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Enric Palomar: the search for the creative authenticity

Agustí Charles

In a world like today's, marked by diversity and eclecticism in the fields of culture and artistic working methods, it is becoming hard to reach a clear definition of the very notion of composition. The difficulty has been further accentuated since the 1950s by the persistent creation of musical myths, personalities akin to gurus or prophets who, more than ever before, have been occupying a privileged place.

Thus the quest for authenticity has become a path fraught with difficulties because many composers have found themselves outside a creative framework of norms and patterns of conduct which made it compulsory to compose in a particular way and discard other ways than were considered inferior. From the second half of the 20th century onwards, the course of events −and more specifically, in the musical field, the influence of composers linked to the Darmstadt composition courses− turned A. Webern into the foremost contemporary musical myth and marked out a practically univocal direction for new music. This influence is so powerful that those who fail to follow Webern's principles are not even considered composers. The trend also affects many other fields, but it is music that has suffered the most from this resistance to change, which in many cases still endures. Many composers who were not in harmony with these dictates found themselves excluded and this isolation was to have a very negative effect on them; alternatively, if they wanted to join the mainstream, they were compelled them to choose paths that were unfamiliar to them.

This raises the question: is it possible to be a true creator if, instead of doing what one wants to do, one does what one wants to seem? Of course, making sincere decisions −regardless of the obstacles raised by our surroundings− has always been a difficult and burdensome task because it often meant going against a part of society which had already traced a particular path. But not doing so is still worse because it leads inevitably to creative inanition.
The reader will be wondering where these remarks are leading to, but in our opinion they are relevant to Palomar because his career profile diverges from the canons of so-called “contemporary music”. Palomar belongs to a −not very numerous− group of composers (J. A. Amargós, M. Camp, F. Gasull and others) who arose from the experience of contact with types of music outside the classical field, though this provenance does not imply the lack of a solid musical background. Composer such as A. Llanas, E. M. Izquierdo, A. Charles and R. Humet are other members of his generation in Catalonia, while their counterparts elsewhere in Spain include D. del Puerto, J. Rueda, M. Sotelo and C. Camarero. What most of these composers have in common is a personal musical discourse in the field of contemporary classical music.

Palomar's music has a different setting. It was influenced by his environment and linked to the roots of Hispanic music, first and foremost that of the nationalist composers of the first half of the 20th century −Falla, Albéniz, Granados and Turina− and that of Gerhard in the 1940s. These Hispanic associations have been reinforced by his collaboration with the masters of cante jondo (flamenco), including cantaores such as M. Poveda, J. Menese and G. Ortega, and they are decisive in that they give rise to a fresh discourse with rhythmic and expressive connotations in which the dividing line between popular and cultivated elements is hard, not to say impossible, to distinguish. An even more crucial factor is the treatment the composer gives his music, a treatment untrammelled by the intellectualism that is superimposed, layer upon layer, in so much present-day music. Palomar's aim is to make himself understood and to achieve intelligibility.

All Palomar's concert music is marked by this need to communicate by means of a discourse that is elucidatory and springs, first and foremost, from the roots of our own musical idiom. Introducción y Bailete for bassoon and piano, inspired in the dance known as the bailete that was used in the Comedias del Retiro (16th and 17th centuries) and published by F. Pedrell in his book on Spanish folklore, and Thamar y Amnón, a choreographic fantasy for soprano, mezzosoprano, bass, four pianos and four percussions, to a text by F.G. Lorca, are two good examples. Other works −Locus Amoenus, for two pianos and percussions; Tres canciones de Yerma, for violin, cello and piano; Homenaje a Pablo Neruda: “Me peina el viento los cabellos” and Poemas del exilio for cantaor and orchestra; and Homenaje a Manuel de Falla, for violin, double bass and piano− provide further eloquent proof of the composer's affiliation to a Hispanic musical idiom, which he claims as his individual creative offering.

But the genre in which Palomar has clearly distinguished himself in recent years is opera. The first of his operatic works,
Ruleta (ópera para un fin de siglo), was written in 1998 to a libretto by Anna Maria Moix and Rafael Sender. It was premiered at the Mercat de les Flors in Barcelona –as part of that year's Festival of Pocket Opera– and subsequently at the Teatro de la Abadía in Madrid. His second opera, Juana (2005), has a libretto by Rebecca Simpson and it too was commissioned by the Festival of Pocket Opera. It was staged at the Halle Opera (Germany) and at Barcelona's Teatre Romea in 2005. Both works feature a musical discourse with Hispanic roots and considerable expressive content which guides the listener through the musical itinerary. Palomar's third opera, La cabeza del Bautista, is about to receive its world premiere at the Gran Teatre del Liceu. It is based on Carlos Wagner's adaptation of the play of the same title by Ramón del Valle-Inclán and is set in rural Galicia. Valle-Inclán's text was influenced by Wilde's Salomé, which was also turned into an opera by Richard Strauss. In many passages of Palomar's opera the mode of expression is akin to Romanticism and the nationalism of the first half of the 20th century, though the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic roots have affinities with the Hispanicism that so fascinates the composer.

Writing an opera, as everyone is aware, is no simple task, and never has been. Matters are further complicated today by the clear gap between contemporary and traditional concert music, a gap that is even wider in the case of opera because operagoers are more attached to tradition than audiences of symphonic music. It is perfectly "normal" nowadays to hear Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, but the same is not true of The Rake’s Progress, which still has difficulty gaining acceptance. And this is to say nothing of strictly contemporary opera, which often arouses scepticism and scorn outside the circuits of major contemporary music festivals. Opera is a genre midway between drama and music −the two being of equivalent importance− and must be able to communicate, beyond the purely musical structure, without ever renouncing a present-day idiom. An entirely different matter are the aspects to do with the singers, the orchestra, and so on, which often dominate the performance, though this problem is infrequent in new opera. An excessively intellectual discourse can lead to the failure of an opera owing to lack of intelligibility, as also happens in symphonic music. .

Thus for the audience an opera is a complete performance. They sit in their seats, the eyewitnesses of a journey in which the text, music and interpretation are the basic and inseparable components. It is the music that binds these components together and occupies the most important place, because it guides listeners through different moods, stimuli and sensations, all of which are capable of moving them. Palomar's music is well suited to an art in which communication with the listener is vital: it is dominated by contrast and expressiveness, colour and timbre; it draws on a kindred musical idiom with Hispanic roots; and it is devoid of superfluous ornamentation. Some might see this as a defect, but it is Palomar's chief personal hallmark and lends great naturalness to his music, pervading his entire output and ridding it of the obstacles that often distort the message of the music.

Agustí Charles


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