“You see a colour, you see an image, and that is gonna have an impact on how you play a piece, especially if you have some freedom on how to do it. But you, as a player, need to be open to that.” -Jimena Maldonado
Jimena Maldonado (b. 1988) is a Mexican composer based between Leeds (UK) and The Hague (NL). Jimena’s work draws heavily from her background in photography and visual art, with an interest in combining her two disciplines in order to achieve alternative forms of both composing and presenting her work. Jimena has studied at CIEM (Mexico City) and Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and is currently pursuing a PhD at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Her work has been performed across the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Mexico, and continental Europe by ensembles such as Quatuor Bozzini, Ligeti Quartet, Orkest de Ereprijs, and Cuarteto José White; Jimena is also the 2020 recipient of National Sawdust’s Hildegard Commission.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hi Jimena! Firstly — a huge congratulations on getting commissioned by National Sawdust! How did you initially get involved with them?
Jimena Maldonado: It’s one of those things. I applied for it. It’s the third year of the Hildegard Competition: a competition for female-identifying composers. You apply with three pieces and a proposal for what you would want to do if you win. They have this amazing venue in Brooklyn. I saw the pictures of it, it’s just incredible; it’s this white hall with these black lines going all over the place. I was just mesmerised by the lines, and the whole feeling for the venue; I wanted to do something with that. I proposed to do a piece where some of the players would be walking around the lines and playing at the same time, and how that would have an impact on what the rest of the players created.
So I sent [the] proposal, and months later I received one of those emails that changed so many things. I was one of the three winners. It’s a really good scheme, [because] they really encourage you to go crazy, it’s interesting how you’re free to do whatever you want. I created a choreography for half of the ensemble: the flute, the clarinet, and the violin would be walking around the stage whilst playing, and the other half — percussion, piano, and cello, because they can’t really move — would react to what the moving players would do. That was the premise of the piece. From there, I created this choreography for all the moving players. It was really complicated, because I had never really done anything like that. So I basically built a version of the stage in my garden when I was in Leeds — I had loads of time in lockdown — and recorded myself walking, and I layered the videos so I could see the three versions of myself walking around. It was a lot of adding things, and then removing things, until I got what I wanted from the choreography.
That’s a really cool concept. How did the space and the choreography relate to the score of the piece itself?
I had an idea of what I wanted to do with the pitch process. It had to be very simple for the moving players, because they’re playing at the same time as they’re walking, and they have to memorise the pitches, at least. They have six different “walks” — they walk [onto] the stage, do certain movements, and then walk [off] the stage. That happens five times, plus the last one. I made a click track for them to follow — the click track tells them right, left, forward, or back, at every intersection — but there are some rules: they add a new pitch every time they walk [onto] the stage, and after the second time, they start adding pitches every time they walk right or left. It builds up from one pitch — they all start playing A — and by the climax of the piece, they’re playing five pitches… Then they go back to playing the last pitch, and that’s it.
How did the stationary players fit into the equation? How did you score their parts?
For the moving players, they [just] have the choreography and the adding of the pitches, but for the other players — because everything they do is related to the movement of the [moving] players — they had to have some sort of visual link, or way of seeing. I made a diagram of the moving players at all times — everything that the moving player does is related to the musical material of their partner. [Every musician] has a partner; the vibraphone’s partner is the clarinet, the piano is with the violin, the cello is with the flute. It gets more and more complicated; the moving players start moving faster every time, and that has an impact on the material of the stationary players.
I’m guessing this would have been tough to put together due to covid regulations — how did the initial performance turn out?
Putting it together was a bit difficult; we had to do a lot of changes because of covid restrictions. In the end, it wasn’t allowed for the violin, flute, and clarinet to do the actual moving part, and that sort of ruined everything. They offered me the chance to work with a choir [that was] working for the other pieces; they were pretty used to doing movement stuff — which was a really nice coincidence — and they offered [me] to pre-record with them the movement part. They asked three of the choir singers to do the choreography, they pre-recorded that, and [the musicians] played from that. It was really different, because a really big part of the piece is the connection between the steps of the moving players; every time they do a step, it also means an attack for the [instrument]. Even though it was really simple material, the idea was for that to create loads of polyrhythms within [that]. You remove that from the piece, and it’s very different.
