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To Create the Sound of Hunger: Joaquín Orellana in Conversation with Stefan Benchoam, Julio Santos, and Alejandro Torún, with an introduction by Monika Szewczyk

Joaquín Orellana’s sound utensils in his studio, Guatemala City, 2016

The Guatemalan composer and sound artist Joaquín Orellana is among the most important living members of South America’s musical avant-garde. In a career spanning half a century, his practice has combined formal technical innovation with a powerful social conscience, resulting in a style that marries progressive international currents to local traditions. That tendency was epitomized by his construction of the first of his útiles sonoros (sound utensils) when, upon returning to Guatemala in December 1968 from two formative years at the celebrated Centro Latinoamericano de Altos Estudios Musicales (CLAEM) at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, he lost access to the electronic equipment for which he had been composing. For the orchestral presentation of Humanofonías (Humanophony), in 1971, he built a series of analog marimba-style instruments that, when played together, created patterns comparable to computer sequencers. 

Subsequent works including Tzulumanachi (1978); Imposible a la X (Imágenes de una Historia en Redondo) (Impossible to the X [Images of a story in the round], 1980); Híbrido a presión (Hybrid under pressure, 1982); En los cerros de Ilóm (On the hills of Ilom, 1992); Ramajes de una marimba imaginaria (Branches of an imaginary marimba, 1990); Sacratávica (1998); and La tumba del Gran Lengua (The tomb of the Great Tongue, 2001) have secured Orellana’s place in the front rank of contemporary Latin American music. While preparing for a presentation of Maestro Orellana’s latest work, Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo (Symphony from the Third World) at documenta 14, I asked how he understood and used the term “Third World,” as it seems to me that the ubiquitous phrase is in need of some fine-tuning; to which he offered: 

Most, if not all, of my emblematic works emanate from and contain a type of Third World–Guatemalan social circumstance … In that way, the Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo constitutes a summing up of that musical and ideological projection, infused with other elements. Also considering that I have explored theater and literature in my work, my most emblematic works express a “third worldness” that is felt, observed, and projected in text … In the story of Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo, a composer named Eugenio Borja proposes to “create” the sound of hunger … The musical body of the work exposes some remnants of Creole, autochthonous, regional [voices], opposing contrasting sound textures that will reflect the atrocities committed in Guatemala by the counterinsurgency against the Indigenous and mixed-race populations of razed villages.

It became clear that a longer conversation was needed and we next sought the opportunity to record this with the help of Stefan Benchoam and Alejandro Torún, who had introduced Adam Szymczyk, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, and myself to Maestro Orellana in May 2015 in his studio at the Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias in Guatemala City. Stefan Benchoam is an artist and cofounder of the multivalent artistic platform Proyectos Ultravioleta and, with Jessica Kairé, the world’s smallest contemporary art museum, NuMu (Nuevo Museo de Arte Contemporáneo), located inside a former egg-seller’s kiosk in Guatemala City. He has led the effort in bringing Orellana’s work to a broader international audience along with Mexican artist Carlos Amorales, and author and entrepreneur Alejandro Torún, whose accomplishments range from banking to bass playing, with a strong commitment to socially responsible enterprise, notably as president of the Sistema de Orquestas de Guatemala (SOG) from 2009 to 2016, a project modeled on the Sistema Nacional de Orquestas y Coros Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, which organizes collective musical practice for underprivileged youths. Joining the conversation is the esteemed Guatemalan choral specialist, percussionist in Guatemala’s National Symphony Orchestra, and orchestra director Maestro Julio Santos, a long-term collaborator with Orellana who will be conducting Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo for its world premiere in Athens in 2017. They gathered in Orellana’s studio on June 5, 2016, and among their own questions are several posed on our behalf. 

—Monika Szewczyk

Joaquín Orellana playing one of his sound utensils in his studio, Guatemala City, 2016

Stefan Benchoam: What was Guatemala like before, during, and after the war? How do you see it now, in this very particular moment? And, how do you see yourself in these different Guatemalas over all this time?

Joaquín Orellana: I was born in 1930, so I’ve been out in the sun for a while. I remember a very tranquil Guatemala, a peaceful Guatemala, even with all its local dictatorships, like the famous dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who was in power for twenty-two years. There were short-term dictatorships like that of Lázaro Chacón González. Then the revolutions were like little games, trying to take one government from another. Like they said back then, groups would steal the government from others by beating them with their hats [laughs]. Sometimes at the Matamoros military base—my grandfather’s house was nearby—my mother would tell me about a colonel or a general who would get drunk and suddenly, along with fifty other drunk soldiers, go running with a red flag to take over the government. Guatemala was a little town playing at politics.

