5 Questions to Nicolas Lell Benavides (composer)

Nicolas Lell Benavides is a Los Angeles and San Francisco-based composer from New Mexico. His comic chamber opera, Pepito, with librettist Marella Martin Koch, premiered in January as part of the American Opera Initiative at the Kennedy Center. Pepito is the love story of a rescue dog and his adoptive mother who share a Spanglish-speaking, carnitas-eating child/puppyhood.

Nick has worked with prominent groups such as Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, The Bay Brass, The International Orange Chorale, Friction Quartet, Nomad Session, MUSA, Siroko Duo, and One Found Sound, and he has been a fellow of the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy and the Eighth Blackbird Creative Lab. A new string quartet for Friction Quartet, El Correcaminos, will premiere at San Francisco’s Center for New Music on March 29, 2019.

Your first opera, Pepito, premiered in January. What was it like to write an opera, and how was it working with a librettist?

I’ll open up with Stevie Wonder’s wisdom: “Teamwork makes the dream work.” Opera is extravagant but also incredibly intimate. It takes an army of artists to make a sometimes-quotidian story into a drama.

The Washington National Opera paired librettist Marella Martin Koch and me as part of the American Opera Initiative. She and I would be on the phone for hours arguing about the story. I remember on one of our first calls, she asked what I thought of a small line, and I said, “that seems fine,” and she wouldn’t let me move on until we were both nothing short of thrilled. I’ve never met somebody who so eagerly sought out criticism of her work, and yet, at the same time, is ready to defend her decisions as though they were life or death. I’ve learned so much from her–that level of passion, humility, and flexibility is rare.

Pepito is a comedy about a dog adoption, with the title role performed by a Spanglish singing bass, but really, it’s an opera about identity and forgiveness. She gave me space to include Hispanic/Latino themes, and I trusted her that this silly story about a dramatic pet adoption (based on her real-life experience) would have emotional weight. I wanted the message of the story to be dressed up in Latinidad, but to be recognizable by any person who has ever felt far from home.

Nicolas Lell Benavides--Photo by Maggie Beidelman

Nicolas Lell Benavides–Photo by Maggie Beidelman

You’ve done a lot of collaborative projects and worked with multimedia. What do you like about working interdisciplinarily?

Working with non-musicians is where I do most of my real learning. Some things become impractical with creative partners, but as a trade, so much more becomes possible.

This past year I worked with for change dance collective and the Nicaragua based Teatro Catalina. They took me to Chinandega where I met the actors, directors, and musicians of Teatro Catalina to create a work in conjunction with la gente Nicaragüense. The singer Andres Martinez and I co-wrote music across international borders via WhatsApp. Teatro Catalina’s actor/director Osmar Narvaez gave a riveting monologue about what it’s like to live in a country being ripped apart by civil unrest.

Nomad Session commissioned a piece about small public spaces in San Francisco called Cool Grey City with videographer and journalist (and my wife) Maggie Beidelman. Part of my compositional process involved visiting dozens of public spaces in the city. I love that the city would maintain a living room sized park for locals. Using live music and a custom Max video player, we showed the audience parks ranging from public staircases to rocky hilltops. How often do I get to claim that my work is a walk in the park(s)?

Growing up in New Mexico, what were your early musical influences and how did you come to the world of new music?

Being Nuevomexicano is quintessentially the root of what brings me joy, and I’m always eager to share it with anybody who wants to eat a sopaipilla and a bowl of green chile stew with me.

I grew up playing rancheras y corridos with my Grandpa Garcia on the accordion and me on the saxophone. He stressed that I learn to play and sing these traditional tunes by ear. It wasn’t until much later that I began to see his gift: he planted the seed that would grow into my current obsession.

I’ll try not to repeat myself, but I wrote a blog post for the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music about grappling with connecting my identity to my music and if/when it is the right thing to do.

I had a very musical upbringing, but one devoid of classical music. It’s just not as common or available as it is in the coastal cities. It exists, and I had friends that did it, but it isn’t prevalent. I spent my time performing rancheras, jazz, musicals, and rock with a variety of local groups. I idolized the El Paso based The Mars Volta.

