High Conservatory of Music-Buenos Aires, as well as Orchestra Conducting (area in which he later specialized with Guillermo Scarabino), graduating “cum laude” in both disciplines. He then completed Postgraduate studies in Composition (with Kurt Schwertsik) and Orchestral Conducting (with Leopold Hager) at the University (former Academy) of Music and Performing Arts-Vienna (Austria). He is currently enrolled in a Postgraduate study in Composition (with Krzysztof Penderecki) at the Academy of Music in Krakow (Poland).
He attended several courses, traineeships and seminars in Composition (with Alexander Mullenbach, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Helmut Lachenmann, Wolfgang Rihm, etc.), Orchestral Conducting (with Dominique Fanal, Ervin Acél, Michael Gielen, etc.), Piano, Harpsichord, Music Pedagogy and Music History, obtaining also a Bahchelors and a Master’s Degree in History (Deusto University, Spain-USAL University, Argentina).
He received, among others, the following prizes, awards and scholarships: 2nd Prize at the “Franz Josef Reinl-Stiftung” International Composition Competition 2002 (Vienna, Austria), “Gold Medal” Composition Prize 2002 (CSM “Manuel de Falla”, Argentina), “Gold Medal” Ochestral Conducting Prize 2002 (CSM “Manuel de Falla”, Argentina), “Tribune of Argentine Music” Mention 2002 (EIMC-CAMU-International Music Council-UNESCO), “National Tribune of Composers” Mention 2002 (EIMC-CAMU-IMC-International Society for Contemporary Music-UNESCO), “Theodor-Körner” Prize to the Sciences and the Arts 2003 (Vienna, Austria), "In Memoriam Erich Kleiber" Scholarship 2004 (thus providing him a traineeship at the Berlin Opera "Staatsoper Unter den Linden" with Michael Gielen and the "Staatskapelle Berlin" Orchestra), National Fund of the Arts Directory Scholarship 2005 (Argentina).
Among other activities, between 1995 and 2004 he was appointed chief conductor, assistant conductor and artistic director of several Argentine orchestral organizations, actively collaborating in the dissemination of Argentine and Ibero American Music as composer, conductor, pianist and concert series organizer, working also as editor and arranger for several music institutions and publishing houses. In 2003 was invited as composer by the International Forum for Culture and Business (Germany) and in 2006 received a commission from the Argentine Foundation in Poland, being also selected as composer in residence at the European Centre for the Arts “KunstForum Hellerau” Dresden (Germany) for music sessions with the Ensemble Aleph (France), within the frame of the 4th International Forum for Young Composers (Program “Culture 2000” of the European Union).
....I believe that composing is, in part, writing what you ‘remember’. The musical work already exists, like a Platonic Idea....
Juan Manuel, you are a young Argentine composer living and studying in Poland (Penderecki). Can you explain your situation?
Juan Manuel: It’s a very natural situation for me: I was born in Europe, my grandparents were Europeans and I was raised between Europe and Argentina, where my parents where born. I lived in six different countries through all European regions so far: Sweden (where I was born), Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Austria and Poland. Therefore, it seems so obvious that I can’t help being and feeling European and Argentinian at the same time. I met Krzysztof Penderecki in Austria when I was studying at the University (former Academy) of Music and Performing Arts Vienna; I told him I wanted to become his student, he accepted me as such after looking at my scores and I came to Poland for continuing my studies with him at the Academy of Music in Krakow.
But apart from my personal situation, Argentinians are mainly ‘transplanted Europeans’, as my father used to say (he was a diplomat and journalist). Historically, the concept of ‘Argentina’ only appeared clearly after the tremendous stream of emigration that left Southern, Western, Northern and Eastern Europe (according to UN’s regional division of the Old Continent) settled in a huge but sparsely populated land (its aboriginal groups were numerically few in relation to a territory that is about 3 million sq km) that was regarded as ‘The Granary of the World’ (and from a geographically point of view still remains so), mainly escaping from the European wars and crisis of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But Argentina not only opened its arms to people of European origin (97% of its population, according to CIA’s World Factbook 2007) but also to emigrants from Middle East, Far East and other regions of the world as well.
