Transcribing the past

  • January 27, 2014
Transcribing the past

José Izquierdo's research attempts to rediscover Latin America's musical past.

José Izquierdo is more than a music historian. He is attempting to bring history to life and to create a sense of shared heritage in a region whose musical past is to a large extent still not recognised by the people who live there.

“When you ask Chileans to name Chilean composers they can’t, most of the time,” he says. “Even if you ask about Latin American composers they find it hard because there are no scores or recordings. You cannot ask people to know about their heritage if there are no scores or books. We are just starting to scratch the surface.”

His work is like that of an explorer, uncovering hidden treasure, but he is very much not someone who wants to lock his discoveries in a vault for posterity. The main focus of Jose’s work is to share that treasure with those around him.

José was born in Valdivia in southern Chile. Eleven rivers run through the city, whose architecture includes Spanish castles and towers. The buildings have survived the numerous earthquakes in the region. “It is a very cosmopolitan blend of European, particularly German, and indigenous influences,” says Jose, who himself attended a German school for 14 years. It is a city that is bursting with culture, hosting the most important film festival in Chile.

José has been drawn to music since childhood. He started playing the organ at a Lutheran church when he was 14. He fell in love with the instrument after accompanying friends who were Lutherans to the church. “I loved the resonance of the organ. It is a beautiful instrument. Every organ is different and you need to make lots of choices when you play it,” he says. His early ambition was to be an organist or organ builder and he started to learn about the instrument’s history.

When he was 17 he went to Germany for three months and studied the organ at an organ school. “There’s a close relationship between playing the organ and knowing how to repair it,” says José.

Although it had been his ambition to work with organs for several years, the time in Germany made José reconsider whether it should be his career. “I realised that I did not have the knowledge of the other students as I had never had a teacher,” he said. Although he maintained his interest in the organ, attending a workshop in Retford and being in charge of the organ in Santiago’s main cathedral while he was a student, he decided to focus on another aspect of music.

In his last year of school he spotted an article in a newspaper about the 10 weirdest things you could study at university. Musicology had just been offered as an undergraduate course by the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile and it was on the list. José decided that, with its combination of music and history, it was the subject for him. His interest in history was fanned by his grandfather who is an amateur local historian and told him stories about Valdivia’s past.

Indeed José’s dissertation for his musicology degree was on the music of Valdivia. He says the musicology course opened his mind up to the importance of discovering Latin American music. “In my interview I said I loved Bach,” he says. “After four years I was immersed in Latin American music (and I was also still loving Bach).”

He developed this passion in his first book which focused on the history of music in Valdivia. The book was the first of its kind in Chile. “We were always told that Beethoven was a good musician, but no-one knows the names of local musicians. We are still a colony in this respect. It is difficult to make people see Latin American music can be interesting,” says José, who is now focusing on how European music, particularly the work of Haydn and Rossini, has been transformed in different Latin American contexts.

After completing his musicology degree, José was offered a job creating and managing a heritage archive for Santiago’s opera house. The archive included photos, scores and documents of the performing arts in Chile. “I learnt the importance of heritage in Latin America,” says José. He visited Uruguay which has a similar archive. He worked with hundreds of school children teaching them about the importance of place and music, as well as with tourists and musicians. He also digitised 19th century Latin American music scores on the web and published catalogues of them and he wrote a book with a colleague on Chile’s orchestras, attempting to identify all the musicians who had played in those orchestras over the last 200 years.

José wanted to ensure the heritage work he was doing was accessible to as many people as possible and he wanted to bring it to life through playing it. He has helped organise several concerts and public archives, including one in Santiago’s Cathedral in 2012.

José has also been transcribing the work of 19th century Latin American composers. They include Pedro Ximénez, a Bolivian composer who wrote 40 symphonies, some of them inspired by local songs from the High Andean region. “The music is wonderful,” he says. “I want people to play and fall in love with it.”

While he was working on the opera archive, José did an MPhil in musicology at the Universidad de Chile. After that he taught at the Universidad Catolica and did research on the musical history of Chile and Peru.

He then applied for his PhD in Cambridge. His grandfather had travelled to England when he was a young architect, visiting buildings at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and had fallen in love with it. José’s current supervisor had also visited Chile for research into how opera came to other places and suggested he should apply for a PhD. “I realised that I needed to travel further afield to learn more and to explore the European side of the work I was doing so I could understand the influences,” he says.

In addition to his research he is continuing his work on opening access to historical Latin American music. He is developing an online music archive and concerts in Valdivia, trying to develop a network of researchers of Latin America’s musical history as well as transcribing scores and uploading them for free so people around the world can learn about Latin American music. They include, for the moment, Peruvian, Bolivian and Chilean scores.

He feels that a wider goal of what he is doing is fostering a common Latin American identity. “Our heritage is very much shared,” he says.

*José was interviewed by Gates Cambridge Scholar Erica Cao on CamFM’s The Scholar Speaks programme this weekend. To listen, click the “Listen Again” on the bottom right-hand side here:
The item starts at around 9 minutes.An example of José
‘s transcription of the musician Bernardo Alzedo can be found here.

Latest News

Lifetime honour for former Provost

Professor Barry Everitt, former Provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust, has been elected a lifetime Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the Science family of journals. AAAS has elected more than 500 scientists, engineers and innovators from around the world and […]

‘Tackle climate change misinformation through computational social science’

Future leaders and researchers need to be urgently trained to tackle climate change misinformation through an interdisciplinary approach that foregrounds computational social science and extends beyond laboratories and university campuses to shape the science-policy interface and rebuild public trust in climate research, according to leading academics. Writing in Nature Human Behaviour, the academics, including Dr Ramit […]

An existential psychological thriller for aesthetes

Christy Edwall’s first novel, History Keeps Me Awake at Night, out in early February, has been described as “an existential psychological thriller for aesthetes and lovers of cultural London and the world… A story cleverly told of a young woman involved in contemporary forms of global voyeurism”. It tells the story of Margit, a London […]

A detective of ancient climate change

Stijn De Schepper is an ancient detective. His job is to investigate past climate change through working his way down the ocean bed, starting with today’s sediment and moving back through thousands of years of Earth’s history.  He maps ancient marine sediments to find out if, why and how the environment changed in the past. […]