Assistant Professor of Experimental Performance
D.M.A., University of California San Diego
M.F.A., California Institute of the Arts
M.M., The University of Akron
B.A., Corpus Christi State University
Even as a toddler, Assistant Professor of Experimental Performance Gustavo Aguilar was drawn to music. “My mother would find me standing in my crib singing, using the knob and string of the blinds as a microphone,” he reminisced.
Growing up in Brownsville, Texas, Aguilar was exposed to many musical styles. His parents loved traditional Mexican and mariachi musicians. Driving around town with his father, Aguilar would hear the accordion-rich Tex-Mex music from every passing vehicle. In high school, he discovered Van Halen, rock and roll and started his first band.
“I would go to school then go to work. I would run out of work and get home at 6:30 pm and we all meet up at my parents and start playing. We played six days a week from 6:30 until 10:00 pm. We had to stop at 10 pm out of respect for our neighbors. Looking back, I don’t know how my mother put up with it,” Aguilar recalled, smiling.
His hardworking parents built a family business, but they urged their son to earn a college degree. Aguilar was accepted to a pre-dentistry program , but he left school for a year to help run the family business when his father became ill. When he returned to his studies, Aguilar told his parents he was going to major in music. His father was unhappy with that decision, but Aguilar’s mother supported him. “She told me that whatever I did, I should strive to do the best I can,” Aguilar said.
Today, Aguilar’s parents can be very proud of their son who has become an accomplished composer, performer and assistant professor of experimental performance at the University of Maine at Farmington. His innovative works and performances are featured at contemporary and new music festivals around the world, including Australia, Korea, Austria, and Denmark. He has also performed in New York City and Paris.
Playing it Forward
Aguilar loves teaching as much as performing. His professors inspired, challenged and mentored him. Aguilar remembered how his teachers would take him along to their performances. Sometimes he would help set up the instruments and watch the show. But sometimes his teachers would invite Aguilar on stage to perform.
“I always wanted to be a teacher. I had great teachers beginning with my parents and grandparents,” Aguilar recalled. “Once I decided to become a music major, I had amazing teachers. They took me under their wing, maybe because I did whatever they told me. If they were performers, I would ask them if I could set up for them or go to the concert with them. They would allow me to go with them and before I knew it I was performing with them … I learned a lot in the classroom, but to really see them put their lessons in action on a stage was even more important.”
Aguilar passes on those same illuminating experiences to his students. Recently Aguilar and fellow UMF faculty members Philip Carlsen and Stephen Pane brought some of their students to perform along side their teachers at a New York City new music series. It was a rare experience for undergraduate students to mingle with contemporary music professionals from around the world.
“I’d like to create more of those opportunities to allow our students to perform in these professional settings that showcase some of the most important artists of our time whose contributions may not be appreciated until years from now. It this way our students could play a small part of history,” Aguilar said.
UMF’s positive and collaborative atmosphere was very obvious when Aguilar first visited the campus, and was one of the reasons he chose to teach here. “This department is very supportive and giving to the students. They really work had for the students,” he added.
Making the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange
Aguilar was excited to become UMF’s first professor of experimental performance. “It was a perfect fit,” he said because it allows him to expand his abilities to make art beyond his interest in new and contemporary music. He challenges his students to reconsider their unspoken assumptions about art and the world.
“If I have a goal I would like my students to make perception into a verb. I want them to make it an activity. I want them to be always questioning because that is how we progress as humans … and I think art does that. Art makes perception a verb,” Aguilar said.
He also encourages his students to test their personal limitations and expectations. “There are those special moments, and they are many, when students showcase their confidence: to see those students who at the very beginning of the semester tell me, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ but at the end of the semester they are up there trying despite their shyness or even forgetting they are shy,” Aguilar explained.
A percussionist and composer, Aguilar describes himself as “an interdisciplinary creative explorer” who does not limit his compositions, improvisation, collaborations, and performances to music.
“When I say interdisciplinary, I mean everything for me is a tool: visual art, music, theater. They are all tools … When I come to a project, I see what that project calls for and I am not afraid to then go to that tool,” Aguilar explained.
He also goes a step further, beyond the traditional tools of the artistic world to incorporate other academic disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, philosophy, psychology, even neuroscience — whatever a particular art project entails. “Everything is on the table,” Aguilar said. This approach means he will invest hours of research and thought into each project, in a sense becoming a student, again.
“(That) process is the art and the final part of that process is to share it with an audience and put myself in a space where I am questioning everything I have done in front of an audience so they can question everything too,” Aguilar said. He added he views his quest for knowledge and new perspectives as essential to his art and his approach to teaching.
The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep
“I got excited about idea of living in a place like Maine. I had a fantasy, being from south Texas, about what living in New England would be like from reading Robert Frost when I was very young,” Aguilar said. He and his wife, Gaelyn, a fellow UMF faculty member, as well as, a cultural anthropologist and filmmaker, enjoy exploring Maine’s natural beauty.
“It’s very beautiful, seeing the rivers and the landscape. Geography informs us and understanding this place helps me understand the psyche of Maine, and of my students,” Aguilar said.
“They say the sky in the west is big, expansive. To me the sky in Maine is deep; there is deepness to it. And I have always been attracted to deep things. Here, you see the stars come out in 3-D. I think the Maine spirit could be found there in that sky,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar and his wife are also creative collaborators whose archive of multimedia interdisciplinary works can be found online at the Tug Collective. “This work is very important to me. Gaelyn is a natural teacher,” Aguilar said, “I could not have arrived where I am without her.”