Backstage at NOVA Chamber Music Series: Miguel Chuaqui, Nicolás Lell Benavides, Gabriela Lena Frank on crossing, integrating, intersecting multilayers of identity in their music  

EDITOR’S NOTE: This feature also has been translated into Spanish and is available here.

For Parallel Play, which will receive its world premiere at the March 12 concert of NOVA Chamber Music Series, composer Miguel Chuaqui says he is playing with the complexities of his background and musical influences. He was born in Berkeley, California to a Chilean father and an Americanmother. He spent his formative years in Santiago and has been living in the U.S. for many years. A program note also emphasizes what he said in an interview last fall with The Utah Review, “I hold dual citizenship and I can claim musical influences from both the U.S. and Chile, but I often find myself expected to become an American composer in Chile and a Chilean composer in the U.S.”

Chuaqui generally disregards this issue in his works, which typically bear his hallmark chromatic musical gestures. In recent years, NOVA Chamber Music Series has presented existing as well as new commissions by musicians who traditionally have been defined in broad terms as Latin-American composers. But, as in many other disciplines of the arts, individuals look beyond a long history where labels have changed, categories and genres have shifted,and cultural norms about what it means to be Hispanic or Latino. In several interviews, Chuaqui along with composers Nicolás Lell Benavides and Gabriela Lena Frank talked about composing their identities that cross and integrate many linguistic and cultural boundaries. And, as with a recent exhibition of works by four contemporary Latina visual artists at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art demonstrated, these composers convey through their music a significant point that cultural orientations are not just hybrid but also are built with layers atop one another.

Miguel Chuaqui

Indeed, Chuaqui’s life and music constitute many layers and roots. His extended family has Arab roots in Syria. On his mother’s side, there are Irish roots, including a great uncle with family ties to the 1849 gold rush in California. In his boyhood years, he experienced what it was like for an American to be an immigrant living in Chile. He was not even two years old when the family moved to Santiago in the 1960s and he grew up in Chile during the time when General Augusto Pinochet came to power in a violent coup following the assassination of Salvador Allende in 1973. In 2002, he wrote EN SANTIAGO DE NUEVO (In Santiago Again), drawing on the Gilmué Quichua poem about a friend who was killed during the military takeover, and which is scored for mezzo-soprano, clarinet, violin, cello and piano.

He grew up in a home where music’s classical traditions were welcomed. His mother was a soprano and a pianist, for example. He studied piano at the Escuela Moderna de Música and the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.Venturing outside of his home in Santiago, he discovered that many Chileans enjoyed American rock and pop music, such as The Police and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Eventually, he discovered in the Andean countryside, the musical gestures of Chilean folk music. This included cueca, where the Chilean version of this diverse regional musical tradition developed as an amalgam of various Spanish, European and other influences, such as arábigo-andaluza. 

When he returned to the States, in his junior year of college, he was accepted at the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in mathematics and music and studied electroacoustic music at CNMAT (Center for New Music and Audio Technologies), Some teachers anticipated and expected that a composer with the surname of Chuaqui should concentrate on writing music incorporating folk tunes. “I felt a little uncomfortable with it,” he adds. When he advanced into the Ph.D. program in composition, he worked with composer Andrew Imbrie, whom Chuaqui considered an important mentor, especially in demonstrating how an intuitive approach would foster developing his coimposing language and identity. Chauqui’s palette comprises gestures, motifs, phrases and other musical elements drawn from many other influences and interactions, including neoclassicism, the aesthetics and philosophies of Olivier Messiaen and Luciano Berio (to name a few), blues, jazz and Chilean literature.

But, as his experiences as a teacher, composer and father (his son, Nicolas, is a composer who has his own prodigious output) have accumulated over the years, Chuaqui says that he became much more comfortable about those Chilean experiences. “I like those sounds because they carry such great memories of living in Chile and when I play with them in my music, it feels genuine,” he says.

In his newest work (Parallel Play), Chuaqui juxtaposes, superimposes and develops two musical gestures — one, bluesy and the other coming from Chilean folk music, which is a quick leap to a high note preceded by two quick short notes. While the wind instruments play with these gestures, the percussion play with their own intersecting elements, incorporating jazz as well as offbeat accents in 6/8 time – a feature familiar to folk music from the central sections of Chile. While they play in parallel forms, they eventually converge to synthesize a new musical gesture. 

