What do you do to survive? For inti figgis-vizueta, making music inside traditional institutions felt like trying to put a square peg into a round hole– painful, and fruitless. So, she eschewed the status quo and focused on embracing the angles that made her unique.
On this episode of the HearTOGETHER podcast, NYC-based composer inti figgis-vizueta speaks with host Tori Marchiony about her early ambitions for a 9-5 in science, the communities and identities that inform her work today, and her hopes and fears for the next generation of music-makers.
Music in this episode was composed by inti figgis-vizueta
Click here to learn about why bell hooks didn't capitalize her name.
Mixed by Teng Chen
Editorial Council, Noel Dior and Tim German
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Hello! And welcome back to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I’m your host, Tori Marchiony. And this is a space to hear from the artists and activists working to create a more equitable future- inside and outside the concert hall.
You just heard a bit of (the) Attacca Quartet performing Imago by our guest today, inti figgis-vizueta.
inti’s practice explores entirely new structures of musical notation, and includes philosophical writing on subjects like, how the label of “experimental artist” actually forces composers to continue defining their work in relation to the status quo. And the status quo has never worked for inti.
After a series of what she has called “disappointing and harmful experiences within academic and professional institutions,” inti opted out and built a career on her own terms. Freelance composing has brought commissions from Roomful of Teeth, Kronos Quartet, and LA Philharmonic, to name just a few. In 2020, she received the ASCAP Foundation Fred Ho Award, and this year, she won a Music Fellowship from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation– an American artists’ community located at a 15th-century castle in the Umbria region of Italy. Not too shabby.
But it did take some time, and a lot of effort, for inti to finally find her feet, and her voice.
INTI FIGGIS-VIZUETA: Like I feel like For some time. I thought that every time someone looked at me or looked at my score, they were kind of judging how smart I was. And so like, I would be like, oh, I'm so smart. Like, I'm gonna, like, I'm gonna make sure that this is an unbreakable equation. And then it's like, actually, like the moment you keep piling on more, it become, it becomes so indecipherable with, with all its detail that it just like weighs down and kind of can't move and so it’s like, you know, you can start from that whole and then like
TORI MARCHIONY (Voiceover): Today, inti is well known for her inventive notations, designed to create space – space where performers are given the agency to bring their own interpretations… space where the rigid roles of composer, performer and listener are disrupted… space where imagination offers genuine liberation from oppressive hierarchies.
Another liberatory practice that inti has made routine is the case of writing her name…
TORI MARCHIONY: Uh, er, I'm curious what the reason is behind the lower case spelling of your name?
INTI FIGGIS-VIZUETA: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, I, I think probably the first, the first place that a lot of us kind of encountered that is like bell hooks and, you know, kind of so much of this particularly like Black feminism. But I, I think around, like in my case, just like the idea of kind of creating an artistic space for myself a little bit, you know, coming, coming to this country and, and kind of going into so many different institutions, young, my name got kind of messed up so much and things were out of order or things would misspell things were still misspelled all the time. Um, but I think part of it is just trying to like, have there be some care when you touch when you touch it and when you, you know, include it in, in spaces.
TORI MARCHIONY: Got it, thank you! Now, your bio, which is beautifully written, talks about the influence of your upbringing on your music in a way that makes me really curious to know more. It reads, “NYC-based composer inti figgis-vizueta (b. 1993) writes magically real musics through the lens of personal identities, braiding a childhood of overlapping immigrant communities and Black-founded Freedom schools—in Chocolate City (DC)—with direct Andean & Irish heritage and a deep connection to the land. Could you tell me a bit more about what your experiences living in those overlapping communities was really like?
INTI FIGGIS-VIZUETA: Totally. It was a big kind of village I had growing up. My mom moved to the city as a, as a single mom, just with me and kind of didn't have a lot of money and was kind of working in new organizing context from the moment that she arrived through that you, you get a lot of community, sometimes we're walking down the street or we like, you know, look at a house and it's like, oh, do you remember this person? They took care of you for three days when you were six. You know, I had to be outta town for this thing. And they were so, so kind like a lot of, kind of those those feelings with, with particularly the neighborhoods that I grew up in, which was like Mount pleasant in DC and then eventually Columbia Heights, um, DC has one of the largest Ethiopian populations out, you know, outside of Ethiopia, it has Vietnamese, diaspora. We have a huge Salvadorian diaspora, particularly in Mount Pleasant where I grew up. And so, and so that, that's kind of one, one part of it.
