“It is through memory that ‘things’ acquire meaning(s) and that we are able to place them within an imaginary continuum of time that we call ‘the past’. This makes memory inevitably political. Collective memory, even more so.”Luis Fernando Amaya
Born in Aguascalientes, México, Luis Fernando Amaya is a composer and percussionist. Topics such as collective memory and the relationship between humans and non-humans (such as plants, animals, or environments) are commonly present in his work. He studied composition and music theory at the Centro de Investigación y Estudios Musicales (CIEM) and holds a Ph.D. in composition and music technology from Northwestern University.
We asked Luis Fernando to guide us through the concepts behind the works of his debut album Cortahojas [“Leafcutter”], released in February 2023 by Protomaterial Records.
Does music-making transform how one relates to insects? What about plants, environments, or memories? Not necessarily. But, can it?
Cortahojas is a collection of pieces that, at the moment of their conception, had nothing to do with each other. It was only months or, in some cases, years after they were composed that I looked back and saw them align. All the works in this album are for duos — some of them between two instruments and others between an instrument and some sort of electronic source. They share another peculiarity: all of them explore how humans relate to non-human others. In both cases (the musical duo and the relational human/non-human duo), I strive to find the porous areas where one-plus-one is not necessarily two but maybe one-point-six or three or seventeen.
The types of non-human others that, conceptually, I deal with in the album are also two: 1) animals (mostly insects) and 2) collective memory (one should remember that collective memory behaves very similarly to a living organism as it has a genealogy, it evolves, and it goes extinct). This is another — yet non-intentional — dual quality of the album that I came to realise after I chose the pieces for it.
guerrilla de dientes entre los árboles [“guerrilla of teeth amongst the trees”]
“Siénteme / guerrilla de dientes entre los árboles”fragment of Pedro Vargilla’s sixth poem from “Marea”
Insects don’t have teeth—they are all teeth. For those who have exoskeletons, their physical contact with their surroundings is radically different from those of us who have skin and muscles around our bones. Their touch and the sounds that they produce differ greatly from ours. This piece, written for two percussion sets, is inspired by the sounds that insects produce in their interaction with the world; beings whose presence — sometimes annoying, sometimes scary, sometimes welcome — is gradually disappearing from our daily lives.
The instrumentation of the piece is semi-open, which means that performers can choose whatever objects they want to use for the two instrumental groups of each set. This allows performers to play the piece regardless of their instrumental availability or budget. In this recording, percussionists Rubén Bañuelos and Mykołaj Rytowski use a bamboo mobile and woodblocks for the first instrumental group and metal springs for the second.
The third type of sound in the piece is usually a wooden comb on a drum (the drum only serves as a resonator). However, Miko and Rubén decided to use ribbed sticks on tom-toms instead, giving it the sound quality of one giant centipede instead of that of, maybe, several normal-sized caradeniños.
Pregunta no.2: Cóndor [“Question no.2: Condor”]
Memory is what things are made of. Or, perhaps I should say, it is through memory that we construct our conception of the world, History (with capital “H”), and our sense of identity. It is through memory that “things” acquire meaning(s) and that we are able to place them within an imaginary continuum of time that we call “the past”. This makes memory inevitably political. Collective memory, even more so.
I am interested in how one “thing” (an object, a word, a concept, even a person) can be interpreted by means of two or more contrasting collective memories. The word “cóndor” has that effect on my set of personal/collective memories.
Cóndor: iconic bird of the Andes, that which flies higher than all; the one that knows no boundaries, no borders; a symbol of transcendence, spirituality, and wisdom for several cultures in South America (not to be confused with Latin America). This word, however, makes a very different set of collective memories arise in my mind. “Operación Cóndor” (ca. 1968-75) was a campaign of political interventionism, repression, and state terror carried out by right-wing dictatorships with the support of the U.S. governments (from Johnson to Reagan). During this time, in almost every South American country, people were forcibly disappeared, tortured, incarcerated, and murdered because of their political beliefs. The estimated outcome is more than 60,000 deaths and 400,000 political prisoners.
Pregunta no.2: Cóndor for piano + e-bows was written with my mind sitting in the middle of the clash between two contrasting collective memories aroused by the word “cóndor”. The performer who plays in this recording is Jonathan Hannau who also commissioned the work.
comentarios inaudibles [“inaudible commentaries”]
This piece is inspired by a particular type of sound that some of us animals produce involuntarily when experiencing stress, surprise, or pleasure. Many of these sounds tend to be extremely soft, sometimes only becoming audible to whoever emits them or to someone close enough to perceive them. The piece is a zoom-in into representations of some of these sounds — or their equivalent for the cello — which expands both their length and loudness, allowing us to live with them for longer.
comentarios inaudibles for cello and electronics (emitted through a transducer attached to the cello’s bridge) was written with the generous help of cellists Isidora Noijkovic and Seth Parker-Woods. The piece is dedicated to Isidora who recorded it for the album.
