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Mexican musician Hilda Paredes

Last Monday, students gathered in the music ensemble room to listen to guest lecturer Hilda Paredes’ presentation “The Challenge of Setting Poetry to Music.” The Mexican composer offered a glimpse of a contemporary genre of music created from poetry.

“The poets are honored by my music to them,” she said, “and working with the singers has influenced my way in working with instruments. Almost like a source of inspiration.”

Paredes, who was trained and resides in London, performed the previous night at the Mills Music Festival concert with the Arditti Quartet.

“I really enjoyed performing [last night],” she said. “It inspired in me how music is an imaginative tool for myself and the audience.”

According to her website biography, Paredes finds inspiration from the culture and musical poetry of Baja California in Mexico. She has taught for the University of Mexico City, and collaborated with the Orquestra de Baja California, working with traditional Spanish and Mexican songs.

Paredes has received many awards, including the Arts Council of Great Britain Fellowship for composers and the J.S. Guggenheim Fellowship in the U.S. She was also the 2007 Darius Milhaud visiting professor at Mills, and has recently completed her second chamber opera, El Palacio Imaginado.

Paredes focused on the translation of poetry within her music. “Music brings differences in semantics, which is important in the understanding of a spoken language,” she said. “Music can unveil many semantic opportunities in creating new contexts of musical discourse.”

Paredes showed various examples of how her works are composed from Mexican poetry. Each composition distilled the emotions and metaphors of the given poems, inspiring the sights and sounds of the imagination.

She displayed the Mexican poem Fireflies and played a haunting melody, chanting the following lines that are translated into English:

“Splinters at rest / Inaugurate the grass / for the humid night / under the sky / strange geometry.”

This particular musical composition recreated the imaginative scenery in the poem through Paredes’ use of sounds, like clicking one’s tongue in song to emulate rain. Music students even got the chance to study some of Paredes’ compositions to further analyze the genre.

The composer also spoke about the universality of music and poetry. “Music does not need a passport to pass free into the souls of the people. Poetry can expand in time and space, and music can expand in meaning and metaphors.”

Over 35 students attended the event, most majoring in music studies and Spanish studies. Some students came for inspiration from Paredes as a composer, including Danishta Rivero, a Mills graduate student majoring in electronic music technology.

“I am interested specifically because she is a woman and Latin American. And how she applies similar methods that I am studying too,” Rivero said. “It gives me hope to perform similar compositions.”

Katherine Wohlmut, a senior, said, “I thought it was interesting in that it was music that I had never experienced before; it was esoteric in its cohesion of music and the written word.”

Paredes commented on her impact on musical culture. “I think my music has a very powerful means of reaching people,” she said. “I just hope it opens up the listener’s minds and ears.”

“My music can be looked at as a marriage of two disciplines, of poetry and music creating a new gender of expression,” Paredes said.

Spanish professor Carlota Caulfield said that any musical genre, like Paredes’ composition, could be integrated in teaching language studies.

“You can integrate the music and art in songs as students learn new words by memorizing the lyrics,” she said. “Many professors use this methodology. It helps expand one’s vocabulary, art, culture, and show the freedoms in languages.”

This event is one of many more expected to come from the Spanish and music departments at Mills.