The weather was, of course, very nice. It was called the land of eternal spring. Now it’s the land of eternal shit [laughs]. Well, especially my neighborhood, the neighborhood which went from the San José church all the way down to La Parroquia, La Candelaria. It was in La Candelaria church that they baptized me, and some decades later, unfortunately, that they married me [laughs].

Julio Santos: And exorcised you. 

JO They performed the San Anselmo exorcism on me in the San José church. But given the way I’ve been creating music, I’ve always thought that exorcism didn’t take.

SB How old were you?

JO I was eight or nine. My grandfather had a very big house with a main entrance at the end of Avenida San José. He was a merchant and he made clothes for the farmers coming down from Chinautla, from Los Ocotes, from Palencia, from a place called Las Tapias, and from the time I was little, I remember his store was always full. So he had three or four houses that he rented out, and that earned him money. 

I was born in that big house, in the arms of a midwife. From what they tell me, the midwife was drunk … Sometimes I think that boozy breath passed into me and that’s why I like the stuff so much [laughs]. 

Joaquín Orellana’s sound utensils in his studio, Guatemala City, 2016

My parents had some problems. My father was very poor, he didn’t own houses, and so he lived with my mother. My mother was a seventeen-year-old girl when I was born. My father was around twenty. I spent my early childhood with my maternal grandparents. They were very religious, and the girls they employed stayed so long that they became “daughters of the house,” that’s what they called them. So my second mother, or adoptive mother, was a girl, a mestiza. Her name was María Arriza. My grandmother was so religious that she forced the daughters of the house to go to all the religious ceremonies. María Arriza would carry me along and show me the saints. All the saints are morbid, ghostlike, gloomy. I’d look at the thorn crown and the blood flowing my way, and Christ carrying the cross, bloody and with bruised knees. I was already a little impressionable. That’s when it all started to terrify me. To make matters worse, I told myself, “If you don’t behave, He’ll punish you.” Intense, really. At night I started dreaming about all the paraphernalia of the suffering saints. I dreamt that the cross-bearing Christ was falling over me, but the jerk would never fall completely—I’d wake up shouting from these night terrors. So they started saying that they didn’t know what was wrong with me, and my grandmother didn’t listen to outside opinions, she just said, “He must have the devil in him, we’ll perform the San Anselmo exorcism for him in the San José church.”

I vaguely remember a man with a strange gown and a big shiny hat throwing water at me. I always had a good memory. I remember things from when I was four years old. I remember everything. I remember that he said, “Abandon this pure soul, abandon this pure soul,” while throwing more and more water at me. I thought, I wish he’d stop throwing water at me. Let me be abandoned by whatever, just stop throwing water at me. 

To make matters worse, on Sundays I had to go to church at 5:30 in the morning. It was just two blocks to San José, but two very long blocks. Once we got there, I was to cross myself and try not to fall asleep, because sometimes I did fall asleep. There was a little bell that would go gling, gling, gling, gling. You had to cross yourself to the rhythm of the little bell. So one Sunday my grandfather told me: “Look, if you kneel, don’t fall asleep, and cross yourself when the little bell rings, there will be a tamal and a cup of hot chocolate waiting for you when you get home.” I said, “Holy shit, that’s cool.” Though that was even worse because with the sleepiness, the hunger, and the promise of the tamal and the chocolate, I would try so hard not to fall asleep that I would start to see a giant tamal projected onto the high altar. And the smell of incense became the smell of chocolate. In other words, I was already delusional. 

Then the chapel master would begin. His name was Chepe Tellez and he was gay. He dressed in light blue with white shoes and had long hair, which back then was very unusual. He sang with quite a voice … Did you ever hear those pump organs? You’d pump air into them with pedals … It sounded like an accordion? He’d push the pedals and play and I felt like that apparatus was a bicycle for music-making. And then he’d sing something that my mother taught me, which was the “Trisagion to the Holy Trinity,” and he was all skinny and his Adam’s apple would go up and down when he sang. I’d look at his Adam’s apple and say, [singing] “Saint, Saint, Saint, who is truly God, the ‘Trisagion to the Holy Trinity’” [laughs]. All the old people shrouded in black would answer back, [singing] “Saint, Saint, Saint,” and I would look at that thing and feel like I was in hell. I think that’s where I got it in me to stylize Gregorian chants [laughs].

The exorcism didn’t work because my grandmother kept taking me to see those saints until my Uncle Meme, my mother’s older brother who had studied a bit, said, “Don’t take him to see those things because children get scared. Don’t take him to church, because church is full of bloody monsters.” He was a bit of an atheist. Then I started getting over it, little by little, but a kind of craziness lingered.

Joaquín Orellana’s sound utensils in his studio, Guatemala City, 2016

SB Where did your interest in art, in culture, in music come from?