You’d have to have all the instrumentalists reacting to the choir…
They’re really amazing players — they [were] incredible — but the rehearsal time was very limited. And the whole piece was created with this idea — half of the players reacting to the movements of the other half — and they couldn’t see the video when they were recording the piece, so it was really complicated to set up. There was no other way of doing it, it was not their fault — there were covid rules, things kept changing, they didn’t have loads of time — I hope they can do it again. I actually want to do it in Birmingham next year, hopefully; just re-create the stage, and do it as it should be. It needs to be live — with people there, and with players moving around.
Is ‘Constelaciones’ indicative of the relationship you have between music and visual material?
This piece was really important to me, because it really gave me the opportunity to work with a truly visual [stimulus]. Even though it’s not a photograph, it’s not a painting, it’s a piece that is built from [that] relationship; you have people moving around the space, and their direction and their interaction — one, it made me write the piece a certain way, and two — it made the players react to that. It’s a really good hybrid of the visual and musical, which is what I’ve been working on [for] my PhD: how to compose using this relationship between images and composition as a holistic thing.
That’s a really interesting question to pose. I know you’ve studied photography in the past; was there anything that shifted your focus from photography to composition?
It was actually the other way round. I did my Bachelors in Composition. I’ve always been into photography, but I [then] decided to actually do a degree in photography; so I ended up doing the last year of my Bachelors at the same time as studying photography.
That’s interesting — so how did the two end up intertwining for you?
I don’t think I knew back then that it was gonna end up being like this. -laughs- Back then, I felt like I had [a] bit too much time; I don’t know why, because I was finishing [my] Bachelor’s and I had to do all of these exams, but I thought “if I don’t do this now, I’m never gonna study photography properly”. I was waiting to hear from Masters, and scholarships, and I thought, just, why not do something else while I wait around, before I can go somewhere to do my Masters?
So I did this three year programme [in] photography, and then I started using a bunch of different processes that I learned at photography school to compose my pieces, sort of as extramusical material for myself, to deal with pitch, or with [structure] — a lot with structure, it was more about structure — and then I realised that it was something I was enjoying a lot, and I realised that it gave me ideas and results that wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have this extramusical input.
I mean, it makes for much more interesting compositional theory — Xenakis was an architect, after all…
Yeah. That was sort of the first step. But it was more for myself as a composer, and that was it. Then I did my Masters in Holland, and I started writing more and more pieces based on photographs that I took. I started messing around with pieces, and then I did a residency in the south of France for five months. That really gave me the opportunity of working with [performers] — there were a bunch of performers there who were eager to work with people — it’s just so different when you have a lot of time to work with people, and develop pieces, especially when you’re doing any sort of experimental, anything.
I had five months to do anything that I wanted. I had people there who really wanted to work with me. We had a lot of rehearsals, and I would show up and [say] “okay, can you try this, can you try [that]” — it really made me realise how important it is to be able to have the time to develop a piece, especially with the sort of notation that I use, the sort of material that I use.
How does your approach to notation relate to your visual frames of reference? I know you did a piece for Decibel a while back that explores something along those lines?
It depends on the piece. What you saw with the National Sawdust, that was a completely different [system of] notation. For the Decibel piece, I [notated] video scores; I do have notated material, and I just added it to a video — they follow the video with the animation, and every time they go up a loop, they play a scale. When they get to the top of the loop, they play a long note, or an interval or a chord, and then it goes down and they do a descending scale. It’s really simple; the notation is more or less traditional — it’s all traditionally notated — I’m just adding it to a video, so the players can follow along with it.
There’s layers to it; in principle, it’s about these scales that go up and down, but also I really liked the idea of the process for the painter. He basically took three or four brushes at the same time, filled them up with paint, and then went like this… -Jimena makes a swirling motion with her hand- You can really see how it goes from being really full strokes at the beginning… and then he runs out of paint. That, for me, definitely has a musical connotation. I do feel like you can hear that in the piece; it’s much more saturated in terms of pitch material and harmony in the beginning, and then it becomes much more atmospheric and sparse.
