Understanding the Score with Composer Arturo O’Farrill
Grammy Award-winning Composer Reimagines Carmen Through a Cuban Lens
With the 2024 world premiere of Arielle Smith’s Carmen comes an original score from Grammy Award-winning jazz musician and composer Arturo O’Farrill. We had the opportunity to sit down with O’Farrill while he was in San Francisco collaborating with Smith and finalizing his score, which will reference his Cuban heritage, feature Cuban percussion, and contains hints of George Bizet’s original score.
SAN FRANCISCO BALLET: HAS MUSIC ALWAYS PLAYED AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN YOUR LIFE?
ARTURO O’FARRILL: My father was a famous composer, Chico O’Farrill, and despite that, I decided to become a musician! I started playing the piano, but I was a closet composer because my father was so famous and so revered that I didn’t want to be compared to him, favorably or unfavorably. But I’ve been a composer and pianist for as long as I can remember, begrudgingly, until about the age of 12, when I first discovered Herbie Hancock, and then I fell madly in love with being a musician.
Music doesn’t define me but is a way of getting access to people and creating a community, which I think all the arts should be. That’s really what it’s about. Dance is a way to gather people together and build a community. And that’s that’s the biggest part of my life.
SFB: YOU ARE CREATING AN ORIGINAL SCORE CARMEN, WHICH HAS BEEN REIMAGINED TO TAKE PLACE IN CUBA, NOT SPAIN. WHAT CAN WE EXPECT TO HEAR FROM YOUR SCORE?
O’FARRILL: The music covers a great variety of genres. It involves traditional Cuban charanga, also contemporary vestiges of Messiaen and Ligeti. It goes all over the map. I’m very, very, very in love with French impressionism, so it has some sounds vaguely Debussy-like. I wasn’t going to try and become a classical ballet composer, but I am going to respect the tradition with great love and devotion.
SFB: WHAT INSTRUMENTS WILL WE HEAR?
O’FARRILL: We are going to hear the traditional classical SF Ballet Orchestra, and then we’re going to have additional percussion. We’re going to have a percussionist on stage playing bata [drums] and conga, and another percussionist playing shekere, bongo, and bell. And we’re going to have a Cuban guitar that is very popular in the promenades and bars of both Spain and Cuba. So you hear that in addition to the traditional woodwind brass, string, and symphonic percussion sections.
SFB: WHEN WE THINK OF CARMEN, IT’S HARD NOT TO ASSOCIATE IT WITH BIZET’S OPERA SCORE. HAS THIS SCORE INSPIRED YOU AT ALL? WILL WE HEAR ANY OF ITS FAMILIAR MELODIES?
O’FARRILL: I’m using bits and pieces of it in a very, very conservative manner. I find that the music associated with Bizet’s Carmen is folklore, it’s part of the traditions, and it’s part of who they are. And so you can’t really touch the piece – you can’t really create a Carmen without referencing that material. It’s tricky because we don’t want to fall into the trap of being maudlin about it, because you have such huge respect for Bizet, that it’s not a gimmick. It’s serious music, and you don’t want to toy with it. So, I’m looking for ways to recast it as a very central and fundamental part of the overture, in a new setting. So we understand that that particular composer, that particular narrative, and that particular time is really transcultural.
SFB: WHAT DO YOU THINK THE FUTURE HOLDS FOR BALLET?
O’FARRILL: The same answer I would give for opera or symphonic music. I think that there is room for many different interpretations of what are elements of ballet or what elements are tap dance? What elements are rap and what elements are symphonic? I’m the person who sees the connection between Steely Dan and Messiaen…I see the continuum.
I think the direction for the future of ballet and all the arts that I love is to stop putting yourself in a specific place and start looking at the connections between all these things. I think ballet as a genre would fit hand-in-glove with rap and hip-hop. I think, as a genre, the movements that I’m familiar with in ballet would work with Afro-Peruvian folk music, and I think that Afro-Peruvian folk music could benefit from some of the elements in ballet and jazz. All those lines are blurring. I think the future of this great, venerated art is going to continue to morph, continue to grow, and embrace the totality of this world, which is rapidly becoming transcultural.