On Marcelo Toledo, Cesar Vallejo, Poetry, Music, and Hedgehogs

Marcelo Toledo’s work from 2001 “¿Qué se llama cuanto heriza nos?” (more on an English translation of this later) takes its title from a poem by Cesar Vallejo, written in 1922 when he was in prison in his native Peru.  It is the second of 77 poems in Vallejo's collection Trilce.  Here’s Ensemble Dal Niente’s recent performance of the work with me conducting.  (Do have a listen; it's outstandingly well played.)

If you’re a native English speaker, you may know works by other Latin American poets: say Neruda or Borges or Octavio Paz.  If Vallejo is a less familiar name there’s a reason.  His poetry is very specific to the Spanish language, and doesn’t translate straightforwardly into English.  Imagine, as an analogue, trying to read James Joyce’s Ulysses in French.  Even the title of the present collection, Trilce, is an not-quite-translatable word that is a combination of the Spanish “triste” (“sad”) and “dulce” (“sweet”).  (Stay with me.  This is worth your time.)

Vallejo’s heritage was of mixed ethnicity, European and Peruvian Indian.  (Read more about him here.)  Thus, for him, Spanish was both a native language and a foreign one.  Much of his poetry is concerned with this contradiction.  He uses the Spanish language to its fullest, but also breaks it, defamiliarizes it, and makes new things out of it.  He intentionally uses incorrect grammar, misspells words, and creates neologisms.  It’s a simultaneous engagement with and rebellion against the system of communication he’s inherited; and it doesn’t take too many leaps to see some similarity with how contemporary American society changes the English language.  (Check out just about any entry on urbandictionary.com for an example.)

Have a quick look at the poem, followed by an unwieldy Frankenstein’s monster of a translation I’ve assembled from others (even this incapable of capturing many subtleties, not least of which is the sounds of the Spanish words themselves).  The formatting wouldn't allow to me to put them side-by-side, sorry.

Trilce II

Tiempo Tiempo.

Mediodía estancado entre relentes.
Bomba aburrida del cuartel achica
tiempo tiempo tiempo tiempo.

Era Era.

Gallos cancionan escarbando en vano.
Boca del claro día que conjuga
era era era era.

Mañana Mañana.

El reposo caliente aún de ser.
Piensa el presente guárdame para
mañana mañana mañana mañana

Nombre Nombre.

¿Qué se llama cuanto heriza nos?
Se llama Lomismo que padece
nombre nombre nombre nombrE.

Sadsweet II

Time Time.

Noon clogged up the nighttime fog.
Boring pump [bomb] of the cellblock pumping out [shrinking]
Time time time time.

Was was.

Roosters singsong scratching in vain.
Clear day's mouth that conjugates
Was was was was.

Tomorrow Tomorrow.

The warm repose of being though.
The present thinks hold on to me for
Tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow.

Name name.

What do you call all that us bristles [wounds] [hedges]?
It's called Thesame that suffers
Name name name namE

This poem was written while Vallejo was in jail, and so at least part of what is going on involves an interpretation of the repetitiveness of life under such conditions.  Midday and nighttime are conflated.  Time, tomorrow, being... all repeated and repetitious.  Even the stuff of language itself -- in addition to the words, there’s something singsongy about how they sound: “era era era era” (was was was was).

In the midst of this is a strange, mysterious, ungrammatical line that is the title of Toledo's piece: “¿Qué se llama cuanto heriza nos?” awkwardly translated “What do you call all that us bristles [wounds] [hedges]?”  The answer to the question is that it’s “Thesame” as that which suffers.  Humans create their own misery, perhaps.  Crucial to interpretation of this line, and what makes it so difficult to translate, is the enigmatic heriza; it's a made-up word that involves at least the following meanings: erizar (to bristle), erizo (hedgehog), and herida (wound/injury).  

Marcelo Toledo is doing the same thing that Vallejo is, and that we all are as “American” musicians in the broadest possible sense.  He’s working with elements inherited from a European tradition (language in Vallejo’s case, instruments and playing styles in Toledo’s), and is engaging with that tradition to make them do new things and create new meaning.  This meaning occurs on multiple levels and finds particular, unique expression in the word heriza.  Perhaps the “bristles” part of heriza refers both to this relationship with tradition, and also the sounds in this piece, bristly indeed.  Perhaps the “hedgehog” part has to do with music’s referentially to other music.  (Recall, if you’re into this kind of thing, Derrida’s image of poetry as a hedgehog – something that curls up into self-referentiality, never crossing the road to transcendence and full communication.  Of course, such a reference is anachronistic; Derrida’s essay is much later.  Maybe associating the two, completely removed in time and space, is far-fetched.  But I’m not so sure; such are the mysteries of language.)  Perhaps the “wound” is that which American artists feel trying to make art in cultural situations that involve a perpetual negotiation between a foreign tradition and our own that we’re making up as we go along.

All of the above feels sympathetic with Ensemble Dal Niente’s project in general, and specifically to our Latin American tour during the summer of 2015 and continued engagement with new music in that region.

Marcelo Toledo writes in his program note about the work:

Time creates its own dance of elliptic cycles.  Looking at the score and listening to the recording of the premiere (in 2001) I can say that this piece was anticipating my next decade of work. The sound world that I imagined was clear and concrete but the musical notation was still finding its way through it. That openness manifested in the notation could trigger yet new worlds...

I’m not sure if Marcelo intends all of the connections of meaning between his piece and the poetry of Vallejo; and of course, there’s no possible way he could have known 15 years ago that a US new music ensemble would be playing this work in Chicago -- one whose artistic mission in many ways overlaps with or is analogous to his and Vallejo’s.  But culture does that to us sometimes.  We control certain things about our artistic work, or at least we think we do; other things, though, are part of our shared set of artistic concerns, priorities, and materials, and our interactions with them are beyond our.  “Trigger[ing] yet new worlds” indeed.  ("New Worlds."  I'll just let that one sit there.)

I’d be interested to know how you interpret the end of this piece.  I was surprised at the first rehearsal -- and I had the score and (theoretically) knew what to expect!  All the performers end by not playing the instruments they’re supposed to be playing…  instead producing sounds that obscure their role as oboists, clarinets, violinists, etc., even more than has already been done.  I have theory about this and why it is.  If you have one, though, I’d love to know what it is.