Universal Edition - Mauricio Sotelo – About the Music


Mauricio Sotelo

About the Music

Mauricio Sotelo was born in Madrid in 1961. He began his studies in the city of his birth, followed by composition courses with Francis Burt at the Music University in Vienna. He obtained his degree in 1987 with unanimous distinction. Sotelo had moved to Vienna in 1980 and lived there until 1992. After graduation, he attended Roman Haubenstock-Ramati’s composition classes and subsequently enrolled with Luigi Nono.

Sotelo is a generation younger than Cristóbal Halffter, but they share a strong love of, and an affinity to, the cultural heritage of Spain. Sotelo’s music is shot through with the spirit, rhythm and even melody of flamenco. In some of his compositions, it is present as just a hint (such as in the string quartet Degli eroici furori of 2001/2002), in others it makes a concrete appearance through the deployment of a “cantaor”, that is, a flamenco singer, like in Si despuès de morir… (1999-2000) for cantaor, flute, orchestra and tape, a setting of Elegía: Fragmente (1994) by the Spanish poet José Angel Valente (1929-2000). In one of Sotelo’s most recent pieces, Klang-Muro... I (2009), for flute, double-bass and ensemble, a passionate and soaring flamenco tune emerges right after the first bars.

The composer comments: “The raw and incredibly complex sound quality of flamenco singing tells a veritable story by itself”. The adjective “raw” has special significance because it mirrors Sotelo’s ideal of sonority: it has nothing to do with polished or smooth sound – two qualities which he vehemently rejects.

Whereas Si despuès de morir… and Memoriae (1994) are tributes to José Angel Valente, Sotelo has also composed Cripta – Musica para Luigi Nono (2004-2008) as a homage to the composer, for cantaor, mixed chorus, ensemble and tape. Nono “talked about crazy things which were absolutely beyond me at the time. It was not until years later that they revealed their meaning as if by themselves. All of a sudden, as if by a revelation, I knew what I was to do.”

Frammenti de l’infinito. Lorca-Nono: Dialogo del Amargo (1998) for orchestra and tape links the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca with the spirit of Luigi Nono’s music. The composer’s admiration for the Spanish poet is also testified to by his Interludes for Lorca’s “Canciones populares” (1998) for chamber ensemble.

Sotelo’s literary roots reach further back in time, however: his children’s opera Dulcinea (2004/2006) was inspired by Cervantes.

His artistic horizon extends well beyond Spain. For some time, he addressed himself to studying the philosophy of Giordano Bruno with a view to devoting an opera to his life and personality. Bruno’s ideas influenced the ensemble piece De imaginum, signorum et idearum (1995/1996) as well as De Magia (1995) for saxophone, percussion and piano.

The art of the Irish painter Sean Scully represents another source of inspiration. Three works have emerged to date, each of which bearing the title of a picture: Wall of light red (2003/2004) for saxophone and chamber ensemble, Wall of light black (2006) for the same forces and Wall of light sky (2006) for ensemble and tape. The first piece is dedicated to Beat Furrer’s 50th birthday, as a sign of Sotelo’s esteem for his older colleague, as well as of their friendship which started in 1984.

Since June 2000, Sotelo has been Artistic Director of “Incontri-Injuve”, an international seminar for young composers: their scores are analysed and are performed by an international ensemble of soloists.

Mauricio Sotelo has received numerous scholarships and prizes, including the Daniel Montorio Prize for the opera De Amore (1999), the Reina-Sofia-Prize (2000) as well as the Premio Nacional de Musica (2001).

Mauricio Sotelo was born on 2 October 1961 in Madrid. Driven by a curiosity for sounds that haunted him even in his dreams, he soaked up the timbral impressions available in his enviroment. There was no piano in his home, but the guitar was omnipresent: pop music, Jimi Hendrix, experimental jazz, but most especially flamenco and cante hondo ("deep song," a highly emotional and tragic song cultivated among prisoners).

Popular music opened an experimental field for him that soon embraced other 'sounds': Boulez, Ligeti, and Stockhausen were also part of Sotelo's timbral world. Of these early influences, his fascination with popular music was early exhausted, but the fascination with flamenco remains unbroken today.

In 1980 Mauricio Sotelo finished school in his native Madrid and moved to Vienna, a move essential to his artistic development. The reasons for this step were twofold: Although acquainted with 12-tone and serial composers he was, at 18 years of age, too young to be fixed on a specific teacher and, in Madrid, too far removed from centers of contemporary music activity such as Paris, Darmstadt, etc. One thing for him stood certain: He wanted to compose, and he felt the need to steep himself in the musical traditions of Vienna – Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, the Viennese Classic, the Vienna espressivo. But at first Vienna was a bitter experience for Sotelo: His education in Madrid had not sufficiently prepared him, and he was not successful at the entrance exams in composition and conducting. Dejected, he decided nonetheless to remain and spent the next semester visiting courses and writing exercises. In the next round his diligence was rewarded by success.

At the Vienna Musikhochschule Sotelo studied composition with Francis Burt. For the first time he analyzed and came to understand the music of Webern, Berg, and Schönberg that he had encountered as a teenager. And Sotelo acquired the tools of "structural hearing and analytic thinking – the most important instruments a composer has for the development of his own work." At the Musikhochschule he also discovered works of Ligeti from the '60s, Stockhausen's Gruppen, Helmut Lachenmann's works, early works of Luigi Nono, and the vocal polyphony of Vittoria, Morales, Guerrero, Ockeghem, Dufay, and Josquin. Another significant encounter during his studies was with Roman Haubenstock-Ramati and, through him, with the problems of musical notation and representation (Darstellung). In 1987 he culminated five years of technical and analytic work with a diploma summa cum laude. After his studies, in 1988, Sotelo made the acquaintance of Luigi Nono. "I had hoped to obtain 'keys' from him, composition techniques. But instead, he spoke of the craziest things, things that at the time were incomprehensible to me and that seemed unrelated to music. But what he said resonated within me, and in the course of the years it gradually became comprehensible of its own accord. Suddenly, like a revelation, I knew what I had to do." In 1992 Sotelo left Vienna and relocated in El Escorial near Madrid.

Sotelo's aesthetic considerations derive from his view of the development of serial music after the 1950s: Through its concentration on structure and abstraction, New Music had become caught in a one-way street. Vital to the liberation from this situation were, for Sotelo, Salvatore Sciarrino and his almost physical thinking of musical tradition, Helmut Lachenmann's 'instrumentale musique concrète' and its consequences for a new definition of timbre, and, finally, Luigi Nono.

At the center of Sotelo's aesthetic considerations two main thematic complexes can be distinguished, firstly, timbre and musical material. In the 1980s in Europe the theme of musical material developed toward two opposing poles: on the one hand to infinitely ramified definition, on the other to reduction and silence. Starting from this departure point, Sotelo has come to regard timbre an expressive means. While experiences with the so-called 'Viennese espressivo' (Rudolph Kolisch: "What Beethoven called 'poetry,' we call 'espressivo.'") may have influenced him, in the expressive means of cante hondo Sotelo has found a fertile and for him authentic field for investigations of his musical material. Even more than expression, it is timbral modulation and the changing of voices that have always fascinated him. "I always wanted to write the kind of music flamenco singers sing." Taking this notion of timbre a step further, Sotelo sees in timbral expressivity a formal means. A given timbre (a pitch or micro-pitch bound to an articulation, to a dynamic, to a playing technique, perhaps in repetition) recurs at formal junctions in a work – signals that provide the pillars of structure. Or a given timbre recurs in variation of instrument or pitch, providing the aural orientation for a construction based on recalled timbres. In this way, the expressive means – timbre – determine form. Timbre and expressivity have new functions and been assigned to new categories; they have been redefined.

However, "a work that is structurally well-formulated is not yet music. For me, music begins with the act of listening;" and the representation of just such musical notions is the other side of the coin. Sotelo has bound the theme of musical material to the second theme that claims his interest, the tensions joining interpretation and notation. In the 1980s notation, reacting both to an explosion of playing techniques as well as to the reintroduction of improvisation, was pushed to its limits, threatening to become an end in itself. It is Sotelo's concern to "represent musical ideas graphically, not merely use notation to work out an abstract musical position." He seeks to compose not a construed vision of notation, abstract structures, or pseudo-mathematical proportions; rather he seeks to redirect notation toward its role as mediator between internal perception (knowledge or feeling) and external performance. For this, Sotelo has chosen the means of oral tradition. This choice, a far cry from improvisation as any cursory glance in Sotelo's scores shows, shifts the emphasis from a performer's technical virtuosity to his interpretative art: technique at the service of interpretation, an art handed down from generation to generation. To find his expression, the interpreter must depart from the notation and listen to his inner ear ("con suono interno e dolcissimo lontananza molto intensa"), thereby adding his own perceptions and knowledge to the oral tradition.

Timbre as structure-building element, notation as oral tradition: these areas are related by the constituent element of memory; through it, Sotelo amalgamates recognition, tradition, and espressivo. An intellectual figure on whom Sotelo has been able to concretize his aesthetic considerations (and central figure of Sotelo's projected opera Mnemosine) is Rennaissance philosopher and magus Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). The part of his work which Bruno regarded as most important was the intensive training of the imagination (which he recognized as the sole cognitive power) in the art of memory. Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk finds that Bruno's work "illustrates the birth of modernism out of the spirit of imagination-philosophy," a step which sets artistic imagination as a counterweight to the idea-philosophy that has characterized Western philosophy since Descartes. Bruno's bold exploration of the inner worlds of imagination and memory has a parallel in Sotelo's exploration of the inner worlds of timbre, sound, and in all that defies notation. Among the titles of Bruno's works, a number of the titles of Sotelo's works are also to be found: De l'infinito, universo e mondi (1584), an exposition of Bruno's vision of an infinite universe and innumerable worlds; Spaccio de la bestia triomfante (1584) which envisages a universal moral and religious reform; De imaginum, signorum et idearum compositione (1591), a treatise on the order of matter; De magia (1586-1591), a magic memory system; and Ars memoriae. Again Sloterdijk: "Because he emphasized the artistic quality of memory, Bruno is the first 'art-philosopher' of the modern era."

Which act is the more artistic: the remembrance of music long since heard? Or the dream of music that has never sounded? Little does it matter, for in his music Mauricio Sotelo does both. "The infiniteness of the universe is the infiniteness of God. Man is inspired by the infinity of worlds and suns. Only thus can man approach perception of the Godly. And that perception is a journey on which memory is our guide."

(José Angel Valente)