Pedro Sarmiento, composer: “By composing, I seek to give voice and transform realities, break with indifference and prejudices”
The young Colombian composer seeks to vindicate both the beauty of the scores and the social and political commitment through his music. His works have been presented in different countries of Latin America and also in the United States, Spain, Germany and France. Today, this independent artist develops his musical ingenuity with the main soloists, chamber ensembles and orchestras of Colombia. For Sarmiento, “Art must break his own indifference, it must make the unheard voice his own and above all work with and in hope”.
His music is complex and immersive. The work Discreet Reasons, written for two flutes, vibraphone and xylophone, breaks schemes and places us in a stimulating, obsessive sound space. Another piece: String for marimba. The soul of references like Steve Reich is present. Repetitive and minimalist, the composition seduces us with its simple beauty.
The author of these musical pieces is the Colombian Pedro Sarmiento. He was born in Cali, the capital of Valle del Cauca, in 1977. His relationship with music began early, in 1985, when he entered the Conservatory of Music of the National University of Colombia. Little by little, he was building his artistic career with studies in classical guitar together with teachers such as Sonia Díaz, Ramiro Isaza and Irene Gómez.
Sarmiento’s participation in groups such as the Prisma Guitar Quartet and presentations with the Symphonic Orchestra of the National University Conservatory, among other experiences, helped him today to become an outstanding contemporary composer. However, it was a process not without its difficulties. The economic crisis and violence in Colombia during the 1990s complicated the social panorama of the country. However, for Pedro, a composition student at the time, the idea was fixed: “The culture faced resistance to the situation,” he explains.
In this exclusive interview, Pedro Sarmiento tells us about his first memories with music, the impressions he has regarding the invoice and meaning of the arts and culture in Colombia and presents us with different social and political aspects to envision a better future through of the music. “I have not wanted to isolate myself from the realities that other people live in my country, in fact, I seek to understand them, analyze them, be close to this because I think that from the composition I can give voice and transform these realities, break with the indifference and prejudices that I can even have it myself,”, he envisions.
A cultural wealth through composition
- What is your first memory with music? How did you approach it? Was there a special person who showed you this world? Do you remember the first time you went to a theater?
I remember that my mother took my brothers and me to a free concert offered by the Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela at the León de Greiff Auditorium in Bogotá. For us it was the first time that we entered an auditorium and that we saw a symphony orchestra, from that moment we had a very strong connection to the point that the three of us graduated as musicians in different disciplines. I was surprised to see so many people playing together and I became very enthusiastic about the violin, which was the instrument with which I began to study music at the age of six.
- How has your culture influenced the performance of your work? Do you think that the origin of a person influences the ways of making art?
I think it is very difficult to totally uproot yourself from the culture you come from. Colombia is a socially asymmetric country and in my case I know that I am a composer who comes from the middle class emigrant from the countryside and that due to my training as a conservatory I adopted a series of European cultural patterns and values seen as elitist. However, I have not wanted to isolate myself from the realities that other people in my country live, in fact, I seek to understand them, analyze them, be close to this because I think that I can from the composition give voice and transform these realities, break with indifference and prejudices that even I myself may have.
In my country, the idea that nationalism is the only means of validation of Colombian culture has survived, which fueled a constant feeling of loss in favor of political agendas and ideologies, something that has done a lot of damage to the musical environment; In fact, in recent years my work has focused on showing the manipulation that has been done with this erroneous idea about culture in a particularly paternalistic country in this sense. With each person who dies every day in my country, a unique vision of seeing the world is also irretrievably lost, with it all our cultural wealth also dies; there is much emphasis on that.
- How was your professional debut on the music scene? What work or piece was performed? Can you describe to me what you remember from that moment?
Well, I highlight both my national debut and my first international concert. The first was with the premiere of the Concert for guitar and orchestra that premiered at the International Festival of Contemporary Music in Bogotá with the Cundinamarca Philharmonic Orchestra. At that time I was still a student at the conservatory and I remember that at the premiere it was my parents and my composition teacher.
A few years later, my Symphony for timpani and wind orchestra was premiered in Tatuí —a small city in the State of São Paulo— at the first Latin American Meeting of Symphonic Band Directors, Composers and Arrangers. There I made very good friends with whom I worked for nine years in Argentina, Brazil, Spain and Venezuela. I think that thanks to this concert the doors were opened to me on the continent.
