For Good Measure, by Ensemble for These Times (E4TT)
Episode 16: Nicolas Lell Benavides (part 1)
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In this week’s episode, we talk to Nicolas Lell Benavides about his diverse compositional styles, love of composing opera, and primary influences, specifically composer/pianist Gabriela Lena Frank. If you enjoyed today’s conversation and want to know more about Nicolas Lell Benavides, check him out here: www.nickbenavides.com . Parts of this episode originally premiered on Oct 18, 2021, found on Youtube, click here.
This podcast is made possible in part by a grant from the California Arts Council and generous donors, like you. Want to support For Good Measure and E4TT? Make a tax-deductible donation or sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the podcast!
Intro music: “Trifolium” by Gabriela Ortiz, performed by E4TT (Ilana Blumberg, violin; Abigail Monroe, cello; Margaret Halbig, piano), as part of “Below the Surface: Music by Women Composers,” January 29, 2022
Outro music: “Lake Turkana” by Marcus Norris, performed by E4TT (Margaret Halbig, piano), as part of “Alchemy,” October 15, 2021
Transcription courtesy of Otter.ai.
Producer, Host, and E4TT co-founder: Nanette McGuinness
Audio Engineer: Stephanie M. Neumann
Podcast Cover Art: Brennan Stokes
Interns: Roziht Edwards and Merve Tokar
[INTRO MUSIC] Welcome to For Good Measure, an interview series celebrating diverse composers and other creative artists sponsored by grant from the California Arts Council. I'm Nanette McGuinness, artistic executive director of Ensemble For These Times. In this week's episode, we're joined by Nicolas Lell Benavides, who we spoke to in October 2021. [INTRO MUSIC ENDS] Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. Your compositions ranged from orchestral works to vocal opera, brass, jazz, electronic, et cetera. What was the process of branching out to different musical styles?Nicolas Lell Benavides:
with respect to branching out, I think there is an artistic answer, and then there's probably a realistic answer. The artistic answer would probably be something along the lines of, I just feel so creative, and I want to do so much. And that's true, I guess. But realistically, like most composers, I generally do things when people ask me to do them. So I think a lot of that branching out, which is, which is half a joke, but actually, half seriously, has to do a lot with the collaborative process between composers and performers. You know, I think when I'm asked to do something, like an opera, which is actually something that I've always wanted to do anyway, I've always been trying to build towards it. I write for those performers and what they want. When I'm asked to write or play jazz with X jazz performers, I kind of bring the previous knowledge that I had from running opera, back to jazz. And then when I'm inadvertently asked to write electronic music is any modern artist is generally asked to write at some point or another. I'm kind of bringing all the baggage of writing acoustic music. I think this comes from I didn't study classical music growing up, I studied rancheros and folk music. And I studied jazz in high school jazz bands. And I never really played in orchestras. I could read music, and I could solo but for me, it just happened to be what I was doing at the time. When I got to school, I realized, like, Oh, I could just as easily practice funk music as I can practice opera, you know. And so for me, it's just, I feel like I'm the same person. It's just different tools that I'm reaching for when I go for different mediums.Nanette McGuinness:
Is there a type of music that resonates with you more than others?Nicolas Lell Benavides:
Yeah, I think so. I mean, so vocal music, you naturally get the story, you get the message. And then I think at the at the peak of that I enjoy writing music for the stage, because then you get everything, you get costumes, you get symbols, you get acting. So I think my favorite thing to write is opera. And if I could choose one genre to write in for the rest of my life, I think it would be probably opera, because I could do anything. I'm writing an opera that has Mambo music in it. And you know, I could pack that all in because the theatrical elements of opera, buffer it, and they and they present it really nicely to the audience member.Nanette McGuinness:
Which style has proved to be the most challenging. Can you describe the process behind composing a specific piece in that style?Nicolas Lell Benavides:
There are different ways in which I think writing music can be challenging, and I'm learning this, probably as of this past year, maybe because of the pandemic. pieces can be challenging, sometimes, because they take a lot of time and effort to do and I think for that, opera is very challenging. Opera takes me a lot of time to create to understand because everything has to be perfect. The reason it takes so much time is nothing can be complete on its own. If the music were complete, the libretto and the story wouldn't be necessary if the libretto and the story were complete, the music wouldn't be necessary. If I'm writing for dancers on stage, I better leave room emotionally for them to fill in that puzzle piece. All that planning takes time, but I think the ideas come quickly. Another way that things have been challenging for me is generally with electronic music, which I've dabbled with a lot. Just the overwhelming nature of all the choices. It's, it takes me forever to decide what to narrow down to and what to focus on. And that is almost like a, like a mental puzzle challenge. Without a lot of writing or busy work. Just a lot of sitting there going like this, wondering what the hell is this? Is this plugin or connection on Macs going to do when a violin plays into it versus me singing into it? You know? So I think I'm trying to find a healthy balance between all those different types of challenges. So I stay sane.Nanette McGuinness:
Who are what are your primary musical influences? What role does identity play for you as a composer?Nicolas Lell Benavides:
I mean, I played music frequently, but it wasn't at the forefront. So I didn't really study it very seriously. I played it every day, but it wasn't. I wasn't training for competitions on it. I didn't even know that competitions existed. So for me, my influences were all in the jazz realm in the progressive rock realm and you know, funk music, folk music, Rancheros, curry those a lot of songs that have been passed on for generations. But things kind of changed. I think, you know, when you say influences I really want to focus on like living influences people who have affected me recently so my very first influence would be my grandpa Garcia who plays the accordion, and taught me to play by ear all the traditional tunes, like you know, as a scene or la feria de la Florida is, you know, tunes that are kind of played, you know, at parties outdoors, just for fun. But as I got older, I went to Conservatory in school, I had a lot of great teachers. But I actually realized that none of them really mirrored my experience in the world. A lot of them, you know, had an elite training from a young age and they respected me no less. They were extremely generous with their time. But as far as living influences goes, I didn't really find someone who really reflected my experience in the world. In the same way until I met Gabriela Lena, Frank Gabriella, you know, she writes a lot of music from an identity point of view. And she writes operas and string quartets, and chamber works, and she's a ferocious player. And getting to study and work with her has been extremely life changing. Getting to hear from her that like, oh, yeah, you know, I know that in school voice students study, French, German, Italian, you know, English. I know I was a voice student for a few years. And, you know, you don't rarely study Spanish, but it's okay to write songs in Spanish or to write an opera about, you know, petrakos in the 1950s. Like, why does it have to be Shakespeare something classical. And so I think Gabriela really helped steer the direction of of my career after I met her, inNanette McGuinness:
[OUTRO MUSIC] Thank you for listening particular. to For Good Measure, and a special thank you to our guests, Nicolas Lell Benavides for joining us today. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to our podcast by clicking on the subscribe button and support us by sharing it with your friends, posting about it on social media and leaving us a rating and a review. To learn more about E4TT Our concert season online and in the Bay Area where to make a tax deductible donation, please visit us at www.E4TT.org. This podcast is made possible in part by a grant from the California Arts Council and generous donors like you. "For Good Measure" is produced by Nanette McGuinness and Ensemble for These Times, and designed by Brennan Stokes. With special thanks to audio engineer extraordinaire Stephanie Neumann. Remember to keep supporting equity in the arts and tune in next week "for good measure." [OUTRO MUSIC ENDS]