long bio - josé luis merlin
José Luis Merlin
Guitarist, composer, arranger, teacher and creative visionary José Luis Merlin imagines dazzling musical works that celebrate both his classical background and his passion for folk music. They tell vivid, emotional stories about the delicate, eternal threads of hope that connect humankind. Profoundly moved by visual art, dance, literature and film and also influenced by his Latin American, Ukrainian-Jewish and Spanish roots, his original pieces feature contemporary and traditional elements as well as diverse Argentinian rhythms, the haunting melodies of Eastern European folk songs and the resonant, romantic melodies of Western European classical music.
Merlin’s extraordinary career has spanned over 50 years, and his compositions and live performances show his mastery of both improvisation and classical technique; each of his pieces mixes spontaneous catharsis with impeccable technique and paints an exquisite picture of his brilliant imagination and his vibrant impressions of the greater world. As a teacher, Merlin shares his unquenchable curiosity about human emotion and eternal quest for deeper knowledge with his students. His critical approach to learning helps them discover “how to think” rather than simply “what to think”. This same ideology is the foundation of his calling as a creator and performer.
Often referred to as a “poet of the guitar,” Merlin becomes one with his instrument during concerts and recitals. He uses the strings of the guitar to pour out magical musical elegies about his own personal journey, which has been marked by moments of love, loss, longing, sorrow, joy and hope. His ability to mesmerize audiences during his intimate performances and to communicate universal stories through the guitar has led to many standing ovations, critical acclaim and has endeared him to global audiences and garnered admiration from folk and classical guitar legends, mentors and contemporaries such as Abel Carlevaro and Paco de Lucía.
Merlin’s contagious energy, enthusiasm for playing both chamber music and folk music and his fondness for collaborating with painters, photographers, dancers, actors, puppeteers, writers, filmmakers and a wide range of other artists inspire him to continue to evolve his craft and keep his mind open to life’s many possibilities.
Merlin’s own story has been affected by geographical upheaval, and the refrain of the immigrant is a recurring theme in his music. His Jewish grandparents together with his then four-year-old father resettled in Argentina after escaping persecution in Odessa, Ukraine in 1912, and he was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1952. As the youngest of five children in a family that cherished the Arts, he listened excitedly as his older sisters learned the piano and, overcome by the expressive pieces of composers like Chopin, he played what he heard by ear as soon as he could reach the keys. His father recognized his talent and encouraged him to study guitar. It was love at first touch, and Merlin began taking lessons from prestigious Argentinian guitarist and composer Vicente Degese. He composed his first series of songs with the rhythm of Zamba for solo guitar at age nine and in 1972 began working on an arrangement for guitar of “4 Seasons in Buenos Aires” by Astor Piazzolla. As he continued his studies, his father took him to orphanages, hospitals and prisons in order to give concerts. By the age of 13, Merlin had mastered most of the principle classical guitar pieces and found that composing with feeling came naturally to him, and at 13, he received a “Profesor Superior de Guitarra, Teoría y Solfeo” diploma.
Merlin pursued his degree in physics at the university in order to learn more about the inner workings of the world and how all people relate to each other. He used his income from teaching guitar and accompanying singers in recitals and recordings within Buenos Aires to pay his tuition. At 23, he was forced to flee the school due to the death of leader Juan Domingo Peron and the political crisis that ensued. Years later, he emigrated to Spain, where he became once again fully enamored with guitar and particularly the style and approach of Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia and folk guitarist Atahualpa Yupanqui. He felt an immediate yearning to join these two worlds together.
José Luis Merlin has been a performer and composer as well as a researcher and teacher of instrumental technique since 1967. After studying with Degese, he continued for eight years with the legendary Abel Carlevaro, then studied harmony, counterpoint, musical form and instrumentation with Leónidas Arnedo.
