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Combining Cultures Through Music


My name is José Guillermo Puello. I grew up in the Dominican Republic where I went to a French school. When I finished school I came to the UK to study music at university. I recently graduated with a PhD in Composition from the University of Manchester. My research focused on the integration of Dominican music and culture with European contemporary concert music. My thesis consisted of seven original pieces of music, including works for orchestra, for small chamber ensemble, duets and trios. I decided to pursue this area because I wanted my music to reflect my background. As the research progressed, I became interested in how the audience perceived the music and how I could integrate extra-musical elements into my music.

When I started my undergraduate degree, I never thought I was going to do a Master’s degree, let alone a PhD. It was towards the end of my second year that I started to integrate Dominican dance music (i.e. merengue) into my compositions. I continued to develop this throughout my third year and my Master’s. As a result, my style became clearer and my Masters supervisor suggested that I do the doctorate. These past four years doing the PhD provided the opportunity to better define what I want my music to be.

In depth

My doctoral research focused on integrating Dominican cultural elements into my music, building strong musical structures and developing my rhythmic language. To this effect, I researched the music of other Latin American composers, such as Astor Piazzolla, Amadeo Roldán, Tania León, Julio Alberto Hernandez, Alberto Ginastera and Leo Brouwer, to evaluate how they incorporated Latin American elements into their music. I also researched the music of other composers, such as Stravinsky, Birtwistle, Debussy, Bartók, Berio and Ligeti, to understand how other composers dealt with rhythm, folk music and the articulation of musical structures.

The act of composing is not just writing notes on the page but also of listening, studying and problem-solving. I don’t think I know of any composer that just sits down to write the music in their head. I always compare composing to an architect designing a building. It very often starts with a concept/idea that the composer/architect tries to realise using the techniques they have developed and borrowing/adapting the ideas and techniques of others.

During my PhD, my research into Dominican culture mainly influenced the concept of the piece that I was composing. For example, I wrote an orchestral piece based on a religious ritual and another based on a Dominican poem. As I read about the Dominican Republic and its history I realised that the fusion I was creating in my music could be compared to the melting pot of cultures that shaped Dominican history. The music, whilst taking inspiration in Dominican music, is closer in style to the music of European composers (i.e. contemporary classical music) than to merengue or salsa songs.

One of the most gratifying aspects of being a composer is writing for and collaborating with other talented musicians. I have been fortunate enough to have my music performed by a number of professional and amateur ensembles, including Manchester Camerata, Psappha, The Fourth Wall Ensemble and Quatuor Danel, in the UK, Europe, Canada, USA and the Dominican Republic. Furthermore, each new piece brings its own challenges, which provides the opportunity to keep learning and to keep imagining new musical possibilities.

Going further

If you would like to know more about the University of Manchester Music Department and the very active Manchester University Music Society, you can visit the following websites:



You can visit my website: or listen to my music on soundcloud:  

Below are some links to pieces that I have listened to and studied as part of my PhD.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

The video has a five-minute introduction.

Piazzolla’s Adios Nonino

Ligeti’s Trio for Violin, French Horn and Piano

Juan Luis Guerra Todo tiene su hora (merengue song)

Berio’s Sequenza III (for voice)

Birtwistle’s Ritual Fragment

Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum

Debussy’s La mer

Varèse’s Ionisation

Brouwer’s El decameron negro


Phenomenal Woman – celebrating the life of Maya Angelou with poetry

by YPU Admin on October 30, 2014, Comments. Tags: blackhistorymonth, celebration, inspirational, MayaAngelou, performance, poetry, and workshop

“Write for 5 minutes without stopping”, she said, and the stopwatch started. Easy-peasy, I thought. I can certainly talk for 5 minutes without stopping. The paper began to fill with my ramblings, but as the minutes ticked on my wrist started to ache and my brain began to freeze. I glanced around the table at the other workshop participants, each lost in his or her own thoughts and writing. They were a diverse group, in age, race and gender, brought together by one woman’s words.

We were all taking part in a poetry workshop for Black History Month, inspired by and celebrating the life of Maya Angelou, whose death earlier this year was a sad loss to literature. While many people know her best from her autobiographies, her poetry encapsulates her spirit in a very direct and powerful way, so a poetry workshop and performance seemed a fitting way of paying our respects.

Shirley May from Young Identity (Young Identity Website), who was leading the workshop, had begun by talking about the influence that Maya Angelou had had on her own writing, and her sharing of personal experience made it easier for us to open up, even those who were new to poetry workshops. It was inspiring and encouraging to learn that Shirley had only begun writing in her thirties.

We looked at three of Maya’s best-known poems during the course of the workshop - ‘Caged Bird’, ‘Still I Rise’, and the poem from which the workshop had taken its name, ‘Phenomenal Woman’. The words inspired us, and there was an electricity in the room:

It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth
The swing in my waist
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman

In the spirit of Maya Angelou we each wrote about important people in our lives and the way in which they too were phenomenal – a parent, a teacher, an aunt, or even ourselves. Some people were a little shy about sharing their work, but all the participants were supportive of each other, and poems were met with applause and appreciative finger clicking.

We were all having such a good time that the workshop ran over its allotted time, and we had to rush from the quiet, book-lined surroundings of the Chief Librarian’s office to the library’s performance space to set up for the open mic session - a chance for people to share their own poetry, their favourite Maya Angelou poems or poems by other writers they admired and found inspirational.

One poem stuck in my mind which summed up the mood of the evening – ‘Ailey, Baldwin, Floyd, Killens, and Mayfield’ (Full Poem). Maya Angelou tells of how the death of ‘great souls’ affects us, and ends by saying:

Our senses, restored, never
to be the
same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and
better. For they existed.

Maya Angelou, thank you for existing.

-Written by Angela Smith, Audience Development Officer at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre