Luis Fernando Amaya on Bestiario: Tres - Animacy, Agency, and the Secret Life of Music

Ammie Brod sat down with Luis Fernando Amaya to talk about his new work, Bestiario: Tres for percussion and guitar, which Kyle Flens and Jesse Langen premiered in August of this year and which they will perform at Elastic Arts on Friday October 11.

Cover art by Daniel Robles Lizano

Kyle told me that your piece had an interesting story behind it, so maybe that’s a good place to start.

Well, it’s kind of weird, maybe…

Weird is good! I can work with that.

I’m going to back up a little bit then. Bestiario: tres for percussion, electric guitar, and electronics is from a cycle of pieces that I’ve been composing, and it’s part of an ongoing effort on my part to think about agency, not just in humans but in plants and animals and objects as well. For example, I could think about how these chairs we’re sitting in have agency, because the way that they interact with us has concrete effects. If they’re uncomfortable, we move. If they invite us to sit in a certain way to be more comfortable, we do. They might even determine how long we will be talking! They’re part of the story of us sitting here together, even if we don’t think about them that much.

Okay, I get that. I’ve been reading a book (Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer) that talks about this as well. It’s by an indigenous botanist, and while beginning to learn her native language as an adult she realized that it was structured to give concrete living identity to things like lakes and forests and flowers, which implies a very different world view than most of us seem to be working off of lately. She calls it animacy.

Yeah, exactly. I wanted to use composition to connect with others (not just people) differently, and I actually did start this train of thought with plants. We experience plants in all of these different ways, sight and smell and touch and taste, but what we can't do is hear them. We can hear things that happen to them, but it's not the same as hearing them. What would it sound like if we could? I feel like it would be completely different from animals—humans included! I wanted to enhance my attention to relate to these different beings, to see if I could think more about what it would be like to experience the world as a plant. 

My dissertation piece, Árbol de Bocas (Tree of Mouths), is going to be an opera where the only character is a tree. The tree grows animal (or at least animal-like) mouths instead of leaves, and the opera lets us listen to one year of the tree’s life. 

Um, that’s *really* cool. So how does that relate to the Bestiario cycle?

The premise behind this cycle is basically that I try to write a piece that helps me to create an imaginary animal in my mind and compose with it. And I mean actually compose with it, where the animal has volition and ends up helping to drive the form and ideas in the piece.

Whoa. Okay, so how does that work? I’m asking both intellectually and functionally.

Functionally, I start by thinking about a sound I’d like to hear. For example, I might think about a small, fast, very high sound that maybe doesn’t sound like an instrument at all. Then when I meet up with the performer or performers that I’m writing the piece for, we try to figure out ways to create that sound or something close to it. I record what we come up with and spend a lot of time listening to it and thinking about what kind of animal might make a sound like that. Eventually that sound leads to another sound, and at some point in the process (usually kind of late, actually) I figure out what kind of animal I’ve imagined and what it’s doing that would make these sounds. I follow the path of the sounds until I find the animal.

It’s often a different type of animal than I thought it would be or sometimes it’s multiple members of the same species. They usually want to do animal things (which are also human and even vegetal things) like eat or sleep or mate or communicate, and their desire to do these things forces me to negotiate around and with them. For instance, when I was working on this piece for Kyle and Jesse I realized that one of the sounds they were making was the animal breathing, and then I had to constantly make sure that I made space for the animal to breathe throughout the piece. At one point, the animal was calling to others of the same species, which I imagined being miles away, and I had to wait for their response before I could move on. So even though this creature technically exists only in my head, its existence still drives the structure of what I write and sends me in directions that I wouldn’t have gone on my own. I really do feel that it has agency as an active participant in the creative process.

Photo by Ana María Bermúdez

Photo by Ana María Bermúdez

It’s so interesting to think about something being imaginary and real at the same time. 

It’s not really any different from a character in a novel. An author creates a character and defines a bunch of traits and things about them, and then if they hit a point where they can’t force the character to do what they want that changes the course of the story.

True. Can you tell me a little bit more about the piece itself, apart from this concept?

