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Conversation with alcides lanza, Argentinian-Canadian Composer

Parallel developments at the Instituto Torcuato di Tella and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center

This text is based on several conversations with alcides lanza between 10–13 August 2005, and continuing on 21 October 2005. Originally published at the EMF Institute.

alcides lanza came to the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City from Argentina, as a Guggenheim Fellow in 1965. After several years in New York, he joined the faculty at McGill University in Montréal, where he directed the Electronic Music Studio for nearly three decades.

Early Years in Buenos Aires

When I was seventeen, I played the piano and received an excellent musical training at a private school. Many of my friends studied music or were poets and writers. I went to Buenos Aires where I continued to study privately with excellent teachers who had emigrated from Spain during the Spanish Civil War and after World War II.

Argentina was a politically difficult place. I decided early on to be apolitical. I felt that all governments were bad. But around 1948, I got into trouble with the government. I was asked by friends on the political left to give a piano recital to raise scholarship money relating to an international peace gathering that was to take place in Russia, if I remember correctly. A few weeks after the concert, I was questioned by two police detectives. After asking me about the concert program, which included music by Mozart, they demanded phone numbers of a long list of friends suspected of being Communists. I lied, but they let me go. My uncle Velmiro Ayala Gaune — who raised me like a second father and sponsored all my early artistic endeavours — was upset that I got in trouble and it became a family scandal. The same two police detectives who interrogated me were later arrested for murdering a well known doctor who had disappeared. And so, we composers used to dream of how to get out of Argentina. In the late 1950s in Argentina there were few resources, no money and often tyrannical governments. I used to say that my country will not straighten itself out enough to let me grow and live as a composer during my lifetime, hence I must try to leave. After 12 years of Peronism, there was democracy, but we wanted to leave.

We used to go for coffee with Mario Davidovsky in Buenos Aires during the early 1960s. This was before he received his Guggenheim to work at Columbia-Princeton, but continued later when he visited, when he advised me on next steps. I had been intrigued by musique concrète that I had heard on recordings, radio and by attending a concert or two. I had inexpensive tape recorders, including an Italian Geloso and a Grundig mono 3-speed half-track, on which I completed one tape piece, the tape part for Armando Krieger’s Contrastes, for two pianos and tape.

I applied for a Guggenheim around 1961 and received a negative response. A year later I was turned down again, but then Aaron Copland came to Argentina. Alberto Ginastera invited me to meet and play my music for Copland and he liked it. He asked me whether I have requested a Guggenheim. I told him: “Well yes, maestro Copland, twice I did, but the response was always negative.” And then he said, “Apply again. Feel free to put my name as a reference.” So I did and bingo, I got it. Later on I learned how important his word was. I wanted to go to New York because I was looking north for inspiration, to John Cage, Harry Partch, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives. I felt very strongly at the time that European music did not interest me.

Instituto Torcuato di Tella and Columbia-Princeton

As I was considering what to do, I received a two-year fellowship to study at CLAEM at the Instituto Torcuato di Tella, the Latin American Center for Advanced Musical Studies in Buenos Aires. This was in 1963, the first year of its music program and I was among the first group of twelve who received a diploma. Among them were Mesías Maiguashca from Ecuador and César Bolaños from Peru. Our teachers were Olivier Messiaen, Luigi Dallapiccola, Bruno Maderna, Riccardo Malipiero, and founder and director Alberto Ginastera. In March 1964, Ginastera engaged Mario Davidovsky to teach electronic music for one month of lectures and individual meetings with students. His lectures and demos were based on sound sources such as oscillators, white noise, filtering, tape speed variation techniques, and all of the normal analogue tape tricks. During meetings over coffee, Davidovsky insisted that I go to Columbia-Princeton and study with Vladimir Ussachevsky. 1[1. See Bob Gluck’s “Interview with Mario Davidovsky” for more on Davidovsky’s early years at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.] So I did.

alcides lanza
alcides lanza rehearsing plectros III [1971‑I] (with superball mallets) at the Goethe Institute in Buenos Aires. Photo © Fotesa 1973. [Click image to enlarge]

Ussachevsky became a real mentor to me. I learned a lot from him. I was in his class during the 1965–66 session, along with Charles Dodge, Jon Appleton and, if I remember correctly, George Flynn and Jacob Druckman. Ussachevsky was a magnet. The technical assistants included İlhan Mimaroğlu, who taught me the use of machinery, Pril Smiley and Alice Shields.

I quickly discovered that my musical interests were not in the æsthetic and technical mainstream of what was taking place at Columbia-Princeton. For instance, when I requested microphones, I was told that there was only one good mic and it was under lock and key, available only with a written request. This made recording music concrète source material really difficult. The push was for creating everything with electronic wave oscillators and to be pitch-conscious. And alcides wanted to create music that was microtonal and textural, and I wanted to do musique concrète and music theatre. In this environment of 12-tone and total serial music, I was a duck out of water. The only other people who I know were working with musique concrète at the time were İlhan Mimaroğlu and Vladimir Ussachevsky. But the works performed in concerts were serial compositions by Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen and other composers who remained pitch-conscious even in their electronic music.

After I arrived, more students from South America started coming to work at Columbia-Princeton and I became their teacher. After my second year, once I had gained fluency with the English language and my fellowship ended, Ussachevsky hired me to teach. For the next three years, I showed the Latin American composers and others how to use the machinery. Marlos Nobre from Brazil, Edgar Valcárcel from Peru, Manuel Enríquez and Héctor Quintanar from Mexico were all my students. Works by international composers were not often programmed in the regular Columbia concerts. And so, we created our own performance ensemble and performed in student-run settings. These included the Columbia Composers Group and the Composers’ Group for International Performance. Before I left New York, we also created the Composers / Performers Group (C/PG), which showcased music by American and Latin American composers in concerts, television and radio presentations and on two or three recordings.

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