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Leonardo Balada

Stylistic Adventures


When I landed in New York to study composition- a freezing day in March of 1956-little did I know of the mental turmoil I would experience in the next few years. That city had become the focal point for the latest music and arts. Those experiences in New York shook my musically conservative upbringing to its roots.

From the time of my arrival until the conclusion of my studies at Juilliard four years after that, my apprenticeship evolved practicing a modernistic classicism. Likewise were my tendencies a few years after that, (“Concerto for Piano and Orchestra n.1” –1964-, “Guitar Concerto”-1965-). At the same time, the music I heard in that city, was making serialism in compositions the legitimate and only medium acceptable. Aleatoric as well as electronic music was struggling to be accepted. In art galleries, abstract expressionism was dominant and the geometric art was making its presence felt.

For my part, I felt a strong necessity to become up to date aesthetically, to look to the future and not be criticized as a reactionary. How could it be otherwise for a liberal young fellow brought up in Spain, opposed to Franco’s conservatism? On the other hand the music I was listening to in New York was not for me. The strict rules of serial techniques were not fitting with my personality while on the other hand, the free-open “aleatoric” techniques seemed to me capricious.

In 1965 the late Spanish guitarist Narciso Yepes- a master as well as an innovator of the instrument- had just premiered a work of mine at Town Hall in New York. He urged me to find a solution to my aesthetic-technical unhappiness. I greatly thank Narciso for his interest, support and confidence in me. I vividly remember the conversation we had when I accompanied him in a taxi from Manhattan to the airport on his return to Madrid. He once more urged me to overcome my uncertainties and compose a new work for him, a “contemporary” one this time, which, he said, he would perform all over the world and record. This was to be “Analogías”(1967).

Actually the visual arts in New York become my source of ideas to find my new style. From Rauschemberg to the happenings of the time and also Salvador Dali, with whom I was then collaborating, all helped in conceiving my new strategy of sound.

The compositions that started my new style 
-my second period- were “Geometrias n. 1” for ensemble and “Guernica” for orchestra (1966). That was a 180 degrees turn-around. I had found my own language based on concepts that dealt with space, dots, lines, electronic effects produced by live instruments, extreme dynamic contrasts, dense textures, but always propelled by a constant rhythm and pulse. Composers like Xenakis and Penderecki rejected those last elements at the time. It was music full of drama, sensuality, emotional impact, and theatricality -all them concepts alien to the post-Webern crowd. Now, in my music there were no more recognizable thematic ideas, nor traditional harmonies or forms. There were not either cold, calculated musical expressions like the ones I used to hear and hate constantly at the Mac Millan Theater of Columbia University, intellectual and musical showplace at that time. This was an important step for me, for on finding my own voice in the “avant-garde” I got back my pride and confidence. “Guernica” received an exceptional reception, was performed by some of the principal orchestras in the US, and was recorded as well. Following this work, I composed “SinfonÌa en Negro-Homage to Martin Luther King-“, “María Sabina”, a cantata with text by Camilo José Cela (1989 Nobel prize of literature), “No-res”, another cantata and “Steel Symphony”. These works were much performed and accepted by the professional as well as the non professional.

During the decade of my abstract expression, most of the composers were not making any allowances for thematic or ethnic suggestions. On the other hand I was watching closely these thematic and ethnic ideas. From my point of view, there was no reason not to reintroduce traditional ideas as long as those were presented in a fresh perspective. That meant to me the using of “avant-garde” techniques.

Although in my “Sinfonía en Negro” (1968) I introduced some African-ethnic ideas on top of the “avant-garde”, it was not until I composed “Homage to Casals and Sarasate” (1975) that I started what could be construed as my third period. Here one sees traditional thematic, harmonic and folkloric ideas without rejecting the adventures of new and fashionable techniques. In this new period a symbiosis of the “avant-garde” and the traditional exists. In an article dedicated to my music appearing in the Sunday-New York Times in 1982, the essayist Peter E. Stone wrote “…he has lived in Barcelona, an ancient city host to Gaudi and Picasso, where old, narrow streets empty into modern avenues…Thus, his music, encompasses…(the) old and new…” Is it time for me to move towards a forth period? I am working on it… and it may be called Surrealism as in Salvador Dali’s brand of surrealism, in which a “real” image is transformed into something similar but different.  In music I translate this as music of clear, traditional materials that through metaphysical transformations becomes also something similar but different. Here are some examples of my recent works: in “Passacaglia” (2000) a classical “passacaglia” becomes a popular Spanish “pasacalle”; in “Prague Sinfonietta”(2003) the music starts like Mozart “Prague Symphony” and evolves into a “sardana” the national dance of Catalonia; “Symphony No. 5-America”(2003) starts in an avant-garde dramatic setting but via transformations becomes a joyful American square dance.  But I think this trend already began somehow more than two decades ago with my opera “Zapata”, when a waltz through several devices turns into an orchestral representation of a revolutionary shooting.

In truth the world is much more open than it was not so many years ago. The American Indians are no longer considered “savages’ but unfortunate people victim of the Europeans. One can no longer speak of music in absolute terms. Music appears from the outmost complexity to a ridiculous simplicity and naivete. From my point of view everything is valid. Did I say everything? Well, this seems to be the thinking of the society in which we live. But don’t be fooled…con-artists in musical terms are in abundance and the absence of professionalism is everywhere. For me, though, things are very clear in judging a composition. Has the work personality, is it professional, does it creates an impact? In this world where one looks constantly for the comfortable and the immediate, in which the muscles degenerate due to easy living and the mind is mesmerized by the visual shows and TV, the answer is not easy, for those concepts are not often sought or appreciated.