Music with commitment
- What memories do you have of your composition studies? You had master classes with renowned teachers like Luis Bacalov. What experiences do you rescue from your training?
The 1990s in Colombia were marked by a strong economic recession and an unprecedented increase in violence, and for both reasons, there were few opportunities for great teachers to come to the country. However, thanks to people like Cecilia Casas, Carmen Barbosa, Estela de Páramo, Irwin Hoffman and the Uruguayan guitarist Eduardo Fernández, we were able to have workshops with composers like Luis Bacalov, Coriún Aharonian, Marlos Nobre, Tania León and Leo Brouwer.
The culture faced resistance to the situation and important spaces were created such as the Compensar Guitar Festival, the Colombian Composers Festival, the International Contemporary Music Festival and the Electronic Colón; Even we as guitar students founded a university festival called Gritos de Madera that lasted until 2014.
Because my teacher, Blas Emilio Atehortúa, could not come to Bogotá but every fortnight to teach us at the conservatory, a workshop was organized at the home of the composer, Amparo Ángel, where, in addition to the students from the conservatory, some students from other Universities that today are my friends and colleagues from the Colombian Circle of Contemporary Music —CCMC. So, I think here is a lesson to take advantage of the greatest number of opportunities that come your way because in them you sow your future.
- Do you have any creative or preparation process to compose? Could you describe it?
Actually my creative process changes a bit depending on the type of work I am working on. For example, when I work for commission or commission I usually meet a couple of times with the person who commissioned it to find out what motivated him to do the commission, to know what he has in mind, the expectation he has with the work, the use that wants to give you and if you have any reference to the type of work (style or sound) that you would like the work to have. I have done something similar when I work with singers; It may be that I meet with the author of the texts, with the singer or with the director of the choir to know in advance the initial conditions and with that in mind I begin to think about the work as such.
I recently wrote a piece for piano based on a graphic score that I drew in a single session as if I were doing automatic writing. The composition process later consisted of translating this sketch into music, having to interpret each of the symbols that I made, each specific feature. I must admit that both the pianist and I were very happy with the final result because the piece retained much of the whimsical of the original sketch, a characteristic that he used to make a very theatrical performance, as if he were composing the work on stage.
- Do you have any own composition that is your favorite? Which and why?
I am very fond of several of my works for what they have represented in my career. For example, my Songs, Op. 15 were released in a version that I worked with the singer Juanita Delgado whom I chose because of her experience in musical theater and lyrical singing, being able to work them as if they were a little musical. I also have a very special appreciation for the entire series of Strings, which are unitary pieces for different solo instruments.
And from the social point of view, so to speak, I have a lot of affection for Trujillo, a work for orchestra that I composed based on the Trujillo massacre (Cauca – Colombia) and that was very well received by the public. The premiere concert was attended by people who work with victims of violence and they thanked me personally for having treated such a complex and difficult subject with such respect.
“It is important to start working based on values such as hope”
- What role can or should art have in the moments that we live today?
Last year I talked about this with several friends in the environment and deep down we believe that it is important to start working based on values such as hope. We realized that people turn to music to rebalance their emotions (a phenomenon already studied in music therapy) and many negative emotions affect us. The pandemic increased the grieving processes that are accompanied by feelings of loneliness, guilt, anger, abandonment and uncertainty because in many cases the person who died was the head of the household.
The way the pandemic has been treated in countries such as the United States, Mexico, Colombia, Chile or Brazil aroused feelings of disagreement, increased the number of complaints and claims to the authorities and exposed our inequalities and social asymmetries that continually challenge us.
Concert music has a very beautiful characteristic and that is that it forces us to maintain silence, that voluntary silence that we make in order to be able to be surprised by the art of the performer and that allows us to capture the message of the composer through his music. Today we need to regain the virtue of that silence so that the voice of those who have not been heard and those who do not want to hear can be heard. Art must break its own indifference, it must make the unheard voice its own and above all work with and in hope. There are many people who need comfort, who need to know that they matter and art is a powerful ally for these processes to be stimulated and flourished.
- Now thinking about Latin America, do you think there is enough diffusion of Latin American opera? What could be done about it?
