On May 20, 2023, we will perform “Ecosystem” by Gabriel Bolaños with the UC Davis Sinfonietta at the Ann E. Pitzer Center. Gabriel completed his Ph.D. in Composition at UC Davis, and used to be our Teaching Assistant with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, including our tour of Spain. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Music Composition at Arizona State University, where he teaches courses in composition, analysis, music technology, and acoustics, and co-directs the PRISMS contemporary music festival. Below is an interview with Gabriel.
Christian Baldini: Dear Gabriel, what a pleasure it is to bring your music back to our campus! I have such fond memories of having you here as our TA many moons ago. Tell us, you are now a Professor, what are some of your fondest memories of your time in Davis, as you were working to complete your Ph.D. in composition?
Gabriel Bolaños: Thank you so much, Christian! It’s an honor for me to stay connected both personally and musically with you and with UC Davis.
I actually have only fond memories of grad school. It was stressful and challenging, but also a period of extensive creative and personal growth for me. Some of my best memories (and greatest learning experiences) were working with the Empyrean Ensemble and with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra. I learned so much about my craft and how to communicate my musical intentions to performers through these opportunities.
CB: How has life changed for you since becoming a Professor?
GB: It feels very strange to have some stability in life! Growing up, I moved every 2-3 years (often internationally), and after grad school I was bouncing all around the US and Nicaragua with my wife Megan. We have been living in Phoenix since 2019 and finally feel stable. We’re now about to start a family together- our first son, Gabriel, is due any day now!
CB: Your music is very special. It deals with sonic objects, it is related to color, texture, and also to perception. How would you explain your music to someone who is not familiar with it?
GB: My music often treats color (timbre) as a structural parameter equal to harmony. I like to collaborate with performers (or even get my hands on instruments I’m writing for) to explore new sounds and playing styles. Once I discover some interesting or unusual structures, I attempt to build a musical narrative around a tight economy of these ideas. These narratives often play with perception, ambiguity, recognizability/unrecognizability, and processes of sudden changes vs. gradual transitions.
CB: Can you talk a little bit about “Ecosystem”?
GB: I wrote this piece in 2014 for AMF- a summer music festival. I spent a long time experimenting ways to create a highly unrecognizable timbre with just the acoustic instruments. In the end, I settled on this relatively unknown technique where you tie magnetic tape to a piano string, and gently pull on/rub the tape. This produces a very complex tone with rich, unpredictable partials that sounds like an electronically synthesized sound. This timbre is central to the piece, and is a “seed” from which many of the harmonies and textures were developed. At the time I was also very interested in exploring the intersections of music and language, and I incorporated lots of whispering of various tongue-twisters in the piece to add an additional palette of unpitched colors and textures.
CB: What are some of your strongest influences as a composer and performer, and why?
GB: I love composers that focus on timbre: Grisey, Murail, Saariaho, Harvey, Vivier, Cerha, Maiguashca, and Romitelli. I greatly admire Ligeti, not just for his impeccable craft, but also because he was non-dogmatic in the way he incorporated different styles into his music and made them his own.
I grew up playing guitar and studying flamenco music and Latin American folk music. I love Sabicas, Sanlucar, Peña, Yamandú Costa, Yupanqui, Os Mutantes, and Quinteto Contrapunto.
At ASU I also teach many electronic-music classes, and have grown to like Trevor Wishart, Suzanne Ciani and Morton Subotnick. I find lots of inspiration in their electroacoustic thinking.
CB: What is your advice for young composers? How can someone find their own individual voice?
GB: I always remember the advice that my old composition professor, Fabien Lévy, gave to me: “it is better not to study composition than to study with the wrong person.”
Composition lessons are very personal and can have a deep, sustained impact on your outlook. It’s important that the student trust the instructor’s intentions and also like the instructor’s music, or it could be very damaging. Studying with the wrong person is like learning an incorrect technique on an instrument: to correct this, you have to un-learn a bad habit, and then start all over with the correct way.
More practically, I think it’s important to sketch extensively, to take all of your ideas to the extreme while sketching, and to mercilessly discard something if it is not serving the piece. For every minute of music I write, there are probably 3 minutes of discarded music that didn’t make the cut. Composing is very difficult!
CB: Thank you for your time Gabriel, and welcome back to UC Davis, this will always be your home!
GB: Thank you, Christian! I really appreciate it.
Gabriel José Bolaños Chamorro (b. 1984 Bogotá, Colombia) is a Nicaraguan/American composer of solo, chamber, orchestral and electroacoustic music. He frequently collaborates closely with performers, and enjoys writing music that explores unusual techniques, structures, and timbres. He is interested in computer-assisted-composition, auditory perception, linguistics, graphic notation, improvisation, and modular synthesizers.
Bolaños is currently an Assistant Professor of Music Composition at Arizona State University, where he teaches courses in composition, analysis, music technology, and acoustics, and co- directs the PRISMS contemporary music festival. He received a BA in music from Columbia University and a PhD in Composition and Theory from UC Davis. His music is published by BabelScores.
Bolaños has received numerous awards and grants for his work, including a Fulbright US Scholar Grant, the Suzanne & Lee Ettelson Composer’s Award, a Research & Development Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, a residency at CMMAS in Morelia, Mexico, a commission from Vertixe Sonora and Hong Kong Baptist University, and a commission from CIRM and Festival Manca in Nice, France.
Beyond his work as a composer and teacher, Bolaños has also written music for film, theater, and dance, has experience performing as a flamenco dance accompanist, and enjoys swimming, gardening, and playing folk music with his wife, Megan.
Ecosystem Program Notes – Ecosystem, as the title suggests, explores interactions between various acoustic objects within a closed system, and how these interact with each other and their environment (the performance/listening space). Perceptual ambiguity and “source recognition” - how easily a listener identifies the origins of a particular sound - play a very important structural role in the piece.