The process I just described generated in Argentina a kind of ‘spontaneous European Union’ that, at the same time, gave rise to an Argentine national identity, mainly made up of a mix of European cultures: hence, to be Argentinian is in essence a feeling, a sense of belonging to a new-born nation; there is even a popular saying that goes: ‘Argentina es un sentimiento’ (Argentina is a feeling). Because of this, origin will never normally affect your personal or professional relationships, in contrast –it is said– to what happens in other countries. As my mother always says (she is a sociologist), the concept of ‘foreigner’ is relative in Argentina because the country was mainly built by immigrants: how could you call a person ‘foreigner’ when your parents or grandparents where also ‘foreigners’?
Can you tell a few words about education and schooling in contemporary music at Argentine conservatories/universities?
Some decades ago Argentina was an undisputed place for learning and teaching Contemporary Music in the American continent, thanks in part to the activities Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) organised and carried out in Buenos Aires between 1963 and 1971 as director of the Latin American Centre for Advanced Musical Studies of the “Torcuato di Tella” Institute, an institution that benefited many young composers of the American continent and abroad.
The Music of Ginastera (his surname –like Abras– is Catalan) started embracing the nationalist orientation that emerged in Argentina during the 19th century –Alberto Williams (1862–1952), Argentine composer of British descent, was one of its most representative artists– and ended by incorporating microtonal and aleatoric elements chronologically preceded in his works by atonal and serial approaches that were favoured and supported in the country during the 1930s by Juan Carlos Paz (1901–1972) and, later and among others, Roberto García Morillo (1911-2003), with whom I studied Composition.
In 1958 Ginastera created the Faculty of Musical Arts and Sciences of the UCA-Catholic University of Argentina (whose present Dean is the prominent Argentine conductor Guillermo Scarabino, with whom I studied Orchestral Conducting), one of the most prestigious music teaching institutions of the country along with the “Carlos López Buchardo” Department of Arts of Music and Sound (former National Conservatory of Music) of the IUNA-National University Institute of Art (where I began the formal music studies I subsequently continued in Venice, Italy and Spain) and the “Manuel de Falla” High Conservatory of Music (a Spanish expression for ‘Academy of Music’), from where I graduated before continuing my studies in Vienna.
Are there differences and similarities between Argentine and European music institutes?
Regarding the similarities, as I said earlier, Argentine people –and Argentine culture too– are mainly a mix and a consequence of the European immigration; and music teaching institutions are not an exception to this fact. Argentine musical tradition was neither imitated nor copied from European models, but inherited; it was brought by the European emigrant-musicians that settled in Argentina in search of a new place to live: from the distinguished Domenico Zipoli (1688–1726) to the legendary Erich Kleiber (1890-1956). This tradition have been continued by younger generations of artists that were born (or raised) in Argentina and pursued their careers there and abroad, like the internationally acclaimed Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Bruno Gelber, Michael Gielen, Alberto Ginastera, Carlos Guastavino, Mauricio Kagel, Carlos Kleiber and Astor Piazzolla, among others. I think this fact is clearly illustrated by the words John Cage used –it is said– for referring to Mauricio Kagel: “The best European composer I know is Argentinian”. A standing legacy of this tradition, and also a symbol of Buenos Aires, is the famous Teatro Colón, one of the leading Opera houses of the world that –with its unsurpassed acoustics– experienced a Golden Era just some decades ago.
