Music That Moves Beyond Music


Electroacoustic musician José Martínez on pushing music forward and opening space for interdisciplinarity

Electroacoustic musician and Assistant Professor of Music José Martínez in his first performance in Waterville, at the Greene Block + Studios.
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Marti Stone Photography
March 15, 2022

Watching percussionist José Martínez perform live is to witness tradition and technology collide in a whirl of movement and sound.

Martínez’s innovative style blends Latin, Colombian, and Afro-Caribbean influences with modern trends like experimental music and free improvisation. With iPads, congas, bongos, and laptops—controlled with his own software—the award-winning composer and electroacoustic musician does more than make sound. He sculpts it. 

Originally from Cali, Colombia, Martínez earned an undergraduate degree from Bogotá’s National University of Colombia’s Music Conservatory in percussion and composition. Accolades include Colombia’s 2013 National Cultural Prize and a Rainwater Grant for Innovation in 2019 from the University of Texas at Austin’s Butler School of Music, where he earned his doctorate in music composition with an emphasis on electroacoustic music.

Colby’s newest assistant professor of music engaged in a lively discussion (edited for length and clarity) about music-making, questioning tradition, and using the computer as an instrument.

You started off studying chemical engineering. How did you find your way to music?

I was always into rock music and metal. I tried a little bit of guitar and piano, but eventually, I gravitated toward the drums. At home, we didn’t really have any artists, musicians, or anyone who cared for music-making. Since I didn’t have a support structure, I just went into chemical engineering.

I had to fight a little bit to be able to do what I wanted. My family wasn’t very supportive of the idea of me going into music school, but I applied for grants and fellowships and got in. Now they’re very proud of me.

José Martínex
Percussionist José Martínez (Photo by Tristan Spinski)

How did your interest in electroacoustic music develop?

I think my generation has a really intrinsic relationship with computers, cell phones, and other technological devices. Using the computer to make music wasn’t a crazy thought. People had been doing this for years, and they opened the path for us. 

I had worked hard at the conservatory to refine my percussion performance, and I wanted to expand what I could do. The main way I found was to plug in a couple of microphones, design a system on the computer, and play together with it. Later, I realized that I could take this idea and develop it much further.

Was this something you learned in the conservatory or on your own?

It was a lot of self-teaching because this practice wasn’t too relevant back then where I was. One barrier that was really tough for me was language. All of the software and a lot of the books I was trying to read were in English or in French. And at that time, my English was not that good. This, together with the knowledge barrier, made it all a very slow and painful process. I decided to work mostly project-oriented, and this helped me build up the skills that I needed.

Your creative work examines the relationship between traditional music and modern trends. What is that relationship and how is it manifested in your work?

Traditional instruments have a folk nature from people and society who’ve used them for generations. I think that’s happening with devices like a microphone—it’s starting to not just be a technical device but a folk object, in that it’s common and could even be said to have lost its novelty. I embrace that because that means we can misuse it.

There’s also a duality between traditional music that has a museum quality that needs to be untouched; it’s the music of our ancestors, and it’s there to remind us where we come from. And then there’s the other side, which is that we have to keep creating new things, always looking at the past to learn and build from it. I’m interested to see where those things cross and to find some flexibility in that tight preservation of music. It has to be done carefully because it’s a tradition and needs to be respected; however, it also belongs to the present generation, which makes it malleable. 

José Martínez and Leymis Bolaños Wilmott
José Martínez collaborates frequently with dancers, filmmakers, and other artists on a variety of projects. Here, he performs the piece “Atavism(o)” with Leymis Bolaños Wilmott.

You say that the computer is a whole instrument. How so?

I think of the computer as an instrument from my perspective as a person who went to a conservatory. As a percussionist, I was always surrounded by many instruments of all kinds. So that’s a bias, but it informs how I approach my persona on stage and how I think about the computer. The machine is there waiting to be controlled by other more accessible devices, some of them actually imitate instruments. In fact, what really matters is how I talk to the computer. 

How do you do that?

In my current setup, I use two iPads, a launchpad, a footswitch, a fader box, and other smaller stuff; I also have two congas that are being processed live. Think about it as a constant, massive stream of numbers going to the computer. If we could measure every detail of the performance of a pianist, we would encounter a similar idea—many constant details being sent from the brain to the hands and the feet. It’s the nature of music that requires detailed control to be expressive.

Your performance at Colby’s Greene Block + Studios last fall was your first in Waterville. What drew you to Colby?

I like that many students at Colby study music at the same time they study other fields. This opens spaces to find perhaps unusual interactions that can promote interesting interdisciplinary projects. That’s the whole point and the beauty of a place like Colby. I’m excited to see what we create together.