Words by Anna Hinkley
CMI continues to celebrate Women’s History Month with the music of internationally-acclaimed composer Gabriela Ortiz. One of today’s foremost Mexican classical composers, Ortiz’s compositions draw on both European classical traditions and Mexican musical roots to create vibrant and captivating music.
Ortiz was born in Mexico City to musical parents, both of whom were members of the Mexican folk music ensemble Los Folkloristas. After a music-filled early life, she began studying piano at the age of nine. Ortiz knew she wanted to be a composer by age fifteen, when a piano teacher introduced her to Béla Bartók’s composition Mikrokosmos. Since then, Ortiz has composed for chamber ensemble, orchestra, opera, and more.
Ortiz graduated from Mexico’s Escuela Nacional de Música with a degree in composition in 1990. While there, Ortiz studied under both Federico Ibarra and Mario Lavista, both important Mexican composers. She then studied abroad with English composer Robert Saxton at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and Simon Emmerson at The City University in London, where she received a PhD in 1996. Her compositions have been commissioned and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Kronos Quartet, Cuarteto Latinoamericano, The Malmo Symphony Orchestra, Simon Bolivar Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, BBC Scottish Symphony, and The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, among others.
Ortiz has received many honors, including Mexico’s Premio Nacional de Ciencias y Artes (the National Prize for Arts and Literature), the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship; the Fulbright Fellowship; and many others. Her music combines elements of Mexican folk music and popular music with twentieth- and twenty-first century compositional styles. Her works are often rhythmically complex and percussive, and include the dreamy chamber music work for two harps and steel drum, Río de Mariposas, as well as the tranquil solo piano piece Patios Serenos. For the Kronos Quartet, Ortiz wrote Altar de Muertos, based on the Mexican traditions surrounding the holiday Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Larger works include pieces like Concerto Candela, for percussion and orchestra, which was premiered by percussionist Gabriela Jiménez.
One of Ortiz’s most complex works, ¡Únicamente la verdad! or Only the Truth, is an opera with a libretto written by her brother, Ruben Ortiz Torres. Based on the story of Camelia la Tejana, a drug smuggler who shot and killed her lover, it explores themes of myth and reality. Although Camelia herself was a fictional character in the narcocorrido tune “Contrabando y Traición,” her legend has grown: several women have claimed to be Camelia; tabloid stories feature her; and even a telenovela was produced based on her. Ortiz’s ¡Únicamente la verdad! interacts with all of these aspects as it examines the construction of truth.
More recently, Ortiz was commissioned by the LA Philharmonic to write a piece to pair with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The result was Yanga, a work for percussion quartet, choir, and orchestra. Yanga is based on a sixteenth century Mexican slave who escaped slavery, liberated other slaves, and eventually established the first free town in the Americas. About Ortiz’s work, conductor Gustavo Dudamel said, “What she creates is amazing, and she represents this soul of…Mexican music, Latin music.” In Yanga, Ortiz highlights the African influence on Mexican music with the percussion quartet. Featuring the Tambuco Percussion Ensemble, the LA Philharmonic premiered Yanga under the direction of Dudamel in October, 2019, as part of the symphony’s centennial celebration.
Although she is still based in Mexico, Gabriela Ortiz has a strong Indiana connection: she was a visiting faculty member at Indiana University in Bloomington in 2008. Her music has been featured in a number of live performances put on by members of the Jacobs School of Music and the Latin American Music Center.
In the world of European-dominated classical music, Gabriela Ortiz contributes an important compositional voice as both a woman and a Latin American. Her music showcases the musical heritages of the Americas, only some of which are rooted in Europe. Like her compositional forbearers Silvestre Revueltas and Carlos Chávez, Ortiz has written works that stand out in the classical canon.