The birth of a symphony

merge_from_ofoct (1)I have just delivered the score of my first symphony, “Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda: Symphony in Four Movements” titled after the homonymous novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Commissioned by the Orquesta y Coro Nacionales de España to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death, it will be premiered by conductor David Afkham and the National Orchestra of Spain in Madrid on September 30, with two additional performances also in Madrid on October 1st & 2nd, and two performances in Mexico: one during the Festival Internacional Cervantino on October 11 and a second one in Mexico City on October 13.

What a journey it has been! What surprises me the most is how well the creative process flowed. I started writing it in mid-January and concluded it in mid June, which means that it took me five months to complete, or to be exact, 19 weeks (I had to take one week off due to a trip to NY in May). Naturally, I still had to spend an additional five weeks editing the score, but that is not part of the creative process itself. To be honest, the writing of this piece went much more smoothly than expected, especially if one takes into account how not very optimistic I was at the beginning, when I was about to face this daunting task.

Back in early January I traveled to Chicago for the last four performances of “Bel Canto” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Back then, my mind was still completely immersed in “Bel Canto” and there was not much more room in my head for additional notes. The good thing about my two-week stay was that the rehearsals were over and that I was on my own and had a lot of time in my hands…at least for the first few days, because then it got really busy with interviews, social events and other engagements. In those few precious days when I had all the time of the world I listened to lots of music, in particular David Bowie’s experimental instrumental music and Giacinto Scelsi’s orchestra works. I must confess I hadn’t listened to David Bowie’s music before, but after his passing I took an interest in his very last album and that led me to discover his previous songs. Scelsi interested me because of his obsession to write using solely a single note, and I was interested in understanding how he was able to create monumental orchestral works with such limited materials. This is not to say that my first symphony was directly influenced either by Bowie’s or Scelsi’s work, but rather it was more a reflection of my desire to explore music that I wasn’t at all familiar with and which challenged my conception of how to employ music materials. You see, after “Bel Canto”, I was incredibly exhausted both intellectually and emotionally. I wouldn’t say I was drained or out of ideas because I wasn’t; I just wanted to explore a new path, but I was weary of doing so because during the previous five years, since 2010, I had been using a system that I pretty much employed in every single composition I wrote during that period of time. I thought I had finally found my working method, a method that I would use for the foreseeable future, but “Bel Canto” pushed me to my limits, effectively leaving no stone unturned. I had given it all. I could have had continued to use my system, a system which I had already begun to master, but after five full years of exploring it, I wanted to try something else.

I will now try to briefly explain the system I am talking about. I will, however, refrain from a full analytical explanation because that is not the main topic I want to address today. Also, if you have never had any kind musical training, please feel free to skip to the next paragraph. The system employs as its basic building block a fixed group of pitches that are always associated with a specific frequency. For example, if I want to use an A, that A needs to be always 440Hz. Normally I favor spacing out the notes in more or less equidistant intervals, and in “Bel Canto” my preferred intervals were the 4th and the Augmented 4th, but the system allows for all kinds of intervals to be included. Now, as I said, this is only the basic building block; the skeleton, sort to say. Once one has chosen the fixed-frequency pitches one wants to use, a scale is derived. I tend to like 9-note scales, so those abound in many of my works, but the system allows for any number of notes. I do limit myself to the chromatic scale; in other words, I don’t employ microintervals. Once a scale is derived, one may begin to build chords on top of the scales and, consequently, many harmonic and intervallic relations arise. My system is purely harmonic and melodic because so far I haven’t tried to regulate rhythm or timbre in such strict ways, although I do try to create very tight motivic relationships through the use of recurrent intervals and rhythmic patterns.

After so many years I felt like I needed a new challenge. For all its worth, the system (like any other system) had shown its limits and there were places it wasn’t allowing me to go to. The biggest issue at hand though was time. I only had six months to write a 45-minute piece, so I didn’t have the luxury of developing another fully-fledged system before I started to work. While in Chicago I borrowed an electronic keyboard from the Lyric Opera and I spent hours improvising and trying to come up with something fresh. After a couple of days I reached a dead end, utterly frustrated by the limited amount of notes that I had in front of me. Harmony and counterpoint are incredibly important in my work, so I knew I wouldn’t go the route of focusing primarily on timbre, like the saturation movement does for example, especially as it is practiced in France. I find many of those works truly beautiful, but they were just not signaling a path that was appealing to me at that moment, or even now. I felt I had reached a dead end and this is when I decided to go back to the most basic element: a single note; a note devoid of rhythm and thus frozen in time. This is when I remembered the works of Giacinto Scelsi, which I had first encountered as a student at the Sibelius Academy.

