by Reinaldo Moya

What does it mean to be a “Latin American” composer? I would like to think that the days of categorizing composers by their gender or ethnicity are gone. After all, in our increasingly global culture, we value everyone’s contributions equally, regardless of where they are from. Yet, the categories continue to hold on, and I think people continue to get pigeonholed.

In my case, I have benefited on several occasions from being a Latin American composer. My works have been programmed on concerts that are Latin-themed, and these have been some of the most high-profile performances that I have received. As a young composer, I am always happy to get a great performance, but sometimes I wish my piece had been programmed for a  “regular” concert (read: the one where they play new works by “composers”, no qualifier needed). I guess even the most famous and successful composers working today need a qualifier. Composers today are described as American, Finnish, or, my least favorite, “living” (as though the ones who are alive are the exception to the rule).

Other times, presenters and performers have been surprised, and occasionally frustrated, that my music is not as “Latin” as they were expecting. Let me try to explain a bit more: people have contacted me wanting scores, a request that I am always happy to grant. Many times, once I’ve sent the materials, I hear nothing back from them. I understand that this happens all the time to composers. There are hundreds of reasons why people don’t get back to you once you’ve sent them a score, and most of them are not personal. But, in some cases I know that the reason why I don’t hear back from these musicians is because my music was not “Latin” enough, or it is just simply too difficult to play.

Especially coming from Venezuela, a country that has done a great deal to put Latin American music on the world map, I feel that audiences expect a certain type of music from me: the kind of show-stopping, clap-along-while-they-twirl-their instruments type of music that never fails to make the audience applaud enthusiastically for twenty minutes. And, in some very real ways, those pieces do reflect the energy and excitement that is synonymous with Latin American culture. However, I want my music to present a more complex picture, and very often my music flies right in the face of these expectations. This became painfully clear to me recently, when I heard a performance of one of my orchestra pieces in Venezuela. We heard performances of 10 new pieces over the course of two days. Mine was the only work that did not end with a loud, bombastic coda. There was probably too much soft music that unfolded at a moderate tempo for the audience’s taste, and when the music gathered activity, the rhythms were just too complicated for the orchestra to really manage them well. I was told by the conductor that I should spend more time in Venezuela, so that I could “tropicalize” myself. I didn’t know how to take this comment. I don’t think he meant it as a putdown, but I do think it is indicative of a certain attitude that exists both here in the United States, and also in Latin America.

So why do I insist on calling myself a Latin American composer? Because I think wholeheartedly that Latin American art can be truly great (yes, capital “G” great). And for me the best demonstration of this fact is the amazing literary tradition that has developed and continues to flourish in this region.  I am talking about such masterpieces as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones, Octavio Páz’s Sunstone, and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. These books opened up new worlds and vistas to me. All of a sudden many more things became possible; all I had to do was imagine them. The encyclopedic nature of many of these works showed me that a whole universe could be contained within a single work of art, and that it is the job of the creator to make these places believable and meaningful to an audience.

Everything that I do as a composer continues to be nurtured and inspired by this incredible body of work. I think that, deep in my heart, I fancy myself a writer. In fact, for a few years I wanted to switch careers and become a novelist, only to find out that I couldn’t make the words do what I wanted them to do.

This desire to tell stories, and create whole new imagined places, inspired many of my instrumental works. I wanted my music to signify something concrete, or play with some particular interesting narrative technique. I was unhappy about the abstraction of music, the very quality that attracted many writers to music.  My Rayuela Preludes (inspired by Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch) are a perfect example of this kind of obsession. I wanted the Preludes to transcend the realm of music and become more “real.” The three pages of program notes indicate the extent to which I wanted to make this literature-music manifest to an audience.

Now that I am in the middle of writing an opera, I think I have found the perfect vehicle for my expression. The inclusion of text brings an added layer of meaning that had previously been missing from my work. It has been an absolutely fascinating experience to create a world that is inhabited by these very real characters. The subject of the opera is one that was immortalized by many Latin American novels: that of a dictator (both as a real person and as a kind of mythological figure). Having read many of the dictator novels (The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez, The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa, I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos, etc.) it became clear to me that dictators are operatic figures, and that they could find a perfect home on the opera stage. Their lives, full of decadence, over-the-top-emotion, and excesses, would make the perfect dramatic structure for an opera. Jess Foster (my librettist) and I decided to create a fictional dictator, one that is a composite of many real dictators from Latin America. We wanted to bring our dictator to life as an archetypal figure, and thus universalize the subject.

Through the writing of this opera, I feel that I am finally bringing all of my obsessions together: I got to create and tell the story of my very own dictator, while at the same time I am connecting myself to the literary tradition of Latin America. Certainly the dictator novels helped me shape the protagonist Miguel Angel into a believable personality, and one could interpret Generalissimo as an operatic re-imagining of the dictator novel. I felt that the music that is required by this libretto is a type of music that can represent extremes: from utter sweetness to the most awful cruelty. I have tried to capture the totality of that reality as faithfully as possible in the music for this opera. And here I once again bump into the complexity of what it is to be “Latin American.” As Gabriel García Márquez told the world in his Nobel lecture in 1982: the reality in our continent is often stranger than fiction. Our geography, nature and history are wondrously extreme, and this is the Latin America that I want to share with the world through my music.


Dr. Reinaldo Moya is Instructor of Music at St. Olaf College and Instructor of Music Theory and Composition at Interlochen Arts Camp. He received his M.M. and DMA in composition from The Juilliard School. Read more about him and listen to his works at his website,

Posted on July 15th, 2013 by arielartists

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