Agustin Castilla-Avila on his music

Both facts that most of the music I conceive is while in movement and that I was born in the flamenco town of Jerez (Spain) make the pulse in my music very present. I describe my music as primitive, colorful, philosophical and poetic; it often tells a story.

Agustín Castilla-Avila, vice-president of the International Ekmelic Music Society (Austrian Microtonal Society), worked as a composer in Europe, Asia and the USA. His music was conducted by D. Russell-Davies, J. Kalitzke, T. Ceccherini, A. Soriano, H. Lintu and H. Schellenberger, among others. He has written solo and chamber music, orchestral, theater plays, choreographies and five chamber operas. He has published for Doblinger Verlag and Joachim Trekel. In 2013, he received the Music Price (Jahresstipendium) from the Region of Salzburg.

  1. Fascination about the string

My favorite moment in music history is the discovery of the musical quality of the string of a hunting bow during the Mesolithic (even if the first human beings did not understand right away that the magic of the music was already there). To understand my music better, I have to say that I think very often about this very important moment in music. It is for me one of most intimate and fascinating. Ever since, strings have gone quite far through a long evolution. In this evolution, involving the material and their tension, some elements have been left on the side (I refer mainly to string tension and small resonance bodies), which in my opinion, are as beautiful as many of the existing today and especially more intimate. As a reaction to this evolution, I enjoy (as a composer) imagining and bringing back some of those primitive sounds left behind through a wide range of string tensions; separating string and resonance body. I love sounds “without resonance body” produced sul tasto between left hand and upper nut. I enjoy using a single, separated, “parasite” string being amplified manually because of contact to an “external” resonance body. I am not of course against the evolution of the string instruments. I just need sometimes some of that intimacy back in my music. In “A story of a string” for cello and piano I tried to show in a poetic way, how a string works. In “Unfantasy Me” for string quartet, most of the notes are played “without the resonance body”. Some of them are prepared creating an intimate atmosphere.

Color is a very important element in my compositional processes. I combine very much the “intimate sounds” I mentioned with specific string scordaturas to change the resonance of the instrument to obtain more intimate and “darker landscapes” in my music. These ideas are found in compositions like “Im Dunkel”, “Landschaft am See mit Kometen” or “Mondnacht”.

In „Im Dunkel“ (“In Darkness”, after Trakl) I have taken the theme darkness and used very colorful material, where the guitar plays a very important role. The text is used through reciting or singing from the three instrumentalists (clarinet, alto flute and guitar). This way allows to obtain three different colors for the voice and also reproduces the atmosphere of a dark dialogue (“dunkel Gespräch”). This action imitates a very small opera; although I´m aware that the instrumentalists are no singers, the voices are used in different ways (spoken, whispered, or sang).

  1. Philosophical and theatrical elements in my music

I use very often philosophical and theatrical elements in my music in order to understand the limits of music and the meaning of it and its terms. Since I learnt a little bit of Latin I was wondering often about the meaning of a prelude (pre-lude)? “Preludio para antes de la música” (Prelude before the music) is a piece in which the musical material follows the meaning of the word “prelude” (before the playing). Which sound material can be obtained (in this piece in the situation of a guitar quartet) before the playing? Years ago, this material would not be accepted as music. Today, it is. And it is finally a different and more accurate definition of a “prelude”. Here is a fragment of this piece:

2A. Instrumental technique interchange

It is quite common today, the use of the bow in different instruments such as percussion ones or guitar. One of the main reasons for composers to import other instrumental techniques or elements traditionally connected to other instruments (such as bows, etc.) has been caused by search for new colors in music. Performers are today not just required to know the extended techniques of each instrument but also more and more different uses of the instrument, especially those to do with percussion or with the voice. In my opinion, in the next years there will be a very considerable widening and extending of the existing extended techniques.

Writing for a piano doesn´t necessarily mean for me writing for a pianist. My composition “A piano piece for a guitar player” is a good example of exporting the techniques of an instrument to another one. This piece, although is written for piano, can only be played by a guitarist or by a performer trained as a guitarist, which is very unlikely to be a pianist because of the incompatibility of the fingernails. “A Piano Piece for a Guitar Player” contains also very strong theatrical elements (the piece itself is presented like a story tale about fantasy). Music is a language; it is communication. I like very much to stimulate the imagination of the listener. In this work, the musician plays “guitar on a piano”. Can we accept this? I make a confrontation between the perspective of the performer (with fantasy, he sees a guitar on a piano) and that of reality (a piano is a physical piano). I do not give an answer. In my dialogue with the listener, I try to make them think. The guitarist is “blind” because of not seeing the difference between a guitar and a piano but he thinks that those who do not see a guitar on a piano are the blind ones because of their lack of fantasy. I was so glad to hear from composer Cristóbal Halffter about this piece: “Usted ha abierto una nueva puerta en la música”. (“You have opened a new door in music”). Here is this piece:

It can also happen that in a specific composition for a specific instrument composers might ask themselves for which instrument and for which instrumentalist on the instrument the composition will be written. This is something that composers did not have to consider in the past. It can be a strong dilemma for me as a composer. I would like to present my composition “¡Cajones! I” (2014) written for percussion on a guitar.

The body of the guitar is not so far from the percussion instrument “Cajon”. In fact, I can find it more percussion colors on the guitar than the original instrument itself. If importing percussion techniques on the guitar, the dilemma comes when deciding for which instrumentalist it should be written (obviously, a guitar player´s percussion technique is not at the same level as a percussionist). In this case, my decision in “¡Cajones! I” was to write it for the guitar player, so that I could encourage the performer to extend his percussion abilities in a considered way. A percussionist might find it far from virtuosity.