JO Music for me wasn’t an objective, but an obsession, a desire to get it out of myself. Since I was a child I’d always had that … [drums a beat with his hands]. I’d always had it and my father did too; I inherited the obsession with rhythm and pitch from him. I’d see a billboard and get a little tune in my head right there on the street, and suddenly I was adapting the tune to the billboard, or the billboard would strangely adapt itself to the tune, and when I realized what had happened it had already happened—it still happens now. Finally I said, “No, I better not look at billboards anymore,” because it seemed like my mind was acting on its own. 

It really started with the ducklings. There was a country house where my mother raised doves, hens, and rabbits, and one day a duck gave birth to ducklings. When they hatched out of their shells, they grouped together, and didn’t want to separate. They made a sound like [whistles], and then the whole yellow mass was running. Bit by bit they separated and started growing, and then I dug a hole in the ground. I put a bowl in there and filled it with water. I liked to see how they’d come over, swim a little bit, and then get out on the other side. One of the ducklings looked around whenever a bird passed. I named him “Tú” [you]. The one with the tail feathers I named “Colilla” [little tail], and the other one, who was in the middle, I named “Dí” [say]. Then it became a semantic problem; because “Tú” was the name, if I said, “Look, Tú” or “Dí, Tú,” I was using a pronoun and not a noun. So then I started out with “Tú Dí” to the duck that was called “Dí,” from the verb “to say.” I would call out to him “Tú dí Dí,” and “Dí Colilla Tú” to the other, and then I began, [singing] “Tú Dí Dí Dí Tú Tú Dí Colilla Tú Tú Dí Dí.” [Singing] “Dí Tú Tú Tú Dí Dí.” 

My mother would tell me to quiet down because she couldn’t take it with me going on like that. In her last years, my mother remembered this. She said, “Son, you were just sitting there saying the same thing, saying the same thing over and over again, and I worried you wouldn’t stop until you got sick.” That’s how it all began. 

Later, a fortuitous thing happened at the San Sebastián school. When I was in fourth grade, we decided to start a school band. So they hired a man named José Arce, an old man who had played trombone in a marching band. And there I was with the trumpet. It helped me to start to appreciate Giuseppe Verdi’s operas, particularly Nabucco, and parts of Rigoletto and La Traviata. So the first thing I  became acquainted with—aside from the time of the exorcism, when I got to know the “Trisagion to the Holy Trinity”—were Verdi’s operas. That’s what gave me my impetus, let’s say. And later on, I followed my own path.

SB You mentioned that from a young age you were always very curious about culture in general, and in reading about the lives of musicians and artists.

JO My love of reading came with a great curiosity. My father had received from his father a small library as an inheritance. That’s where I came across The Count of Monte Cristo, a huge book with thin pages. I would lock myself away with it. After that I started reading almost everything by Alexandre Dumas, and later on—this was something they criticized me for at the San Sebastián school, which was a religious school—I came across Arthur Schopenhauer’s essays on love, women, and death in the school library. My teacher said, “How is it that you’re reading that loathsome man, your soul will be poisoned.”

I was a precocious reader; I’d read Schopenhauer, Stefan Zweig, the German philosophers, Friedrich Hölderlin and Heinrich von Kleist. I kept on reading and reading until I got to the writers whose narrative was based on the works of gaucho minstrels of South America: Cantaclaro, Doña Bárbara, Don Segundo Sombra. Then Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. That’s why sometimes I can give my opinion on literary matters, only because of that reading, and because of my good memory. All of that literature has helped shape, let’s say, an artistic craft.

Alejandro Torún: Julio, how did you two meet, and when did you start working together? What has your relationship been like over the years?

Joaquín Orellana, Sacratávica (1998), musical score (excerpt)

JS I started working with Maestro Orellana on a piece called Evocación profunda y traslaciones de una marimba [Profound evocation and translation of a marimba] in 1984. I had recently finished music school and had the opportunity to discover the Maestro’s music, which at that moment, for me, was something completely stratospheric, beyond the realm of a traditional musician. We performed it just once. Then in 1989, Manuel Corleto called and told me, “Julio, we’re going to present a work of Maestro Orellana’s, which will go on tour through Europe: Spain, France. We’ll have so many concerts. In Guatemala, we’ll also do twenty concerts, and Maestro Orellana has put forth your name as the person in charge of percussion.” “Well, thank you very much, I accept.” 

