The Argentine composer Nelson Gastaldi may have been known for many things by many people during his lifetime, but being a composer was not one of them. Although he wrote ten symphonies and just as many other significant pieces, none were released during his lifetime. Rather, Gastaldi’s very imaginative artistic and musical activity existed parallel to a more conventional life in Buenos Aires, with a longtime job at an electric company and plenty of painting. But the peculiar richness of Gastaldi’s music and words point to a singular vision of the world that must have been irrepressible even in more traditional settings.
Although most of Gastaldi’s output went unrealized, one piece that was recorded – in fact, the only one to be digitized before his archive was handed over to Roberto Conlazo after his death in 2009 – was his third symphony, entitled Siddhartha Guatama O El Poder De La Nada (“Siddhartha Guatama or the Power of Nothing”). Finally released as an LP by Roaratorio, it’s a truly arresting piece: dense and sweeping in scope, relentlessly dissonant and fractured, yet structured like a traditional symphony. The instrumentation, aside from what seems like some live percussion, is entirely made up of patches from Casio-style keyboards: violin sections make grand waving entrances, flutes interject with alarming trills, cellos and oboes play somber lyrical passages. What’s more, the piece was recorded by the composer onto an array of consumer-grade cassette recorders – a crude form of non-overdub multitracking by using multiple machines, resulting in a (perhaps unintentionally) rich analog warmth that adds to the music’s otherworldly feel.
At its best moments, the third symphony is a strikingly original amateur work, in the original sense; Gastaldi truly loved and had a clear understanding of classical form, refracted through his multifaceted aesthetic (he called himself a “musical nihilist with noble and mystic origins”). Distorted almost beyond recognition but beholden to a classical structure, the third symphony is the work of a man for whom associations came more freely than answers.
Like his music, Gastaldi the man is far more complex than the surface reveals. In his only surviving English-language interview, a 2004 profile in the literary review Bananafish, Gastaldi is prodded by fellow Argentines: Roberto Conlazo and Anla Courtis, both members of Reynols. Gastaldi is candid about his views on modern life (“This is a world with many technical developments, but…a big flatness, too much superficiality, and too little interest in the exchange of ideas”); music (“there is too much parasite music nowadays”); and his own work (“I’m a musical nihilist with noble and mystic origins”). The whole interview is very much worth reading here, but Gastaldi comes across as a tireless learner and experimenter, one who has embraced the intricacies of his own mind to an almost unflattering degree. He combines established ideas of mysticism, sleep deprivation and meditation, intense philosophical investigation, homeopathy, his twenty cats, parapsychology, and the Guarani Indians with esoteric concepts like initiaic music and a vibrational metapsychic of sound.
An autodidact of the first degree, Gastaldi has been compared to an intriguing and most flattering array of artists – the Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges, Sun Ra, and Pauline Oliveros are the central names dropped. Certainly he shares something with Oliveros, although I suspect it’s mostly a parallel as opposed to a direct influence of any kind. But as in Oliveros’ piece For Valerie Solanis and Marilyn Monroe, In Memory Of Their Desperation (also released by Roaratorio, reviewed by me here), there is a strong sense of purpose in Gastaldi’s third underpinning what appears to be sonic disorder.
However, with Gastaldi there’s something different. The Oliveros piece is framed in a sort of atmospheric haze that encompasses the element of choice for the players. It’s more like a root ball, clumping in different directions. There is individuality and socializing. Gastaldi’s music is individualist, more like a dream or any of the mental zones he alludes to in the interview. Gastaldi is more like Borges, who even at his most labyrinthine knew exactly what he was doing. Borges’ fiction requires a certain level of trust to continue through the labyrinth. But as challenging as Borges can be, his emotional registry is finely calibrated. Gastaldi, even though he knows where he’s going in the piece, is trafficking in much more esoteric, less leading sentiments.
Still, he stays tantalizingly close to recognizable form, at least in the beginning. The first movement begins with an unmistakable opening theme: a minor-key tritone-to-fifth resolve. From here on out, extreme dissonance seesaws constantly with celestial contemplation. The first movement is the most chaotic, featuring a bewildering array of humble keyboard presets – a twinkling harp, a descending marimba line, entire horn and string sections, and solo instruments of various kinds diving in and out (there’s even a delightful use of the pitch bend and vibrato wheel). At any point, there are several sections going on, only just barely lining up with timing. Nevertheless, Gastaldi uses late-Romantic dissonant interjections, employs the whole tone scale liberally, and stacks incongruous parts on top of each other, in the manner of Charles Ives.
Ives can be seen as a sort of godfather of dissonance or 20th-century composition, but what really sets him apart – the first reason one can consider him as such an important composer in the first place – is his individualism. Working at his own (frenetic) pace, using his own methods, and without much feedback from players or peers, Ives was reliant to an unusual degree on personal association.
Despite its form, Siddhartha Guatama isn’t telling a literal story about the Buddha, and it becomes clear as the piece goes on that Gastaldi is working similarly with intuition. Lines and parts are layered together like a collage, constantly shifting between hopeful passages and looming darkness. This continues until a recapitulation of the opening theme in the low strings, followed by a triumphant string line that topples over. Although its ends aren’t clear, the movement’s chaos is clearly being used as a tool.
In this vein, Ives is his most intriguing foil. Ives has the capacity to simultaneously appear in control and to have completely lost the plot, and his music derives some of its power from this thrilling balance. I’d guess that Ives’ process itself facilitated this; he was always in his head, but seemed to know just how far out to go. But with Gastaldi, there’s not the same evidence, at least not yet. We know that he scored certain themes traditionally, but that he also worked with looser methods and studied extensively while writing his pieces. Whether quiet or loud, he was constantly drawing from uncommonly vast source material.
The chaos subsides a bit, though, as the second movement quietly opens with a tender piano/flute passage. Bearing fleeting resemblance to Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus For Benjamin Britten,” the music builds in blocks of sound and grand gestures. Movement three, on the other hand, strives toward resolution with ever-expanding instrumentation: constantly descending lines build in waves toward a climax that never arrives. This movement is more traditional, less dissonant; a particular moment toward the end achieves real classical beauty, and you wonder if this is what Gastaldi was after. But although the symphony ends on a jarringly direct, single sustained note for full strings, the whole piece is enigmatic. One has to ask: how much of this actually makes sense? Gastaldi might appreciate the asking of a follow-up question: how much of it has to? Gastaldi’s music, as it appears here, is in a sense eternal: unbound to norms of sensicality, ambition, and will, a more direct and inscrutable communication.
Nelson Gastaldi, “Symphony No. 3: Siddhartha Guatama O El Poder De La Nada” LP