Juan Orrego-Salas: I’ve Written All I Have to Write

At the home of Juan Orrego-Salas in Bloomington, Indiana
March 1, 2014—5:30 p.m.
Recorded by Trudy Chan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Several years ago while rummaging through the shelves of LPs at the offices of Peermusic Classical, I stumbled upon a record called “The Contemporary Composer in the USA” which featured a Sextet for clarinet, piano and strings by a composer named Juan Orrego-Salas. There was something intriguing about it and thankfully the generous folks at Peer gave me the album. Upon listening to the Sextet, I immediately fell in love with the music and so was eager to hear more. The liner notes were not extensive, so I looked up Orrego-Salas in my paperback copy of the 1980 edition of the Grove Dictionary. The article there stated that he was born in Chile in 1919 and received his early composition training there, but he came to the U.S.A. to study with Aaron Copland and Randall Thompson in the 1940s; in 1961, he founded the Latin American Music Center at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. The most recent event listed therein—apart from a work list that went up to 1976—was his receiving various honorary degrees in Chile in 1971, which made it seem like he had moved back there. Having not heard about him before and not readily finding any more recent information, I was not sure that he was still alive. (At that point in time, Wikipedia was not quite up to its current content and accuracy level.) Later on, a few additional early pieces of his surfaced on old out-of-print recordings; a real find was an RCA “shaded dog” featuring two gorgeous song cycles El Alba del Alheli for soprano and piano and Canciones Castellanas for soprano with an ensemble of eight instruments.

The LP that started my search for Juan Orrego-Salas.

The LP that started my search for Juan Orrego-Salas.

Then in 2009, a music journalist from Santiago, Chile named Álvaro Gallegos, who was traveling around the United States to learn more about American composers, visited the office. We spent quite a bit of time chatting about music and I quickly learned that he was as passionate an advocate for Chilean composers as I attempt to be for composers from the United States. He started naming names of important Chileans whose music I needed to hear such as Leni Alexander and Gustavo Becerra-Schmidt (who was still alive at that time) and I cut in that I knew some music by Juan Orrego-Salas at which point I not only learned that he was still alive but that he was still living in Indiana. I stored that information in the back of my head, hoping to take a trip there to meet him as well as to learn more about the Latin American Music Center.

The cover of SVR's Orrego-Salas release

SVR’s re-issue of historic recordings of Orrego-Salas’s orchestral music.

In 2011, SVR Producciones, a Chilean record label that has done a terrific job documenting the music of national composers, issued a two-CD set of orchestral works by Orrego-Salas from rare decades-old recorded performances. It is an impressive document which includes the formidable First Piano Concerto and three of the symphonies. The Third Symphony was the last thing Orrego-Salas wrote in Chile before permanently moving to the United States and the Fourth Symphony was his first major work composed after relocating here. The similar, yet different sound worlds of those two pieces seemed like an interesting departure point for a conversation with Orrego-Salas about music and national identity if only I could find a way to connect with him. In January 2014, Juan Orrego-Salas turned 95. I learned that he was in good health and would be amenable to a conversation about his music, so I contacted Erick Carballo, the current director of the Latin American Music Center, to coordinate a meeting with Orrego Salas at his home in Bloomington which we planned for Saturday, March 1.

A day before the flight, Orrego-Salas called me, initially concerned that the time I had arranged to visit him was the same time as the Metropolitan Opera’s HD screening of Borodin’s opera Prince Igor which he wanted to see again since he had fond memories of the previous production of it he saw when he was nine-year-old. I did some math in my head as he was talking to me—that would have been in 1928! So I arranged to visit him later in the day and our in-person conversation turned out to be an even more amazing journey back in time. He spoke of his studies with Pedro Humberto Allende, Chile’s most significant early 20th century composer as well as his interactions with other important Chileans such as Pablo Neruda, Claudio Arrau, and Acario Cotapos. He described being invited to Tanglewood in 1946 by Aaron Copland along with a group of Latin American composers which also included Alberto Ginastera, Héctor Tosar, Roque Cordero, and Julián Orbón. He had some great anecdotes about Copland as well as other important compositional mentors such as Randall Thompson and Luigi Dallapiccola, with whom he came into contact when his Canciones Castellanas was performed during the ISCM World Music Days in Italy in 1949. He also mentioned his friendships with Irving Fine, Lukas Foss, Harold Shapero, and William Schuman. Of all of these people, he is the only one who is still alive, but he and his wife recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary and he is overjoyed by his children and grandchildren.

