Composer Portrait: Marcos Balter
Praised by The Chicago Tribune as “minutely crafted” and “utterly lovely” and The New York Times as “whimsical” and “surreal,” the music of composer Marcos Balter (b.1974, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) has been featured at ACO’s SONiC Festival in 2011, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW, Köln Philharmonie, New World Symphony Center, Teatro de Madrid, Tokyo Bunka Kaykan, Teatro Amazonas, Morgan Library, Le Poisson Rouge, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago, among others. Here he tells us about his piece Favela, which ACO will premiere during Orchestra Underground: Border Vanguards on April 4, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.
American Composers Orchestra: What inspired your work, Favela?
Marcos Balter: It really came from the word itself. Favela is the Brazilian word for shantytowns. Although the term was coined after a Brazilian plant, I could never separate it in my head from the Latin word fabola (story). That always made me think of the many individual stories within a favela that we don’t hear, and of the actual nature of a shantytown: a community formed by circumstances rather than will, often created from found objects that are piled together until they make sense as world. This idea of artificial oneness and how we all figuratively live in favelas was really my main source of inspiration.
ACO: How would you describe your composition process for the work?
MB: Gruesome! I usually spend a lot of time thinking of the idea behind a work. That can take many months, even years sometimes. And, I don’t start writing until I can hear the music in my head, but then the piece is born very quickly. But, while I had the concept down early on, I just couldn’t hear music coming from it. I was about to change the concept itself when one day it just hit me at once that I was approaching it wrongly. I was trying to find linear strategies when the lack of lines was actually my only hope to create the illusion of one as I wanted. Once my head started thinking of how to fragment things rather than unifying them, everything else made sense, and the work was finally born.
ACO: Did you encounter any unusual challenges in writing this work? If so what were they and how did you resolve them?
MB: When ACO invited me to write a new work, they told me it would be premiered in a concert focused on Latin America. And, that on itself was an interesting challenge for me. For as long as I can remember, I have refrained from using stereotypically Brazilian artifices in my music since this practice has political and economical tones I do not approve, especially when programmed abroad. At the same time, I couldn’t be any prouder of my country and my cultural heritage. I really wanted to find a way to acknowledge it without cheapening or stereotyping it. So, rather than running away from it, I decided to dive into all these stereotypes head first, loading myself with paradigms and then trying to untie them from their usual connotations. So, the work is full of elements that could be reductively considered Brazilian, but divorcing these elements from their sense of familiarity is what actually fuels the work. My goal was to create a work that one could say “yes, I can see how this was created by a Brazilian artist, but I’m not quite sure why.”
ACO: Is there anything that you hope the audience will get out of listening to your work? Anything in particular that they should listen for?
MB: This is a tricky question… Part of the success of this work is exactly how differently people may listen to it. If you are looking for similarities and symmetries, you will find plenty of it. But, if you listen closely, all these similarities are false, and nothing really remains the same or is as straightforward as it may seem at first. If you listen “from afar,” it’s a very monolithic piece. But, if you focus on the small details, there are a lot of hidden surprises there. It all depends on how invested one is to hear them.