5 Questions with a Musician: Pablo Salazar
I cannot wait to share this week’s 5 Questions with a Musician interview!! I was fortunate enough to connect with Pablo Salazar, a pianist, composer and the Music Programmer and Producer for SiriusXM Symphony Hall and SiriusXM Pops.
I know Pablo from undergrad (we both went to the University of Maryland) and I always knew him as a positive, bright, kind, energetic individual. I would always see him being greeted by his friends in the common area/ cafe space in the performing arts center with big smiles and laughs. Music school can be stressful, between all the school work, tests, juries, gigs, rehearsals, recitals… the list goes on! But Pablo always seemed to be giving words of encouragement to others (“you’ll do fine on that test!” or “you’re gonna rock your jury!”) He always seemed to make people feel at ease.
I don’t know much about Pablo’s musical style as a composer or what his job is like at SiriusXM, but I do know he’s a super hard worker, excellent musician, and a creative and interesting guy! So I’m thrilled to get the chance to ask him a few questions, because I’ve always been curious myself!
1) When and how did you discover your passion for composing? Did it come out of your studies as a pianist, or would you say that your skills as a pianist and your skills as a composer are two separate entities?
I got my first keyboard in Bolivia at the age of six. It was a 61-key Casio, and this was my introduction to classical music. This little Casio had some built-in demos and easy arrangements of works by Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven and Debussy. I remember trying to learn many of these works by ear but mostly failed! …my dad signed me up for keyboard classes and as soon as I started learning theory and notation I began writing them down and also writing my own little compositions. This is how I discovered my passion for composition and the piano. However; I did not own a full 88-size keyboard until the age of 15. That is when I truly saw what the piano is capable of and thanks to the added range I started understanding other instruments and writing for them as well. For me both composition and the piano always went hand in hand. I must admit that it is really hard for me to compose without a piano, I feel like a carpenter without a hammer.
2) How does your Bolivian culture inspire your compositional style, and what are some other sources of inspiration for your work as a composer?
Being an immigrant from Bolivia influences me in my everyday life, as a result it plays a big role in my music. Coming to this country was not easy, I left Bolivia at the age of 12 and my family and I had to start from zero. My parents worked very hard cleaning houses and commercial buildings, they worked two full time jobs. My brother and I helped them with the night job. We had to clean the classrooms at a technical academy three times a week and since we did not have a car, we would sleep there and take the bus home early morning and get ready for school. For me the nights seemed short because I would listen to music constantly. Music was my escape; I discovered the world through music. I would devour complete collections of symphonies, etudes, chamber and choral works. I listened to biographies of composers and got obsessed with the music of Chopin and Bartok, as a result my early compositions started to sound too much in the style of those composers. As I got older, I started exploring my own Bolivian roots, culture, music and the colors and textures of the instruments that I took for granted. Naturally I started adding these elements to my music. I would say that my main source of inspiration today is that struggle of not forgetting my own culture and where I came from. I also get inspired by the people I care about, my family and friends.
3) What do you do on a day-to-day basis in your position as Assistant Program Director for SiriusXM Symphony Hall? It honestly sounds like a dream job!
I certainly feel very grateful and blessed for the opportunity to work at SiriusXM, especially within the classical music industry. In a nutshell, my job is to create playlists for other people to hear and enjoy. I program the music for two channels that air music 24/7: Symphony Hall and SiriusXM Pops. I am lucky to work alongside some of the best radio hosts in the classical world that make my job super fun and engaging. A regular day starts with checking emails and going over new album releases and setting up interviews with artists about recent projects and albums. After that I begin to program the channels. I have a software that lets me know how much a certain piece and composer has played and helps me decide what is the best piece to play at a certain hour. Everyday is like a blank canvas. If I see the software recommending that I play Mendelssohn’s Octet, then I would create a playlist that looks something like this:
-Florence Price’s Symphony No. 4
-Biber’s Sonata Jucunda
-Philip Glass’ Etude 2 and 6
-Brahm’s Symphony No. 1
-Torroba’s Dialogue for Guitar and Orchestra
-Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21
-Jessie Montgomery’s Strum
It is all about a balance of styles, periods, composers, instruments but also trusting, challenging and encouraging your listeners to discover new sounds and composers they are not familiar with.
