Profile: Carlos José Alvarez

PEOPLE IN THE COMMUNITY YOU SHOULD KNOW: Carlos José Alvarez – Musical Story-Teller

Who are you?

That’s a good question. I’d say i’m an artist with a healthy obsession for music and cinema, in constant search of the impact and contribution that I can make in this lifetime.

What do you do in real life? ?

I create, intending to touch and inspire others with my work.

What do you like most about what you do? ?

I consider myself a story-teller as much as a composer. I live for the moment when I know the music is working and I’m experiencing the scene or the characters come to life firsthand. It’s magic. Also, getting to work with some of the greatest musicians in the world and having them record my music. It’s incredibly fulfilling and makes all the long hours in the studio worthwhile.

Who is your greatest influence?

My parents. I can’t think of anyone who has had a greater influence and impact on my life and what I do.

Does your heritage find its way into your music?

On “Cubamerican” it most certainly did. That was my primary focus. To let my identity and my voice as a Cuban-American emerge through the music I was writing. Growing up I slowly came to understand that the loss and displacement that my family was forced to endure, and how they started over in a new country and a new language, was now part of our heritage. It makes me very proud but I’ve always felt a sadness for what they went through. My brothers and I are the beneficiaries of their sacrifice and the gratitude that I feel definitely affects my expression as an artist.

On a more musical level, I think that my background as a Cuban and classical percussionist definitely affects my music in how I apply rhythm and the way I phrase things. Also, my music has been described as very melodic, and I would agree. I’d like to think that the wonderful melodies found in the Cuban classics (that I’ve spent my life listening to) have had an influence on my melodic sensibility.

How do you get creative?

Deadlines. I’m kidding.. sort of. At the end of the day I think my most creative work occurs when I get out of my own way. When I let go of my insecurities and fears and become conscious to the fact that we all have a unique voice and individuality. When I can give myself the permission to just be Carlos and focus on the contribution that I am.

What’s inspiring you now?

I am very inspired about my next film, Una Vida: A Fable of Music and the Mind which is currently shooting in New Orleans. The main character is from Argentina and the director and I have been discussing a very unique and unexpected score for the film, which I’m super excited about.

How did you approach the score for the film Cubamerican?

This project was very personal to me from the beginning. I’ve dreamed of the opportunity to compose music that would celebrate my Cuban heritage and serve as a tribute to the sacrifices made by my parents and grandparents’ generation. I felt a deep responsibility to honor their story. It was a chance for me to create something contemporary and unique by blending the folkloric music and rhythms of Cuba with the orchestra. I remember feeling that this was an opportunity that may never come again.

The director (José Enrique Pardo) and I agreed early on that the score’s role would be to support the film’s message while transporting the audience through fifty years of Cuba’s history. We also discussed that the score’s heartbeat would be the percussion and that I would be performing it. It was a unique process in that I was recording the percussion while I was composing and I would allow my playing to influence my writing. I wanted elements of the score to feel like they were in slow motion, as if time were standing still, while keeping everything authentic and unmistakably Cuban. I was fortunate enough to record the music using first-class Cuban musicians along with the City of Prague Philharmonic. It was a daunting and exciting process from beginning to end.

Describe a special moment for you when scoring this film?

There were a couple. The score was always an important element in telling this story. The film was a very long work in progress and there was a moment when we knew in our hearts that the film was working and that we were creating something very special. My personal goal was to push myself beyond what I had done before and have this be an incredible growing experience for me, and I felt I had achieved that. The second, was going into the studio with my 85 year old grandmother to record the end credit song for the film, Un Canto A Mi Cuba. It was a song she had written decades ago. It had been her life-long dream to record her own music and she had never been given the opportunity. I didn’t fully realize the importance behind what I was doing until she started singing into that microphone. She left me speechless. She was born for this and it almost didn’t happen.

What is your most favorite piece that you have composed?

Exodus/ Main Titles from the score to Cubamerican is up there. It’s a very emotional part of the film and I was very moved and inspired while writing it.

Which well known musician inspires you as a musician?

It’s hard for me to say that I’m inspired by any one musician. We have 400+ years of music from all over the world at our fingertips and I’m always listening. I love and listen to all types of music and am continually inspired and influenced.

Instruments you play?

I grew up playing percussion in both symphonic orchestras and Cuban bands. I also play piano, which is my main tool for composing.

If you could have lunch with anyone who would it be?

Walt Disney I think. He was one of the great story-tellers and visionaries of the 20th century and his imagination knew no boundaries. He was a major risk taker and leader.

Where you’ll find me on a Friday night at 10pm??

Just getting out of dinner and a movie and on my way to either meet up with friends or to hear some live music.

What books/mags do you have on your bedside table?

Currently there’s a book of old pirate tales, a collection of Pablo Neruda poems, and a couple of travel magazines.

Describe your personal style like a good friend of yours would?

My friends would say that I’m self-expressed, inviting, and that I have clean style.

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