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Composer Portraits: Felipe Lara

Felipe Lara hadn’t always set out to be a composer. He got his start in music around the age of 12, when he began learning how to play acoustic guitar. At the time, he was living in São Paulo, Brazil, and soaking up the sounds of bossa nova and Brazilian sambas. As he played, he learned more and more about Brazilian instrumental music through artists like multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, which also led him to jazz and improvisation. Later on, he picked up electric guitar and started to play in rock bands, eventually moving to Boston to study jazz at Berklee College of Music.

Photo by Celeste Sloman for Miller Theatre    

But things changed when a friend invited him to a concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall.

It was an open rehearsal of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. Lara remembers conductor Seiji Ozawa leading the orchestra by memory. He was struck by the vivid colors of Messiaen’s music and by its scale—there were Ondes Martenot soloists and piano and a bevy of different rhythms. “I just could not believe music could be that,” Lara says. “He is absolutely French, but there was something very cosmopolitan and multiple about his use of Indian talas and his adaptation of the Catholic tradition. There were these microcosms that he had around his music that were just so incredibly unique.”

That same week, he bought an orchestration book, borrowed some manuscript paper from his roommate, and started learning about composition. He switched his major and then went on to earn a master’s degree in composition at Tufts University and a PhD in composition at New York University.

"We can use instruments to explore the world of noise and just explode the palette of sound beyond just pitch sounds and the realm of classical sounding things.” —Felipe Lara

Today, Lara’s compositions often explore the unknown. “We can use instruments to explore the world of noise and just explode the palette of sound beyond just pitch sounds and the realm of classical sounding things,” he says. He takes his time learning about instruments before he composes for them, listening to old repertoire and new repertoire to figure out what sounds haven’t been uncovered yet. His pieces are composed over time—it’s always an ongoing conversation between himself, the people he works with, and the instrument. This Miller Theatre Composer Portrait presents two compositions that showcase two sides of his practice: Metafagote, which highlights seemingly every possible technique of the bassoon, and Chambered Spirals, which is a chamber ensemble piece that finds instruments morphing into surprising, unexpected sounds.

Each of Lara’s compositions weave together his multiplicity of influences, ranging from his early studies in rock and jazz to lessons with composers like French spectral composer Tristan Murail and German instrumental musique concrète composer Helmut Lachenmann. He has always been drawn to composers who put themselves into their music by taking ideas from the many sounds and styles that excite them rather than trying to fit into any specific mold. “I want to see that they are very free through their style, and then I can get to know them better through their music, and certainly that’s what I try to do in my own repertoire,” he says.

In New York, Lara also started getting to know many artists and ensembles who were interested in collaborating with him. “I had opportunities to write for all of these new music ensembles who were absolutely fearless,” he says. He was president of New York University’s student composer collective, which allowed him to start bringing in ensembles and artists like the Arditti Quartet and  flutist Claire Chase and clarinetist Josh Rubin, who are two of the founders of International Contemporary Ensemble. He wrote a couple pieces for Chase and Rubin, which marked the beginning of his long, fruitful collaboration with the ensemble.

“Essentially, it was like now I can do whatever I want with my music and there are people here who are committed and are able and excited to do this music, so I’m gonna let it all fly and put down the handbrake and literally let the music go where it should go,” Lara says.

Many of Lara’s pieces are often developed in tangent with a soloist or ensemble. He works closely with performers to find the middle ground between the players’ techniques and the overarching sound he’s looking to create. Sometimes it takes a year or more of back and forth to develop a piece. “I think an ideal collaboration is one that neither me—the composer—or the performer are the same after. We’ve been through some kind of a journey together,” he says.

"Lara’s music often features proportional relationships between small rhythms and larger phrases, which form layers of sounds that snap together like puzzle pieces or zig zag like mazes.

Before writing a solo, Lara sits down with a musician and has a conversation, learning what they’re interested in. He also learns everything there is to know about the instrument he’s writing for, reading about every basic and obscure technique he can find. By the end, he’s discovered almost everything there is to know about the instrument—this is especially rewarding when he writes for instruments he doesn’t always hear, or hasn’t written for before, like the bassoon and the trombone. When he writes for ensembles, he likes to make each instrument sound like something you might not expect: “How can the fly and the elephant be confused?” he wonders.

Within his pieces, there are small moments to latch onto and larger phrases to zoom out on. Lara’s music often features proportional relationships between small rhythms and larger phrases, which form layers of sounds that snap together like puzzle pieces or zig zag like mazes. When talking about his compositions, he always circles back to the idea of forming a labyrinth made of both meticulous details and large swaths of sound. There are many pathways to travel within each of his pieces, offering a multiplicity of listener experiences in addition to his multiplicity of stylistic influences.

At the heart of Lara’s music, though, are the ideals of collaboration and exploration. It’s about trusting each other to make complex music that pushes the boundaries of instruments. And it’s about doing that together. “Composing can be very solitary at times, but really, the joy of music only happens when we have each other—the performers, the presenters and ultimately, the audience.” he says.

Metafagote (2015)

Lara met bassoonist Rebekah Heller while on a tour with the International Contemporary Ensemble in Brazil, which he had helped organize. Heller had known his music for a while and wanted to work with him on a piece. At first, Lara was uncertain about how to write for the instrument. Lara says, “For me, the bassoon is this dragon who just wanted to be unleashed. And what I wanted to do is to just let the bassoon be who he wanted to be. I’m still shocked at how amazing this instrument is…the feeling of discovering an instrument and what [it] really can do is just really, really exciting to me.”

He and Heller worked together to explore the extended possibilities of the bassoon. The piece they came up with became Metafagote. “It was really fun for me because almost all of the things that I showed him about, the techniques that are very unique to the bassoon sound-wise and technique-wise, made their way in. I use this piece when I’m working with composers to demonstrate all of the different techniques that you can do on the bassoon,” Heller says.

Written for seven spatialized bassoons, the piece is constructed such that a soloist plays a fast-paced, demanding melody and six bassoons echo those rhythms. Heller originally presented the piece as part of her 2017 album, Metafagote, and it’s had a life of its own across the country since.

For tonight’s concert, Heller will perform the work from memory for the first time and using an electronic recording of the six other bassoon parts that are dispersed across the room using a French software program called Spat. She will wear a custom-designed outfit she commissioned from Jenny Lai of Not Align, a brand that makes fashionable clothing designed for musicians’ comfort when performing. The outfit is structural and enveloping to match the sound and feel of the piece.

Chambered Spirals (2020)

Lara was named an awardee of the 2020 Johns Hopkins Catalyst Awards, which supported his composition of Chambered Spirals, a 30-minute work for large mixed chamber ensemble. The work is the first he wrote during the COVID-19 pandemic and it represents a feeling of trying to expand outward but getting stuck along the way. “It’s an introspective piece, for me, that tries to get extroverted and never quite gets there. There’s a lot of things that come out from inside and try to reach outwards, sometimes never quite making that happen,” Lara says. These spirals manifest in undulating bursts, starting from distant plinks that come from inside the piano and spiraling outwards to include the whole chamber ensemble.

—Notes by Vanessa Ague

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