ROBERTO SIERRA: I started music by playing an instrument. In my case, it was the piano, because there was a piano at home that was bought for my sister originally. Well, at the time of us growing up, actually, that was very common. So instruments like the piano would have been bought not for the boy in the house, but more for the girl, because there was this very old-fashioned approach. It was kind of gender bias.
But then, at a certain point in my childhood or early youth, so to say, the death of my father became sort of a trigger to get me into music. I guess I found refuge in music making, and what that means is really learning the piano. And I was so keen on it that I started to learn the piano by myself.
But it was that original contact with performing that made me into becoming a composer, because eventually as I went on to study, and specifically at the Conservatory of Music in Puerto Rico, I started to learn the tools that enabled me to be able to write music. But the real question for me was, at that point, I wasn't really satisfied with just playing the instrument. I wanted to write music for the instruments. I wanted to create music, but I couldn't do it until I had those tools.
And the tools are harmony-- what was taught then, harmony-- counterpoint. And what that means is thinking of music in harmonies, thinking this way, horizontally and vertically at the same time. And then counterpoint means just to focus on how the lines go.
The aspect of creativity is a very ephemeral and difficult one to answer, because it's mysterious. It's the brain. It's how the brain works. It's how we are stimulated, and then how is that translated into action-- be that painting, music making, writing a piece of music?
But I tend to think that I look outside, and that landscape there triggers my imagination. It triggers reactions in my sort of psyche. That is to say, if it's a dark day, like today, that will create a mood, and that will inspire me. Even if I'm not conscious of it, I do believe it inspires me. Also, the concept of memory, which is very important in my music-- so things that are remembered.
And in that sense, of course, I go back to Puerto Rico. So it's not only the landscape. I already talked about the light out there, but I think for me the concept of light in Puerto Rico has been a very important formative aspect for my sort of inspiration. That is to say, the light here is much darker. In Puerto Rico, it's bright. So my music, I think, tends to reflect that-- both the brightness of the memories of when I was growing up in Puerto Rico, but also these sort of gray tones that I have come to know and understand while I'm living here in this part of New York state.
I think the musics that I have heard are also inspiring to me. And I don't just mean classical music, which I have known and heard all my life, but as important has been also the music from Puerto Rico. That is to say salsa music, which I tend to incorporate in my pieces-- elements from salsa music.
One way to think of what I want to express in my music-- I hope that at some level the music does not become just something passive. You can think of wallpaper that is just passing by in time, and that listener has become indifferent to it. But I want my music to sort of take hold of the imagination of that audience member that is out there listening to it.
So that is, in general, one way of putting it. Then more specific, I think my music will express different things at different points in time. I may be writing a piece that was commissioned for a certain location, so that aspect of my writing for will have to do with what I want to express.
There is always the fear of the unknown for everything and, in particular, music. So people seem to be more hesitant to listen to a new piece of music than, for example, going to an art exhibit that will have new paintings. And that always strikes me as interesting as a composer, but I think the answer is really familiarity.
And in a way, it's exposing people to new ideas, and in a way, that's what we do at Cornell constantly. We are challenging our students to think outside their comfort zone, to go outside that zone. And when you do that, then I think you are more able to embrace and engage into something that is new and not familiar.
I teach at Cornell, and I have been teaching now for more than 20 years and I decided to stay here. And certainly, as beautiful as the snow is, as we see around, it's not because of the weather necessarily, although this is gorgeous in itself. But I am a tropical person, so I need the warmth of the weather.
But basically, Cornell is a fantastic institution. I think Cornell has proven, through the years, to be very supportive of its faculty. We are provided with the means to carry on with our research. In my case, research is compositions, to write music. But also, and I think this is a very important aspect, is the stimulus we get from bright students. That is both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
So I think is important for the creative mind, in a way, to be always faced with what is generating new ideas, and that oftentimes comes from your own people. So for those reasons, I think Cornell, for me, has proven to be the right place to teach. Creativity is a very mysterious process.
We composers, we learn a lot of things. We learn how to put sounds together this way and that way. We learn different techniques. But the act of creativity in itself-- that is to say, what we may also call inspiration-- it's very obscure, opaque, mysterious.
I don't really understand how it goes in my head. I know I do it, I know the techniques I will be using, but whether this melody becomes more interesting than that other melody-- that is by inspiration. It's almost like somebody or something from above hits my head, and then it becomes a wonderful or not so wonderful music passage or piece of music.
In terms of teaching, because of what I have been talking about, it becomes very difficult. I don't think I can instruct a student to be creative. The only thing I can do is teach those tools and show them what the tools are, as to how to use them in order so that they can bring out whatever is in their mind that will become creative. But I cannot really teach creativity. I don't think anybody can.
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Roberto Sierra, Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities, Music Composition, talks about his life, composing, teaching, and the creative process.