Many years ago, in fact far longer ago than I care to remember, I had a teaching position at Turtle Bay Music School, a community music school in midtown Manhattan. Although I left Turtle Bay a long time ago, I am still in touch with several students I taught there and one faculty member. That one faculty member is Octavio Vazquez. Octavio accompanied many of my students at Turtle Bay on the piano, helping them prepare for auditions, competitions and recitals. He was new to New York, via Maryland and originally from Spain. This was at the same time that Eight Strings & a Whistle was getting started. Of course, we were in search of repertoire, and I asked Octavio to compose a piece for us. The result was what ended up being the first movement of his Trio for Flute, Viola and Cello. The second and third movement were completed in 2003, a few years later. It is a technically demanding work, angular and harsh at times, while conveying a deep sense of loss or even despondency at others. Octavio tells me that those years were a particularly emotionally charged time for him, sadly marked by a series of personal losses.
Octavio’s Trio has been challenging and enormously satisfying. You’ll be able to hear us perform the work in its entirety at our annual concert at the Tenri Cultural Institute on November 20, 2015. For more information please visit our Upcoming Concerts page.
Although there have been stretches of being out of touch, Octavio and I have remained close friends since those days at Turtle Bay Music School. I am very happy that he agreed to be our next featured composer and even happier that we can share a little bit about him with all of you. Enjoy!
SG: Why did you decide to come to the United States? Did you make a conscious decision to stay once you were done with your studies, or did it just sort of happen?
OV: When I left my native Galicia to study in Madrid, in 1989, there wasn’t a single orchestra in the country (now there are two excellent professional orchestras and a growing number of very competitive community orchestras). Later on, when I finished my studies in Madrid, I wasn’t fully satisfied with my education thus far, nor with my professional opportunities in Spain at the time. I happened upon the Schirmer’s Guide to Music Schools Throughout the World, that -curiously- featured the USA prominently. I was admitted to the Peabody Conservatory, and soon after I received the Barrie de la Maza Foundation Scholarship, which allowed me to come and study in the USA.
After graduation, I received a full fellowship from the University of Maryland, where I completed my doctorate. I was looking forward to moving to a big cosmopolitan center and finding my way in my professional field. I thought of NYC and London. I visited both and NYC somehow seemed to me more of a cosmopolitan city in the sense of ‘universal’, more ‘country-less’ if you will, packed with new-comers like myself open to new experiences. A place full of unimaginable possibilities. It also helped that many of my fellow Peabody graduates felt similarly and moved to the city at about the same time. So I rented a U-haul, packed my few worldly possessions, and drove to Manhattan with nothing but a three-month sublet. That was an adventure.
SG: How does being Galician have an impact on you as a composer?
OV: As a country, Galicia is an ancient, mysterious, multi-cultural, beaten up, slowly-recovering place to be from. I’d say there is a general underlying feeling of both spirituality and skepticism (the skepticism mostly geared towards worldly things). My family being originally from the Highlands, I spent much of my childhood in a pre-industrial (or quasi-medieval) environment, and have seen since very rapid, if often very debatable, change. I have witnessed the self-inflicted, senseless destruction and loss of much of our material and cultural inheritance.
As far as composing, other than some specifically Galician pieces, such as the Galician Folk Dances, I have not made a point of writing ‘Galician music’, whatever that may mean, but just music. And yet everything has an influence. Everything we come into contact with may very well affect what we do (or don’t do) to varying degrees and oftentimes in unpredictable ways. Traumatic events that deeply affected my grandparents’ and parents’ generations, and were never discussed at home and even less in public, have made it somehow into my composing, and very forcefully too. Other pieces I’ve written are intimately linked to much earlier events, even centuries or millennia ago, and yet I feel them as if they were happening now. The question might perhaps be better left to someone else, someone with the perspective that more distance affords.
SG: Which composers have had the greatest influence on you?
OV: The list is far from unusual, but that’s just the way it is: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and many more who are well known to everyone. I will never forget the shock when as a kid I first heard part of Mozart’s Requiem, I instantly became tremendously nervous and was completely overtaken by the music. More recently, I’d single out Shostakovich and Scelsi. All of them to me are closer to each other than they are to their contemporaries. They share a closeness beyond style and circumstance, the fellowship of those who have amply transcended themselves and brought back the wonder and the magic of the great spirit, of the divine, so to speak.
SG: How would you describe your compositional process and how has it evolved over the last 10-15 years?
OV: The process itself never changed. What has evolved over time is my inner ear, my capacity for inner listening, my ability to better write down what flows through. That evolution is partly technical, partly psychological, partly spiritual. Composing is a bit of a paradox: by not doing, by getting out of the way, by fully focusing on mindless listening one can reach out (or in, or beyond) and become a vessel for that wonder that is music. But then one must remember it long enough at least to write it down, and the process of writing anything down involves a bit of analysis: what time signature was that?, what chord?, what counterpoint? Just a tiny bit of analysis, enough to take dictation. Ah!, but the simplest dictation can get in the way.The analytical mind has a knack for disturbing the not-doing state. So there you go, it’s a balance. For me it can sometimes be a bit like remembering a dream.