Bestiario: cuatro [“Bestiary: four”]
Bestiario (“Bestiary”) is a collection of pieces in which the performers are asked to embody an imaginary animal through sound. In a way, this animal participates in the composition process as it gradually reveals itself in its sonic qualities which help dictate the work’s discourse (form, techniques, contrasts, gestures, etc.) This means that this imaginary animal has agency in the work, which leads me to make decisions that I would not have otherwise made. Along with other collections of pieces (such as my Dialectos de Árbol or “Tree Dialects”), this Bestiary is one of my attempts to remove the human — as a concept — from the centre of attention and to dehumanise my ear to be able to better listen to those types of others who rarely are considered as equal subjects.
This is the fourth piece of this collection, composed for and dedicated to Theo Espy who plays in the recording.
What type of animal(s) do you imagine would produce the sounds of this piece?
Letting the album borrow its name, Cortahojas is a piece about different moments in the life of a leafcutter bee, also known as “abeja cortahojas”. This group of solitary bee species is vital for the pollination of thousands of species of plants around the world. Not only that, leafcutter bees have a beautiful way of taking care of their offspring: they create intricate leaf cocoons in which they place their eggs before hiding them inside a branch or a whole.
Scored for prepared violin and bassoon, the form of the piece is inspired by the non-linear narrative of Argentinian writer Angélica Gorodischer. Hence, the listener is presented with my imagined sounds of the leafcutter bee’s hatching, growing, foraging, and even the bee’s aesthetic experience of flowers in a fragmented and disorderly manner.
The piece is wonderfully performed by the duo Wolftone: Ben Roidl-Ward (bassoon) and Will Overcash (violin).
que del mar saliste [“(you) who came from the sea”]
“Fandanguito que del marfrom El Fandanguito
Saliste sin hacer guerra
Para que luego en la tierra
Encontraras un hogar”
The verse above, taken from the traditional son jarocho “El Fandanguito”, is a moving way to praise the music that came to México “from the sea, without making war” (in contrast with other things like diseases or a racialised exploitative economic system). As the verse says, this music “found a home in its new land” and was thus transformed by it. Along with the music came the instruments that played it such as the Spanish baroque guitar.
This piece for guitar and transducers is about the collective memory that surrounds the guitar as a cultural and historical object. The electronic tracks were made with recordings of various music styles that use the guitar or other related instruments, all of which were transduced into a guitar and recorded over and over again. This is the same technique Alvin Lucier used in “I am sitting in a room” — but now the room is the six-stringed instrument.
Each of the four movements focuses on different types of music from different parts of Latin America and Spain, all of which relate to each other either sonically or historically:
Mvt.1: “sobre el Atlántico” [“on/over the Atlantic”] revolves around a piece by almost-unknown Mexican baroque composer Joseph Maria García (ca.1772) as well as the traditional son jarocho “El Fandanguito” and Santiago de Murcia’s “Fandango”.
Mvt.2: “sobre marineras y tientos” focuses on the recordings of one Afro-Peruvian marinera and a tiento played by Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucía. Here I try to make evident the historical bond that connects Latin American, Western African, Arabic, and Flamenco styles.
Movt.3: “sobre guacamaya y pajarillo” explores a blend between the Colombian-Venezuelan joropo “El Pajarillo” [“The Little Bird”] and the Mexican son jarocho “La Guacamaya” [“The Macaw”]. This is the most referential piece of music that I have ever written and I have to say that it was extremely hard for me to overcome my personal taboo of clearly quoting traditional music.
Mvt.4: “sobre los Andes” [“on/over the Andes”] is the simplest of all movements. It revolves around a short chord progression from a traditional huayno played with the characteristic one-finger charango tremolo technique. Different speeds and microtonal tunings affect this chord progression, turning it into something similar to the sight of several condors flying in circles above a food source.
This piece was particularly difficult to compose, perform, record, and mix. I thank guitarist and friend Ruben Mattia Santorsa for his patience in our collaboration and his musicianship in the recording of this piece. I also thank Protomaterial Records for allowing me to use the recordings of this piece in a manner that is “unorthodox”—for some people, the mix sounds too cloudy and overloaded. However, that’s how the piece should sound.
I asked Joan Arnau Pàmies, composer and head of Protomaterial Records, how he would define the album to a first listener. This is what he replied:
“In my view, Cortahojas is an invitation to a different way of listening to Earth, perhaps one which is processed through a lens that has little to do with Homo sapiens. This is obviously an impossible task (Amaya and his listeners are humans), but I am not sure it matters much. Doesn’t much of the most creative music ever made stem from the will to question the margins of what is possible?”
Stream and download Cortahojas at the link below:
Follow more of Luis Fernando Amaya’s work at:
Discover more guest articles focused around albums here.