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RWM Research: AVANT #12. Part I. A monographic on the work and historical context of Carles Santos, featuring an interview with Pere Portabella

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The first instalment of the monographic dedicated to Carles Santos features an interview with Pere Portabella.

To a large extent, the history of the piano, from its origins in the eighteenth century up until the present day, is also the history of the music of Western civilization over the past three hundred years. Curiously, the instrument that revolutionised learned music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, survived into the early twentieth century as the main means of popular entertainment and music transmission in the homes of the new European middle class. The arrival of electronic media pushed the piano into the background in comparison to its previous social role, but even in the unstable context of music in the first half of the twentieth century, with its radical changes and new sound sources, the piano held onto its status and mutated along with the times. Thus, most composers who spurred on cutting-edge music on both sides of the Atlantic around the 1950s, used the piano as a tool and as a means for expression.

The life and career of the musician Carles Santos (Vinaròs, 1940) has also been inseparably linked to the presence of the piano. "There are piano artists, and there are artists who have turned the piano into a work of art. Santos is a piano artist and an artist who has turned the piano into a work of art," wrote Manel Guerrero in the catalogue for the exhibition "Visca el piano!" So much so that even his brief period without a piano (when, rebellious, he sold it to buy a motorbike) allowed Santos to synthesize his relationship to the instrument with the same irony that hovers over many of his creations.

The education of this Valencian musician follows a similar pattern to that of other key figures in twentieth century music: he started as a student, went on to become a young performer, then a torchbearer for contemporaneity (first the Vienna, then New York versions), and later a composer. But in the case of Santos, this process acquired a transversal slant that soon led him to develop an aspect that defines his work to this day: an interest in related arts disciplines (theatre, film, dance, plastic arts), which led him to bring about a radical change in music (and particularly in the way audiences perceive the musical act).

Meeting the poet Joan Brossa was an unmistakable milestone for Carlos Santos, who describes him as the "ideologue" of the group of artists and activists that Santos himself sprung from. Their relationship deeply influenced his global conception of the performing arts which has led him, over the part forty years, to compose with a stage rather than an auditorium in mind, to mix scenes and specialities and to superimpose seemingly unrelated concepts like minimalism and romanticism. It has also led to him to make forays into film, putting forward alternatives and breaking traditional codes and structures, mainly in the company of filmmaker Pere Portabella, but also other directors like Gonzalo Herralde, Jordi Cadena and Carles Durán. In Santos’s work, extravagance, sexuality, histrionics and sarcasm are placed at the service of music and art, which he sees as a form of communication and entertainment, in the best sense of the word. Although his work implies a rupture that he shared (almost inevitably) with many of his contemporaries –the break with the single discipline, with linear narrative, stylistic continuity, and the distinction between high and low culture that can be seen in the work of Santos–, it challenges not only the status quo, but also boredom. A challenge that is part amiable and part hermetic, somewhere between popular accessibility and that unfathomable aspect of contemporaneity in music that Santos struggles to dissolve in acid.

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