Another is the elementary school I went to is called Elsie Whitlow Stokes and it is a freedom school. And, and part of that was a very open and liberatory framework for like what learning could look like in young people, a kind of very engaged parent-teacher interaction. And then also just a school from opening that was 97% not white. And, you know, we kind of started in a, in a church, a church that literally is a organizing space and has been for like 40 years and has like, you know, housed all these different movements. And we were in the basement of that for like second and third grade. It's like, that's another space.
There's also, um, there's like the Latin American youth center that's around the corner. They used to have an art house. There's a lot of being around people, doing things, all of these people and spaces, all kind of interacted with one another. There was also a, a place called it was originally called the language access coalition and, and those, those folk really pushed this DC law that required, uh, translation for all government documents into any language. Right? So like, so like part of it like was that this work was happening next, you know, next to me, as I was growing up while the communities themselves were advocating for these change is, and were folks who I was kind of in the room with as, as these processes of like facilitation and organizing were happening. And so, so, so that that's, that's part of it. And then also, I think I was thinking about this yesterday. It was also that my mom was kind of interacting in dance a lot in community spaces.
So a lot of these places already kind of knew my mom and like of opened themselves up in, in much more flexible ways than I, I might have had otherwise for one place. Like they, they were really hardcore about like formal lessons. Like you have to go through all this curriculum in order to even touch, touch the guitar, touch the instrument at places where my mom taught, they would just like, be like, okay, inti’s here, go to the, go to the instrument room, go to the music room, entertain yourself for the couple hours that she's teaching. And, um, and then of course, like Irishness and indigenous are both like, my father is born like born and raised in Dublin. I was born in Dublin. My mom is Ecuadorian. Um, and Anden and indigenous. And, and so these are, these are things that I grew up with, but always traveling in between always like learning and, and generally not actually being around that many Irish or Andean people.
And, and then also, I haven't even mentioned that like the majority Black community in DC, which was like all the folks I was growing up with. Um, and, and I'm still kind of in community with when I come back to DC.
TORI MARCHIONY: Awesome. So speaking of your sort of background with a family of organizers, I'm curious if they, I'm curious how they responded to your interest in music, if it was seen as kind of frivolous or if it was a really sort of validated path that you took or, yeah, how the family reacted.
INTI FIGGIS-VIZUETA: Yeah, I think for me I always was convinced that I wasn't going to be an artist. Um, I, I have artists in, uh, both sides of my family and I mean, they, they were always super encouraging of, uh, of all kind of artistic expression and all this stuff. And I think kind of when I was younger, I was really into science and math. And so when I actually went into music, they were really like, they were really a little bit, they were like, oh, you're not, you know, you're not going to just, you know, make a check and go home, which is, you know, kind of what I, maybe I had a, a limited view of what life could be a little bit when I was younger. I was like, I just wanna get a good job. Then I can just hang out and that'll be my life.
Um, and then kind of turning into this, oh, I actually, creativity and communication and facilitation are all these things that I like grew up and, and learned around and through. And with these things feel like they're really applicable to this particular, you know, medium and practice of, of music-making. I think that part of what I learned how to do in the spaces that I grew up in was listen really hard. And, you know, in an sense, in the sense of like descriptive listening, when you, you know, when someone is saying something to you and you, you know, you kind of say it back, or you, you change it or you, you, you kind of bring it into a larger context, you know, as this kind of engaged thing. And I think that that, that first connectivity has, has kind of grown into this entire practice. Um, and, and they are very happy about it. And, and, you know, really, um, you know, I, I think that, that, that they're happy that I was kind of able to take this, this knowledge that they kind of built around me and, and pre and always kind of allowed me to participate in as an equal. Um, and like through that, through that early on, I think it's kind of given me the sense that when I go into spaces with performance, there, isn't a kind of disconnect that I was always told by composition teachers. There was. Um, and so maybe, maybe that was really, that was given early and, and it's kind of being fruitful now.
TORI MARCHIONY: How, how do you think your music would be best experienced? Like if you could have your druthers and be like, “it's a record player in a room with lots of pillows or it's a small, er, a large concert hall or whatever, what that kind of ideal scenario is. But then going along with that, because I, I know every piece has its differences. If there's a specific piece that you are very fond of or might consider a favorite, if you wanna talk about the ideal listening experience for that particular piece.
