The sounds of different mariachi ensembles playing over one another to win over plaza crowds in Los Angeles and in Guadalajara inspired Thornton School of Music student Juan-Pablo Contreras to compose the title track of his debut orchestral album “Mariachitlán.” Now, he’s up for a Latin GRAMMY.
The doctoral candidate studying music composition said he created “Mariachitlán,” which translates to “The Land of Mariachi,” to express the beauty of Mexico and to pay homage to his home state of Jalisco, the origin state of mariachi.
“This genre came about during the Spanish conquest,” Contreras said. “Some people said that the word mariachi comes from the French word of marriage, mariage, between the indigenous tradition and the new European music.”
Contreras originally wrote “Mariachitlán” for the 2016 Jalisco Orchestral Composition competition. After taking home the prize, Contreras said the Jalisco Philharmonic Orchestra gave him the opportunity to record a full album with them, under the condition that he would obtain funding.
Contreras said USC supported his work and gave him the green light to fund the album. He received the 2017 Presser Graduate Award, which offers up to a $10,000 stipend to graduate students who show high potential and honorable contributions in the music field.
“USC was basically the first supporting organization that allowed me to record this album,” Contreras said. “It’s amazing to now have a Latin GRAMMY nomination with something I think started with great thanks to USC.”
Once the album’s recording was finished, Contreras became the first Mexican classical composer to sign a record deal with Universal Music in May 2019.
The album also features other works, including “El Laberinto de la Soledad” and the three-part “Pirámide del Sol.” He said the first piece, which translates to “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” was inspired by a book with the same title that examines what it means to be Mexican. The work illustrates what Mexico “sounds” like to Contreras. The latter, which means “The Pyramid of the Sun,” pays tribute to the ball games of the pre-Hispanic civilization Teotihuacan.
“What’s interesting about the album is that these three works explain with music, or depict the history of Mexico,” Contreras said. “The third one is about pre-Hispanic Mexico, the second one is about the Spanish conquest and how that shaped the country and then ‘Mariachitlán’ pays homage to modern Mexico.”
Contreras thanked the Latino Alumni Association for playing a huge role during his time at the University. He said the association provided a community that made him feel at home, supported him during the album making process and offered him a scholarship to attend USC.
“He just got nominated for a Latin GRAMMY, he is headed to greatness,” said Dolores Sotelo, associate director of the LAA. “We are proud of having him not only as a scholar but just representing the Latino community as a whole.”
In a statement to the Daily Trojan, Thornton Dean Robert Cutietta said the school is excited to follow Contreras’ nomination.
“We are so proud of Juan and his Latin GRAMMY nomination!” Cutietta wrote. “Not many schools in the world would be able to celebrate a GRAMMY nomination by a student; most will never celebrate a nomination by a faculty member! So, we are excited for him and will all be following his nomination as it proceeds!”
Prior to attending USC to study composition, Contreras said his passion for music started in his childhood, thanks to his mother, who was a concert pianist. While his music tastes have changed over the years, classical compositions are his preferred genre.
“You could write whatever you wanted with all the freedoms of the world,” he said.
Contreras hopes to expand his music career and become an acclaimed composer.
“My dream would be to be known as one of the most recognized Mexican classical music composers around the world, that my name could be synonymous with Mexican classical music,” he said.