Journey to the Seed: dream, imagination and memory in Julio Estrada’s music (2017)

Around forty years ago Julio Estrada dreamt or imagined (now it is a vague memory) that he was under water staring at a luminous sphere. He was moving, and with his motion the lights would morph, coming through the frame of four windows surrounding the sphere. Later Estrada imagined this vision as music, always resulting in a similar, but not identical music. Dream, imagination and memory conjured up the creative impulses that led Estrada to design a compositional method based on drawings of curving lines representing sonic energies. Moving from left to right and carrying different colors, the drawings expressed energy trajectories that could match various components of a sonic “fabric” described by Estrada as macro-timbre. Such was the foundation of Estrada’s Yuunohui cycle, one of his most daring artistic projects to this day.       

Yuunohui’yei for cello was created in 1983. Dedicated to Rohan de Saram, yei inaugurated a series of solo pieces emanating from the conversion of the drawings to music notation. The creation of the Yuunohui series encompasses thirty years, still to be completed by  Yuunohi’sa for voice. There are versions for all strings (yei, nahui, se and ome), keyboards (tlapoa), a noise maker (wah), and all wind instruments (ehecatl). These pieces can be performed as solos or simultaneously, in combinations of duos, trios, quartets and so on. There is a mobile characteristic in the conversion of the drawings, meaning that any curve could represent more than one aspect of complex sounds. Thus in yei the blue strokes become dynamics while in nahui (for double bass) they are assigned to pitches. Other aspects of these complex sounds are specific to instrumental actions, like bow changes, which in yei correspond to the red drawings while in nahui correspond to the yellow ones. These sound components, contingent on each instrument’s capacities, are woven as the various voices of a polyphonic texture. Such texture forms the macro-timbre, the essence of each of the eight sections in which the Yuunohui is articulated.   

A dream may have arguably catalyzed the genesis of Yuunohui; but more importantly, Estrada turning his attention to the depths of the mind revealed a new path in his expressive endeavors. More remarkable than mimicking in art the representational facade of dreams is to find in them paradigms of operation. Estrada’s new method founded upon processes of conversions, and rooted in the pictorial recording of inner sonic fantasies highly resembles dreams as analyzed by Freud. For Freud, a dream is a mode of expression. So is art. That which is expressed in dreams (the dream content) may include experiences and feelings like fear or desire (the dream thoughts) which are distorted when dueling with censoring agents such as cultural impositions or moral beliefs. According to Freud “the dream-content seems like a transcript of the dream-thoughts into another mode of expression.”

If transcription can also be a form of conversion, the score of Yuunohui is a conversion of drawings, themselves a pictorial conversion of the creator’s pure, inner sounds. Imagery and conversion lie at the heart of both the Yuunohui and Freud’s Dream Theory. Furthermore, let’s recall the role of dueling with censoring agents in rendering the peculiar form of dreams, according to Freud. If a dream may have been the catalyst that led to Yuunohui, a rebellious drive fueled Estrada’s development of the graphic-recording method utilized in these pieces. After years of conventional musical practices influenced by instructors like Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Mesiaen, Estrada realized that composing with methods based on discrete units of sound (e.g. scales, pitch series, or rhythmic figures) was an obstruction to expressing his authentic sonic fantasies. After this realization Estrada “resigned from being a composer, and [he] started to be more of…an artist who integrates his vital experiences…in what he’s going to produce.”

With the graphic-recording method and working with the continuum in sound, Estrada “finally cut[s his] umbilical chord with the conservatory.” In the continuum he finds affinity with the type of sounds he imagines. Only a few years before embarking on this radical exploration, Estrada was still composing with tempered, discrete pitches and rhythmic figures based on conventional divisions of unit beats. Nonetheless, in his Canto Alterno from 1978, hints of his concerns with the underpinnings of the imagination resulted in a labyrinthine, mobile structure. A complex web-like spiral at the center of the score indicates a myriad of routes for the performer to break the linear succession of the piece’s twelve sections. Not only the sections can be performed in any order, but fragments within sections can also lead into one another. While the quasi-Bachian compound melodies based on intervals of thirds and seconds tie Canto Alterno with Western tradition, the work’s puzzling form suggests a novel narrative similar to stream of consciousness. Estrada thus found a way of approximating the spontaneity and looseness with which musical ideas emerge in the imagination.     

   To restrain expression to constructions based on prevalent musical vocabularies became an obstacle to the sonic fantasies Estrada anticipated in Canto Alterno. A key source of inspiration to leave this obstacle behind is nature. In an interview with Carlos Sandoval, Estrada said that “to be able to return, by way of the graphic, to acoustic structures closer to nature, we can access less abstract musical forms, that by their aspect can be identified as figurative.” Hence Estrada’s fascination with the literature of Juan Rulfo that inspired his opera Murmullos del Páramo. Drops of water falling on rocks, water over wet soil, the sound of ghostly voices carried on the wind, and “the unnamable noise”: these are sounds of memory and imagination. Estrada’s reflection on natural sounds versus abstract forms resonates with Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of Freudian theory when he affirms that “the effective subjugation of the instincts to repressive controls is imposed not by nature but by man.” The influence of Carlos Chávez, Messiaen and Boulanger was still significant in 1978 despite Estrada’s abundant creativity. Marcuse continues:

“The primal father, as the archetype of domination, initiates the chain reaction of enslavement, rebellion, and reinforced domination which marks the history of civilization. […] The struggle against freedom reproduces itself in the psyche of man, as the self-repression of the repressed individual, and his self-repression sustains his masters and their institutions. It is this mental dynamic which Freud unfolds as the dynamic of civilization.”

Beyond the primal father is the primal self. Before dream there is memory. Estrada also considers childhood as a source of material in the formulation of his musical thinking. For him, it was essential to develop the use of the graphic recording and conversion method in order to liberate those early impulses. Besides Canto Alterno, in 1978 Estrada also learned about the UPIC system developed by Xenakis. Coming across the UPIC was a defining moment in Estrada’s path to exploring the free possibilities of the continuum. The UPIC allows drawings made on a large board to be translated into sound by a computer, using the horizontal and vertical axes as the basis to define time and pitch. Xenakis believed that children produced the most interesting sounds through drawing on the UPIC. In regards to that computer program in which Xenakis composed that same year his well known electronic piece Légend d’Ér, Estrada says:

“The recovering of the intuitive [from the experience using the UPIC] contributed to revolutionize my compositional thinking. That experience allowed me to recover, for example, those movements from the imaginary that I had as a child, at 10-years old, that had a profile similar to that of my recent fantasies (what is particular is how they used to occurred: first, within a rigid musical style and, then, displayed throughout a free space).”

In his music, Estrada seems to yearn for a primal element that is also inherent to childhood. This element is embodied by the sounds of ‘newborn babies crying, of  tiresome, drowsiness, hunger, colic, and fear.’ To the private world of the composer’s imagination, now is also added an aspect of common codes: ‘[These sounds] are universal; belong, above cultures, to what in my understanding would be germs of the expressivity of metaphysical character that chant inherits […] I think that the evolution of the knowledge of the psychic universe can contribute to reach in each of us the different registers of that chant, to try to incorporate in music those distinctive voices. What is essential is to do it in an autonomous and individual manner.’