INTI FIGGIS-VIZUETA: Um, but you know, I, I think maybe I have this little bit of a romantic notion of chamber music and of, of proximity. I like some of my earlier music make was in like DIY punk spaces. And so like, you know, tho those were like tiny houses where you had like 10 people in a room, someone sitting on the floor or standing, and you like sitting like, you know, this close to them, cuz there was too packed. There were too many people. And I think that that kind of proximity also affected how people played. I think that there is this kind of delicacy that you could, you could do it, you know, it, wasn't just kind of maximum sound all the time. And so, and, and that's that kind of the, the context of a performance often feels like it's this invisible thing that is affecting how all these, all these processes are, are being interacted with in the sense that players are trying to make them most appropriate for the context that they're in be, they're amplified, they're in a large concert hall, they're in a small concert hall they're in front of you at a dinner table or something, you know, like it's another member, a little bit of the, of the ensemble that kind of is, is interacting with it.
And so I think like to, sorry, I get had to answer the question. Um, I think one of my ideal pieces and maybe its context would be, I have a percussion trio called to give you form and breath. Um, and it's all these like found objects. Um, and it's, you know, it's, I think part of it was this idea that the percussionist were constructing their own instruments and that felt really kind of beautiful to me, especially with like found junk materials. And so part of it is that like, I've, I've noticed that in performances of that piece, like people like, um especially in like concert situations are like banging these things as like hard as they can. And I'm like, oh, okay. Like that's what you need to do to get the kind of sound that you want out of them. But I would love to be close. Like I would love to have that piece performed in a really small space and like hear how that sounds or hear it performed, you know, a little specialized or something, or like, you know, in, in a, in a small space. But, but it isn't just kind of this front to back performer audience kind of thing, because like, I feel like the materials themselves have have more to say than just the, just the hardest you can strike them um
MUSIC: TO GIVE YOU FORM AND BREATH EXCERPT
TORI MARCHIONY (VOICEOVER): That was an excerpt of inti figgis-vizueta’s, To Give You Form and Breath, performed by red fish blue fish, the percussion group out of UC San Diego run by Steve Schick.
TORI MARCHIONY: You have spoken about being in a process of learning to negotiate, how you set value for sharing your time and perspective, particularly when, uh, educating white and Cis-Het peers. So, yeah, where are you on that journey at this point of, of that path?
INTI FIGGIS-VIZUETA: Yeah, I mean, I, I think that part of it is that I've, I try to construct music to interact with that a little bit where like, I think of, I think of the way in which I ask people to engage with perception, understanding, listening, reaction, interaction, all this stuff as itself, a kind of practice of what like listening is and of what inferring understanding is, which I think is something that we as BIPOC people, that's something we learn really early is how to read that in other people. And like the thing that I experience most in, in these spaces and continue to experience and all this stuff is that lack of reading past the immediate and, and that being kind of in, in interaction a little bit for me, just personally, with trusting people and what they say, um, which is this like really kind of a contentious thing to, to feel like where like, I really wanna trust people and I've, I've really pushed myself in that direction of like, when people say something they deserve to be trusted in, in, in, in, in, in what they're saying until they show that it's not true, you know?
And, and without the expectation that someone will show it to be not true. So, so that being one, one space and then the other one being, I think in, in some ways I've, I've stopped correcting people like, like, you know, when it, even when it comes to pronouns and things in spaces, like I just don't, I don't have the energy to, to, and, and I guess, I mean, stop correcting people towards myself when it comes to students. And when it comes to friends and mentees and stuff who I need to advocate for, there's no question that like, that's like where we're at. Like, I will not like let someone like, you know, hurt my, my peeps and my flowers and, you know, like, like the folks who I'm trying to, to, to bolster. But I think just like personally, like I just don't have the energy anymore to like, be like, um, your stance on this is philosophically ideologically and, uh, ontologically wrong.
Like, you know, I've had to discuss with like the professor, you know, of these spaces, why this thing is racist or something, or why this thing is anti-indigenous, why this thing is anti be Black. And like having them like, come back at me with this kind of language and maybe like, okay, so like, do I need to like, you know, get this like veneer of academic vocabulary in order for you to understand me maybe, and maybe that's, maybe I've pursued a little bit of that vocabulary so that I can speak that way.
