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In Angélica Negrón's music, childlike wonder meets the pull of Puerto Rico

Composer Angélica Negrón, whose works are increasingly heard in concert halls across America, looks to her native Puerto Rico for inspiration.
Catalina Kulczar
Courtesy of the artist
Composer Angélica Negrón, whose works are increasingly heard in concert halls across America, looks to her native Puerto Rico for inspiration.

Angélica Negrón feels the push and pull of her native Puerto Rico. The purple-coiffed 42-year-old composer left her hometown of Carolina, just outside San Juan, 17 years ago and decamped to the hip Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. But even as her work is increasingly heard in concert halls across America, the island keeps calling her back — back to her family and friends, to the sounds of reggaeton, to the mountains, flowers and beaches, all of which flow through her concert music. It's a powerful attraction/resistance incongruity that informs how she moves in the world.

While Puerto Rico is fecund with natural beauty, Negrón says it's a tough place to live. The island has been pummeled by hurricanes in recent years, damaging its electricity grid and triggering an 11-month blackout, the longest in U.S. history. Economic oppression, along with the natural disasters, can make it hard for people from there to stay — and so longing for home is part of the culture of the Puerto Rican diaspora. You can hear it in works like Negrón's Sinfonía Isleña, a symphonic salute to Puerto Rico's flora and fauna, or the string quartet Marejada, which includes field recordings from Seven Seas Beach on the island's eastern tip.

Negrón came late to the idea of composer-as-occupation. She was already supplying songs for the quirky indie electronic band Balún and studying at the University of Puerto Rico when she fell in love with film scores. That's when she realized writing out her musical ideas on paper was a thing, and that before her lay an entire world of living composers to admire and learn from. Today, she's had world premieres performed by the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Kronos Quartet, and will debut a new piece at Carnegie Hall in December.

From her home in Brooklyn, with her lightly snoring Boston terrier Midi at her side, Negrón joined a video chat to talk about her relationship to home, the challenges of a rising career and the childlike wonder ingrained in her music.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tom Huizenga: You've had a string of back-to-back premieres lately, and have mentioned you may need to slow down a bit. As an artist who is obviously in demand, how do you know when to keep riding the wave and when to step back and collect yourself?

Angélica Negrón: I'm trying to ask myself, "Do I really want to do this, or do I feel like I have to do this?" What does this commission or this piece or this relationship represent at this moment in my life? I'm trying to see all the sides of it and let go of the fear that if I say no to something, they're not going to come back.

It's also realizing the value of things beside commissioning fees. As grateful as I am that I get to do this for my livelihood, it also can become very transactional — like, "Oh, wait, do I have enough money to cover my rent this month if I say no to this?" And that's not why I'm making music in the first place. So it's balancing those things and realizing that there's a lot of value that comes from saying no, taking time between projects, living my life so I can be inspired to write things that feel truthful to me.

What do you do to chill out?

I love to spend time with my dog, Midi, and not have anything in my hands except petting him or playing with him. I am a very sensory-driven person, so I like his fur and his warmth. I also love to go to stand-up comedy shows and drag shows; I think in the past two years I've been to more comedy shows than music shows.

With your background as a member and songwriter for the indie electronic band Balún, you come from a do-it-yourself ethic. With all these big classical commissions, has that mindset shifted for you?

In the classical world, there's a very similar kind of hustle that goes on behind the scenes sometimes. I still play in Balún, and I also play solo shows. I feel the DIY spirit is always with me, and what I learned in that scene in Puerto Rico has shaped the way I approach things — from press pictures to going to shows, supporting others, to the sense of community, to trying to create my own path even if there's not a person there that looks like me or sounds like me. If I'm walking into David Geffen Hall or Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the things that keeps me grounded is that I feel like I have something that is not necessarily the norm in those spaces. And that makes me feel even more that I belong there, because these spaces need to be shaken up in this way.

I heard that when you started in the composition department at University of Puerto Rico you were the only woman. Later, you studied with the veteran composerTania León, who had a lot to break through in her generation. I'm wondering what barriers you're still encountering today, as a woman and as a Latina.

In one of my first lessons with Tania, she mentioned that I am a Latina, I'm a woman, I'm interested in unusual instruments and I'm an educator. I thought what she was saying was something positive — and of course, it was. But she really meant for me to be very aware of who you work with and why they want to work with you. And I'm so grateful she said that, because to this day, when I receive an email from someone who's interested in collaborating, I think of those things.

Sometimes it's as obvious as someone doing a micro-aggression that could be related to your gender or where you come from or your accent. But other times it's not that straightforward. It could be in the form of writing to me late and offering a really low fee. And then I find that male colleagues are not getting that treatment; they're being contacted a year ahead and offered a different fee. Sometimes it's as simple as someone introducing me to a conductor and the conductor completely ignores me. That's happened in the past — not in the context of being a featured composer, but just in a collegial situation.

