Fernando Otero

The work of Argentine composer and pianist Fernando Otero often blurs the lines between popular and classical music. Romance is 21st Century chamber music.

Presented as a collection of short pieces, sized for the Twitter age, the music draws from traditional elements of Argentine folk music and tango but remains decidedly cosmopolitan. It’s meticulously constructed, yet at times it suggests the deceptive casualness of a jazz improvisation.

A given piece can take a film music feel (“Arbolitos”) or evoke, in spirit if not in the writing itself, Heitor Villa-Lobos’s “Bachiana Brasileira No 5” (“Contacto Permanente”). Yet another track may suggest a study for piano (“Preludio 4”) or refer directly to tough, neighborhood-bar, sawdust-on-the-floor tango (the milonga-driven “Cancha de Bochas” or “Piringundín de Almagro”).

Furthermore, by design, the tracks are, in Otero’s words “modular.” As such, they can be heard as self-contained pieces or, by connecting certain motifs, gestures, and themes that reappear throughout in various guises, the listener might combine three or more pieces to create suites under the arc of the larger program. It’s a proposition that evokes the one by Argentine writer, jazz fan and amateur clarinetist Julio Cortázar in his novel Hopscotch. In the book, he invited the reader to construct his or her own novel by choosing the order in which they would read certain chapters.

The overall intent remains clear, however. The title Romance, Otero notes, “is not about boy-meets-girl but it refers to the idea of searching in the depths of beauty.”

For that, he decided to “put aside some of the recurrent formats I had used until now, such as improvisation, and make a recording of chamber music that truly felt like classical music.  And I wanted a recording that emphasized the melodic aspect, rather than the timbre or the rhythmic elements. I wanted a recording that would move you because of the melodic beauty of the music rather than the technical ability of the individual musicians or the group. I wanted something more emotional than technical — or pyrotechnical.”

And in that pursuit, Otero went back to his childhood, to the sound he heard growing up as the son of the late Elsa Marval, an international lyric soprano and actress.

The results, exemplified by pieces such as “La Tierra Sagrada” or the art song “Until the Dawn,” feature voices in ways he has never utilized before.

“She died a year and a half ago,” Otero says. “And she is part of this recording. She and I had been talking about a new work of chamber music with a more melodic emphasis. She was a singer and somehow, I wrote some of these pieces thinking of her, of her taste. The use of voices, and specifically soprano voices, is directly related to her, to her passing. I was her accompanist many times growing up, so while this is the first time I use voices this way, this is a setting, an atmosphere, that feels very comfortable, very familiar. This is what my mom would have sung on this record. It all began unconsciously, and at some point, it became a conscious decision.”

True searches take us into unexpected places and in Romance, it also turned loss into beauty.

Romance was released in November, 2012

Fernando González