Interview with Pablo Chin

Nina Dante : Si Chavela Met Matta started out as a work for solo voice (I), which I commissioned for the Resonant Bodies Festival, and which now exists in chamber orchestra (III) and trio form (II), the latter of which will be premiered on November 16 at Elastic. At the center of the work are traces of two iconic Latin American creators: Mexican folk singer Chavela Vargas, and Chilean painter Roberto Matta. Could you tell us about the origins of this series, and why it has proven to be such fertile ground for your imagination?

Pablo Chin : Si Chavela Met Matta I, like the innermost Russian doll, is embedded in the three acoustic pieces that you mentioned above, and a fixed media piece. It represents to me a convergence of different conflicts that I hope come across the listening experience. On the one hand there is the conflict of reconciling the source material, mainly the iconic and unique voice of Mexican folk artist Chavela Vargas, with the voice of a classically trained singer. (Chavela is well known in the Spanish speaking world, but think of similar iconic singers like Louis Armstrong or Edith Piaf…) The performer isn’t meant to imitate Chavela or to be overshadowed by her figure, but rather, to find in her art a point of departure to discover new alternatives in the performer's own performance practice. Chavela's voice and words gave me and my piece a vital force and deep layers of meaning, but the piece is ultimately meant to be owned by the performer. More than any instrument, the human voice projects so much specificity about a subject, that composing a piece for a vocalist based on another vocalist represents a huge conflict.

Another conflict arises from the sincere desire to create a connection between a musical language I have been cultivating for years, and musicians whose practice is technically and aesthetically distanced from such language. This is relevant for the third manifestation of this piece in its greater setting, for voice, piano, percussion and chamber ensemble. It was composed for the Symphony Orchestra of Heredia in Costa Rica and was premiered by them last summer. When I left my home country in 2006 there were no consolidated platforms for living composers, or ensembles dedicated to performing contemporary classical music. The Symphony Orchestra Heredia is only a few years old, and I am greatly honored to have them undertake the task of performing my music. Working with them is a rewarding challenge for composer and performers: not only the so-called extended techniques and non-conventional forms of notation in my music are exceptions in their repertoire, but the aesthetic itself is also unusual for their practice. Ironically, while my piece in this summer's concert was perceived by the audience as extremely abstract, I myself heard it as a sort of post-decadent piece, recalling sediments of Schoenberg-like atonal works though resulting from completely different processes than those of the Viennese School, and also aiming at different goals.

The conflict here may be imposed by myself, but it demands that I step out of the bubble of my personal practice and immerse into another practice while remaining consistent with my artistic impulses and goals. For more than a decade I have composed for ensembles, institutions and audiences for which my work falls within the normal range of musical practice. Confronting other contemporary music scenes shakes that comforting ground. Si Chavela met Matta forced me to rethink myself against my previous self – a meeting of two selves just as the fictional meeting of Chavela and Roberto Matta! And this fictional meeting represents a third conflict in the piece, but that I will respond in the next question.

ND : Your compositional process to create the Si Chavela Met Matta series is a departure from your usual method: you essentially composed the works electronically, using source material from Chavela Vargas and Roberto Matta, and then transcribed it for live performance. Could you tell us about that process? Why did you decide to take this compositional route? How much of a departure is it from your normal process?

PC : An essential element in this piece was the creation of an artificial language, just as you and I did with a previous piece, Como la leyenda de Tlön. In that piece I asked you to write a poem in a language of a fictional planet, created in a fictional country in a fictional story by J.L. Borges. Borges gave some clues about how that language may sound, in the form of very few words. You used those phonemes to create a vocabulary that later I set to music. In Si Chavela met Matta, I used a recording of Vargas singing a capella Las cosas simples in an interview shortly before she died. I loaded the recording in a granular synthesis application, which I used to speed up, slow down, freeze, play forwards and in reverse, and change the pitch of the recording, all "drawing" on the touchpad of my laptop. Then I superimposed the audio file over a painting of Matta, Le coeur de l'oeil, and recorded many sound files distorting Chavela's recording by "drawing" over the contours of the painting. The results are alternations between unintelligible language and snippets of Spanish text, and between computerized sounding voice and the warmth of Chavela's voice. The resulting “language” is nearly schizophrenic!

The instrumental parts were composed using the same process, but instead of "drawing" over Chavela's voice I used a series of chord progressions that were similarly distorted. I imagined a couple of bongos and a guitar accompanying Chavela, hence the percussion and piano parts. The ensemble parts were further conversions of these deformed/transformed progressions and were meant as musical commentary over the course of the piece.

In addition to these three acoustic pieces, I used the processed audio files to create a fixed media piece, bringing out the original voice of Chavela Vargas over the original distortions of the chord progressions. This whole process was an expansion of previous attempts to free my music from rationally constructed compositional paths and follow more visceral impulses; to accept giving up control over the form and soundworld of the piece.

ND : Leading up the my first performance of the solo Si Chavela Met Matta, you asked me to create modest scenery for the performance: table, chair, a few simple adornments. For me, this illuminated the work on a deeper level when it came time to perform it: I was suddenly in the time, place, and soul that the music evokes. Your work for voice is so emotional and so uniquely narrative that theater inevitably emerges. Do you feel a strong theatrical impulse when writing vocal works? Do you feel that a theatrical context is the ultimate culmination of some of these works?

PC : More than theater, I feel compelled by narrative. I find sound in the abstract very expressive, but I find more satisfaction in searching and finding connections between sound and narrative experiences, and the voice easily leads to such endeavors. The setting in Si Chavela is meant to project the vulnerability, sincerity and humility of the context in which Chavela's a cappella recording took place: a casual interview, and her spontaneous singing removed from the grandeur of her shows at world class theaters with massive crowds and media attention. After all, the source recording of the piece is titled Las cosas simples/The simple things.