Constructing Absurdities and Monstrosities: Mikel Urquiza

Dan Albertson

[January 2022.]

[Writing without Walt Mundkowsky is less grievous knowing that his editorial insight infuses my style, or lack thereof. With love for two shapeshifters, Romeo Talento and Sit Tak Him.]

The prospects for young composers in 2022 are daunting, forced to confront the paradox of being surrounded by the noises, sounds, potential musics of the present and the ghosts of unlimited musical pasts. So much is out there, circulating, percolating, swimming. All has been done, all has been uttered. Is the only approach to resign, to draw forth from the wired cave hoisting a white flag?

Despite it all – or is it because of it all? – Mikel Urquiza (b. 1988) backs down from no challenge. The insouciance, which is in fact quite earnest, and the serious of purpose, which is in fact a total jest, appeal on multiple levels. Even I am not sure if he is parodying what he puts in his music, or parodying himself, or parodying our times, or making an anti-parody, or capitulating to the chaos.

His education could be cited, his mentors, his this-and-that, his circuitous trek to this moment and the next, but why not simply look at nine stopping-posts?

Cinq pièges brefs (2013) and Indicio (2016)

A piano trio and a string quartet, quite early in his career, nonetheless bear the seeds of so much that follows. The former’s titular traps relate to dead-ends, false expectations and general trickery, encased in short movements, all aspects that would become central to later works. In less than ten minutes, he scatters snares aplenty. The latter is more plaintive, with nary any caving to the glissandi, microtonality or scratching of the eons that too often accompany this beast of a medium.

Sex doll deluxe (2018)

Scored for the distinctive sextet of ensemble ascolta (trumpet, trombone, electric guitar, cello, piano, percussion), not that it is noticeable, here is an exercise in alienation, the palette reduced to earthy, primal sounds, hefty or airy by turns. Only mildly naughty.

I nalt be clode on the frolt (2018)

The first in a trilogy of vocal works, and raunchy to the core, the texts primarily from online classifieds. The soprano Marion Tassou is exuberant, the accompaniment is a mixed nonet, and the integration of the two layers is sublime. Endless honks, knocks, laughs, and screeches ensue.

Songs of Spam (2019)

On its way to an inbox near you is… a song-cycle? Less exuberant and more blasé, with an homage to Donald Trump (“billions!”) at its core. Soon the jig is up, as it must always be. The six voices are matched by seven instruments of breathy and plucked natures.

Alfabet (2019)

Intimate and raw, with the soprano backed only by a clarinet, double-bell trumpet and percussion. Ample space for solos, duos and trios. The Inger Christensen text previously adored by Rolf Riehm takes on visages far beyond the childlike (not childish).

Mis monstruos marinos (2019)

An orchestral frenzy writ large in scale if not duration – less than 10′. After an opening that compounds the third movement of the Pathétique (Tchaikovsky, I hasten to add, not Beethoven, also known as the movement that causes much consternation when silly audiences applaud silly music and ruin the rightful finale), the tempest calms, the gaze turns inward, bells resound, harmonies gather, and lighter cataracts seep out.

Oiseaux gazouillants et hibou qui se retourne (2020)

Art imitating nature imitating nature imitating art imitating nature-imitating art, with birdcalls and hijinks aplenty. 13 players, but seemingly more, if feathered ones count. Go on, I dare you, and tell which is which, but a wise soul would never bet against the birds.

Lavorare stanca (2020)

After playing secondary parts in earlier works, here at least is the patchwork of tunes known and unknown, heard and unheard, quoted and unquoted. The premise is not new, of course, but the execution is exquisite. The composer’s preferred saxophone, guitar, mandolin, and accordion (¿viva el nuevo tango?) are all present, and the cimbalom hammers away, and behold the fiercest triangles this side of A Carlo Scarpa or Triangel!

A perfect place to end, in fact, considering that a percussion concerto is among the works scheduled for 2022. Stand by for more of Urquiza’s phantasmagorias.


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