Dream and memory are ingredients of the modernist collective imagination in Mexican art. From 19th century Indianismo to 20th century Indigenismo, Mexican artists have been concerned with a pre-colonial language of which only incomplete traces remain. An important part of Estrada’s academic writing has focused on the music of composers from both of these traditions. While he acknowledges the modernist incorporation of native instruments to the orchestral palette and the recovery of the repetitive in indigenous musics, Estrada is also critical towards the hypothetical reality of these fantasies which supposed all primitive peoples must have used the pentatonic scale. In 1978 Estrada composed Canto Alterno and discovered the UPIC. That same year, while meeting Xenakis in Teotihuacán, he told Estrada:

“[…] how ingenuous and inconsequent it is to believe that what today remains of those [indigenous] peoples has to do with what pre hispanic cultures were like. Everything sounds like Spain: instruments and hispanic-arabic melodic tropes mixed with remnants of instruments which are slowly disappearing. [The legacy of monumental and sophisticated architecture, urbanist design and pictorial ornamentation] is testimony of a culture that must have cultivated music in a much higher level than it is presumed.”      

For Estrada ‘the graphic recording method can give access to a space that may have existed in antiquity, in moments of proximity with the first fantasies of man, where scalistic and stylistic cultural limits did not yet exist.’ In that sense, his search is not just personal, but universal, and detached from nationalistic urges as suggested by Mexican tradition. Largely stolen, Mexico’s infancy and the infancy of the Americas still expresses in the dreams of those who long for purity of expression. Purity of expression and perception can also be found in childhood. Drawing fluctuating sounds in the UPIC revived in Estrada “the importance of his relationship with the wind since childhood, so close to the human voice, and which voice [he] encounters in Rulfo’s texts.” Ehecatl is the deity of wind for the Aztecs, and the suffix of his latest Yuunohui from 2012. Yuunohui is the Zapotec word for mud, wet soil, itself a metaphor for the continuum. Dreams of pre hispanic Mexico, Rulfo and the imagination, memories of childhood and dueling with the primal father, all converged in the latest of a series encompassing more than thirty years, both moving forward and searching back.  As in Cuban writer and musicologist Alejo Carpentier’s story Viaje a la semilla, Estrada’s artistic search may be a journey to the seed.

List of Footnotes:

[1] Sigmund Freud, “The interpretation of dreams,” in Art in theory, 1900-2000: an anthology of changing ideas, ed. By Charles Harrison et al. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 400.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Semichon, Aurélie, and TV UNAM. Murmullos de Julio Estrada. Directed by Aurélie Semichon. 2012. Mexico City: UNAM, 2012. Redtv IES.

[4] Carlos Sandoval, “Entrevista a Julio Estrada.” Heterofonía 108 (1993): 1

[5] Marcuse, Harbert. “Eros and Civilization.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Xenakis, “Determinacy”, 151. The apparent simplicity in the operation of the UPIC suggests an interesting possibility for non-musicians to compose. Xenakis notes that in the UPIC, children between the age of ten and twelve, and adults with no knowledge of playing a musical instrument are the ones who create the drawings that produce the most interesting. These are individuals with no musical preconceptions, which points to an enhanced level of reliance on intuition during the creative process.

[8] Sandoval, “Entrevista”, 62.

[9] Ibid., 69

[10] Ibid., 69

[11] Estrada, Julio. “Raíces y Tradición en la Música Nueva de México y de América Latina.” Latin American Music Review, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Autum – Winter 1982): 188-206

[12] Ibid.

From Chicago to New York: one of the fastest trains…of thought |1| (2017)

On May 16th of 2017 I was asked by the Instituto Cervantes of Chicago and the CSO Latino Alliance to share some words about Joaquín Turina’s music during a pre-concert talk by the CSO. Admittedly not knowing much about Turina, what only came to mind was the charms of a guitar concerto I used to hear often in my walkman |2| (back in the 90’s) during the bus rides to school in Costa Rica. Upon little research I found out the concerto was by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who was Italian! (though contemporary of Turina). After a conference call with the organizers of the event I found relief in knowing I was expected to share my experiences as a composer in order to create a sense of empathy with Turina.

Sooner than later, after bringing more pieces of this puzzle together (including the other works in the program, Turina’s style, biographical data, and historical context) I found myself scrabbling on the puzzle of my present situation: moving from Chicago to New York City in September, after living a third of my life in the windy city. While nationalism is what drives the curation of this CSO concert, in  that it brings together seemingly dissimilar composers like Dvořák, Gershwin, and Turina, migration is what I identify with in this conflation of events, i.e. the CSO program, Turina and myself as composers of “Classical” music, and my current mood before moving to NYC.

Turina’s transition from adolescence to adulthood overlapped with the Spanish-American war (1898) after which Spain lost its last colonies: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Philippines and Guam. The once empire on which the sun never sets must have felt orphan, nostalgic about the past grandeur of Charles V and his son, Philip II of Spain, and caught behind the modernity that Napoleon failed to install, instead inspiring Goya’s bloody depictions of resistance, ever since resounding in the Spanish psyche. A contemporary of Turina and also native of Seville, poet and thinker Antonio Machado spoke of the two Spains, a concept that reached its height during the civil war of 1936, in a fierce battle to once and for all define the course of Spain’s blurred identity.

Oh, to be born again, and to walk on ahead after finding the lost path!

(Rebirth, by Machado)

In the wake of the National States instigated by the French Revolution, composers drew from folklore to draw the line between the music of their nation and those from other lands. Hence Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances for example. What is ironic is that a French composer, Emmanuel Chabrier inserted Spanish music into the Classical tradition with the impetus of his orchestral rhapsody, España (1883); and following his footsteps, Debussy’s Iberia (1905-12) and Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole (1907-08) enlightened Spanish music with the modern sounds of the new century. By the time the major orchestral works of Manuel de Falla and Joaquín Turina (modelled after the French) were heard, the new nationalist wave led by Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók had matured, rapidly evolving by the latter, and even left behind by the former, now a neo-classicist.

Everything in our soul

Is governed by a mysterious hand.  

We know nothing of our souls,

Incomprehensible, silent.

(“Rebirth”, by Machado)

Often, historical periods or artistic movements are embodied in dual metonymies; thus the Baroque is Bach/Handel, Classicism is Haydn/Mozart, Impressionism is Debussy/Ravel, or Modernity is Stravinsky/Schoenberg. Spanish Modernity finds its metonymy in De Falla/Turina, both of whom coincided in Paris when the sounds of the 20th century bloomed along the Viennese premieres of the so-called atonal composers. Debussy’s La Mer and Jeux, or Stravinsky’s three ballets for Sergei Diaghilev culminating with Le Sacre du Printemps testify to this historical period. Around this time Turina moved to Paris, so did Machado. Never Machado knew other country.      

My childhood is memories of a courtyard in Seville

And a sunlit garden with ripening lemons;

My youth, twenty years in the lands of Castile;

My story, some events I would rather not tell.

