Interview with Dr. Agustín Fernández
Dr. Agustín Fernández is a composer who studied with Akira Ifukube during the 1980s.
Born in Bolivia in 1958, Fernández had studied composition in La Paz with Alberto Villalpando and in Japan with Takashi Iida and Akira Ifukube. In 1984, he moved to the United Kingdom, obtaining an MMus at Liverpool University and a PhD at City University, London.
Fernández began his musical life as a child performer in 1969. His works began to be performed professionally in 1974 and the following year his Rapsodia won a national composer’s competition. His teaching career began in 1977 at the National Conservatoire in La Paz, where he taught harmony and composition, followed by language teaching in Tokyo and Komagane, Japan. In the United Kingdom, he worked for four years as Composer-in-Residence at Queen’s University, Belfast, where the job included the chairmanship of the Sonorities Festival. Following a spell as lecturer in Dartington College of Arts, in 1995 Fernández was appointed lecturer in composition at Newcastle University and, in 2000, senior lecturer.
His list of works includes the operas Teoponte commissioned for the 1988 London International Opera Festival and The Wheel, commissioned by the Royal Opera House’s Garden Venture in 1992. The electroacoustic works Wounded Angel and Silent Towers are available on commercial CDs. Danza de la loma, has been broadcast by BBC Radio 3 recorded by the BBC Symphony, and again on live "simulcast" by Radio 3 and Ireland’s RTE, performed by the Ulster Orchestra. Fuego and Peregrine have received premieres at the Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. The orchestral/choral work Approaching Melmoth was performed by Northern Sinfonia and NS Chorus, with Sir Thomas Allen as the soloist. His Cantata for Christmas and Epiphany toured the Canary Islands with the Youth Choir of the Filarmónica de Gran Canaria. In 2004, the Northern Sinfonia gave the first performance of A Hidden Music for string orchestra and piano.
AKIRAIFUKUBE.ORG's webmaster, Erik Homenick, had the occasion to ask Dr. Fernández about his past associations with Maestro Ifukube. AKIRAIFUKUBE.ORG warmly thanks Dr. Fernández for taking the time to share his memories on this website as well as providing two wonderful photographs. To learn more about Dr. Agustín Fernández and his music, please visit his website by clicking on the link below:
Erik Homenick: How did you become interested in music and musical composition?
Agustín Fernández: I began at an early age singing Bolivian folk music and playing the charango, a 10-string small guitar. In the 1960s my duo Los Kallawayasperformed in folk clubs around the country, until my voice broke when I was 12 and I had to stop singing. My partner in the duo, Toño Canelas, went on to form the group Los Kjarkas (although soon after that he was to die tragically), whereas I became interested in classical music. Brahms’s Trio op. 40 was a mind-blowing revelation that immediately planted in my mind the idea of becoming a composer. That was in 1971, and since then I haven’t looked back.
EH: What led you to study music in Japan?
AF: In the late 1970s I played in a quartet with three Japanese musicians who were then in Bolivia as members of Japan Overseas Co-operation Volunteers. We were good friends, and they gave me a foretaste of a language and a culture I would soon grow to love. When they returned to their country they applied for a one-year training grant from their local government so I could come to Japan. This enabled me to spend a year studying in Japan from a base in my friends’ native province, Tochigi Prefecture.
EH: How did you get involved with Akira Ifukube and Takashi Iida?
AF: My main interests were composition and violin. Mr. Iida was teaching composition at Utsunomiya University, so he was the obvious choice for me to come and study with. My string-playing friends were involved in Sai-no-Kyoiku, a network of violin teachers grouped around Shinichi Suzuki, the creator of the now world-famous Suzuki Method. Among the high-ranking figures in this institution was Mr. Takeshi Kobayashi, eminent violinist and pedagogue. It was my good fortune that Mr. Kobayashi accepted me among his violin pupils. When, after a year in Utsunomiya, I moved to Tokyo, it was Mr. Kobayashi who suggested I should meet Mr. Ifukube and seek to study composition with him. Mr. Kobayashi arranged a meeting at Mr. Ifukube’s house – located, I seem to remember, in the district of Takanodai - at which Mr. Ifukube looked at my scores and agreed to take me on as a pupil.
EH: How long did you study with Ifukube?
AF: For two years from 1981 to 1983.
EH: What were your first impressions of Akira Ifukube?
AF: From the onset I was impressed by Mr. Ifukube’s grace and elegance in appearance and demeanour. He wore his hair neatly combed back, he dressed carefully, always in a suit and bow-tie, he had the most impeccable manners and he spoke with enormous polish and courtesy. It was immediately clear to me that this was a man of great sensitivity and generosity of heart, to whom respect for human beings came naturally. He was also remarkably modest, speaking about his achievements only when asked, and then only as was necessary to address the specific question that had been put to him.
