A curious web of connections is responsible for Camilo Mendez being composer in residence for the 2019 edition of the Blueridge Chamber Music Festival, but there’s little doubt that the Colombian-born musician and educator is a perfect fit for this innovative and eclectic summer series. The central thread can be followed back to Mendez’s student days in Bogotá, when one of his classmates was pianist Alejandro Ochoa, one of Blueridge’s two artistic directors. Another takes us to Montreal, home of the Quatuor Bozzini and its Bozzini Lab workshops for emerging composers; Mendez was one of the featured artists in 2015. And through the quartet, which will play his Fragmentos Cardinales IV: Apparent Magnitudes at the Orpheum Annex on Thursday (August 8), Mendez was introduced to the festival’s other artistic director, soprano Dory Hayley. In turn, she’ll premiere one of his pieces as part of the Erato Ensemble’s two Blueridge shows, at Presentation House Theatre on August 15 and the Orpheum Annex the following day.
That piece, BURSZTYN IV: Minimaquina III, calls for flute, three pianists, and “prepared soprano”, and while any concertgoer has most likely encountered an unprepared soprano, this probably requires some explanation.
“Basically, I attach a thunder drum to a megaphone, and the singer sings the whole piece using that,” Mendez explains, in a telephone interview from his office at Hong Kong Baptist University. “The soprano sings normally, but the soprano’s sound is filtered through this modified megaphone. So I call it ‘prepared soprano’ because she needs this extra attachment.
“The sounds that she makes with the megaphone will blend very well with the rest of the ensemble,” he adds.
As an undergrad, Mendez primarily explored his love of unusual sonorities through electronic means, but more recently he’s been fascinated by what he can draw out of acoustic instruments, both modified and otherwise. He’s also interested in extrapolating musical structures from literary texts, and in his BURSZTYN series adds an interdisciplinary dimension by taking inspiration from 20th-century Colombian sculptor Feliza Bursztyn, an early advocate of that country’s avant-garde. Trained in Paris, and frustrated by Colombia’s lack of resources for traditional sculpture, she developed a personal style that has obvious parallels in Mendez’s modified instruments.
“She started making her sculptures with scrap metal, basically,” he says. “Or with pieces of typewriters, metal shavings, washers, bolts… things like that. In the ’60s she made a series of sculptures that she called minimaquinas, which can be translated as ‘tiny machines’—very beautiful little sculptures that are made from pieces of mechanical, metallic things. And when I saw that, I thought, ‘Oh, this is brilliant,’ and I wanted to do my own minimaquinas with musical instruments.”
In Vancouver, Quatuor Bozzini will be playing prepared instruments, but Mendez is currently conceptualizing a new approach to the string ensemble that will go even further. “Instead of traditional instruments—or maybe I will use traditional instruments; I still don’t know—I will amplify some of the sounds that the string quartet produces, using steel wires that will be attached to metal sheets,” he explains. “So I’m bringing a structure from which these metal sheets will be hanging, and the quartet will be connected so that the sounds they produce will be transferred from the stringed instruments into these metal sheets. And these metal sheets will amplify and modify the resonance of the instruments.”
If it sounds heady, it is; Mendez’s work blends the musical, the scientific, and the literary in often unprecedented ways. But it’s as enjoyable as it is novel, in part because of the composer’s own love of play.
“One of the important things for me about doing this is that I have fun,” he says. “I always want to have the enjoyment of making music, and this project gives me that.”
The Blueridge Chamber Music Festival takes place at the Orpheum Annex and Presentation House Theatre from Thursday (August 8) to August 25. For a full schedule, visit the festival's website.