A profile of a 2016 NextNotes finalist

by Michael Cyrs

A Google search of Ángel Jochi Hernandez-Camen (or Josh, as he prefers to be called) pulls up a small handful of sites. You’ll find a video of his masterful “Ancient Ruins,” a short bio from your esteemed Forum, and some scattered notes and performances. Go deeper down the rabbit hole, and you’ll end up learning about Mesoamerican cultures, Aztec gods, complex polyrhythm, and a litany of other musical and non-musical topics. Most artists with thrice the portfolio don’t provide so much backstory.

I’m lucky enough to have taken the next step into the wormhole of information surrounding Josh: I got to speak with him. Shortly into our conversation, I’d learned the names of not only composers, but of historians, academics, native languages, and of cultural censorship. You see, Josh’s music is about so much more than his roots. It’s about authenticity and voice. It’s about presenting a picture that’s not merely idiosyncratic, but massively dense. Sure, there are enough musical elements in a Bela Bartok piece to discuss for years, but how many of them detail such rich histories?

Josh and I speak briefly about what got him to this point. He’s now 17, and has been composing on a grand scale for over five years. He’s classically trained, like so many other prodigies. But his interests are directed toward postmodernism more thoroughly than most composers entering their thirties. When I said how his pieces, most notably “Dreams of Coatlicue,” reminded me distinctly of twentieth century composers, he expanded: “A lot of my stuff is very Debussy and Ravel, but in the last couple of years, I’ve gone more experimental. I enjoy New Complexity, which is basically a style where the composers are experimenting with complexity in every layer of music.” I had planned to ask him to elaborate on how his music isn’t preoccupied with time or key signature later in the conversation, but he ended up answering my question before I even got to it. Even in conversation, Josh’s mind extends itself far beyond the present talking point.

Anyway, “Coatlicue” and the newer “Nawi Ollin” (loosely translated to “cyclical movement”) both deal heavily in New Complexity, showing signs of atonality, arrhythmia, polyrhythm, and advanced technique. During string quartet performances of Josh’s pieces, the players will often utilize spiccato, where the bow is bounced off the string instead of traditional bowing or plucking (pizzicato). This is highly impressionistic, visceral music. As I watch the conductor and musicians attempt to piece together the pulse, I get even more lost in the transitive nature of the pieces. Naturally, many of the moments on “Nawi Ollin” are meant to represent the changing of seasons.

And here’s a crucial element of Josh’s pieces: they rely more on a surreal, fluid timing than a rigid, Western one. Where exactly do the embedded rhythms come from? Mostly from his time taking lessons on Aztec percussion. These are beats that are handed down in a cultural way, not a scientific one. Usually considered an Eastern style of learning, Josh utilizes these techniques early in the composition process. “There’s no written notation for it,” he says. “It is in a time signature, but it’s not conceptualized that way. To be honest, I had trouble notating them.” Coming from such an enormous and encyclopedic mind, I almost forgot about the difficulty and patience it must take to bring these pieces to life. His speaking voice is rapid, and I imagine his process shares this quality.

Many of these ideas are already behind Josh. His rough plans for future compositions are so conceptual and deep, he’s keeping them nameless at this juncture. Though his work has borrowed many elements from his mother and Mexican heritage, he’d like to take things a bit further. When asked about this, he started going on a tangent about the legitimacy of the accepted facts and history surrounding Mesoamerican culture and history. I sneak in a question about how his interest in music relates to his interest in social history and politics, but he’s already way ahead of me. For Josh, these are natural extensions of his work as a Mexican composer.

In essence, the research involved for composing is tenfold as dense as the music itself. In recent months, Josh has done considerable independent research on academics like James Maffie, who questions whether or not the Aztecs were the polytheistic people that the history books so often peg them as. “When the Spanish came to Mesoamerica, they didn’t come to learn the culture. A lot of what was written about it is Spanish, not native,” explains Josh. “They burned [many of] the actual Mesoamerican books. But it turns out that people still remembered the things in these books. There are still people today who practice it and know a lot about it.”

Josh plans to get to the frontlines of these cultures and peoples before composing his next pieces. “I don’t want an outsider’s perspective. I want to be there. I want to participate in the ceremonies. It’s less about the music and more about the people who do it.” He remains open-minded about the process right down to where exactly he might travel. He mentions some cultures that have been relatively well-preserved because of their geography. Islands off the Pacific coast of Mexico or communities at high altitudes are good candidates. His plan for the summer is to learn Nahuatl before making any big moves. Apart from that, Josh will continue to research at his usual breakneck pace.

To begin such a conquest for authenticity seems like overkill on the surface, but ask yourself instead where else a 17 year-old composer of Josh’s knowledge would be taking his next steps in music. With a classical background so firmly rooted in academic understanding, it’s natural for someone to want to subvert the textbooks and focus instead on the humanistic understanding of things. “I’m going from the ground up,” he explains. “I don’t want to say abandon, but it is kind of an abandonment of classical music and classical instruments. I’m probably going to have to spend a few years immersed totally.”

Before I spoke with Josh, I wanted to ask him how he juggled his school life, his social media presence, and other errata of teenage living. After speaking with him, I realized that such subjects are beyond the point. Josh is the very definition of method-oriented composition. Very little in his world exists outside of his music. It’s true that he has some strides to make in terms of condensing his ideas into palatable language. However, this shortcoming remains in line with his general ethos. It’s a humbling and lovely experience to follow the logic he presents.

Josh’s methods and ideas behind those methods have a global feeling to them. Beneath the cracks of general, philharmonic composition lies an ocean of musical theory and academic explanation. Beneath the cracks of “Nawi Ollin” lies something deeper that not only connects the listener with Josh’s upbringing and philosophical interests, but with a broader sense of emotional affect that only the finest musical works conjure. If I can see falling leaves in my mind’s eye by just listening to the themes of nature in “Nawi Ollin,” I can’t imagine what I’ll be able to see when he begins putting his newer ideas to print. In Josh’s compositions, there’s a wormhole of emotions and wisdom that’s richer than looking up a dozen Wikipedia articles. There’s a connection to real people.