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Preserving the Little-Known Works of a Groundbreaking Guatemalan Sound Artist

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Joaquín Orellana in his studio, Guatemala City, Guatemala (all photos courtesy of Joaquín Orellana and El Nuevo Museo)

For the past five decades, in a Guatemala City studio, 85-year-old sound artist Joaquín Orellana has been building unusual, sculptural útiles sonoros, or “sound utensils.” Some look like marimbas curved into miniature roller coasters; others look like sets of wind chimes designed by Alexander Calder. These homemade instruments are as functional as they are beautiful: in his own peculiar, original music notation system, Orellana has written dozens of complex experimental compositions, like “Ramajes de una marimba imaginaria” (“Branches of an Imaginary Marimba”) and La Tumba del Gran Lengua (“The Tomb of the Great Tongue”).

Despite its originality, Orellana’s work is mostly unknown outside of specific artist circles in Guatemala, Mexico, and Argentina, where he studied in the late 1960s at the Torcuato Di Tella Institute. His life’s work, highly admired in these communities, is now at risk of being lost. Many of his útiles sonoros have deteriorated over time. Since he never had access to much modern technology, his compositions were never properly recorded. It’s impossible for musicians to interpret his strange, invented music notation without Orellana directing them himself.

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Joaquín Orellana with his inventive instruments

Guatemala City’s El Nuevo Museo is currently crowdfunding a project meant to help preserve Orellana’s legacy. They hope to produce, record, and film Orellana’s most emblematic compositions; restore his deteriorating original sound sculptures; and create a digital audio/photo/video catalogue of each one. “Let’s make art history,” reads their Kickstarter campaign page. 

“Orellana’s work is experimental and unlike any other produced in Guatemala, making it very difficult for most people to understand in a conservative society such as our own,” El Nuevo Museo curator Stefan Benchoam tells Hyperallergic. This has kept his work under the mainstream radar. “At 85, he has never been willing to compromise his artistic vision. And since his work is not commercial or popular, there is not a large audience or market for it.” Orellana has had wavering support from Guatemala’s Ministry of Sports and Culture, but only on a small scale, which has permitted him to continue working and living, albeit in a precarious state. 

In addition to the Kickstarter campaign, filmmaker José Wolff has just released Imbalunaa 16-minute short film on Orellana in which the artist talks about his sound utensils and recites poetry at a bar over drinks.

While at music school in Argentina in the ‘60s, Orellana was influenced by composers like Arnold Schönberg and Richard Wagner, and then began experimenting with electroacoustics, influenced by composers like Luigi Nono and Francisco Kropfl. But when he returned to Guatemala, he didn’t have access to the electronic equipment he’d worked with. Instead, he began to deconstruct the marimba, which always had a prominent place in Guatemala’s soundscape. “When played together, his analogue marimba-inspired sound utensils result in a rich and complex sound that’s very close to the electroacoustic research he was doing in Argentina, but that substituted out electronic sequencers,” Benchoam says.

“Although it might seem that the original instrument and the sound it reproduces has been completely obliterated, [Orellana’s sound utensils are] actually an idealization of the instrument itself, and of the culture it represents,” Benchoam says. “His work portrays the linguistic mosaic of Guatemala, in which there is a great diversity of indigenous languages that are represented within our soundscape, as well as the sounds that represent our social and sociopolitical realities.”

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El Nuevo Museo is currently raising funds on Kickstarter to preserve Joaquin Orellana’s legacy. 

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