Orchestrating the Fandango
The baton quivers and trembles with rhythmic similarity to the lilting violin solo. He wipes black locks from his black eyes, only to have the strands cascade back onto his forehead. He concentrates on the musical scoreblack lines, white spaces, black note heads. Six measures from now he must summon a resonating chord that will vibrate through the audience. Five measures. He shifts his weight on the platform. Three measures. Sheet music rustles as bows scrape the stage and musicians adjust their posture. Two measures. The violinist trills the descending notes of his solo. Trrrtrrrtrrrtrr. One.
Federico thrusts his arms to the stage lights, tosses his black hair, leans far over his music stand, and pulls notes out of the horns, woodwinds, and strings. The tangy chord tumbles into a passage of spicy eighth-notes as Federico's baton twitches in a triangular pattern1, 2, 31, 2, 3. The Spanish-style orchestration spins and twirls, seducing the audience with progressions of minor chords. This is his orchestration, this is his music. This is Federico's world-premiere of Fandango.
Originally from Bogotá, Colombia, Federico arrived in Pittsburgh in 2001. He's a graduate student with a scholarship and musical grant from the University of Pittsburgh, studying composition, musicology, and conducting.
“The reason why I am here is because the music is not very broad in Colombia,” he explains.
He is sitting in the bare-walled Pitt graduate student office on Bellefield Avenue, lounging in a wheeling desk chair, propping the ankle of his skinny right leg on his left knee. He wears blue corduroys, brown loafers, and a thin argyle sweater. His full black beard, thick black eyebrows, and black curls tapping the nape of his neck contrast his robust head against his lean limbs.
“When I first got here, I was fascinated by the library. Colombia has no books,” he says, shrugging and noting that the schools in Colombia lack extensive texts in the music field.
He initially spent more time studying musicology than composing, more clapping with Pittsburgh audiences than performing. Heinz Hall is home to one of dozens of fine orchestras in the United States, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO). Federico can think of only two somewhat reputable orchestras in Colombia.
“Going to the PSO is a revelation,” he says, “To see professional musicians playing well, with no stupid errors.”
Federico also spent the first few months learning Pittsburghese. When PAT bus drivers announced bus stops, he couldn't understand them even though he read the street names on the bus schedule. Once, he mistakenly pledged thirty dollars to a telemarketer in a misunderstanding over the telephone. Over time, he has adjusted the weekday Pittsburgh dialect. On the weekends, he spends his time with other Spanish-speaking graduate students.
“On Mondays, my English is dormant,” he observes, “It is very curious.”
As a 25-year-old modern composer, Federico is frequently asked the question: How do composers compose?
Personally, he doesn't write music to capture an emotion or life circumstance. Many modern composers have attempted to recreate the agony of the September 11 attacks. Recently, his own Uncle was killed in a bombing in Colombia, but he doesn't plan to compose music about the incident.
“I want to create musical buildings for their own sake,” he says.
He spends more time creating rules and boundaries for his compositions than actually writing the pitches of the notes. He calls his method Free Systematizationhis personal thesis that he developed at the Universidad Javeriana in Columbia. His aim is to create a texture of musicindividual notes are not important to him.
On his swiveling chair, Federico wheels himself from his nonchalant position at the office desk to the keyboard on the other side of the room. He demonstrates how he improvises melodies at the keyboardplunks a few keys, jots a tune onto sheet music with a pencil, and later types his music onto a computer. Composition animates Federico's eyes, smile, and entire being.
After setting a musical key and rhythmic pattern for a piece, Federico creates a unique system to combine all of the elements into a complex structure. Instead of using a standard Sonata or Concerto form, he builds his own format. In his current working composition, he improvises short musical melodies and labels each melody with a letter of the alphabet. He organizes the melodic motifs in the pattern of the letters in his favorite poem, The First Anniversary, by John Donne. It was written in 1610 as a eulogy for fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Drury. More importantly, it symbolizes the seventeenth century scientific revolution.
The history of science is a subject that greatly intrigues Federico. He has read extensively about Copernicus and the debates over whether the world was at the center of the universe. It was the first time that science separated from the church. By separating from religion, science also cleaved from morality.
“Copernicus was shaking everything, philosophy was turning at that time,” he says, “Now scientists don't care about ethics or morality.”
Today, he worries about the implications of cloning and genetic engineering. He believes that human purity existed before the separation of religion and science. With his music, he tries to portray his academic passion for the history of science.
“The procedure for discovering things in scienceI was always convinced that the scheme is the same in music,” adds Federico.
As science is a slow progression of research and testing theories, chess is a progression of testing strategies, and music is a progression of finding the right notes.
“That's the kind of ideas that strike me and get me started with a work,” he grins.
Federico's intellectual passion that transects into music is what truly makes him a modern composer.
Federico's orchestration of Fandango is based off of a composition for the harpsichord by Spaniard Antonio Soler in 1730. At that time, Spain was secluded from central Europe where the rules of German musicology were nearly considered God's word. Musically, Fandango violates the most sacred commandmentsno parallel octaves and gradual key modulations. Federico expanded Soler's simple two-voice counterpoint piece into a full-scale orchestration of his own composition. He used modern twenty first century techniques and his own Free Systematization to shape the texture of the piece.
At the keyboard in the student office, Federico plays reference points that he constructed the Fandango around, a sudden F modulation that he wrote for the horn section, a series of low notes for the bass drum. His mind whizzes faster than notes can be played as his excitement overflows through his fingers. He smiles proudly when he plays a chord progression that parallels the end of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
“The whole thing was problem solving, I was incredible,” he says with a sly smile.
At the concert, the Fandango purrs with a zesty Spanish rhythm as Federico repeatedly flicks his white baton1, 2, 31, 2, 3. His slim figure draped in concert black and is firmly planted on the stage, but his tussling hair refuses to stay in place with the excitement of the piece. He maintains his rhythmic conducting as the horn section violates a sacred rule and a sudden modulation blares from two sharps to one flat. Castanets rattle and cellos draw the repeating bass line out of their f-holes. As the piece escalates, Federico rises on his toes, frantically whipping his baton, in an attempt to tame the unruly Fandango. As the orchestra strains to play fortisstissimo, the loudest dynamic marking possible, string bow hairs snap, and the cheeks of brass players turn red. Federico stands erect in the middle of it allhe challenges Copernicus at the center of the universeat the center of the orchestra, in the center of the music hall. Federico and the Fandango fight for Free Systematization.