To me it was quite unbelievable how a composer was able to deliver so many works on this unique principle, but the truth is that as interesting and daring as those works are, I knew I could not go down that path, first because it had already been done (and how!), and second because if you have ever heard my music, you know that I am not a particularly austere composer and that I love diversity and a wide stylistic and emotional range within the course of a single piece. Besides, my conception of the symphony is closer to that of the great symphonists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and although I won’t go as far as Mahler who said: “a symphony must be like the world, it must contain everything”, for me, a symphony must be -in and on itself- a clear proposition depicting the governing laws of its own self-contained world, very much like a scientific theory describing the mechanics of our universe. I know I might be pushing the comparisons a little too far, but please bear with me. I think of this symphony as describing a journey, not an open-ended journey, but a journey in the quest of enlightenment with a clear trajectory that culminates in the realization that everything is connected. I perceive Scelsi’s music as a mystical journey inwards, in permanent search for answers to the fundamental questions, and this was the trigger I needed to kick-start my symphony.

Cervantes_Persiles y Sigismunda_Book CoverTo make things even more complicated, the symphony is based on Cervantes’ “Los Trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda”, his very last novel, which he completed just days before this death. Here is one of humanity’s greatest authors leaving us a complete novel right before he undertook a journey to where we couldn’t follow him. All I can say is that if I could ever have the chance to read someone’s account of life in the afterlife, I would definitely want to read Cervantes’, as I’m pretty sure it would be incredibly entertaining given his wit and quirky humor. Jokes aside, the novel is an incredible journey fueled by the unbreakable love that a man and a woman profess to each other throughout the course of innumerable vicissitudes, all while having to pretend to be brother and sister, at times even cross-dressing in order to deceive their suitors. Their journey takes them from the gelid waters of Scandinavia to the warm Roman soil where after four books (each one corresponding to a movement of the symphony) they finally reveal their identities and are wedded under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church. This is a story of love and resilience that culminates in your, perhaps, foreseeable happy ending, but a very hard-fought, well-earned one indeed. Reflecting all of this in the symphony was not an easy task, and I chose to transmit the spirit of their struggle and subsequent joy in more loose terms rather than trying to recreate the story musically page by page. When I say “loose” I mean this in reference to the fact that I did not attempt to write a score that would literally and chronologically relate the events narrated in the book. Instead, I focused on the great arch of the story and the emotional reactions that it spurred in me.

Now is a good time to explain why I bothered so much to describe the system I had been using until now. When I began the symphony I decided to go back to following my instinct and my ears. I did of course outline a plan containing the motifs and overall arch of each movement before sitting down to write the first note, but I had by no means figured out the precise harmonic or melodic language that I would use. At times it truly felt like walking in the dark. I started by delving deep into the main four-note chromatic motif: C-C#-D-C#; this was my point of departure. Imagine a musical theme trying to emerge out of a single note (C) but as soon as it strays even the tiniest bit, it is immediately brought back to its starting point by its own weight and sense of futility. The theme starts to open up gradually and it truly permeates the whole symphony until, in the last movement, it blossoms and opens up to expose its full potential. The beginning of the fourth movement is also very telling because of its austerity. All it consists of is a single note played to a very insistent rhythmic pattern, but when it starts to merge with the theme of the first movement, it begins to realize its own potential. At some point toward the second half of the 4th movement all three previous movements are quoted, a technique that Beethoven famously used in the last movement of his 9th symphony. In my symphony, however, I decided against quoting them literally, so I presented them through the lens of the 4th movement’s theme instead. This is the kind of journey that I’m talking about, where all the characters of the novel (themes and motifs) come back and merge into a single musical manifestation therefore making us realize that everything is connected.

Writing this symphony has been a great adventure, and as I said before, I couldn’t have done it just a few years ago. I just wasn’t ready. Now I feel eager to tackle more challenges and I am thirsty for more symphonies, operas, and large-form compositions! I can now, more or less objectively, detach from my own perspective and see that I have grown from a composer who used to struggle to create a structurally cohesive 10-minute symphonic work to one that can tackle a 45-minute composition. It is rewarding, but above all, I can’t wait to share it with you. I don’t share the vision that all a piece needs to be complete is to be written on paper, rather I do believe strongly that for it to truly come to life it must be played and listened to. I have poured my soul into this symphony and although a few years from now I might look back and smile condescendingly at my present self for how seemingly daunting the task was at first, I can say that right now, right this moment, I have -in Roxane Coss’ final words- most definitely pushed myself “forward and ahead”.

About Jimmy López Bellido

My name is Jimmy López Bellido and I am a composer. I was born in Lima, Peru 40 years ago and I have lived in several places including Miami, Helsinki, Paris, and now Berkeley, California. The decision to open a blog stems out of a personal need to voice my views on the situation of the contemporary composer in our world today. Through my words, I hope to spark constructive discussion on issues relevant to the aforementioned topic. I invite you to participate by expressing your thoughts and opinions and to visit my website, at Welcome!
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