To write about Mexico City as an emergent scene for contemporary music and sound art seems a difficult task. There is a lack of information and specialized publications. Thanks to some artists like Manuel Rocha Iturbide (http://www.artesonoro.net)this scenario is slowly changing. Some academic essays are available on line, few catalogs of exhibitions that included sound art pieces or installations, and mostly we find artists websites and some festivals publications. These are the nodes available to build a network of scattered references.
Before presenting the work of Pablo García-Valenzuela (http://www.pablogav.com), a young composer and researcher in contemporary music and curator of Habitación dl ruido (http://www.ucsj.edu.mx/hr/), a concert and education program for sound experimentation at Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, I would like to name a few references that give us some context to Mexico city sound and contemporary music landscape.
Julian Carrillo (1875 – 1965) was one of the first composers identified as developing sound experimentations with its famous 13 Sound and music for microtonal piano. Other reference, according to Manuel Rocha is Carlos Jimenez Mabarak (1919- 1994) tape piece Paradise of the drowned, the first work of this kind in Mexico, presented in 1960 in conjunction with Guillermina Bravo´s choreography.
Other important contributions made by Mexican musicians can be located in the early seventies, in example Mario Lavista, who led the group Quanta and Julio Estrada “Música Habitacional” experiment which consisted in an installation of 10 pianos distributed in a room at three different levels and broadcasted live.
In the visual arts side, in same decade artists like Ulises Carrion and Felipe Ehrenberg also experimented with sound. We also need to acknowledge the concrete sound poetry of Matias Goeritz and the experiments of Juan José Gourrola, experimental teather director and artist during the sixties.
In the eighties sound art emerged as a legitimate field for artistic experimentation where both artists and musicians create works with full awareness of sound. Antonio Russek, Eduardo Soto Millán, Vicente Rojo Cama, Ariel Guzik, are some of them.
In 1999, Ex Teresa Arte Actual, a new genre contemporary art space in Mexico city, held the First International Sound Art Festival, organized by Guillermo Santamarina and curated by Manuel Rocha, the event gave visibility to the discipline and its legitimization in Mexico. From 1999 to 2002 four sound art festivals were organized. In 2007, also in Ex Teresa a different sound project was presented “Muestra Internacional de Arte Sonoro” organized by Carlos Jaurena and curated by Taiyana Pimentel presented the work of a multigenerational group of 17 artists of different fields.
In the first decade of the new millennium we can find ambitious initiatives such as Radar
(http://festival.org.mx/festival26/programa/tipo/e/1), an international sound art and contemporary music festival, which has nine editions by now, Radio Educación International “Radio Biennal” with eight editions(http://bienalderadio.gob.mx/2010/), and Mutek festival program in Mexico.
These three very different platforms had put Mexico city under the map for professionals of different disciplines from Mexico and the rest of the globe interested in showing experimental materials in the last decade. Finally the Fonoteca Nacional was created few years ago to preserve, archive and exhibit different sound and music materials from Mexico.(http://www.fonotecanacional.gob.mx). And includes the sound installation project Jardin sonoro (Sound garden) where visitors can experience different listening experiences .The space was especially designed for the presentation of sound art, environmental works, experimental compositions and concerts in multichannel system.
Pablo García Valenzuela (Pablo Gav) is one of the young mexican composers who are redefining the local scene both as a composer and as a curator. His practice, as he describes it, is a fusion between alternative rock, contemporary classical and electro acoustic music. In 1996 he obtains a degree in “Composition, Music Theory, Piano and Music Promotion” at CIEM di Città del Messico. NIn 1994 the obtained the “7th Grade Piano of the A.B.R.S.M of London“. In 1995 he finished the “8th Grade of Music Theory in Practice of the A.B.R.S.M. of London”. From 1996 to 1997 he sudied “MSc in Composition” at the University of Hertfordshire in England. And finally from 1998 to 2003 he studied a Ph.D in “Electroacoustic Composition” in City University, London. Because of his interest in sound design he specialized on multi channel and surround sound mixed with traditional acoustic instruments. He finished his thesis on ‘Aesthetic and temporal forces in electroacoustic composition’.
In 2006, he presented Music Pissing on Flies Shitting on Bombs, an acousmatic composition, for the exhibition Arsenal: artists exploring the potential of sound as a weapon at Alma Enterprises Gallery in London, curated by Ellen Mara Wachter. Same year an electroacustic composition, Mas Si Osare un Albañil, presented at Instrumental Festival, in Oaxaca, Mexico. Also produced a CD with retrospective work from 1996 to that date, seven compositions in acousmatic music, video and instrumental quartet. The selection was presented as a live concert at Casa del Lago, UNAM in Mexico city in 2007.
The following conversation took place in Mexico city in july 2011.
Felipe Zuniga: What is the reason behind your research on sound design?
Pablo García-Valenzuela: I believe in designing the sound in the studio because this way you have more freedom, you can move different sounds independently in different directions and different rates. I was disappointed about the 5.1 multichannel world standard that is used in cinema. If you look at the history within experimental music, this is nothing new. There are much bigger systems such as Acousmonium, the sound diffusion system designed in 1974 by Francois Bayle, among other experiments. What I’ve been trying is to find is a middle point. In one hand, not having to use monstrous systems and in the other, not having to stick to the world standard, which I don’t think is enough for music. That is why I created my own system: a 15 channel system which is basically a dong of loud speakers.
Felipe Zuniga: Do you find yourself more focused on the studio based practice rather than the live experience?
Pablo García-Valenzuela: Working with multichannel systems is very interesting specially to make sounds behave separately according or against to their spectrum morphology. It is very difficult to do that live but still lots of people prefer multichannel sound live. I guess is because the feeling of playing an instrument with a live audience. But inevitably you encounter practical limitations like not having enough fingers or the speed of a computer to keep on with the pace! In my case, for the past ten years, I’ve been trying to merge these two different practices in multichannel sound: studio and live. I’m looking for a better fusion between advanced sound design, multichannel sound and the classical “contempo way” of using acoustic instruments.
