Composer  Juan  Orrego - Salas
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



One thing that is not mentioned in the biography (above) is the fact that Orrego-Salas was born on January 19, 1919.  I make a special point of this because as this presentation is being prepared for the website, it is just five months until he celebrates his 100th birthday, and he is still with us to mark that centenary!

It was in August of 1991 that he agreed to allow me to call him for this interview.  I did programs on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago for his 75th and 80th birthdays, and made a point of including a few other pieces of music in the general programming at various times.

Now, the entire chat has been transcribed, and it is with great pleasure that I post it here . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You are originally from Chile, and you’ve spent a good portion of your life in the United States.  Could we begin by talking a bit about the similarities and differences of both the music and the audience of Latin America, and specifically Chile, and the United States?

Juan Orrego-Salas:   Yes, of course.  I am very grateful to be seventy-two, and throughout my life experience, and after much thought, I feel it’s about to change from what it was.  What I have observed in the years since I became conscious of my position as a musician, is that there have been phenomenal changes in Latin America, and in Chile specifically, and in the United States.


BD:   Changed for the better or just changed?

JO-S:   In many aspects, one could say that for the better, and in many aspects perhaps for the worse.  One of the similarities, for example, is that audiences have grown, and when things grow in numbers, sometimes they become much more limited in depth.  To be more specific, at the time when I grew up in Chile
I started studying at sixI began to listen to a very limited group of musicians.  Neither of my parents were professional musicians, but they liked music, and they introduced me in music in a very broad way.  I remember in those years being as concerned with Bach as I was with Stravinsky, and that helped me very much.  If I jump into the more recent years, the musical activity in Chileas in the rest of Latin America and United Stateshas grown enormously in numbers.  Audiences are much larger, and, in a certain way, it’s the audience now who influences very much the selection of the repertory one hears.  Much policy on which our whole infrastructure of music depends is dependent of the financial support of audiences, then the audiences are the ones that are influencing the selection of the repertory.

orrego-salas BD:   In the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, the audiences always clamored for something new.  Now it seems that they clamoring for something old.

JO-S:   In a way, yes.  That would be the final result of it.

BD:   So, how can we get audiences to clamor for new music?

JO-S:   [Misunderstanding the word, but still responding to the idea]  To plan for new music?  That requires a very limited control.  In many ways, an authoritative policy in music helps to broaden the repertory.  I remember that at the time when I started working, my real first job as a musician in Chile was to write program notes.  An important statistic in building programs was that you couldn’t accept a guest conductor to program again Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony if it had been played a certain number of times in the past seasons.

BD:   So that automatically avoids too much repetition?

JO-S:   That’s right.  Then, those statistics were not only carried regarding works, but also regarding composers.  Let’s imagine Messiaen was just appearing, and that the Chilean audience had never heard Messiaen.  I’m speaking of a specific case from years ago when Jean Martinon came for the first time to conduct in Chile.  Martinon was always amazed that after he had been invited to guest conduct, they asked him to play Messiaen, because Martinon used to tell me he usually had to fight to conduct Messiaen!  [Laughs]

BD:   That must have pleased him very much.

JO-S:   That’s right.  That has now changed in Latin America.  The market policy is now a much more dominant force in Latin American music than what it used to be.

BD:   You spent a number of years as music critic.  Could you help that whole situation while you were writing for major papers?

JO-S:   I tried my best.  Sometimes I had great conflicts, even with the newspaper.  I was several times called and told I was supporting too much certain ideas that are not popular, and that I cannot press for them in that way.

BD:   You were too radical?

JO-S:   Yes!  [Both laugh]  My first experience in the United States was back in 1941.  That was my first trip to the United States, and was a very short trip.  At that time I was at the university, and I profited from an opportunity to get a student reduced-rate to travel during our summer there.  So, I visited New York.  It was in the heart of the concert season, and I was amazed at the extensive repertory of the New York Philharmonic, and even of the Metropolitan Opera House, who today I would judge very conservative.  But in those days, one went to the Metropolitan to hear Wagner, for example, the whole Ring Cycle.  I had never heard a Wagner opera besides Lohengrin.