In the 1950s, Orrego-Salas was something of a cause célèbre in the United States even though he spent most of that decade back in Chile teaching composition, conducting a girl’s chorus, and writing music criticism for one of Santiago’s newspapers. Despite all of those distractions from his own composing, he created a series of major works that were premiered by the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., the Louisville Orchestra, and the Juilliard Quartet, among others. Particularly intriguing is the story of how he came to live in Bloomington as a result of representatives from the Rockefeller Foundation repeatedly visiting Santiago in order to convince him to return to the United States to establish a Latin American Music Center here which they would underwrite. Orrego-Salas refused to do so unless the center was based at an American university for fear that without such support it would cease to exist after the initial funding for it evaporated. Now, more than half a century later, LAMC remains an important part of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. The main activity of LAMC has been the amassing of a huge collection of scores (one of the most complete collections of works by Latin American composers in the world) which are housed at IU’s William and Gayle Cook Music Library. But LAMC also presents concerts on campus and runs an annual competition for performers that results in commercially released recordings of Latin American repertoire.

Over the course of the many years that Orrego-Salas has lived in Indiana, much of it spent running LAMC and teaching composition, he continued to compose and his catalog spans some 126 works including six symphonies, seven concertante works, several large-scale cantatas and oratorios, four string quartets and tons of other pieces for various chamber ensembles, chorus, and solo voice. But he decided a few years ago that he said all he needed to say as a composer and is no longer writing music. He has contributed an extraordinary legacy both as a composer and as an advocate for composers from throughout Latin America. He is revered as a major compositional figure to this day in Chile, yet here in the United States he is insufficiently appreciated despite having lived here for more than five decades, having had his music championed by high profile American orchestras and ensembles, and being the last surviving member of a major group of American composers of the mid-20th century. His story is an important story in the annals of American music and one which is finally being told here.

Photo of Orrego-Salas's home

The home of Juan Orrego-Salas in Bloomington, Indiana. Photo by FJO.


Frank J. Oteri: I’m curious about the milieu in which you grew up: the environment, the music you heard, the first things you heard. You intrigued me on the telephone the other day when you said that you heard Prince Igor when you were only nine years old.

Orrego-Salas in 2013

Orrego-Salas in 2013, photo courtesy Lauren Keiser Music.

Juan Orrego-Salas: Yes, I did. A Russian, a Russian company came to Chile at that time. I was born in 1919, so it must have been 1928, let’s say, when I heard this. Not only Prince Igor, I heard Boris Godunov and Tsar Saltan by Rimsky also. And I was very, very deeply impressed. And my wife has heard me talking about that for during our life. So when she saw that they were showing [a Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of] it today, she said, let’s go to it. She went alone because I was committed to you. But she came back after a while very disappointed, saying that it was a very bad performance. I’m glad that I didn’t go because I don’t want to be disappointed.

FJO: What about some of the other music you heard. I know from the LAMC interview you did a couple of years ago that you were already playing piano when you were four.

JO-S: Yes. My mother played a little piano, and she started teaching me piano. So I started playing a little. I remember Peer Gynt from Grieg, pieces from that I played on the piano. It’s as far as I can go back in my training as a musician.

FJO: I find it interesting though that from the very beginning you said that you really were more interested in creating your own music rather than to play someone else’s music.

JO-S: Yeah, having fun with the keyboard and inventing things. The thing that I remember very well is that my mother was very strict that I should practice every day [for] at least one hour. When she had to go to do something, she asked the maid to follow that I had been practicing for an hour. When she came back, she received from the maid, “Oh, he’s been very good. Over an hour, I think around two hours.” I hadn’t touched anything that I had [on the piano]; I had been improvising all the time. But the maid didn’t know the difference. See?