(“Portrait”, Machado)

Machado died in exile in France, months before the onset of WWII. For his disgrace he succumbed abroad to the trauma of the Civil War. It wasn’t the case for Federico García Lorca, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, murdered few months after the war began. While Machado was pigeonholed as member of the Generación del 98, Lorca was a representative of the other constellation of luminaries from the Spanish letters, the Generación del 27. But why is Lorca in my train of thoughts? The magnificence of his verses transcended while living in New York City during the imminent menace of the Great Depression. The native city of George Gershwin left a tremendous impression on Lorca, like Paris did on Gershwin around the same time. The former wrote A Poet in New York while the latter composed An American in Paris.

Under the multiplications

is a drop of duck’s blood.

Beneath the divisions,

the sailor’s blood-drop.

Under the sums, a river of delicate blood;

a river flows singing

by the suburb and dormitory;

is sea-breeze, silver, cement,

in the counterfeit dawn of New York.

(“New York (Office and Denunciation)”, Lorca)

Lorca and Gershwin were born the same year, 1898. The American died a year after the Spanish, in 1937 |3|. Short lives, immense legacies. Soon I will also live in New York City. Soon I will take walks there and be around the campus of Columbia University |4|, where Lorca studied English; soon I will return from walks like he did. Will I leave my hair grow, Heaven-murdered, among shapes turning serpent and shapes seeking crystal (from “Poems of Solitude at Columbia University”)? I know I will not find the pompous Paris Gershwin did. But neither may I merge tragic despair with the anonymity of breathing from the massive iron and concrete. Lorca left Spain motivated by romantic failure. I leave Chicago motivated by love |5|.

Gray sponge: which is mine!

The neck newly severed: which is mine.

The great river: mine.

The wind from the zenith that can never be mine: which is mine.

And my love’s cutting-edge. O wound-working edge!  

(“Christmas on the Hudson,” Lorca)

List of Footnotes:

|1| The title makes reference to Steve Reich’s string quartet Different Trains

|2| I still have this walkman from my teens. With it I had hopelessly tried for the past year to listen to a tape by local label Parlour Tapes+, but the “jurassic” device is broken. This tape features an ambitious six-movement work for violin, chamber ensemble and electronics by Chicago-based Katherine Young. With PT+ I happened to have released an album two days after the CSO pre-concert talk. This album celebrated the fifth anniversary season of Fonema Consort, ensemble I co-founded and lead. In this album there is a piece by Young, and another one by myself. Mine is composed after a labyrinthine master story by Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. The last two words of this title also stand for the name of the closing track in Young’s 2009 solo bassoon album “Further Secret Origins.” This album displays both Katie’s depth and imagination as a composer, and serious commitment as re-inventor of the instrument. I am afraid the curiosity that drives Katie to push the boundaries of arguably the most intricate wind instrument is lacking in most classically trained players. Such was my impression from the CSO bassoonist with whom I shared the Turina-focused panel. When asked about composers he had worked with, he said that composers prefer to write for flute and clarinet, in my opinion diverging the attention from just plainly answering: “I don’t normally work with living composers/I can’t name any composer I have worked with.” Then he looked at me and graciously suggested: “maybe Pablo will compose his next piece for the bassoon.” Outside the humorous allusion, a week later I’m thinking: not only many classical performers don’t normally work with living composers, but neither would occur to them that commissioning a composer is a serious endeavour to explore and expand their approach to the instrument (as opposed to a composer just waking up one day thinking “I will compose a piece for bassoon!”).


One more comment by this bassoonist made me raise an eyebrow. Asked about the concert program, he encouraged people to listen to the folk tunes referenced by the three pieces, and focus on how classical composers elevated popular music. Did Gershwin really elevated a tradition Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington or Billie Holiday (to name a few) forged and sublimated? Did Dvořák refined Slavic tradition or Turina civilized Andalusian variants of Arabic folklore simply by giving equal temperament, “proper” progressions, and orchestral sound waves to “primitive” melodies? Béla Bartók, being a pioneer in the discipline of studying music folklore, distinguished “popular urban music” from “peasant music,” the former arising from upper classes as a mélange of “hackneyed city music and a certain exotic variation of […] folk music.” The latter originated in the peasantry and characterized by its purity and “spontaneous expression of the people’s musical instinct.” Moreover, Bartók considered the peasant’s melodies to be “the embodiment of an artistic expression of the highest order,” though “few people appreciate melodies such as these; indeed, the majority of conservative, trained musicians hold them in contempt.” What is surprising is that almost a century later major academic sources spread the notion that routing the “unrefined” rural, cultural traditions through the urban dilettante, and later through the “Maestro,” folk tunes can find a “dignified” niche in the concert hall. Not differently from the CSO bassoonist, American historian Richard Crawford writes in the Grove Music Online that Rhapsody in Blue purported to demonstrate that the new, rhythmically vivacious dance called jazz, which most concert musicians and critics considered beneath them, was elevated by the ‘symphonic’ arrangements in which [the piece commissioner’s, Paul] Whiteman’s band specialized.

|3| I have a deep curiosity about coincidental birth and death dates of major, analogous figures. For example, Shakespeare and Cervantes died on April 23 of 1616, similar to Bergman and Antonioni dying on July 30 of 2007. Not less interesting is the fact that Pablo Picasso, Pablo Neruda and Pablo Cassals died the same year, 1973, which inspired Argentine singer, Alberto Cortez’s song “Eran Tres.”

|4| In September of the present year I will move to NYC with my wife, Bethany Younge, who will enter the PhD composition program at Columbia University.


As in other contexts (a thanksgiving dinner, a conversation over a flight, or a grant application!), in this conference I was asked about the Latin heritage in my music. I am not especially sensitive (to not say offended by) about the tiresome conversation of identity politics, except when opportunistically used in particular agendas to access resources. As a former teacher of Galant Music at Northwestern University used to say about reductionist looks of historical eras, there is some truth in these generalizations. There must be some truth about traces of my upbringing and early surroundings in the way I experience music. But during the conference my response instead pointed towards how new environments impact an artist’s work. Two pieces of mine from my first few years in Chicago are partial responses to new phenomena: a cardinal singing in the midst of a rough February winter, and the sound of the silence by lake Michigan after a blizzard.      

From “Rojo sobre Blanco” from 2008-09

Like a distant sun at dusk, lightly reddening the horizon but also yielding to the embracing white;

like traces of fresh blood on the snow, still warm and alive, covered and uncovered by indifferent playful winds;

like a tiny, fragile, red bird, singing his solitude on top of woven weary branches, a song lost on the transparent silence of the ice;

like the penetrating voice of an oboe, at last emerging from colorless resonances of a small ensemble.


From “De mi memoria fluyen soledades ajenas” from 2009

De mi canto, que brota y se propaga por espacios insípidos, fluyen soledades ajenas (From my song, that blossoms and propagates through insipid spaces, foreign solitudes flow)


…por el Yasuní… and why not …for Standing Rock…?