Again this composition is presented as a story about the so-called “femininity of the guitar”. The way the instrument is held by classical guitar players, it remembers the symbol of the Roman god Mars, used to represent the male sex. In “¡Cajones! I”, the performer holds the guitar upside down, remembering the symbol of the Roman goddess Venus, which represents the female sex. From this starting point, the composition is a poetic and erotic story about “movement and sound on a woman’s body”.

Mixing instrumental techniques can result in very interesting sound “symbiosis”. That’s the case of my composition “Violines y Guitarras”, where one instrument can be both played by a violinist or a guitarist, or both at the same time. By doing this, it is possible to obtain new forms of sound such as “guitar tremolo” on the violin (when the guitarist plucks the violin with right hand and the positions are hold by the violinist with left hand).

The piece “A.Mort.Z IV” for orchestra has to do with the composer from Salzburg W. A. Mozart. I am very much fascinated about languages in general and about their evolution. In the same way, I am very much fascinated about the language of music and about its evolution in Western culture. In “A.Mort.Z IV”, I had the question in my head “What if the distances between the notes forming the chords would have been decided in a different way, having a different hierarchy?”. “A.Mort.Z IV” is a musical illusion, where I borrowed rhythm, instrumentation and structure from Mozart, but I built the chords in a different way. I guess that after a short time, the listener might be confused, “accepting” (having traditional rhythm, instrumentation and structure) the new intervals forming the chords. “A.Mort.Z IV” can be heard under, following the link:

2B. Music and its graphics

In 2010, when I was in a composer residence, held by the Austrian Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture, in Vienna, the “borders” of music were my main concerns – especially through two of the major elements in contemporary music: Graphics and Silence (Silence in German means “Stille”, very much connected to “Still-Leben” or “Still-Life”). How much music is there in silence? Where are the limits of music through silence? I tried to analyze these aspects through the series “Still-Leben mit Stille” or “Still Life with Silence” (a total of eleven compositions between graphic and performance), where both “graphical silence and graphical music” and “music language and music symbols” are the main material of the series “Still-Leben mit Stille”, musical for string quartet. It is written for instruments without strings. I made a scale of the importance of the elements of string instruments. I interpreted, that after the strings, the most important element is a bow. That’s why in “Still-Leben mit Stille” for string quartet (the whole collection is made of eleven pieces) we could see “bows” all around, which are only a visual association (bows are also developed in a graphic way but always musically at the same time). Everything happens in the imagination of the “listener”. Even the words are meant to be heard in our heads: “Wohin geht die Musik? Die Musik ist schon da! (Where is music going? Music is already here!). The “bow” also has a great connection to the Viennese composer Christian Ofenbauer, a big fan of Japanese Kyudo, whom the piece is dedicated to. I treat the silence in a strict polyphonic way. But “polyphony” means ” different sounds together,” and in this piece there is only silence. Is it possible to bright many poly-phony with silence? (Not to forget that silence has probably today the same value as the music when this could not be recorded and played technologically). This “polyphony” focuses on the graphic side of music, creating an illusion. I give the “audience” no answer (that did not hear anything in the physical space) or theory; it is just an invitation to think about the limits of the meaning of music. At the same time, through this illusion, I try to stimulate the “listener’s” fantasy. In my opinion, fantasy is the biggest difference between humans and animals. And of course, fantasy is a reality. As I composer, I can not imagine how to communicate more with less material. This collection of pieces was shown in June 2010 at the exhibition room of the Austrian Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture not as music but as “paintings”.

  1. Microtonality on the Guitar

In my search for small sounds and small intervals in music, I have developed a special microtonal system in the guitar, dividing the scale in 36. I use this system as a bridge between contemporary music and traditional music from different cultures. While in “Tres Momentos Microtonales”, one could hear strong influences between Southern Spain and Arabic Music; “Sakura” is an arrangement of the Japanese Folksong.

There have been many attempts to build a microtonal guitar – most of the tries using special different fingerboards or even without frets. For these particular guitars, you need both a special instrument and a special technique for it, which in my opinion, was not the most practical thing to do in the guitar. There is also not much repertoire for these particular instruments. For this reason I have founded my own system, that can be played by everyone on an “ordinary” guitar. I use six equal strings tuned at sixths of a tone between them. With this system you can get a whole tone of the sixth to the first string with a very nice natural resonance. From fret to fret, it of course remains still semi-tonal. By doing so, I don´t only solve the problem of getting a new instrument or learning a special technique for it but also create a beautiful and very particular resonance having the different microtones on open strings. For this kind of music, I use either tablature or transcription, depending on practical aspects.

  1. Fantasy is a reality”: Poetry and storytelling

Storytelling is something very primitive, like music itself. I cannot conceive music ignoring that is a powerful language. I cannot conceive music without conceiving communicating. I haven´t forgotten the feeling of playing for an audience either, the feeling of carrying a message to your listener. I am a storyteller most of the time.

Apart from creating many different compositions with strong theater elements, I wrote four chamber operas (“Adán de Eva”, “Don Quijote´s Dulcinea”, “DAS SCHLOSSGESPENST und der Ritter von der traurigen Gestalt” and “The Rest is Silence”), two music theater pieces (“Strings: a play” and “Keys”), and several performances and choreographies. The conception of the works and the librettos of the chamber operas are written mostly by myself. I find in theater music that I can show my versatility as a composer and an artist and also my love for it.

Written by Agustin Castilla-Avila Specialy for |A:| Magazine (Collegium Musicum)

edited by Taras Demko

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