FJO: Now I’m curious, you knew about all this classical music. Your mother played the piano. You heard these Russian operas. Did you have a sense that this improvising at that piano was being a composer, that you were creating music and that this was new music?

JO-S: I never thought of that. I liked to do it, but I never thought that word composer. I don’t think it came so early into my lingo.

FJO: At that time, did you know of Chilean composers, or were you just hearing European music?

JO-S: No, I knew about Chilean composers because my father and mother were friendly with most of the composers active at that time. When the Chilean pianist [Claudio] Arrau came to Chile, he came to have dinner at [our] home. I met him when I was a baby, really.

FJO: So who were some of the composers you met when you were young?

JO-S: Well, one that became my first composition teacher, Pedro Humberto Allende.

FJO: He wrote some extraordinary piano pieces that are still played today.

JO-S: Yes, right. He was very well known in Chile and respected in Chile.

FJO: How old were you when you were studying with him?

JO-S: When I was studying with him, I was perhaps 12- to 14-years old.

FJO: How did your family feel about your composing original music?

JO-S: I don’t think that they were too opinionated about it. The only person that perhaps would have preferred my playing Chopin rather than my inventions at the piano is my grandmother, the mother of my father, because she played the piano. She played Chopin and whenever I went to visit her, she wanted me to sit at the piano and play something. And I played always the same Chopin prelude that I had learned with my mother and she enjoyed it very much.

FJO: But she didn’t enjoy when you played your own music.

JO-S: I never did try that. I never tried.

FJO: Now, in terms of knowing this word composer, by the time you were in your teens you were studying with Allende, who was probably the most famous composer in Chile then. So at that point did you have a sense that you wanted to spend the rest of your life writing music?

JO-S: I started feeling that very gradually. I think that it didn’t happen very specifically until I was a student at the National Conservatory. I joined Allende’s class and there of course I met other composers, young composers that were studying with him: Alfonso Letelier, René Amengual, and others. Then I started feeling myself sort of associated with the idea of being a composer, of inventing music. Because for me, a composer is the one who invents music.

FJO: At that time in the rest of the world, there were very different kinds of attitudes about what contemporary music should be. There were the experimentalists but there were also many more old fashioned composers who were still actively writing music that was being performed. Also, everywhere there were composers who wanted to re-invent classical music using their own country’s folk music idioms, like Bartók in Hungary, and to some extent Allende in Chile.

JO-S: Yes, yes, that’s right, or Copland in the United States, who became my teacher.

FJO: That’s much later and I definitely want to talk about that with you. But in terms of what music you were exposed to back in the 1930s, I’m wondering if you had much contact with the Chilean composer Acario Cotapos who had a much more experimental orientation.

JO-S: Oh, yes. We were friends. I’ll tell you a very funny thing. Cotapos was very nice and very humorous. One day we were having dinner with him, and my wife asked him, “Acario, how is it that being so nice yourself, you never got married.” “My dear, I forgot it,” he said. That was his answer!

FJO: So, in terms of the music that you wanted to write, did you see yourself more carrying on a tradition from the past, from Europe, trying to invent a music that was for Chile, or being some kind of individual experimenter who was forging your own personal path?

JO-S: I felt closer to Stravinsky. I was interested in the way his music was organized.

FJO: Did you want to study with Stravinsky?

JO-S: I never thought that I could study with Stravinsky.

FJO: So many composers at that time, when they traveled outside of their countries to study music, went to Europe to study. So many composers from the United States studied in France with Nadia Boulanger. But when you left Chile to study music somewhere else, you came to the U.S.A.

JO-S: Well, I came to the U.S.A. because of Copland. Copland had been to Chile and he had seen little things that I had written. So, he said, you should come to the United States. And he was my mentor in the United States.

Robert Shaw, Juan Orrego-Salas, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Irving Fine

Juan Orrego-Salas (second from left) at Tangelwood in 1946 with Robert Shaw (to his left), Aaron Copland (standing), Leonard Bernstein (drinking), and Irving Fine. Photo by Ruth Orkin. From the Irving Fine Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Congress.