I started getting more directly involved with Maestro Orellana’s music during rehearsals for La Profecía [The prophecy, 1990], a play by Corleto set to music by the Maestro. Then came En los cerros de Ilóm, also written by Corleto, for which the Maestro had already composed most of the score. It started to show in 1992. We did seventeen shows in Guatemala, here in the Gran Teatro Nacional, in Efraín Recinos’s auditorium. And after those seventeen shows, the work was going to tour. We were just about to leave. The first shows were going to be in Costa Rica, if I remember. Suddenly, Orellana and Corleto didn’t show up. Lost for a week, fifteen days. 

AT What happened?

Joaquín Orellana’s studio, Guatemala City, 2016

JS Orellana and Corleto had been threatened by the government at the time, and the work was canceled. 

JO Yes, it was banned by the army at the time of the Serrano Elías government. 

JS Elías banned En los cerros de Ilóm because it addressed the issue of Guatemala’s internal conflict. Orellana used art to denounce it. I should say that Orellana’s work has always been a denunciation. Ever since he started talking about Humanofonía in 1971, the music of hunger. That’s where that approach came from, and it went on, and the denunciations got stronger in En los cerros de Ilóm. The play couldn’t go abroad, and that created a great frustration in people—in everyone, the cast, the production. We weren’t able to show the play but that didn’t mean we stopped working with Orellana personally. My group got really into Orellana’s music, we clicked.

AT What’s your group?

JS Coro Victoria. The Coro Victoria is an artistic musical institution dedicated to presenting art for art’s sake, with a very unique aesthetic approach. Coro Victoria complements the music with acting, with drama, so that the message is more effective. It’s not the same to sing a work of Orellana’s musically as it is to act it. The choir’s message is not solely musical; it’s also a message about acting, about drama, which allows the composer’s message to be clearly conveyed. From the audience’s perspective, it doesn’t matter that they don’t speak the language. Orellana doesn’t use any concrete language; what he uses are phonemes. They’re Indigenous phonemes from Guatemala that allow for a clear message. The Coro Victoria has been like the base that has allowed for many of Maestro Orellana’s works to be shown. 

The Maestro and I have forged a deep relationship over the years. I have an intimate perspective on his artistic, aesthetic, and creative point of view, and I’ve gotten to know a bit of the Maestro’s human side, which is also very important. In 1999, we presented a project at the Fifth World Symposium on Choral Music in Rotterdam. That provided me with a great deal of new knowledge. It turned out that the Europeans worked with a different choral structure than the one we used in Guatemala, and so the Coro Victoria came back and worked with that structure here—I suggested it and the choir accepted. Orellana became the group’s composer. I also had my vocal coach, my professional choreographer, who had graduated from dance school … so I had all the structure Europeans work with. It’s a great blessing to have a living composer who’s willing to visit the group and teach us how to approach the music. We still have everything we need. We’ve toured Asia, America, and Europe. So all that has led us to strengthen our ties with the Maestro. 

AT How would you describe the evolution of your approach to music over the past six decades?

JO It all started with the Humanofonía of 1971. That emerged from my growing awareness of sociopolitical circumstances, of a society suffering from labor exploitation, the repression of unions, things that exacerbate conditions of poverty and hardship. When I returned to Guatemala from Buenos Aires in 1968, where I had soaked up what was then the European avant-garde, I was going through a crisis. On the one hand, I could have kept on being an avant-garde artist in the European way, and on the other hand, I could have kept on making outdated creations of nationalistic music. 

That crisis fortunately led to the Humanofonías—I was driven not by fixed or metaphysical objectives but by an intuitive flow. I began to realize that singing was implicit in the accents of spoken language, and that in order to capture a sound landscape of our own—since one of the values of Latin America was the Indigenous languages, fragmented and joined within the same tenor of expression—I created a series of layers. All this I called “humanophonal.” I then took on the task of recording different environments in which I was able to create certain contrasts. For example, I’d record the movement from inside to outside a church. I’d arrive out at the atrium where the voices of the beggars could be heard, either in Spanish or in an Indigenous language. There I found a contrast between the cold litanies and the lamentations of the beggars. So when I recorded sounds of a rally, for example, with the sounds of the marimba and then the Sonarimba [the first of the sound utensils designed and built by Orellana], I was acting within my own context of Guatemala and Latin America, and simultaneously with the avant-garde of the time—I was creating musique concrète. 

With Humanofonía, my intuitions and the structures of my sensibility became all the more acute. There’s an increase of feelings and ideas, and that’s how they evolve and continue to evolve; for example, Malebolge [referring to the eighth circle of hell in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy] based on sounds of expiation in prisons, sounds of torture, sounds of drowning. Malebolge begins a body of work within the frame of rebellion, each time more vehemently, each time with greater desire for depth, to the point where, for instance, I arrive at the exaltation of the marimba in Evocación profunda y traslaciones de una marimba. A kind of synthesis is projected in Ramajes de una marimba imaginaria, while in Marimba en el destierro [Marimba in exile] it already exists, linked to that movement from internal to external events. As a way to directly represent rebellion, the other part to Ramajes de una marimba imaginaria is called “Marimbalzada” [Rebellious-Marimba]. From that comes Sacratávica, Imposible a la X, and En los cerros de Ilóm, emblematic works which form part of my legacy, which could be considered a compendium or zoom toward the Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo. You could say that since the Humanofonías of 1971, I was already constructing the symphony that will be presented for documenta 14.

