José Elizondo: MIT Engineer. Prolific Composer.

José Elizondo: MIT Engineer. Prolific Composer.

Over 20 years ago I was asked to do a huge recording project at a pretty low-key but prestigious studio in downtown Boston. It took several days of recording over several months. There were a number of engineers who came and went on the project over that time, but I enjoyed chatting with one in particular.

I learned that José Elizondo was an MIT graduate, very serious and very professional. But he also had eyes that lit up when we could take a break and talk about classical music. It took a while for the information to come out, but in addition to being an electrical engineer, I learned he was a composer.

Over these 20+ years, I have had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Elizondo’s music in many different settings, and playing some of his recordings on WCRB. I’ve also attended magical concerts not knowing ahead of time that his music was included on the program. Imagine how delighted I was to attend a spur-of-the-moment concert when on a family vacation in California five years ago and Mr. Elizondo’s music was the highlight!
I interviewed him on the phone last week.

Laura Carlo: Let’s start at the beginning. You were born in Mexico, which I think of as a land of music. Did you come from a particularly musical family?

José Elizondo: My father’s business was as a potato farmer and my mother came from a family of coal mine workers in rural Mexico. Neither of them finished elementary school nor did either have any interest in “classical” music, per se. However, my mother encouraged me and my sister Adriana to take music lessons. Throughout her life, Mom did everything possible to support our music interests. She thought music was important for a well-rounded education.

When planning my path for university, I made a very pragmatic decision to study engineering and was fortunate to be accepted at MIT. In addition to electrical engineering, I pursued music education at MIT as well as at Harvard (in a co-registration program). But my desire to be a pianist was short lived, due to a hand injury. I ended up taking classes mostly in music history and conducting. Fortuitously, I ended up taking a couple of courses in composition. My teachers were so nurturing and encouraging, that this opened opportunities I hadn’t considered.

LC: So what was your music education and training?

JE: I started studying piano when I was approximately 5 years old, and organ a year or two after. I credit my organ teacher, maestro Arturo Ochoa, with transforming my life, by being a musical father figure, an inspiration, and by instilling in me a musical “intuition” that I’ve relied upon through my music career. Another major influence was my piano teacher Socorro Soto Ponce. Prior to university I participated in many national competitions and recitals.

It wasn’t easy to study engineering at MIT and also study music at the same time, so I didn’t have a lot of time to devote to my music. Towards the end of my time at MIT, I was fortunate to take a couple of composition classes with the wonderful composer Peter Child. He inspired me and gave me confidence to write music exploring the musical tradition of my homeland.

LC: In addition to Peter Child’s tutelage, who were your other music  mentors?

JE: I’ve been very lucky to have many amazing musicians in my life that, in addition to making my life better through their kindness and friendship, have been very generous with their advice, such as maestros Wayne Toews, Orlando Cela, Sergio Buslje, and the wonderful Şefika Kutluer.

I should also mention Carlos Prieto, the legendary Mexican cellist, author, entrepreneur and philanthropist (and MIT alum) who in a matter of minutes changed my life forever. I met him after one of his concerts at MIT. He listened to my first (and only) composition at the time, saw something in me, and right there and then commissioned me to write a cello duet, which he eventually performed in a concert together with maestro Yo-Yo Ma! That experience changed my idea of what was possible and inspired me in a way that had profound impacts in my life.

In recent years other notable influences include maestros Augusto Carrión, Gustavo Martín, Sébastien Hurtaud, Benedict Klöckner, and Kevin Sütterlin.

LC: Wow – that’s an amazing line-up of mentors and influences. I’ve met composers who only write songs, others who only write orchestral works, for example. Do you specialize in one type of output?

JE: I’m best known for my compositions for cello. I even go by the name “Cellizondo” on Instagram.

LC: Has your musical style changed with the years?

JE: I wrote my two best-known compositions, inspired by Mexican and Latin American music, in the ‘90s. Then I didn’t write almost anything for 15+ years due to health challenges and other life circumstances. Only recently, in the past 6 years, have I written a more significant number of compositions. Because of the nature of the events for which most of my recent music has been commissioned, I have explored a more lyrical and contemplative style. But I still cherish the opportunity to include Latin American elements in my compositions. I did that recently in a composition called Despapaye, which I wrote for maestro Orlando Cela and the Lowell Chamber Orchestra.

LC: How do you describe your own composing style?

JE: The one constant in all my compositions is my love for lyrical melodies. Most of my music is somehow related to dance. My compositions are either inspired by elements of folk dance music, or they consist of flowing melodies that are imagined in terms of ballet or contemporary dance. I can’t dance to save my life, but dance happens to be the way that I imagine music when composing, and I find it very helpful as a tool for understanding the prosody and proportion of a new composition.

Many of my compositions lately have had a contemplative aspect to them. Most of them incorporate a reference to the Gregorian chant Dies irae and at least one reference to music by Bach. It sounds like a collection of disparate elements, but I invite people to listen to my compositions like The Dawn of Hope to see how these elements work together in my music.

Regarding a routine for composing, I work full-time in a company that specializes in speech technology, artificial intelligence, and other technologies. The work we do is very exciting and interesting, but it can be very intense and time-consuming. It doesn’t leave a lot of free time for composition. It’s always at night or on weekends that I do most my music work, whether it is writing a new composition, or, most frequently, creating a new transcription of my existing works for some new combination of instruments.

LC: What is the actual composing process like for you?

JE: I wish I could say that it is a very systematic, predictable process, but the reality is that it takes me months of preparation to be able to get started. During that period, I try to fill my brain with ideas related to the concepts that will form part of my composition. This could be listening to music in a particular genre, reading poems on a specific topic or by a specific author, trying to understand the key points of an event that are meaningful to the performer I’m writing for or that are emotionally compatible with something I can relate to.