Mesias Maiguashca and the Ivory Tower

Art’s Ivory TowerThe creative impulse is as natural to humans as our instinct for survival. Even the history that traces mankind’s creativity became a creative substance. When entering the realm of Western art, creativity eventually resulted in an aesthetic duality. This dual perspective was first manifested between cosmic proportions (mathematics) and the representation of affect (rhetoric); later between disinterested pleasure or non-utilitarian art (Kant) and art that moralizes and is capable of mirroring the world through formal representation (Hegel). Today that duality has morphed into the insular artistic quest for novelty rooted in technicism and indifferent to morals (displacing Kantian beauty), and a subversive utopia pairing art with social revolution (Marx replacing Hegel). Traits of social conformism against subversion oppose both of these approaches.

Mesias Maiguashca’s …por el Yasuní… for violin, cello and electronics, embodies the conflict of art’s ultimate purpose. In this piece Mesias expresses his concern about “the enormous gap between ‘sympathizing’ [with a social cause] and ‘acting’ [on its behalf], to keep living in the proverbial ‘ivory tower.’” …por el Yasuní… was composed in 2015, approximately a year after a massive celebration of a referendum to stop the large scale plans to drill oil in the Amazons’ Yasuní park in his native Ecuador.

“It seems that poems and the songs of protest and liberation are always too late or too early: memory or dream,” said Herbert Marcuse in his An Essay on Liberation. But Marcuse finds value in subversive artworks “in their refusal of the actual,” and elevates them to forms of sensibility that will have an impact in future times. Sincere artworks of protest do not exist in vain, and their capacity to transform societies is not necessarily surpassed by the immediacy of politics, or by philosophy’s prophetic aura. But how long should it take for a “song of protest” to permeate society’s sensibility and propel political change? Drawing parallels between the Yasuní, and the recent tensions in South Dakota’s Standing Rock may situate Maiguashca’s work in a more illuminating position, one that is further away from the “ivory tower.”  

Yasuní and Standing Rock. The Yasuní National Park in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest and the Standing Rock Indian Reserve in South Dakota hold remarkable similarities. Both territories are about the same size (over 9,000 km2), are inhabited by native peoples, and are greatly valued for their natural environments. Despite these similarities, there are also significant differences. While Yasuní is considered by many to house the richest biodiversity in the planet, a true wildlife sanctuary, Standing Rock is more precious for its water resources, which are vital to its native tribes; and, while these native tribes in Standing Rock (mainly the Sioux people) have been systematically confined to this territory by the US authorities since the 19th century, the tribes in the Yasuní are uncontacted people since they live in voluntary isolation.

Yasuní and Standing Rock also share turbulent destinies driven by the rampant expansion of the oil industry. While an area of the Yasuní known as ITT hides crude oil reserves under its subsoil worth more than $3,000 million, Standing Rock supposes the “best” route to transport oil from North Dakota to Illinois through the controversial pipeline project known as DAPL: one more venture of the capitalist project to mitigate its boredom under the promise of a better quality of life for the masses. In the meantime, the Nation of the Sioux and other Native Americans in the South Dakota reserve remain poorer than the true beneficiaries of DAPL, similar to previous exploitative expeditions by the ruling class [1]. In Ecuador, the promise represented by the world’s first constitution to protect Nature’s rights was undermined by a lost battle against the most appreciable source of wealth worldwide: oil.

The oil drilling project in Yasuní was confronted by the national population, led by environmental groups that gathered enough signatures to call for a national referendum to decide Yasuní’s future. The festive handing of the signatures to government officials in 2014 is what Maiguashca re-contextualizes in …por el Yasuní…, despite the boycott to the referendum that later followed by suspiciously corrupt, official means. While the efforts to protect the Yasuní may have failed, DAPL was suspended after the bravery of protesters who peacefully claimed their rights over the land in question. However, the shadow of a new US government that denies climate change and threatens a nuclear arms race may raise suspicion about a permanent cease of DAPL activities [2]. In light of the Sioux’s recent victory but perhaps imminent defeat, why not …for Standing Rock…? In other words, can art transform society’s sensibility and aid in the creation of “an environment in which the non-aggressive, erotic, receptive faculties of man, in harmony with the consciousness of freedom, strive for the pacification of man and nature”? [3].

…por el Yasuní… Composed in 2015, Maiguashca’s …por el Yasuni… centers around the emergence and dissipation of the acoustic ambience recorded during the public demonstration of 2014 in support of protecting the Yasuní. A duet of violin and cello guides these snippets of the pre-recorded sounds by an electronic setup using two vocoders assigned to each instrument. The vocoders filter the sound of the recorded demonstration so that the output resonates with the amplitude and spectrum of the violin and cello [4]. The duet punctuates the experience of the demonstration through seventeen sections interrupted by pauses. The spontaneous folklore radiated from the ambience contrasts with the rigorously meditated textures of the string instruments. The piece is a dance between two classical players; between a string duet and a memory; between Mesias’ two worlds, the Andes and the metropolis [5].      

Among a myriad of narratives suggested by …por el Yasuni…, the struggle to preserve the piece’s identity while reconciling heterogeneous materials renders intense expressivity. Such struggle also echos Mesias’ lifelong search for his own identity. Despite the array of string gestures and textural changes mirroring the diversity of voices heard in the recording, the duet remains static in its linear unfolding, in part due to fragmentation. Meanwhile, the sounds in the recording progressively bloom from voices of people towards tonal harmonies and gestures of folk music. Thus, tension is created by the contrast between the fragmentary design of the piece and the continuous flow of the pre-recorded public manifestation.

The pervasive silences interrupting the flow in several of Maiguashca’s works reflect an aesthetic choice that resonates with his calm temperament. These moments of sound dissolution may also find further meaning in his recent 8 ejercicios para oír lo inaudible. Composed for and premiered in Chicago by Fonema Consort last year, the pauses in this piece were a response to the rituals of the Shipibos people of Peru,  according to which songs may be sung from a human to another human, or to a spirit, or from a spirit to another spirit [6]. Thus in 8 ejercicios each pause invites the musicians and audience to listen to the “spirits” in whatever way they please.


Is it a Question of Decibels? Returning to Marcuse’s proposed “new sensibility,” music in the late 20th century elevated quietude to the aesthetic core of several composers’ work: Luigi Nono, Salvatore Sciarrino, John Cage, Morton Feldman and currently the Wandelweiser composers, to name a few. Webern may have been the transitional link between the massive forces and grandeur inherited by the late Romantics and a microcosmic, laconic form of expression that continues to inspire young composers today [7].

However, returning to the question of whether art could be a transformative agent of society’s’ consciousness, can the sensibility suggested by the silent works of these composers permeate the senses of the masses that ideally aspire to shape the destiny of civilization? In other words, can the quietude (both in terms of audibility and accessibility [8]) of works like those of Maiguashca match the power (beyond decibels!) of popular genres like Rock and Pop to exercise social change for better or for worse? Can Mesias’ piece actively engage with crises like those of Yasuní and Standing Rock?

My initial response is affirmative, perhaps in self-justification of my own compositional work, but also because of the people I have known, who found hope for alternative forms of life in the quietude of works like those of Maiguashca. Collective imagination arguably begins with inner experience. The human experience of the world from birth to death is one of solitude, given that we are imprisoned in our bodies. In solitude, sensorial and rational experiences converge into imagination, and imagination sublimates when “it creates realms of freedom” [9].

