Dr. Oscar Mascarenas talks about his journey as a composer, sound artist and transcendental poet with his student Pratyay Raha
P: Why did you start composing? And also how?
O: This is one of those questions where the answer keeps evolving! The 'how' is straightforward, but the 'why' remains elusive, given that our desires, goals, and experiences are constantly in flux. If I were to begin with the 'how,' it likely started in my childhood when I had a passion for creating imaginative narratives...
My father used to capture me sharing stories on tape... Now, when I revisit those recordings, it's almost as though I was a natural storyteller from the beginning. Yet, when there was an audience in the room, it provided a platform for me to narrate them. My dad used to proudly showcase his child's ability to craft stories. I relished in making them outlandish, exaggerated, and dramatically inventing things that were utterly impossible, haha... That's how the process of creation began, and it revolved around sound. It was about voice and words, so essentially, it was about sound.
One of my stories found its way into a local newspaper. During that period, I was battling chicken pox while the Rubik's Cube was all the rage...
My story was titled "Chicken Pox Rubik's Cube." Imagine a Rubik's Cube with chicken pox - I mean, what on earth? Haha... Consider how wild my imagination was. It was a very brief story, just a few lines perhaps. I was around 5 or 6 years old at the time, and I used to write. Interestingly, a significant portion of my creative journey began with writing and through sound, like a storytelling practice. That's the 'how'!
My father is a musician who played the guitar, and I would improvise with my voice while he played. My dad played both the guitar and piano, and my grandfather was an organist and pianist in the Baptist church of his hometown. He also played the harmonium and served as a minister in the church. So, the strong musical influence in my life stemmed from this lineage. My dad used to play for my mother while I was in her womb.
He often played pieces from the Anna Magdalena Bach book, featuring preludes, gavottes, and marches by Bach. These were exquisite compositions, and I must admit that they had a profound impact on me. They were some of my earliest exposures to Western music, and they undeniably influenced how my brain developed into a somewhat musical one.
Following that, I began improvising with my voice alongside my dad's guitar. Subsequently, I enrolled as a student in the conservatory and commenced my formal music education at the age of 8. The violin became my initial instrument, and I also began vocal training. This marked the beginning of a transformative journey. So, that's the 'how.' As for the 'why,' as I mentioned earlier, it remains somewhat enigmatic. Perhaps it was an impulse, but I simply felt compelled to tell stories, to improvise music, to create sound. It was a kind of inner drive, a need to express my perspective on the world and my place within it.
P: As I understand from what you’re saying, music has been there with you since your birth, then what made you go into industrial Physics?
O: That's intriguing! As much as I was captivated by sound and music, my fascination extended to all things, especially the sciences. I possessed an insatiable curiosity for knowledge; when I found something intriguing, I delved deep into the subject, craving a comprehensive understanding. In my early years, I was an avid collector of rocks and coins...
I had a particular fondness for chemistry during my childhood. My dad gifted me a chemistry set, and he continued to provide me with other equipment. Both of my parents were educators, so I had ready access to chemistry tools and eventually set up a small laboratory at home. At one point, I aspired to become a chemist. Physics didn't hold the same allure for me back then, but astronomy fascinated me, leading me to shift my focus. Unfortunately, there were no undergraduate astronomy programs available, so I opted for industrial physics. It was during this time that I began to appreciate and fall in love with the intricacies of physics. Mathematics, especially complex mathematics, also held a special place in my heart. I had an inherent attraction to complex subjects, even if I couldn't grasp everything about them.
Additionally, there was this prevalent notion of pursuing a career path that guaranteed employment. You can likely relate to this as well. Hence, I opted for physics, confident that a physics degree would open doors to job opportunities. Indeed, most of my classmates secured promising opportunities after completing their degrees.
While I was immersing myself in the worlds of physics and science, my passion for music continued to develop in tandem. I never ceased performing or composing. During my teenage years, my hormones began to surge, influencing my life. I started thinking about having a girlfriend and all the typical adolescent concerns—perhaps that's the Latino way or simply the human way, haha...
I wrote a substantial amount of Latin and Salsa music during this period. We even entered into a record deal with a music company in Mexico, collaborating with a Dominican singer. However, it didn't materialize as expected; the situation became rather complex. Nevertheless, we reached the stage where the CD was ready for release, and the experience was truly remarkable. I had the opportunity to work with a sound engineer who had been working with the singer, and my learning curve was exceptionally steep. I've always been a learner, and I continued to apply my newfound knowledge to my creative endeavors.
After this endeavour, I pursued composition in a more formal manner. I was selected to join a Center for Composers in Mexico, receiving a two-year grant to work on composition and create music for a chamber ensemble.
Going back to my childhood, I had composed a lot of music for violin and string quartet when I was just 10 years old. Although it was rather simplistic, I have a desire to revisit those pieces and compile an album of "childhood music." From reviewing the notations, it's clear that the essence of my musical language hasn't fundamentally changed. I may not have been a Mozart (laughs), but my interests were always directed toward fast, complex motifs and tense, intricate compositions. When I listen to my album 'Songs for Jackson Pollock,' it strikes me that, at its core, it shares similarities with the music I created at the age of 10.
