obsessive use of polyrhythmic and polyphonic interlocking musical events and segments of different density and duration. It’s more like African music, but not in the sense of the patterns — I don’t use pre-composed rhythms or patterns. In terms of jazz, it may be in 3/4 or 4/4, but it does not sound in 3/4 or 4/4, you have all the accents outside the strong beats. My way to think of rhythm is as a set of small mechanisms combining to form in an abstract way. I use and expand in the form the rhythm of the text in my Operas, for me it is very important to make the text understandable. All these aspects are some of the principles of the Abstract Folklore.

TM: You now have two operas. Is there another one being planned?

JT: Yes. The title is Contra-Sujeto [Counter-Subject], which is an allusion to fugue. The play belongs to another cycle of works of my father. The first two belong to the cycle of plays known as “I say I am me, but who knows” [Yo digo que soy yo, pero quién sabe?] This cycle is “Flying heads” — the protagonist is crazy, and was in the asylum. His father pays to have him declared not insane, since as you know, in good families, there are no mad or bad people. So he corrupts the shrink. The protagonist went crazy because as a child he saw people playing soccer with a human head. When he leaves the asylum, he only relates to heads — he speaks only with heads, and not with people. He is eleven different characters at the same time, and talks to himself. I started a year ago, made some sketches, and am beginning to work very hard on it now. I have known the play since I was ten, and I love it.

Speaking about the cycle “I say I am me, but who knows”, written in the way of “la commedia dell’arte”, my father’s plays [known as the Theater of Hemofiction] use the same characters all the time, and by this time it’s a huge cycle — around forty plays. There are many situations, and the essence of the characters, who are husband and wife, is that the only way for them to stay together is to be drunk or stoned. Their profession is to dub films, and their response to their frustration, the way to redeem themselves, is make theater at home, full of madness and distortion of reality, but at the same they are very cultivated, very funny, very spiritual, and they invent these two Siamese brothers, who serves as a kind of Greek chorus. They become real, because they speak, and disagree with the others’ opinion. Hemofiction has to do with blood — everything to do with parenthood, heritage, hate, love, and present absence.

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