Both the individual and society nurture each other’s forms of experience, and therefore their ability to create. It is possible, then, for an individual whose sensibility has been transformed by introverted art (in that it resists the mass’ experience), to create change when assuming the role of social agent.      

Maiguashca’s Struggle: Identity, Society and Music. When asked in an interview by Santiago Rosero about his indigenous heritage [10] Mesias admitted that until recently, it was an embarrassment and a burden. Ironically, it was in Europe where he was freed from social pressure and realized that what he considered to be flaws were identity traits. Mesias also recounted to Rosero how, while growing up in Ecuador, he was exposed to the “chicherías” [11] on a daily basis, in which folkloric music took over the streets. Later, when practicing Schubert at home during his studies at the conservatory, the sound of his piano fused with the national music outdoors. For Mesias there was no distinction between the two musics.

…por el Yasuní… embodies the composer’s inner and autobiographical struggles starting with the disparate components of the piece: Western classical instruments, electronic intervention, European avant-garde tradition, Ecuadorian folklore, notated music, and spontaneous voices of people in the streets (as heard in the tape part). In the music of Maiguashca the conflict between seemingly dissimilar means and materials leads into a unified body of work. If such a fruitful fusion is possible in art, why not imagine a world in which human and nature, human and human, and human and spirit (as in the Shipibos) serve to raise one another?

In response to my question of how Mesias feels after the unfolding of the Yasuní conflict since he composed …por el Yasuní…, he says: “I have tried to understand the mechanisms of power that propel the world. On the one hand it frustrates me enormously how blind these mechanisms are. On the other hand, I believe that the human community is permeated by an essential element that has allowed, and will allow its subsistence: pragmatism. That means, I am convinced that humanity will find answers to any obstacle: trial and error. It’s my way of being optimistic.”  


Published in Cacophony Magazine, 2017

List of Footnotes:

[1] Among several crises, the opposition of the Lakota people to illegal white settlement at Black Hills in Dakota territory due to a gold rush, led to war in 1874 between Sitting Bull’s rebellion and General George Armstrong Custer’s troops.     

[2] This essay was finished in December of 2016. Though suggested by its author, he did not foresee the quick presidential memorandum of January 24, pushing to re-activate the DAPL project.

[3] Marcuse, Herbert. An Essay on Liberation by Herbert (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1969), 27.

[4] A vocoder analyzes and transforms an “audio” signal according to a “control” signal. In …por el Yasuní… the instruments function as “control” and the demonstration as “audio.” The recording of the demonstration thus reacts to and is transformed by the instrumental parts.

[5] Here I inevitably think of the “Madison Dance Scene” in Godard’s Band of Outsiders in which Anna Karina, Sami Frey, and Claude Brasseur dance to a music which is not the one used in the film (or they dance to silence, as has been speculated by critic Richard Brody). The ambience and music is interrupted three times during which Godard’s voice, as an omniscient narrator describes the inner thoughts of the characters. The dance only slightly aligns with the dubbed music. Thus the dancers, music and narrator parallel the instruments, pre-recorded sounds and silences in …por el Yasuní…. Here I wonder if the pre-recorded sounds could be replaced by the chants and drumming of the Yakama Nation from Washington State who joined the protests in Standing Rock, and preserve its integrity, just as the music of Michel Legrand was dubbed in Godard’s famous scene. More notable in regards to this comparison between Mesias’ piece and Godard’s scene is the potential of the silences in the former’s work to be filled by the audience’s reflections on what they hear, and not by a divine voice.    


[6] Mesias learned about the Shipibos in September of 2015, at a symposium in Montevideo, after a lecture by Bernd Brabec de Mori titled Las canciones de los espíritus: una antropología de lo inaudible.

[7] See David Metzer’s Modern Silence in the Journal of Musicology, Vol. 23 No. 3, Summer 2006; (pp. 331-374). Metzer examines silence in modernist expression through the work of Webern, Nono and Sciarrino.

[8] Accessible here should be understood as a facilitation of art to the public, as opposed to the idea that such art can only be grasped by intellectual elites.          

[9] According to Marcuse in his Essay on Liberation, “when Kant, in his third Critique, all but obliterated the frontiers between sensibility and imagination, he recognized the extent to which the senses are ‘productive,’ or creative — the extent to which they have a share in producing the images of freedom. For its part, the imagination depends on the senses which provide the experiential material out of which the imagination creates its realm of freedom, by transforming the objects and relationships which have been the data of the senses and which have been formed by the senses.”  

[10] Mesias Maiguashca: músico sapien sapiens by Santiago Rosero (trans. By Pablo Santiago Chin), retreived from http://www.revistamundodiners.com/?p=2318

[11] Chicherías are popular festivities in Central and South American countries where the drinking of “chicha,” an alcoholic beverage made of fermented grains, most commonly corn, is celebrated.

Borrowing Narratives and Intimacy in Collaboration: my music for flute (2016)

For me, composing for the clarinet and the flute poses greater challenges than working with other instruments. The former because it is my own instrument, and I feel at risk of reproducing a limited knowledge that I have internalized over the years: an obstacle to the discovery of unthinkable possibilities which I find more joyful. The latter, because its technical and expressive possibilities seem exhausted in the past 60 years, and because I grew up listening to my sister playing the core of flute repertoire (including orchestral excerpts), making the instrument all too familiar to me. But composing for my sister was even more frightening, if not intimidating, due to this closeness. It took us about 7 years since she played my music for the first time to engage in a deep and close collaboration that resulted in Three Burials for flute and quartet. An overview of my pieces for flute over the past years will reveal both the evolution of important trends in my musical language, especially the role of narrative, and the development of a long term collaboration with my sister that found real depth until my most recent piece for flute, Three Burials (2015).

Along with the voice, the flute occupies a prominent place in my body of work. Dalia Chin, my sister and Fonema Consort’s flutist, has a close proximity to the composition of my pieces highlighting the flute, which recently culminated in a collaborative triptych based on scenes of old films depicting funerals. Three Burials recalls musical allegories of the ritual of mourning. As in Brian Ferneyhough’s Funerailles [1] (from French, funerals) in which two movements born from the same seed are separated by one or more other pieces, the flute part of Three Burials consists of two solo pieces–the latter being an alternative composition of the former–interspersed by a contrasting second movement not involving the flute. The piece can be played as a solo (in which case other pieces can be programmed in between the two solos) or with an additional quartet of cello, double bass, piano and guitar.

