On "Latin American" music

[Cross-posted on Ensemble Dal Niente's website.]

To speak about Latin American music probably makes about as much sense as to speak of North American music.  Which is to say, it is immediately apparent that the term is of limited usefulness: all that can be definitively made is a claim about geography (and it is immediately apparent that this is not particularly definitive; how does one characterize the music of a composer born in one location and living in another, as many on this program are?).  My limited, unscientific, anecdotal experiences in Mexico, Colombia, and Panama on tour with Ensemble Dal Niente in June 2015 (having been to each of those countries once before) suggested to me that the only generalization about Latin American music was that a generalization was impossible. Yet, rightly or wrong, one makes an attempt to generalize; the geographies, political situations, and languages of Latin and North America are different; surely culture reflects this.  But just as an attempt to make a generalizable distinction appears, though, it collapses.  North America and Latin America also share a word in their names, a landmass, time zones, a history rooted in conquest, colonialism, violence; an argument could be mounted that these cultures have more in common, than, say the US and Europe.  Hesitatingly, I ask: might it make more sense to simply speak of an “American music” in the broadest sense?  But for now: let us attempt to live in these contradictory thoughts.

A trend I provisionally perceived in the works that Ensemble Dal Niente took on its tour involved what seemed to me to be an unmistakeable willingness to write about political situations.  But the way in which this is manifested in each work is very different; and none of them are facile or seem to make naive claims about their direct efficacy in, say, an electoral arena.  I’ll talk about three that appear on our 10th anniversary season-opening program, Canciones.

Regarding his work verdaderos negativos ("real negatives"), Colombian composer Rodolfo Acosta writes the following:

Its title refers to the deplorable phenomenon of so-called "false positives", especially in its  most tragic use: the killing of civilians by military forces in order to prove the latter's supposed effectiveness. In the most recent Colombian case, these crimes have been perpetrated in order to make the victims pass as guerrilla combatants killed in battle. Unfortunately, this is not a recent practice, nor is it  exclusive to the Colombian Armed Forces, as is witnessed by other societies in Latin America and in the world generally. On the other hand, although the term refers to "presenting the false positive results" of a military institution (and the killing of innocent people is not the only kind), we cannot lose sight of the fact that considering a person's violent death as something "positive" is grotesquely inhumane.

Thus, its concept and title is a play on opposites: the false is the radically real; the positive is the negative. Musically there are, similarly, contradictory forces at work that create an experience for an audience of unusual directness.  On one end are the drumkit and bass parts, whose rhythms are rigidly notated.  They can be read as representing the forces of a violently aggressive way of organizing time (along the lines of what a military force or tyrannical government might do); but also, simultaneously, as a reference to popular music styles that can be themselves seen as both resistant and compliant.  The melodic parts (the work is for an open instrumentation, requiring the performers to choose) are notated permissively, with suggestions for thematic contours and instructions like “fluctuating dynamics.”  They force the listener to consider individual voices, and force the players to be individualized – the opposite of what governmental forces do in killing civilians and passing them off as guerillas.  Which is to say, the action of creating “false positives” is an attempted erasure of the individual on multiple levels – in the act of murder, and that of attributing to the victim an identity that is not theirs.  The melodic sections of the piece make it so that the players (both as musicians and human beings) do the opposite. They must thematize their own particularity, such that their musical effort goes into being not together; and they must also make choices regarding their specific life circumstances, i.e., what instrument they're playing.  Yet on top of these layers of meaning, the overall affect is one of a certain unified rage (on the part of the musicians and composer and, hopefully, the engaged audience) against injustice – a visceral feeling of disgust and anger.

On the opposite end of the affective spectrum is Francisco Castillo Trigueros’s Geografias.  According to the composer, in the work

several poetic and musical visions of Mexico coexist.  The text, constructed from symbolic and narrative fragments, builds a dramatic arch, illustrating different facets of the natural, cultural, political, and mystical geography of the country, from a distant and semi-nostalgic perspective.

The music is understated, its unflappable character often of a mimetic nature that masks an underlying subtlety and sophistication.  We are introduced to a narrative subject, one that surveys the landscape.  As the music gradually moves on, with an epic patience, it becomes increasingly clear that this is not an ordinary narrative subject.  Phrases like “the heavy air was burying my body into the humid earth,” and “my pulverized bones crunching under its pressure” give us clues that the fate of the narrator is not a happy one.  As the work develops, the status of all elements become increasingly blurred – are the piece’s sounds natural or musical or in a fluid state between those two?  Is the narrator asleep or awake or alive or dead or does s/he even know?  Is the genre an accompanied narration or an art song or both?  In the end, we know the whole time that something has happened to this narrator, an event, an occurrence, a trauma.  The question remains for us until the end: what is it?

On our program Canciones (“Songs”) perhaps the most clearly “sung” is Federico Garcia-de Castro’s Memoria.  The composer writes that

[t]he idea for [the work] stems from the last 3 things that Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa, then presidential candidate for the Colombian left-wing party Unión Patriótica, said to his wife while dying in her arms after being shot in the Bogota airport in 1990: "Sweetheart, I can't feel my legs;" "Those assholes just killed me;" "I am dying, embrace me, protect me."

“High culture” art songs have a long, complicated history; when the so-called classical music lover recalls it, perhaps Schubert comes to mind first.  Easily passed over (but maybe quickly remembered) is how much sense his works made in his culture: so much so that the phenomenon of Schubertiades, essentially, listening parties for Schubert’s songs, were common events in the Vienna of his day.  It’s tempting to forget that Schubert wasn’t setting the poetry of Heine, Goethe, Schiller, Müller because they were “canonic” figures but rather because they were the widely read poets of his day.  Returning to the work in question: while the words spoken by a dying man were assuredly not intended to be poetry, it requires but a few conceptual leaps to see the setting thereof in an art song as part of a tradition of topicality.  Or one might view it ironically whereas German 19th century poetry is highly refined, nothing could be more spontaneously uttered than a person directly confronting their own mortality.  Regardless, both Schubert’s and Federico’s contemporaneous audience are the best interpreters of their music.  To put it another way: the impact of a musical setting of the words of a public figure relatively recently assassinated, from a country with a history of a fraught political relationship with our own, is likely to impact us in a unique way.  

The musically conservative elements of Memoria emphasize a certain radicality.  It contains an acoustic guitar cadenza that could fit right into Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez; its harmonic language relies heavily on open intervals and triads; its music contains conventional reflections of the semantic content of the text.  Yet at the same time, the instrumentalists break out of their traditional role as simple accompanists.  They come across as (because they are) human beings who comment, respond, exhort, complain; they envelope the lonely soprano in whirlwind of whispered secrets while she meditates on fundamental questions of human existence.  

In closing, I wonder this: will an audience find its conception of what it considers “American” music changed as a result of these encounters with “Latin American” music?  I’m interested to find out, and I certainly invite your opinions.