There is not and in the past there was not either. There is a problem that goes beyond the creative and interpretive act that we must take into account in terms of dissemination. For example, in Bogotá the city grew giving priority to shopping centers and not to theaters, which over the years became urbanistically isolated. There is also no clarity on how the city should concentrate the cultural offer, because priority has been given to housing growth but not to cultural and artistic goods and services, which, added to the chaos of transportation, makes it even more difficult to face-to-face access to cultural events.
On the other hand, theaters do not have a first-class infrastructure, it is not possible in them to make a theatrical or opera production in situ because they lack workshops to make costumes, make-up, backdrops, scenography and rooms for choir or ballet rehearsals . Although they have a stage and lighting, the stages are rigid because they do not have false or rotating floors that allow them to change scenery easily; This means that from the beginning of any project there are over costs because everything must be manufactured and taken to the theater. Therefore, it is not possible to aspire to have a competent stage development, much less aesthetic and novel.
All this means that theaters do not dare to play the role of producers and instead have assumed the role of importers of shows. I also see a serious disconnect between all the actors in this production chain, that is, there is little risk in wanting to produce an opera with national talent from scratch, which also makes potential investors stay on the sidelines and want to bet their money on it. safe. Therefore, all opera and theater production has been reduced to the work that is done in universities, either as research projects or as degree projects, whose social impact is already committed at the university level, making it very difficult to give a temporary continuity once the academic work is terminated.
One of the great difficulties that we have today is the overwhelming lack of political will that translates into a continuous cut in the budget for arts and culture, whose institutions barely have enough money to stay in operation, but not to grow and increase. your own offer. The mediocrity of our rulers increased the degree of distrust between the cultural and political sectors, there is no clear internal or external cultural policy because everything was subjected to ideological populism. A first step would then be to speak clearly and publicly about these issues in order to recover the lost confidence in something and increase the level of investment, without this, all artistic effort is in vain.
- What is your diagnosis regarding how the Latin American environment has faced the challenges of the pandemic?
I have seen more individual responses than collective ones. There was an obvious increase in virtual activities by institutions and groups that offered their concerts and podcasts mainly on platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Deezer or Spotify; but not true digital ventures. This shows the fragility of the Latin American milieu, as it became clear that there is no strong institutional framework from which efforts are articulated, that there is a high degree of cultural under-financing, how little close we are to new technologies and that there is also a certain exhaustion derived from the excess of responsibilities placed on each artist to be able to stand out in the medium, because now each artist is expected to have a high knowledge in lighting, audio recording, synchronization, video editing, digital marketing and so many other things, that It is simply absurd to think that a single person can do it and maintain it constantly.
Even venturing into digital media also exposed the loopholes in copyright issues and how little we know about this matter. I think that a very detailed study needs to be made about the financial status of training centers, cultural centers, associations and foundations, small and medium-sized production companies, and above all, fostering spaces for dialogue to find out what the perception is of the moment and what are the expectations we have for the future.
Between China and Ginastera
- Would you like to present a play in a particular theater? Which?
It’s funny, but I have as my wallpaper the theater of the Guanzhou Opera House in China whose architecture seems phenomenal to me, I see it inspired by the marine fauna due to the fluidity of its forms. Another one that I also like a lot is the Siansa Concert Hall (Dublin) for the architectural fusion between the classic and the contemporary. Presenting any work of mine in any of these stages would be a dream.
- If you had to choose five composers, works, artists or records to live on a desert island, what would they be?
I don’t know if to live on an island, but I would have liked to meet Alberto Ginastera whose work I study and admire; I would also put Giacinto Scelsi, Luciano Berio, Silvestre Revueltas and Alfred Schinttke on that list. Although I don’t frequently listen to music, I have some favorite works such as Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartók, Popol Vuh by Ginastera, Tupac Amaru by Del Mónaco, Al mar by Villalpando and La coronela by Revueltas.
As artists I would like to meet Rubén Blades, the plastic artist Marina Abramovic, the painter Baldomero Romero Ressendi, the architect Mike Schlaich or Pedro Almodóvar. And for records I prefer Mediterráneo by Serrat, Innuendo by Queen, La leyenda del tiempo by Camarón de la Isla, Siembra by Rubén Blades and En Acción by Joe Arroyo.