Asier Puga, a forward-looking chef

Interviews 13.10.2023

To define Asier Puga as principal conductor and artistic director of the Orquesta de Cámara del Auditorio de Zaragoza - OCAZEnigma is to highlight an important part of his career. But Asier Puga's personality opens up to other latitudes, establishing himself as a lucid figure in current musical thought. Beyond his vast career and his work with prestigious artists, Asier Puga's writings have developed a profound reflection on music and contemporary art, always nourished by his interest in experimentation, as if his mind were struggling and passing - in the manner of Apollinaire - "to the frontiers of the infinite and the future".

Asier Puga, when did you discover that you wanted to become a musician? And even more: when did your decision to train as a conductor come about?
I don't remember exactly when or how I wanted to become a conductor. I only know that at the age of 8, when I started my first music lessons, I told the teacher I wanted to become a conductor. I don't know the reason for this decision, but the passion I had then for this profession is still intact today, and of course enriched.

I don't doubt it, given your extensive training. But what has always guided your career, and what criteria have you used to steer it in the right direction?
I've been lucky enough to have teachers who, right from the start, taught me what a privilege it is to be on stage and to be able to share something with the audience, even if it also involves sacrifice.

And on a personal level?
My main motivation has been, and continues to be, curiosity. My time at Musikene (Centre Supérieur de Musique du Pays Basque) enabled me to meet three very different maestros, Enrique García Asensio, Manel Valdivieso and Arturo Tamayo. It was with them that I began my introduction to the complex kaleidoscope of conducting. I was then admitted to the Royal College of Music in London (RCM), an institute which, at the time, accepted only one student per year. The Master's degree was a two-year course, and there were only two of us. It was an incredible experience to be immersed in the RCM's enormous musical activity, as well as to live for a few years in the cultural hustle and bustle that was London.

In 2014, you made your debut as an opera conductor with F. J. Haydn's Armida, and in 2015 you conducted the world premiere of Singularity, the third opera by English composer Michael Oliva.How did this premiere go?
Theater and voice are two areas that interest me enormously. When I was a student at the RCM, I collaborated on several occasions with the electronics department headed by Michael Oliva. We got on very well, and he asked me to conduct his new opera. I remember it as a fantastic, instructive experience, as it was one of the first large-scale works with voice, instruments and electronics I'd worked on. Others followed. Gargantúa and Iñaki Estrada's radio dramas; Iannis Xenakis 's great Medea andOresteïa, with which we opened this year's Festival de Mérida; and more recently Javier Torres Maldonado's radio play Un posible día, which I premiered in Spain with Rocío de Frutos, Javier Jiménez and the Taller Sonoro ensemble in Seville.

Because of your deep interest in contemporary music, you have conducted some 70 world premieres in Spain and England, and worked with composers such as Chaya Czernowin, Nuria Núñezand Núria Giménez-Comas, Lisa Illean or Cheryl Frances-Hoad, among others. What interests you in contemporary music? ?
I'm interested in music and art, in all their diversity, so I'm very curious about everything that's going on today and, of course, as an artist, I like to take part in this research that is artistic practice. In Spain, we tend to reduce people to labels, and it seems to me that this creates barriers, distances between styles and periods, so that the natural dialogue that exists in the history of art (as T. S. Elliot warned us in The Sacred Wood) seems to fragment depending on the subject we're dealing with. In fact, what attracts me to contemporary music is the same thing that interests me in music and art in general: the surprising, the subversive, the trace of the utopian.

What about the current situation?
I have to admit I'm not very optimistic. In recent years, I've seen how the level of creativity has dropped enormously. As artistic director of OCAZEnigma, I try to be very attentive and in touch with what's going on in contemporary sound creation in our country, and although there are some fascinating artists who are making us rethink notions of listening and sound with their work, I see more and more complacency and lack of subversion. This is a very serious problem on a national level, and it wouldn't be fair to say so without adding that ensembles, orchestras, auditoriums, cultural policies and the institutions that govern them are and are also part of this problem.

If we think about equality in the music world, the landscape is changing. How do you feel about this?
I'm living it with joy, but also with the will and rigor of normality. I think we need to try and normalize programming, meaning that female composers - who are magnificent in our country, by the way - should be included for the quality of their sound proposals, not to fill a quota. In the seasons I design for OCAZEnigma, there have been years when there have been more female composers and others fewer, depending on the program line and the proposals that best fit into the narrative thread. We have created and devoted exclusive concerts to works by Chaya Czernowin and Olga Neuwirth; we have programmed and recorded works that have hardly ever been performed by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Carmen Barradas, Rosa García Ascot, Pauline Oliveros and others. In terms of commissions, in recent years we've worked with Núria Núñez, Helena Cánovas, Carolina Cerezo, Anna Bofill... There's always room for more, but I believe that equality in our programs is a foundation on which we can build our vision of the present.

