Turning Up the Volume: José Martínez (percussionist, composer)

Turning Up the Volume is a collection of interviews that focuses on the individual stories of up and coming musicians in American classical music. These interviews explore topics of race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability as they apply to historically underrepresented artists. But most importantly, Turning Up the Volume is a platform for these musicians to share their experiences in their own words.

This installment of Turning Up the Volume is with award winning composer, José Martínez. His pieces have been performed by a variety of acclaimed groups and musicians, including Alarm Will Sound and Third Coast Percussion. Martínez offers a timely perspective in this interview–discussing identity and being an immigrant from Colombia, limitations of age, and being an up and coming composer.

What did you listen to growing up?

There was a lot of popular Latin music around, and I decided to avoid it. I intentionally chose to listen to more unfamiliar music, I was curious of the unknown. I started listening to prog metal, metal, and prog rock. Not much of it was in Spanish. I slowly started to discover classical repertoire and the beauty of orchestral music. There was also some jazz and jazz-fusion here and there. I was a weird specimen who would equally enjoy Cradle of Filth, Mahler, and Chick Corea. Then, music school happened, and my musical horizons expanded in all those directions.

José Martínez

José Martínez

What are some struggles you’ve faced in classical/contemporary music?

I am 35 years old, and I am finishing my DMA. When I look around at my colleagues, I am usually one of the oldest. The problem is that my evolution as a composer started late because I didn’t have a chance to start earlier, and didn’t have many resources available. Now at my age, sometimes I simply cannot enter some opportunities because I am too old. People in charge of setting the conditions for the competitions have their own definition of what a “young composer” is. This idea pertains to their context, and it’s valid. Coming from a different environment, sometimes I don’t fit in their definitions. There are millions of people who move at a different pace, who go through different personal and creative stages, and for those–like me–these restrictions are like doors being slammed on our faces. This is not the Olympics, it’s not about who does it faster or higher, it’s about who has something to say and does it.

Can you talk about some of the themes you explore in your compositions?

I vouch for polystylism, and I like to think that I am open to multiple and diverse influences. I already mentioned my diverse musical taste early in my life. In addition to this, there was a big change in me when I moved to the US–it was motivated by the usual question of identity. The need to define who you are and where you come from was new to me. I grew up being Colombian in Colombia, end of story. There was not much of a necessity to tell your story, I guess because it was too soon, but also because it didn’t matter that much. I decided to revisit Caribbean popular and folk music. I grew up rejecting it strongly, but once I was in the US, I found myself looking for things to grab onto. My idea was to open that door I had closed many years ago and to rediscover that world from my current perspective. My goal is to include it in my palette as yet another option and put it at the same level as other musical elements I explore.

I also use ideas coming from spectralism. I use analysis of sounds and look at the spectrum looking for unusual relationships. At times, my Caribbean music influence and my previous life as a drummer clashes a bit with the more rational approach of modern music. I try to explore rhythm from either a pattern oriented or a pragmatic approach. Sadly, steady pulse has been one of those topics that seems banned from a lot of modern music, and I get why. I am interested in that relinquished simple pulse that speaks to a very basic side of humans. It also creates a communal sense because we all can tap and adhere to it. I recently got a critique from a jury on one of my pieces for orchestra and they said something like it had “too much steady pulse.” I respect their opinion, but in this case, I am borrowing from a fundamental component of society which is dancing. It needs the pulse, it needs to make you feel like moving.

Can you expand on your need to define your identity once you moved to the U.S. from Colombia?

I first arrived in Missouri and came with all my cultural baggage. I felt like there was a silent expectation for me to show them my music and my culture. I am talking about a natural sense of curiosity for the unknown mixed with the simple act of sharing.

Mizzou accepted me because they liked my music, but the fact that I am part of a minority added to my application, because I have the potential to bring something different to the table. I, just like anyone else, am expected to produce good music that is also different and innovating. This is difficult, and each person has a different approach in their creative process.

I asked myself, who I am, where I come from, what do I like–and it felt like an exorcism to me. I decided, among others, to revisit some Caribbean music that for many years I rejected. I found myself learning from my culture being on the outside. This allowed to have a dual perspective, as an insider and as a stranger. I think what excites me the most is to investigate how these Caribbean musical materials interact with others that also have a long and historic tradition from other cultures.

José Martínez

José Martínez

Why is diversity important to you in classical/contemporary music?

Because there are millions of people who have not had the chance to access artistic outputs to speak their minds. There are ideas, sounds, and messages that need to be heard, and that have lived hidden in remote places because there is no outlet. Something as simple as a good mic, a good computer, a decent instrument, is not easily accessible everywhere. I remember myself struggling to get scores and books; add to it that most of these materials were either in English or French. Sometimes, I am surprised I didn’t quit. Because of this lack of access to good resources, for some creators like me, it takes longer to learn, and we move at a different pace. More importantly, there a fewer chances to make mistakes. We need those voices to be heard, because they have been hiding for too long. Have you heard of any Pierrot ensemble piece written by an African composer? I have not, I am curious!