Chuaqui, who stepped down as director of the University of Utah’s music school in 2022 and continues as professor of music, has been periodically featured on NOVA concerts. The music include Confabulario for Wind Quintet, a 2012 work inspired by memories of what he described as the “argumentative and hot-headed Arab-Chilean-Irish-American family background” — “agreeing, disagreeing, cajoling, pleading, interrupting, and sometimes raising their voices loudly over the group.” He explains that, “In Spanish, ‘confabular’ means to conspire, and the work’s title Confabulario is a made-up word that suggests, in Spanish, the meaning ‘place where conspiring happens.”’ The piece is just such a place, but the characters involved are very opinionated and different from each other, and they have a hard time coming up with any kind of mutually agreeable plan.” Meanwhile, in Interim Directions (2015), yet another example where Chuaqui contrasts bluesy ‘American’ sounding material with quasi diatonic (‘major scale’) passages, “representing the dualities of my background as a fully American and a fully Chilean composer.”

Nicolás Lell Benavides

In his 2004 book about the Nuevomexicano identity in New Mexico, The Language of Blood: The Making of Spanish-American Identity in New Mexico, 1880s-1930s, John Nieto opened it by posing several questions: “How could we be Spanish and Indian at the same time, but not Mexican? How could Spaniards have made it to New Mexico without first mixing with the Indians? And what did all this matter anyhow?” 

Nicolás Lell Benavides is a Nuevomexicano who now lives and works in California and, like Chuaqui and Frank, has a creative identity that comprises many layers.  

“It has been forever interesting,” Benavides says, when asked about his family’s history. “They had one foot in Latin America and one foot in the U.S.,” he adds. His family history includes many fascinating elements. His grandfather, as a teenager, hitchhiked to Oakland, California, saying “good riddance” to Albuquerque (only to return later) and was drafted into the Korean War. His grandfather epitomized the loose-fitting zoot suits, the unique Spanglish dialect of the Pachuco culture, and the music and steps of the Mambo, Rumba and Cha Cha dance styles.

There was a lot of music in his family’s household when he was growing up. With an accordionist in the home, Benavides heard traditional corridos and rancheras, along with jazz and funk, folk and pop songs. He was in a progressive rock band but in high school, he could not differentiate Mozart from Beethoven. The transforming experience came in his senior year of high school when he heard the Albuquerque Youth Symphony perform Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite

“The power of the rhythm in the Firebird made an incredible impression, and the brass and strings were awe inspiring,” he says, recalling the experience. “To hear the whole sound of the orchestra was like seeing a dazzling movie for the first time.”

A jazz saxophonist, he played a lot of gigs on tour for funk bands. He also had voice lessons and performed in choirs but his appetite to absorb as much as possible about music became voracious and insatiable. When his voice and music history teachers suggested that he should consider studying composition, he said that the thought of it blew his mind. “They were good mentors yet I was so green around the gills,” he explains. He adds that impact has carried over to how he communicates with his students who are enthusiastic to learn and who, like him in his younger days, did not imagine that they could be as thrilled by the sounds of an orchestra or a string quartet. 

Moving from a landscape as a prog-rock vocalist and funk band musician, he delved deeply into the classical musical warhorses but also songs that marked a sophistical eclectic appreciation of the canon, including compositions by English Renaissance composer John Dowland, German lieder by Schumann, French chansons and lyrical works by Ralph Vaughn Williams. He did his undergraduate work at Santa Clara University near San Jose, California. Later, in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he worked with David Conte and at the University of Southern California, Benavides studied with Andrew Norman, a composer well known to NOVA audiences, and Donald Crockett.

Meeting composer Gabriela Lena Frank (who also is featured in this article) was a “fortunate alignment of the planets,” Benavides says. He was accepted into Frank’s Creative Academy of Music, an institution devoted to cultivating up-and-coming young composers.

While he found the experiences thrilling and fresh in his discovery of classical music, he also has connected anew to the roots of his Nuevomexicano identity. In a post he wrote for Frank’s Creative Academy website, he encapsulates the creative arc that he has traversed:

I identify myself as a New Mexican first and foremost, and probably composer second. If you talk to me long enough, I can’t help but explain New Mexican red and green chile, which of course is definitely not Texas chili (almost always the first question). I eventually find myself talking about the weather (did you know we have thunderstorms and even snow?), the language (30% of New Mexicans speak Spanish?), and the local music (this odd mix of Rockabilly and Ranchera/Corrido?). I could go on as you might imagine.