One of my main goals as a programmer is to add diversity, there are so many talented composers and performers out there that are underrepresented. A trend that I noticed is that many major orchestras and ensembles are starting to perform works by minority composers, but those performances and works are not being recorded nor released under a major or independent label. This makes my job harder as a programmer because due to royalties I can’t program music that is not released to the public.
To all my musician friends please not only perform music by POC but also record them and release them as an album, even if it’s under an independent label.
4) You have an EPIC collection of selfies with some of the world’s most successful and talented composers, performers, and conductors: I mean, you have selfies with Philip Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich, Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang, Joshua Bell, Sir Simon Rattle… and that’s not even scratching the surface! Have you noticed any common thread between the world-class musicians that you’ve met?
It is very humbling getting to meet some of my heroes I grew up listening to, Philip Glass, Yo-Yo Ma, Steve Reich, Lang Lang and many others. After talking with some of them I realized why they are so successful and admired around the world. Yes! they do have an insane amount of talent but their work ethic, passion and dedication for what they do is unparalleled. For example, we recently interviewed Lang Lang about his current project where he recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variation. One would think that he is already a total pro and can just practice for a few months and head up to the studio and tackle the piece in a few takes but the behind the scene is a totally different story. He first performed the piece at the age of 17 and wanted to record the piece in 2012 but felt he was not ready; he is now 38. In preparation to record the piece he sought the help of Baroque specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt and harpsichordist/early keyboard specialist Andreas Staier. In other words, Lang Lang and other artists like him never stop learning and always go the extra mile for their craft.
Another characteristic I see in world-class musicians is conviction and determination. One of my favorite stories I heard from Philip Glass is that he would print the negative reviews his music would get on t-shirts and proudly wear. At the beginning his music was criticized not only by the public but also academia. However, he trusted his style and craft. Now he is one of the most influential composers of the 20th and 21st century.
5) Can you tell us one memorable story from your work with SiriusXM?
Even though I had the chance to meet and talk with many composers and musicians I admire by far the most memorable moments are when I get to hear from our listeners. Recently we received a note from a listener that read: “The music has made my life more bearable – truly. It is my morning therapy that helps get me through the days, as difficult as they may sometimes be.”
Another listener sent a note asking for a piece we were playing at a certain time because she was driving her dog to the vet and her dog did not make it so she wanted to know the name of the piece to remember her last time with her pet.
Stories like these and many others show me that music can be an escape and can unite so many people even though they are not present in the same room. At the end of the day there are actual human beings from all walks of life listening to my channels and I feel like I must cherish and respect that responsibility. It really gives meaning and a purpose to what I do and every day I wish that the music can bring the listeners a little bit of joy and hope.
Bonus question: What advice do you have for young musicians today who are continuing to compose and perform virtually in this post-COVID world?
These are by far very hard times for everyone including young musicians and gig workers. My first advice would be to take care of your mental health and to not doubt yourself, your talent and the choice you made to pursue a career in music.
Music is not going away, but I feel like the traditional way of making and presenting music will change, especially within the orchestra structure. You must adapt but most importantly reinvent and reestablish new ways to present your music. I feel like we are at a point in classical music where the torch is being passed down. You want to be the one ready to receive the torch.
Learn new skills even outside of music, you never know one of your random skills might open a door to where you are heading.
To the young composers I would say trust your journey, trust that if you are putting the work your composition will blossom in the future, do not take shortcuts and do not try to get ahead of yourself. Listen to the constructive criticism but ignore the negative ones, because there will be plenty of those.
Lastly, I would say is to find a hobby outside of music. From personal experience, the moment music becomes your career you will need an escape from it to reassess your passion and dedication to it.
Thank you, Pablo, for sharing so much wisdom with us here on 5 Questions with a Musician!!