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Interview with Awilda Villarini

Interview conducted by Israel Torres Penchi, Editor SIEMPRE, New York City July 15, 2004

Awilda Villarini is a Puerto Rican pianist, composer who lives in New York City. After being forced to retire as a pianist because of a back injury, she has started to perform again and recently recorded two CDs. The first one, Dancing in Latin America is on the market. The second one will be available in about six months. On the occasion of this release, we interviewed Awilda.

When did you start playing the piano?

I was about 10. My mother knew some music and she started to teach me the notes.
When she realized I learned very fast she took me to a teacher in Caguas, Mrs. Provi Jiménez, and shortly thereafter my father bought me a piano. A few months later I was already playing some pieces.

And when did you start to compose music?

About a year later…I think I was about 11. I composed pieces in the style of the ones I was learning on the piano. Later I found out that this is an accepted way to teach composition. I did not know much theory, therefore, I could not write down the music. My compositions started like improvisations. Except, I remembered them and kept working on them until I finished them. I memorized them and then they were ready to be performed to the neighbors who visited us.

When did you offer your first recital? That is, besides the ones you gave to your neighbors…

I was 14 when I gave my first piano recital. By then, I had composed a sonata in four movements using a very classic style.

But I thought you told me you did not study composition or theory…

When I was 12, I started to study theory at the Academia Figueroa in San Juan and began to write down my music. I was studying a sonata by Haydn with Carmelina Figueroa and intuitively I followed his style and the sonata form to compose mine.

Where did you continue your musical studies?

I graduated from High School at 16 and received a grant from the Department of Instruction in Puerto Rico to study at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland. I wanted to study piano and composition, but was not allowed because I did not have the necessary background in harmony. Therefore, I majored in piano.

I read in your bio that you studied in Europe and in different universities and conservatories in the United States.

Besides the Peabody Conservatory I studied at The Juilliard School and at the music department at New York University.

I understand you had to stop giving concerts because of a back injury.

Yes, it was horrible. Its what I call the very dissonant harmonies in my life. After a back surgery, I suffered from chronic pain for several years. I searched for medical treatment, but was unable to ease the pain. I tried to give concerts, but was forced to either cancel or perform with intense pain. That is the time when I went back to composing and wrote compositions for voice and piano, for different instruments and for orchestra. In a way, I used composition to muffle my emotional pain of not being able to play the piano.

How do you feel now?

I feel great and ready to play again. I just finished recording two CDs and was surprised I could play again. It was wonderful!

Do you prefer to compose or perform?

I enjoy both, although they are quite different. When I play, I enjoy the encouragement and energy that the audience gives me. Composition is a solitary process that gives me pleasure when I see a basic musical idea transform itself into a finished composition.

I am impressed that you have composed works not only for orchestra, voice and different instruments, but also in different styles, including popular music. Why? How does that happen?

It happens because I believe that all music has the same goal and reason for being, whether it is popular or classical. My goal is…to express myself emotionally and musically. I believe that we are very lucky to find ourselves in the 21st century and have so much musical history behind us. Right now anything goes, in terms of style. There are composers writing romantic music, others very avant-garde music using dissonant harmonies or electronic sounds. And, why not? It is wonderful to have the freedom to be able to use the best tool for each specific purpose.

Does that mean that since you are a composer, you can take liberties in your interpretations?

No, it just the opposite. I am very respectful of the music composed by other composers. Of course in romantic music, for example, a certain freedom in tempi is part of the style. But basically, my interpretations are limited to the composer’s intentions. If I want to be more creative, I write my own music.

It seems to me that when one door has closed for you in your life, you went somewhere else and another one opened. You had to stop performing and go back to composing and then go back to being a pianist and composer. I believe that has taken quite a bit of courage and will on you part. Can you talk about that?

Adversity of any kind can be an opportunity for growth. Don’t get me wrong. I would love to have had and have a very, very easy and happy life. But sometimes life, or a higher power does not bring you that. I believe one should take these difficulties as opportunities for growth and development, not only in the area one is working on, but philosophically and spiritually. That is the only way.

I can mention an anecdote. I met a lovely person in Puerto Rico and told her about my bad luck, physical pain and not being able to play the piano. She answered: “Have you seen the back of an embroidery, full of knots and threads that do not make any sense? But when you look at the other side, you discover the beauty of the embroidery. This is how God works. We see only the part that is ugly and does not make sense. But He is working and making you work on that beautiful pattern.” To this day, I cannot forget this conversation and still thank her for her words of wisdom.

Do you enjoy teaching as much as performing or composing?

Yes, I enjoy sharing my knowledge and seeing a student develop and grow musically.

When you teach piano, is it helpful or harmful that you are a composer?

I believe it is helpful. Besides, that is who I am, that is the talent I have received. Music is liquid, like water. Therefore, I do not believe in compartmentalizing it. The knowledge from one area helps another. For example, it is very easy for me to write for the piano, since I have studied the repertoire and technique. By the same token, as a teacher I can express my musical ideas not only as a pianist, but also as a composer.

What are your musical plans?

It would be a wonderful experience to write the music for a musical or an opera and collaborate with writers and other artists. Besides, I see myself teaching in a university or conservatory and active as a pianist and composer.

What are your plans in the near future?

I have been asked to give several recitals using the repertoire from the CDs, and record another CD only of my music for the piano. I am planning to include my piano sonata and some etudes that I am still working on.

The CD Dancing in Latin America can be bought at www.cdbaby.com/awilda and www.amazon.com.