However, there is something I’m ashamed to admit: Before this year I rarely, if ever, wrote music about myself. In spite of New Mexico being so dear to my heart, I always found myself enchanted by other influences, boxing off the Land of Enchantment and letting it touch every aspect of my life except composition. When I tried in the past, it always felt contrived.

That self-conscious barrier has dissolved completely. For example, he cast his interpretation of the roadrunner, New Mexico’s official state bird, in the second movement of his 2019 quartet El Correcaminos. Commissioned by the Washington National Opera, Pepito, a chamber opera that is a comedy but also is about homesickness with references to the immigration crisis at the southern borders, received its premiere during the 2018-19 season at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The story is about a couple who adopt a dog named Pepito, who speaks Spanish, and Camila discovers that she shares a cultural connection with their new family member that isn’t fully understood or appreciated by her husband. The opera, with libretto by Marella Martin Koch, is featured this year on the Utah Opera’s community concerts

Two projects also sprung in part from his grandfather’s story. In 2020, the New Music Duo premiered a work they commissioned from Benavides, titled Canto Caló, which highlights the unique American dialect in the Pachuco community. As he explained, “Caló is largely a Spanglish-style slang based on a specifically New Mexican dialect of Spanish, English, and indigenous languages that formed the basis of identity for an entire generation of Hispanic and Latino youth in the mid-20th century.”  He also is composing Gilberto, an opera set in Oakland, California during the time of the Korean War. The protagonist is a 21-year-old Pachuco man who left Albuquerque to realize his dreams, but while he does not make enough teaching mambo dancing at a ballroom (which still exists in the city), the experience leads to a deeper epiphany about his life and identity. 

Sharp-tailed grouse.

His parents have become among his most enthused, dedicated advocates. “My parents have happily jumped into the role to learn about what I do,” he says, adding that they attend symphony concerts, chamber music events and opera in Albuquerque. And, Benavides stays in touch with the friends he played music with during his younger days. Now, one is a physics teacher, another is an events producer and yet another is an intellectual property lawyer for Google. 

Benavides also takes on yet another layer as a composer — as engaging the conversation about eco-citizenship and nature conservation. Commissioned by the Fry Street Quartet for NOVA, Lek, a work for string quartet and electronic recording, will see its premiere in the April 16 concert. The recorded parts feature the mating sounds and calls of the sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse that Benavides collected in Utah. The title refers to the consistent location the birds use every year for mating between February and April. Lek comes from a Norwegian word, which ornithologists use to connote a playground. The natural surroundings for the sage-grouse and the sharptailed grouse have been threatened for many decades for various reasons  including changes in the wildfire cycle due to the presence ofnon-native invasive plants, and human impacts, including energy development, the placement of electricity transmission lines and the construction of rural subdivisions

Simply, it is a joyful piece about dating and mating and he has assembled the piece where each of the quartet members play a role in this natural mating dance. With the grouses, it actually is the female who decides which of the males will win the chance to mate. 

For hours, the sagebrush grouse males will make sounds that resemble swish pop swish pop, as they strut around in circles with their chests puffed out, in order to win the female’s attention. The sharptailed grouse uses grunts and clucks in their tough dude style of dance. The recordings are nature’s version of the sex tape. As for the string quartet, one instrument represents the female and the remainder represents the male. As for which of the string players gets the mating prize, Benavides stays silent, preferring to let the premiere reveal the winner in the mating contest. 

Nicolás Lell Benavides. Photo by Vivian Sachs.

A musical anthropologist in the fullest sense of the term, Gabriela Lena Frank was born in Berkeley, California to a mother of Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent. Like Chuaqui and Benavides, Frank had the benefit of impressive teachers, starting from her early years in a piano teacher who was from South Africa and extending to The University of Michigan where she studied with William Bolcom and Leslie Bassett. Indeed, as she explains in an interview with The Utah Review, “I had an early exposure to Peruvian music, which I loved and I started making connections of Latin America culture to my classical training, thanks to my piano teacher who was a South African refugee and she had an interesting worldview.” 

Her father, whom Frank says was “a Jewish boy from the Bronx” and was a scholar of the works of Mark Twain, met Frank’s mother in Peru where he was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s. Her mother came from a family of 14 children, which meant that Frank would have good opportunities to build her network for exploring Peruvian music when she was in grad school and had won grants so that she could travel to Peru. 

