Space Age Pioneer

Juan Garcia Esquivel's Martian party music was really ahead of its time.

This article originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of Electronic Musician.

He is the hippest of the hepcats, the patron saint of the cocktail nation, and one of the most twisted arrangers ever to wield pencil and staff paper. He is Juan Garcia Esquivel, the pasha of space-age bachelor pad music -- the mellow, mostly instrumental soundtrack for the current renaissance of martinis, lounges, and tiki parties.

Although Esquivel's stylistic genre is unabashed mood music, his records are far from lame snoozefests -- they are just too weird. The mad maestro replaced song lyrics with "zu-zus," "rah-rahs," and other exotic syllables, experimented with early electronic devices such as the theremin and ondioline, and was so obsessive about stereo separation that he split an orchestra into two different recording studios.

Even more astounding, however, is that in the days before synthesis made sound layering a musician's birthright, Esquivel used conventional instrumentation to produce exquisitely unusual sounds. But as strange as Esquivel's alien soundscapes must have appeared to record buyers in the late 1950s, the maestro had been working toward the extraordinary from a very early age.

Born in 1918, Esquivel signed on for his first professional gig at 14 and was conducting, composing, and arranging for his own 22 piece orchestra by the time he was 18. The musical prodigy's radio broadcasts and concerts soon made him one of the most popular band leaders in his native Mexico. In 1958, a visionary executive at RCA brought Esquivel to Hollywood to help the label exploit the wonders of its Sonorama stereo technology. Although the RCA executive may not have known what he was in for --Esquivel's commitment to perfection made him an unrepentant budget buster -- the maestro's sojourn in America was incredibly successful.

The futuristic arranger earned three consecutive Grammy nominations (1958 60) in both the Orchestral and Engineering categories, arranged and conducted for other artists, such as the Ames Brothers, and composed numerous television soundtracks and short mood pieces. Those underscores are still used to this day, adding a touch of the bizarre to popular TV fodder such as House of Style, Miami Vice, Columbo, Baywatch, and Murder, She Wrote. In addition, his arrangement of the song "Sentimental Journey" was used in one of television's classic comedy skits: the madcap office furniture ballet "choreographed" by Ernie Kovacs.

In 1962, Esquivel took a 5 year break from recording to perform in a smash nightclub act, "The Sights and Sounds of Esquivel." Not surprisingly, the production was ahead of its time, using undulating lighting that predated the hippies' psychedelic light shows.

Recently, Esquivel has fallen -- literally -- on tough times. In July 1993, the maestro fell and broke his hip, leaving him bedridden for months. (The fall also aggravated an old spinal injury, and corrective surgery was too risky an option.) Then, the day before I spoke with him in January 1996, he slipped out of his lounge chair and fractured his wrist. The consummate hipster's polite, stately demeanor was such that I didn't realize he was medicated and in pain until, 30 minutes into the interview, he requested we reschedule our conversation. A week later, Esquivel was again happily detailing past sessions, slinging anecdotes, and discussing the future. Despite his infirmities and advanced age, the man refuses to retire. At 78 years old, he is working on arrangements for an album he plans to record in the U.S. later this year.

It's all so easy now, isn't it? Today's electronic musician is literally handed an enormous palette of sounds.
Oh yes, with the synthesizer I believe you can produce almost anything. If I had them many years ago, I wouldn't have needed to work so hard to make the sounds I had in my head. But I think that people using synths now should be more selective. Too many musicians rely on presets rather than making their own sounds.

You managed to produce some pretty far out sounds without the benefit of synthesis. How did you develop such otherworldly tones?
It was a very long and tedious job. Obviously, I didn't have the electronic equipment we have now, so I had to produce these different sounds purely with instrumental arrangements. I was trying to achieve with conventional in¬struments these strange sounds that I had in my mind.

For example, I would ask a tenor saxo¬phonist to play a melody, and then I'd have the viola play the same melody si¬multaneously. I was layering sounds. Of course, in this instance, the sound of the sax would overpower the viola, and that was not the sound I wanted. So I would ask the sax player to tone it down. When the saxophonist played softer, the tone would match with the viola better, and the combined sound would be closer to the idea I had. I was always experimenting. Once, I asked a trumpet player to play a solo using a mute. It wasn't quite the sound I wanted, so I asked him to put his hand over the bell and move it around. I was starting from scratch, you see, so it was a lot of work to realize my ideas. However, it was also very rewarding because I could see and hear, right there in the studio, all my theories about sound brought to life.

So you actually did all these experiments in the studio while you were recording your albums?
Oh, no. Before I made a recording, I would have everything written out. This is why I insisted on so many rehearsals. It was during these rehearsals that I experimented with sound, and I always needed more time. I would rehearse ten or twelve hours a day with a big orchestra. These sessions were just for me to take notes and see what combinations of instruments produced the sounds I wanted. When something was right, I would keep careful notes on how the sounds were combined. I found that out of ten experiments, maybe two or three would be good. Every day, I'd start experimenting with new ideas. I rehearsed for close to four years to find the proper unisons and to determine what worked well and what didn't.

As strange as your arrangements must have sounded to musicians at that time, was it difficult gaining their trust and support throughout these experiments?
When I started, I was very young, and I often wondered why musicians older than myself would tolerate my ideas. I was very grateful to the musicians I worked with because whenever I asked them to do something, they never refused or asked for explanations. They just did it. And most of the time, I wasn't right. If an idea didn't work, I'd write "NG" in my notes, which meant "no good." I'm very much in debt to all the musicians who put up with my ideas and helped me discover these new sounds. Thanks to them, I was 85 percent confident that my arrange¬ments were right by the time I went into the studio.

