Composer Q and A

Q and A with Angélica Negrón
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Composer and multi-instrumentalist

Did you always want to be a composer? What first drew you to composition?

I didn’t even know being a composer was a possibility until my early 20’s. I was studying violin but never felt like I wanted to be a violinist and was very curious about other instruments as well as the sounds around me.  That curiosity along with a deep need to express something outwards as well as unpack things I can’t articulate with words led me to composing. I started to study the cello, the harp and also teaching myself accordion and then realized that what I wanted to do was to write for all the instruments. At that time I also discovered the music of Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Björk & George Crumb and it became clear that what I wanted to do was to find my own way of expressing my ideas through sounds like these artists I admired.

What musical instruments do you play? 

I grew up playing violin but I also play a bit of accordion. At the moment I mostly sing and play accordion as well as plants and vegetables with electronic triggers. 

Can you give us a glimpse into your composition life? Do you write at the piano? By hand or at the computer? How do you first start a piece?

I write at the computer almost as if I’m producing a track or song. I like to play every part of the piece I’m composing using a MIDI Keyboard and sing it/embody it as I’m composing. I often start by brainstorming ideas, images, words, textures, sounds and colors. Then I start recording, collecting and playing with sounds either from the environment, from my kitchen or from other sources. I start manipulating these sounds and organizing them as well as integrating them with  acoustic instruments to start shaping these initial ideas. I sometimes do a visual sketch of the piece with different shapes and colors which helps me approach the music from a different angle and a more intuitive approach. Then there’s a lot of singing to myself while I’m composing, listening to what I’m working on while I’m walking my dog, writing notes on my phone about changes I want to make and singing or tapping rhythms on the voice memos of my phone to reference later. There’s also listening to podcasts that are connected to the concept or theme I’m exploring in the piece, creating a playlist of pieces or songs that inspire me or that I feel are in the same world of what I’m creating. And I also like to share what I’m working on with my close friends to see if they have any new perspectives on it before I finish. It’s often a non linear process that involves a lot of back and forth, detours, frustrations and exciting new discoveries.

What are some influences–musical or otherwise–that impact your work?

I’m really inspired by artists like Björk, Rosalía, Meredith Monk, Juana Molina, Julia Wolfe, Lido Pimienta, Arca, Lucrecia Dalt and many others.  My work is also very inspired by drag, film and comedy.  I love art that I can connect to viscerally but that also doesn’t take itself too seriously, art that can move me but that also makes me laugh. 

You have an incredibly creative approach to electronics in your music, using everything from houseplants to live audience participation. How do you choose your electronic medium? What inspires your electronic sound world?

I’m really inspired by the sounds around me, by nature, by my family and friends as well as by a childlike wonder to approach sounds.  Opening up possibilities so that music can be everywhere and anywhere. I like to think of the world as a large instrument in which we can make choices to intentionally listen to and also organize sound.  I’m also very interested in finding new ways to bring visibility to the physicality of electronic music in live performances and to seeing how new interfaces for musical expression can expand on the audience experience as well as inform the creative process. I want electronic music to feel inviting, not technically intimidating and also fun and accessible. By creating my own instruments and collaborating with instrument builders I get to define the medium for each piece and discover through process what feels like the right medium for a specific piece. And hopefully this extends besides the practicality of a medium to also evoke other associations in the listener and create new meanings.

What are some exciting projects that you are looking forward to? 

I’m really excited about finally focusing on finishing my drag opera in the next two years. I’m also looking forward to working on an immersive, dynamic site-specific work to be performed live at the Pier 3 Labyrinth in Brooklyn Bridge Park next Fall. This piece will be for large ensemble and electronics and it invites the audience to wander through the labyrinth’s walking paths into intimate alcoves of experience, each with a distinctive palette of color and sound. 

Where is the best coffee in San Juan?  

I don’t drink coffee but from friends that do I know they love Café con Cé & Café Cuatro Sombras. I love the chai tea from Café Don Juan.

How does it feel returning back to San Juan and your alma mater for your latest commission? 

It’s so incredibly meaningful to be able to premiere a piece in my alma mater with my family and friends as well as peers. I rarely get to share my music with audiences in Puerto Rico and a lot of my work is inspired by my personal relationship to the island and to my loved ones that live there. It’s hard to articulate with words how special this experience is and how much I need this at this moment in my life.

“Ave del paraíso” is one of only a handful of pieces written for this instrument combination (violin, cello, harp). How did you approach writing for this trio form?  

I wanted to create a sonic portrait of a tropical plant I love, the bird of paradise, so I thought of how I could evoke with sounds its colors and shapes as well as the impression it leaves in my memory with sounds. The palette of this trio is so unique, luscious, rich, delicate and haunting that I wanted the piece to highlight these color possibilities and write something that felt immersive and like you would want to get lost in the sound. I thought of the harp as the driving element, the essence, the motor that keeps things moving and the violin and cello highlight aspects of this motor. Sometimes they add color, texture, glitter, accents or mystery to it, but for me they both emerge from the harp. It’s like the three of them create this one new instrument that reveals itself as the piece unfolds.

Anything else we should know?

I have a very cute dog named Midi.