The grant I received offered me the opportunity to connect with a network of composers and further develop my work. I attended a religious college, a Catholic school, where I harbored ambitions of becoming a priest. In my younger years, I even aspired to become a cardinal ("Why settle for a priest when you can aim for the top?" - haha). Later, I entertained the idea of joining a monastery and becoming a Franciscan monk. However, none of these aspirations came to fruition because I was immersed in the world of physics. I'm sure you can relate to how one's interests shift during the teenage years. The reason I mention my religious inclinations is that I was enthralled by chant music, particularly Gregorian chant. I was introduced to this medieval music through a CD my brother gave me, which featured music from medieval England. It felt like an entirely different world to me. While the conservatory briefly touched upon this music, most conservatories tend to start with Bach and not delve into anything that predates him. I was captivated by the notations and the sounds. My compulsive approach to learning led me to delve deep into this form of music.
My desire was to explore it in a manner that could inform my compositional practice. I yearned to compose music using a similar approach to those who created music a thousand years ago, which led me to chant and medieval music. My journey eventually brought me to Ireland. Here, I engaged in chant courses with a focus on composition. Along the way, my interest in chant became dominant, and I pursued a Ph.D. studying a variety of notations. Nevertheless, my passion for composition has remained a constant presence.
During my Master's, I explored writing music for choirs. I composed for 8 voices and 16 voices, simultaneously maintaining my commitment to chant. For a time, I was occupied with my thesis, which is a lengthy endeavor. Upon its completion, I entered a phase where I began to incorporate postmodern philosophy and thinking into my work. This shift altered my perspective on chant, and composition became integral to recreating a sound world in connection with contemporary music practices. I also ventured into collaborations and experiments with dance and choreographers, transforming my musical world into an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary realm. My exploration led me to discover Zen Buddhism through the works of John Cage, Krishnamurti, and other thinkers, dramatically altering my perspective once more.
You can even hear this transformation in my recent works, such as the contrast between 'Songs for Jackson Pollock' and 'Burrenscapes.' I'm now delving further into the realm of transcendental music, seeking a connection beyond my humanity...
P: Brilliant to hear about your journey, coming to your album, Songs for Jackson Pollock, the influence from visual arts, how did it translate to sound? What were your thoughts while working on this project? For us the listener’s it’s a fascinating experience, just want to know your working process!!
O: I was primarily intrigued by my response to these works of art and the way these artists approached their canvases. Their transformation from figuration to focusing on texture and the line for the line's sake caught my attention. In a book about the exhibition that inspired my work, I came across a statement that resonated with me: 'Jackson Pollock emancipated the line.' This idea signifies that a line isn't just meant to outline a figure or a shape but can exist purely as a line. Similarly, I believe that a sound can simply be a sound and nothing more. It can have its own trajectory, may not necessarily have a precise relationship with another sound, and its meaning and evolution aren't necessarily my primary concerns. I'm more interested in the trajectory and the freedom of sound to move, acknowledging that sound will ultimately vanish. While we can record it, the act of listening to the recorded sound is itself a transformative experience. Each time I revisit my album, I do so in a new context, which adds a layer of difference to it.
Regarding your question about how painters have influenced my thinking, I've been influenced by artists with diverse styles. Van Gogh is a significant influence; he's often considered one of the first modernists in painting, reshaping our perception of reality with his expressive and transformative use of lines.
Caravaggio, on the other hand, captivates me with the drama and stunning perfection of his paintings. His ability to portray great events with rawness and extraordinary reality is absolutely fascinating.
Francis Bacon and Jackson Pollock have impacted me for their abilities to create sensation and complex dimensions through their work. Pollock, in particular, played a role in emancipating the line, which deeply resonates with my own artistic sensibilities.
Mark Rothko's transcendental panels of color create a unique, indescribable feeling, especially when I experienced his late work in a chapel.
Philip Guston's exploration of destruction and creation and his attitude towards painting have also left a lasting impression on me.
I view painters and dancers as having a significant influence on my compositional process. Their creative expressions offer insights and inspiration for my work.
Lastly, the teachings of Krishnamurthy, emphasising the importance of shedding conditioning, have had a profound impact on my life. I believe that this process of unlearning and observation is at the core of my journey and ongoing learning.
P: Thank you Oscar for your time and sharing your fascinating journey, it is always a pleasure talking to you!
O: Thank you Pratyay, its been a pleasure for me too!
Please listen to the latest album by Oscar, Burrenscapes
From the website of 'the contemporary music centre Ireland'
Oscar's Burrenscapes is a collection of experiences and sonic impressions of the Burren in Co. Clare. He writes “the vast, barren and breath-taking landscapes have become a second home for me in the past number of years. With this series of poetic sound essays, I pay homage to those places, their inhabitants – humans, flora and fauna – and their utterly indescribable, otherworldly and extraordinary beauty.”