The most remarkable thing about these solo pieces is the process of composing them. A recording of two Peruvian indigenous melodies entitled triste (from Spanish, sad) was transcribed by Dalia to best suit the Western flute. The result was a series of recurring multiphonics. Then I subjected these multiphonics, as they appear in Dalia’s transcription, to a tortuous journey of distortions that give shape to each piece. Quotes from Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte (movement III, 1’58”) and Revueltas’ funeral scene from Redes appear in the quintet version (movement I, 4’30”):

Along with Sólo es real la niebla, since 2011 Dalia has revisited a flute duo I had composed for WIRED (the former flute section of ICE) in 2009 titled Como la leyenda de Ixquiq. For the first time in this piece I explored a wide array of trendy contemporary techniques such as tongue clicks and tongue ram, airy sounds and microtones as well as smorzato and overblown high clusters. Experiencing each of Dalia’s several performances of the piece gave me a very palpable understanding of these techniques, beyond the theoretical descriptions of methods on contemporary flute performance.In Three Burials Dalia took a leading role in the actual composition of the piece, whereas in previous collaborations we embraced more traditional roles of composer and performer: the former creates while the latter interprets. Dalia and I first came to know each other’s work in depth after the very first Fonema performance in 2011: Sólo es real la niebla (Only the Fog is Real). In setting a short poem by Octavio Paz to music, the flute was ideal to portray the illusion of fog through airy sounds (a technique unrivaled by any other instrument), and to team with the saxophone and voice in exploring plosives and other percussive sounds to echo the sound of steps at the heart of the poem.

While the exchange of musical ideas between Dalia and I was slowly evolving from 2009 to 2011, my musical language was increasingly focusing in borrowing narratives from other artistic media. Similarly to how Sólo es real la niebla toys with various ways to text-paint Paz’s poem, the flute duo borrows the narrative of a legend from the Popol Vuh (the sacred book of the Quiché Indians of Mesoamerica) to define and organize its music material. According to the tale, Hun-Hunahpú had been turned into a tree by the Sirs of Xibalbá (the underworld). When young maiden Ixquiq, out of curiosity, descended to the underworld to grab the precious fruits of the mythical tree, Hun-Hunahpú spit into the palm of her right hand. His saliva contained his descendants, and that is how legendary heroes Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué were conceived. Like in the legend of Ixquiq, this piece was born out of the “saliva” of three notes: an overblown altissimo C-sharp foreshadowing the piccolo at the end of the piece; the opening middle G initiating the process of register expansion; and a F-pizzicato that gradually proliferates, and has been suggested by listeners to resemble Hun-Hunahpú spitting into Ixquiq’s hand.

The flute duo introduced to my music an incipient exploration of physical space as a means to reinforce the perception of form. As the register expands throughout the piece to the outer registers of the flute family, the flutists gradually spread towards the extremes of the stage as they follow their scores over several stands. Spatialization later became the germ from which I composed a flute concerto of sorts, In the Form of a Shell (2013). Using the flute as a starting point, the distribution of the orchestra spirals around the soloist in exponentially greater instrumental groupings, ending with a string ensemble placed on the left side of the stage, thus mimicking the shape of a Nautilus shell. This piece was commissioned by conductor David Cubek and flutist Ysmael Reyes. Later Dalia had the opportunity to give the Costa Rican premiere of the piece with the Symphony Orchestra of Heredia (OSH) and recently with the orchestra of University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (UWW), stepping forward into the process of assimilating my music.

In addition to exploring the notion of space in this piece, I tested the possibilities of independently composed parts co-existing with each other. The flute part can be performed as a solo piece (Dalia gave its premiere at Constellation Chicago in 2014). In the solo version titled Inside the Shell, the details in the crafting of the flute sounds can be further appreciated. It is with the orchestral part, however, that the piece achieves greater expression. While the flute progresses from a stream of hectic and energetic musical lines to more static ones that eventually dissolve into sporadic jet whistles, the orchestra reverses that process, journeying from stasis to a cathartic 2-minute Coda featuring a feast of quick repeated beats and flurries that celebrate the dissolution of the soloist part. This formal approach contrasting two reversed processes is reminiscent of Saariaho’s Verblendungen (1984) in which “the tape part begins with noisy, rhythmical material and ends with a quasi-orchestral luminosity made up of violin sounds. Conversely, the instrumental sounds take on a more and more noisy texture until they are completely lost in the quasi-orchestra of the magnetic tape” [2].

Leftover material from Inside the Shell became the main source material for four miniatures for flute. Each miniature is shorter than the preceding one, creating an overall trajectory while also focusing on four contrasting characteristics of Inside the Shell. As in the previously discussed pieces, these miniatures also evoke a narrative. They are reflections upon a photograph by a dear friend, Marc Perlish, depicting piles of books from the bookshelves of the former Bookman’s Alley in downtown Evanston, IL. Before closing after 33 years in 2013, Marc paid tribute to the charm of the bookstore by exhibiting a series of photos of Bookman’s Alley. Then he commissioned local composers to create a piece based on a photo from his series. After glancing at my chosen photo I imagined myself immersing myself in random pages of four books from these endless piles. Hence the title Libros de Marc (Marc’s books). I finished writing this piece just in time for Dalia’s birthday in March 2014 and gave it to her as a present. This was the preceding stage before realizing it was about time to compose a piece with (and not just for) Dalia: Three Burials. At the same time I had accumulated enough works pointing towards narrative as a major focus in my music’s aesthetics.

It is evident that my music often comes from an examination of the narratives of non-musical art, whether a poem, a legend, a photograph or a film. Essential features of my works are also influenced by musicians and artists for whom I compose. Delving into the chronology of my music for flute allowed me to uncover the evolution of these two trends over the past 7 years, reaching their most accomplished form in Three Burials. From the standpoint of narrative this piece manages to weave a broad variety of references to burials, to film and to my own music. These references can be as subtle as the second movement featuring 71 descending microtonal clusters as a secret homage to Michael Haneke’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, or as immediate as the cello ending the first movement with the A-C-A motif of Revuelta’s funeral scene in Redes.

From the vantage point of collaborating with musicians, with Three Burials I was able to develop strategies to give up a certain compositional control, in order to allow Dalia to be an active agent in defining the sound world of the piece. By having her transcribe recordings of a Peruvian indigenous flute according to how she hears those sounds and adapt them to her most intrinsic way of relating to her instrument, I was able to access part of her inner self.  Transcription, as translation, can be seen as the making of something new that resembles something that already exists (that which is transcribed or translated) [3]. I perceive Dalia’s transcription of the indigenous Peruvian recordings as her appropriation of those songs, that later I also appropriated in finalizing the piece. Furthermore, together Dalia and I found ways to distort the series of multiphonics she came up with in ways that married my desired notions of sounds to the most personal way in which she physically embodies the instrument.  

Growing up, Dalia and I’s musical paths did not cross in significant ways. When she entered the undergraduate program at the University of Costa Rica I had left it to continue studying at Florida International University in Miami. When she entered the master’s program at Florida State University I had left to pursue a doctoral degree at Northwestern University. Finally I had settled down in Chicago and she moved to the windy city to study at DePaul University. Then we co-founded Fonema Consort. While at first our paths were like the chasing subjects of a fugue, now they are like the patterns of Steve Reich’s phase music, intermittently merging to embark in joint projects. Three Burials was the most recent one and a turning point in my work, opening windows for developing new possibilities in my musical language and especially in my understanding of the meaning of collaboration.

Published in Cacophony Magazine, 2016


[1] In his program note to Funerailles, Ferneyhough refers to “two ‘Versions’ [that] can be considered neither as two movements of the same work nor as two distinct works.”