With Humanofonía, I began to express social consciousness well beyond the norm. Much of my work evolved along those lines. Apart from that, there are works that are still unknown, songs that I only started writing. One of those is called “Pepita y el Río,” dedicated to the memory of María Josefa García Granados. I wrote songs dedicated, for example, to a woman from Zacapa, but those were more for amusement. I’ve also created a kind of song that is more like a choral poem, which is called Elegía a una migrante muerta en camino [Ballad of the migrant who died on the road]. I based that composition on the true story of a Guatemalan woman who died of thirst going after the American dream. Maybe this constitutes a small change in direction, although still it is set within the greater structures of my sensibility, of sono-social circumstances or, more realistically, of sociopolitical circumstances. 

SB Can you tell us a bit more about when you went into the conservatory, when you started formally studying music and experimenting with electroacoustic music? How did that lead you to the fellowship in Buenos Aires, which marked a “before” and an “after” in your life? 

JO I was a violin student and a traditional harmonics student, and then I studied composition. When I started at the conservatory, everything I composed was very chromatic; I was always trying to move away from tonal centers. Soon I realized that what I was searching for had already been discovered by Arnold Schönberg. It was dodecaphony, which he had already created in 1921. I had those intuitions from 1963 to 1965, but feeling like I had reinvented the wheel helped me to find what I was searching for. This created a balance, a break from the disequilibrium a person might face when working within one system and then abruptly changing to a different system. So I created the Ballet contrastes, having already learned a lot about counterpoint, orchestration, compositional structure, and intuitions. I sent this work to Buenos Aires and that’s what got me the fellowship at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella. 

SB What was the atmosphere like at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, and how did this experience affect your world consciousness? Were there any people or ideas you came into contact with which continue to inspire your work?

JO Yes, I had a great professor at the Instituto, his name is—he’s still alive—Francisco Kröpfl. He was one of the few professors I’ve met who was obsessed with his students understanding everything clearly. He’d sometimes even meet on Sunday afternoons, giving up his Sunday off to meet with students to see if they had any questions or doubts. Then there were also the classes taught by Alberto Ginastera and visiting professors from Europe. One of the teachers who had a strong influence—not so much in his technique but in his vision for contemporary music at that time, it was 1967—was composer Luigi Nono. Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Nono were the three main figures in the avant-garde who were revolutionizing sound art. And they all came from the dodecaphonist approach of Schönberg. All of this gave me a very general vision of what had happened and was happening with music in Europe and in other parts of the world. I became aware of the differences between the musical development of Latin America, and more than anything Central America, and what was happening in Europe. This was what prompted, as I said before, the crisis that I resolved with the Humanofonía

SB What was it like to come from Guatemala, where there were so many limitations on what you could do, and arrive at such a well-funded institution in Buenos Aires?

JO They had an audiovisual experimentation room, an auditorium. They gave all the young people involved in theater—all the young playwrights, with their different approaches—the chance to experiment there. And I remember Jorge Romero Brest, a very eminent Argentinean, who was the director of the audiovisual experimentation room. Within that complex there was the Latin American Center for Advanced Musical Studies. Each of the fellows had a rehearsal space with their own piano, a small music library, a small reference library. We had a scholarship of 70,000 Argentinean pesos, which allowed us to get on freely in every aspect of life. 

When I arrived I realized that for the artist—not only the composer, but the painter, the sculptor, the new writer, the young writer—there were a lot of stimuli and a lot of support, which was incredible to me because in my country there’s a great lack of not only financial or academic support but a great indifference and a lack of appreciation. At home, almost everything emphasized the traditional, and there were particular groups who had direct relationships with the people in charge, who were rarely the ideal people. When the fellowship ended, I hated not being able to stay for longer. 

SB I understand that you created the sound utensils after coming back from Argentina and finding that the technology for the electroacoustic experimentation you relied on there was not available here. Is there a kind of hunger that generates beautiful innovation, or is it more a sense of self-determination?

JO Well, I was able to resolve that crisis with the Humanofonía. I realized I didn’t have the technological resources I’d had over there. When I was there I made Meteora, which was between electroacoustic and electronic music. I was forced to use artisanal resources when I created Humanofonía. From a technical point of view, it was a work with a certain technical poverty, but with an aesthetic, sociological, and ideological objective well beyond what those technical resources could allow. 

