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Interviews Daniel Toledo Daniel Toledo. Image courtesy of the interviewee.

Daniel Toledo and the restlessness of the musical process

Three processions for flute ensemble and an avalanche of sounds unfolding from different corners: the Flute Quartet Op.5 plays the world premiere of Tristan IIat the Ignacio Cervantes concert hall on the Paseo del Prado. That's how I met Daniel Toledo, a young Cuban musician who this year has been composer in residence during the V edition of the international music festival Habana Clásica. 

As part of the financial and operational management of the Fondo de Arte Joven (FAJ), a cultural platform of the Swiss Cooperation (Cosude), under the artistic direction of Marcos Madrigal and the general production of Lorenzo Suarez, the festival also had among its main purposes, to make visible the work of young Cuban composers. Even though this festival offers a sound palate from the most classical to the contemporary, it could not overlook the "music of the present", that which has just come out of the creative oven of our artists, because utopia becomes reality when it is listened to. 

Thanks to this fresh and harmonious vision in the conception of the festival, we were able to enjoy several world premieres. From Toledo, in addition to the aforementioned Tristan IIits Static Preludes, Volume II(for piano and chamber orchestra) and Origo (for voice alone). 

Daniel is an emerging artist who has had a very interesting career in national and international stages. Formed alongside the impulse and mastery of Tulio Peramo, Boris Alvarado, Roberto Valera, Tristan Murail, Mario Lavista, Sergio Barroso and Steven Heelein, his music has found space in various festivals and groups. As part of those fruits he has been recognized on several occasions, he obtained a mention in the Casa de las Américas Prize (2017), as well as the first prize in the symphonic creation competitions Ojalá (2018) and Ibermúsicas (2023), and in the contest organized by the association for the promotion of contemporary music in Regensburg, Unternehmen Gegenwart. 

We talked about his creative process and musical concerns recently, between the cold of that German city and the rainy Havana afternoons. 

Giselle Lucia: In recent weeks we have been able to enjoy your creations, some of them as world premieres. In addition, as part of another initiative of the Fondo de Arte Joven, you were composer in residence during the fifth edition of Habana Clásica. Tell me about your experiences in the framework of the festival. 

Daniel Toledo: Habana Clásica was a tremendous space for collaboration and solidarity among artists of many latitudes and generations. I take this opportunity to thank the entire organizing committee of the festival, especially Marcos Madrigal for the invitation and the kindness of trusting in my work. I take with me a wealth of positive experiences, both in the active work with the musicians involved in my premieres, [and] as a spectator in numerous concerts of enormous artistic quality. From Mónica Marziota, to the Op.5 Flute Ensemble and Rodrigo García, together with the Chamber Orchestra Música Eterna, conducted by Guido López-Gavilán, have done a magnificent job in the performance of the premieres of the three works I composed for the festival. I have had the privilege of working with them intensely in rehearsals and I have perceived a deep interest in the new music that is being produced in our days. All this makes me a little happier and I owe that joy to Habana Clásica.

Daniel Toledo with Guido López-Gavilán and the Chamber Orchestra Música Eterna. Photo by Eduardo Reyes Aranz

GL: How is your relationship with music from a more personal point of view?

DT: My relationship with music begins in childhood, as my mother is a piano teacher, with a lot of experience in working with children. When I was about five years old she started giving me piano lessons. I have basically grown up with sounds, it is my reality. What I am I cannot separate it from what I do, so music is part of me. Explaining this relationship is like explaining the relationship with my body or my thoughts. 

GL: You have been navigating from a very young age between orchestral composition and choral conducting. How would you describe this journey from both perspectives?

DT: The world of conducting is almost new to me; I had not worked in it for about seven years. I have devoted the last few years almost exclusively to composition. After the pandemic, however, for various reasons I decided to continue with choral conducting. I graduated from the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory in that specialty, but I did not continue [with it in my] higher studies, but I devoted myself fully to composing. About two years ago I took the entrance exams at the same university where I finished my first master's degree (in Composition), for the conducting specialty, and since then I have also been immersed in work as a performer. Also, with some friends from the university we have created Ekkip, a contemporary music ensemble to promote the work of young composers. 

This is a rather instrumental task that requires a different approach from that of the choir, so it has been a tremendous challenge to take on. For us, the ensemble represents a continuous learning process and, in my case, a tremendous pleasure to be able to make music now and learn from my colleagues, from the intensive study of the score. One also learns to compose by performing. It has been equally interesting to perform my own music as a conductor; one must leave the composer aside and embrace the world of interpretation, sometimes it is even necessary to make changes to the score and adjust to the sonic reality of the ensemble. 

At the choral level I have not yet had the opportunity to regularly conduct the same ensemble, but in the school itself and in independent projects that have been appearing I have been able to work with this format as well. As I said before, I am "new" in this world and the insertion in it will be a long process. Honestly, acting also as a performer has been a boost to my work as a composer, to recognize music in its most general and abstract sense. 

GL: Within your creative process, do you have a preference in terms of composition?

DT: In my opinion the basic and fundamental tool of a composer is flexibility. We don't work with specific instruments or formats, but with the music itself. It expresses itself in unlimited ways, one as a creator just has to be willing to let the music flow through any format. This rather pragmatic philosophy also allows us to work continuously. We just have to observe what exists around us and compose for it. We also create networks of composer-performer collaboration that dictate the formats we work with. In the end, whether it is a piano trio, an orchestra, a soloist or a choir, it doesn't matter, only the music matters, and it is necessary to create long-lasting bonds with the composer. the otherwhich is also a fundamental purpose of art. 

