Angélica Negrón: Redefining Puerto Rican Music

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From Edgar Varèse to Pierre Schaeffer to John Cage, many composers throughout the 20th century had a tendency to search for unconventional sounds and non-traditional instruments that could be incorporated into their musical compositions. These early pioneers helped to establish the broader sonic palate available to contemporary composers. Angélica Negrón, for example, continues this experimental legacy by encouraging listeners to develop a more aesthetic appreciation of the curious and childlike sounds present in her music. In doing this, she takes sounds that might ordinarily be considered trivial, and unleashes their expressive potential to make music described as “wistfully idiosyncratic and contemplative” as well as “mesmerizing and affecting.”

Over the past fifteen years, the Puerto Rican-born composer and multi-instrumentalist has brought her distinctive voice and unique scoring to everything she has written; whether it be for orchestra, dance, film, or chamber ensemble. After studying at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico, she went on to receive a Master’s Degree in Music Composition from New York University and is currently a doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center where she studies with noted composer Tania León. Working out of her Greenpoint studio in Brooklyn, Negrón finds inspiration in her eclectic collection of instruments, which began with a Strawberry Shortcake music box and now includes keyboards, accordions, ocarinas, a boom box, piano horn, trumpet, whistles, bells, microphones, voice box, and percussion. As you might imagine, the effect of using these kinds of instruments can evoke a myriad of emotions, often capturing the past in a wistful and nostalgic manner. In that regard, Negrón is a master at extracting the expressive qualities of these toy sounds, working and re-working their distinctive tones into a new, yet familiar context.

Angélica's solo performance setup. Photo by Hope Davis.

In addition to writing musical scores, Negrón performs with her band, Balún, and her chamber ensemble Arturo en el barco. But it is her solo performances that provide the most direct insight in her creative process. She typically performs with a laptop, various MIDI controllers, and some of the toys from her studio collection. This allows Negrón to sing, play accordion, and trigger samples, at the same time. And if it sounds like a lot for one person to manage while onstage, it is. But her solo set also lets the audience appreciate how she builds her unique compositions, the layered approach she takes toward texture and melody-a mix of electronic and toy sounds anchored by her airy, angelic vocals.

Notwithstanding, Negrón’s Puerto Rican roots are as essential to her musical approach as her toy instruments and electronic influences. She started her career as a musician in the underground music scene of Old San Juan, where she played in a band called Sinestesia. When asked about the influence of Puerto Rican music on her development as a composer, the irony is that Negrón initially considered composing an escape from Puerto Rican folk music, which had formed a significant part of her upbringing. However, once Negrón moved to New York, she found herself gradually incorporating the sounds of jíbaro music and bomba into some of her compositions. Her longtime friend and collaborator, ethnomusicologist Noraliz Ruiz, also helps to keep these folk genres present in Negrón’s music through the cuatro and tiple, two traditional Puerto Rican instruments she plays alongside the composer.

Recently, in 2013, Negrón wrote two concert works for the Cadillac Moon Ensemble: Quimbombó and the companion piece, Tembleque. Both pieces rely heavily on the tradition of musica jíbara, or Puerto Rican country music, while incorporating elements of contemporary classical music. In writing these works, Negrón was inspired by a recent law in Puerto Rico stating that folk music would be the only genre directly supported by the government. As a composer, Negrón instantly understood the problematic nature of such a law, i.e. would it be possible for a musical genre such as folk to be “pure,” and if so, what would classify it as pure in the first place? In Quimbombó and Tembleque, one can hear Negrón investigating these questions, creating music that is firmly rooted and inspired by a folk tradition, but gently shaped by the force of her unique compositional voice. It is precisely this blending of influences that gives her music its strength and emotional intensity.

© Jennifer Stock. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 6 November 2015.

Hero image by Lizthayra Carreras.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.