To Express the Sound of a Country’s Soul, He Invented New Instruments


In a short story, the Guatemalan composer, inventor and writer Joaquín Orellana introduces himself to a musician who is dissatisfied with the instruments of Western civilization and wants to create the sound of hunger. Obsessed with the desire to express the suffering of his people, he gradually starves to death and then picks up his changed, swarming voice. In his delirium, he sees note sticks come to life with tortured and violent screams – the sound of hunger.

The 90-year-old Orellana is one of the most respected composers in his country and the subject of a fascinating exhibition at the Americas Society, “The Spine of Music”, which shows instruments – sculptural, surrealistic and darkly sensual – that he invented. Like the protagonist of his story, Orellana tries to express the suffering of a country traumatized by genocide and civil war, while largely avoiding the materials of Western music.

Most composers write music for existing instruments. An exception was Wagner, who developed a tuba-horn hybrid for his “Ring” cycle. The experimental composer Harry Partch invented instruments that were adapted to his unorthodox vocal system. In a video interview from Guatemala City, Orellana spoke of his process of liberating the musical imagination from preconceived forms.

“The composer is permeated with his social reality,” he said. “The composer is a kind of filter, and his social sensitivity is built into that filter.” When musical ideas flood the composer’s imagination, he added: “In this auditory mind there are the concepts and images of a social context, a socio-political reality; and music is inevitably committed to these things. “

Orellana began experimenting with sound generation materials in the 1970s. He studied violin and composition at the National Conservatory in Guatemala City and then won a two-year scholarship at the Centro Latinoamericano de Altos Estudios Musicales in Buenos Aires. This center has been a magnet for innovative composers across the subcontinent with a state-of-the-art electronic music studio that caught Orellana’s imagination.

He had no comparable technical resources when he returned to Guatemala. And he felt alienated from a music scene that focused on folkloric traditions expressed through the national instrument, the marimba.

Nevertheless, the marimba fascinated Orellana. It had most likely come across on the slave routes from West Africa; Adopted by the rural population of Guatemala, it had come in line with the hopes, pain, and injustices of their country. So he pried it apart and twisted it into new shapes.

Orellana calls his inventions “útiles sonoros” or sound tools. “With the help of the clay tools,” he said, “the marimba extends into the acoustic and physical space like a kind of big bang.”

The first sound tool used to greet visitors to the Americas Society Gallery is the skeletal imbaluna with a crescent-shaped marimba keyboard supported by spiky resonators. (The names of Orellana’s inventions are often poetic portmanteaus, those of “marimba” and the Spanish word for moon.)

The circumar has the shape of a large kettle with marimba keys hanging perpendicular to the floor. For the Sinus, he pulled marimba keys onto a frame shaped like a warped roller coaster. Both are played by running a mallet in continuous motion along the inside – an action that requires the performer’s arm and torso to be fully engaged, creating ringing noises. Sebastián Zubieta, the music director of the Americas Society, said that in Mr. Orellana’s creations, “it is the gesture that shapes them”.

These instruments – and others that are similarly shaped and use metal chimes or bamboo sticks – can sound eerily like electronic music. Zubieta said it is no accident that sounds produced on a circular or sinusoidal instrument are similar to those produced by electronic loops and sequencing. “It’s like an old piece of tape,” he said. “It’s a low-tech solution to an avant-garde desire.”

The ingenuity of Orellana’s inventions often ranges between playfulness and cruelty. The Periomin is a kind of rocking wardrobe that, when set in motion, makes wind chimes swing back and forth along plastic pearl necklaces that sound like a glassy waterfall. The pinzafer is a large sheet of iron shaped like a lobster’s tail and hung on an iron frame. When you run a bow covered with piano wire through a jagged cutout, a dark, metallic moan emerges. When you draw an arch (this one covered in acrylic) over the Tubarc, a metal game attached to a rectangular frame, a whistle is created that is sharp enough to make your teeth bubble.

Orellana often uses his inventions in his compositions alongside choral singing, recorded ambient noises, and Western instruments. In 2017 he wrote “Symphony from the Third World” for Documenta 14 in Athens; It flooded the stage with adult and children’s choirs, a symphony orchestra and its sound tools. It was a response to Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, subtitled “From the New World”.

For the exhibition of the Americas Society he composed a new piece exclusively for his creations. The title “Puntos y efluvios” (“Outpours and Dots”) was supposed to be performed by four drummers in the gallery and would have invited the audience to participate in certain moments with screams, howls and screams in a language invented by Orellana.

Due to pandemic restrictions, Zubieta recorded each part separately; The edited piece with its needle-stick bells and gusts of booming rushes now follows the gallery at regular intervals. An accompanying video alternates between recordings of the performer, who deals with the ritual gestures of the music, and images of Orellana’s graphic score, which use rhythmic circles, dot clusters and choreographic diagrams to refer to the vision in his short story of melting sheet music.

Looking back on his career, Orellana said: “Making music for me was never a particular process, but a way of breaking free from obsessions: the obsession with manifesting sound and a certain compulsive need to get it out of me.”

“I have come to the conclusion,” he added, “that I am trying to free sound.”



Robert Dunfee