Felipe Zuniga: Do you find that the work you are developing has any connections with research or projects in different arenas in the contemporary art world?
Pablo García-Valenzuela: I’ve seen contemporary practices such as site specific sound installations that integrate architecture or a place to create sound experiences using multiple speakers. This is not exactly what I do myself, not yet at least. But again, that is just me! Even though I can see myself in a few years doing site specific sound art. I believe that the expressive potential of very carefully designed sound through space has a lot to say. The transformations you can impose to sound, even of milliseconds, can make a huge perceptual difference to an audience and that is why I’m so interested in experimenting with sound moving through space.
Felipe Zuniga: What kind of strategies and processes you prefer to use when you are developing a piece?
Pablo García-Valenzuela: Since I came from the electro acoustic tradition I basically sample sound. I prefer “to catch” the richness and complexity of sound instead of having to build it from scratch, as you would do with synthesis. I record any sound basically, everything is a good excuse to sample! I do lot’s of thing with sound. Sometimes I like to preserve the identity of the sound partially to present it incomplete to the audience. I also like to transform sound, but keeping in it a way that you can still recognize beats of it. Finally, l also enjoy to transform an original sound to the point of almost destroying it as an excuse to produce a rich acoustic experience of a new sound.
I also use synthesis. With synthesis I like to work with pure tones with a very basic frequencies, and then add partials or harmonics and finally adding an envelopment of intensity. This final stage of transformation is all about how each harmonic and each partial of the sound behaves through time and how its morphology is related to its intensity. My problem with electronic sound is when people try to imitate sounds. It is possible, you can have synthesized cellos, pianos, and etcetera but in my case I would never ever use them. I always prefer to use a real cello, a real piano. I understand that when it comes to a full orchestra, and you don’t have money to pay for it, may be worth it but in general I don’t use electronic sound to substitute an already rich acoustic instrument.
Felipe Zuniga: What kind of sound you are trying to create or present in your compositions?
Pablo García-Valenzuela: My work has a lot to do with the abstract experience of sound (I believe the sounds of a flute or a piano are in the end an abstract experiences). Nevertheless I think it would be limiting, it would be non-sense, not to acknowledge the other possible strategies and use them all. You need a whole range of tools in order to approach composition, that’s for sure. I am interested in the juxtaposition and mixture of acoustic spaces, something that is only possible through recorded sound, through fixed media.
Felipe Zuniga: Do you integrate the body in your work?
Pablo García-Valenzuela: This is an interesting subject for discussion. It is impossible to separate the body from music. Low frequencies are felt more than heard. They make our body vibrate! The mid frequencies are especially important because these are the vehicles for speech and our ears are more sensitive to them. If you overdue mid frequencies you feel pain immediately. The very high frequencies, don’t resonate, I think they go directly to our minds. This may be subjective but this basic knowledge is useful to me when mixing sound. It allows me to orchestrate how I want to communicate in different levels. Sound relates to our actual muscles. That is why is important to understand that we can find sound rhythms everywhere: the pulse of our heart will be the more obvious. But also, the gesture: how we move, relax and tense our muscles. Walking is also a pulse, is the basic architecture of rhythm.
Sometimes electro acoustic sounds have been blamed to be cold precisely because they don’t relate to our bodies. I’m especially interested in being able to manage the image of a soundscape, the gesture and the psychological projection of a sound. I would like the audience to be fluctuating between the recognition of sound and the non-recognition of sound; entering into a psychological domain, finding some bodily and gesture resonance in the projection of sound. In pursuing this, multichannel, surround sound, spatial envelopment of sound, are very interesting platforms because they communicate with our built in system to locate sound. Every human being has one. This is a very ancient tool for survival and as far as I know this is not learnt, this is just built in, it comes with us. Therefore incorporating the aesthetic, emotional and psychological implications of sound into the musical scores it’s in my opinion very powerful and very interesting.
Felipe Zuniga: Could you tell me more about your other projects as curator?
Pablo García-Valenzuela: am the current artistic director of a concert series called Habitación del ruido (http://www.ucsj.edu.mx/hr/) at Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana. I started with these concert series in January of 2008 so it’s been already three years. The project exists since 2004 and is dedicated to sound art, electro acoustic music and anything that has to do with a different way of approaching sound. It is about experimentation with sound. It takes place the last thursday of every month within the academic semester. There are about eight concerts every year. Almost of the guest musician present a lecture followed by a concert. The main objective is academic offering bachelor students, not only from Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, from anywhere else in the city. It’s also a platform for discussion and thought about sound art. The students can have a very close interaction with the artists and can inquire about any aspect related to the artist, the concept, or technical process.
We have had presented artists, from Mexico, UK, Canada, the US, Germany and Chile. Every semester I try to include international artists two foreigners and two Mexicans. And it is also a platform for emergent artists to present their work.
As a curator and faculty member of UCSJ I have two jobs. The first one, is to satisfy the educational aspect of Habitación del Ruido is to present diverse artistic practices so students can have a “panoramic view” of what is going on within the sound experimentation. The second one as a curator, I give priority to multichannel projects because we have a 8.2.2 multichannel concert system which is good enough for artists to explore and present their works.I try to balance the whole program with artists that combine sound experimentation with fixed media and acoustic instruments. I would love to have a full orchestra but for obvious reasons it is pretty much impossible so there is normally a solo instrument: a cello or a piano combined with electro acoustic sounds. I also program people working circuit bending and some installations projects, eve though these are less likely to be shown since we are not an exhibition space.