Your arrangements were not limited to notes written on paper, however; you were also very involved in the recording process.
Yes. I was always very conscious of the mics I had to use to get the sounds I wanted. I knew all the model names and qualifications of the mics. I experimented with different mic positions and which mics produced the best sound when recording strings, piano, horns, or whatever. I also insisted on putting separate mics on each instrument.

Luckily, I was able to practice in a radio station that had very fine equipment. In addition, my brother, Sergio, was the chief engineer, and he introduced me to all the microphones. I'd tell him that I couldn't get the sound I wanted, and he'd figure out what I needed.

For example, I once wanted a violin solo to play against a background of five saxophones. Of course, the saxophones overpowered the sound of the violin. Sergio advised me to put thick drapes in back of the saxophones and to put the violinist in front of a mirror. We actually built a wall of mirrors in the studio. Sergio was right -- the reflections off the mirror amplified the violin and the curtains dampened the sound of the saxes. All I had to do was move the musicians and mics around to find the right balance of sounds. You see, to get what was in my head on record, it was very important that I could arrange the instruments and the sounds.

I assume that this concern with audio quality inspired your infamous use of two different studios to ensure com¬plete stereo separation on your Sonorama records?
Acoustic separation was extremely important to me. At that time, we didn't have multitrack recorders. We recorded directly onto 1/4 inch stereo tape and I had to be very careful that the sound didn't leak from one channel to the other. When I wanted something to appear in the right speaker, I wanted it only in the right speaker. I didn't want to hear even slight ghost images of it in the left speaker.

So, yes, to record Latin esque in 1962, I asked RCA to book two studios that were one block apart. I put half of the orchestra in one studio and half in the other. I conducted in studio one and Stanley Wilson conducted in studio two, and we coordinated our efforts over closed circuit television. All of the musicians had to wear earphones so that we could keep everybody in sync by using a click track. Some people might have thought that I went too far, but I was very happy with the separation.

In addition to strange sounds and stereo gymnastics, another element that personalizes your arrangements is the use of vocalists singing nonsense words and phrases. How did you come up with that idea?
I didn't want my work to be limited by a certain language. If I were doing a Latin tune, I wouldn't want to use the Spanish words. Same if I were arranging a French or English song -- I would just strip the lyrics and have the vocalists sing syllables. For example, in my arrangement of "It Had to Be You," the vocal melody is sung "rah-rah-rah-rah-ree." One of the assistant producers objected to that; he thought that reducing the lyric to vowel sounds was too far out.

Occasionally, I'd use just a line or two. For "Night and Day," I kept the chorus lyric. In some of my compositions, I'd throw in a word like "groovy" just to spice things up, but these words would be easily understood in any country.

In my arrangements, I use voices as part of the orchestra to complement the instruments. The voice is a very dynamic instrument, and it can surprise you. When I did "The Sights and Sounds of Esquivel" stage show, for example, I used four women of different nationalities. This was to get a combination of different types and styles of singing. One woman was Japanese, one was Italian, one was Greek, and one was French. However, the real surprise was that the women would get jealous of each other and try to outdo each other singing. That made for some very exciting times -- and some very exciting performances!

So, besides keeping the singers from killing each other, what are some other skills of a good arranger?
Well, assuming that you're working with fine musicians who are able to go wherever you want to send them, a good arranger should be able to create wonderful sounds by writing easy parts. Don't overpower the musicians with your knowledge. It's ridiculous to write difficult parts just to show the musicians how good you are. The musicians should feel comfortable playing the parts so that they can sound good playing them.

For example, I'd often use the very upper or lower registers of the instruments, so I'd be careful not to tire the musicians with parts that were also extremely difficult to play.

For me, the most difficult part of arranging is self editing. It's painful when I fall in love with a certain passage I've written but it just doesn't serve the purpose of the piece. Then I must take my pencil and erase it. That hurts. You see, when an arranger starts working on a piece, he or she is usually full of ideas and wanting to put everything on paper. But, ultimately, a good arranger will only use the ideas that enhance the music.

I was tickled to hear that you are planning to record an album of all new arrangements.
Thank you. I'm writing arrangements here in Mexico while I recuperate. I really want to excite people with these new ideas of mine, so I'm arranging some well known works such as Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" and Ravel's Bolero. I'm treating these pieces with respect, of course, but I also want people to be aware of my arrangements. I plan to record in the U.S. because I'm more familiar with American studios. Now that synths are available, I will not need as many musicians as I used to, but I still want to use voices. I hope that I can find some very good singers.

I'm curious about what you must think of current artists.
I think the youth nowadays are very brave and audacious -- they have plenty of guts. Some of the things I hear are very good. I like Peter Gabriel and Whitney Houston, and Tina Turner is wonderful. But, with all due respect, some of today's music is very boring; it's just the same thing over and over. Usually, after I listen to modern music for about two or three hours, I have to switch and put on some Mancini. He was a genius and a tremendous musician. I hope that people are still listening to him.

Martian Cocktails: An Esquivel Discography
The compilations from Bar/None and RCA are wonderful introductions to Esquivel's space-age symphonettes. However, if you want the full experience, seek out the original RCA albums. Here is a selected discography of the maestro's musical madness.

Other Worlds, Other Sounds   (RCA, 1958)
Strings Aflame  (RCA, 1959)
Exploring New Sounds in Stereo  (RCA, 1959)
Infinity in Sound  (RCA, 1960)
Latin-esque  (RCA, 1962)
The Genius of Esquivel  (RCA, 1967)
Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music   (Bar/None, 1994)
Music from a Sparkling Planet  (Bar/None, 1995)
Cabaret Mañana   (RCA/BMG, 1995)