BD:   Jumping ahead to either the present or nearly the present, I want to bring up the idea of recordings and broadcasts.  Have these helped to homogenize the music of the world, so that music coming from Chile is going to more closely resemble music from the United States or from Europe?

JO-S:   Oh, definitely yes.  Radio, and also all the music media
cassettes, recordings, compact discs, everythingnow has put the world in contact in such a way that there is an inter-influence that is very strong in internationalizing music idiom.

BD:   Is that good or bad, or neither?

JO-S:   In many respects I would wish that that force could be counter-acted by a more conscious awareness of the traditions of each culture.  I’m not going to speak of frontiers in the political way, but in the cultural way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let us speak about your own compositions.  You’ve been active as a composer and active as a teacher, how did you divide your time between those two taxing activities?

orrego-salas JO-S:   That’s a technique that I had to develop with difficulty, and I think I’ve succeeded.  To a certain extent, it’s a matter of separation of those two worlds.  I could have a very heavy schedule as a teacher, but if I had ten minutes between lessons for one student and the next one, I succeeded in being able to completely isolate myself from the problems of the student who just left my classroom, and I wasn’t aware of what was going to happen during the next lesson.  So, I went back to the work I was writing, and I continued writing.

BD:   Were these ideas that had been sitting in your head and fermenting, or were these new ideas that you were able to conjure up on the spot?

JO-S:   In general, it was easier to control when there were ideas that had already been very clear in my head.  Probably the invention of music, from its very seed, took place in my life during the early hours of the morning.  I am a morning composer, not a night composer.  I get up very early...

BD:   ...and the ideas spill forth?

JO-S:   That’s right.

BD:   When you put an idea down on the page, how do you know that this particular idea is right, or if it’s going to get scrapped?

JO-S:   Usually, I live for a great extent of time with an idea in my head before I put it on the paper.  I just live with it, and I hear it internally, and in general my ideas are always thoughts that spring from thematic movements.  I make moves when I invent music.

BD:    You walk around the room???

JO-S:   I walk around the room, or I just walk, or I go to the woods, or go to the garden.  I just walk.  In many instances, I would be judged as if I had gone completely nuts because I moved almost like dancing, because I see my ideas graphically and thematically.

BD:   You don’t hear them in your ear?

JO-S:   Originally, no.  Sounds which are clear and definite are things that come later on to the picture.  Sounds are more relations of all my altitudes in pictures.  In a way, they design something.  My first sketches are always graphic sketches without sounds.  They are graphic and rhythmic sketches.

BD:    Then, do the sounds just appear, or do they simply come into sharper focus?

JO-S:   They come into sharp focus.  But sounds are selected.  I do agree with Copland, when he said in one of his books, that the task of a composer is to choose the step from one sound to the other.  That’s right!  It’s a constant choice, but it’s a choice that already is conditioned by a thematic idea, in my case by a design.  I am perfectly clear what is going to happen after the first sound, that it’s going to go up and not down, or go up in a small interval, and not in a large interval.  That decision has been made.

BD:   Have you made that decision, or is that decision made for you by your subconscious?

JO-S:   In a way, the creation is a perfect mixture of instinct and reason.  From the combination of instinct and reason flows the energy which sets into motion the creative process.  Sometimes I have no idea where the line dividing the instinct and the reasoning is.  I’m not quite sure of it.

BD:   When you start getting the notes down on the paper, and you’re working with them, and tinkering with the score, how do you know when to put the pen down and say it is ready to be launched?

JO-S:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s a very good question.  It’s a difficult question to answer because the situation changes from piece to piece.  I am concerned with the process of creation even from the very beginning.  I am concerned with two aspects that, for me, are very fundamental to music
the process of continuity, and the process of change.  Continuity means sounds which are related to the way of identifying them, the succession of sounds, or the rhythms, or harmonic patterns, or just timbres.  These are identified as proper to that particular situation.  They don’t belong to anything else but to that situation.  Change is the force that brings variety to music, so that process of continuity and change is what is constantly encouraging me forward.  If I ever feel that I am not in control of the continuity, or that the piece has become repetitious, or that my ideas have become repetitious, or that I’m stuck in one place and I feel it’s not going forward, then that’s the moment to put the pen in the drawer and forget about it until I feel again that the thing is progressing forwards.

orrego-salas BD:   So, there are times then when you just let the piece sit for a while and then come back to it?