There are things we carry with us that we can't control — where we were born, how we speak. And as cliché as it sounds, I think of those things as my superpowers. So sure, go ahead, underestimate me. I will just do my thing. But I was really naive for a long time. I was taught to stay in my place, stay small, not be confrontational.

Was that something you absorbed, culturally, in Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico is a highly patriarchal society. Especially when I grew up there, in the '80s and '90s, you kind of stay in your lane. You have to be polite. At the same time, the model I saw was that these great women were running the show — like my mother, my aunts, my grandma, really powerful women who don't let people step on them. So, very matriarchal-run communities and households, but at the same time, the overarching structure of the patriarchy. It's taken me many years to unpack that, to realize that these women were trying to protect me by telling me "Stay in your lane," and at the same time, with their actions, showed me something different was possible.

This sounds like the theme behind your recent orchestral song Arquitecta, which premiered at the Dallas Symphony with vocalistLido Pimienta.

Yes, that piece is all about that. In fact, quite literally, at the end of the work, you hear their voices — my mom, my aunts. You don't hear my grandma because she passed away two years ago, and my other grandma passed away a long time ago, but I feel like you still hear them — all these women that have been really important in my life. The piece is based on a poem by Amanda Hernández, a Puerto Rican poet I really admire. And as soon as I read it, I felt this captures so well how women build and nurture and create spaces.

In Puerto Rico, you began studying violin and then changed to composition. What made you switch?

I was in conservatory orchestras playing violin, playing just the classical repertoire. I didn't really know living composers. When I did my undergraduate studies, I didn't see myself as a concert violinist, so I studied film also. And through film, I discovered film music — the Bernard Herrmann and Hitchcock collaborations, Fellini and Nino Rota, and Pedro Almodóvar and Alberto Iglesias. I liked those composer-director relationships.

Through those, I discovered more modern music, eventually leading toBang on a Can,So Percussion andKronos Quartet. I remember discovering Kronos' recording ofBlack Angels and the massive score of that piece in the conservatory library in Puerto Rico. Those moments really were the spark to doing what I do. I was making ambient music by myself, and making music with Balún, but I was not writing music down on paper. I thought those things were very separate. Then I realized that they could be combined, and that it was not just a hobby.

Puerto Rico figures fairly prominently in much of your music in beautiful and nostalgic ways. You've been away from Puerto Rico for 17 years now. Are you homesick?

I am, and I am not. Thankfully, I go back and forth a lot. My close family and close friends are still there. I get homesick, and the distance and nostalgia make some things feel kind of magical. Well, not magical actually, but more romanticized. And this plays into the sentimentality which is just part of our culture — this longing for home.

Is it the tension of that longing that provides an engine of ideas for your music?

That's definitely part of it. There's the inherent complexity that comes when you're from a place like Puerto Rico. I long to be home, but when I'm home the "magic" goes away. It gets existential pretty quickly. There's definitely a longing for this idealized sense of home, but at the same time, once I'm there, it's experiencing what my loved ones experience every single day and realizing how difficult it is to stay in this incredibly gorgeous but deeply troubled island.

I wonder if Puerto Rico would be as present in your music if you lived there full-time instead of Brooklyn.

I wonder about that too. Maybe I would be living on a farm and not making music at all, or only making music with plants. What I can say is that being away from home, and having such a complex relationship to the idea of home as part of the Puerto Rican diaspora, has shaped a lot of how I move in the world and the work I create.

You come from Carolina, outside San Juan, which you call the birthplace of reggaeton, with its superstars like Bad Bunny and Daddy Yankee. Do any of those beats or sounds make their way into your classical pieces?

Oh, yes. There is a piece that I wrote for the Bang on a Can All-Stars called Turistas that has some percussion elements that are definitely derived from the dembow rhythm that is the heart of reggaeton. And there's a movement from a larger piece I wrote for So Percussion titled "Go Back," which is about that kind of tension of the push and pull of going back to where you were born.

Reggaeton is now obviously part of global pop, so it's everywhere. But it's been with us for so long, especially in Carolina. A lot of the music that I wrote in the beginning, when I was in Puerto Rico, was trying to silence reggaeton, because it was always present even when you didn't want to hear it. But being away from home, I'm seeing reggaeton completely differently because I'm not in it 24/7. It becomes part of that pull to the island.

The last movement of your Sinfonía Isleña is titled "Flora," which is an homage to the greenery and flowers of Puerto Rico. But you've actually composed music using plants and vegetables as instruments — artichokes, snake plants, radishes. How does that work?

I use a technology called OTOTO, which is a little synthesizer that uses capacitive sensitive technology, where anything that conducts electricity can trigger a sound. So when I touch something, my hand completes the circuit and triggers sounds I have mapped on my computer. I initially got it as a toy; it was a Kickstarter project. And I used it as a tool when I was an educator at a Montessori bilingual preschool — I was like, "This is a cool thing to make a banana into a synthesizer."