For me, [‘Megi’] is so transparent; whatever you see in the image is what you hear. The connection is so clear. Whether it works or not, I don’t know — I couldn’t give you an answer — [but] it’s a really transparent connection, which is not easy to find — and it’s not what I’m going for, necessarily.
Tell me about one of your pieces that relates to photography — would you say there’s a similar process in terms of your notation?
For [‘One to Nine’], the [visual material] was an image that I took ages ago in France. I basically took that image and messed around with it in Photoshop; I’d downloaded a new version of Photoshop, and I couldn’t find any of the buttons that I’d used before. -laughs- So I was just trying to do things, and I ended up with a series of nine pictures.
The first change was from colour to black and white — which [is] a very obvious change — but from there, I started tweaking it until it became more and more abstract. It’s the same picture with every time a bit more tweaking; especially the last two images, [which] are quite different from the original.
How did the distortion of the photo translate into musical material?
The scoring of that piece was very tricky to do. The structure is completely based on the nine images, so there are nine sections that become more complicated every time. In terms of notation, you have the first section which is the picture in colour; it’s one pitch, but there are not any sort of colour change or anything. The only thing I have are accents here and there. But then from the second section, I started using doubled strings and much more detail in terms of colour; for me, going into black and white gives more shades, although you have no colour. The shades you can find within a black and white picture are incredible.
So the third image [is] the first time you hear a different pitch. The idea was [that] you see the images, and it’s pretty recognisable that it’s the same image nine times; that, in terms of notation for me, meant a drone — a D — that was always there, it was always present. You could have it in different registers, or with different colours, but the D was always there. That’s the image, that’s the essence of all the images. What happened with that piece is that the melodic lines are completely based on the lines you can see in the images; in the third image, you see this almost shrunken [effect], and that’s how I came up with the glissandi — [they’re] almost aural shrinkage, somehow — and you start seeing these curvy lines in the images that meant a curvy line in the melody.
I see — so the image and the score match up. You can see how they’re put together or falling apart…
I think if you see the image, and you see the score, you can see those lines — you can see the glissandi, the melodic lines. In image seven, you get these really wide lines, and then you hear these really wide glissandi from one note to [another]; it feels almost like a drunken line because it’s so wide. You can see that in the image, as well.
With all of those examples: do you feel like you’ve been able to develop a musical lexicon between visuals and music, and if so, how?
I feel like this is something very personal, you know? My PhD is not one of those where by the end one can say: “well, this is what I’ve come up [with], now you try it”. It’s been a process. I guess that’s what it is with practice-based research. I can tell you that I see two different sides of my compositional process: one is much more about experimental pieces that use images as the score. And those pieces really require players who find that interesting, players who are really interested in exploiting this relationship; players who [can] say “red for me means a sharper E”, whatever that means, or “blue for me is like a really chilled afternoon”. That, for me — that’s part of my research. You see a colour, you see an image, and that is gonna have an impact on how you play a piece, especially if you have some freedom on how to do it. But you, as a player, need to be open to that — and I understand, and I don’t expect anyone to be willing to do that, because it’s not for everyone.
There’s a degree of autonomy you give to performers, in that sense, that I feel like transcends the label of “freedom”. You’re asking them to interpret rather than purely perform.
That’s a really good point. I don’t think I give loads of freedom. -laughs- I have very clear ideas of what I want, and how I want it, and I just notate it differently. I use images as an extra layer of experiencing that. Really, my pieces are not about “here you go, play this image” — that’s not what it is. I do have a lot of set material. Structure is very important to me, structure is something I have a lot of clarity with. And process is, also; most of these pieces are based on processes that come from a visual, as well.
I totally get that. It’s always just making sure performers are able to see that side of it, too.
With some of these pieces, I now have two versions: a much more visual-based version, and sometimes I like to keep a Plan B of a more traditionally notated version of things — just in case I’m collaborating with someone who really resists a visual score. It’s not for everyone.
