Sunday, 15 April 2007

Biography in English

I was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 1958. Following studies in my native city at Instituto Laredo, I became a pupil of Alberto Villalpando in La Paz, and of Takashi Iida and Akira Ifukube in Japan. In Tokyo I also studied the violin under the eminent Takeshi Kobayashi. In 1984 I came to the United Kingdom and studied for an MMus at Liverpool University and a PhD at City University, London.

I began musical life as a child performer in 1969, singing and playing the charango in folk clubs. When my voice broke I had to stop singing and began to practise the charango harder; efforts paid off when I won an inter-provincial charango competition in 1971. At around the same time I came into contact with classical music. I became captivated by the chamber music of Brahms and Beethoven, and the large-scale orchestral writing of Wagner, Mahler and the Russian Symphonists up to Shostakovich. My early works were, excitedly if somewhat disparately, modelled on these influences. When I moved to La Paz in 1974, I had to make ends meet as a fifteen-year old living in the capital away from home, so I deployed my incipient skills on the violin and took a back-desk job at the National Symphony Orchestra. I began to hear performances of my works from about this time, and in 1975 my Rapsodia won the national composers’ competition celebrating 150 years of Bolivian independence. I began teaching in 1977 at the National Conservatoire in La Paz, where I taught harmony and composition, followed by language teaching in Tokyo and Komagane, Japan. In the United Kingdom my jobs included four years as Composer-in-Residence at Queen’s University, Belfast, where the duties included the chairmanship of the Sonorities Festival. Following a spell as lecturer in Dartington College of Arts, in 1995 I was appointed lecturer in composition at Newcastle University , then senior lecturer and, from August 2007, chair in composition.

My list of works includes the operas Teoponte, which was commissioned for the 1988 London International Opera Festival and The Wheel, commissioned by the Royal Opera House’s Garden Venture in 1992. The electroacoustic works Wounded Angel and Silent Towers are available on commercial CDs, as is Botanic Spider. Danza de la loma has been performed and broadcast by orchestras in the UK, Ireland and Spain. Fuego and Peregrine have received premières at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, the latter also being played repeatedly at The Sage Gateshead. Following the good reception accorded in March 2000 to the orchestral-choral work Approaching Melmoth with Northern Sinfonia and NS Chorus and Sir Thomas Allen in the solo part, a new commission, Mystical Dances, received its première at the Huddersfield Festival in November 2006, and was performed again on 1 August 2007 at The Sage Gateshead, conducted by Alexander Shelley. String Quartet No. 1, 'Montes', dedicated to the memory of painter Fernando Montes, was written for the Momenta Quartet of New York and, since 2008, is being widely performed by them. A youthful work, Misa de Corpus Christi, for childrens' choir, mixed choir, baritone and orchestra, was recently reconstructed following its loss (I had binned it in a bout of self-censorship in the early 1990s), and received a series of performances by Orquesta Juvenil del Instituto Laredo with massed choirs, opening with a première at Centro de Convenciones El Campo, Cochabamba, on 28 October 2010. A Bolivian tour of this work followed in 2011.

Recent projects include, among others, Notes from Underground a collaboration with the wonderful poet Sean O'Brien, who is a fellow resident of Newcastle and a fellow professor at the Newcastle University. It was commissioned by Durham Book Festival 2016 and premièred in that city's Gala Theatre by Benjamin Appl, Voices of Hope and members of Royal Northern Sinfonia conducted by Clark Rundell. The work has been performed again in Newcastle and in Cluj-Napoca. I am currently writing a new version of this work for full orchestra to replace the large chamber ensemble of the original. String Quartet No. 2, 'Sin tiempo', a Koussevitzky commission for the Momenta Quartet, was premièred at Williams College, Massachusetts, in November 2013 and subsequently performed a number of times in the USA, most recently in Philadelphia in November 2017. It was also performed by the Profil Quartet in Bucharest. Río Bravo (Fierce River)  for large chamber ensemble was premièred at Lincoln Center by New Juilliard Ensemble in October 2016. This piece, too, will receive the full orchestral treatment in due course.

I have been fortunate enough to have my work performed at numerous festivals, such as London International Opera Festival, Focus (New York), Sonorities (Belfast), Jornadas de Música Contemporánea (La Paz and Cochabamba), Festival Latinoamericano de Música (Caracas), Encontro Latinoamericano de Compositores e Intérpretes (Belo Horizonte), Nutida Musikdagar (Malmö), International New Music Week (and its renamed version SIMN2017, Bucharest), Sigismund Toduța Festival (Cluj-Napoca), Huddersfield Festival and others.

I regularly return to Bolivia for projects of various kinds, most recent a fortnight at Instituto Laredo working with the teachers and conducting their Youth Orchestra on an all-Beethoven programme. I also have a strong connection with Romania (Cluj-Napoca and Bucharest) and my visits there provide ever-renewing inspiration and energy.


bill kilpatrick said...

maestro - a few questions from the pits, please:

- do you find composing for the charango difficult?

- do 5-courses and re-entrant tuning present problems unique to the instrument?

- do certain keys lend themselves more favorably to composition and play?

i know nothing of composition and only a basic understanding of charango technique (rasguedo, tremolo, etc.) but i would have thought that anyone writing for the instrument in any style other than an andean folk tradition could easily turn their composition into a sequential roll-call of charango effects - more emphasis put on the instrument and what it can do technically and less on the piece.

clumsy - sorry ... what i mean is - why the charango? what does it have that other instruments do not? does it have weaknesses? does it stand alone or is it simply there for andean atmosphere and flavor?

please understand i ask out of respect for the instrument and because i want to know it better.

sincerely - bill

Agustín Fernández said...

Hello Bill,

Agustín for you!

Yes, I find it hard to write for the charango, because of its limited range (the highest string is only an octave higher than the lowest in standard tuning) and because many of the effects that characterise it are bound up with a performing tradition that is difficult, if not impossible, to convey in writing.

I don't think the re-entrant tuning poses a problem, anymore than any other kind of tuning. You learn to find your way through it as you learn the instrument. Speaking of tuning, now that I have a very good quality instrument from Gamboa (senior maker in Cochabamba) I have begun to experiment with a slight variation in the tuning, bringing the middle course down to D. I find that this extends the instrument's harmonic and melodic capabilities considerably.

Yes, clearly A minor and E minor are the best, at least in standard tuning. This is because these keys make the most of the bright resonance of the open strings. In my modified tuning, D major or minor becomes quite good too.

I agree with you, Bill, on the pitfalls of writing for this instrument from outside the Andean tradition. While it would be absurd to say that anybody who didn't grow up on the Andes is not authorised to write for the charango, I would assert that belonging to the same performing tradition as the instrument makes it easier to do justice to its expressive and technical idiosyncrasies. I clarify "performing tradition" because, of course, birthright means nothing, for in any country there are people who do not turn their attention to their own tradition but are content to fawn over the marketing force of international pop.

Of course the charango has its weaknesses, but much depends on where you are coming from. It has limited harmonic capabilities by comparison with the guitar, but if you learn to live within a limited pitch range you can do wonderful things. I think it does stand alone and I look forward to the development of a repertoire that does justice to its potential. I intend to continue to contribute to this cause.

Thrilling to see your interest in this instrument.