As for the differences, it’s clear that in Argentina –like everywhere– Music can be affected by the nation’s political and economic situation; and despite being a wealthy country from the geographical point of view, the consequences of the many financial crisis the country suffered during the past years were deeply felt in many aspects of musical life, including teaching and learning. After the peso was devalued it became very difficult not only to attract foreign high-level artists but also to import scores and discs, limiting, thus, the contact with external musical influences. However, this situation has been constantly alleviated, for example, by events devoted to Contemporary Music like the Festival Internacional Encuentros, yearly organized by the Argentine composer Alicia Terzian (who studied with Ginastera) and by other musical activities held not only in Buenos Aires, but in the whole country as well. So, despite the crisis and their effects, I agree with the words that Gerard H. Béhague, a prolific scholar of Latin American ethnomusicology, wrote for ‘The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians’: “Among the great Latin American capitals, Buenos Aires now enjoys a musical life of unique importance by virtue of its many theatres, orchestras and choral associations, and its good educational institutions. In addition, frequent contact with visiting foreign composers, musicologists or performers has afforded local musicians a comprehensive view of the contemporary musical world.”
Listening to your music, it is various. Can you describe your position in the compositional landscape?
There is in many of my works –but not in all of them– a variety of inspirations and references (to Literature, Visual Arts, Theology and Religion, Biology, Psychoanalysis, Anthropology and Archaeology, etc.) that probably comes from the fact that I am interested in Arts and Humanities as much as in Science and Technology. In fact, I share a passion for past (I have a Bachelors and a Masters Degree in History) and future (I also wanted to be a Biology researcher); but inspirations and references to current world or personal events also abound, of course, in my pieces. Different styles and techniques are found in them too, but –however– not normally within the same composition (polystylistic or eclectic approaches that would imply the deliberated use of juxtaposed elements or the act of drawing them from various sources are almost rare).
I think there has always been a dialogue not only with past but also with future through Music History and, thus, all historic styles (including the many ‘isms’ of the 20th century) constitute a rich palette for the contemporary composer that can be accepted or rejected: I like to take from it what I want when I want, modify (or not) its ‘colours’ and add my own ones to it as well. This is due not only to my personal evolution but also to the influences and advices I have received, during my studies and courses, from masters like García Morillo, Schwertsik, Penderecki, Mullenbach, Stockhausen, Lachenmann, Rihm and Gielen, among others. As a result of what I just said, my music can sound atonal, bruitiste (experimental), serial, tonal, aleatoric, minimalist or algorithmic, be related to New Simplicity (including Neoclassicism and Neoromanticism), Sonorism, New Complexity or World Music (including Argentine folklore and Tango). But the style I will choose for a new piece is usually determined by the ‘inner vision’ I often experience prior to starting the compositional process: before writing the first note I can hear passages of the work to be written; I can see images of its future performance. And this is a fact I found linked to the platonic concept of ‘anamnesis’, something that could be put in relation, I think, with what we call ‘artistic inspiration’.
Regarding what I just said, I believe that composing is, in part, writing what you ‘remember’. The musical work already exists, like a Platonic Idea; the more faithfully you can ‘remember’ how it sounds, the better you can do your job; and then comes a lot of work and craftsmanship. It reminds me Michelangelo’s thoughts about freeing the forms that were already in the stone by chipping away all that was not a part of the statue. However, some people see this fact from a lower level of perception and believe the musical ideas exist only in the composer’s mind; and even if they rightly assume that the score is not the work (I think we could call a score ‘the instructions’ for performing a musical composition), they agree that the work exists when you transform it into sound: from their point of view, each musical work is recreated during a performance. Other people think that, even if we could agree that each performance is a recreation, from a deeper point of view, the composer creates the work once and forever; and from an even deeper point of view, the musical work is actually a pre-existent idea: I personally find the latter a more convincing statement.
