(Image: Alexander Perrelli)

(Image: Alexander Perrelli)

LatAm in Focus: The Story behind Joaquín Orellana’s Musical Sculptures

By Luisa Leme

Co-curators Sebastian Zubieta and Diana Flatto share sounds from The Spine of Music.

Sebastián Zubieta

Sonarimba, imbaluna, sinusoido, ululante. Joaquín Orellana’s instruments have unusual names, formed by mixing the words that describe the shape created with the sound he is seeking. The Guatemalan composer could also be considered a sculptor by those who visit the exhibition The Spine of Music, featured at Americas Society’s through April 24. The exhibition puts Orellana’s útiles sonoros (“sound tools”) on display and reveals the interdisciplinary nature of his work.

When he began making his instruments, Orellana was “solving a problem,” explains Diana Flatto, exhibition co-curator. During a fellowship at the preeminent Centro Latinoamericano de Estudios Musicales at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, the composer was heavily influenced by electronic music, then in its infancy. But when, in 1969, he returned to Guatemala, the technology to create electronic music simply did not exist there.

Diana Flatto

So, Orellana started creating his sound tools. “You have to remember at the time there were only a handful of studios in the world. So, it wasn't a thing,” says co-curator and Americas Society Music Director Sebastian Zubieta. The two curators sat down with AS/COA Online’s Luisa Leme to talk about Orellana’s creative process and their February 2020 trip to Guatemala to visit Orellana’s studio.

“He told us he starts with the gesture,” Diana Flatto explains. The imbaluna, for example, is a crescent-moon shaped instrument based on the marimba, Guatemala’s national instrument. The player must move his or her arm in a C-shape way to produce sound. “It's from the way he wants the percussion to look when playing the instrument. It's actually very much about not just the way the instruments look but the choreography of how they are played as well as the sounds,” says Flatto.

Joaquín Orellana: The Spine of Music

Open to the public from January 20 to April 24, Americas Society presents the first U.S. exhibition of the Guatemalan composer's innovative instruments alongside contemporary art. 

After Orellana returned to his home country, the composer sought to reflect the political violence and social challenges taking place during Guatemala’s civil war, explains Zubieta. Orellana included sounds of impoverished people outside church atriums, songs in indigenous languages, and sounds of brutality in prisons in his pieces Humanofonía I and II.

“All this social situation, this injustice, all the violence is all in there in a way or another in most of his pieces,” explains Zubieta. “He would not conceive music that is not representative in a way or another.”

Visitors to the New York exhibition can play the instruments and listen to Efluvios y Puntos, a piece commissioned by Americas Society. The idea was to share the composition with New York-based musicians to have a performance with four people playing the instruments—a plan curbed by the pandemic. Instead, Zubieta learned and played all instruments in the piece for a video. “There are moments in which there are long sounds that are created in metal instruments like the tubar...and then short sounds that come from the wooden instruments,” he explains.

Orellana, who is now 90, became a household name in Guatemala over the course of his career. He continues to build instruments, challenge sounds, and work with visual artists. The exhibition also features pieces by four contemporary visual artists with connections with the composer: Carlos Amorales, María Adela Díaz, Akira Ikezoe, and Alberto Rodríguez Collía.

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Luisa Leme produced this episode. The music in this podcast was performed at Americas Society in New York. Learn more about upcoming concerts at musicoftheamericas.org.