To answer the question, I believe the sound utensils were a form of self-determination, though chance played a role. For instance, in the 1971 Humanofonía, when I realized that the marimba was a constant in our sound landscape, an idealization of the marimba began. It was then that the sound utensils began to take shape. So there were certain cyclical automatisms involved. [Visual artist] Carlos Amorales gave a very good explanation. When he noticed that the bars of the marimba sounded as percussion does, bouncing off each other in a cyclical manner, he thought that was like doing away with electronic music sequencers, that they had been substituted with an artisanal method. 

SB It was a very clever solution because you managed to fill the void caused by not having the technology but also, by taking on the marimba, it became a way of reaching an audience here; given that when you returned to Guatemala there wasn’t necessarily an audience for the kind of work you were developing, because there wasn’t that kind of education. It was like killing two birds with one stone. 

JO Exactly, exactly. Except I haven’t been able to link the two conceptually in the way that Carlos did, in the way he fused the two things. 

AT I could be misreading this, but in Ramajes de una marimba imaginaria the marimba is given a narrative character, a personality, a life. Would you say the same of your sound utensils?

JO Yes, the marimba has a life of its own—the image which exists in the collective memory, the image of a national instrument which embodies the feelings of a people, the loves, the nostalgias, the sadnesses. So the marimba has that life, it presents that life in Ramajes, and the sound utensils, along with the narrator, establish those national dialectics—they could be considered the fantastical marimba. When drawing from regional pieces to reflect the marimba’s traditional character that’s what grants the marimba a special life—or at least here, because of how Guatemalans have appropriated it. These works are really the personality and life of the marimba, but when those regional pieces are played in a different context, one that is also within the same world as the marimba, that’s when the marimba and the sound utensils each take up a life of their own. 

SB That connects very well to the use of characters in your different compositions. They wind up going beyond musical experimentation. There’s also a narrative story that ties to your interest in literature and allows you to achieve what you’re trying to carry out musically. 

Joaquín Orellana’s studio, Guatemala City, 2016

JO Yes, I think what happens is the music begins to project itself. I feel that music has a nonconcrete language and maybe there you can feel a kind of elemental vocabulary, of approach, an element of response, but despite that, music is still an abstract language. Maybe in the beginning, without consciously attempting to do so, I created characters that were within the music, and those characters could express themselves in a concrete way. I think that’s where the tendency to have real representatives like human beings comes from—their words, their approaches, their story—within the music itself. The music comes to envelop that story, and they express, at a literary level, even at the level of a novel, what they themselves experience within that musical context. So the music is not only a context, but also something specific that works itself into their deepest emotions. 

SB Eugenio Borja features in your most recent project, Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo. Could you tell us the story of how you began—with what impulse or with what sound?

JO Well, as I was saying, the Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo comes to be like a zoom in or compendium of all those works that have the same characteristic, the same essence at their root, related to the Third World. This phenomenon of situating oneself in one’s sociopolitical circumstances obviously requires a certain social sensibility, on one hand, and on the other, external events like the armed conflict, the terrible effect of local dictatorships; events of this kind impact social sensibility and thus so become internalized. Those internal circumstances then color the work in certain related manners of exposition and expression, such that they make it authentic. It’s not a pose, it’s not an attempt to make a public statement. It’s something put forth with the utmost sincerity, full force, given that it emanates from internal events. It makes it authentic and it makes it effective. Among these kinds of works rooted in sociopolitical circumstances is the misery of the Third World, the vicissitudes of so many societies’ suffering, and the vicissitudes of the ethnic groups from the conquest up till the present day, along with the aggravation of that horrible system of counterinsurgency called the scorched earth policy [first employed to combat the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca rebellion in the early 1980s]. 

All of this is the complex world that I’ve titled—and of course, I didn’t invent the term—Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo, which comes to be like an echo of a Third World. That’s the initial and global motivation for this production. 

Joaquín Orellana, Fantoidea (2014), musical score (excerpt)

SB On a narrative level, it’s a story with a strange character called Eugenio Borja. In his hallucinated world he’s determined to create the sound of hunger, and to substitute the musical staff with grimaces, faces, and miserable bodies where unimaginable sounds are to be planted or drawn. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

JO I imagined a socialist musician, very engulfed in his people’s suffering. This man, Borja, begins to realize that traditional instruments don’t suffice for the deep, strange, and unheard desires of the sound of hunger. The five lines and four spaces of the musical staff are insufficient, and the jovial cellos, the violins from Cremona, the flutes, the primitive wind instruments, all that is insufficient in expressing that strange, unheard of depth of hunger. So Borja, in a kind of delirium, starts to see the musical staff beginning to change shape, the staff begins to fill itself with lamentations, with screams, with militaristic voices besieging, and so he set out to discoverthe sound of hunger. 