But on, on the other end of like, you just obviously are not seeing people in the way that they are presenting themselves. And that like, and that it's, that itself is like a problem. Like if, you know, in, in the sense that sometimes like CIS people will, um, like you, you can see and tell when they just are seeing you in the initial way that they see you and then pasting something over it, every time they speak right.Versus like truly interacting with you in the way in which you are. And that's something that I just don't have time for anymore. Like if I don't, if that is happening, then I just leave the space because, because I'm really, like, I'm kind of really busy and I have like a lot to do. And just like the, the idea that, that every single person has to be called out for every single moment is just like exhausting.
But I think like, there are always these like, like I really try and look out for like the moments in which, like, I can see, like someone truly just doesn't understand this thing and are like, kind of flailing a little bit and, and differentiating that from like, harm, right? Like the flailing might like, you know, like maybe you get slapped a little bit and it like stings, but like, you can still kind of parse that this person's like good. And it's like really trying.
I think it's just being a little bit more strategic with battles is maybe the, like really TLDR of it is like, um I think the, the other thing is just the way in, I think by entering spaces and having the kind of visibility that I have other people join me often. Um, other people who wouldn't be in those spaces otherwise. So like for example, in spaces that I go to teach often I have more trans composers applying and entering the space than I've seen before. I also have more people of color. And it's like, well, you know, in, in that sense, then I have more responsibility towards those people when, when, when they're entering the space to, to be an advocate and to be an ally and to be someone who is act, you know, active in that relationship. And that to me is where I want to have the work happen.
Like, like I wanna put that energy into, into my communities. And like, I think when, when that happens, I feel like then like that energy can like multiply over time. Right. That, that the, the initial like, and, you know, for example, something like Wildflower Composers, which used to be young women composers camp, I have seen folks who like, it is their first time composing. And like the fact that, like, I get to talk to people the first time they're composing nurture them through that process and then see them have their peace played by other non men is just like this incredible experience. I'm just like, oh my God, I wish I had that. But B like, I feel like when, when that happens, you, you, you know, you're creating a, like the first rotation of something that can turn into a lot more energy than like someone who's already kind of chugging along. And you have to like, press break on their thing with your bare hands and like then you get kind of, you know like rubbed raw or something yeah
TORI MARCHIONY: Yeah! And you do a ton of work with up-and-coming composers, whether it’s mentoring with Luna Lab or Wildflower Composers, or the Boulanger Initiative- this year you join Fifth House Ensemble’s Fresh Inc Festival as lead composition faculty…and I’m wondering if there’s anything you’ve observed about the new generation of composers that you find particularly concerning, or promising? And then, continuing that train of thought, is there any advice that you hear yourself giving all the time?
INTI FIGGIS-VIZUETA: …Um, yeah. Okay. So yeah, part of this has been that pedagogy is something that touched me really hard. Like it, it touched me when I was trying to learn this initially. And I think being kind of late to it, I kind of felt it, like, it felt very heavy in the way in which kind of idolization of, I, I combined words idolization as well as idealization of older generations of composers of kind of really specific streams of aesthetic of what expressivity feels like or sounds like, or, or is like. And, and so I, I rec when I see that pedagogy in my students, I really try and address it. And that's part of like, why I pursue that work is that I, I feel like, I feel like I wish someone had told me what I could tell people, which is that you can, you can do this and you can make beautiful music with amazing people and you know do, do it well um while still pursuing your own way of doing it.
Like to, to me, there, there there's unevenness sometimes in the way in which we ask people to use their bodies as composers. And, and so I think part of it is trying to make sure that there's a level of evenness and democratization and, and creativity that players can also put into their music. And I, I just remember as a student, I was discouraged from doing that so hard. I was like, They were like, it takes too much time. You you'll, you'll never get a good performance. Do you really wanna waste this opportunity doing this thing? Like, you know, these, these people are so important. Do you really want burden them with asking them to like, read a sentence or something, you know, in, in the sense of like maybe an instruction of how to interact instead of the, you know, writing it out prescriptively. And so I, I think like seeing that, and then also, I mean, uh, I wanna say this delicately, um, there are certain older generations that are still the ones who are points of first contact for young composers that, um, I'm te I teach I, and part of it is that I recognize that pedagogy when I see it sometimes.