FJO: You were part of that very famous class at Tanglewood together with Alberto Ginastera.

JO-S: With Ginastera and [Héctor] Tosar and [Roque] Cordero…

FJO: You were all from different Latin American countries, so did you actually know each other before you came to Tanglewood?

JO-S: I knew Ginastera; we were friends already. Tosar and Cordero, also.

FJO: It’s quite interesting to me that in addition to studying composition with Copland, you were also studying musicology with Paul Henry Lang at Columbia…

JO-S: Yes.

FJO: You had also studied architecture.

JO-S: Well, the architecture thing is different. When I finished high school, my family said “Well now, which is the profession that you have chosen?” I said, “I don’t think I need to choose a profession because I have it already. It’s music.” “No, no, no,” my grandfather said, especially. “No, my dear. Music is very nice. We like you doing music, but that’s not a profession. You’re not going to live on music. You have to choose a real profession.” “What’s a real profession?” I said. “Well… law, engineering, architecture.” So I chose architecture, because I was interested in painting also. I did lots of watercolors. I was interested, so I entered the School of Architecture, and I wasn’t sorry because I started developing a sense that the relation between music and architecture was very close. So I became very much interested in architecture, and I completed my studies in architecture, and I became an architect, but I never practiced architecture except in designing a window for my house and things like that.

FJO: I heard that you built this whole house we’re in.

JO-S: No, I didn’t build it. This was pre-built, but I changed lots of things in this house.

An original watercolor by Juan Orrego-Salas

One of Juan Orrego-Salas’s original watercolors still hangs in a frame on the wall of the entranceway to his home in Bloomington, Indiana.

FJO: You actually gained notoriety as a composer quite early on. By the time you were 30-years old, you were already writing pieces of music that were published and were available.

JO-S: Yes. I thought I was quite lucky in that respect, you know. I don’t remember names very easily now at 95 years old. But I had met people from Boosey & Hawkes, for example. And they invited me to give them some of my works for them to administer. And there was an Argentinian publisher called Barry who represented by Boosey & Hawkes, and he picked a few things of mine, including my latest piece at that time, that was my First Symphony. Then when I was in England, I was in contact with Boosey & Hawkes, and they published a few of my choral works at that time.

FJO: You wound up having many pieces published with Peer.

JO-S: With Peer. Yes.

FJO: You were also getting significant international performances of your music. Canciones Castellanas was done during the ISCM World Music Days.

JO-S: In 1949 at the festival of ISCM in Italy, in Palermo.

FJO: That was only three years after the festival started again when World War II ended. So I’m curious how that helped your reputation at the time.

Orrego Salas LP on RCA

The first all Orrego-Salas LP, an RCA “shaded dog” with one side featuring Canciones Castellanas (pictured above) and the other featuring El alba del Alhelí.

JO-S: Enormously, because at that time, Dallapiccola was in Palermo where my piece was played and I conducted it, which was really, very audacious because I had never conducted. But the singer that I got was an Italian singer, and she encouraged me to conduct her. It’s a piece for seven instruments and voice. And, well, I did it. I think that Dallapiccola helped me a great deal because he was at the rehearsals. And he said, “Don’t do this when you are pointing. Be very relaxed. Don’t show him that he’s doing it wrong.” Things like that. He helped me a great deal in conducting that piece.

FJO: So in some ways, he was as important a mentor to you as Copland had been earlier, and there was also Randall Thompson.

JO-S: Yes, in many ways he [Thompson] helped me more than Aaron Copland. Copland showed me very useful things along his path of thought in music. But Randall Thompson gave me more freedom in conveying to me to do what you feel, what you think, what you want.

FJO: Nowadays, Copland is an internationally-known composer and a wide range of his music is still played, but Randall Thompson is mostly remembered for his choral music. Initially when I learned that you had studied with Thompson, I assumed that led to your own immersion in choral music. But he wrote so much more than that.

JO-S: Well, he was a teacher of Bernstein, also. And Bernstein I don’t think he wrote very much choral music.

FJO: But you went on to conduct a chorus.