He begins to experiment with his own body, progressively cutting out meals and speaking into a microphone; what he emits as a groan is still not enough. So he proceeds to deprive himself more and more to the point of starvation and then gesticulates, speaks, raves before a microphone. What he hears is for him the sound of hunger. He wants to express something that is perhaps impossible to express the depths of: the suffering, desperation, and the pain of a people. 

SB Is that a direct reference to yourself and your context, your situation and career in a country like Guatemala where there’s been such musical, artistic, and cultural hardship? 

Joaquín Orellana’s studio, Guatemala City, 2016

JO Yes, I think these aesthetic approaches, without giving rise to merely theoretical issues, have always been latent; all the time beating stronger and more profoundly. Bit by bit this created in me a need to search for a greater form of expression, in that sense of speaking to the sociopolitical context—extreme poverty, infant mortality. 

AT There are four movements to Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo. Could you elaborate on the narrative construction of these movements? 

JO In the beginning, I introduce an epic theme, as if one were entering a landscape of the great volcanoes or the great peaks. Then I fashion, to the greatest extent possible, traits of autochthonous music, and without falling into musical chauvinism—which would be very dangerous—to situate it in a certain place of solemnity. So it’s an epic in theme, as when one arrives and observes a landscape full of volcanoes and peaks. That theme little by little becomes painful by way of the choir, the orchestra, the back and forth between the orchestra and the choir, and progressively the dawn begins to break. When I introduce certain glissandos, the emergence of the high notes from the flutes, for example, the harmonics of the string instruments, then I start to combine them, very discretely, with the aluminum sound utensils. Little by little, it begins to express a dawn or a dusk, which becomes more and more transparent. Then within the symphonic structure, there’s a violent theme that expresses the drama, a certain ire, as well as a certain form of resentment. So that builds the symphonic structure, an epic and lyrical theme contrasted with a violent one. That’s what defines the first movement. 

Now there’s another movement, which is like a triple time scherzo. Here I build on a version of a work that already exists, En los cerros de Ilóm, which is an opera. I take that scherzo and magnify it by means of a chorus and orchestra where the rhythmic structure becomes more and more complex. Then there’s a third movement, which I believe is a central, very slow movement. The fourth movement has a festive theme, like a town party, and the textures of the choir begin to take shape in the context of that festive theme. Then begins the siege of militaristic voices, which reflect or rather which sketch out or offer a somewhat metaphoric image of the armed conflict. The extreme misery, extreme poverty, infant mortality, all that suffering of a people who despite everything sing at a town party is cut short by violence. This is all represented with sounds and with voices. 

AT Was voice—and in specific languages, such as the Mayan, and other Indigenous voices as featured in Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo—always important and in what ways?

JO Yes, the sound textures formed with the phonemes of Indigenous languages have great importance. I’ve even coined a term for this, “Humanophonal Flux.” The textures at a sonorous linguistic level are important from the moment that they reflect a social aspect of daily life, but at the same time they reflect the special accent of an ancestral voice or voices projecting a state of subjugation, a state of domination.

AT Werner Herzog—who made a film about South America [Fitzcarraldo, 1982] and spent a lot of time in the Amazon—in an interview describes how the sounds of birds and nature might at first be beautiful, but when one is immersed in them, the sounds of birds and nature can become sounds of pure agony. Do you agree with him, considering the first movement begins with nature and the impressive quality of America, that the concept of violence also exists in nature? Or do you think it comes purely from man?

JO I think perhaps he had been so immersed in the pain of a place in Latin America subjugated into poverty that listening to those birds made him draw a parallel between the social circumstances and the ominous or suffering songs of birds. It can even sound like painful singing, or the terrible songs of a terrible society. I think that a bird is removed from the pain of man, but a man connects the bird to the pain in his imagination, because the bird represents freedom and its song is free, but for a man who isn’t free, its voice must sound like Eugenio Borja’s. And if Borja goes out into the country, he’s bound to think that birds sing dramatically. Anyway, I think I’m messing with Herzog [laughs].

SB Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo clearly responds to Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony. How do you understand that work, especially considering that he was a Czech composer who landed in the U.S. and tried to claim a black or Indigenous sound, in some sense exoticizing it? How do you respond by way of the Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo, as someone who is a particular product of the world you’re describing? That is, as someone who was born here and grew up here, not someone coming from abroad.