Another aspect of my works relies in the balance I try to seek between the technical and objective aspects on one hand and, on the other, the way the piece sounds; a balance between theory and practice, between thinking and feeling: by achieving this ‘union of the opposites’, like in an alchemical process, the piece should satisfy my own expectations; when I compose, I am my first listener. But despite embracing the variety of styles and inspirations I described earlier, I believe my works maintain, at the same time, a unity that lies beneath the ‘surface’, the ‘outer skin’ that, from my point of view, a musical style, in part, constitutes. And because the concept of ‘unity in variety’ (and variety in unity) has been always present in philosophical and artistic thinking through History, I often try to include it in my compositions. In them, unity can be found in deeper aspects (like musical discourse, coherency of the work and its musical events, the way these are connected, etc.) that are not necessarily linked to a particular tendency, since unity its inner by nature; it lies on an ontological level. I love languages, dialects and their local peculiarities; and there is no need to think of Leibniz for realizing that some of them –because of their grammatical characteristics– are capable of expressing certain concepts in a more faithful way than others and vice versa. When you can speak different languages, you can also decide which to use for each occasion, not only without changing the core of the message to be expressed but also doing it more faithfully. I think that in the same way a technique should not be a goal in itself but only a mean to achieve the latter, the message must transcend the language, going beyond the boundaries implicit in the aesthetics and techniques of every musical style. However, even if most people think Music is an ‘universal language’ (and some find analogies with Chomsky’s ‘universal grammar’), for others it’s not even a language (Wittgenstein, Langer, etc.). Nevertheless, I believe Music (and Art in general) is capable not only of carrying a message (whether this happens in a language-like way, in a symbol-way or by other means), but also of letting us, during certain occasions, behold the Absolute.
Concerning what I just said, I can’t help remembering some words by Ligeti on how Music can sometimes seem to come from the infinite like an audible moment of the immutable and eternal music of the spheres, and what –it is said– Karajan once told Michel Glotz: “It is music coming from another world, it is coming from eternity”; and speaking on my own behalf, I sometimes experience that, like in some sort of ‘union of the opposites’, the more the Music flows, the more the time stops. However, other people focus on this same process from a less deep level of perception, stating that Music is someway related to an ‘act of illusion’ done against the physical laws, due to the ephemeral nature of sound; for them, Music begins from nothing (silence) and ends in nothing (silence), an approach that –even if obviously exact from a merely acoustical point of view– disregards, for some thinkers, any metaphysical experience, even when claiming to do the opposite by stating that what gives Music a metaphysical characteristic is its capacity to create ‘an illusion’ of eternity within reality (and, thus, not its capacity of letting us actually contemplate the Absolute). On the contrary, I believe Music can momentarily take us from our ontological reality to another; Art can actually overcome reality, rip it and tear it, liberating us –in some way– from the ‘illusion’ in which we live: despite the contextual differences, this reminds me not only some Neo-Platonic approaches but also the Hinduism’s concept of Maya (illusion) and Kant’s definition of ‘phenomenon’ that some artists –it is said–intuited and expressed, for example, through Literature: “Ever drifting down the stream / Lingering in the golden gleam / Life, what is it but a dream?” (Lewis Carroll); “All that we see or seem / is but a dream within a dream” (Edgar Allan Poe); In his play ‘La vida es sueño’ (Life is a dream) –whose action takes place in Poland, by the way– Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) wrote: “¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí / ¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión, / una sombra, una ficción, / y el mayor bien es pequeño; / que toda la vida es sueño, / y los sueños, sueños son.” (What is life? A frenzy / What is life? An illusion, / a shadow, a fiction, / and the greatest good is small; / for all life is a dream, / and dreams, are dreams.)
What is your opinion about the development of Western music after the 2nd World War until now?
I believe that Culture is a manifestation of the same human spirit that can’t help being wounded by the horror and atrocities of war; and since I also think that a musical work reflects –consciously or not– a composer’s ‘inner world’, it’s clear to me that the devastating consequences of the 2nd World War left an indelible and clearly noticeable mark in the music composed by the generation of artists who witnessed the conflict. I think we could all agree that one of the aspects that characterizes Contemporary Music is the acceleration suffered by the ever-present emergence process of new aesthetic movements that, in only a few years, gave rise to a rapid proliferation of ‘isms’. And even if a reaction against previous times is found in almost every period of Music History (as so clearly manifested, for example, in Vitry’s / Wolf’s term ‘Ars Nova’, opposed to ‘Ars Antiqua’), such a big quantity of styles in such a short period of time was hardly found in the past. Another distinctive aspect of some Contemporary Music (and artistic disciplines in general) seems to be a change in the association that historically existed between Art and concepts like ‘kalokagathia’, ‘telos’, ‘transcendence’, ‘artistic service’ or ‘common good; and it’s not necessary for the general audience to be Husserlian , Platonic-Augustinian or Aristotelian-Thomistic for intuitively perceiving this fact that some people define as “crisis of meaning”.