I have a predilection for voice, whether solo, ensemble or choir. My musical beginnings were piano and choir, hence singing is important in my work. The text is also significant. I don't consider myself a programmatic composer, but I am interested in the sound images that the words can provoke. So text and voice are very present in my music. The written word becomes spoken: sung, whispered... an intermediate dimension opens up between the sonorous and the significant, this inexact and ambivalent dimension is a world I like to inhabit. 

GL: In the new times and with the facilities of technological development, the process of musical composition has changed a lot. Now you can use scores and specialized software to have a first listen to the piece before it is performed by real musicians. How do you appreciate this phenomenon? What do you think are the main challenges for a composer nowadays?

DT: Technology can enhance our lives, complement us and ultimately be of great use in our growth. It can also be counterproductive, in that it works with many patterns and schemes, while art tends to break them. Music writing software is very useful to have a legible and well-detailed score with machine precision. Now, I don't use it to have a sound reference for my music, I prefer the surprise of rehearsal and the development of an inner ear. The computer provides a too perfect and unrealistic aural reference of the music that can lead the composer to have an artificial expectation of his own work. In any case, if there are doubts with any sound, use the piano or sing and, above all, develop an inner listening that allows to imagine the music in an abstract way. In the rehearsal that sound image becomes real and then our work concludes, the abstract sound image embraces the interpretative reality of the work. 

As composers of, let's say, "classical" music, we have and always have had a great challenge: to be able to communicate something with such abstract elements, lacking specific meanings as a chord or a melody. The issue of the audience is also something to analyze, but personally I think we must live with the idea that our work will never reach the mega-stages because, in the end, that is not its purpose. This does not mean that we should not work to have audiences, on the contrary, as composers of the 21st century we have to try by all means to promote our work and reach as many people as we can, but always with a pinch of realism. I believe that contemporary "classical" music does have a niche and audiences, which we have to promote in the search for new ones. Our work is not extraordinary, far from it, but it does require a willingness to be uncomfortable, it requires a willingness to be active and not passive.

Daniel Toledo with Marcos Madrigal. Photo by Eduardo Reyes Aranz

GL: How do you see the context of composition in Cuba?

DT: Cuba is an island and this circumstance makes it a geographical bubble. It has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it allows for the creation of a very individual identity that prevents it from resembling other cultures. At the same time, this can foster a harmful nationalism that borders on chauvinism. On the other hand, geographic isolation can create an endogamous culture that only looks at itself. For this reason, and bearing in mind the inalienable reality of globalization, it will always be important, as citizens on the front line, to ask ourselves about our space in the world and not only in the immediate context. This is extrapolable to artists and, of course, to the composer. 

We have the imperative need to know what our colleagues are doing in other latitudes and to establish creative ties with them, not only in a practical way, that is, to make our work heard in different regions of the world, but also to share knowledge with other creators and benefit from such exchanges. In that sense, it was very nice to see that the composition students of ISA [Universidad de las Artes] are walking their own creative paths, interested in that healthy exchange of thoughts. Finally, our country has always had a great advantage: the constant reinvention of identity. The democracy of musical aesthetics is an achievement to be safeguarded. 

GL: Although you are very young, your pieces have been performed on national and international stages, with a wide range of experience that denotes discipline and talent. Being a Cuban musician and taking into account the acceptance of this in the international context, how has the experience of studying in Germany been? Any anecdote that has marked your career?

DT: I define myself in systematic work. I am what I do and I try to do every day. Germany is a country with an enormous musical tradition that, due to its geographical and economic position, has cultural spaces of all kinds. However, penetrating the world of contemporary music without following academic dictates to the letter is complex. Therefore, I have decided to open up the space on my own, albeit by force. 

After the pandemic I have started to organize my own concerts, in which, of course, there is room for the music of other colleagues, since collaboration is the basis of my work with the other. I don't know if I am achieving something important, but with luck I have been able to collaborate with musicians of tremendous quality who have been kind enough to interpret my music and, I repeat, I define myself in my work and that is where my responsibility lies on the musical level. 

The good thing about living on a continent is the possibility of coming into contact with other cultures relatively easily. In that sense, I have not limited myself to doing projects in Germany, but [also] in other parts of Europe where some doors have opened. For example, for the last two years I have been collaborating with a Cuban baritone (Antoin Herrera-López Kessel) who lives in Switzerland, with whom I have had the opportunity to rediscover Cuban poetry through Lezama Lima and other authors. I have also had contact with the practice of early music, which has been a great discovery for me. In this way, I have also composed for historical instruments such as the baroque violin, the organ or the recorder. These years have given me a better understanding of my place in the world and my work. 

Daniel Toledo. Photo by Eduardo Reyes Aranz

GL: In 2023 you concluded your Master's studies in Composition under the tutelage of Steven Heelein and you are currently in the process of a Master's degree in Choral Conducting at the HfKM-Regensburg University in Germany. What other creative projects are you involved in? What is your projection for the future?

DT: For now, I will continue, little by little, to insert myself in the context of music, either from the interpretation or the composition. Next year I will write my first large-scale piece, an oratorio of about one hour for soloists and instrumental ensemble. That project will occupy me for many months. At the same time, with Antoin Herrera-López Kessel we plan to make an album of works for baritone and various formats, with texts of Cuban poetry, making a chronological journey that begins with Juana Borrero and ends with a contemporary poetess. I have to do several pieces for commissions as well. Finally, you have to continue working, because you learn to compose by composing, only in the discipline and the daily exercise of creation you reach a relative understanding of yourself as an artist. 

Giselle Lucía Navarro More posts

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