Reconnecting through music

  • February 6, 2024
Reconnecting through music

José Izquierdo talks about his research into Latin America's musical traditions and into how music can help to reconnect communities.

Live music is something that brings us together across the different social and political divisions. It’s not just about listening passively. The arts generally have a lot to contribute in the post-pandemic world.

José Izquierdo

When José Izquierdo [2013] was working on his PhD at Cambridge on how Latin American composers united European and local influences in the 19th century, he found a way to make his academic work come to life.

Much of the music he was researching had never been heard before and he was also discovering old scores for the first time. José was able to bring it back to life through working with musicians. In 2014, for instance, while still doing his PhD, he won the first ever Prêmio Ruspoli in Euro-Latin American musicological studies, a prestigious international prize for musicological studies for his work in bringing back to life an early 19th century piece of Peruvian-Bolivian music which shows how composers united European and local influences.

Now, back in his home country of Chile, he is once again centring his work on the wider social impact of music, encouraged by his time as a Gates Cambridge Scholar, and investigating how music can help us reconnect on a social level after a global pandemic which left many people isolated and alone.

Administrative posts

Along the way he has built up a lot of administrative experience. When he returned to Chile in 2017, José was offered a position as a music historian in Chile at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile which he started in January 2018. Two years ago he got tenure there. Having a PhD and international experience helped his career progression and led to a series of administrative roles. For instance, he spent six months in charge of research in the university’s music department and then three years being in charge of doctoral students doing music, theatre and the visual arts. After that he took up the post of Director of Graduate Studies and Research in the Faculty of Arts.

This was all through the pandemic and the workload was intensive, leaving little if any time to do research. During the first months of Covid no-one in Chile was allowed out of the house for more than three hours a week. That changed over time and Jose was one of the first at his university to go back to the campus.

Research work and books

In 2022, after the birth of his second son José decided to move away from his administrative roles and back to research. “I like to try new things and my life had become mostly about administrative issues, even though I learnt a lot from doing that work. Part of the reason I think I got the Gates Cambridge scholarship is because of the voluntary work I did rediscovering old music scores and doing performances across Latin America,” he says. ”I had to stop a lot of that direct involvement in performance because of my administrative load, but I had kept up my contacts and helped get some funding. A lot of the music I discovered in my PhD years has now been performed.”

Since 2022, José has been involved with multiple projects. He started organising concerts and putting on arts workshops.  Last year he published a book, Filarmonicos y patriotas: compositores latinoamericanos en tiempos de independencia [1800-1850],  that he had been working on for years about classical music in Latin America. It was launched last month. “People didn’t know who the Mozart of Latin America was,” he says.

He wrote the book in English and had to rewrite it in Spanish to publish it in Chile. The title reflects how musicians described themselves, having lived through the wars of independence and having suffered the trauma of losing family members, something that affected the music they produced.

He also published a children’s book about the opera after he became a father [he has two children]. The book,  Las Aventuras del Hombre Pajaro. Cinco Operas Contadas a los Ninos, which has been translated into Chinese, came about after Jose was approached by the Opera House in Chile [Teatro Municipal de Santiago] to come up with a way of introducing opera to children.

In addition, José has recently published a Cambridge University Press book on the beginnings of opera in the Andean region, Kickstarting Italian Opera in the Andes. He says every major city in the region had an opera house and he was interested in investigating how the operatic tradition had been brought to Latin America in the 19th century by Europeans who had settled in those regions to develop their art. The book is based on private letters and papers which show that the public did not initially know how to react to the music or how the music should be arranged. Some theatres performed operas in the open air. 

Since switching away from administrative work, José has been focused on two main projects. One is linked with his Gates Cambridge experience. “I am asking what we as academics can do to impact public policy beyond our research,” he says. To that end he is in the second year of a three-year arts project which aims to rethink the idea of classical music in Chile and explore and understand it in the context of local communities – how music brings people together and how it can help to reconnect them. José is leading on the project which involves four universities and says it is the first time this kind of funding has been given to the arts in Chile. 

Projects with community impact

He states that in Chile music tends to be seen as a profession that is connected with university formation rather than something anyone can do. “In Chile we don’t recognise that all people have their own creative autonomy. We need to promote cultural democracy and help give people the tools to create their own music at every stage of their lives, from school onwards,” says José.

His second – and linked – focus is a project on church organ music. He reckons there are up to 250 church organs across Chile, but he says church music, and, to an extent, churches themselves, are dying in Chile. For him the project – to create an organ society in Chile – is again more about community than organ playing itself. “It is about trying to rethink churches and the ways we can support communities through music,” he says. “We need to use the spaces we have to connect people, use them in new ways and not let them die. That could be really powerful. The organ materialises the problem of restoring a place where music can be done. It’s a symbol. I’m not thinking about this in a traditional heritage restoration way, but about re-using existing spaces for community.”

The organ society has been recognised by the Government and José is still thinking about what he does next. He says the pandemic has brought into question the role of the arts in universities and has highlighted a real need for human connection and for addressing the social fragmentation that Covid caused. 

“So much that we do nowadays is focused on individuals and on our personal histories and identities. There is very little about communities,” he says. “Live music is something that brings us together across the different social and political divisions. It’s not just about listening passively. The arts generally have a lot to contribute in the post-pandemic world.”

*Photo credit: Dai Liv 

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