American Composer: Orlando Jacinto Garcia

By Kyle Gann

To a certain kind of composer there's tremendous allure in the idea of stopping time - and I think we can trace it back further than the Quartet for the End of Time by Messiaen. Orlando Jacinto Garcia is one of those composers. He studied with Morton Feldman, in whose late four- to six-hour chamber works time would seem to cease to exist, if anywhere in our listening experience. Yet by coincidence (since I was already working on this profile) I recently heard Garcia talk about Feldman at a University of Pittsburgh festival devoted to that composer. As a post-grad student in the 1980s, he said, Garcia would tell Feldman that in his music his aim was to "freeze time." "No no," Feldman would reply, "it's not about freezing time, it's about liberating sounds."

Well, that raises the question of whether you can liberate sounds without interrupting the listener's sense of time passing. Presumably to "liberate sounds" means to isolate them from context, to make them heard for themselves, rather than as a remembered succession of events. It is only via our remembered relationship to events, psychologists say, that we have any sense of time passing at all. In his superlong pieces like the String Quartet II and For Philip Guston, Feldman destroys the listener's sense of time through lengthy repetitions of material that is slightly varied in ways that point in no cumulative direction.

Although none of Garcia's music is unduly extended in length, some of it brings Feldman very much to mind, and some doesn't at all. He does, however, freeze time - or at least slow it way down - and, in so doing, liberates the sounds. Even the pieces that sound Feldmanesque are well worth hearing, because he expands on Feldman's rather restrained repertoire of harmonies, and tends toward different types of gesture. For instance, Garcia's Music for Berlin for flute and piano (1990) has the two instruments playing independently, as Feldman sometimes does, and the piano part is written partly in slightly varied repetitions. But the flute part is couched in much longer phrases than Feldman ever uses, and with more conventionally tonal harmonic implications. The sense of time scale, if similarly frozen, is quite different. Gorgeous in a subtly different way, it sounds like music Feldman might have finally written if he'd lived longer.

More crucially, Garcia's music is less rhythmically homogenous than Feldman's. The music will rush at times, come to a standstill at others, reiterate quickly or draw out at languorous length, and the non-directional form of these transformations seems entirely intentional. The orchestra works, like Vedute Sonore da Bellagio (1999/2001), can sound like someone set off a bomb in an Impressionist tone poem by Debussy or Delius and the explosion was captured on tape and slowed down: shards of harmony and orchestration hang in the air, disembodied from their original context. If Feldman liberated sounds, Garcia liberates harmonies, gestures, motives, timbre-complexes.

One of my favorite Garcia works is Silencios Imaginados (Imagined Silences, 2001). It's written for the "Pierrot ensemble" of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, a combination that has virtually replaced the string quartet among the younger generation, and one that I find potentially dense and hard to write for effectively. But Garcia, altogether avoiding conventional virtuosity, thins out the texture into little more than single melodies wafting among the instruments, often with each note doubled in the piano. Melodic gestures recur in varying rhythmic layouts, sometimes doubled in small whole-tone clusters. More repetitive than it seems at first hearing, the piece breathes and creates space for the imagination to roam around in. It may be my favorite piece for this ubiquitous instrumentation.

Part of Garcia's output inhabits a soundworld Feldman would have hardly recognized. Long, disorienting glissandos, unknown in Feldman, are common here. Fragmentos del pasado for guitar and string quartet (1998) goes on for 40 measures before a bow ever touches a string, alternating between complexes of quadruple stops plucked at different tempos and a vulnerable pizzicato melody wandering among the instruments. Later there are touches of scale-based guitar virtuosity - a touch of Hispanic influence rare for this Havana-born, Miami-based composer who teaches at Florida International University. entre el anochecer y la oscurida for solo viola and orchestra ("between nightfall and darkness,1992) alternates between shimmering clouds of sound and solos for various instruments, including unpitched percussion and yearning lines in the viola. And while most of Garcia's works exhibit a wide variety of textures, he does have at least one drone piece, Separacion (2001) for saxophone and tape, that sustains a mystic texture and transforms only gradually. The minimalist Terry Riley has some recordings in a similar genre, but Riley never sounded so moody and intense.

In none of these pieces is there any sense of forward motion. The music never seems headed anywhere, nor does the ear get a clue whether the piece has only just begun or is about to come to an end. And what's the point of that? Well, it's the verbal left hemisphere of the brain that keeps track of time, and when time cues are denied, sometimes that left hemisphere quits its chattering, and we surrender to right-brain experience. It happens a lot in minimalist music, but minimalist music is generally linear and static. In Garcia's music we never know what's coming, and we wait to hear. Sometimes what comes up is material we've heard before, and we can form a total picture of the piece only in retrospect. It's a pleasant listening paradigm, and in Garcia's music a sensuous and unpredictable one, an existentialist, sound-liberating alternative to minimalism. "To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees," famously wrote Paul Valery. In Garcia's music the liberated sonorities and melodies come without names - and we hear.

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