The Composer Who Sees Music Before She Hears It

Angelica Negrón is learning to tune out other people’s voices and listen to her own

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Sep 11 2018, 4:12pm

“I use a lot of types of sounds,” Puerto Rican composer Angelica Negrón says of her creative process. “I'll start by imagining sounds to get a better sense of my original idea, then I pick out the perfect instruments for that piece. I like to start with the structure and create a map for myself. I add on percussion and texture layer by layer. I use whichever sounds I think make a better picture.” That Negrón thinks of music in visual terms helps to explain her offbeat approach—she’s known for using toys, everyday items like vases and vegetables, and unusual or less mainstream instruments in her compositions. “It’s about the ability to fully be who you are,” she adds. “No hesitation or fear of expressing yourself. It’s about freedom.”

In addition to composing, recording, and touring with her electronic indie rock band, Balún, and writing film scores, Negrón co-founded Acopladitos, a music program for children, and is currently a teaching artist at New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers program at Lincoln Center. The San Juan native is also the composer-in-residence for the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2018–2019 season, and, later this year, she’ll premiere Chimera, an original opera about drag queens featuring Alexis Michelle from RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Photo by Zarita Zevallos

We spoke to Negrón about seeing music through children’s eyes, creating the illusion of sound, and her thoughts on Puerto Rico one year after Hurricane Maria.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On her evolution from musician to composer
I struggled to find my own voice as a composer. I was constantly trying to prove myself, because in the world of classical music, women and Latinas are not well-represented—when you’re starting out, things can be very academic and very white male-oriented. I was writing music that looked good on paper, but I wasn’t excited about it. It was work meant to prove that I was “doing my thing”—that I was capable of using fancy techniques. In fact, I was not doing my thing. I was doing the opposite. I had to see that that composing was an option for me, which was a challenge, because I didn't see that represented anywhere in my world. Even though I’ve been playing in an orchestra since I was young, I had no idea that there were people writing music. I thought I was just a really unfocused violinist! I’d ask myself, "Why am I interested in playing the harp and the cello and teaching myself the accordion?" I was spending way more time interested in other instruments.

On working with young people
Composing can be a lonely activity. I spend lots of time by myself really late at night, and that can sometimes lead to me questioning everything. [I can feel like I’m] out of ideas and start to doubt myself. When I work with young students, it is really inspiring to see how adventurous they are, how curious and excited they are about different sounds—how fun it is for them. When you’ve been doing something for a long time, you sometimes forget the very basics, and why you’re even doing something in the first place. The kids always remind me. I am constantly inspired by the sounds they create, their enthusiasm, and their endless curiosity.

"Some people would say to me, 'Oh, you’re Puerto Rican, but I don't hear that in your music.' For others, my compositions were too crazy. The main challenge was to silence all those voices, because what I do is really just for me."

On silencing the noise around you
As I continued to evolve and get comfortable as a composer, I also had to find the courage to write the music I wanted to write. Some people would say to me, “Oh, you’re Puerto Rican, but I don't hear that in your music.” For others, my compositions were too crazy. The main challenge was to silence all those voices, because what I do is really just for me. It’s impossible to create anything with all that noise around you.

On Chimera, Negrón’s drag opera
I grew up in the 80s surrounded by drag queens. They were a big part of my childhood, and a big inspiration. A lot of the self-confidence I had as a kid came from spending so much time with drag queens. Chimera is very much about the complexity of identity and paying tribute to my childhood.

It’s also about illusion. When thinking about an opera, what is the main element? Voice. In Chimera I’m experimenting with what happens if you take the voice out of the equation—sometimes the queens will be singing live, sometimes the voices will be pre-recorded. The point is to care less about that, and be more engaged with the actual character. You’re given the illusion of a singer, but it’s much more about the performance.

Photo by Zarita Zevallos

On Puerto Rico one year after Hurricane Maria
Every time I’m in Puerto Rico, I see a different part of the island—or the same part of the island in a different way. There’s still a lot of anger about the impotence of the government, but now, for me, it’s more about admiring the resilience of the people here. I'm in awe of how people are moving back [to the island] and launching new initiatives. Young people in Puerto Rico are doing so much to rebuild and get the island back on its feet—not only to [rebuild it to] where it was [before the hurricane], but to find other, more sustainable options to avoid last year’s level of devastation if another hurricane that powerful hits. It’s a roller coaster of emotions, but it’s really great to see people thinking ahead.

25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.