[2] Saariaho, Kaija. “Timbre and harmony: interpolations of timbral structures.” Contemporary Music Review 2.1 (1987): 122. Print

[3] In his essay Translation: literature and letters Octavio Paz remarks that “each text is unique, yet at the same time it is the translation of another text. No text can be completely original because language itself, in its very essence, is already a translation–first from the nonverbal world, and then because each sign and each phrase is a translation of another sign, another phrase. However, the inverse of this reasoning is also entirely valid. All texts are originals because each translation is a creation and thus constitutes a unique text.” Octavio Paz. ‘Translation: Literature and Letters”. Transl. Irene del Corral, in Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet (eds), Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1992): 154. Print

De estética y revoluciones (2016)

Dos hechos similares reflejan cómo la cuestión estética en el arte ha sido, y sigue siendo ante todo fuente de controversia. Se trata de enfrentamientos dialécticos entre compositores que quedaron inmortalizados en publicaciones escritas. El uno abogaba por un modelo de estilo continuista, mientras el otro creía urgente un replanteamiento histórico. En el primer caso se trata de Claudio Monteverdi respondiendo a los ataques lanzados por Giovanni Maria Artusi alrededor del año 1600. En el segundo caso, más de tres siglos después, Helmut Lachenmann arremete contra Hans Werner Henze, los dos compositores alemanes.

Artusi y la vieja guardia. Artusi fue un notable teórico pero modesto compositor, radicado en Bologna, una ciudad discreta en el mundo musical del Renacimiento, dominado por la brillantez y entusiasmo de Florencia, Roma y Venecia. De hecho Artusi estudió en esta última ciudad con Gioseffo Zarlino, cuya obra teórica fue la más influyente desde el Renacimiento tardío hasta casi fines del Barocco, cuando los escritos del francés Jean-Philippe Rameau revolucionaron las ideas ya anticuadas de Zarlino sobre cómo funcionan los engranajes de la música.

Sin duda Zarlino consolida con excepcional lucidez las normas practicadas por sus contemporáneos, Adrián Willaert, Gabrielli, Palestrina y otros. Estos compositores alcanzaron una madurez admirable que acumula y refina los logros de sus antecesores desde el siglo XIII, cuando inicia la era de la polifonía (piénsese en el paralelismo entre la polifonía y la invención de la perspectiva en pintura, perfeccionado no coincidentemente en las ciudades italianas arriba mencionadas).

No sorprende entonces que el intrigante Artusi se aferre a la tradición que tantos siglos tardó en alcanzar su cúspide: la que su mentor Zarlino representa. Intrigante porque desdeña una revolución en marcha que 150 años después da sentido al trabajo de Rameau, y que comienza alrededor del cambio de siglo, en 1600, con el joven compositor de Cremona, Claudio Monteverdi como su más reconocido abanderado.

Monteverdi y La Seconda Prattica. A Monteverdi se le asocia con los orígenes del período Barocco en la música, como si fuera su progenitor, aunque otros también fueron ávidos pioneros de la transición. Dos motivos revisten a Monteverdi de tal proeza. Primero, tres óperas completas sobreviven de las 18 que compuso, y hasta la fecha todavía se ponen en escena con regularidad. Quizás su más conocida es L’Orfeo sobre el mito griego del que se han inspirado tantos compositores, desde Gluck (1762) hasta el costarricense Alejandro Cardona (2008). Segundo, en el quinto de sus 9 libros de madrigales éste hace público el término de la Seconda Prattica, con el cual identifica las diferencias estéticas y técnicas entre su generación y la de Palestrina: la que Artusi no quiere ver caducar.

En el ocaso del siglo de Artusi el joven Monteverdi y compañía revierten el convencional paradigma según el cual las normas de composición imperan sobre la expresión del discurso. Así, Artusi enfurece con las abruptas disonancias e irregularidad del contrapunto en los madrigales de Monteverdi. La nueva consigna es primar y representar musicalmente el contenido expresivo del texto, desde sus arrebatos emocionales hasta sus evocaciones escénicas.

El fin último de esta práctica es el drama, y de allí que sean estos jóvenes atrevidos los que compongan las primeras óperas de la historia, con sus melódicas arias y el innovador recitativo en el cual una simbiosis de canto y voz hablada es embellecida por acordes instrumentales esporádicos.

La controversia. En 1598 Margarita de Austria se casa con Felipe III de España en Ferrara, al norte de Italia. De su poderoso imperio se decía que nunca se ocultaba el sol. Su visita coincidió con la presentación de madrigales de Monteverdi auspiciada por un aficionado local. Distinguido entre el público estaba Artusi. Resulta inevitable imaginárselo cual Camille Saint-Saëns en 1913 abandonando violentamente el Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, aturdido a medio estrenarse La consagración de la primavera de Stravinsky; o cual Salieri en el Amadeus de Miloš Forman, inmortalizado como personaje semi-ficticio, conspirativo y agriado por los dotes superlativos de Mozart en la célebre película.

Ficción aparte, Artusi publica dos desdeñosos escritos contra la música rebelde de Monteverdi: L’Artusi, o  De las imperfecciones de la música moderna (1600), seguida de Seconda parte dell’Artusi (1603). El segundo responde a cartas de un autor anónimo que defendió a Monteverdi después del primer escrito. Se hacía llamar ‘L’Ottuso accademico.’ Contra el segundo escrito el mismo Monteverdi se defiende con un epílogo a su quinto libro de madrigales. Los dimes y diretes resultaron en un manifesto que daba por sentado el comienzo de una nueva era en la historia de la música occidental.

Lachenmann vs. Henze. Poco de ficción se puede derivar de los encontronazos verbales entre los compositores alemanes Helmut Lachenmann y  Hans Werner Henze, pues el primer embate queda grabado por la Radio del Sur Alemana en 1982. En un acto público en Stuttgart Lachenmann confronta a Henze por modelar su música sobre un estilo añejo, que recuerda al lirismo del período Romántico, impregnado de armonías post-Tristanescas y manierismo del Bel Canto. Henze argumenta que un compositor tiene derecho a ser feliz y transmitir en su música una forma de escapar de las calamidades del mundo. La diatriba es seguida de una rencorosa crónica del debate por parte de Henze en un libro suyo, y una carta pública de Lachenmann al año siguiente defendiéndose de las acusaciones que últimamente lo calificaron de maleducado. ¿No se parece esto al conflicto Artusi vs. Monteverdi?

A diferencia de Artusi, Henze no censura a quien no sigue cánones estéticos. El siglo XX es un prisma en el que se refracta el conocimiento histórico acumulado y deriva en una multiplicidad de perspectivas, y Henze así lo entiende. De entre los espectros que arroja el prisma Henze escoge una onda simplista: buscar la complicidad y empatía del público apelando a la comodidad de un lenguaje musical vetusto tal cual existió.

En cambio para Lachenmann, 10 años más joven que Henze, la felicidad, y más concretamente la belleza en la música se refleja en el rechazo expreso de lo convencional. A esto agrega que sus detractores confunden ‘convención’ con ‘placer’, lo que desenmascara a la pequeña burguesía. Curiosamente para los dos compositores dicha burguesía sería una de las calamidades del mundo a la que Henze quiere escapar, y Lachenmann propone confrontar.   