The existence of what I like to call the ‘Fontana Paradox’ is other particularity of some contemporary artistic productions including Music; I named it after Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), the eminent Argentine visual artist who lived and worked in Italy and founded the ‘Movimento Spaziale’ (Spatialism) around 1947: today, his canvasses, sculptures, ceramics and other masterpieces are included in the permanent collections of hundreds of museums worldwide. For illustrating the paradox, let’s imagine this situation: an unaware observer of the sixteenth century contemplates for the first time a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Even without knowing who created that, it would have been probably clear for the observer that only a true master could have done such a work: for an untrained person, even to imitate such a painting properly would have been almost impossible. The same thing could probably have happened, for example, through the 1600s with a painting by Rembrandt, during the 1700s with a work of Goya and through the 19th century with a canvass, for instance, by Renoir. But now, let’s imagine another situation: an unaware observer of the twentieth century contemplates for the first time one the several works entitled ‘Concetto Spaziale – Attesa’ by Lucio Fontana: a canvass with a vertical cut. How could the unaware observer, without knowing beforehand who created that, distinguish the work of a true master like Fontana from that of an untrained person who could easily get a canvass and slash it too? There is, of course, a perfectly valid explanation of why this happens nowadays; but that doesn’t change the fact that it still happens.
Going back to Contemporary Music, it wouldn’t be difficult to find analogous situations to the one just described, especially because during some years what in the past was considered ‘The Art of…’ (Fugue, Counterpoint, Harmony, Form, etc.) became for many a kind of taboo, an imposed prohibition, due to logical and historically valid reasons normally unknown, however, to the general audience. Some people think that this apparent inversion and manipulation of values (that turned them from beneath) also opened the door to certain individuals who, taking advantage of this situation, started a sort of ‘revenge of the mediocres’ to hide their flaws, as impostors do, beneath the Art of the true contemporary masters. In the past, this would have been probably impossible to achieve since –despite the sometimes radical differences found between emerging new musical styles and previous ones– the most intrinsic values of Music had always remained untouched.
What is your view on Western music at present, the aesthetic aspect, the personal approach, the use of twelve tones, a necessity of a new tone system? Is there a crisis? Is there a future? How?
As for the “aesthetic aspect” and “personal approach”, I think that was already answered in response to your previous question; but regarding the use of twelve tones in a ‘purist’ way, it seems clear that today –despite the use we can still make of it– we should refer to the ‘Zwolftontechnik’ as a historical method of composition, since almost a century (if we consider the Präludium of Schönberg’s Piano Suite op.25 as the earliest 12-note serial piece) separate us from its emergence. However, just as by the end of the 1950s only a few composers were not influenced by the consequences of Serialism –the first ones being the application of the serial structure to non-pitch elements– it wouldn’t be difficult to find traces of serial approaches in many musical works of our times.
