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Touching Sound, Like a Sculpture

Conversation with Peruvian composer Edgar Valcárcel

This text is based on a conversation with Edgar Valcárcel that took place on 5 October 2006. Originally published at the EMF Institute.

Edgar Valcárcel (1932–2010) was was a prominent Peruvian composer of instrumental music. On two occasions, 1966 and 1967–68, he spent time composing works for instruments and tape at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Each visit was funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship. Circumstances in Peru made it impossible to continue to work in electronic music after his return home.

I first heard of electronic music when I was at CLAEM (Centro Latinamericano de Altos Estudio Musicales, Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, the Latin American Center For Advanced Music Studies, in Buenos Aires), studying with Alberto Ginastera in 1963–64. I knew from Ginastera that they had opened a new studio. My friend from Peru, Caesar Bolanos, composed there. But I didn’t have time to learn about it, since I needed to return to my country shortly after it opened. My first exposure was at Columbia, in 1966.

It was alcides lanza and my friend from Peru, Enrique Pinilla, who told me about the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. I met alcides in 1963 in Buenos Aires, when I was studying with Ginastera. 1[1. See Bob Gluck’s “Conversation with alcides lanza,” also published in this issue of eContact!] We were at CLAEM at the same time. He was one of my best friends; like many South American composers, we are friends and we respect each other highly. My time at Columbia-Princeton was funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship. I first applied for the fellowship in 1959, then again in 1960 and then several more times during the following five years before finally receiving it in 1966. I received a second Guggenheim in 1968.

I met Vladimir Ussachevsky and Milton Babbitt during my first visit to Columbia-Princeton, in 1966. Before arriving, I did not even have a tape recorder. Even that was a new idea to me; like the discovery of a new world. The sounds were new, the approach to cutting tape, combining sounds… The sounds had a very material quality. You can touch the sounds — that’s the marvellous thing. Like a sculpture.

On both visits, alcides was my instructor. Although Ussachevsky was the main teacher at the time and Mario Davidovsky was my friend, I did not have any experiences at the Center with them 2[2. Bob Gluck’s “Interview with Mario Davidovsky” is also published in this issue of eContact!]. I used to tell alcides: “alcides, you are like my father.” He was very kind, he was marvellous. He showed me how to do everything. He was very patient. Learning and working in the studio was really a pleasure. I found it easy to learn and I had the experience of continual new discovery.

Enrique Pinilla and I studied together with alcides. Enrique was a marvellous man. Unfortunately, he died in 1986. There is something important to know about his life: when he was living in Lima, he was creating happenings at his house as early as 1929–30! He was not only a musician, but a writer, poet and play write. We were together all of the time when we were in New York City.

I composed with instruments and tape because I belong to the instrumental tradition. Thus, I like to combine the two. I did this twice at Columbia-Princeton: in 1967, Cantos Chora por Tupak Amaru for chorus and tape, and in 1968, Zampona Sonica (panpipe) for flute and electronic sounds, which I completed in 1976. I also composed one work for tape alone, Invención para sonidos electrónicos, in 1967. Years later, in 1983, while visiting McGill University, where alcides lanza taught, I composed Flor Sancayo, for piano and electronic sounds. The title means “Little Flower Growing in the Mountains.” I was born in the mountains, by the shores of Lake Titicaca, in an area where you can find little flowers. alcides was the pianist for the performance.

After my second year in New York, I returned to Peru. Peru had, and still has many problems, social, economic and cultural. It is truly an under-developed country. While we now have a small studio at the National Conservatory of Music, when I returned to the country in 1969, I experienced absolute isolation. I kept my musical ideas largely to myself. I made the decision to remain in my country and I have spent the past fifty years trying to survive as a composer. It is not easy, nor is it easier now. It will not be so for many years to come. A few months ago, I experienced something like a miracle. My electronic music was finally played here at a concert in Lima; I am now 73 years old.

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