JO Well, I knew Dvořák’s New World Symphony very well. And Dvořák was a genius musician, with a marvelous melodic gift and a brilliant way of handling the orchestra. All his symphonies, his songs, his works have been arranged for violin and piano by Fritz Kreisler; they’re really admirable. Now, when he decides to create the New World Symphony, it’s evident that he takes from Indigenous sources. It is a bit like when a tourist comes to take pictures. He incorporates it and with his genius he does it very well, brilliantly. As great as the New World Symphony is, it still has a touristic background. He observed, captured, heard, captured, but he wasn’t born here.

SB We could say he fetishized it.

JO He wasn’t born here. It wasn't a conscious decision to do so, but the Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo is to a certain extent contesting the New World Symphony. The admiration for the New World Symphony by Dvořák is authentic and I think that the whole musical world—listeners, composers, performers—they all admire and will continue to admire Dvořák. But the work of someone who’s lived a sociopolitical circumstance, who’s lived alongside the pain of a people, has to have a different sound and, without deciding to do so, winds up being rebellious. In truth it’s a bit hard to address this; they're European and God forbid they feel we're talking about them.

SB I can’t help but step back and think about everything that’s going on, what it means to be doing this Sinfonía desde el Tercer Mundo right now, and after everything you’ve done, after all you’ve fought, after all you’ve suffered—I can almost see you now as a character you yourself could have written. It’s like there was an Eugenio Borja or a Joaquín Orellana who was struggling his whole life creating, and there were all kinds of mirages or illusions along the way, yet he still believed in what he was doing.

JO I’ve always had a feeling—without focusing on it too much or giving it a lot of importance—that I portrayed myself a lot in my music and in these characters. It would have been impossible to create Borja if I myself hadn’t had the life experiences he had. And then there’s El violín valsante de Huis Armadel [The waltzing violin of Huis Armadel], after having seen the failure of so many violinists’ dreams, seeing them wind up alienated by a passion for an instrument that had become a kind of fetish, aspiring and clawing their way up by making the violin a god of music. In that sense I myself come to be a Huis Armadel. So I think that one puts the music on the table or on the keyboard without realizing that one is putting oneself on the table too. I have a tendency to forget all that and say, “I’ve created this, but I’m apart from it.” The truth is that I’m not apart from it.

Recently I told myself, “Look, Joaquín, you did what you could, you threw yourself into the work. If they’re going to remember you, fine, if they’re going to forget you, that’s okay, too.” You’re between those alternatives—either the work will be shown and then die and be forgotten, or the work will give you a symbolic immortality. And then if you can hear from below, you’ll say, “Well, I died in peace.” If I were asked what I wanted from the next life I would answer, “peace.” Society today is overwhelming. To leave your house, get on the bus and not know if there’s going to be the bang-bang of a stray bullet and you won’t make it home again has given us Guatemalans a collective paranoia. Everyone distrusts any laborer, any suspicious-looking person who gets on a bus … everyone starts looking at each other. So that’s part of this angst, in a very general and universal sense. 

SB I would like to ask you about the visual and spatial dimension of your musical work, beginning with the sound utensils. Do you see them as sculptures?

JO Yes, I think about the visual aspect of the sound utensils when considering them as sculptures. A small zenithal light that in some way glorifies every utensil the moment it’s about to be played. At other times, they have to be in the shadows then illuminated, otherwise there would be a kind of standstill. I do the same when Sacratávica shows, even when using some prerecorded sounds. When Imposible a la X shows, I give the spotlight to the orchestra so that the musicians are part of the structure.

AT During the days of documenta 14 when the symphony is not being performed, do you think the sound utensils could remain as visible sculptures or part of some exhibit?

JO They can be viewed as sculptures. I should clarify that this wasn’t my direct intention, but it’s been a result. I think Carlos was right when he said these were accidental sculptures. 

SB I think we’ve touched upon this in a different way and through different questions, but how do you feel about this invitation? About having the chance at this point in your life to go to Athens and to Kassel, to have the support, to have this conceptual framework?

JO My first feeling was incredulity. I was taken by surprise, almost telling myself that this is a dream but at the same time not, because this isn’t about someone who’s not used to being in different countries through his books and with his works. In reality it’s a series of very particular and personal sensations that stand in contrast to all the hardship and the lack of resources and the unwavering struggle. It’s in that sense that from the start I felt surprised, to the point of almost not believing it, based on previous experiences. Now I tell myself, “Well, it’s great that I get this opportunity, and in the old world, which has such a vast cultural heritage, that a little Guatemalan from little Guatemala gets to show a work,” and that there are even different appreciations of the sound utensils, such deep appreciations from the aesthetic viewpoint of the visual arts too. And maybe I tell myself, “Oh, it turns out you were an intuitive person beyond what you thought, what a great son of a bitch you are” [laughs].

Joaquín Orellana’s studio, Guatemala City, 2016

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