Given the times we're living in, you couldn't fault any composer for writing dark music. But in your pieces I hear beauty and joy, mixed with nostalgia. Even in the thick of the pandemic, in 2020, your piece for Kronos Quartet, Marejada, whisks us off to a Puerto Rican beach.

I'm a very positive person. And when it comes to sounds, I'm drawn to those that tend to translate as more optimistic. What's really appealing about writing music is that sounds can capture and retain a whole world. So for me, I could hear the resonance of a walk to my kitchen as something pristine — almost like a sine wave — and really sweet and relaxing. But at the same time, it's evoking a memory of my grandma cooking, and maybe my cousins fighting in the background. This kind of layered multitude of meanings and feelings coexisting is something I'm really drawn to.

I write my best work when I'm playing, when I am exploring, when I'm discovering. There is this kind of childlike wonder to it. But at the same time, I'm 42, and I have a lot of life experiences that inform those choices. My hope is that there is lightness and joyfulness and playfulness to it, but also something else that is prompting, questioning and inviting. And in that tension, there is something fresh, beautiful and meaningful, and an entry point for others to find things about themselves.

Negrón accepts applause after the world premiere of <em>Sinfonía Isleña</em>, performed by the Eugene Symphony on Feb. 16, 2023.
Amanda L Smith / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Negrón accepts applause after the world premiere of Sinfonía Isleña, performed by the Eugene Symphony on Feb. 16, 2023.

Is there a particular point in the composing process — from the little seed of an idea to the world premiere performance — that appeals to you most?

I love the initial part of collecting sounds. Even if I'm not writing for electronics, I like to collect sounds in the sense of gathering as brainstorming. It could be interviews, podcasts, videos. It could be words, paintings. A little bit like hoarding in that initial stage of worldbuilding — like, this is the world in which this piece exists. And oftentimes that's beyond sounds.

I think of every piece as almost like a snow globe. But it doesn't necessarily have to be snow — it could be sand, it could be cotton candy, it could be grass. Setting that atmosphere starts telling me how it will feel and sound.

What drives you to compose, to get up each morning and do it all over again?

It's a need and a desire to not only express, but also to understand things that I am not able to understand with words, and unpack them through sounds. And then hopefully, through that process, connect to others.

You've been a teaching artist with the New York Philharmonic's Very Young Composers program. How do we cultivate the next generation of composers and get young people — girls especially, Black and brown kids especially — interested in writing music?

By normalizing the creating of music in educational settings and in public schools. Jon Deak, the founder of the Very Young Composers program, talks about how when we're young, we always play with colors and paint. That's just something normal, beginning in preschool. But with sound, it is very different. Often, early experiences with sound are through technique and learning an instrument; there's a right and wrong way of doing things. We rarely have early experiences in which we're just playing with sounds: What does this maraca sound like combined with the xylophone or this horn? Try it now without the horn, and can the horn be slower? Playing and exploring sounds is not normalized in curriculum. That would be a great first step, as easy as music teachers opening up spaces for students to be able to improvise and create.

Also, repertoire. Bring in a living composer so that they know we're out there and we exist. That was huge for me. And make sure that the posters in the classroom are not just of dead white European men, so they can see composers like Caroline Shaw, Jessie Montgomery, Tania León, Meredith Monk, all of us who are out there now.

On a larger scale, all the same things apply to programming, even if you are a small orchestra. I've had my music performed by community orchestras, and those have been some of the most meaningful experiences. It's normalizing our existence and opening up spaces in which students can have these encounters with sound. That doesn't mean that they'll all be composers — it's just having that experience, that sense of play, of exploring, of trying different color combinations of different instruments.

Speaking of making space, have you sensed a shift in the last few years in terms of presenters and performing organizations opening up space for more composers of color and women composers?

Certainly, I've felt that shift. It's slow-moving, as always, right? I hope that we open up conversations about the structures in place so that these composers can thrive and have sustainable careers — not just be included in the one program in the season that highlights women or Hispanic Heritage Month. When those things are normalized across the board, and we're supported in a way that is equal to other creators that don't look like us, that's what I'm interested in. It's not only us being there, but also how we're treated once we're there.

What will the music of Angélica Negrón sound like 10 or 20 years from now? What do you want it to sound like?

I've never been asked that. My hope is that my music still sounds like myself. I hope that it's as cool as Tania León or Julia Wolfe or Meredith Monk. Those are people who have so much edge and heart and meaning, and knowing all of them personally, I know it's because they're speaking truth to who they are through their music. So regardless of the sounds I end up using or the instruments or the mediums or any stylistic or aesthetic things, what I can hope for is that it is speaking true to who I am.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.