For Good Measure

Da Capo Conversations with Nicolás Lell Benavides and Erika Oba

October 02, 2023 Nicolás Lell Benavides, Erika Oba Episode 70
For Good Measure
Da Capo Conversations with Nicolás Lell Benavides and Erika Oba
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For Good Measure, by Ensemble for These Times (E4TT)
Episode 70: Da Capo Conversations with Nicolás Lell Benavides and Erika Oba

Looking for a way to listen to diverse creators and to support equity in the arts? Tune in weekly to For Good Measure!

Today we revisit Nicolás Lell Benavides’ and Erika Oba’s perspectives on Identity, culture, and music making. If you enjoyed today’s conversation and want to know more about Nicolás Lell Benavides and Erika Oba, check them out here and here. Parts of this episode originally premiered on October 18, 2021, found on Youtube, click here, and May 16, 2022, 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

Co-Producer, Host, and E4TT co-founder: Nanette McGuinness
Co-Producer and Audio Engineer: Stephanie M. Neumann
Podcast Cover Art: Brennan Stokes
With assistance from Adrienne Anaya, Hannah Chen, Sam Mason, Renata Volchinskaya

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Nanette McGuinness  00:00
[INTRO MUSIC] Welcome to For Good Measure, an interview series celebrating diverse composers and other creative artists, sponsored by a grant from the California Arts Council. I'm Nanette McGuinness, artistic executive director of Ensemble for These Times. In this week's episode, we continue our Da Capo Conversations, a mini-series where we'll be giving familiar segments a topical twist. [INTRO MUSIC ENDS] Today we revisit Nicolás Lell Benavides' and Erika Oba's perspectives on identity, culture and music making. Here's what Nicolás Lell Benavides had to say.

Nicolás Lell Benavides  00:41
I really don't think I would be who I am if not for living in San Francisco for you know, what, a decade or so. There's something about, you know, like, you read about so many artists. I don't know why I'm drawing this example but Gertrude Stein going to Paris, you know, there's something about finding yourself in a place that's not you, something distilling about it. I don't think I would have appreciated being New Mexican so much, if not for slowly becoming homesick as I lived in this glorious city that I adored, but wasn't really home. It was the closest thing I could get aside from New Mexico and grappling with what it meant to be me. And then I got a double shot of that when I moved to LA, because suddenly, I had no friends circles. I had nothing else and I moved to LA for my doctorate and I just arrived and I was walking the streets a complete stranger, really just nobody but myself. I love San Francisco, but LA in many ways is a much more multicultural city these days. Seeing people just in the streets speaking Spanish, you know, going to markets interacting with people that felt to be honest, culturally more similar to New Mexico than San Francisco did, was further distilling and refining and further shocked me into place. The opera Pepito was partially based on very loosely based on me and my librettist, the protagonist, Camila, she's someone who grew up in a place that is not known in the opera, but where she speaks Spanish. She's Latina, and you ascertain from the opera that she misses where she's from. She's a little homesick, and she's been hardcore pursuing her career. She's a lawyer in this case, but someone who went to a university got a high education elsewhere. This dog Pepito, really sorry, my dogs, actually my literal dog's name for Pepito and he keeps coming to the door when I keep saying that. But however, this dog Pepito sort of brings back her desire to reconnect with that sort of wakes her up and reminds her this is where I come from. No matter how no matter how fancy what school I go to, I can't take that away. I can't ignore it.

Nanette McGuinness  02:57
Here's what Erika Oba had to say.

Erika Oba  02:59
Yeah, my parents both immigrated from Japan so I feel like culturally I grew up in a fairly Japanese household. I feel like that's just who I am and intractable from who I am as a person. I think consciously and unconsciously, it does inform the work that I do and some of it is in thematic content, and you can maybe see that sometimes even just in my titles and that kind of thing. Also aesthetically, I do think that has informed where I'm coming from. I wasn't trained in any particular traditional Japanese music traditions, but there are different Japanese music traditions that are around me, so I feel like some of that has been absorbed. My mother for a while was studying Okinawa sanshin music was a three string, Okinawa, like banjo and I love that music. There was a period of time when I was hearing quite a bit of it because my mom was doing it and she was playing with local people. It was fabulous local sanshin player who was leading these groups, and I was so fascinated with that specific tradition. I feel like for sanshin music I've definitely, deliberately pulled not just musical content, but ideas about musical form and ways of organizing music and ideas that I've tried to incorporate into some of my music. I also used to play briefly, I played the traditional Japanese bamboo flute, the flute with a local taiko group and that was also super fun. It mostly older retired women who were just super buff and you know, really fit going with these huge taiko drums. For that tradition too, I think I got a lot out of seeing different ways of conceptualizing music and how they communicate and organize musical ideas is its own language and tradition that's different from the more traditional western music traditions that I went to school for. I feel like both of those things, just being in those spaces, I absorbed some things and tried to approach my music those angles too. If we're not coming at it from necessarily notated music how do people learn these really complex, long things by ear? And it's oh, that's how they do, you know? So? Yeah, I think those things have continued to influence how I think about music. I've written a couple pieces where I was trying to emulate the communal playing style so it's non hierarchical. Its not like you have a conductor and then you have to, but they can still have these pretty complex ledger ensembles doing things. I've written a couple pieces where I was like, okay, well, how can I model this to varying degrees of success. I don't know that it's always successful but it's been an interesting process and practice for me. I'll probably keep experimenting with these things. For the Taiko groups, I think part of it is just that they train themselves to have incredibly good memories. They have these pretty complex rhythmic patterns and beat cycles that they'll learn and internalize. It's almost like dance actually, because a lot of it's very physical too, if you've ever seen taiko drums, so a lot of it's choreographed. Yeah, it's kind of like choreography, too. I was certainly never able to memorize things to the period that they could. I was always translating what they were doing, and writing out notes for myself so that I could follow the map. They would go for like 20 minutes and have it in their brains, which I find very impressive.

Nanette McGuinness  07:22
[OUTRO MUSIC] Thank you for listening to For Good Measure's Da Capo Conversations, and a special thank you to our guests 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, or to make a tax-deductible donation, please visit us at 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 co-producer and audio engineer Stephanie M. Nanie M. Neumann. Remember to keep supporting equity in the arts and tune in next week "for good measure." [OUTRO MUSIC ENDS]

Today we revisit Nicolás Lell Benavides' and Erika Oba's perspectives on identity, culture and music making.
Here's what Nicolás Lell Benavides had to say.
Here's what Erika Oba had to say.