JO-S:   That’s right.

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your works over the years?

JO-S:   I had very, very pleasant experiences, and very unpleasant experiences, or sometimes both.

BD:   When you give the work to performers, how much leeway do you expect on their part for interpretation?

JO-S:   I am very much interested in the impact of a particular performance of a work of mine.  I always feel that there is leeway in any of my works for slight departures from the previous interpretation.  There are many things that a performance gives to the work.  As a composer, the creator of the work, I feel that the performer is contributing when he or she plays, and therefore I am interested.  I don’t think that there is one aesthetic version of a piece of mine.  There are possibilities to several approaches to it.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But at some point, it must get too far off the track.

JO-S:   Oh, sure.  When the sources or the essence of the work start disappearing, then that serves no purpose.

BD:   When you’re writing, are you conscious of either the performers that will be performing the work, or the audience that will be hearing the work?

JO-S:    Not particularly the audience.  Regarding performers, I would say that when I’m writing a work for a particular performer, yes, I am aware of a performer.  With regards to the audience, I am not particular about an individual audience, but I am conscious that I would like to be understood on my terms by the audience.  I am not indifferent to them.  I want my music to be understood.  I want my ideas to pull through the audience.

BD:   We’re dancing around the question, so let me ask it straight out.  What is the purpose of music?

JO-S:   [Thinks again]  There is a personal answer to that which every artist would give
and not only a musician.  It’s in music, as well as literature and painting.  It starts with a very intimate act, the act of creation, and the purpose of it is to express yourself.  It’s saying something, it’s conveying something, and needs to convey something.

BD:   From the composer to the audience?

JO-S:   Yes.

BD:   Through the performer?

JO-S:   Through the performer.

BD:   And most of the time your ideas do get through?

JO-S:   Hopefully!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

orrego-salas BD:   I asked if you were pleased with performances.  Have you been pleased with the recordings, because they have more universality since they can be played at any time at any place?

JO-S:   Yes.  For me the only problem with a recording is that it is already a canned performance.

BD:   There are never any changes.

JO-S:   Yes.  Whenever you hear it, it’s the same version, so in many ways recordings deprive music from that freshness the live performance adds to it.  On the other hand, a recording is the most wonderful tool to reach a large number of audiences.  Therefore, on the basis of this reflection, I wouldn’t cancel them.

BD:   Just look at each in terms of its separate goodness and badness?

JO-S:   That’s right.

BD:   [We then discussed the recordings I had on hand for use on the radio.]  I have the Sextet for Clarinet, String Quartet and Piano, Opus 38 [CD re-issue shown at left], and one of the Louisville records, the Symphony No. 2.

JO-S:   The other Louisville recording is Serenata Concertante, and in many ways it is a better performance.  It’s a less good recording because it wasn’t made in the stereo period, but just Hi-Fi.

BD:   So sonically it’s not as bright?

JO-S:   That’s right, but the performance is better.  It’s much more transparent, much more clean, and precise.  It was based on the number of rehearsals, because it was a commission of the Louisville Orchestra.  Therefore, it fell within that scheme.  They played it during the month before the recording session took place.  The Symphony No. 2 was just one performance and then the recording session.

BD:   I also have the Canciones Castellanas.

JO-S:   Do you have the recording that was done here?

BD:   It
s the one on Heliodor with Dorothy Renzi, and Arthur Winograd conducting.

JO-S:   Yes, it’s not a bad recording.  There is another recording which is on a Chilean RCA, which is another interpretation.  It
s a much better interpretation, first of all because it’s a very good soprano, Clara Oyuela, an Argentinean soprano from the Teatro Colón.  I would say it’s better than the Renzi recording because the Spanish diction of Clara Oyuela is much better.  She’s an Argentinean soprano from the Teatro Colón.  There is also compact disc of the Variations on a Chant for solo harp.  That was commissioned by World Harp Congress, and it was premiered in Jerusalem two years ago.  [The melody for this set of variations (which was commissioned for the 1985 World Harp Congress) belongs to an old chant used by the Jews of Yemen for the recitation of the Pentateuch.  The work was later a required piece for Stage 2 of the USA International Harp Competition 2016.]  There is another compact disc, the Fantasia for Piano and Wind Orchestra, a Mark Recording made by Trinity University Wind Symphony, with Eugene Carinci conducting.  It’s a good performance and a good recording.  Also, there is the Delos recording of my Four Lyrics for Saxophone and Piano [shown at the bottom of this webpage], commissioned by and played by Eugene Rousseau and Hans Graf, the Viennese pianist.  That’s a good recording.  There are many other records that unfortunately are out of print, or are very difficult to get in the United States, including a number of RCA recordings made in Latin America.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Coming back to our conversation, what advice do you have for composers who are writing music today?

