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The composer's muse as master.

"What I want doesn't matter. My music does not obey me!"

When Uruguayan composer Miguel del Aguila sets out to create a new work, the process literally takes on a life of its own, often leaving the composer as surprised at the outcome as his audiences are when they first hear one of his creations.

"I may have a psychological concept in mind," the 36-year- old native of Montevideo allows, "but the themes develop in a different way, going in another direction than I may wish to take them. I never decide what the direction of my music should be; it evolves and my style evolves in every piece. It's totally subconscious when I'm writing; I don't plan my pieces. In the end I have to do what they want!"

Such frank admissions come as naturally from del Aguila as do the brooding, rhythmically agile works his growing international reputation is thriving upon. A gifted pianist whose career has gradually shifted from performance to composition, del Aguila has stirred passionate interest among the traditionally conservative classical music media world. "The turbulent fantasy of the composer blazes unbeaten trails, delighting the listener with an infinite variety of thematic, rhythmic and harmonic surprises," reported a Ukranian newspaper after the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra performed his work. "Del Aguilar's use of small thematic and rhythmic cells creates the effect of near to obsessive vitality," wrote an Austrian critic. "The gesture of his music seems to be inspired by the dramatic action of an imaginary stage." And his hometown newspaper, El Pais, termed him "a spontaneous creator who expresses himself with precision, fluency and an unusual assurance of ideas and form."

Before emigrating to the United States when he was 21 to study at the San Francisco Conservatory, del Aguilar had been strictly schooled in the European tradition by private teachers in Uruguay. "I only played Mozart," he says with some amusement today. "I wasn't allowed to play anything else! And it's like that in many places in the world, especially in Europe where they're very traditional."

But the budding talent was too curious about the abundance of music he discovered throughout the Western Hemisphere to allow himself to be limited by a rigid, Euro-oriented, traditional, classical music outlook. Soon after completing composition studies in Vienna, del Aguila began to express himself in ways that raised more than a few eyebrows.

"I've enjoyed shocking Europeans, especially the Viennese, who are very conservative," he admits. "For instance, right in the middle of something that sounds totally like classical music I'd put elements that would create the feeling of a Brazilian carnaval or a big band from the 1940s. And I think it's also part of the way I am: I don't want to belong to any school or limit myself in any way. I'm many things."

Part of the composer's fresh perspective comes from his view of himself as an American in the truest sense of the word. "Yes, I consider myself an American, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. When I'm in New York, I feel at home, and if I were in the south of Argentina it would still be in America. And that's the way my music is; I never separate it. It's like Latin jazz, they are together and you cannot tell which part is which."

To illustrate his point, del Aguila refers to a song made famous by the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the 1940s. "Caravan," composed by Puerto Rican native Juan Tizol, a trombonist and member of Ellington's band, stands as one of the earliest effective marriages of the Latin and jazz idioms. "When you hear it," del Aguila explains, "you have the product of two cultures together, and what comes out of it is totally crazy."

If he admits to one tendency in his writing, it is a conscious effort to break the divisions that exist between popular styles, folk music and the classical tradition. "Frankly, I have never understood this division," he states. "Today, a composer like me can have influences that range from Latin American folklore and American jazz of the 1940s to Monteverdi. We have the freedom to choose our influences, except, of course, the Latin American influence. That is part of my childhood. The rest of it I pick because I like it."

What perplexes him is that so many of his Latin American contemporaries have chosen to turn their backs on their heritage. "There are many Latin American musicians in Europe," del Aguila says, "but the problem is that they've forgotten where they came from. I'm always fighting with them, telling them, 'You have so much; all these Europeans dream of knowing the rhythms you naturally know.' Latin American rhythms can be so complicated, yet for us, they are second nature."

Del Aguila is also an impassioned proponent of the music of Latin America's greatest composers. "I love the music of Astor Piazzolla," he states with great conviction. "There are many people who are great classical composers who will be forgotten; but he will be remembered as a classical composer for a long time."

In his own music, del Aguila introduces Latin motifs in unexpected ways. For his work "Gaucho Caravan," he scored the harpsichord to approximate the sound of a gaucho's plaintive guitar. And, in a promising direction, he is expanding his writing into the realm of opera, an especially fertile field for drawing upon Latin American themes. His first attempt was inspired by events that unfolded in neighboring Argentina when he was a student in Uruguay. Del Aguila wrote 200 pages of a libretto based on the trials of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, mothers of missing children believed to have been abducted by Argentine security forces during that country's "dirty war" of the late 1970s.

"Finally, I just threw it all away," he says today to underscore just how seriously he takes his work. "When you start writing something which is very big," he states pointedly, "you have to be 100 percent convinced of the validity of it. I liked the story very much, but it started to be a little too dark, and I realized that it was not what I wanted. I'm very glad I discarded it because I was right about my feelings."

The work on the opera about the Plaza de Mayo mothers turned out to be useful preparation for a major work he has just completed on the conquest of the Aztecs by Hernan Cortes. "For several years, I'd become more aware of the coming of the quincentennial, and I thought I had to make a statement about it. Finally, a book written from the Aztec view of the Europeans decided everything for me."

Cuauhtemoc, a three-act, 15-scene opera in Spanish that chronicles the arrival of the conquistadors and the fall of Cuauhtemoc, the last emperor of the Aztecs, proved to be one of del Aguila's most challenging projects. Basing his music on a libretto by J. Ramon Enriquez, the composer has attempted to capture the spirit of such singular characters as the young emperor (the tenor part) and Cortes (the baritone). The opera will debut in either Los Angeles or Mexico.

Experiences in his formative years have helped shape del Aguila's strong personal sense of drama and tragedy and have sharpened his appreciation of the role of the arts in contemporary societies. "I left Uruguay at the darkest time of its political repression," he recalls. "I left because I was active as a pianist and the military government had a requirement that forced everyone to sign a certificate of democratic faith. You had to obtain it from the police, and to get it they had to prove that you weren't against the military. I never got it and I wasn't allowed to work." For those who think it can't happen elsewhere, del Aguilar warns, "You'd be surprised how little it takes to cross that line. Situations can become very difficult, and art may be considered expendable by the government."

Having lived through times that required serious artists to compromise their work by conforming to arbitrary standards has only strengthened del Aguila's commitment to serve only one master: his ever independent, often unruly artistic soul. "I never want to hide in technical excess or constructivist games," he states. "At the end of a concert, the one comment I hear most often is that the music is sincere. Whatever they understood, it was clear that I was writing what I felt."

Mark Holston, a lifetime musician, writes about jazz and Latin music for a variety of publications.
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Title Annotation:Uruguayan composer Miguel del Aguila
Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:May 1, 1993
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