‘From culture to nature and back: a personal journey through the soundscapes of Colombia’ is an online essay where I reflect on my experience of the natural sounds, music and rituals of remote places and communities in Colombia. The article, with its accompanying recordings, has been published in Journal of Sonic Studies 19, an issue entirely devoted to the sounds of Latin America.
In the essay I celebrate the astonishing richness and diversity of Colombia’s natural and human soundscapes, and reconstruct the process through which they have influenced my own creative work as a composer. Reflecting on a long personal and intellectual journey of discovery that plays out on many levels – musical, anthropological, aesthetic – helps bring to the fore important questions on music composition as the locus of cultural appropriation and reinterpretation.
How far can the belief system of a distant culture travel before it loses its meaning? From a postcolonial perspective, can a European composer justify the use and repurposing of ideas, sounds and songs from marginalised indigenous communities? In trying to give an answer to these questions I keep unravelling layer upon layer of complexity, in a fascinating game of mirrors where my own identity as a “Western” composer starts crumbling away.
On the last day of February I was in Toronto, to take part in the performance of Julian Anderson’s Book of Hours with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Together with Andrew Staniland, currently composer in residence with the orchestra, we looked after the electronics of the piece. Everything went really well, and the work was enthusiastically received.
The conductor was Oliver Knussen, and the programme also included works by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Gary Kulesha and Simon Bainbridge, all present at the concert, and at the dinner afterwards, in a fancy Italian restaurant by the telling nome of Grano (wheat). Grano is much more than just a restaurant, it is a stage for the Toronto artistic and cultural scene, under the amiable supervision of the owner Roberto.
The concert programme was quite peculiar: apart from Gary Kulesha, who is Canadian, the conductor and the other three composers were British. They also had in common the same composition teacher, John Lambert. When Olly described the qualities of his teacher I was immediately reminded of my own composition teacher, Azio Corghi. Both Corghi and Lambert’s students have vastly different musical styles, and they have all been able to develop their own original voice. Far from promoting a school or a house style, Lambert and Corghi seem to have been more keen on perfecting their own type of musical maieutics. They help (or helped, in the case of Lambert, who died in 1995) the students to find their own voice, without trying to impose any aesthetic or artistic rule. It is not an easy way of teaching, because, in true Socratic spirit, it forces the teacher to look at things from the pupil’s perspective.
Gifted artists like them have devoted a great part of their life to teach the younger, limiting their own creative output in order to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. From them we learn a profound moral lesson, not just an artistic one.