In Berkeley and the surrounding Bay Area, Frank had the opportunity as a young musician to attend concerts by musicians from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. As a piano student, she would improvise and replicate the folk music she heard, including the sounds of classical guitar, flutes, pappies and percussion. Later, those senses of play and exploration would be solidified in her training. In a 2008 interview with Frank Oteri of New Music USA, she spoke about the experience: “And for the first time, I’m meeting other people from these countries other than my mother. It was incredible for me. I was riveted. These concerts would always sell out. There was so much interest. Audiences were so diverse, so many ages. They were noisy. People talked during the concert. It was very engaged interaction between the musicians and the audiences. Sometimes dancing. They would wear traditional costumes, and I would have a visual for all the instruments and all the sounds that I was hearing on LPs that my parents had brought back from Peru. These were concerts that I did not want to leave, unlike classical music concerts; I was not bored.”

Gabriela Lena Frank.

Among the composers whom she considered enlightening to her creative objectives in incoporating Peruvian and Andean folk music into her distinct classical musical language were Bela Bartók and Alberto Ginastera. She went to Rice University for composition and then went on to Ann Arbor to pursue her doctorate where she studied with Bolcom and Bassett. 

Regarding Bolcom, who was a good friend of her parents, Frank says that he “was like a second father to me” and “he treated me very seriously in helping me discover how to deepen my understand of Latin American music.” Bolcom was well-known for putting his own mark on American ragtime music and she was drawn to the works of ragtime pianist Eubie Blake as an example of how a composer could cross over and incorporate material into multiple fields. 

When Bassett died in 2016, she wrote a tribute to him, praising his “wellspring of personal experience and patience” for “assessing the counterpoint and orchestration of my well-meaning but so very naïve scores, those earliest attempts to tease out a voice as a Peruvian-American with Chinese and Lithuanian Jewish forbearers, as a woman with hippy-feminist roots, and even as a disabled individual.” And, while Bassett came from a certain “old school” era where diversity had very little visibility, Frank added how much she appreciated his willingness to listen: “You easily talked with me about the most volatile of subjects affecting me deeply as a young composer: Racism and “playing the race card,” cultural tributes vs. cultural parasitism, ambition in one’s career and ambition in one’s personal artistry, sexism, and the distracting, god-awful noisy politicization of it all. 

Cycle Fourteen. Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music.

The results have been phenomenal. Frank is one of the most sought after contemporary composers in the U.S. for collaborations and commissions, which have included the Fry Street Quartet, the music directors for NOVA; Kronos Quartet; the Silk Road Ensemble, led by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and which features San Diego-based pipa master Wu Man; Cuban classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco and Mexico’s Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Her Inca Dances won a Latin Grammy in 2009 for Best Classical Contemporary Composition.

For NOVA, next season, a new string quartet the Fry Street Quartet commissioned will have its premiere. She will be with the quartet next month to workshop the piece. About the new work, Frank says there are metaphorical hints with strong overtones of Latin American idioms steeped in story and mythology, emphasizing a rich love of literature. “The Fry Street Quartet are world class musicians who can achieve both imaginatively and technically 10 different ways of playing a line to capture every character and personality.” 

In June, a new opera El Último Sueño de Frida y Diego, with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright as the librettist, which was co-commissioned by San Francisco Opera, will have its premiere. The storyline starts three years after Frida Kahlo’s death and “it’s been three years since she passed. Now on the Day of the Dead in 1957, a lonely, ailing Diego Rivera makes a final wish: to see his wife Frida Kahlo once more. And the underworld heeds his call.” The opera is also part of next season’s LA Opera slate in Los Angeles. 

To expand the concept of composers playing with ideas in a unique creative factory setting, at her two farms in Boonville, California with her husband (Jeremy), the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music is in its seventh year and has blossomed rapidly. As noted earlier, Benavides is one of the composers who has been a part of the academy, which offers composers mentorship, readings with master performers and hands-on practicums addressing the creative habit. The academy also pairs participant composers and faculty performers with underrepresented rural communities in a variety of projects such as working with high school students who are studying music composition. It is precisely these experiences which already are fostering new generations of composers and teachers to expand upon the strong footprints made by Frank as well as Chuaqui and Benavides. 

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