An image that I often use is that of finding a bed sheet half-floating in the water while out at sea. I grab it by a little corner and nail it to a rock that sticks out of the water, so that I can come back to it at any later time (this means I write down as much as I can at the moment). It’s like these rocks are sticking out of a sea, and the idea that is exposed to the air is only a small part of a whole piece of music that is already fully composed, mostly hidden under the surface of the water. I can fathom it there, the whole thing, attached to the bit that is nailed to the rock. Then comes the part when I pull the whole thing out of the water, wet and heavy as it is, and that’s a lot of work (and that’s when most of the writing happens). So when I compose something it isn’t like I am starting from nothing. It is more like hauling the already-composed piece out from under the surface of the water, wringing it, spreading it out on the beach so that it dries, and then ironing and folding as need be (that’d be the publishing part).
SG: You are quoted in Wikipedia as being primarily interested in the “…emotional impact [of your music] and direct communication with the listener”. In your notes about the Trio for Flute, Viola and Cello, you say that you were going through a very rough period emotionally. The writing is beautiful and compelling, and clearly conveys a complete loss of hope. You wrote the Trio over 10 years ago and you do seem far more optimistic these days! What or where do you draw from for the emotional content of what you aim to convey now?
OV: Hmm.. like I mentioned before, music finds me, not the other way around. Or maybe we bump into each other. After a piece ‘comes to me’, and often while I’m well into writing it, I can usually tell what it is about. Some have been related to historical events, some have been ‘portraits’ of people that I have encountered and become very close with, some have to do with archetypal life stories and the quest for spiritual realization, and some might be a tad more autobiographic, like the Trio, although somehow I don’t think those are the majority at all.
So who ‘composes’ the music? I sit there, you know, and listen. And if and when Music speaks –– in the form of a piece, which is alive just as we are –– then I write it down, as well as I can.
SG: Your music gets performed quite frequently and you have received countless positive reviews and accolades for your work from all over the world. Congratulations! Getting ones music heard is, I think, one of the more daunting necessities of any composer’s career. Can you describe your experience with this?
OV: I have been extremely fortunate to collaborate with wonderful performers from early on in my career. As a pianist myself I was part of many early performances, and I am also very aware of what makes a piece ‘grateful’ from the point of view of the performer, its ‘quality-price relationship’, so to speak.
Beyond that, music is to be heard, and to have, potentially, hopefully, a deep emotional and spiritual effect on listeners. They are as essential as the performers and the composer; it is the combination of all, their combined focused attentions, that make possible for this spiritual force we call music to flow through and manifest in the world.
SG: It is important for any artist to remain active in some way or another. We are always trying to stretch and grow whether we are performing or not. You do always seem to be working on a commission, but how else do you remain active as a composer? What reenergizes you, what inspires you?
OV: I often travel to premieres and other significant performances of my music, and work closely with conductors, soloists, and ensembles during the rehearsal process. Working with my composition students is another way. It’s a small wonder to see their inner connections develop and manifest. I also perform myself, although not as regularly as I used to. As a church music director, I conducted, performed, and improvised extensively on a weekly basis –– that intense performing activity is something I miss.
SG: In a recent conversation, you made reference to how you worked all the time when you first came to New York trying to get yourself established. It is very difficult to get to the point where one can feel a little secure and maybe even relax a little. What would your advice be to younger composers who are just getting started. And how might that tie in with your view of new music today?
OV: What I always ask young composers is, why are you doing this? You see, being a composer is something utterly irrational. It’s a horrible career choice, rather unjustifiable from a materialistic perspective. But so is falling in love. One doesn’t (usually) fall in love with the reasonable choice, but when it happens it happens. It’s clear and powerful and one has no saying in it. So my advise to them is keep that connection alive. Remember it, nurture it. Don’t forget where and why it all started. Listen to that voice and heed it, wherever it may take you –– even if it’s away from music altogether. You never know. The process is mysterious, like the water of a river flows to the ocean in the easiest, fastest possible way (convoluted as it may seem), so does the inner voice guide those who listen. Those who listen will hear.
So is too my view of music, today and ever: What’s original is not what is new –– for what is new anyway?, and what value is there in newness for the sake of it? What is original is what comes from the origin, the inner source, what is genuine. What is true to what one hears, and not made up or constructed following this or that external fashion.
The music of Octavio Vazquez has been performed throughout the US, Europe, and Asia, in venues such as Carnegie Hall, the National Auditorium of Spain and Cologne’s Philharmonie. Octavio has also written for film and collaborated with world-music artists as an arranger, orchestrator and producer, most notably with Grammy Award winner Cristina Pato. His orchestration of Negro Caravel for Ms. Pato’s CD Muller was nominated for the 2011 Spanish Music Academy Awards. He has received grants and commissions from notable organizations and artists such as Hilary Hahn, the Verdehr Trio, the New York State Council on the Arts, New Music USA, Galicia Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Galicia Symphony Orchestra, Meet the Composer, Fulbright Commission, and the Chi-Mei Foundation. His works have been recorded for many labels such as NAXOS, Marquis Classics and Bohemia Music, and by radio stations such as the Spanish National Radio, New York’s WQXR, and the Chinese International Radio. His music is published by the Conwell Publishing Group of New York. A graduate of the Adolfo Salazar Conservatory, the Royal Conservatory of Music of Madrid, the Peabody Conservatory, and the University of Maryland, Octavio has given lectures and masterclasses at many institutions such as the Manhattan School of Music, Mannes College, Johns Hopkins University, University of Maryland, Salisbury University, and Texas Christian University (USA), Carlos III and Complutense Universities (Spain), the XXXVII Congress of the International Viola Society (South Africa), and the Next Renaissance Conference (Netherlands). He teaches composition at the Nazareth College of Rochester, NY, and at the University of Santiago de Compostela. For more information please visit: www.octaviov.com.