“Self-fiction, ¿a disjunctive music?”:

An Interview with Juan Pablo Carreño

ICElab | November 21, 2011

>>> l'article dans le site de ICE

Colombian composer and 2012 ICElab collaborator Juan Pablo Carreño is quickly emerging as a prodigious and dynamic voice from a region rich in cultural traditions. His varied work explores the intersections between art, politics, latin-american identity, and different cultural heritages, drawing on both the violence and the cultural vivacity of his home country. He has studied composition at Javeriana University in Bogotá and at the Paris Conservatoire, where he was recently awarded first prize in composition. His work has been performed by several leading European ensembles, and featured at the Festival Musique sur Ciel.

Check out this interview with Juan Pablo, in which he discusses, among other things, the concept of “disjunctive music”, how the places in which he has lived and worked have inspired his music, and what it means to be a composer in today's world:


You have studied composition in Colombia, France, and the USA. Do you feel like all of these places have become home to you? Do you often return to Columbia or desire to?

Bogotá, Miami and Paris have been very important places for me. In those three cities I found Latinity to be inseparable from a certain conception of creation. In Miami I joined a Latin-American community, which I also found in France, another Latin country like Colombia, where that community is characterized by a moral and political commitment marked by difficult experiences in our countries of origin.

In Bogota, it was the city's cultural wealth and my contact with Guillermo Gaviria -- composer, founder of the music school at Javeriana University and reformer of the country’s musical system – which opened my eyes to the world of contemporary creation. There I found the essential elements to begin the search for an artistic identity: a city that showed me a dynamic world of music of oral and written traditions, theater... and its openness and creative enthusiasm was essential for the beginning of my musical life.

I traveled to Miami after finishing my studies in Bogotá to do a master in composition, with a scholarship from Florida International University. It was there that I first experienced the role of teaching composition in a university, and it was there that I met a group of performers whom I worked with during those two years to put together a considerable number of concerts. Miami is the heart of Latin American popular music in the United States, but contemporary music does not have the same impact there as it does in New York, Bogota and Paris. According to one of my professors in Miami, contemporary music is a kind of sleeping giant waiting to be awakened there. Today, some initiatives that were essential to me at that time stand out: the Miami ISCM Festival organized by Orlando Jacinto García, Gustavo Matamoro’s Subtropics festival, the New World Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tilson Thomas, The Florida Grand Opera…

I would like to return to Colombia later, in a few years, to settle permanently.

Juan Pablo, you live in France; how does a Colombian composer living in Paris face the concept of modernity today? How do you think contemporary music, including your own music, fits into musical history?

I believe in history as a proof of who I am, and I will always be in search of my history. This is the fate of every Colombian.

The twentieth century showed how some movements that changed the face of musical creation in Europe could quickly end up becoming musical certainties. Italian Futurism of the early twentieth century today has thousands of manifestations through the idea of noise music, Schoenberg's twelve-tone expressionism in the 20s evolved into the serialism of the Second Viennese School, the Fluxus movement around John Cage, the decoding of timbre through the use of new technologies in the 70s and 80s that gave rise to spectral music, Lachenmann’s musique concrète instrumentale...

In the world of contemporary art, it seems that an artist's virtuosity is measured by the way he or she is able to develop an artistic identity from a musical certainty or a certain idea of modernity.

But what does the modernity of today’s generation mean for a young creator of this generation? Is there only one contemporary music?

Is it possible to want to be part of musical history, even when you cannot avoid feeling a sort of suffocation when in contact with what we call in Paris or Bogota contemporary music, its doctrines and cultural subtexts?

What do you think it means to be a composer in today’s world?

An artist must pursue his personal ideal.

Perhaps the traces of the Latin American cultural world are evident in my music, as I believe it is my desire to transmute into an artistic work, the energy, force, and intensity of several traditional Latin American musics that generally have a different function from concert hall music. Similarly, the intense political experience of the late twentieth century in the Southern-American hemisphere has deeply marked the creators of my generation. That, in addition to the formal and acoustic sciences of  so-called contemporary music and some varieties of popular music, are the elements that might, for a composer like myself, help establish a creative process.

The creator is the filter through which all these elements become an artistic work.

You are committed to broadcasting Latin American Contemporary Music. Has this desire grown stronger the more you travel around the world?

An artist is often in pursuit of his own artistic identity, and a Latin American individual cannot produce a creative project without going in search of his history. The geographic diversity that characterizes today's world of musical creation makes it essential for an artist to have a deep knowledge of the cultural and political history of his country of origin.

For a Colombian there is no culture without history.

I do not think that there is only one way to disseminate Latin American music: the reconstruction of a historical patrimony and the dissemination of young composers’ music are two different means. I am a Latin American composer sensitive to the issue of non-historical memory, tied to my origins and to my Latin American identity. I’ve lived the experience of participating in a project to disseminate the classical musical heritage of my country with Daniel Leguizamon through the publishing house Matiz Rangel editores, César Leal with the LACNM in Miami, and Le Balcon in Paris.

In the twenty-first century, the encounter of different cultures in no longer filtered through the exoticism of the twentieth century. Today, it is not unusual to find concerts in Europe such as those that Le Balcon does in Paris (Silvestre Revueltas & Gérard Grisey, Morton Feldman & Jacqueline Nova...), or ICE in the U.S. (Julio Estrada & Iannis Xenakis...). The Belgian festival Ars Musica opens this year with the Liège Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which will play among "other more contemporary works," La noche de los Mayas by Revueltas, for example.

There is a strong presence of music by Latin American composers in the European creative world.

