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The Thomas Edison of Music Education and Composition, Jon Deak: Creating Music with El Sistema, Part Nine

Click here for Part Eight
We enter the children’s world:
Michelle Hernández: The youngest composer, at age eight, has written for her original “dream’ assignment” a story so touching and symbolic of the whole, that we have her read it to the audience: Cuento Sobre la Música tells of the magic power of music to bring joy and to change lives. Dani helps Michelle read the story at first, but then Michelle gains confidence and boldly finishes it off herself. We also perform her Luna de mi Corazón, a duo for cello (or piano) and violin. It has the sweetness and delicacy one might expect of a little girl, but the difference here is a harmonically wayward drifting that never quite resolves. Michelle plays the violin and can solfege, but chooses to limit herself pitch-wise, so that the whole is a dreamy, somehow cloudy steady state. . . truly a “Moon of My Heart.”
Her other piece is a Duo with bass and Piano. This briefest of images inhabits much the same “pitch landscape” as her “Luna,” but is entitled Amor Prohibido – ! She seemed very sensitive to the timbre of the bass, and one can only imagine the unconscious images in her young mind.
José Gregorio Al Gindi: Also one of the youngest, he was described above as the boy who stood on a chair and played the “Hallelujah Chorus” on my bass perfectly by memory – except in D minor! *(It has to be heard!) He wrote several pieces for the class, including El Pecesito (The Little Fish) and his main work, for clarinet, two strings and piano, is hilariously titled El Niño que no Paraba de Tocar – (The Boy who Never Stopped Playing) !! And during the class, it was so true! Here, the instruments leap, collide, buzz, and juggle dynamics. A true self-portrait if ever there was one. I offered to let him play the bass for it, but he declined.
As all the children, he bravely states his name, his piece, and is lovingly interviewed by Dani, holding the microphone.
Amanda Hernández: Similar imagery and approach as Michelle’s, but more complex in texture, and yet more tonally centered. She wrote at least four brief pieces for the class. El Sueño, for three instruments, is suspended and smooth, with careful bowings for the strings, a cantabile feeling, with a few leaps as interjections. Her La Luna Negra has a tempting morsel of a rippling triplet passage in the piano part. Why not continue? Well, I always know some children need to compose in glimpses, especially at first.
Think of the Impressionist style of painting: When I was a teenager in Chicago, I used to go into the Art Institute with its great Impressionist collection. Before I’d enter the door to a gallery, I would shield my eyes, looking only at the floor, having memorized the locations of my favorite Monets, stand in front of them with my eyes closed, opening only for an instant. The effect could be so powerful, it would remain in my consciousness for days.
Music, also, can be so unbelievably fresh and powerful to children. Do you see them covering their ears, sometimes?
Irawo Graterol: This is the boy “who never stopped spouting forth ideas.” Irawo was always singing, playing the piano, tugging on our sleeves to listen to his latest. In our efforts to help him notate what was going on inside of him, we were frustrated often by his leapfrogging from one idea to another. Fine. I’d rather have it this way, frankly. So what he finally came up with was a series of fragments that spoke for him eloquently, yet were unconnected to each other. He also had trouble titling his work, though at the last moment agreed to title it Irawo. I generally feel okay leading a discussion about titles, since anyone who has ever written a magazine or news article knows that the author is seldom allowed to title his own work. Music itself: just the composer. But a title: well, perhaps a collaboration.
Imagine what Irawo will do, given more time and compositional support! The prospect makes my head spin.
Itala Figuera: Another favorite of ours, Itala is a 9-year-old violinist who tried her hand at several different styles, some of them harmonically dense, with titles like El Clavel (The Carnation) and El Día a la Noche, as well as colorful graphics. She finally felt most comfortable with a unison texture entitled: Noche del Amor. (Yes, interesting isn’t it? All these romantic titles from the girls, and some of the boys, too!) Her work is energetic, leaping with rhythmic variety, and yet not in a consistent groove at all. Again, this remains a bit of a mystery to me, given that so many of them improvised quite rhythmically when trying out the percussion instruments. This happens with American and other kids at times: what they hear on their iPods and in the movies and television finds its way only tangentially into their music composition.
Giorgi Jiménez: A 10-year-old violinist, small, yet with a kind of inward toughness about him, tried his hand at a variation on Luis’ theme, but then settled on a violin-cello duo that featured some nice inversions and imitations. Again, a fragment…a glimpse. I so much want to see Giorgi continue with music, especially music composition. I sense a technical approach, possibly of considerable complexity.
One can never really predict these things, particularly not from a child’s appearance or behavior.
Valery Anzola: Nine years old and a flutist, Valery is quiet and unassuming. I feel she achieved quite a bit during this time. She settled on a strong unison sound, with a bright, symmetrical 2/4 melody–very memorable. Dani sensed that she might be able to conduct her own work, and with a little coaching, she did wonderfully! It is never easy to truly conduct, and certainly not easy to play in or conduct one’s own work. Take my word for it! But Valery not only did well, but elicited phrasing and expression. As a final grand flourish, she entitled her 40-second work: Symphony!
David Loyo: Worked so hard for the class and produced so much material, and yet it is a shame that we just didn’t have the time and the wherewithal to execute his ideas adequately. He worked on two main pieces of considerable complexity and was very intent on notating them by himself: Marcha Fúnebre, and Marcha Happy. (sic) He wrote out his score in a completely linear fashion, and there was confusion as to when the various parts entered and/or paused. His ideas are highly original and rather virtuosic for strings, (they would sound terrific with a whole string orchestra) and so we were anxious to make clear just how it all fit together! But after several attempts humming, explaining, and rewriting, I still don’t think we’ve gotten it. On top of that, our performance was imperfect. He did know what he wanted, however, and I sense his frustration and even disappointment.
