Jacques Zafra was born in Mexico City on December 8, 1986 and is currently finishing a post-master’s in composition with Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Leipzig, Germany, where he also did his Master’s. Before studying in Germany he studied composition and music theory in Mexico at the CIEM with Victor Rasgado and Enrico Chapela. In 2012 he was awarded with the Music Diploma in guitar performance from the Royal School of Music, London.
His music has been performed in Mexico, USA, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Portugal and Germany in festivals such as Darmstadt, the Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik, Tonlagen and the FIMNME (Mexico) and has been broadcast in Mexico, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland and Croatia.
In 2016 his piece for alto recorder won the second place in the New Recorder Music 2016 Composition Competition, from the Flauto Dolce the Association in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 2012 his piece Xochitepec from my room was chosen to represent Mexico at the International Rostrum of Composers of UNESCO in Sweden.
He was awarded with the Deutschlandstipendium (2015-2016) and has been also the recipient of two of the most important Mexican scholarships for musicians: Estudios en el Extranjero 2013-15 and Jóvenes Creadores 2016- 2017 (FONCA).
What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?
There are at least three experiences that were very important to me. Not all of them are so old. The last, in fact, happened just 5 years ago.
The first experience was when at the age of 13 I went for the first time to a heavy metal concert. It was in April of 1999 when Metallica played in Mexico. Actually I only knew 2 of their songs (which were actually covers) and that they didn’t even play at the concert. Also, I was sitting in one of the last rows and I must admit that I fell asleep for a couple of songs. Either way, the overall experience I had at that concert—including the music, the venue and the public’s passion (or I may say, craziness)—was what made me want to dedicate myself to music. (Back then, it was not classical music that I wanted to do).
In December of the same year, my mother gave me my first guitar and for almost 6 years I played rock and metal, until I started studying jazz in 2005.
The course I enjoyed the most was called Traditional Harmony and it was during a lesson that the teacher recommended us to go see what he referred to as “the best string quartet in the world” which was going to play in the Nezahaulcoyotl Hall of the National University. The quartet turned out to be the Arditti. It was at that concert that I had my first experience with contemporary music. I didn’t understand a thing. I don’t even remember what pieces they played, but after listening to that concert, I knew I wanted to make that kind of music. A couple of months later I changed schools and started studying classical composition.
The third experience was in 2012, when for the first time I attended the Darmstadt course in which the 100th anniversary of John Cage was celebrated. It was there that I first listened to John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis and the Freeman Etudes, and music by Pierluigi Billone, Stefan Prins, Johannes Kreidler, Raphael Cendo, Pedro Alvarez, Evan Johnson, Frank Bedrossian and Claus Steffen Mahnkopf with whom I studied from 2013 to 2017 in Leipzig. That experience was definitely a turning point in my life as a composer.
Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?
During my bachelor studies in Mexico, the composers that most influenced me were Bartok, Messiaen, Ligeti and Stravinsky. All of them still have great relevance for me, however, maybe their influence is not so evident in the music I compose today. Since I came to Germany in 2013, I have had more contact with the music and ideas of living composers who have greatly influenced my music. Directly, Brian Ferneyhough, Aaron Cassidy, C.S. Mahnkopf, Timothy McCormack and Andrew Greenwald. And indirectly Julio Estrada and Johannes Kreidler.
How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?
Well, I only have one piece that could be considered a relatively long piece—it’s for alto recorder, and lasts an average of 18 minutes—so I cannot really answer the question as you raise it.
Actually my concept of form is not fixed. In each piece I face that question and try to deal with it in different ways. Sometimes the form of a piece is a kind of container of pre-calculated proportions where I “pour” musical material. At times, the potential of a certain material is greater or less than the container where it will have to unfold, so I have to deal with the material and try to do the best out of it with the tools I have under the given circumstances. In some occasions it is a pity for the material, in others, fortunate.
In other pieces the container, instead of being a subsection, x number of measures, or fragments, is the total duration of the piece or a limited amount of physical space (sheets) or virtual space (a mega sheet in panorama format on the computer). In that case, the material has the freedom to unfold in the way that suits it or that it can. For example, in my piece for alto recorder, I decided to use 20 A4 horizontal pages with 3 systems per page. The idea was to fill a page with music and, depending on the potential of the material, compose the next one in a similar or contrasting way. When I finished the 20 pages, I looked for similarities and differences and organised them—against my original intention—in the most organic way possible. The piece can be played in 8 different ways, because there are 3 pairs of pages that are interchangeable and 14 that have a fixed position. The general form does not change, but internally the piece has a certain flexibility.
Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? What other technology, if any, do you use?
Yes I use a computer to compose, but not exclusively, it depends on the piece.
Currently, I mainly use Adobe Illustrator, both to make the score, and to create my compositional plan. There are pieces that I compose exclusively by hand and others in Sibelius. In any event, I always use paper and colours to make certain notes, drawings, sketches or annotations. I do not think there is an ideal single medium for composing, each medium offers some resistance and/or freedoms.
My composition process basically consists of four parts.
Generally, the idea of the next piece that I’m going to compose happens while I’m working on a piece. While I am writing, an idea that, by itself can generate a complete piece, comes to mind. I keep this idea in the background of my mind until I finish the piece I’m working on, and until I can deal with it more directly.
In the second phase, I still do not write anything, but I constantly play with the musical idea in my head. This phase can last several weeks or months and in it, I analyze pieces that interest me, I listen to a lot of music (of any genre), I play the piano, I read novels, political articles, philosophy, interviews with composers and about theory or history of the music, and I try to learn to program. In addition, I constantly reflect on certain aspects that I would like to develop in general in my music—not specifically in the piece I am about to write.
In the third phase, I could say that the piece is already clear in my head and that it is only a matter of writing it (of course while I’m writing, the music adapts to different circumstances). Then I make a work plan and calculate approximately how many hours it will take me to finish the piece. If all goes well, I will be able to finish it on time writing 5 or 6 days a week from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
The last phase begins when I realise that my calculations failed and that the deadline is a couple of weeks away. In those weeks I compose all the time I have available between 9 am and 10 pm. Sometimes 6 hours, sometimes 10.
Please describe a recent work and provide a link to an audio clip.
My piece for alto recorder is an example of a work that I composed entirely by hand. I wrote it for the German flutist Sylvia Hinz whom I only knew through Facebook. The work is the first of a series of unnamed pieces, mostly for solo instruments. These pieces (like most of my works) have no program note and ideally, but not necessarily, they should be played in complete darkness and by heart. My intention is to free the listener from any visual information. Ideally the listener should also forget the composer, the performer, her/his movements and physical expressions, concepts, theories and names. The interest of the piece lies solely in the sound.
This piece is violent, tense, long, with little contrast, shrill and loud. Of all my works, it is my favourite. It was a rite of passage for me.