JO-S: Yes, I was a conductor of the Catholic University Chorus [in Santiago].

FJO: The year after that ISCM performance, 1950, seems to have been a watershed year for you as a composer. In that year you composed both a really powerful piano concerto and a strikingly beautiful song cycle for voice and piano, El alba del Alhelí.

El Alba del Alheli score excerpt

An excerpt from the score of Juan Orrego-Salas’s El Alba del Alhelí, Op. 29 (1950)
Copyright © 1958 by Juan Orrego-Salas. All rights reserved. Published by Peermusic Classical and reprinted with permission.

JO-S: The Piano Concerto was a path towards going out of Chile because, at that time, Celibidache was conducting the symphony orchestra. And he got very much interested in my piano concerto, and he did it in Berlin with a pianist Helmut Roloff, whom I met years later.

FJO: So you didn’t hear him do it?

JO-S: No. I wasn’t at that performance.

FJO: For the most of the 1950s you were in Chile, doing so many different things in addition to writing music. You were conducting that girls’ chorus and you were a professor of music at the University. You were also the music critic for the newspaper.

JO-S: For Mercurio. It was a lot. I wish it would have been less, and I would have dedicated more to composition.

FJO: Except the music you were writing at that time was so interesting and was getting noticed internationally. You were doing all these other activities besides composing in Chile, but you were also getting important commissions, including many commissions from the United States. The Louisville Orchestra commissioned you. Your first string quartet was premiered by The Juilliard Quartet. Tanglewood commissioned your Sextet for clarinet, piano and strings, which is a phenomenal piece. I’m curious to hear what you think about all that music now, sixty years later.

Score excerpt from Orrego-Salas's 1st String Quartet

An excerpt from the score of Juan Orrego-Salas’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 46 (1956). Copyright © 1963 by Peer International Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

JO-S: Oh, I wouldn’t—I would be very frightened to say that they were great because I always thought that even if I wrote a piece that I enjoyed very much, I could do even better than that.

FJO: So are there any pieces you wrote that you would say are your favorites, that you feel the most proud of?

JO-S: I think the Canciones Castellanas, the one we were speaking of, is a very favorite piece of mine. And there is a later piece for string orchestra called Presencias that I enjoyed very much.

FJO: I’d like us to stay in the 1950s for a little bit longer and talk about these major performances of your music in the United States that were happening while you were in Santiago. You finally wound up moving here. Was that in anyway related?

JO-S: No. It wasn’t my decision. It was a Rockefeller Foundation decision. I had been a Rockefeller Fellow years before. And one day, I was sitting in Chile, doing all the things that I did in Chile, and the American embassy called me and said that Mr. Harrison was coming to Santiago and he wanted to see me and meet me. And I said, “Who’s Mr. Harrison?” He was an historian, a member of the Rockefeller Foundation Board of Directors. So I met him for lunch. And he said, “The Rockefeller Foundation has just helped Maestro Ginastera in establishing the di Tella Institute in Buenos Aires. But that’s to train composers. We want to establish in the United States an institute to promote Latin American music, and to research Latin American music.” In other words, it has something to do with musicology, with performance, with everything. And I said, “But I’m a composer.” “Yes, you are a composer. And we want you to continue being a composer. So, we have to find a way that you do both things. That would be any how less than what you’re doing here in Chile.”

“And so,” I said, “How would it be?” “Well, we thought of establishing this center for Latin American in the United States in Washington as part of the OAS [Organization of American States].” And as soon as he said that I said, “No. I’m not interested. I’m not interested in working anything that had to do with politics, absolutely not! I have nothing against the OAS, but I don’t want the OAS associated with work of Latin nature.” “So what would you suggest?” “Well, if you want to establish an institution that would provide inter-research on Latin American composition and stimulate performances of Latin American music, do it with a school of music in United States, or a university. You have loads of them. You have Juilliard and Eastman, and so forth.” And he said, “You’re absolutely right. I’m going back to the United States and inform the board about your idea.”