Another essential means is that of musical education. In the case of young composers, musical education should be linked to a concrete musical practice that must translate into a real experience with their music in an interactive environment, to facilitate the development of their creative aptitudes.

You co-founded Le Balcon, an acclaimed Parisian ensemble dedicated to the interpretation of music through the amplification of acoustic instruments. What role does amplification play in the ensemble?

The Paris Conservatory was the beginning of a “generational phenomenon” to which I contributed: the ensemble Le Balcon, dedicated to interpretation through amplification of acoustic instruments. It was there that I met a generation of performers and composers, full of ideas, and ready to create new musical landmarks. This ensemble has already proved itself in Paris, by both “setting in space” opera scenes by Karlheinz Stockhausen and by redefining the concert by applying a sound device to classical repertoire and also new works commissioned from young composers.

In this determination to perceive musical heritage through the media of loud speakers, I see a modern sensibility that bridges the gap between divergent styles that, even today, remain extremely compartmentalized: classical music, contemporary music, radiophonic art, punk, noise music, all popular music... This generation knows all about timbre, all about new technologies and is trained to the highest standards of instrumental virtuosity. This is a generation that does not close its ears to the cultures of its time.

The original idea of Le Balcon consisted of masking the acoustic source with the sound of the speakers. In that way, the audience attends a show where the result is subject to the virtuosity of the sound engineer and the color of the electronic media. In my work for amplified instruments, I have worked on unfolding the sound phenomenon, to highlight a situation of confrontation between two sound universes. That is part of what I call a "disjunctive music ".

Explain what you mean when you refer to “disjunctive music”?

In some of my works, there is a disjunctive relationship between different sonorous planes, related to what I call the unfolding of the sound phenomenon through amplification and the movement of the different sonorous planes of a musical action.

All that confronted with a constant electronic mass, will be, with the amplification, the focus of my ICE project.

In my works, that disjunctive relation is not exclusive, it seeks a confrontation between a musical object that unfolds and its transformed image as a form of self-discovery, and the cohabitation in parallel of that experience with another music in another sonorous plane: the exercise of self-discovery is lived out in a world where silence is not possible.

Is that confrontation, that unfolding, part of an artistic and political experience? Is that what you have also called “self-fiction” in music?

That unfolding is linked to the amplification, and in my music the amplification works in different ways. In my piece Golpe en el diafragma, I deformed the instrumental ensemble by redefining the orchestral and dynamic balance through amplification and filtering only a few instruments of the ensemble. In a microphone, the diaphragm is the membrane that converts the acoustic wave into an electrical signal. That deformed ensemble – created by installing amplified and non-amplified acoustic instruments on the same sonorous plane, without transforming or processing the acoustic source -- that concept of "hybrid ensemble" was my first punch in the belly of Le Balcon (ensemble dedicated to interpretation with amplified instruments), in its membrane.

Golpe en el diafragma would help me reflect on the path to follow in order to conceive Punto muerto, my latest instrumental work for amplified ensemble (excerpt provided below). In Punto muerto the point of tension is precisely the opposition between an acoustic source and its amplified double.

Punto muerto is a work that invites reflection on the impossibility of listening, the transmission of a message. If you are between the face and the mask, where is the face? Where is the mask...?

In that work, I suggest an unfolding of the music to enhance a situation that is both political and artistic, the confrontation between two sound universes. I place the audience in a “neutral point” (in Spanish “punto muerto”) between these two worlds: a character and that character distorted, disguised as himself.

It is through that artifice, just to give an example, that in Jean Genet's books, some characters self-discovered, became creators, and even in some cases (such as Les Nègres and Les Bonnes) get to reach  the goal of criminal action.

The concept of self-fiction is something I've worked on primarily in pieces such as Ronde autour d'une machine à sous (excerpt provided below) and Madre tierra. Self-fiction is part of my desire to find in my origins the necessary elements for the construction of a work. I try to find myself, I reinvent myself and I build myself as fiction in my work. This concept of self-fiction, my self, my story turned into artistic fiction, is inspired by some Colombian contemporary literature, and is also the concept which allows me to translate a political experience into purely artistic language.

Back to Le Balcon, what kind of audiences does it attract?

It is a diverse audience, which is not exclusively composed of people related to the milieu of musical creation. For many people, Le Balcon is a kind of Parisian contemporary music rock band. It has youthful energy, multicultural strength, modern sensibility, and both historical memory and commitment to the music of its time...

We have worked with great composers like Pierre Boulez and Michael Levinas, and done Parisian premieres of new French versions of Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schönberg and Words and Music by Morton Feldman. The repertoire of Le Balcon includes everything from extracts of Stockhausen’s operas to the Homenaje a Federico Garcia Lorca by Silvestre Revueltas, which we have played in the opening concert of our 2011-2012 season, along with Vortex temporum by Gérard Grisey, and a work by a young Russian composer.

Le Balcon has done concerts in Paris dedicated to the work of composers from El Salvador, Colombia, New York, Canada, Romania...

Le Balcon is an ensemble that represents our generation and its time.

We look forward to your arrival at the ICEhaus. What do you look forward to about working with ICE? How will ICE help you explore new directions in your work?

ICE will give me all the necessary elements for the realization of this project: the best musicians in the United States and charisma. This ensemble is the strength of my generation; it owns the electronic media needed to develop a musical project like mine, and will do a series of concerts with my music that will allow me to build a true artistic relationship with them, and all this in New York, a city rich in culture...


Special thanks to Annelies Frybergen, who kindly assisted Juan Pablo in the english translation of this interview.

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