But the other side of what I do is fully notated — traditionally notated — pieces which come from a visual construction. You find yourself in situations where you have to [compromise]. For example, I recently finished a piece for the Fidelio Trio; I knew there wouldn’t be a lot of rehearsal time, [so] I made the decision of not writing an image-based score. I wrote a completely traditionally notated piece, also because I was really stuck — I’m still recovering from covid, and it has really taken a toll on my work since January — so I chose an image that I had taken a while ago, I messed around with it, and from there I decided everything I wanted to do with the piece. I drew on a piece of paper the structure that I wanted to do, how it was gonna work on each of the instruments… It all [still] came from something that I saw on an image. It’s this combination of a visual input plus my way of composing intuitively. I write very quickly, as well.
That totally makes sense. Even in traditionally notated pieces, the visual is still an integral part of the work…
Yeah. It’s always a choice for the [performer]. With ‘One to Nine’, I decided to add the images to the score, and I can’t tell the players “look at the images, it’s very important that you do”; no, I’m gonna put them there and if that gives them something musically that will help the piece, great. If they don’t even look at the images, that’s their process, you know? I’ve had my process. I’m gonna put them there because I do believe it might add something, but that’s really up to the players. [It’s] the same with the audience; you might decide to put your headphones on whilst listening to a piece and close your eyes and that’s okay, but you might decide to look at the images, and that might give you something else as a listener. I like that possibility. It’s fine either way.
The visual exists for you and your process — and the option is there for listeners, but not mandatory?
No, because it’s all so different. The way you see an image to the way that I see an image is completely different. But to me, that’s what makes it so interesting.
You’ve worked and studied in quite a few places — how much of a role does geography, or place, have on your work, both in music and photography?
It’s been a mix. I guess life is a combination of opportunities and experiences. I really really like travelling, and I always travel with my camera; I have hard drives and hard drives full of images that I haven’t even looked at in ages. I do feel like this desire of mine — of travelling, getting to know new places, photographing these places — definitely has an impact on how I compose, because I tend to use my own images. If I don’t use my own images, every time I travel, I go to exhibitions, or museums, and that for me is so important to keep my creative mind running. That’s something that could happen if you live in one place; just for me, moving around has opened many many creative doors. Who knows if it would’ve happened if I had stayed in Mexico.
France was definitely so good [for me], because it was a composers’ playground. I had loads of time, I had very good players who were okay with playing with me all day. I had people who were interested in going to concerts… It was so good to have that for five months.
Tell me about a project you’ve done you’ve felt particularly inspired by.
I have this project that has been happening since [the] beginning of 2019. It’s a piece for viola da gamba and electronics, based on work by a Mexican artist [Cristian Pineda]. I met him because there were a bunch of earthquakes in Mexico in September 2017, which really destroyed a lot of parts of the centre of the country. From that, myself and a bunch of Mexican people who were in The Hague at the time decided to organise a benefit concert, to raise some money to send to Mexico to help people build their houses. From this concert, I met [Cristian] because he had a cultural centre in Mexico, and he was the one making sure that the money would get to these very poor areas where people were building houses. It was a really nice project.
He made this series of ten images; he went to his hometown [in Mexico] which was completely destroyed, and he took pictures of these destroyed houses. You see the images, and they’re so full of colour, they’re so beautiful… He drew on the digitally, and he said it was his way of repopulating these destroyed places. So I started working on [this] long-scale piece — 52 minutes in total — one piece based on each of these ten graphics. It’s been really good, because I’m working with two of my really close friends; one of them is a composer who’s doing the electronics, and the other is a gamba player. We’ve had more than two years to work together. It’s been really nice to look at each image, develop a process, write a sketch, then get together with [the] gamba player; then he plays around, he tells me how he feels about the image and about the sketch that I wrote. We work together, I rewrite the [sketch] and the same process [happens] with the electronics. It’s quite a long process, because it takes a long time, but it’s almost finished now.
More of Jimena’s work can be found at: