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Interview with  alcides lanza

For the Canadian Music Centre’s Influences of Many Musics Project

Canadian-Argentinian composer, conductor and pianist alcides lanza (Rosario, Argentina, 1929) moved to New York in 1965, having received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and lived there from 1965 until 1971 where he worked at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. In 1971 he was appointed professor of composition at the Faculty of Music, McGill University in Montréal. Since 1974 he has been the director of the Electronic Music Studio at McGill. In 2002 he was named EMS Director Emeritus. lanza continues to have a very active international career as a pianist and conductor. His programs reflect his interest in the music of the three Americas. In 1987 and 1992 lanza performed Piano Marathons at Pollack Hall in Montréal; the latter featured lanza performing 48 different pieces for piano, electronics and film over five hours, uninterrupted. alcides lanza has done innumerable radio and television concerts, several LP recordings and compact discs, and has organized contemporary music forums and events. In June 2003, the Canada Council for the Arts designated alcides lanza as a Winner of the 2003 Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award, recognizing his career accomplishments as a composer.

A. Cultural Heritage

A.1 Describe the culture of your country of origin.

This is indeed a broad topic. Argentinians are considered to be a well-educated people: literacy is high, with a good portion of recent generations having access to good education. A good percentage of the population attends universities and colleges. Argentina has produced exceptionally good writers and poets [Borges, Lugones, Cortázar], celebrated painters and sculptors [Pettorucci, Gyula Kosice, Raul Soldi, Antonio Berni], and renowned composers like Luis Gianneo, Juan Carlos Paz and Alberto Ginastera.

Popular culture includes music and dances based on folklore, like zambas, el pericón, and the ever-popular tango. Theatre is very important, having had significant European influences from itinerant theatre groups and actors like the Spaniard Lola Membrives, or resident directors like the Polish writer and theatre director Witold Gombrowicz who lived and worked in Buenos Aires from 1938 to 1962. During those years many European writers, composers and artists went to Argentina sponsored by an underground group of sensible, decent citizens that included local artists, empresarios, managers and publishers of different backgrounds, religious beliefs and economic status, but all of them concerned with the havoc produced by the Spanish Civil War and WWII. Many celebrated artists [poets such as Rafael Alberti, musicians Julián Bautista, Guillermo Graetzer, Jacobo Ficher, Ruwin Erlich, Vicente Scaramuzza] and many lesser-known musicians, writers and artists resided in Argentina for extended periods of time. They brought their culture, and taught and helped form celebrated piano and violin schools, as well as helping to form many private artistic organizations. Their pupils are everywhere in the ranks of all Argentinian symphonic and chamber orchestras. World famous musicians like Martha Argerich, Bruno Gelber, Alberto Lisy, etc., were taught by them.

A.2 What is unique about your cultural heritage — instrumental forces, orchestration, melodies, harmony, texts, as well as geography, society, economics, and politics — as it relates to your music?

I can be considered perhaps a special case. During my early years of training in Buenos Aires, until I left for New York in 1965, I had convinced myself that my music had to have no folkloric or nationalistic elements [linking it to my country of origin]. I dreamt [and composed] music that I thought was music for urban centres, aimed at and stemming from large metropolis, in a sense, a music of international character, with no direct association with my own country. Early compositions like plectros I and trio-concertante [both from 1962], or the three very significant works I composed in New York during 1967 [interferences II, cuarteto V and eidesis II], belong to that group of international urban music. Those are important works in my catalogue and I am very proud of them. It is possible that an insightful researcher could find traces of tango in my ekphonesis II [1968], but the material is well-hidden.

If we speak of instrumental influences, I can only mention the bandoneón, typical of tango music. On this, more a bit later. As for orchestration, melodies, harmony, text — none of that if typical of argentinean music has influenced me. For example, text: with the exception of two very very early songs based on poems by Neruda [Angela Adónica and La Ahogada del Cielo], from 1963 on I wrote my own texts. First in English [when I did not know the language at all…], then in languages invented or “modulated” by me. As for geography, we can include my work La Isla de los Arrayanes [arrayán, from the Arabic ar-raihán — myrtle] , was written for the Toronto group Array. This work evokes a real place [an island in the famous lake Nahuel Huapi, in south-west Argentina], utilizing freely what I thought could be the musical line obtained by following the silhouette created by the tops of the trees in the celebrated bosque de arrayanes [the myrtle woods] contrasted with the varying, wavy bottom represented by the very dark waters of Lake Nahuel Huapi. Referring now to the impact of society, economics or politics, I do not believe that any of those has influenced me. I never lived in Argentina during the bad times [dictatorships, desaparecidos] hence, I preserve very nice, peaceful memories of the time when I was living there. However, I have titled a few pieces with the name arghanum. Besides the ancient meaning referring to a musical instrument actuated by bellows, I always thought that the start and ending of that word somehow had a connection with the argentinean “persona”.

And yes, the great Argentina of the past — that rich country that erected the Teatro Colón — eventually influenced me. This is because I worked at the Colón from 1959 until 1965. The contact with big opera productions, ballet, working and knowing international figures like Serge Lifar, Maria Tallchief, Claudio Arrau, Alicia de Larrocha, all that definitely, influenced me. Gave me a touch of the “theatre”…

Some of my percussion music has links with either Argentinean or Latin American elements. In this case the connexion is subliminal, and perhaps timbral or textural. The pieces are titled: maderas [woods], for marimba; metales [metals], for vibraphone; and the third one, parches [drum-skins, also dried skin]. In all three cases I made references to things from the earth, telluric.

B. Current Compositions

B.1 Do you consciously incorporate elements of your country of origin and/or cultural heritage into your music? If so, which elements? If not, why not?

I must refer here to an initial request from Canadian accordionist Joseph Petric, who around 1987 requested a new piece from me. Misinformed concerning the potential of his instrument, I said no at the time. However, Petric insisted, and this resulted in the composition arghanum. My thinking was: “Petric plays the accordion, an instrument activated by bellows, with buttons on both sides, hence, it is not a ‘piano-accordion.’” So, the accordion is similar to the bandoneón and… bandoneón is… tango. Voilá! … and I started using tango references in my music. Subsequently I wrote four other accordion pieces, all for Mr. Petric. On the other hand, I had incorporated already in my music other elements of my cultural heritage much earlier than the accordion pieces. The Trilogy, for example, has many references to personal things  — family and parts of Argentina — plus intense use of real or modified Spanish words and sentences.

B.2 How is your cultural heritage integrated into the piece of music you wish to feature in your “Composer Portrait?” How is it integrated into your music in general?

The composition included in this Composer Portrait is in reality a cycle comprised of three separate compositions. The overall title is Trilogy, and the individual parts are ekphonesis V [1979–I], penetrations VII [1972–III] and ekphonesis VI [1988–II], all three for actress-singer, electroacoustic music and electronic extensions. In ekphonesis V, the listener can find references of my grandmother — in a way the story-teller in the family — of her son, my uncle Velmiro, a poet and writer, who put the anecdoes told by my grandmother into series of short stories, quasi- fictional, published in a book called Cuentos Correntinos [Tales of the province of Corrientes]. ekphonesis V is an autobiographical composition. In the work I made innumerable subliminal references to events, monuments, neighborhoods and incidents from my childhood in the city where I was born. As the score explains: “ekphonesis V explores the library of memories, reflexions, thoughts, ideas… supposedly encountered if the soloist could ‘enter’ the brain of the composer.” One can also see in the score, precisely at 09:15, the tape part includes “tango glimpses”. This obscure quotation reappears shortly after, in a ring-modulated version.

B.3 Do you feel compelled to maintain or to transform your cultural heritage in your music?

