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Alexis Cuadrado: A Bassist in New York

By Published: September 30, 2013
AAJ: A lot of artists who approach one form through another don't do it in the same direct, complete way that you did. For example, often taking the complete text of the poem. A lot of other folks talk about "distilling" a work or presenting the "spirit" of a work. They stay a little more removed. You really stuck very closely to the flow of the poems. It's almost like the lyrics to an opera. How did you accomplish this, what was your method?

AC: It was a very systematic process but very intuitive at the same time. Once I find a way, once I can see what the composition will look like in the block of marble, then I go for it. Every poem was its own, had to have its own personality.

At the beginning, the first two or three, I didn't really edit anything. But as I went further along I really did edit quite a lot. Some of the poems are so long it would be almost impossible to write what to me was musically interesting and keep the emotion of the poem at the same time. So I had to edit. I still have a big folder with all the poems, scratched up. But as soon as the third or fourth were done, I started seeing connections between all of them and started using compositional elements in the first one and the fourth one, so it does have this more classical composer approach [like] in an opera where there are motifs that repeat.

AAJ: Could you choose one of the poems and walk through how you took that piece from composition, to arrangement, to performance?

AC: We could choose "Dance of Death" which is one of the more critical ones. The lyrics speak of a monster that will come down to Wall Street and destroy everything. There was this idea of an African mask taking back what's been taken away from it. Or if you want, an analogy of a proletarian revolution. I'm not very keen on communism per se, but that was still the center of the idea.

So it had to be a strong piece. It had to have an African element to it. I felt it had to have a repetitive element for the part that says "the mask, look at the mask, how it comes from Africa to New York." I am translating by memory. So that had to be a strong chorus.

There are three basic elements that I used musically. One, there is a lot of repetition, but used in a minimalist way. Two, all these repetitions are written technically in voices that move in contrary motion. I made the parallel that contrary motion could be contrary movement, [like] Occupy Wall Street is a contrary movement. Now, whether that translates into what you hear or not, I don't know. But it's a great excuse to do something.

Then I used a lot of percussion. For the recording I used South American percussion, Brazilian percussion, African percussion, flamenco. There were like 50 tracks for that piece and something like 27 of them are's a chorus of voices. I wanted to give it this multi-national chorus impression. So that is how abstracting the ideas from the poetry and translating them into musical elements happens.

Here is another example: "The Dawn." This is perhaps the most famous poem from "Poet in New York." For this, I had an image of Lorca at the beach seeing the sunrise and being at the beach I had an image of a crab crawling. So I had the idea to write a crab cannon in the middle of the piece. What sense does that make? How does that connect to Lorca in any possible way? But as I was saying, it's an excuse to start something. And I did. I wrote a crab cannon which made me go into Bach and study crab cannon for a month until I could figure it out.

This is the process for me. I go into my studio and it's like going into a playroom. I have all these legos and I have to build something with them. It is really fun. You have to try and eventually something works. Maybe 1 out of 10. It is a lot of work. It is painful. But when something starts to work, it almost happens on its own. The process of thinking about it for so long, it unlocks the door. I do not know how I wrote all this music—did I do that? It's crazy.

AAJ: The collection "Poet in New York" is quite large. How did you choose the pieces to compose?

AC: Well, first of all I had permission to choose nine. So I could not use more than nine. I chose eight, because for one I combined two poems. I read the book I don't how many times—twenty or thirty times—and started making a list of the ones that I thought worked and the ones that didn't. They almost self-selected in the end.

AAJ: It was more a choice of what you thought could be translated musically, as opposed to one from each section of the book? Or by theme?

AC: Some of them I chose because I thought they would work musically and some I chose thematically...I geared it more toward social commentary because there are some that don't really have much of a social commentary. They are more like still life photographs. And there were some where I had no idea how I was going to put it into music, but I had to do it... like "New York Office and Denunciation." That is the seminal protest one. That is the most hard protest, the most intense. And so many lyrics I thought Claudia was going to need an oxygen bottle!

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