Explore Program Notes

Download PDF

Julio Estrada

  Julio Estrada was born in Mexico City in 1943 to parents who had emigrated from Spain two years before. He studied composition with Julián Orbón at the National Conservatory, and in 1965 went to Paris for four years on a French government scholarship. While there, he studied with Nadia Boulanger, Olivier Messiaen, Iannis Xenakis, and, in Cologne, Karlheinz Stockhausen. He returned to Mexico City having absorbed the principle of composition as research, exploring theories having to do with sound, time, and form. What excited him particularly, and proved fruitful for his creative as well as theoretical work, was Stockhausen’s view of pitch and rhythm as linked phenomena, produced by different speeds of vibration, and Xenakis’s use of mathematical models – though these he has employed as theoretical tools, opening up new possibilities, rather than directly in composing.

  Holding a post at the Instituto de Invetigaciones Estéticas of the Mexican national university from 1974, he worked on the implications of these ideas through the remainder of the decade in a series of Cantos, the biggest being Canto naciente for brass, E. 12 in his own catalogue of his works. In the 1980s he extended his interests in two further diections, seeking out new sonorities (especially on string instruments, as in his classic string quartet ishini’ioni) and tracking traces of pre-Columbian music, whether in written records or in surviving traditions (hence his drawing on Amerindian languages in his titles). Meanwhile, he became aware of a heritage of modern music from within Mexico, notably in the work of Julián Carrillo on microtonal intervals and Conlon Nancarrow on rhythmic structure. Both composers he perceives as creators of a musical continuum—Carrillo in the domain of pitch, if more in his theories than in his music, Nancarrow in that of rhythm. Much of his compositional activity from 1992 to 2006 was devoted to an opera after Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo; more recently, he has gone back to an early interest in improvisation.

  Through all his work, the notion of continuity has been paramount, whether among the fundamental elements of sound or between ancient times and the present. If his output also displays unusual diversity, that may be because continuous, too, has been his urge not to repeat.

  miqi’cihuatl for female voice, E. 20e (2004)

  Here the title is made up of two Nahuatl words, meaning “death” and “woman.” The piece is one of several Estrada has excerpted from his opera, giving us “the voice of the absent mother, heard by the imagination.” It is not a voice that stays with us for long. What we hear—protest? lament? warning? encouragement?—could be a brief intervention from an eternal world.

ni die saa for ensemble, E. 21f (2013), world premiere, Miller Theatre commission

  With no defined score, this work is the product of rehearsals that involved the musicians and the composer together. The title, in Zapotec, means “I do paint music.”

Canto naciente for brass octet, E. 12 (1975-78)

  This “nascent song” finds its nascence in the note A flat, intoned by three trumpets with different, changing dynamic profiles. As Estrada imagines it, the trumpets are at three of the corners of a cube, the other five being similarly occupied by brass instruments: two horns, two trombones, and a tuba. Done that way, with the audience within the cube, the effect would surely be spectacular, though the piece certainly packs a punch when the staging is more practical.

  At this point in his career, Estrada was preoccupied with pitch groupings—with intervals, harmonies, and scales in constant evolution, still within the system of twelve-semitone equal temperament. In the context of tonight’s program, Canto naciente will undoubtedly appear the most pitch-centric work, the closest to a traditional vocabulary of melody and harmony. At the same time, though, in its might and its elemental progress, it may also seem, as much as the less conservative works, to scan back to long-forgotten traditions. The nascent song is a lost song.

  Playing continuously for around twelve minutes, the piece moves through various phases. As the trumpets start to move away from their initial note, and as their colleagues join them, the piece begins to sound like a giant fugue, coalescing into a central section of slow, weighty harmonies. With a turn to repeating notes, in many different rhythms, the music becomes more vehement, before it settles back into its original scoring in the neighborhood of its original pitch, disappearing as a major third.

eolo’oolin for six percussionists in a pentagon, E. 17 (1980-84, rev. 1998)

  The composer has written about this work as follows:

“eolo’oolin, from the Greek for ‘wind’ and the Nahuatl for ‘movement,’ initiated a phase in my work to do with creating a notion of ‘macro-timbre,’ synthesizing rhythm, sonority, and spatial elements. The idea of continuity dominates the whole piece.

“The musicians find themselves distributed in a pentagon, with five at the apices and the sixth in the center, functioning as soloist and, in due course, conductor. The lines around the periphery, and the lines between each of those artists and the center, form a special network. The spatialization is two-dimensional and sometimes virtual, the score defining the speed at which each performer must move.

“The audience can be placed within the five triangles inside the pentagon and also outside this, in a circle broken by spaces for the musicians around the sides.

“Formally, the work is made up of several sections fixed by the sextet. Various interludes engage the musicians in competition, where they must show their skills in execution and rhythmic improvisation.

“eolo’oolin has the character of a collective dance, and, by virtue of inflections that are continuously present, of involuntary allusion to the music used in the social celebrations of indigenous peoples from almost throughout the Americas.

“The first part of the work, a third of the whole, was introduced by Les Percussions de Strasbourg at the Festival Musica in 1984. The premiere of the complete piece took place in 1998 at the closing of the international summer courses in Darmstadt. The work was commissioned by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes of Mexico in 1981, and first performed there thirty-two years later.”