So, he came back a week later and said, “Look, Rockefeller approved your idea, and we’re going to do an investigation of several universities who have important music departments, or schools of music, which would be interested in this. And I’ll be back to you.” It didn’t last more than a couple of weeks and he was back in Chile [again]. And he said, “We investigated thirty universities and we have five [possibilities], including Indiana [University].” And I was aware of what was going on at Indiana University because when I was a Guggenheim Fellow in New York, William Schuman had told me of this school and that it was growing and growing. Schuman was the head of Juilliard at that time. And he said, “If you don’t want to go back to Chile, I could write a letter to Mr. [Wilfred Conwell] Bain, who is the Dean, and I am sure he will offer you a position at his school. Do you want me to do that?” “Yes, do it. See what happens.” Well, I received an offer from Dean Bain, offering me a position as a member of the theory department at Indiana University with a salary that was less than what I was receiving in Chile, to the pleasure of my family who said that music didn’t produce more than architecture! So I said to Dean Bain, “Well, I’m sorry, I’m not interested in teaching theory. And the salary is not the one I am aiming to.” “So,” he said, “I’m sorry, but I’ll be back to you.” Well, he was back every year. I received a Christmas letter from him saying I haven’t given up the idea of having you here. So when the Rockefeller [Foundation] came with this idea, Dean Bain jumped and said, “We want him as founder and head of this Latin American Music Center and teacher of composition.” And that was what he offered me, with a salary that was at that time, decent.

FJO: So that first contact with Bain was in 1954.

JO-S: 1955 I think.

FJO: So for seven years you stayed in Chile doing all these different activities but at the same time getting all of these performances of your music in the United States. Were you traveling back and forth all the time?

JO-S: No. I didn’t travel after 1954-55, when I was a Guggenheim Fellow.

FJO: So you were just getting phone calls and letters.

JO-S: Yeah. My next trip to the United States was in 1961 when I established the Latin American Music Center.

Copland and Latin American composers.

Composers of the Americas (back row, left to right): Julián Orbón (1925-1991, Cuba), Juan Orrego-Salas (b. 1919, Chile), Aaron Copland (1900-1990, U.S.A.), Antonio Estevez (1916-1988, Venezuela), Harold Gramatges (1918-1998, Cuba), Roque Cordero (1917-2008, Panama), Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983, Argentina), (front row) Héctor Campos Parsi (1922-1998, Puerto Rico) and Blas Galindo (1910-1993, Mexico). Photo courtesy of the Latin American Music Center.

FJO: We talked earlier about identity and your teacher Allende introducing Chilean elements into classical music. You wrote all these pieces that continue in that tradition, but many of them were commissioned by groups for performance in the United States. Then you came to the United States. How much of your identity as a composer remained Chilean? How much became American?

JO-S: That I don’t know. I don’t know what to answer here. But I’ll tell you something. The Sextet was commissioned by a foundation in New York and that was arranged by Aaron Copland. And Aaron Copland arranged the first performance in Tanglewood. And I was invited to Tanglewood to attend the first performance. And I went there. And I’ll tell you a funny story. Aaron Copland was waiting for me in the station where you come from New York to Tanglewood. And he had reserved for me a room and so on. It was very nice to see him again. And he said to me, “Well, I’ll tell you this afternoon, you have a rehearsal of your Sextet. But I’ll have to pull your ears because you did a very naughty thing with the Sextet.” What did I do? I was very frightened, you know. “You end pianissimo. You should never end pianissimo a work at your age because you need applause, and they never applaud pianissimo endings.” “Well I’m sorry, because it’s written already.” Okay, he sat with me at the premiere, and when it ended, there was a big applause. I said, “I am sorry. You are right, and I’m wrong.” [laughs]

The last page of the score of Orrego-Salas's Sextet

The ending of Juan Orrego-Salas’s Sextet for Bb clarinet, string quartet, and piano, Op. 38 (1954)
Copyright © 1967 by Peer International Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
(Please note that the clarinet part is notated in C herein.)

FJO: There is something about that Sextet in particular, to my ears anyway that sounds very American, more than it sounds Chilean.

JO-S: I don’t know that. It sounds mine.

FJO: I’m curious to know more about composers in the United States you felt a strong kinship to at that time.

JO-S: I was a good friend of William Schuman. And Lukas Foss; we became very good friends, and I’m very sorry that he has left this world because he had lots of things to say still. Irving Fine was a very honest composer. And very critical with himself. One day he showed me a piece he had written for chamber orchestra which I thought it was wonderful. And he thought it was awful. And I couldn’t convince him. He was that kind of composer. Never sure of what he was. Harold Shapero was a very great composer, that is unknown now in the United States.

Shapero, Fine, Orrego-Salas, Foss, and Copland 1946

Harold Shapero (1920-2013), Irving Fine (1914-1962), Juan Orrego-Salas (b. 1919), Lukas Foss (1922-2009), and Aaron Copland (1900-1990) at Tanglewood in 1946. Photographer unknown. From the Irving Fine Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Congress.

FJO: The piece that you wrote right before you moved to Bloomington, the Third Symphony, also sounds to me as if it is in some way leaning toward a sound world that is somewhat akin to these composers. Do you feel that you and these composers were working toward a common language?

JO-S: I had never thought on those terms. Never. I wrote the Third Symphony and because I wrote it; there is no other reason to have written it. And the Fourth Symphony I wrote here.

Score excerpt from Orrego-Salas's 4th Symphony

An excerpt from the score of Juan Orrego-Salas’s Symphony No. 4 “De la respuesta lejana”, Op. 59 (1966).
Copyright © 1966 Norruth Music, Inc. Copyright assigned 2008 to Keiser Classical (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: The Fourth Symphony has a similar sound world to your Third, but it’s also the earliest piece that I know of yours that uses 12-tone techniques, albeit in quite a unique way.

JO-S: The Fourth. The Fifth Symphony has never been played.

FJO: Really?

JO-S: I’ve written six symphonies. The Sixth Symphony was premiered last year in Colombia.

FJO: Wow. And the fifth has not been played.

JO-S: Hasn’t been played.

FJO: It was not commissioned? You just wrote it?

JO-S: I just wrote it.

Excerpt from the score of Orrego-Salas' 5th Symphony

An excerpt from the score of Juan Orrego-Salas’s as yet unperformed Symphony No. 5, Op. 109 (1995).
Copyright © 1995 Norruth Music, Inc. Copyright assigned 2008 to Keiser Classical (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Wow. Now the Fourth Symphony, I want to return to the Fourth for a little bit longer, because that’s really the first really major work you wrote as a composer based in the U.S.A. You said that you’re not really thinking in terms of identity, but I wonder if in any way being in Bloomington, which is a very different place from Santiago, if that in any way affected your mind and your thoughts about music, if it opened up another set of ideas for you.

JO-S: I think it must have. But I’m not self conscious of it. Not, not at all.

FJO: So what inspired you to explore 12-tone composition?

JO-S: I’ve used 12-tone music as an experiment, which I am not really deeply associated with. That’s why I have abandoned it, and come back to it.

FJO: But in terms of places, you’ve now spent close to 50 years here in Bloomington.

JO-S: ’61 to ’14…

FJO: By now you’ve spent more time here than you did in Chile where you are considered perhaps the greatest living Chilean composer. You are honored there as a hero. But so much of your music was actually written here in this country and yet you are not often spoken about in the history of music in the United States. To my mind, you are an American composer.

Juan Orrego-Salas with conductor Carmen Helena Tellez. Photo courtesy of the Latin American Music Center.

Juan Orrego-Salas with conductor Carmen Helena Téllez who served as director of the Latin American Music Center from 1992 to 2012. Photo courtesy of the Latin American Music Center.

JO-S: Yes. I don’t mind being an American composer or a Chilean composer, or an Argentinian composer. That’s an argument that we had with Ginastera several times, because Ginastera wanted to be an Argentinian. And he had a purpose of writing music as an Argentinian composer, which I never had in Chile. I think the only work that I wrote very self consciously using Chilean folk elements was a cycle of three songs that I called Canciones en estilo popular, songs in the popular style. Because they were based on Neruda’s poems on popular things.

FJO: So did you know Neruda?

JO-S: Oh yes. Very well.

