Music I Am #32 – Nicolás Lell Benavides, composer

The moment when you knew you wanted to be a musician:

I always credit my grandfather with showing me the joys of playing music. He is an accordionist who played traditional corridos and rancheras from the southwest, and growing up I would play the saxophone by ear with him, learning as much as I could and playing small gigs with him. The sound of an accordion is just permanently in my ear, and playing by ear allowed me to experiment with each new performance, adding a different harmony, trying out a new line, and changing the arrangement of a song. He was always so thrilled for me to learn new styles of music outside of his field, and encouraged me to learn to read sheet music in the school bands. I didn’t know anything about classical music until college, though just before graduating high school I heard my first orchestra concert and became completely enamored. Partway through my freshman year I realized one could be a composer, and I’ve never looked back! Neither of us could have imagined I would end up working in a field like this!

An important skill for a career in music that does not have anything to do with an instrument or making music:

Listening. It’s something I’m always working on. We are always caught up in writing, rehearsing, and performing our music that we forget a big part of our field is being in communication with each other. The best experiences I’ve had, I have to remind myself, come from going to other people’s concerts and listening without any expectation or goal. I think this applies to other fields, too, where we so frequently want to show off what we know and can do but must take time to hear about what other people can do.

Two ways you stay motivated:

Deadlines and a deeply ingrained Catholic guilt complex! Kidding, mostly, but motivation seems to be a moving target, which I think is normal. Sometimes I find I can work without stopping for hours at a time, and other times I’ll do everything right (exercise, eat, relax, turn off my phone) and then I can’t get anything done. I’ve found that it’s important to set a schedule and stick to it best I can, even if things aren’t as productive as I’d like them to be, but also be willing to assess a situation and pivot to do something else when I’m truly hitting a dead end. If my large ensemble work isn’t happening then maybe I should dabble with the piece for a solo instrument. If the opera is lagging then I should give the string quartet a try. If nothing is working maybe I should tackle my long overdue email inbox. I find I feel better at the end of the day if I’ve gotten something done, and can give myself space and time to rest and reset for the next day.

Latest Project:

Khemia Ensemble produced an album called Intersections, which features my Little Cloud. 

What inspired it:

I wrote Little Cloud as a lullaby for my newborn son. I wrote the words and music, and recorded samples of trees and birds in my neighborhood where I grew up. It talks about the Cottonwood trees at my parents’ home, and their calming “summer snow” of seeds floating on little clouds of cotton on warm summer days. I wanted him to have a connection to my home, and I planted a Cottonwood tree for him when he was born so he could grow up with it. It’s already 15 feet tall, and the same age as him!

Who’s on it:

Khemia Ensemble

How do you discover new music?

Either online or by going to shows with unexpected finds! I love that there are so many great new music ensembles in the LA area, where I live, that I can go to a show or series of concerts and find new music with ease. LA really is one of the great new music cities in the world, and I feel so lucky to live in this area. Living in Long Beach, it’s a quick drive to downtown LA or even to down south to catch just about anything I’d love to hear. I also find new music online, but truthfully nothing can replace a live performance for me bonding with something new, and so I try to see as much live music as I can.

One living and one dead musician that deserves more attention:

The dead one is harder than the living one! But living is easy: Nina Shekhar. She’s already blowing up with commissions by the NYPhil, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and Eighth Blackbird, but I think every day listeners would do well to check her stuff out. It’s highly original but undeniably beautiful and human.

Dead, I would say Billy Strayhorn. You’ve heard his music without knowing his name, and I think he deserves all the credit he can get. He is mostly known as the longtime associate of Duke Ellington, but he wrote so much of the music we associate with Duke Ellington. Take the A Train, Satin Doll, and my personal favorite Lush Life.

Where can we find you online?

either my website, or on instagram where I am most active: or instagram @nlbenavides

Upcoming Event you’d like to share?

Daniel Hope and New Century Chamber Orchestra are premiering my newest piece, Doña Sebastiana (Santa Muerte), as part of the California Festival this coming November!
It will come to the Bay Area November 2-5, with lots of chances to hear it live.


1 -Marella Martin Koch (librettist) and Erich Parce (director) before the premiere of our opera Tres minutos in Seattle, premiered by Music of Remembrance. Photo credit: Ben VanHouten

Photo credits:
2 – Maggie Beidelman
3 – Vivian Sachs

4 – Nicolás conducting the Pepito cast recording:

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One Response to “Music I Am #32 – Nicolás Lell Benavides, composer”

  1. […] **Music I Am Interview with Nicolás Lell Benavides: HERE […]

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