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Interdisciplinary program spurs creativity for ASU music composition graduate

Carlos Zárate’s music has been performed in festivals such as Impulse New Music Festival, PRISMS New Music Festival, Festival Visiones Sonoras and Foro Internacional de Música Nueva "Manuel Enríquez."

April 24, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Carlos Zárate, an international student from Mexico City, will graduate in May with a master's degree in music composition (interdisciplinary digital media) from the School of Music, Dance and Theatre at Arizona State University. Zárate is also a teaching assistant in the school’s composition and theory program.

Zárate, a composer of acoustic and electroacoustic music, is interested in live electronics, generative systems applied to music, audiovisual art and exploring different ways in which other artistic expressions can foster musical structures.

“Carlos is a deeply curious person, and this is apparent in his music,” said Gabriel Bolaños, assistant professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “He is not just interested in improving his craft or being ‘productive’ for the sake of productivity, but he asks deep questions about the nature of composition, about why he composes and how his pieces engage with contemporary trends in music composition.” 

Zárate said, “My biggest accomplishment during my career as an ASU student was winning the 2022 ASU Composition Competition and getting a piece commissioned by the ASU Symphony Orchestra.”

The composition faculty, in collaboration with the large ensemble directors, created the competition to provide an opportunity to write for orchestra or wind band.

Zárate’s composition has been workshopped with the ASU Symphony Orchestra several times throughout the 2022–23 season and will be performed next season.

“I have many positive things to say about Carlos, but what comes to mind first is that, as his committee chair, I could witness firsthand how brilliant and yet hardworking he is,” said Fernanda Navarro, assistant professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre.

Zárate’s music has been performed in festivals such as Impulse New Music Festival, PRISMS New Music Festival, Festival Visiones Sonoras and Foro Internacional de Música Nueva "Manuel Enríquez."

Born and raised in Mexico City, Zárate received a bachelor's degree in composition and music theory at Centro de Investigación y Estudios de la Música.

He is a first-generation student who was able to study at ASU by receiving the highly competitive Fulbright-García Robles scholarship, part of the COMEXUS graduate-level scholarships and grants for educational exchange. He also received additional support from the ASU Graduate College.

“This funding literally meant the possibility to study in this country,” Zárate said. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I have made music from a very early age. In my family no one is a professional musician, but everyone has great voices, loves singing and music accompanies us pretty much all the time. The "aha" moment was more of a decision to be truthful to myself and take the risk. I had just graduated high school and was studying for an undergraduate degree in literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Although I love literature, my love for it comes from the creative side. I wanted to write, but my degree was more focused on linguistics and a rather analytical approach to literature, so I was not happy. I was studying part-time and ironically "teaching" music in a kindergarten. I became depressed and then decided to give what I most love in life a chance. My mom supported me, as she always does, and here I am. 

Q: What is something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I think my biggest realization was that I can do with my music whatever I want. In my undergraduate education, things had a rather structuralist approach. Most of my professors were influenced by a certain musical tradition, and they had certain ideas about what music "should" be. I am forever grateful to them, because I was trained in a very rigorous environment that forced me to be technically proficient and very serious about my craft, but studying at ASU with a composition studio as aesthetically open as the one we have reinforced my tendencies to move in a different space — a space where music can be many things.    

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: When I was choosing a master's program, the most important parameter for me was faculty members’ music. I was looking for that "openness" that I was talking about before. I had the intuition that if I found that in their music, their teaching philosophy would match it, and I was right. ASU was also very supportive to me, and the interdisciplinary approach of my program was the cherry on top. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I learned a lot from all the professors I found along the way. Of course, there are some professors that have a bigger influence on you because your visions match or there is some sort of connection. To me it was Fernanda Navarro and Gabriel Bolaños, from whom I did not only learn about music — their generosity and empathy taught me what type of professor I want to be eventually, and they already hold a special place in my heart.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you would give to students?

A: At this point in my life I am not sure I feel comfortable giving advice, but something that has worked for me is to always trust my intuitions. Even when I have been wrong, I have gotten something good from following them.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: I honestly love this campus. I was once riding my bike here very late at night and saw two foxes close to Noble Library. Another day I saw a gang of raccoons plotting in front of the music building, also very late at night. For some reason, those encounters had a very special resonance in me. The Secret Garden is a cool spot to just chill. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Keep composing, apply for grants, try to get my music performed and apply to a PhD program for next fall. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I think $40 million would be no panacea for this world's fundamental problems. I believe that things will change when the economic interests of the top 1% stop being put before the dignity and life of billions, but to be honest I don't see that happening soon.

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