There is an arresting, high-voltage energy that often infuses presentations of Marcos Balter’s music, and an obvious fascination on the part of the composer with exploring new sonic possibilities while keeping the human element—the living, breathing performer—center stage. While the roots of these influences are clearly reflected in Balter’s own personality, putting too much emphasis on his Brazilian upbringing and the Portuguese accent that lightly colors his rapid English would be a mistake.
“I’m a Brazilian composer, I’m a gay composer, and people always go for those things as if they are the really crucial, defining elements in my music, when they’re really not,” Balter explains with a mix of understanding and frustration. A composer born and raised in Rio de Janeiro who currently calls Chicago home, he appreciates the American interest in how where you come from shapes the music you write. In his case, however, growing up in a diverse metropolitan city offered him a broad slate of experiences, and the hallmarks of his own music are much more personal.
“As you can probably tell, I’m a very hyperactive person,” Balter concedes with a knowing smile. “I’ve always been very energetic and doing one million things at once, very fast paced in general in life. And when I look at my music, I see that. I see that sense of—unity. It’s that one thing sometimes, but if you look very carefully, it’s one billion things within that one thing.”
As a young conservatory student, his musical passions “were very well behaved,” he admits, with a special affinity for the keyboard composers he was studying as a pianist. Composition was also already a “very natural act to me,” coming almost hand in hand with learning to read and write. In 1996, a piano scholarship to Texas Christian University brought him to the States, though his educational focus was ultimately on composition. Study at Northwestern University followed, and he is currently the director of the music composition program at Columbia College Chicago.
During his first years in the U.S., he found that his music became a little more conservative before he rebelled—a reaction, perhaps, to the education he was receiving, which he found stiflingly dogmatic. “I think that sometimes the least interesting thing about my music is how it’s made,” he clarifies. “If you want to know about that, that’s great, and you can do all kinds of crazy analysis and find out some fun stuff. But to me the most important part of music is still the emotional connection between the composer and the performer, and the performer and the listener. The rest is secondary.”
Considering how closely Balter likes to work with the musicians who play his pieces, that primary consideration carries particular weight. “I really see the act of composing as a collaborative act. Even when you’re composing by yourself, not talking to anyone, you’re still working with that entity, you’re still working for those people.”
In Balter’s case, however, that person often is in the room at certain points in the process, offering feedback and demonstrating possible sounds and techniques. In the case of his extensive work with the musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble over many years, he’s writing not only for respected colleagues, but also very good and trusted friends.
“That’s why I love working with them. I know that when I walk into a rehearsal, that the rehearsal is still a workshop. We’re still debating ideas; we’re still negotiating things.” And that, he argues, is an essential step in the artistic process that he’d be foolish to overlook. “Things change considerably when they leave the paper and they reach the performer, and for me to not acknowledge that and make that part of the creation of the art work is insane.”
He also counts on that feedback to keep him pushing forward in his own art. In one extreme example, during the creation of his Descent from Parnassus—inspired by Cy Twombly’s painting The First Part of the Return from Parnassus and written for ICE founder and flutist Claire Chase—Balter sent his first sketch of the piece her way. “She called me back, and she said, ‘That’s not it.’ And I was deeply offended! I was mad at her. I’m the composer; you shall not tell me if it is or it isn’t—I’ll know!”
A step back and some reflection offered new perspective, however. “Within four or five hours, the coin dropped, and I looked at this sketch and thought, ‘She’s absolutely right. This is not in any shape or form what this painting is about.’ I called her back and I said, ‘You know what? Let me give it another shot; let me try to process things differently here.’
“Within 72 hours, I had Parnassus.”
That openness to exploring new paths and changing direction on the fly is why Balter considers himself at heart an experimental composer. “I don’t know where I’m going. And I actually think that if I knew, I would have stopped composing a long time ago,” he admits. “So no, I don’t know what’s going to happen to my music next year, I don’t know what’s going to happen next week. And that’s the beauty of it; that’s the excitement of it—it’s the not knowing. If I knew everything, I could write a book about it and be done.”