There is a lot of trying out melodies on the keyboard and shaping them into meaningful units that seem to be compatible with the original intention for the composition. Then there’s a long process of refining that material and producing the final piece. There have only been a couple of times when I wrote a piece in a single “compositional outburst”.

LC: Most of your compositions have been written for specific performers or for specific events.

JE: Yes, and because of that, I have had a very specific starting point or seed for the creative process. However, my best compositions have had multi-layered sources of inspiration.

For example, I was asked by the extraordinary French cellist Sébastien Hurtaud to write a piece that would be appropriate for two events: a concert in Paris commemorating the 100th anniversary of the World War I Armistice, and a concert in Panama celebrating a gathering of young people with the hope of making a difference in the world (World Youth Days). I had found great inspiration in a poem by an Australian World War I Veteran who described the moment when he, still in the trenches, was informed that the war was over. He recalled seeing the clouds of smoke dissipate and give way to the light of the sun.

Shortly after I started writing, a very important person in my life passed away. The piece instantly became more personal and I decided to embrace a more universal theme of the journey through darkness to light, whether it’s at a macro level (people going through war and longing for peace) or at a personal level (people grieving or going through a challenging situation). And the result of this process is my composition The Dawn of Hope. I decided to focus on how love and compassion can transform someone, even when dealing with great challenges or loss, and help him see life again with hope.

LC: I know that it’s like asking a mother to choose her favorite child, but do you have a favorite piece among all those you’ve written?

JE: My most performed piece is the tango Otoño en Buenos Aires, and I love it very much.This is a performance with Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Ashok Klouda:

I also have two that are particularly close to my heart for reasons related to the life circumstances in which they were created: The Dawn of Hope, which I mentioned earlier, and Under the Starry Sky of the Rhine.

LC: How does your cultural heritage inform your compositional style? 

JE: Without a doubt, my cultural heritage has been a very important part of my compositional style. Some of my pieces are very explicitly Mexican or Latin American. But in general, I think that my cultural heritage has strengthened my love for melody, my preference for writing music that connects with the audience at an emotional level, and my love for dance forms.

LC: As a Hispanic composer, do you see any issues or roadblocks for Hispanic composers today?

JE: We are blessed to live in a period with wonderful tools and opportunities that didn’t exist even a couple of decades ago. Composers these days don’t have to rely on publishers, record labels, et cetera, to make their music known. And we don’t have to be limited by geography to make musical connections, collaborate on projects or get performances of our works. The availability of extraordinary learning resources online and the easy access to scores for study is something unprecedented as well. So, more than speaking about roadblocks, I prefer to think about it in terms of blessings and opportunities.

Of course, I’m quite aware of the many challenges that remain, in terms of support for music education, budgets for music institutions, availability of affordable instruments, grants for concerts, et cetera. But I’m grateful for the many things that are a lot better and more possible now that they were not so long ago. I’m encouraged by the many efforts that are in progress to make more music by Latin American composers available to everyone, with notable projects like the Sphynx Catalog, the amazing projects by artists like Gustavo Martín (“El violonchelo en Mexico”), Evangelina Reyes and her colleagues (Latin American flute catalogue) and many others.

LC: I got to hear your music unexpectedly at a California concert. I think in that concert program book I read your works have been played by orchestras all around the world, not just in the U.S. Tell me about your music’s reception in those other countries.

JE: It’s been a blessing to hear my compositions performed by more than 180 orchestras around the world. I never expected anything like this to happen! There have been many beautiful, memorable moments. For example, the very first professional performance of my music by an orchestra. It was in the context of an outdoor festival. To hear my composition, which I had written as a homework for a university class, performed by professional musicians, and to receive a standing ovation by an audience of nearly 25,000 people was absolutely incredible and that still motivates me when writing new music.

Another wonderful experience was when I visited a dear conductor friend in England, maestro Andrew Sherwood. He invited me to meet him at what he described as a “rehearsal” of his youth orchestra. He had actually invited current and former orchestra members who had performed my music in 40+ concerts during the past 5 years under his direction. They played my compositions for me and we had a wonderful conversation. At the time, I had just recovered from a very traumatic surgery and was very moved and encouraged to hear the stories from all those kids that had grown up playing my music.

LC: Wonderful story! Looking ahead now, what are projects you are working on?

JE: I’ve been writing a cello concerto for the extraordinary cellist Benedict Klöckner, who is also a very dear friend of mine. The piece is called The Legend of the Noble Knight. I’m particularly excited to collaborate with my dear friend, maestro Kevin Sütterlin to bring this concerto to life. I’ve also been asked to write a celebratory piece for the opening ceremony of a beautiful new church that is being built in northern Mexico. And not too long ago, I was asked by maestro Carlos Prieto to write another cello duet for him and maestro Yo-Yo Ma. The piece is called Cantabrigian Reflections. Having two of my all-time music heroes associated with that piece is a dream.

LC: And as if that weren’t thrill enough, what else would you consider the greatest thing that could happen to you as a composer?

JE: Hearing that I have touched the heart of the listener and facilitated a moment in which they can forget their troubles, or feel connected to an emotion that provides serenity, joy or healing. It’s not something one can “plan for,” but it’s incredibly special when people tell you they’ve had such an experience while listening to your music. It has happened to me a with my composition, The Dawn of Hope, and I feel incredibly blessed and fortunate.

CODA: As you read, Mr. Elizondo has great affection for two of his pieces in particular. Let’s hear them now, starting with The Dawn of Hope. This version is performed by cellist Sébastien Hurtaud and pianist Pamela Hurtado.

Another piece near-and-dear to his heart is Under the Starry Sky of the Rhine. You’ll hear the Bach references he mentioned.

Source link

Leave a Reply Cancel reply