On October 14th, as part of the Mixtur festival at the Auditori in Barcelona, you will be conducting Soliloqui(s). How did this project come about, and how are you approaching this premiere, this program of music, poetry and video?
A program is a framework for listening, but at the same time, and above all, as pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard explained in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, it is the result of our critical vision of the state of the musical world. And this aspect seems fundamental to me.

Why is this?
In my programming, different types of artistic expression from different periods are increasingly mixed, crossed or superimposed. We live in a society that is in constant dialogue with different forms of expression (artistic or otherwise), sound, visual and so on. The internet or, more precisely, YouTube, for example, is a platform that allows us to listen to the electronic explorations of Pauline Oliveros, to name but one example, and then switch to the recording of a performance of a play by Calderón de la Barca, a lecture on Cézanne, or an entertainment program. It's all mixed together. Everything intermingles in an almost infinite cacophony. I've always been fascinated by this aspect, and that's why I try to turn my programs into contemporary listening frames, in all their expressiveness, trying, as Malévitch and the Dadaists said, to speak to the audience in its own language(s).

In fact, Soliloqui(s) began to be conceived in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, just when OCAZEnigma proposed you to become their new leader.
Yes, that's right. In poetic terms, I could say that this program was born of tremors, of readings and listenings that were (and still are) intellectual and emotional revelations for me. When I conceived this concert, I felt the impulse that the very materials that led me to program certain works or others, i.e. readings, lectures, etc., should take on a kind of autonomy and be included in the program, tracing a hybrid path through compositions, philosophical, dramaturgical, electronic texts... like an additional sonic element; Calderón's voice through Carlos Mena's intertwines with Oliveros' synthetic sounds to return to Paul B.'s voice. Preciado, Yeats, Deleuze etc.... I believe that programming is an art and that, consequently, everything is susceptible, well programmed and framed, to becoming a component that invites us and offers us a sonic reality.

The piece opens with Calderón de la Barca's celestial soliloquy by Sigismund. Why does this last fragment of the great Spanish Baroque writer's work open the piece?
When I first read Calderón's Life is a Dream, I was very impressed. Behind its baroque verses lies an enormous violence, that of the system against the individual, centered on the impossibility of thinking oneself or, as Calderón would say, of dreaming oneself different. Sigismund's monologue masterfully condenses this reality and, at the same time, allowed me to relate it to the agitated texts of the philosopher Paul B. Preciado, an author who interests me enormously. On the other hand, I'm attracted by the mix of eras and authors to show that, although in our contemporary society we are ultra-technologized and already under the halo of artificial intelligence, we continue to drag along the same concerns and problems that Calderón highlighted in the 17th century.

At the heart of the program are two world premieres for countertenor solo and ensemble. The Land of Heart's Desire by composer Núria Giménez-Comas is based on texts by the renowned philosopher and art curator Paul B. Preciado and Irish poet W. B. Yeats; while Iñaki Estrada's Voice reflects on the sonic reality of the genre through electronic processing of castrato recordings. What is crucial in weaving together such a plurality of sonic aspects?
When I propose a work to a composer, I always try to ensure that the creator's sonic universe fits with the texts or materials I'm inviting him or her to use. After working with Núria in 2019, I thought it would be ideal to set to music something by Paul B. Preciado. Later, she suggested including Yeats as well, which was a great success.

And in Iñaki's case?
Iñaki Estrada is a great electronic composer, and that's why I suggested he weave his work with the only existing recording of an original castrato. The idea of revisiting old materials, such as video or audio recordings, of recovering the "waste" generated by our history (thinking of Agustín Fernández Mallo, Spanish physicist, editor's note), and combining it with the present is of great interest to me. The two works, which function as a kind of diptych, revolve around the idea of genre, almost asking whether sound really has a genre.

The countertenor soloist for these two works will be Carlos Mena. What does it mean to you to be working with him?
I've been looking forward to working with Carlos for a long time. Having studied in Vitoria, Carlos Mena is a reference figure. What's more, his profile as a singer, who approaches both early and modern music with equal interest and intensity, was ideal for a project of this kind. And so it was.

One last question: what are your plans for the future?
Among my next projects is the presentation of the 29th season of OCAZEnigma, a season we've just finished designing around Surrealism, to mark the centenary next year of the publication of the First Manifesto of Surrealism. I also have in front of me the direction of West Side Story, and my debut with the Real Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla, as well as other projects I can't yet announce!

Interview by Chema Seglers

Soliloqui(s)will be presented at the Mixtur festival, on October 14th at the Auditori in Barcelona (Created by Nuria Gimenez Comas and Iñaki Estrada).

Photos © Javi Yond


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