Music for Music: De La Chica’s Agatha
De La Chica’s Agatha: Image & Silence
By Dan Ursini
Usually I write about music that is complete on its own. But this time around, let’s explore music best understood by how it is used in a groundbreaking cinematic work. The piano cycle Voyeuristic Images Op. 10, by a serious Colombian composer named Julián De La Chica, is central to the film Agatha – but not in the ways you might think. More than once, the music fulfills unexpected purposes even as it delivers its own surprises.
Since Agatha was released a year ago, it has been lauded at film festivals around the world for outstanding cinematography, acting, LGBTQUIA+ resonance, and film score. De La Chica directed it (a very capable first-time effort) and composed and performed the music. This forty-minute film is shot in black-and-white and largely employs one small location and one actor—with brief exceptions. The character, an immigrant photographer named Prospero, is drifting into seclusion after a concentrated period of partying. The set is a tabletop bar set in a corner of an apartment in a remote tip of a repurposed industrial building in Brooklyn.
De La Chica tells his story from the point of view of a voyeur—in this case, a neighbor with a window that allows him an unguarded view of life in Prospero’s tiny world. This P.O.V. allows for a healthy brand of ambiguity in the film. What a voyeur may see is, of course, incomplete, and devoid of much context. In Agatha, there are moments of graphic sexuality and other provocative dimensions of private life, particularly those challenging ideas about Self.
The focus is on the highly stressed solitude of Prospero. He is in deep malaise, and there are complications, but no traditional story. There is spoken language in the film, but no real dialogue. De La Chica dispenses with the usual strategies of character and story development. Instead, Agatha depicts a sustained deep moment of being in Prospero’s life, one that brings his stream of consciousness to life. As such, Agatha takes place outside the ordinary confines of time and space; there is no chronology. What Prospero experiences, recalls, and imagines depends on his mood as he drinks at his bar and takes drugs.
What best defines Agatha is the music: dissonant, slow, fragile chords suffused with spatial silences. A filament of each melody is played but the usual expressive development is abbreviated to make room for silence. Through his music as well as his film, De La Chica proves himself to be a brilliant minimalist. He is abundantly gifted at providing the essentials. “Ms. Blanche,” the second song in the cycle, has an emotional tone that deftly blends consolation and disappointment – quite a feat, along any musical or emotional scale.
Through such songs as “The Bar in the Corner,” the film’s uniformly slow and quiet music conveys the toxic isolation and spiritual exhaustion within Prospero that ends in tragedy.
The stability of this music contrasts with the film’s passages of frenetic activity, much of it sexual. There are remarkable sections dealing with an alter-ego named Agatha, a hugely distinct presence. A great listener with an easy laugh, Agatha harbors a private dream of winning a major beauty pageant, carefully rehearsing the gracious wave that accompanies a crowning. De La Chica explains, “Beauty pageants are part of our Latino culture. Prospero grew up watching the pageants and dreams of being a queen, obtaining the crown, and (why not?) having a leading role in society. Is society ready for Agatha?” The eerie sadness of the last song, “The Abyss,” with its fragmentary melody and heavy drone, tells everything.
Just as the music anchors the film, it anchored the making of the film. Only after the Voyeuristic Images cycle was completed, did the idea for the movie take shape. This is the opposite of the usual sequence, and it works very well. De La Chica asserts, “It was precisely having the music first which led me to develop the character in an organic way, without problems.” Indeed, the performance of Augusto Guzman is powerful in its integrity and intimacy, deeply enhanced by the soulful cinematography of Junting Zhao.
Photo of Julián De La Chica by Miguel Mourato-Gordo
There is another reversal in the music’s use in the film. De La Chica remarks, “For me, the music in this movie is a fundamental protagonist. Many times in movies, the music accompanies. In Agatha, the music is itself the scene.” But the deepest reversal entails the basic purpose of his compositions. He explains, “My music represents a silence that I think we need so much. It is slow; it does not seek to distract or entertain. Just generate spaces. The film is the same.”
De La Chica’s commitment to minimalism extends to a critique of Internet materialism: “My work goes against the saturation that governs us. We are in a terrible moment of consumerism.” Minimalism, as he sees it, is “a way of life.” His ideas, his art, are provocative in the best sense – they inspire us to refresh our own point of view.
Voyeuristic Images Op. 10 is now available for streaming and download on all major music sites. It was produced by Irreverence Music Group. The film will be released in July via Apple and iTunes.
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine; he wrote performance art pieces presented at Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org