Merlin’s humanistic, personal approach to music and devotion to folk, contemporary and classical music as well as his extensive formal training has turned him into a globally beloved and revered artist. His long career has been full of thrilling highlights, and his compositions are at the core of the most distinguished conservatory and university programs in the world, including the Royal Conservatory of Music in Spain, London, Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, the Shanghai Music Conservatory and many more. They are also being performed and recorded by eminent artists including Jasón Vieux, Eric Cabalo, Lisa Schroeder and David Tannenbaum (USA), Yang Xuefei (China), Antigoni Goni (Greece), Etienne Plasman (Luxembourg), Ana Archiles (Spain), Luis Andrés Campos Yépez (Ecuador), César Amaro (Uruguay), Eduardo Martín (Cuba), Alexandra Syniakova (Ukraine) and others.
A gifted orchestrator and arranger, Merlin orchestrated and arranged the score of James Ivory’s film, City of Your Final Destination. He also adapted Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Euridice for “La Mar de Marionetas” (The Sea of Puppets) theater company as well as the music for “Agua” at the Expo Zaragoza, both of which were recorded and released as a DVD by Sello Autor. He has arranged and adapted works by Beethoven, Scarlatti and Bach and has set the poetry of Nicandro Pereyra and Antonio Esteban Agüero to music. Merlin composed the music for the children’s songs album, Estaciones que Cantan. Canciones Infantiles with the poet Cristina Alvarez Puerto.
In addition, Merlin composed the music for Travesía, an oratorio for recitative, mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra, with texts by José Tcherkasky, which was praised by prominent critics and artists, including virtuoso flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía, who affirmed Merlin’s musical goals: “I believe that this work will underscore the link between Latino-American countries and Spain, through the guitar and its history.”
Merlin’s additional original compositions have received equally high praise. He has composed critically-acclaimed pieces for solo guitar, guitar and cello, guitar and string quartet, piano and voice and for many other ensembles, which have been published by GSP Publisher (USA), Chanterelle (Germany), Tuscany Publicatoins and Shamrock (Austria).
Alongside all his other accomplishments, Merlin has enjoyed decades of teaching guitar and composition classes to students from many different countries and master classes both in person and via video conference. Merlin was also co-founder and the first president of the Association Integración Guitarrística Argentina and the founder and director of the Centro de Estudios Musicales in Buenos Aires, a school of music for students of all levels. He was also the co-founder and first president of the “Club de la Guitarra” cultural association in El Escorial, Spain and the former artistic director and professor of Escuela TAI in the University Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid.
Merlin is also a prolific performer with 30 international tours on his resume. He has given more than 200 concerts in the United States alone and countless others in Mexico, Ireland, Spain and Austria. He has also toured Canada, Cuba, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. He has played at the Centro Cultural de la Villa in Madrid, the United Nations in New York City, the Museums of Art in Dallas and Detroit, the Teatro Juan Bravo in Segovia, the Teatro Nacional Cervantes and the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, has appeared on public radio and television in Ohio, Michigan, Oregon, California and Texas as well as on the international Deutsche Welle channel in Germany.
José Luis Merlin has played as a soloist with the Symphonies of Rosario and San Juan in Argentina and has performed chamber music with Frolov Chamber Orchestra, Cuarteto Sudamericano, Buenos Aires, Sudamérica, Sudamericano, Musicámera, del Plata, and the Grupo Merlin.
In September 2014, the city legislature of Buenos Aires declared Merlin “Distinguished Personality of the Culture of the City of Buenos Aires.” The same year, he played a fundraising recital with flutist Alexandra Syniakova (soloist of the National Philharmonic of Ukraine) and the vocal group Musica Quantica in Teatro Colon of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which was attended by over one thousand people. Merlin composed the music for the final choral piece, “Canción de Agua” – with lyrics written by Jorge Drexler – especially for this event.
Now, José Luis Merlin continues to weave his own immigrant story and his many other experiences into his melodies. The artist regularly describes the state of an immigrant as an uprooted tree with the roots hanging loose in the air – an allegory for the emotional and inspirational vacuum he experienced when first moving to Spain. Still, he refuses to be overcome by negative emotions. He approaches his work as a composer from a positive perspective and fulfills his mission as a composer and artistic interpreter by helping people reconnect with inner peace and find joy. He believes that as time passes, the uprooted tree, while still in the air, learns to heal itself again, because, as he says, “there are eternal beauties, like the Sun and the stars, and eternal values like love and hope, which are the same, no matter where you are.”