Your question regarding the “necessity of a new tone system” and about “a crisis” makes me think of some scholarly reflections about Rousseau’s ‘Sistême Musicale’ –often defined as a rational and self-contained arrangement of musical phenomena– and its associations with the term ‘tonality’. If a tone system implies a systematic organization of pitches and the relations that exist between them, we can assume that –despite some theoretical disagreements– Western musical tradition witnessed, until the 20th century, a period of modal music (before 1600), followed by one of tonal music (ca. 1600-1910) and then one of atonal music (after 1910). During the past century, most of the many ‘isms’ I mentioned when answering your previous question tried to find new structures even by incorporating, for example, non-Western elements (taken from Indian rāga, Indonesian gamelan music, Arabic maqām, etc.), most of them related to different tuning systems whose exploration (that also gave rise to specifically-designed musical instruments) has always existed throughout Classical Music History since Ancient Greece times, favouring the emergence, for instance, of microtonal elements in the works of composers born in the 19th century (like Ives, Bartók, Milhaud and Hába, among others), the appearance of concepts like Alexander John Ellis’ ‘cent’ (100 cents is equal to one equally tempered semitone), or the instrumental inventions achieved by Harry Partch and the California Group since the 1930s. And if we define crisis (in Greek it literally means ‘decision’) like “an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending” (‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary’) we have to admit that just as we contemplated how the so called ‘dissolution of traditional tonal functions’ arose in the early years of the past century, we also noticed the emergence –only some decades later– of tendencies that have been called ‘New tonality’, ‘New Simplicity’ and ‘Neoromanticism’, which in most cases imply a return to quasi-tonal progressions, predictable metric pulses and former aesthetics.
Therefore, when you ask me about “a future” and “how”, considering what I just mentioned, it seems clear that each time it was said: “Everything is exhausted; what else could come next?” something new appeared; but it also was said: “Nothing is new under the sun. Even the thing of which we say, ‘See, this is new!’ has already existed in the ages that preceded us.” (Ecclesiastes). Thus, I can’t help remembering what George Crumb wrote in his article entitled ‘Music: Does it Have a Future?’: “music can never cease evolving; it will continually re-invent the world in its own terms” and I also can’t help thinking of Giambattista Vico’s ‘spiral’, related to his concept of ‘ideal eternal history’; I really believe in Providence: from my point of view, there will be always a future –also for Music– until the End of Time.
What do the terms 'new' and 'experimental' mean to you in connection to contemporary music?
According to the cultural context, a word that may seem easy to translate from one language to another can have a complete different meaning in each of them despite the identical or similar spelling and common etymology: in Italian, the musical term ‘battùta’ means ‘measure’ whereas in Spanish and Polish the word ‘batuta’ refers to a conductor’s ‘baton’ (and in Spain, by the way, a ‘batón’ is a long type of robe). But since this play of words could go on, we may ask ourselves: can these potential ambiguities might be increased when the terms ‘new’ and ‘experimental’ are applied to Music, being both of them common adjectives instead of musical neologisms? Nevertheless, even if we agreed that in this case most translations would be accurate, it would be also difficult to deny how new and experimental was Mozart’s Music for the European audiences of the 18th century even if now we refer to it using the term ‘classical’ in a double sense: because of its belonging to what we call Classical Music and, within that category, for the reason that it also belongs to the so called ‘Classical Period / School / Style’. And what about Beethoven’s innovations in the fields of Harmony, Orchestration or Form, among others? Weren’t his innovations new and experimental? Going back to languages, just as in the case of using the term ‘classical’ to refer to the Music written by Mozart and other composers of his time, so the use of the word ‘neue’ (new) for designating most of the Music belonging to the 20th and 21st centuries appears to have arisen among German writers (like Paul Bekker and others), in whose production we also find the adjectives ‘moderne’, ‘zeitgenössische’ (contemporary), ‘gegenwart’ (current), ‘avantgarde’ and ‘experimentelle’, a word associated with “the redefining of the boundaries of a given art form” (David Cope’s definition of ‘Experimentalism’) and often related to the exploration of the so called ‘extended techniques’ characteristic of the 1960s and 1970s that lead us back to your question: if the ‘avant-garde’ is defined as ‘an intelligentsia that develops new or experimental concepts especially in the arts’ (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary), which period of Classical Music lacked it, then?
What are your ambitions for the future?
I would like to be able to keep on composing and conducting, and live from this beautiful profession and way of life that Music is for me.
What would you like to tell composers of contemporary music, or the music world in general?
I love to talk and share my thoughts with others; but in this case, rather than doing that, I think I should let my work speak for itself. Everyone is invited to hear!
Interview Heerlen - Buenos Aires by Frans Waltmans.