5 Questions to Orlando Jacinto García (composer)

Orlando Jacinto García is a prolific composer whose works range from concert works with and without electronics for orchestra, choir, soloists, and various chamber ensembles, along with interdisciplinary and site-specific works. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1954, García migrated to the United States in 1961. His String Quartet No. 2, “Cuatro,” was nominated for a 2021 Latin GRAMMY® award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. His latest work, Impulso/momentum, which will be premiered by Ensemble Pi and vocalist Damian Norfleet on March 2, 2022, addresses the impacts of social and other injustices found in the U.S. and abroad. Tickets to the live performance or livestream are available now on Eventbrite.

For Ensemble Pi’s upcoming concert, “Radical Kinship,” the ensemble commissioned works inspired by the writings of Jesuit Priest and founder of the gang intervention program Homeboy Industries Greg Boyle. I have been inspired and humbled by Boyle’s work for decades as an Angelino. How did you engage with Boyle’s philosophy as both a composer and an intellectual?

Given my interest in existential philosophy — that indicates, at least in my view, that we are basically all responsible for each other — Boyle’s Radical Kinship resonated quite a bit. He is certainly a wonderful example of someone who is doing a great deal of good in the world, in his case led by the teachings of Jesus. What I find of specific interest — beyond the great work of this exceptional person — is the fact that many of the teachings he cites throughout the book are similar to what one finds in a number of religions around the world. It’s fascinating to me that in some aspects of existential philosophy, the same moral imperatives can be found without positing a deity.

Boyle’s works and writings inspire me to wonder why there isn’t a way to get rid of the poverty, violence, drug addiction, insecurity, and the many conditions that result from our current situation in the first place. Perhaps we need more Radical Kinship from those in government positions who can do something about this to begin with. So, to answer your question: although I do not in any way directly cite Boyle’s book, there are statements/text about repression, incarceration, and other related themes in my work that reflect my feeling that there is a lack of Radical Kinship unfortunately evident in a great deal of the world, and that I hope to spotlight what Boyle is hoping to change.

“Radical Kinship” featured vocalist Damian Norfleet–Photo by Craig Hanson

The concert will feature the formerly incarcerated Charles Grosso and Alberto Duque. Were you and the other composers able to meet with them and listen to their stories before creating your work?

I was not able to meet with Grosso and Duque. Nevertheless, I did receive some of what they had written regarding incarceration and related thoughts as I was composing the work. And while incarceration itself is certainly a topic of concern, it seems to me that it is often just a tool for repression and control. I think that incarceration contains its own set of intrinsic unethical parameters, more often than not being used as a device to maintain power.

But getting back to Grosso and Duque, although I certainly am not an expert in, nor have I personally experienced incarceration, I have come into contact over the years with those who have had similar experiences. These have included colleagues in the visual arts and dance who have been involved in working with those in prison. Interactions with these colleagues have assisted me in gaining some limited insights into their world. As a result, the writings of both men were certainly very relevant during the creation of my work.

Also on the concert are Frederic Rzweski’s Attica (1972), composed in the wake of the 1971 upstate New York prison rebellion, and Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1941), which was written and premiered in the prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany. Did you know these pieces would be part of the program, and if so, did it influence your writing? If not, how does the program’s eighty-year time frame affect the way you think about the issue of incarceration?

Although I was aware that these works were to be performed on the concert, they did not directly influence my piece. Having said that, these are two of my favorite compositions, not just for the statements they make, but on purely musically grounds, as well. They both, in their own way, have a timeless quality to them that is not that all that different from what I explore in my work.

As for my stance on incarceration, I never felt that this was an ethical and/or effective way to solve any of society’s problems, so I have always been against it. I believe it’s necessary for those in control to wake up and find other ways to assist humankind to overcome the shortcomings and societal problems that exist. As for the 80 years spanning these two works and the concert in March, when you consider that my music unfolds relatively slowly and more often than not creates a freezing of time in the listener, the time span of 80 years and inclusion of my work seems to be very appropriate.

I am a big believer that art should in some way change how you perceive the reality around you.

Your contribution to the concert is a vocal work based on your own text. Can you describe your process for writing about this subject? What was your point of departure, and how did you reach your final version?

Most of my works with text are conceived of and written in Spanish since this was my first language. This notwithstanding the fact that I came to the U.S. when I had just turned 7-years-old. Thanks to my parents and to my opportunities to study, I am very fortunate to be completely bilingual to the point where I have very successfully taught doctoral level university music courses in Spain and parts of the Americas in my native language. Perhaps because of this, I find that words in Spanish include a tremendous amount of imagery. One word has numerous connotations when compared with the same word in English, at least certainly for me. This is also somewhat the case with the other romance languages that I am familiar with.

But to get back to how I use text in my works, I am a big believer that art should in some way change how you perceive the reality around you. I’m a composer who works with sound, but just as importantly, I deal with time, and in many ways narrative/text. Related to this, I am very interested in having those perceiving my work come away with their own interpretation of what they experienced that hopefully somehow also changed the way they experienced time, sound, and whatever narrative might have been presented.

In the case of the work on this concert, the text is somewhat abstract, in that it is not about a specific situation or x/y/z event. Rather, it is there for the listener to take in and connect the dots based on the listener’s own experiences. Am I referring to the repression that African Americans or Asian Americans or Native Americans, or Mexicans, etc. face in this country? What about the political repression and incarcerations happening in other countries (and there are plenty to go around)? Rather than come out with a huge list of specific inhumanities, I prefer to let the listener decide what the work refers to, and this will be influenced by their experiences and backgrounds.

Orlando Jacinto García--Photo by Jacek Kolasinski

Orlando Jacinto García–Photo by Jacek Kolasinski

I’ve noticed your work often creates profound emotion through the expansion and meditative use of musical time. It seems to me that this is a powerful quality given the centrality that time has to the experience of incarceration. Could you offer us a preview of how you conceived and expressed the emotional dimension of prison time?

My early explorations of time and music started many years ago when I began graduate studies with composer Dennis Kam at the University of Miami in the early 80s. I was drawn to Kam given my interest in minimalism and the fact that it was something he was actively exploring at that time. This was somewhat unique and hard to find in academia back then, which made it even more attractive. Shortly after completing my doctorate, I was very fortunate to work with Morton Feldman, and after an initial three-week intensive residency, was able to continue to work with him and counted him as an important mentor. I am very grateful for the two years I knew him before he passed away.

These and other related experiences have in many ways shaped my musical explorations over the last 35+ years where I find myself continuing to create a music that in some ways alters the perception of time. When I was contacted by Idith Korman, the artistic director of Ensemble Pi, regarding this project, it seemed like a natural fit. When you consider my concerns about repression, incarceration, and other social injustices, combined with the timeless quality that I try to evoke in my work, it seemed like a new piece would be very appropriate for this concert. Although I have never had to experience incarceration, I can only assume that an alteration in the experience of time is part of this experience. As a result, I feel that my work, which here combines the slow evolution of material and the freezing of time with the related text, seems to be very relevant to the theme of this concert.


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