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The New York Times

"Immediately striking...bright, freewheeling and sophisticated." 


The Boston Globe
"Marvelously alive to the worlds of colors and glints and shimmers that instruments in combination are waiting to have loosed from them."


The L.A. Times

"Crickets and frogs in the night jungle, a slithering 12-tone snake and a shamanic healer are conjured up. …what makes Desenne's music haunting is the composer's continual off-kilter turns of phrase. You think you know what to expect, the landscape is familiar, but there is always something a little spooky lurking around the corner."
Mark Swed


Paul Desenne (Caracas 1959 - Boston 2023)


Venezuelan, French and American cellist & composer.


Guggenheim Fellow 2009

Radcliffe Fellow 2010

Premier Prix, premier Nommé, Cello, Conservatoire Supérieur de Paris, 1985


Music performed worldwide 


A slightly longer narrative:


I started composing at 14, in Caracas, where some friends and I founded a group. Inspired by British, very modern pop and rock music, as well as by the local music of our city, we invented nearly two hours of original, perfectly established pieces of astonishing complexity, performed from memory. We were all under 16, we rehearsed literally on the street, where we all originally had met, and later in empty theatres, classrooms or on a porch.


The dozen recitals we gave as a Quintet in and around Caracas, spanning two years, marked my first steps composing and performing music, and I simultaneously started to study formally under Iannis Ioannidis, Greek composer in exile, a formidable teacher, with a bourse of the Venezuelan Institute of Culture and Fine Arts, INCIBA.


I moved to France in 1976 to finish my French high-school studies, after doing all my schooling in the French Lycée in Caracas. Upon graduating I was accepted to continue preparatory studies to the Grandes Écoles (Philosophy) but I chose to continue cello and music, various steps leading to the Conservatoire Supérieur de Paris in 1981. This was, of course, in the old building Rue de Rome, still in the enclave of printed music and vinyl records, and cassettes. “Classical Music” was still regarded as a reasonable career in some circles. There was a star-system ploughing full steam ahead, with real revenues from a record industry. It was the era of Rostropovich, Ligeti, Giulini; the birth of IRCAM. 


It was in that context, ironically, that I studied Venezuelan music most extensively, with expatriated traditional music performers and friends Gabriel Castillo, Mario Guacarán, Guillermo Jiménez Leal. Unknown figures passing in the night, under the beams of Parisian light. 

I invented ways of incorporating my instrument, the cello, to various groups, with the harp, the cuatro, maracas, and others. Joropo Llanero was predominant, but during my decade of studies in Paris I also played professionally in Tango ensembles with bandoneonist and arranger Oscar Guidi, singer Ernesto Rondó, Colombian Andean traditional music with many artists such as Edison Carranza, Consuelo Uribe, as well as in various Caribbean genres, such as Charanga or Salsa.  

Using this experience, meanwhile, as I kept performing in classical groups, I decided to write Venezuelan music for my chamber music partners, striving to find a way of scoring with the same polyrhythmic intensity we got from traditional performances. 


The first step was to incorporate the cuatro, a formidable strummed descendant of the Renaissance four-stringed guitar, to the composition, as a continuo in the purest baroque style. Two woodwind: flute and oboe; and two strings: violin and cello, were to design in mid air all kinds of renderings of previously unimaginable instrumental interactions in Venezuelan music. 


Interlocking rhythmic pairings, polyrhythmic webs of lines, unexpected articulations sprung from the combination of a traditional accompanist and classical instruments. Following this idea I composed three chamber quintets in the 1980’s which are the main body of the Tocatas Galeónicas CD, the first publication of my works. These quintets with a cuatro extend the traditional fandango and other short song forms through scoring, opening a new poetic register in the longer constructions, without exiting the fundamental references of a rich musical spectrum.


This is the way I started to consolidate my language in Venezuelan composition, with no other intention than to create exciting new works in my native musical tongue. Yet defining this language would be like putting borders where none exist. The rhythmic dialectics of strummed 3 or 6 beat formats are present everywhere in Latin America, in every country, as are the main drumming patterns of African origin. In Venezuela we understand the Chacarera or the Candombe of the Southern Hemisphere; as well as any Tango, Chorinho, Cumbia, Ranchera, Chachachá, Bambuco or Currulao and so many others. Our musical grammar is vast, and it always reinvents itself, giving it some sort of infinity, a Baroque multiplication of versions and variations like the clouds and angels depicted in the period, ad infinitum … but the most important trait is probably best described by Lévy-Strauss when he uses the linguistic concept of first level of articulation applied to mythology, basing an entire book, a huge study of Mythology, on the form of a chosen musical work, the Sacre du Printemps. Cultures cannot create new narratives, nor any, for that matter, if they are not founded on an identifiable and readily functional pre-existing system of articulated values, basic elements of meaning and sound that bring it to life. In this sense, at the other end of the spectrum, totally “abstract” perceptions call in an arsenal of images and emotional dynamics to constitute some form of basic grammar. There is no Terra ignota in Music; perception always tries to group and understand, yet that effort wears out, it encounters a limit when it isn’t helped by perceptual realities crystallizing and calling our attention. 


(more to come...) 

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