The Eastman School of Music welcomed several new faculty members this year. One of them, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, is one of the most prominent living Latin American composers.
A graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, Yale and Princeton Universities, he is a fellow of the Guggenhein, Fromm, Rockefeller and Camargo foundations. His many awards include a Fulbright fellowship, two BMI Foundation composition awards, the Mozart Medal from the governments of Mexico and Austria and the 2000-2001 American Academy of Arts and Letters Charles Ives Fellowship.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with Gutierrez.
Campus Times: Professor Gutierrez, you say that one cannot teach composition without being a composer. How do you think pedagogical approaches differ between teachers who are active composers and teachers who have – more or less – stopped composing?
Sanchez-Gutierrez: I am not sure how to answer that question, for I personally never studied with a non-composing composer.
There are, of course, entries in history books about teachers such as Nadia Boulanger, who very successfully shepherded an entire generation of good composers. However, since I can only see music as a living craft that confronts and endures an ever-changing artistic “reality,” I do not think I could decipher that reality – and its procedures – through means other than those provided by the creative process itself.
In simpler terms, who would want to follow a recipe given by a non-practicing cook?
CT: Do you have a favorite teaching approach and how do you apply it to the diverse young composers in your studio?
CSG: I try to tailor my approach to what I perceive to be the student’s current needs and, particularly, the needs of the specific project at hand. This involves using a variety of techniques that may range from prescribed exercises in counterpoint, voice-control or harmonic structure, to a more liberal attitude that may call for no more than simply plain encouragement.
What I consider essential in the act of composing – and very often encourage students to do – is to cultivate an ability to distance oneself from the work, and carefully and critically observe what may have been created through an intuitive process. It is important then to draw a conclusion and apply an appropriate procedure that synthesizes what intuition had brought to the fore in a spontaneous, yet inevitably crude way.
Going back to our culinary metaphor, the composer, through the development of a personal technique, turns his raw material into a sophisticated “cooked” object of art.
This is crucial in the case of works that don’t conform to a common practice, since their structure and ultimate “meaning” will result more from the establishment of a certain inner logic than from the presence of a collection of “time-tested” rules and procedures.
So, the modern composer – instead of developing a new interpretation of a conventional form – applies processes through which a “network” of logic connections is generated. In this sense, almost every piece of music is nowadays quintessentially unique.
A good teacher is capable of recognizing that approach, if only potentially, in every student’s work.
CT: In the program notes of your piece “Girando Danzando,” you describe a two-part structure in detail, saying the compositional plan of this piece “seems to be finding its way with greater frequency into many of my works, perhaps reflecting my own experience as a Mexican artist living and working in the United States.” Based on this statement, do you think that the formal approach, rather than the sound world reflects a composer’s musical heritage?
CSG: I think that to some extent, that may indeed apply to my work, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that this idea applies to every composer or even to every piece that I have written.
One should always be a little suspicious of a composer’s writings on his or her own work.
CT: Do you define yourself primarily as a “Mexican composer,” and if yes, is this due to your occasional use of Mexican folk material, like in your piece “Mano a Mano?” What styles and trends influenced your writing over the years?
CSG: I suppose I would call myself a “composer who carries a Mexican passport,” or something like that. I seldom use Mexican folklore, or any folklore for that matter, as a source. My reluctance to do so is not rooted in ideology but, quite simply, in reality or, most importantly, in what I would define as poetry.
I grew up listening to a combination of sounds ranging from western classical music to British rock. My sources are, therefore, as diverse – and often as confusing – as my personal background. I think my task is often to try to generate a little universe that synthesizes poetically the apparent chaos that sometimes inhabits one’s reality.
CT: You say both “Lucirnagas” and “Afterlight” are examples “of a rather abstract composition that is otherwise based on a very concrete experience.” Do you believe music can be anything but abstract in its essence? Can you give an example of concrete music which is not “musique concrete?”
CSG: Tangible experiences and events can trigger one’s imagination, or suggest a certain treatment, but, I agree, the nature of music is essentially and inexorably abstract.
CT: In describing one of your pieces, “Gota de Noche,” you say “the piece gravitates around a series of chords which are based on perfect and augmented or diminished fourths and fifths.” Do you tend to decide on a preset harmonic language in your music or do you let the piece “gravitate” by itself towards certain harmonies? Finally, how does your compositional approach depend on the piece?
CSG: Craftsmanship, technique and language all develop with time and experience. I suppose that I am capable now to make more intuitive decisions concerning musical language as a result of having composed many works. For instance, I have now developed a harmonic language I can handle with confidence, and that allows me to apply a more experimental approach to other realms of the composition process, such as timbre or rhythm.
CT: When shall we hear a piece of yours performed in Eastman? What are your upcoming compositional plans?
CSG: As far as I know, no performances of my music are currently scheduled at Eastman in the immediate future, but who knows? This place is always full of wonderful surprises.
CT: Thank so you much for your time, Professor. I hope you continue to have an excellent time at Eastman, and I look forward to hearing some of your works performed here soon.
This is only a small insight into the musical world of Professor Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez. Interested readers and other students can check out his Web site at www.carlossg.com for musical samples, articles and press reviews.
Fol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.