JO-S:   I would say open your eyes to the world and to what is going on.  That’s a question which comes very often from younger composers, asking in different ways and with different words.  I remember one recent time, a young student asked me how can one be sure that one is a modern composer.  I said,
That’s something you don’t need to be sure of.  What you need to be sure is that you are part of the world that you were born into.  He asked me to be more specific, and I said, Do you read the newspaper every day?  Are you aware of what’s going on?  Are you aware that human beings have reached the moon and are even in contact with planets far beyond this world?  That’s the world, and another thing is not to reject things which are part of your own being.  Don’t be ashamed of your own traditions.  Your own traditions are a supportive element, and it is tradition that will pull you forward.  I get very upset when a work is judged as very traditional, in the sense that it’s completely different than what I would say to be very traditional.  For me to be very traditional is to be very advanced, and not to be very conservative.

orrego-salas BD:   You’re observing the traditions of progress?

JO-S:   Yes, the tradition of the living force.  It’s
tradition that has pulled creation forward.  We think of traditional music as meaning folk music.  I think that folk music is a very good example of something that is in a constant renovation.  It’s old and new at the same time.  It’s old because it comes from very far back, and it’s new because it’s constantly changing, and that’s the concept of tradition.

BD:   Do you have any advice for audiences?

JO-S:   Oh, yes.  The best I could say to audiences is to open yourself to new things because it will enrich your pleasure.  After all, the audience is looking to be pleased by the concert they have selected to go to.  So, open yourself!

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

JO-S:   [Thinks a moment]  Of music as such, or of concert life?

BD:   Both, please.  One then the other.

JO-S:   Of music, yes, I have to be optimistic because music is a life; music is of the genesis; music is of the universe.  It’s something in constant revolution, so in a way it’s the essence of optimism.  Now, as to musical life, I am concerned at times about many things.  This is not only about the mass production of music, but also about the very nature of it.  However, I was more concerned years ago than I am now.  A decade ago, I was very much concerned about the heavy fisted approach that composers had to use.  That idea sprang from the music which was written to be significant to a very small group which adopted a particular dogma of music.  I was very much concerned about that because I thought that music was losing contact with that force of tradition of pushing forward.  Likewise, I was concerned with the exaggerated improvisatory concerts which were rather dominating music
aleatoric pieces and so onbecause that was another escape on the part of a composer from being really attached to his own tradition.  It seemed to me that it was abandoning itself to the idea of depending on what happened in a performance, in a way that wasn’t consequential.  Now I don’t want to be misinterpreted because I think improvisation is part of a tradition, and I have a great respect for improvisation in jazz, for example, or in any sort of primitive ritualistic music.  I have great respect for that because it is a response to a force of tradition.  But it reached a point in aleatoric music when the composer became dependent on an enormous amount of things that were not exactly connected with his own source.  He was letting it happen as a circumstance called for, so in that respect, I was worried.  I am less worried now.  The spirit of the composers has become much broader now.  They are letting the water run under the bridge with more ease.

BD:   One last question.  Is composing fun?

JO-S:   [Thinks once more]  It’s pleasure.  I hate the word
fun in terms of thinking of funny.  Sometimes it is not at all funny, but its a great pleasure, yes.

BD:   I assume you are continuing to write?  

JO-S:   Oh yes. I am writing a cello concerto at this moment.

BD:   Thank you so much for spending the time with me this afternoon.

JO-S:   I appreciate you selecting me for your program.  Thank you for calling me.  It was nice meeting you through the telephone!


© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on August 17, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1994 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.