A group of casually dressed musicians take to the stage with their classical instruments at a low-key cultural centre in Belgrano. They start playing; patiently building to a crescendo. The guitar player sits centre stage with his head down, his eyes shut and his foot cocked on a stand in front of him. Engrossed in the music, he waits as the composition comes together around him, until finally he plucks his first chords.
El Sonido de los Durmientes are an avant-garde musical collective challenging the stereotypes of the classical musician – and they’re not just an orchestra that play the odd Beatles song to prove that they’re not square. Ambitious, and with original compositions, they’ve set out to redefine their own genre.
Gabriel Lombardo, a young musician and composer, is the focal point of the ensemble, holding centre stage with his guitar. He is also the intellectual force behind the band, writing and composing the entirety of their set. He is flanked by a group of between seven and ten musicians – playing wind and string instruments and percussion – handpicked to play and mould his songs. But what is so different about the sound they are trying to create?
“We want to work with popular genres using tools from classical music,” he explains referring to the styles of cumbia, folk and chacarera that are popular in Argentina and across continent. “We are trying to create a language that integrates the rhythmic aspect of Argentine and Latin American popular music.” They are also setting out to capture their own experiences of Buenos Aires as it is today – a sprawling metropolis, defined by mass immigration, with the lingering effects of a catastrophic economic crisis – in sound.
They are classically trained musicians escaping from the stifling academia of classical music – one where you endlessly write music but rarely perform it. What the group wants is to play challenging and exciting music that moves people and provokes personal interpretations, but music that is essentially their own; original compositions that transmit authentic emotion.
“If we don’t talk about real life, you’re talking about classical papers and that’s what we’ve run away from,” he says. “It’s a process, but the language we’re getting at makes sense.”
The band’s sound is intriguing. To those who are not well versed, the Latin American references would not jump out at you. People expecting the rhythms of Daddy Yankee plucked on a violin would be disappointed. The sound is altogether more complex and the allusions more subtle. Beyond the Argentine references, songs take inspiration from Afro-Peruvian music, as well as Bolivian and Uruguayan beats.
When it hits the right notes it’s fresh, moving and challenging as the almost disquieting violins compliment the more melodic guitar with excellent electronica-esque percussion. In a particularly beautiful moment, one of the violinists breaks into song and holds a clean, almost operatic note, for a few seconds before gliding seamlessly back onto the same note on the violin. The final song, featuring panpipes and an acoustic rather than an electric guitar, was especially accomplished.
During weaker moments, the set did verge towards the more over-the-top bombast of a film score, losing its spark a little. And there are times when you get hints that it is still a work in progress, which, it is important to add, it is.
After the show, Lombardo explained that they are still trying out different musicians, instruments and compositions. “Tonight I’m going to rewrite some parts because certain things didn’t go well,” he explained. “Today we played a lot of new arrangements.” He will make the initial amendments and then the band, with the same dynamics as a rock group, will play around with the songs until they are happy.
They are performing various concerts in the coming months, and according to Lombardo, have been filling out the venues they play for the past year. Their brand of Latin infused classical compositions is proving popular and what’s more, “you don’t need to understand Beethoven to get the music.”