Zubair Ali: A bright, eager, and pleasant cello and ttrumpet student, Zubair tried several ideas, including a variation on Luis’ theme. This kind of activity seemed to serve as a catalyst for some of the kids. He then worked out a little duo for cello (or bass) and piano, Oscura de Sol (Sun’s Shadow). This was once more an enticing glimpse into a florid composing style, ending with a sweeping flourish on the piano. There is a lot of song and virtuosity in Zubair, and I think a bit more time would really bring that out.
Valeria Cordero: When we did our “Ear Fantasy” games, I could tell Valeria was listening intently. Possessing a really good ear and an imagination, she nonetheless was hesitant to write much at first. When she actually did do so, she came up with a score for strings of some 30 measures, the actual content of which was not at first clear to me. However, going over it note-by-note, her expressions and exact intent took the shape of a very tightly constructed narrative, with independent lines, and even counterpoint.Titled Un Cuento Romántico, (A Romantic Tale) it traces an unspecified journey from: strong, to sad; to nervous, happy, singing and triumphant. To go through all those feelings in 30 bars might seem overly constricted, but somehow the piece works–perhaps in a way, one remembers the feelings of a whole event, telescoped in time.
Darianna Melo: A very grownup eleven-year0old violinist, Darianna possesses an ear for texture and unusual rhythm and melody. Making intelligent, and even softly swinging use of the woodblock and/or conga, she has built a fabric of motor-like string imitations murmuring under a violin melody of rather sinuous character. She actually wrote out a readable score for us to perform, although we were able to make parts, which facilitated the rehearsal. One could easily imagine this as the basis for a symphonic movement, but then, we are not Darianna. My only wish, again and again, is that she is provided the opportunity and encouragement to follow her artistic path. (Seems simple, doesn’t it? . . how I wish…)
Gabriél Fonseca: A mature, focused 10 year old boy, Gabriél wrote and rewrote much material, struggling with communicating, playing or expressing the exact relationships among his parts. (This may well be my fault, with my highly imperfect language comprehension.) Precision is a crucial issue with him, because the harmonic texture he is aiming at is rather Stravinksy-like in its cross-relationships, and also quite dense. He is one of the few who included the Venezuelan folk instrument, the cuatro, in his work.
His title makes clear his intent: La Magistrál Composición !! I love the pluckiness. It bodes well for him.
Again, his is a composition that we will need him to clarify further. I’m not sure we got it all correctly.
Orlando Suárez: It has been sometimes difficult to tell what Orlando might be thinking. He is not inclined to be effusive, but yet this is sometimes the very kind of student who can do amazing things if we are patient and strong enough. Orlando wrote, among other things, El Gato y el Ratón (Cat and Mouse). The 13-bar piece does suggest the quiet sneaking of a cat, including some low-register clarinet work and soft echoing in the bass, but I would love to see him do more either with the imagery or with development of his opening ideas. It will just take some time, and the right window of perception.
Alejandra Vilar: Alejandra was the one composer I allowed to hand in her work after the others, since she was clearly inspired at the last minute. “I trust you,” I told her, and she has not let us (or herself) down! She comes in with a beautiful kind of barcarole for strings, lilting, the slight dissonances gently rubbing the sides of the boat (my daydreaming here…). Not surprisingly, she entitles it: Romance in the Water. It’s too late to make copies; we read it from one music stand. It was a special thrill to receive this wonderful piece at last, since I know it wasn’t easy for her to get started. Even though the violin has most of the melody (it is contrapuntal), one can tell it is written with a violist’s sensibility.
–Jon Deak
Click here for Part Ten
Jon Deak, born in the sand dunes of Indiana of East European parents, is a Composer, Contrabassist, and Educational pioneer. Educated at Oberlin College, the Julliard School, the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia (Rome) and the University of Illinois, he joined the New York Philharmonic and served as its Associate Principal Bassist for many years, while continuing his professional composing, and studying with Pierre Boulez and Leonard Bernstein. During this time he also introduced ground-breaking performance techniques for the Contrabass, and in his orchestral writing, working with major orchestras across the country.
From 1994 – 97 he served as Composer In Residence (sponsored by Meet the Composer) with the Colorado Symphony under Marin Alsop, which is where he initiated the public school program now called The Very Young Composers (VYC).
With support from the New York Philharmonic and others, the VYC has grown steadily, winning a national award for excellence in 2004. The program has been introduced in Shanghai, Tokyo, and now in Venezuela, besides serving hundreds of children in eleven New York area Public Schools and such places as New England and Eagle County, Colorado. The New York Philharmonic has premiered 42 works for children, fully orchestrated by the children themselves, mostly under the ages of 13, as well as hundreds of chamber works in the public schools and libraries.


  1. Wes Ramsay says

    Many thanks for these contributions from Jon Deak. Although he undoubtedly does not remember me, I do remember time spent in his presence at Aspen Music Festival more years ago than I wish to admit. He was inspiring then, and it is wonderful to encounter him again in this role.
    Kudos to him and all those who make this effort possible.
    Wes Ramsay

  2. Fascinating reading – congratulations on an amazing program, and an inspring read too.
    Barbara Siesel

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