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April 1, 2010

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A closer look — Florencio Asenjo

Although he has more than a half-century’s experience in teaching and writing about mathematics, “music came first,” says Florencio Asenjo.


The mathematics professor emeritus’s current work in math and logic consists of writing and occasional lecturing rather than regular classroom teaching, permitting more time for Asenjo’s early love: composing.

As a teenager, Asenjo studied with Spanish composer Jaime Pahissa, with whom he honed his skills in harmony and orchestration. Asenjo’s operatic, orchestral and chamber music compositions have been performed in his native Argentina as well as in the United States and Europe.

The octogenarian’s most prolific output as a composer of neoclassical music has come in his retirement. Since 2003, recordings of his compositions, all conducted by British conductor Kirk Trevor and performed by various Eastern European symphony orchestras, have been released at a pace of about one each year.

Asenjo’s seventh recording with Trevor, released in 2009, includes Asenjo’s 2008 composition “Sinfonia Concertante” as well as two works based on literature. His 2007 piece for clarinet and orchestra, “A Thousand and One Nights,” is his interpretation of 10 stories selected from the Arabic folktale and “Three Images from Don Quijote” represents Asenjo’s musical impressions of three scenes from Miguel de Cervantes’s classic story.

Asenjo said he always has considered mathematics and music to be complementary. “They did not collide. I jumped from one to another, no problem. It is just a natural thing to do,” he said.

In writing a score, “There is a pattern there, and the pattern is not arbitrary— almost as in the way a proof of a theorem is organized.”

Still, he finds it difficult to describe the connection between music and mathematics. “I don’t think there is an explanation that serves. They are complementary activities,” he said.

“One is strictly mental, the other needs intuition and feelings. When a theme catches you there’s something about it that takes possession of you. A theorem takes possession of you, too, in a different way.”

As a student at the University of La Plata, Asenjo chose mathematics, never considering music as a career option.

“It’s a terrible economic predicament if you enter into that thing,” he insists, citing the well-documented money woes of such famed composers as Stravinsky and Bartok. “They had horrible financial problems that they sometimes came out of, but if these people can’t make it really consistently,” he said, trailing off. “ … It’s very difficult. I liked math, so I studied it.”

Asenjo later taught at his alma mater, but making a living solely as a faculty member also was difficult, forcing him to have a second job at the Argentine Laboratory for Testing Materials and Technical Investigations. “With two jobs I couldn’t do any creative work in mathematics or music,” he said. After writing to a friend at Princeton “in a state of despair” to inquire about university positions in America, in 1958 Asenjo landed an assistant professorship at Georgetown University. Later, he taught at Southern Illinois University, then joined the Pitt faculty in 1963.

“The fields I work on I enjoyed teaching,” Asenjo said, noting that he had good undergraduate students but especially liked the depth of graduate-level teaching. “The small classes with graduate students were so enjoyable. I won’t forget them,” he said.

When he retired in 2001, Asenjo declined the offer to continue teaching part-time as professor emeritus in order to care for his wife, who was suffering from dementia and later died. The music helps fill the void left by her death, Asenjo said. “With the vacancy the death of my wife has produced, it is good I have this activity going. I enjoy it.”

Around the time Asenjo retired, a fellow composer connected him with conductor Trevor, who was affiliated with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and who had expressed interest in conducting new music.

“People who should have been interested in the music wouldn’t even look at the scores, but Kirk did,” Asenjo said, lamenting how difficult it is to get new symphonic music played and recorded.

“I flew to Knoxville and my life changed completely,” Asenjo said.

“He liked my pieces. He continued to like my pieces,” Asenjo said. Now, when Asenjo composes new works, their collaboration is such that Trevor has complete confidence in the music, Asenjo said.

The choice of orchestra depends on which has space in its performance schedule to record the music, and Trevor has conducted Asenjo’s music with orchestras in Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. The composer finds that each orchestra has its own unique qualities.

For instance, the Bohuslav Martinu, which performed the pieces on the most recent recording, “has a quality I can only describe as transparent,” Asenjo said. “Rather than fusing the instruments, you can see them playing each individual one.”

In addition, “Europe is so different,” Asenjo said, noting that he finds European orchestras more open than American orchestras to performing new music in addition to well-known classics. “That for me has been a nice experience.”

When his music is being recorded, Asenjo said he is present to clarify any questions or sometimes make alterations in the score.

“Now and again they need an answer,” he said. And sometimes the conductor suggests changes. “I usually accept them,” Asenjo said. “Conductors can also be demons,” but not so with Trevor, who, Asenjo said, converses with reason rather than criticism.

Attending the recording sessions is no time to sit back and enjoy the performance. “You have to concentrate and ensure the notes are right,” he said.


Asenjo is working on his eighth musical recording, although his own health issues have slowed the pace somewhat. While he typically writes his music at a piano in a small studio at home, one piece that is to be included on his next CD was written mostly in his head during a recent hospital stay that included several weeks of sleepless nights.

“In the middle of the night when I wanted to get out of there, I started to think of a piece that I finally completed when I came home,” he said. He passed the time in his hospital bed envisioning “The Battle of the Frogs and Mice,” an ancient Greek parody on the Iliad’s epic battles, imagining how he would represent the frogs, the mice and the army of crabs who intervene to save the frogs.

“I always wonder how classical geniuses did it without a piece of paper,” he quipped, adding that he outlined the skeleton of the work in the hospital, but finished the piece in his studio at home.

Of his recent foray into writing musical illustrations of literary works, he said that rather than offering inspiration per se, literary pieces “provide a frame to write what you’re going to write.”

His current work is based on 10 selections from 20th-century Japanese novelist’s Yasunari Kawabata’s “Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.”

Eschewing the word “inspiration,” a term he finds to be overused, Asenjo said he chose to base the current piece on 10 of the brief, evocative stories that made an impact on him. “These stories were the ones that hit me,” he said, adding that he has to be taken by the subject on which he’s writing. Rather than describing each story musically, he said he aims to describe the feelings each story elicited in him.

In writing music, he said, “You start with something and it seems to keep going by itself. Then you look at what you have done. Sometimes you are happy; sometimes you are not. You get going and going … it’s just that you like the material. It takes over in a way. You think ‘this is good’ and you keep going,” he said. “Or sometimes you ruin it.”

Asenjo said, “I am satisfied with what I’m doing now. If people don’t like it, if people criticize it, so be it. I’m not writing to please them.” But he hopes others do enjoy his work.

“After you work for a year, day after day — not slaving, because I enjoy doing it daily — but I want everyone to like it.”

In his work, Asenjo takes to heart the advice he once used in the classroom. “I would tell my students, do not leave the subject to the weekend and think you are going to master it. Work on it every day, even just a little. Things will come more easily and more productively,” he said.

Asenjo said he works on his compositions daily. “When I finish some writing, it feels the day is not in vain.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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