I’ve never done away with my Cuban musical heritage. Even the compositions that might not sound Cuban, if we sat down and I explained it, if I showed the harmonics, the camouflage, they’d hear it. — Manuel Valera
His current focus is on composing. “I’ve always been super engaged with it. All day, every day. Even watching TV, I’m always thinking about things having to do with composition; how to develop things, how to approach it from different angles. I’ve been studying 12-tone rows and Schoenberg, I’m really full force into that now. In my mind, composition is very numerical, and I’m always trying to find a way to merge 12-tone and atonal music with the music that I hear. The more I study, the more it becomes clear. It’s all about the sound, not the notes, not how you’re going from here to there but the sounds and the textures, going to harmonic places that you wouldn’t get with jazz harmonies.”
His latest effort, a trio project titled finds him getting into composer Antonio Vivaldi’s head and not just doing another clever variation on the composer’s four violin concerti. “The music is entirely different than Vivaldi’s,” Valera said. “It would have been boring to do another jazz version of the piece. I took a different direction. There’s some avant-garde things in there, some different tonal things.” Valera described his inspiration for the piece. “At first, I thought it would be a way to deal with the whole issue of climate change, to make it meaningful in musical and emotional ways. But I decided I didn’t want to make it too political. So it’s sort of, in my layman’s opinion, as if Vivaldi was alive today and how he would address the seasons now that we’re on our way to one long season, rather than four. Vivaldi’s music is mostly very happy, very uplifting. Mine is too, but in a different way. Actually, it’s much darker in its way.”
The winner previously of two New Jazz Works grants from Chamber Music America, Valera is currently working on a suite, much as he did with The Four Seasons, designed around the same celestial concept as Gustav Holst’s The Planets. “I’ve always been intrigued by the solar system. The music isn’t based on Holst’s at all.” Valera said that pursuing the project has given him a further chance to study and write music in something of a different style. He’s gotten inspiration reading Nicolas Slonimsky’s 1947 classic Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, a book also said to have informed musicians from Schoenberg to John Coltrane. “It’s based on Slonimsky’s way of composition but in my own style, more angular.” He’s hoping to record the finished pieces early next year.