Interview with Pedro Alvarez

Pedro Alvarez is a Perth-based composer active in contemporary art music, free improvisation, sound installation and collaborations with dance and video artists. I caught up with him last week to ask about his musical influences and current projects.

 When people think about Latin American composers the names of Hector Villa Lobos, Alberto Ginastera and Carlos Chavez come to mind. They were active around the first half of the 20th century, what other figures have emerged since then? 

 I don’t feel fully qualified to give an insight of music in Latin America because I have been away for many years. That said, Julio Estrada in Mexico has been an interesting figure for many decades. He was a student of Xenakis so his works depart from there, but he has achieved a very original approach of his own. Personally, though, geographical labels make little sense to me. Take Xenakis; born in Romania, identified himself as Greek and made his whole career as a composer based in France. Art is fluid and so are artists. I’m suspicious of strong nationalistic identities pervading an artists’ work. Haydn, Beethoven or Schumann are more present in my musical background than any composer who happened to be born in the same country or region as myself.

That is interesting, composers like Schuman and Beethoven wrote with a strong narrative sense, sometimes including extra musical or programmatic elements in their music. But your work seems to explore different aesthetics, with a focus on “static situations as objects of contemplation” and “music in a state of being rather than of becoming”. 

I like to think music not so much as a story that you tell but rather a window that you open, where the listener can have a glimpse outside, get fresh air and aromas, see the landscape, observe it and then move on. I remember a beautiful quote by writer Roberto Bolaño, who was asked in an interview “How would you like your readers to remember you?”, he responded: “Each person owns their own memories and I have no influence over them, but if anything, I would like to be remembered as someone who opened windows and doors, and then disappeared.”

Can you share any formative experience or influences in your decision to become a composer?

I never really decided to ‘become a composer’. I just wanted to make music, and after flirting with many instruments and engaging with different musical traditions for years, I found myself increasingly focused on music composition. As a teenager I was fascinated by the music of Sibelius, but also with Charlie Parker, Zakir Hussain or Camarón. Along the years I’ve happened to find in Western art music a fertile field, open enough to find new forms of sensing and thinking music. I’m more concerned with making music –be it composed or improvised– than with ‘being a composer.’

You have studied with Australian composer Liza Lim, one of the most well regarded figures in contemporary music. Can you tell us about that experience? 

Liza has been a hugely inspiring and supportive figure to me, and I was lucky that she supervised my PhD. I met her the first time I went to the Darmstadt summer courses, but I already knew and admired her work. I was living in London and was a regular at Elision Ensemble’s concerts back then, which fortunately happened quite often. The freshness of the music they presented, and the energy they conveyed on stage simply fascinated me; especially in Liza’s music, both daring and highly refined.

You did a PhD at the University of Huddersfield, which seems to be the centre of new music at the moment, what is the environment there like?

For some strange reason this town in northern England has attracted a lot of very interesting minds from around the world. The fact that Huddersfield hosts the biggest international New Music festival in the UK, the HCMF, is another contributing factor. It is also interesting how different generations of students have had different orientations in terms of aesthetic goals and what they are looking for in music. There’s no one “Huddersfield school” but a very interesting mix of different artistic personalities –both staff and students– that have converged there over recent years. 

Your piece “Etude Oblique I” got premiered at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. It is a very beautiful work with novel instrumental sonorities, I felt like I had no point of reference when listening to them...

This is a piece I wrote 10 years ago and for different reasons it never got premiered until a couple of weeks ago in this amazing festival that takes place in Bendigo. During these ten years I had the chance of making extensive revisions, not so much in the sounding result but in the way I notate the ideas. I tried to think about the string quartet as an open set of possibilities within which to build my own imaginary instruments. This allowed me to devise the form as a space to be explored rather than a narrative to be followed. I am fascinated by the idea of strangeness, odd forms, strange ways of organising sounds, the idea of musical forms that don’t quite work, as well as the metaphor of “space” for sound exploration. I have to be emphatic that in this case it is only a metaphor, because I am not too concerned with sound spatialisation. I mean space as a conceptual ground for imagining music, a field where to project our thoughts. 

You will be presenting a new piece as part of Tura’s Scale Variable series on November 2, what can you tell us about it?

It is a very exciting project organised by Dominik Karski and Dobromila Jaskot, which includes this new piece I’ve just written in collaboration with two incredible Perth musicians: double-bassist Joan Wright and percussionist Louise Devenish, both accomplished new music champions. We have had a few sessions exploring instrumental possibilities, which has been a great opportunity to revise my conception of these two instruments and re-think their possibilities in terms of the roles they can play in what I’m interested in constructing. This piece is called ‘Untitled on Earth’ and is dedicated to Liza Lim on the occasion of her 50th birthday. The concert will also include an older piece of mine, ‘De Mares Imaginados’ for solo flute, as well as music by Karski, Jaskot and Scelsi.

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