Yes, particularly I need to transform this cultural heritage derived from tango. Intentionally, I have utilized that in the compositions for accordion: arghanum I [1986–II] for accordion and ensemble; arghanum V [1990–I], for accordion and tape; …como rocas al sol… [2002–V], for accordion and tape and “cantos” rodados… [2004–I], also for accordion and tape. As well, in a sort of lèger-de-main I mutated arghanum V into a piece for piano and tape. By destiny, once that was done, there was a need to once again mutate that piece: I made it into the third movement of a concerto for piano and orchestra. The tape part was not considered when writing this version, instead I composed an orchestral accompaniment to the solo piano part. Subsequently, utilizing similar thematic materials, I composed a second, then a first movement to conclude the work. It is titled piano concerto [1993–I], for [optional MIDI] piano and orchestra.

C. Musical Identity

C.1 Do you think your music identifies you as being from a particular cultural heritage?

Very definitely. I believe I identify — via my music — with that stream of the “fantastic”, the very imaginative writings of Borges and Cortázar, or — thinking of primitive cultures and percussion music — with the ancient magic of Ginastera’s Cantata for Magic America. Obviously, like Ginastera, I extend my Argentinean cultural heritage as part of the Latin American one.

C.2 Describe what you believe to be your musical identity.

Truly, I do not think it is possible to answer this question. In a very poor attempt at it, I can only say that I have always written “my” music, the music I imagine — usually all elaborated in my head — which I then transcribe directly in ink on transparent paper pages. In my youth I had completed six years of an extended high school, graduating as an Electronic Engineer, plus two more years of studying architecture. Those eight years of drafting and technical drawing are still present in all my scores. I believe that the unique visual aspect of my scores, using graphic notation, colors at times, and the avoidance of some typical or conventional notational symbols gives my music a very personal visual aspect. If the way my music sounds echoes the spacial, atmospheric, coloristic images depicted on the page, then I am satisfied. I do not know if the fact that I have also composed my texts, in imaginary or real languages, and my personal technique for the manipulation of text, also gives an aura of alcidianism to everything I do. Even my titles are “composed”, at times having hidden meanings or hints [aXions and aXenas, for example, are compositions written in hommage to Iannis Xenakis].

C.3 Which features of your country of origin and cultural heritage are distinctively associated with your musical identity?

Adding to what I have said above concerning arrayanes, tango and the fantastic stories written by my uncle Velmiro Ayala Gauna, perhaps there are some obsessive or recurrent themes: water, which I encountered aplenty when growing up in Rosario, by the Paraná River, or by the Rio de la Plata once I moved to Buenos Aires, plus the snow, ice and the dark waters of lake Nahuel Huapi, which I found in my repeated trips to Bariloche, near the Andes. As part of my cultural heritage — but on a more personal basis — books, references to libraries, “biblioteks” [as it appears in ekphonesis V], are all things that I grew up surrounded by. My parents, my uncles, they all had large personal libraries. My grandmother could barely read but she insisted that her children and grandchildren should all be educated well and read a lot. The “thematic ideas” of children, books, motherhood, memories, are constants in my work.

D. Impact and Influence

D.1 How has living in Canada shaped your composition? How has Canadian culture affected your work?

Canada gave me opportunities. I was able to teach at McGill, not only composition and electroacoustic music, but also special courses like the History of Latin American Music. I received many commissions by leading artists and ensembles thanks to the generous programs of the Canada Council for the Arts or personal commissions. My music is performed frequently in Canada and I am well represented on compact disc recordings. Canada put me in contact with Hugh Le Caine. For me, Le Caine was another Borges or Cortázar… except that his fiction and his “cronopios” were his polyphonic synthesizer, his Multi-Track and other fantastical machines. McGill University put the Faculty of Music Electronic Music Studio in my hands from 1974 on. These well-equipped studios also included a vast array of Le Caine’s inventions. I taught with them, and I learned a lot by doing so. The unique sonorities of those Le Caine machines play an important role in some of my compositions, plectros III for piano and electroacoustic sounds, or eidesis III, for orchestra [two conductors] and electroacoustic sounds. Other compositions, like in… /visible, for choir and tape, present another Canadian influence, perhaps related more with social issues.