And I'm like, okay, we're gonna have to talk about this. Um, so like, that's the concerning part. The promising part for me has been just how, how technology has helped people think about sound in particularly like I've found like a lot of my students love TikTok. You know, I've had students who are really kind of creative in the way and way it inspires them to make music. So like the idea of field recording and video recording collage, creating your own kinds of visual media to create music to all feels like stuff that's just super generative and gets us outside of some of the, the pitfalls of kind of a traditional pedagogy toward classic composition. So that's that one. And then the last question was
TORI MARCHIONY: If there's advice that you find yourself giving over and over.
INTI FIGGIS-VIZUETA: Advice, I find myself giving. Yeah. I mean, you know, one thing that that comes up for me is just this idea that composing equals writing music for everyone. And that being kind of both in the sense of like writing towards an everyone audience, as well as the idea that when you're kind of creating notation, you're trying to make it as immediately decipherable for any anyone in the world. But the moment that you do that, you basically, to yourself within the context of notation that's already happened, right. And approaches that have already been done. And so it's like this kind of like this, I don't know this limiting factor that, that, or this kind of filter that, that we're taught to give ourselves. And that filter, I think is called quality or called a fit or called correctness or rightness. And, and that, that, that, that's something that needs to be critically engaged and needs to be like, you know, shaken a little bit, you know, maybe you break the thing and you can tape it back together.
Um, and maybe you'll feel bad once you break it and you tape it back together. But like maybe you'll see something, hopefully you see something that you, that you wouldn't have seen before when that is such a part of how I have found being able to do it, I guess, like for a long time, and being able to like work with the people who I only dreamed about like 10 years ago or whatever, um, is a sense that, that came from pursuing my own way of speaking and pursuing my own way of communicating and thinking about how sound and creativity can be organized in time. And that, like, if I'm, if I'm not teaching others to, to also pursue that, then I don't really know what, I don't really know what I'm doing. Right. Like it's like, you know, cuz it is not like I'm not going there to be like, I, yes, you really need to double your flute and clarinet at the octave to really like, get this texture that you want.
Because like, you know, of course that's like helpful advice. Maybe I say it sometimes, but like I think a bigger part of it is like, wh-why, how are you thinking of the clarinet? What does, what about the, the physical nature of the clarinet, the way in which it engages overtones it's construction itself? How does, how, how can you let that affect the way in which you think about it instead of just a pitch machine or just like a, a color that you can throw into space because there's also a human attached to the thing that you're asking and someone who themselves are this like encyclopedia of music that they've played. And I think that like when you start to ask people to engage with their personhood in their music, you get something so much more special than not more special. Like it's not a competition, but like, you know that, that you, you can touch something that otherwise, if you don't know you aren't touching it, you won't touch it or, or it'll be accidental again,
TORI MARCHIONY: it seems to me like you have a pretty optimistic view of people, and I'm wondering how much might have to do with your upbringing in these community organizing spaces. Because I could also imagine seeing how slow and cyclical progress can be making you really sour on people instead. So yeah, just curious…
INTI FIGGIS-VIZUETA: you know i think part of it is just that I’ve met, I've met enough people who I, I genuinely think, believe in the things that we do and believe in me and believe in each other and in the, in the kind of optimistic and like idealistic way that I, I want to be. So if I surround myself with other people who believe that and want to, to be that as, as much as me then than it can be. And so that, that that's part of it. And, and I think that that also interacts a little bit with this kind of institution thing. And this community thing is that um I have found that it, it, isn't a value that is imparted by institutions. You know, it's, it's one that people either have to bring or they have to cultivate it or, or, or whatever. And, and I guess I also found out that I can't, I can't not say anything when I interact, you know, when I see things and when I hear things and when I do, and maybe that also is this kind of this, so back to, to again, speak, you know, speaking truth to power, or like trying to, trying to act, actually get to truth, um, in, in every, in every moment or something and, you know, not truth being this like thing that we can achieve, but it being this kind of dialogic and, and, and, and building thing that, that you kind of build over time, um.
TORI MARCHIONY (VOICEOVER):
Inti figgis vizueta is acutely aware of both the power and responsibility she has to create her world with every interaction… and it was my pleasure to learn a little bit more about her point of view.
Many thanks to inti for making time to speak with us and thank YOU, so much, for listening to the HearTOGETHER Podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra- if you enjoyed this episode please be sure like, subscribe, rate, review, comment, and share with your friends. I’m Tori Marchiony, and we’ll be back next month with more stories about music, social justice, and all the life in between.
As we exit, I hope you’ll enjoy a bit more of Imago, composed by inti figgis-vizueta and performed by Attacca Quartet…
Till next time…