Tunings of the World 2.0: An Instrument Made of Instruments – Carlos Iturralde in Conversation

What do the Zapotec languages, Mandarin Chinese, a Cardenche song and a tree have in common? Very little, of course, but also a lot: in his work »Portal,« the composer Carlos Iturralde takes them as launching pads into an exciting exploration of sound and physical phenomena. Before its premiere on the 30th October as part of »Tunings of the World 2.0« Iturralde explains the ideas that informed »Portal.«

Your piece picks up on the sound qualities of language. How does that tie in with the umbrella theme, »Tunings of the World?«

A couple of years ago I talked to Ana María [Rodriguez] about this concept, it is very broad and open to interpretation. The subjects of our talk ranged from tunings to ecology, pluralities and sound in ontological terms. Later when I started imagining the piece I related those discussions to the idea of borders, in conceptual and physical terms, and that took me directly to places and languages. I started thinking of a dimension in which borders where blurred, and that’s how I remembered sitting in a church for a reunion of the members of a brass band, all speaking in Zapotec, and I started playing in my mind, finding phonetic similarities with other languages.

A special focus is put on the »impossible connection« between the Zapotec languages and Mandarin Chinese. You have referred to the Cardenche song »Al pie de un árbol« (»At the Foot of a Tree«) as an example of creating a »portal« between languages through music. What does the song do to achieve that?

I’m doing a sort of collage which consists of different Mexican sound elements that I find interesting: a song, instruments, a language. They all have very little to do with each other, maybe nearly as little as Mandarin and Zapotec. I needed an element which connected everything. Phonetic similarities provided the first connection and the song provided a vision of a tree as a portal, and later became a vehicle that I found suitable for taking me to the object which it inspired in the first place. It seemed like a full circle.

How do you adapt this approach to your own piece?

I guess by means of appropriation or intervention of all these elements in my fictional narrative and through my fascination with many elements of sound.

The piece also works with tunings, microtonality and sound as physical phenomena. What makes working in these registers in the context of »Portal« so interesting to you?

The first time I heard Cardenche music I was about 16. A teacher of mine, who was born in Northern Mexico, had a tape and I was immediately fascinated by the timbre, which later I found very much associated with tuning. I haven’t studied all of the songs of the album deeply and I don’t know how consistent tuning is for this group when they perform live, but at least that recording has this certain timbre, which, as far as I have heard, nobody has been able to emulate. Most arrangements approach everything in equal temperament, killing a lot of what is interesting about it. I’m not trying to do the genre justice or anything like that; I am placing these elements out of context, departing from a sort of emulation of them in order to find myself in there. So there’s the song and its timbral qualities and there is the tree, a tree which also contains instruments from northern Mexico, instruments which use the mouth as a filter, and the tree is finally an instrument as well, an instrument made partially of instruments. Inside of it there is a mic which captures the resonance of the tree and which we can listen to as feedback. These two elements I think are closer to physical phenomena than to a sort of music.