We must mention also that in Québec, Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux, Bruce Mather (who recommended that I should come to McGill), Brian Cherney, and John Rea were among my best friends and colleagues in my new country. I encountered friendship and encouragement. My colleagues at McGill eagerly accepted my proposal for a festival of contemporary music in 1983. We did run those festivals yearly until 1991. Thanks to that, many premieres took place and many commissions to Canadian composers were done as part of them. I was also very fortunate that the field was ready, so to say, for the documentation of new music on compact disc recordings. We did some for McGill Records, including the first and so far the only digital recording of Alberto Ginastera’s monumental Cantata para América Mágica. The Double CD Tornado — done to mark the 35th anniversary of the Electronic Music Studio, with works by Anhalt, Pedersen, Pennycook among the Canadian composers, but also including Osvaldo Budón and Ricardo Pérez Miró, from Argentina, plus the Brazilian Frederico Richter. I am thankful for that. In Montréal I recognize its prevailing multilingualism as fascinating. In Montréal, we have the French and the English, but also there are large sectors of the populace representing other cultures and languages — Croatian, Hungarian, Jewish, Polish, Italian, plus a diversity of argots and entonations typical of the different Latin American inmigrants. This cosmopolitan and international feeling that you get in Montréal and Canada I value a lot, and is something that enters, leaves and reenters my music. All that may be happening as… the Canadian echo to the Argentine panoramas of water, snow and ice.

D.2 Do you think that your music has affected other composers in Canada, and if so, how?

It is difficult to answer that with any precision. Perhaps it is too soon to recognize trends or influences. Here and there I have seen work by former students of mine with touches of graphic notation, with special emphasis on using a plurality of languages or modified languages in vocal or choral works. Perhaps it is easier to say that my teaching of electroacoustics has found echoes in the works for tape [as we used to call it], for instruments and electroacoustics, and also the utilization of electronic modifications of instrumental or vocal music in real time, what now is called DSP or digital signal processing. Some Canadian composers have also explored “le Theatre musical”, so my extensive compositional output of works for musical theatre may have had some repercussions here and there.

D.3 How has your music changed since you came to Canada?

My music has matured a lot. I could even say that some naive attempts done early in my career [say my first plectros, for two pianos] having some graphism, trying to be theatrical, well, in Canada I have revisited some of those works and extended them in other directions. Hence, there are four other compositions titled plectros, each one pointing in a different direction. For example, plectros III [1971–I], for piano and electronics, was my first composition written in Canada. This work is 100% graphic, uses electronic extensions and is to be played in near total darkness [projecting the work into the theatrical]. With a tape part generated by Le Caine machinery, it is my first “Canadian” work. It has had an excellent career.

E. Education

E.1 What impact would you like to have on students who experience your music through your “Composer Portrait?”

If any young musicians, student composers or performers of new music, get to read through my Composer Portrait, I would be happy if a small percentage will be intrigued by it. Then, if looking more into my page, perhaps some will be attracted by the personal look of my scores, or by the beauty and strength of Meg Sheppard’s voice in Trilogy… others may read one of my articles or scan the posters and photos and from that, develop an interest for the promotion and performance of contemporary Canadian music. My ongoing interest in the music from Latin America may induce someone to also look for new repertory from areas of the world not often considered. I have produced and recorded a good number of compact discs in an effort to document via recordings the music from the Americas. It is an example which I hope will be followed. One significant achievement is the CD Tangos, with pianist Arminda Canteros. Probably the most succesful McGill Records CD (a best seller), performed with flaire, imagination, dexterity by Canteros, alcides lanza’s first piano teacher. To imagine that she taught me Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, etc., and for nearly thirty years I never knew that, as a youngster and at the start of her career… she had played tango… And, to conclude, what a legacy we have with that recording, uniting Argentina and Canada, produced by me and released by a Canadian university label.

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