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Elio Villafranca: Schoenberg's Cuban Street

By Published: October 6, 2003

Talking about his daily relationship with composition and arranging, then, Villafranca states that he is 'inspired to compose by feelings, emotions, places, histories, people, memories and folkloric traditions. The compositions always come from inside. Each of those factors has an effect on what comes out of me. For example, I am conscious of the many things in my music derived from my great interest in romantic music. Often times, my compositions come after practicing music from symphonic repertoires. At times, they come from memories. For instance, I compose when missing my country. I also compose as an exercise. Some times the compositions come complete and I only have to write them. When that happens, it is easy and fun at the same time. Occasionally, only musical motifs are apparent. Then, I have to rely as a composer on the knowledge acquired at the university in order to elaborate upon those motifs and turn them into compositions. At times, I compose based on a title. Many times, the music titles itself out.'

Given such wide and important parameters for his compositional experiences and inspirations, I wondered aloud whose writing he respected. Responding with a bit of soapboxing thrown in, the pianist and percussionist responds saying he respects 'many jazz composers. In contemporary jazz, however, I see many composers depending too much on improvisation. They provide a harmonic structure as support for the solos, but they don't pay much attention to thematic and structural development, or to its motifs, forms and cadences. They think the piece develops and strengthens itself through solos. In a composer, I admire the ability to make something complete, well structured and musically developed, with a rich melodic, harmonic and rhythmic sense. For example, Danilo P'rez knows how to elaborate the Latin theme without abusing it, while creating a composition solidly grounded and with intelligent developments. Because of the colors he could get from a Big Band, within Latin concepts and patterns, one of the arrangers I most admire is Chico O'Farrill. I also like many of the Wynton Marsalis arrangements because of the way he handles an orchestra's language, making you trip to a time you never lived in jazz. I admire some arrangers in Cuba such as Joaqu'n Betancourt and Ceruto, who create marvels within Cuban danceable music. I also admire other great arrangers such as Lil' Mart'nez, Pedro Justiz and Duke Ellington.'

By extension, chatting about some of the material in his first release as a leader, he adds that 'As far as Incantations is concerned, 'Cacique' is a multifaceted composition. The melody comes from an element based on a dodecaphonic system created by a XX Century composer, Arnold Schoenberg. What really motivated me to compose this number, nonetheless, was John Coltrane's composition 'Miles Mood.' It is based on the same Schoenberg principle. While composing this number, I always asked myself what would Coltrane or Mingus have done if they had visited Cuba? What would they have done if they had attended a toque de santer'a or Afro Cuban religious ceremony? That explains the rhythms and the instruments used there. The title has indigenous roots. The cacique was a tribe's chief. When listening to the melodic line of the bass, the image of a seated chief thinking of new rules for the tribe came to mind. I had only listened to the introduction of 'Prende la vela,' the Lucho Berm'dez number. From it, I was inspired to write my version entitled 'Negrita, prende la vela.' Once the composition was finished, however, I wanted to research the composer and his music furthermore. I wanted to hear the original version and, when doing so, I realized that if I had listened to it beforehand, I would have not written the number! In 'You Spoke Too Soon,' I merely wanted to compose something in the Blues format that was more conventional and easy to digest. I wanted to write something simple enough to be first-read, and as a rehearsal piece. When playing concerts and events, it is rare to have time to rehearse more than once. Many of my compositions don't lend themselves for that. This composition is a simple Blues. My girlfriend and I coincided on the title, and it stayed as such.'

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