Julián Carrillo, microtonal maestro

carrillo notation

While reading The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross, a collection of anecdotes, biographies, and histories of 20th century classical composition, I searched in vain for any reference of the great Mexican composer Julián Carrillo. An odd omission as far as I am concerned, considering  Carrillo’s unique and important contributions to this field. It seems very few music critics in the north look to the southern hemisphere when considering serious “classical” music. Heitor Villa-Lobos was barely mentioned, and Leo Brouwer and Manuel Maria Ponce never discussed at all! Most students of the classic guitar will recognize the last three composers, however, Julián Carrillo, one of the more innovative composers of the 20th century, is practically unknown outside of Mexico.

Born in 1875 in a small town in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, Julián Carrillo Trujillo studied music (violin), composition, and acoustics at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City. During his studies he began developing an elaborate  microtonal system of music which he called Sonido 13, a symbolic name to imply an expansion of the conventional equal temperament 12 tone system of music. He also impressed the then President of Mexico with his violin playing enough to be granted a scholarship to study abroad in Leipzig, Germany, where he studied with European maestros of violin, composition, and conducting, becoming a maestro of these things himself.


Upon his return to Mexico, Carrillo was appointed professor of composition at the National Conservatory of Music, a position he held until a few years later when the Mexican revolution heated up. Having been in the favor of the ousted government, he eventually ended up in New York City, having heard that there was a shortage of conductors due to the First World War. Apparently this was true as Carrillo became a working conductor, but also formed his own loose organization called The Symphony Orchestra of America, which performed new works, including his own, to considerable notoriety. In 1918 he was asked to return to Mexico to direct the National Symphony Orchestra there, which under his supervision was recognized as on par with the New York Philharmonic, according to Leopold Godowski. A few years later he was also appointed as director of the National Conservatory in Mexico City, where he promoted both old and new musical ideas.

Although Julián Carrillo had been working on his Sonido 13 microtonal system for some time, it was not until 1922 that he finished Preludio a Colón, his first piece utilizing tones smaller than a semitone. While retaining his official appointments he also formed  an ensemble called Grupo Metropalitano, mainly with his students, to explore and promote his microtonal ideas. In 1926 he was invited to submit a microtonal piece to the League of Composers’ concert of modern music, which introduced his work to Leopold Stokowski, who quickly became a champion of Carrillo’s works. Stokowski then commissioned a Carrillo piece to be performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. During the premiere, Stokowski said this of Carrillo: ” Luckily for America, we do not have to look to European musicians for this revolution, since everything is owed to an Indian who descends from the children of the Continent”.

From 1930 to his death in 1965, Julián Carrillo perfected his Sonido 13 notation system (pubished as Sistema General de Escritura Musical, 1957), composed major and minor works using his system, had instruments built to accommodate the music, and traveled the world giving lectures and performances.  His penultimate work, Misa de la Restauracion a S.S. Juan XXIII (Mass for Pope John XXIII), utilizing quarter and semitones, was published in 1962.

Most of the information from the above four paragraphs came from – Benjamin, Gerald R. “Julián Carrillo and Sonido Trece'” , Yearbook, Inter-American Institute for Musical Research, iii (1967). In the ’70s my family published a classic guitar magazine called Creative Guitar International, in which a fellow named John Scott Ford wrote a three part series (pt. 1, 2, 3) on Carrillo. John Scott Ford had a specially made guitar made with extra frets specifically to play some Carrillo microtonal  pieces, one of which is the image at the beginning of this post.

Judging from the amount of videos and posts concerning Julián Carrillo these days, there appears to be a resurgence of interest in his works. I hope this is the case, and that critics like Alex Ross will get a chance to be exposed to this very unique and influential 20th century composer.