The 21st Century Orchestra: José Duarte, Decomposer

Kirk Pearson is a Thomas J. Watson Fellow traveling the world on an odyssey of invention, in search of the weird and wonderful tinkerers working to expand our instrumental lexicon. In Costa Rica, he spent two months with “decomposer” José Duarte.

Under an hour after meeting José Duarte, he asked me if I wanted to build a robot. “It will make music. And have arms made of chainsaws” he said. “At the end, it will catch on fire.”

In Costa Rica’s experimental art community, José’s status seems to sit comfortably between the levels of “local hero” and “celebrity.” Much like a robot with chainsaw arms, his projects are rarely subtle. This is to say when you see one of his pieces, you may not like it, but there’s no way you’ll forget it. After a stint in Taiwan to study computer music, José’s return to Costa Rica in 2007 was met with gusto. Since then, he’s become quite known for his “Extremos Sonoros” noise concert series. These shows have been around long enough that at least one of its current members grew up attending a different generation of “Extremos Sonoros” shows.

In a way, he’s created a bit of a dynasty for himself. It’s quite nice.

He’s also created a platform to build robots that destroy themselves. That’s nice too.

José Duarte

For two months, I parked myself in a hostel in San José’s Escalante district, which happened to be the cheapest hostel I could find (I’m funded by a fellowship, but still on a budget). José lived on the other side of town, about three miles south of me. My walks to his house were always sonically interesting—I’d start by hearing the birds in the trees of Escalante, the bachata playing of groups in the central plaza, the loud cries of barkers selling blenders in the industrial markets, the screaming insects of Sabana Park, and eventually the traffic of José’s own neighborhood. José grew up with all these sounds, and they’re all, in some way or another, deeply embedded in his work. “In order to put a sound together,” he says, “you first have to take it apart.”

Appropriately, taking stuff apart is José’s second pastime. His bedroom is host to a zoo of quirky-looking plastic boxes, springs, sockets, and contact microphones strung together in all sorts of ways. Unlike many musical inventors, José’s instruments are rarely meant to sound pleasurable. “It’s my job to surprise people! To rattle them around and see what’s going on inside!” he assures me. Watching him perform is truly entertaining—José dances around his stage, twirling knobs on his synthesizers, pouring dried beans onto amplified tables, all while in his distinctive cyborg goggles. It’s what I imagine Robocop’s noise music career would look like, minus the death that would likely ensue.

On my last day in Costa Rica, I sat down with José and a few of his creations to shoot an interview. He drove me home that night, and with the earnestness only he could deliver, put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Kirk, keep making noise.”

José, it’s a promise.