Of course. The piece starts with Kyle and Jesse whistling very low, so low that it doesn’t even really sound like a whistle, and at the same time Kyle is bowing a vibraphone key and pressing on it with a rubber mallet to create microtonal gradations in the sound. The next sound is an expansive swell, and that’s when I started to realize that what we were hearing was breath. 

Kyle and Jesse also make a sound that I really love by rubbing a superball over an amplified ceramic tile. It’s really wild! They also use a bowed flexatone to play the highest harmonics possible. It sounds kind of organic and kind of like a noise an animal would make, and it reminds me of a bird I used to hear when I was younger. I’d always hear it in mesquite trees, and it sounded like a cross between a factory machine and some kind of space bird.

That reminds me: one of the things I like about this whole thing is its synthesis of art and science, biology and music. Can you talk a little bit about that and how you came to it?

I grew up in Aguascalientes, México, in an area that was basically a semi-desert sprinkled with houses when I was a child but was radically transformed over the years until many of the trees I grew up around were destroyed and the animals moved on to other places. Watching that happen, I had a deep feeling that it was a really unwise thing to do and that, obviously, it would come back to affect us in various ways. It felt like people just didn’t want to have the responsibility of cohabiting with anyone but themselves. I haven’t heard the bird I just mentioned in five years, I think because of people cutting the mesquites down without any consideration.

There’s a word, solastalgia, that means either a global or local sense of distress at environmental destruction, and for me it’s the feeling of watching my homeland being destroyed by construction companies. That feeling made me want to rethink how I related to the environment and non-human subjects. A lot of indigenous cultures in America (the continent) had and have a very different conception of how they fit into those things, and those ideas always made more sense to me than an ideal of perpetual growth and destruction in the name of "progress." It made sense to bring some of those ideas into how I think about composing as well as how I think about the world.

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Is there some overlap there? It seems like you view these pieces as an outgrowth of your efforts to live in the world differently, and I’m wondering if there’s a reciprocal relationship between them. If rethinking your place on the planet influenced your writing, did your writing also influence how you think about the world?

Definitely! In my daily life I really experience others’ agency very differently now. Here's a small and funny example: I was in Paris recently, and while I was there I found a mouse in my room. As soon as I heard it, I sat and watched it. Was it a rat? No, it was a tiny mouse. What was it doing? I watched it and it never quite did what I expected. Like, it was climbing up the curtains in this strange way that didn’t make sense to me, and it never went where I thought it would. And I found that I experienced that lack of understanding in a much more open way than before. We were in the same space and doing our own things, and even if we didn’t want exactly the same things we could still both be there. Yes, the mouse's presence was inconvenient to me, but my presence was a threat to the mouse's life! But it probably didn’t understand what I was doing anymore than I could understand what it was doing.

Thinking about how the creatures I imagine need to behave structurally within my pieces also makes a lot of behaviors more understandable to me. Think about animals competing for resources, for example. They’re trying to get what they need to survive, and they’re negotiating with their environment to find a way to do that and sometimes that’s a violent thing because other creatures need some of the same things. Humans, who are also animals, are exactly the same as we try to coexist with each other, and even if it seems less violent I don’t think it really is. Personally, I’d rather deal with the inherent violence of sharing the space I have with the needs of others than commit the much larger violence that would be required so that I don't have to do that. Unfortunately, human society isn’t really doing a great job at this overall, and we're doing terrible things to everyone on the planet, directly and indirectly, for the sake of comfort.

I can’t and won’t disagree with that. But let’s end on a brighter note. What have been some of the best and/or more unexpected parts of this project for you?

I think that understanding and changing how one relates to others can fundamentally make a change in the world. That's why I believe that such a personal project can also be socially and politically meaningful—the "personal" always makes its way into the "collective"! With my Bestiario, I usually don’t tell people about what specific animal I’ve imagined for a piece, because I want them to imagine their own animals (or whatever else they might come up with.) That means that each piece actually holds all of our imaginary beings inside of it, and it can keep growing with every new listener. It makes the piece personal on an individual level, and every new performer and listener I talk to or who hears it makes it larger. It's a very small thing overall but it's something that is meaningful to me and I've found that’s also true for others, which makes me happy.