EH: What aspect(s) of composition/theory did you study under Ifukube's guidance?
AF: We covered aspects of structure and orchestration.
EH: What were your thoughts of him as a teacher?
AF: He was truly inspirational. He gave of his time and energy with such unstinting generosity that one came out of his lessons in an ebullient mood, feeling renovated and energised. He was interested in discussing technicalities only as a means to an end, never getting bogged down in unnecessary speculation. His overriding interests, at least as manifested in his lessons with me, were structure and orchestration. He would relish talking about them and he would always find a vivid metaphor to explain his ideas simply and accessibly – no mean achievement, considering that my language skills in Japanese must have been fairly basic.
EH: What lasting impressions has Ifukube's teaching left on your compositional style?
AF: Mr. Ifukube set great store by clarity of structure and discernible direction in the flow of the music. To this day I tend to demand these conditions of my own pieces. Sometimes I do set out to write a new work without knowing in advance where it is going to head, but I feel naughty to do so when I remember Mr Ifukube’s injunction that the composer cannot afford to start jotting ideas aimlessly anymore than the architect can draw plans without knowing whether the project in hand will be a bridge, or a hospital, or a theatre.
EH: Do you have any interesting stories/anecdotes from the time you spent with him?
AF: A remarkable aspect of our lessons was their duration, from about two in the afternoon till well into the evening. They would take place at his house. He would go through my score and make his comments, always useful and instructive. Then the conversation would take off in all directions: language, history, literature, trees and, of course, music. I infer he must have owned a veritable museum of musical instruments from the fact that he delighted in disappearing from the sitting room to come back a few minutes later bringing an exotic instrument the conversation had happened to touch upon.
He enjoyed fine wines and cheese, and was fond of sharing them in convivial company. I believe we dispatched a bottle or two on more than one occasion. What did he see in me, I wonder, to induce him to lavish so much precious time on an obscure young Bolivian? Clearly not talent, since his final letter of reference was rather lukewarm in this regard - and he can hardly be blamed, for I, too, feel lukewarm about the music I was writing at the time. I think we just hit it off. I was voraciously interested in his teachings, and he, too, was interested in the different angles I brought to bear.
Akira Ifukube and Agustín Fernández
He was proud of his entry in The New Grove, a publication he seemed to hold in great esteem and appeared to have read with alarming thoroughness. Once he sounded out my opinion on Alberto Ginastera, which I gave to the best of my ability. I said that I enjoyed the colourful orchestral writing in Estancia and Panambí, but had been bemused by the expressionistic operas. He seized on this to express his surprise that the author of Ginastera’s entry in The New Grove had allowed himself to break into the kind of adulation for his subject that greater composers had not been afforded. I was touched by his sense of injury at seeing such a reputable publication behave in a perceivedly biased manner.
I still treasure Mr. Ifukube’s farewell present: a hanko (signature stamp) he had had made for me with his interpretation of my surname in Japanese characters. Sadly I haven’t had occasion to use it, but I do look at it fondly every now and then. He gave me the present at a dinner party shortly before my departure from Japan. Was the party at his house? I think so, although I feel most ungrateful not to remember exactly. Around the table were Mr. and Mrs. Ifukube, Mr. and Mrs. Kobayashi and myself.
Takeshi Kobayashi, Ifukube, and Fernández
EH: Are you familiar with any of his concert/film music? If so, what are your favorite pieces?
AF: I confess that I have not seen any of the Godzilla movies, nor have I heard the soundtracks. My acquaintance with his output is based entirely on his concert music. I am particularly fond of the Second Violin Concerto, which I heard live in 1982 at an all-Ifukube concert with my other teacher, Takeshi Kobayashi, on the solo violin, and enjoyed hearing again, with a younger player on the solos, on a tape the maestro gave me when we said goodbye. Tragically I lost this tape almost immediately when my bags were stolen in Lima, Peru, en route to Bolivia. I also admire Lauda Concertata in Keiko Abe’s masterly rendition. Sinfonia Tapkaara is another favourite. And, of course, the much-loved Japanese Rhapsody, which would invariably draw roars of approval in the live performances I attended.
EH: Do you have any final remarks?
AF: I was deeply sorry to hear of Mr. Ifukube’s demise. Since I last saw him in 1983 I wrote to him a few times - in English since my command of kanji was never that strong – and I now regret not having persevered. He had far too many admirers to be able to afford the time to write back, in a foreign language, to a former student, but I should have written again, once a year, to tell him how I was doing. I am so sorry I didn’t. When I came to England in 1984 I dedicated to him my Meditación No. 1 for chamber ensemble, a work in which I began to process the inner transformation Japan – and, in no small measure, Mr. Ifukube – had unleashed in me.
I will always remember him as an inspired composer, a man of enormous integrity, incomparable grace and, above all, a generous and insightful teacher.
© Erik Homenick. All rights reserved.