A world of music

Diné composer getting noticed despite seclusion

(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Juantio Becenti draws inspiration for his unique musical compositions from the beautiful natural landscape of Southern Utah. He says he has no desire to move anywhere to promote his music.

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

ANETH, Utah, Jan. 7, 2011

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Here in the mystical red rock country of southern Utah, it's easy to see how someone might be inspired to compose music. It's harder to see how a person could learn how.

But on a lonely hill where the only houses are those of his relatives, 27-year-old Juantio Becenti is turning out music that is capturing national attention. Here in the Four Corners? Not so much.

"I don't think a lot of people know me as a composer," admitted the tall, soft-spoken Becenti, who looks like a throwback to the Beat Generation with his chin-length hair and scraggly goatee. "Even my parents aren't all that interested in what I do."

His friends, including Cortez, Colo., musician/writer/artist Sonja Horoshko, would argue that's because Becenti hasn't worked particularly hard at putting his music out there. In fact, he hasn't done much of anything to promote his work.

"You just want to grab him and say, 'Tio, you have do this as an artist,'" Horoshko said. "But that's just not who he is."

In spite of not having a Web site or a single CD, Becenti and his complex, expansive string quartets and orchestral compositions are getting discovered. He was recently commissioned by Mohawk cellist Dawn Avery to write a solo tailored to her style, and his music forms part of the soundtrack of the new documentary "Two Spirits," which follows the life and tragic murder of transgendered Navajo Fred Martinez.

Becenti's life could make an interesting movie in itself. How does one become a serious composer in a place like Aneth, Utah, population 598?

"It's really strange," agreed Becenti, who is Tó'aheedlíinii (Water Flowing Together) born for Tl'ógi (Hairy People). "I just had that desire, almost since I can remember."

Indeed, at the age of 10, Becenti was rearranging his piano etudes to get a "bigger sound." Even this was no small feat, as the piano teacher traveled weekly from Cortez and Becenti had to meet her at Montezuma Creek School, the nearest place that had a piano.

"Luckily, my mom worked at the school, so they would let me stay after and practice," Becenti recalled. In an hour here and a half-hour there, the young Becenti started to compose. He found two books on music theory in the school library and devoured them. He joined a couple of CD-of-the-month clubs so he could listen to the composers he admired: Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart.

"The classical CDs were always the cheapest," he said with a laugh.

Curious about what made the great music "work," he ordered scores from discount publisher Dover.

"I would listen to the music and follow along on the score," he recalled. "I guess what I was doing was teaching myself form."

At age 12, he met Horoshko, who at the time was artist-in-residence at Hovenweep National Monument.

"It was the weirdest thing," Horoshko recalled. "This kid appears out of the rocks and says, 'I'd like to write 'The Hovenweep Sonata.' I said, 'Well, you don't need my permission. I just live here.'"
Curious about the young prodigy, Horoshko traveled to Montezuma Creek to hear him play the school piano.

"As I walked in I could hear these beautiful sounds coming out of that old piano," Horoshko recalled. "I thought it might be Rachmaninoff. I said, 'Tio, who wrote that?'"
"I wrote it," Becenti replied, still playing.

"When?" queried Horoshko.

"This morning," he replied.

At that time, Becenti was keeping most of his music in his head. Horoshko snuck into the office at Hovenweep and made a bunch of copies of a blank music manuscript page, so her young friend would have a way to record his ideas.

Word somehow began to spread about the Navajo kid writing gorgeous music in the middle of nowhere, and Becenti got his first commission at age 15: a string quartet for the Moab Music Festival.

"The director wanted it sent to Paris, where he was at the time," Horoshko recalled. "Tio didn't even have (music software program) Finale at the time. We had to scramble to get him a copy, then we e-mailed it from my computer."

The festival marked the first time Becenti had heard his music performed.

"I think I had an out-of-body experience," he said. "I was so elated."

Another break came when Becenti was accepted into a summer program for young musicians at Walden College in Massachusetts. Being surrounded by other young people who took music seriously was like heaven for the teen from Aneth.

He wrote a quartet called "Hane" ("Story") that is probably his best-known work.

"There were so many good musicians there," he said. "That's still the best recording I have of any of my work."

Becenti went to college to study composition for a while, but dropped out after two semesters. "I saw juniors and seniors writing stuff that just didn't work," he recalled. "That's when I decided that writing music is an intuitive process. You can study it all you want, but if you don't intuitively know what works and what doesn't, you're never going to write anything good."

So now, Becenti just writes, sometimes 20 pages a day. He has the latest music software, but he prefers scribbling ideas on manuscript paper, just as he did when he was 12, in his little study at his parents' house in Aneth.
To pay the bills, he spends most of the week in Cortez as the night clerk at the Turquoise Inn. He has plenty of time to compose there, but he doesn't.

"I end up on the Internet," he said. "It's a big distraction."

His greatest frustration is that he rarely hears his music performed, other than through the emotionless playback function in Finale. There just aren't that many good classically trained musicians between Cortez and Aneth.

So why not move to San Francisco or New York, where scores of excellent out-of-work musicians are waiting tables and dying for a chance to premiere a work by an exotic new composer?

"Because I love it here," Becenti replies matter-of-factly. "That's my uncle's house over there. Those are my grandma's goats."

For now, if the world wants to hear Juantio Becenti, it will have to come to Aneth.

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