Interview with Agustín Fernández

Agustín Fernández – is a Columbian born composer, that studied with such teachers like Alberto Villalpand in La Paz, and of Takashi Iida and Akira Ifukube in Japan. There he studied violin and music composition. Later on, he got his Ph.D. at City University, London, United Kingdom. His musical career started shortly after the studies. Agustín Fernández is also teaching since 1977 at the National Conservatoire in La Paz, Queen’s University, Belfast, Dartington College of Arts and Newcastle University. His compositional works were performed in such international music festivals as London International Opera Festival, Focus, Sonorities, Jornadas de Música Contemporánea, etc. Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė has conducted an interview on the structure and meaning of the compositional process with the composer.

What are your thoughts about such structuring of the creative process:

1. Precomposition, when the creator gets inspired, comes up with initial idea, research the topic, develops the concept of a piece (while thinking, making notes, sketching) and draws the limitations while deciding on the parameters. 2. Composing, starts when you already have a concept and do the music writing and expressing ideas materially. 3. Postcomposition. All the processes after having a finished written piece (primary product) that are usually a creation of secondary products – score publication, concert, recording, etc.

Although the three steps described do bear a resemblance to process experienced in real life, I would say that 1 and 2 often blend to a large extent. Exploring material – that is, composing – can affect the concept and alter the parameters considerably. Through the process of composing the initial concept can become transformed beyond recognition. Step 3 above could also include the endless revisions some of us have to do after completing the work and after the first few performances.

Which part of creative process would you see as the peek of an iceberg, and which the bottom?

The peak is the piece that can be heard, whereas the larger part which lies under the sea is the context and the world of musical and cultural resonances a piece both triggers and is triggered by.

Do you have certain patterns, structures when it comes to your creative process?

Works take a long time gestating. There is something of a mental waiting list of pieces to be written. Often opportunities from the real world come in and jump the queue, making us embark on something we had not considered before. But inevitably that new idea links up with previous ones which had been being in the mind. As to patterns and structures, I am not sure I have set ones.

What is the most fun and the most boring part in the compositional process?

I can’t think of any part of the process that is fun. As Michael Tippett said, composing is not for enjoyment: you compose because you have to. There are no boring parts either: if you get stuck, you either persevere and work hard, which is a challenge and therefore not boring, or you go and do something else.

Define inspiration – does it exist?

If it exists, it happens in a surreptitious, unnoticeable manner. Very few times have I been aware of being struck by inspiration at a specific moment. But often I am aware that there is an idea there, waiting to be executed.

How do you usually create a new idea of a piece?

Maybe I should have a method by now, but I don’t think I do. Different ideas happen in different ways. Having said that, they do have that in common: they “happen”. An exception could be said to be commissioned collaborations, where you have to meet with a poet or director or choreographer and thrash out possibilities. That is more like excavating, mining for precious metal with heavy tools and hard work.

How does the process of forming an idea looks like?

I don’t think it looks like anything. It feels. And it feels like some form of life gestating. I would not like to compare with the sequence embryo – foetus – baby; it is much more abstract than that. Sometimes the growth is slow and smooth, sometimes there are bumps and sudden revelations. It can also be strangely visual, like forms in the air or visible energetic fields. Sorry if this sounds fancy, but words are not adequate to describe this kind of process.

How do you transform the abstract idea into material – sketch, notes?

Notes jotted down in messy handwriting are a frequent start. I wouldn’t glorify them with the name of sketches. Jottings, yes. They are markers, reminders. It is not uncommon for me to write one of these jottings in a state of some creative statement, only to come back later and find nothing there, only a few notes on paper without any potential or appeal. Continuity – working over long hours – would be ideal, but everyday life makes that pretty impossible.

What is your purpose of music sketching?

To start the transition from abstract thinking to scoring.

What do you do to get into your creative zone?

I go into the “composing room” and I look out of the window. That is always the start. Then I look at what I have done before and trying to get the impetus going again. In the early stages it seems important to review the piece from the beginning. Later on that becomes unnecessary, partly because there would be too much material to review and partly because by that time there is enough of a momentum to render a recap needless.

When do you decide that the preparation (precomposition) period is over and now you will start to actually compose?

It is usual practical considerations that force you to start composing. The deadline is near, or the period you have allocated for that piece has begun and you cannot afford any more pussyfooting around, so you start composing.

Please describe your state of mind when you are creating something.

It is as variable as the state of mind when doing anything else, subject to the same variations, ups and downs.

How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?

When the structure has been fulfilled and the statement has been made. You know that without having to agonise about it. Often people express dissatisfaction with my inconclusive endings, but they feel right to me. It is rare that I feel that I need a round peroration to end a piece. I do it sometimes, but not often.

Do you critique your own work? Explain.

Yes, a lot. And I often go back to improve pieces that had been deemed finished.

Do you identify with your creative product? Explain.

It is tempting to subscribe to the dictum by Octavio Paz “the poet doesn’t have a biography – his work is his biography”. But that is neater than reality, I think. Finished work is a distillation of what one is and does. A concentrated form of it. And each work is targeted and selective; it is aimed at one kind of experience. Life is wider and more complex than a piece of music. You could say that the creative product is a concentrated sample of possible manifestations of being. The actual being is much more diffuse, messy and indeterminate.

Thank you for the converstaion!

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