FJO: And he heard your songs?

JO-S: Yes, he thought that he had no ear for music. He said he didn’t know the difference between the national anthem and the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven.

FJO: So you can’t really say how he responded to your music.

JO-S: No, I cannot. No composer in Chile can say anything about that.

FJO: Still it surprises me—which is why I thought it was very important for me to talk to you for this web magazine about music in the United States—that while you are a national hero in Chile, more people in this country are not aware of your music. And you have also had an influence on composers here, since you taught composers here for so many years.

JO-S: I’ve had American students—United States students—but I’ve also had Venezuelan students and I’ve had Argentinian students during my teaching here. I don’t know if there is a difference, unless they decide to do it. I’ve had a composer who for me is among my very best: a Venezuelan, who now is teaching in Michigan—Ricardo Lorenz. Ricardo Lorenz is a Venezuelan composer that for me it doesn’t sound Venezuelan, or Chilean, or American. He sounds Lorenz.

FJO: So for you that should be the goal for every composer, to sound like him or herself?

JO-S: Right.

Janos Starker, Juan Orrego-Salas and Charles Webb

Juan Orrego-Salas (standing on right) listening to cellist János Starker and pianist Charles Webb rehearse his music. Photo courtesy of the Latin American Music Center.

FJO: I’m curious about the music that you have written in recent years.

JO-S: Which are the recent years? I haven’t written a thing in about the last three years. I think I finished writing music. When I saw Aaron Copland for the last time, it was here. Sitting here. Perhaps in this chair. He had one of my granddaughters sitting in his lap. And I asked him suddenly, “Aaron, what are you writing?” He looked. “Nothing. I’ve written all what I had to write.” And that said a great thing for me. I know that Aaron had written everything that he had to write. And I was starting to feel that I had written also what I had to write. I had nothing more to say in music. I transferred the legacy of all my works, my photographs, my letters and everything to Indiana University. And they possess it now.

FJO: So what would you say now to composers who are on the other side of their careers, just starting to write music and trying to find themselves and to establish a career path?

JO-S: Be always what you are when you’re writing music. That’s perhaps the best advice that I can give.


Ed. Note: For more about Juan Orrego Salas and the founding of the Latin American Music Center, here’s an excellent interview he did with current LAMC director Erick Carballo in 2011…

7 thoughts on “Juan Orrego-Salas: I’ve Written All I Have to Write

  1. Kyle Gann

    Very interesting, Frank, and the photos are amazing. I’m listening now to his Op. 38 Sextet on Naxos Music Library. Glad to know about him. So much history is in danger of being lost.

  2. MR

    One great aspect of the musical milieu in Los Angeles is having Alma Del Barrio broadcast for 24 hours each weekend on KXLU. Currently, I’ve been enjoying combining Latin and South Asian rhythms in a new composition. Frank: Did you happen to ask Juan Orrego-Salas the secret of his longevity? I don’t recall ever seeing someone his age look so well!

    1. Frank J. Oteri Post author

      MR, I did not ask him what his “secret” was, but he and his wife recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary and they seem to have a very happy life. From what I observed during the short time I spent with him, he also seems to really enjoy life. After we turned off the videocamera, Juan Orrego-Salas offered us wine and cheese which he merrily partook of as well. I will say that there was an overall sense of contentment to him that I’ve rarely encountered among composers, although he acknowledged that he is no longer composing. But of course, Elliott Carter, who was also one of the happiest composers I have ever met, composed nearly until the very end of his long life–one month shy of his 104th birthday.

      1. MR

        Two weeks ago, I received a phone call from Gunther Schuller, responding to an article about his friend and colleague, Leonard Altman (click on name above), and he disclosed spending at least twelve hours a day composing at eighty-eight!

  3. John Eaton

    Wonderful interview with a remarkable composer and fine human being. I was fortunate to be Juan’s colleague at Indiana University for some 21 years. He was always warm and inspiring — a joy and an inspiration to know.

  4. Pingback: Juan Orrego-Salas celebrates 95th Birthday | Lauren Keiser Music Publishing/ Keiser Classical

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