Constellations and Cataclysms
The Spanish composer Francisco Guerrero Marín had a rare talent: he was a master of beginnings. More often than not, his pieces start with textures of blinding, gripping intensity. From there, they explore musical landscapes similar to those of Giacinto Scelsi at his most rugged and alpine. One Spanish critic described Guerrero Marín’s music as “choleric, ambivalent, rapturous, and unparalleled.” “Highly disturbing, of constellations and cataclysms,” wrote another.
Guerrero Marín was born in 1951 in the Andalusian city of Linares. He studied organ and composition, then worked in programming for Spanish national radio. The difficulty of his music, and his personal “intransigence,” mean that his work is rarely performed today.
“Sahara”; José Ramón Encinar (Conductor), Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia
Talk about beginnings. When a piece of new music opens with a single pitch, it can easily sound like a cliché. But somehow, this pitch, at this register, volume, and timbre, is unbelievably exciting. The strings enter at different times, trilling and branching out microtonally from an Eb, a Db, and an E natural, morphing into a startlingly romantic, almost Straussian, string texture. Guerrero Marín was inspired by fractals, a mathematic way of describing patterns present in nature. But I’m not even sure that matters, because you don’t have to know that to experience this piece’s clear affinity with nature and the wonder and fear it can inspire.
“Cefeidas” for tape
In 1969, Guerrero Marín founded an electronic music laboratory at the Radio de Granada. This tape piece is one of the rare works in the medium where the sounds maintain their fascination for the listener over its entire duration. It begins with a texture like crotales and xylophones that are somehow out of focus, and continues shifting, sliding through the grasp of our auditory perception over the course of 22 minutes.
Guerrero Marín was an admirer of Edgard Varèse, which I think is particularly audible in this piece’s percussive moments: low drum-like hits and irregular rhythms on single pitches or sounds. In a flute lesson on Varèse’s “Density 21.5” 15 years ago, the flutist, composer, and New England Conservatory teacher John Heiss recalled to me that the French pioneer would slowly turn up the sounds in an electronic music studio until they were just below a painful threshold. I recommend doing the same on your headphones with this music.
Isaac Albéniz, “Iberia,” Book 4, II. Jerez, orchestration by Guerrero Marín; José Ramón Encinar (Conductor), Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia
Is it strange that the composer of such radical, innovative compositions—who was known for his “restless” personality as well—could produce such an effective, stylish, even traditional orchestration of a popular impressionist work? Guerrero Marín’s project to arrange Albéniz’s entire “Iberia” was cut short by his death. As the critic and musicologist José Antonio Lacarcel, a friend of the composer’s, has written, the style of the orchestration was like “a new Albéniz, an intense Albéniz, bigger, more poetic, more authentic, thanks to what Guerrero put of himself into his orchestration.” It’s also nice to think that maybe the high string voices that the piece ends with were somehow worked out in through his original pieces.
“Erótica”; Françoise Kubler (Soprano and Wood Chymes), Jean-Marie Angster (Guitar)
This short work has something of the loneliness and erotic charge of a Schubert song. It is based on texts by Ibn Quzman, an Arab-Andalusian poet who lived in Spain from roughly 1080-1160 and was “the most acclaimed lyricist of [a] brilliant era,” according to the pioneering queer studies professor Louis Crompton. Compton also wrote that Quzman “celebrates ‘wine, adultery, and sodomy’ ” in his poetry. I’m unaware of detailed information about Guerrero Marín’s personal life, but this connection is certainly evocative—and the piece is as compact and mysterious as Quzman’s “short, terse lines and elliptical stanzas.”
“Hyades” for bass flute, trombone, bass, and electronics; Joan Cervero (Conductor), Grup Instrumental de Valencia
The first time I listened to “Hyades,” I mistook the title for Hades, the underworld of Greek mythology. In that context, there is something remarkably evocative and surprising about the first entrance of the bass, around the end of the piece’s fourth minute, and the major second upward and trombone entrance that follow. The title, of course, actually refers to the Hyades star cluster. Like Gérard Grisey, in his “Le Noir de l’Étoile,” Guerrero Marín looked towards the sky when making art. At least that’s what I hear when the music, in a combination of electronics with what sound like bass harmonics, ends.
“Coma Berenices”; José Ramón Encinar (Conductor), Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia
José Antonio Lacarcel, a friend of Guerrero Marín’s, recalled an anecdote in an essay on the late composer: “I remember that one night at the door of the Palace of Carlos V, in the middle of the Music Festival, he made a confession to me which at the time seemed at least somewhat shocking: ‘my music now has an important lyric component,’ he said. And, now with the passage of time, I think he has never lacked that component.” In this piece, the lyricism is most present at the beginning and at the end. Guerrero Marín died a few years short of his 50th birthday. ¶