My path into the new music world? Basically, I got lucky. I had phenomenal professors at Santa Clara University who encouraged me to write. They embraced my ignorance and channeled it into an unquenchable curiosity. Mentorship is so valuable.

One thing I’ve come to realize is that culture, like music, is a practice. It’s not innate and it doesn’t come automatically at birth. It’s the same with composition. I don’t need to wait to explore it in my writing, and if anything, exploring culture in my music will only bring me closer to it.

These days New Mexico is playing an outsize role in my output. A work for Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, Rinconcito, is a conversation with my Grandpa Benavides who recently passed. My quartet for Friction Quartet, El Correcaminos, explores the roadrunner as a symbol, and my new work for Nomad Session, Ocho Bendiciones, is a narrated Southwestern story. My newest opera (with Marella), Gilberto, is based on my grandpa, who hitchhiked to Oakland to teach dance, only to find himself drafted into the Korean War, where he is proud to serve but struggles to maintain his identity. The tagline? Tomorrow, we fight. Esta noche, we dance mambo.

How do you think about allyship with and advocacy for under-heard voices in new music?

I think it’s more than a matter of justice, it’s a matter of survival for our art form.

We can’t just feature under-heard voices on concerts; we have to invest in them. If practicing and experimenting with culture is the best way to learn, then we should create laboratories and systems of mentorship.

There are far smarter people than me thinking about this: I highly recommend folks visit ICIYL’s 5 Questions to Kamala Sankaram. She talks about assuming the role of administrator in addition to composer in order to help fix the pipeline problem of developing diverse voices in the opera world.

While we’re surfing ICIYL interviews, Nina Shekhar’s thoughts are so beautifully laid out when it comes to issues in programming. She debunks the ridiculous myth that programming diversity means lower quality music. One doesn’t have to dig very deep to find high quality art.

Friction Quartet has their Commissioning Initiative, and they are putting their money where their bow is. They recently commissioned 6 very young and diverse composers. I can’t begin to imagine the dividends that will pay off.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s Creative Academy of Music is filling the gap as a cultural incubator. I could write a whole other post about the incredible mentorship Gabriela (one of my heroes) has given me in particular. She told me to mentor others if I want to see change. I’ve recently begun mentoring a freshman at USC, Diego Dela Rosa, through El Centro Chicano. Write that name down. I adore him, he’s going places.

All of this is no good if we aren’t willing to celebrate the success of others: go to concerts, volunteer, and be a vocal ally, especially when you aren’t a featured composer/performer. I often think of civil rights heroes like Dolores Huerta, Angela Davis, and Gloria Steinem, who showed up for one another’s causes. We should be just as excited for a basement show as we are for the Pulitzer Prize. I don’t take lofty opinions very seriously if that individual hasn’t supported local diversity. You can’t build very high if your foundation is weak.

Nicolas Lell Benavides--Photo by Vivian Sachs

Nicolas Lell Benavides–Photo by Vivian Sachs

You’re currently working towards a DMA. How have residencies and fellowships influenced the course of your career as compared to academic institutions?

The most important thing has been my community, regardless of where it comes from. In San Francisco, for example, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble’s Kurt Rohde is my role model for what it means to be an artist citizen. He writes, performs, teaches, and even underwrites new music (check out his commissioning fund).

Without my local scene, I wouldn’t have met Friction Quartet, been composer in residence with Elevate Ensemble, or volunteered at the Center for New Music. Then again, I wouldn’t have a toehold without SCU, and I doubt I would have a semblance of mastery without David Conte at the SF Conservatory of Music.

You (Gemma) and I did the Blackbird Creative Lab together. Eighth Blackbird gave us training and tools, but the rest was up to us after we left the nest (couldn’t resist). When I advise young composers on summer festivals or schools, I ask: will you come away with new knowledge and friends to share it with?

I enjoy academia (hence why I’m back), but it’s important to remember that universities do not host the universe. They are a starting point. Residencies and fellowships offer kindling, but it really comes down to tilling the soil at home.