Los siglos XVII y XX. Las controversias entre Artusi vs. Monteverdi, y Lachenmann vs. Henze reflejan la convulsión de dos épocas revulsivas. La vorágine de los siglos XVII y XX son análogas. La revolución científica y la revolución digital; Shakespeare y James Joyce; Cervantes y Borges; la revolución inglesa que decapita al rey Carlos I y la bolchevique que fusila al último zar; La era de Newton es la de la guerra de los 30 años que destroza Europa, como lo hicieron las dos guerras mundiales en el siglo de Einstein. La una por religión, y las otras por ideología.

El origen de la ópera, hecho que marca la transición al Barroco en la música, y que lidera Monteverdi, es también una transición del texto sacro al vernáculo en la experiencia musical. Así mismo, el conflicto entre Lachenmann y Henze deja entrever la brecha entre la burguesía conformista y la subversión marxista; la sinfonía y el piano vuelto güiro; la tríada y el chirrido.

Es tal el parecido entre las dos épocas y significativos los personajes de las rencillas aquí contadas, que el recién fallecido músico Pierre Boulez vio en la vanguardia de la que Lachenmann se nutre la revolución más radical desde Monteverdi: “De repente, todas nuestras nociones familiares fueron abolidas. La música dio un salto del mundo de Newton al mundo de Einstein” dijo el influyente francés al diario Opera News.    

Vanguardia del mundo (2010)

Desde 1946 Los cursos de Darmstadt siguen exhibiendo las tendencias más novedosas de la música. 

Un poco al sur de Frankfurt, en Alemania, está la ciudad de Darmstadt. Aunque pequeña, su historia es fascinante, y en pocas décadas ha dejado huella en la música y la ciencia (nótese el Darmstadtium en la tabla de los elementos).

Desde 1946, Darmstadt es un punto de referencia de la vanguardia musical, primero alemana, luego europea, y ya del mundo. El eje de este desarrollo son los Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik (Cursos Vacacionales Internacionales de música contemporánea, o nueva).

Los cursos convocan a unos 300 participantes (en su mayoría compositores, pero también intérpretes): asisten a conciertos, talleres, conferencias y clases maestras con muchos de los creadores más renombrados de la música actual (Brian Ferneyhough, Georges Aperghis, Cuarteto de Cuerdas Arditti, etc.).

La diversidad caracteriza los cursos. Contra el rigor excluyente que se le atribuye, en Darmstadt coexisten lenguajes musicales contrastantes. Se genera así una “dialéctica de perspectivas composicionales”: compositores establecidos “contra” emergentes, vanguardia “contra” tradición, instrumentos poco ortodoxos (guitarra eléctrica, vibráfono con cuartos de tono, megáfonos, etc.) “contra” cuarteto de cuerdas, improvisación “contra” control absoluto…

“Escuela de Darmstadt”. Sin embargo, en Darmstadt no siempre hubo confrontación de estéticas, sino todo lo contrario. Poco después de su primera edición, de 1946, un grupo de jóvenes compositores encontró, en los cursos recién iniciados por Wolfgang Steinecke, un espacio para la innovación.

Bajo la tutela de compositores de la talla de Oliver Messiaen y Edgar Varèse, dicho foro alentaba a estos jóvenes a liberarse de las formas de composición existentes (Stravinsky, Bartók, etc.), que muchos ya consideraban caducas.

Así, Pierre Boulez, Karlein Stockhausen y Luigi Nono (entre los más sobresalientes) forjaron un lenguaje musical novedoso, que partía de la técnica serialista de Arnold Schoenberg y Anton Webern. De hecho, Webern se volvió figura de culto en Darmstadt pues la nueva generación veía, en su música, una mayor integración de la serie dodecafónica con respecto a la estructura total de la obra.

No era simplemente poner nuevos ladrillos sin un plan de construcción, como dijo el compositor estadounidense John Cage acerca del método de Schoenberg, imaginando la disolución de la tonalidad como una ciudad bombardeada que habría que reconstruir. 

A ese grupo de compositores emergentes pronto se lo conoció como la “Escuela de Darmstadt”. Sus métodos y su estética eran homogéneos. Tales lineamientos se tendían a imponer a los demás compositores participantes de los cursos.

Dicha especie de “totalitarismo” generó reacciones que apostaron por una apertura, como la aparición de Cage en los cursos de 1958.

Después de los 50. Las ideas experimentales de Cage –como el indeterminismo, o la emancipación del ruido y el silencio– fueron incorporadas por Boulez y Stockhausen a sus sistemas de composición. Luego, tras la muerte de Steinecke, emergieron figuras polarizadoras, como Gyorgy Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis y Mauricio Kagel.

Los cada vez más polarizados cursos de Darmstadt eran ahora como una mina de oro para musicólogos. Los términos “micropolifonía” (Ligeti), “música concreta instrumental” (Helmut Lachenmann) y “nueva simplicidad” (Wolfgham Rihm) entre otros fungían como etiquetas para identificar nuevos lenguajes musicales.

En los años 80, con Friedrich Hommel como nuevo organizador, los cursos dan un nuevo giro debido a la importante afluencia de compositores e intérpretes británicos, cuya escritura musical peculiarmente intrincada dio origen al término “nueva complejidad”.

Brian Ferneyhough sigue siendo paradigma de esta denominación. Entre sus exponentes también están James Dillon, Chris Dench y Richard Barrett, y los intérpretes Nancy Ruffer (flauta) y Christopher Redgate (oboe). Todos ganaron el premio Kranichstein, máximo galardón concedido al final de los cursos.

En el 2010. Continuando con la tendencia al pluralismo estético promovido por Hommel durante los años 80, Thomas Schäfer, en su estreno como organizador, se aseguró de que la oferta estilística en el 2010 fuese variada.

La etiqueta de “escuela” sale sobrando ante la música precursora de Stockhausen, el experimentalismo americanista de Harry Partch, la música expansiva de Perluigi Billone y el estilo más ecléctico de Bernhard Lang. La variedad se agradece especialmente después de alrededor de 40 estrenos mundiales, cifra difícilmente alcanzable por otro festival.

La heterogeneidad de tendencias también contribuye a exacerbar la irritación de algunas facciones del público. Lejos de la anécdota legendaria (como la trifulca en el estreno de Le Sacre du Printemps (1913), de Stravisnky), el juicio (¿o prejuicio?) severo es casi normativo en el público de Darmstadt. Incluso, no sería exagerado decir que el abucheo y la intolerancia se han institucionalizado.

Por ejemplo, los ecos decadentes de la música tonal tradicional entremezclados con reminiscencias de “soundtrack Hollywoodense” tomaron por sorpresa a muchos tras el concierto del cuarteto de cuerdas estadounidense Jack. Similarmente, el uso fácil del orientalismo en el repertorio kazakistaní del Ensamble Ómnibus, causó inquietud, risas, ruidos de papeles y otros gestos de inconformidad entre la audiencia.

Por el contrario, la afluencia de compositores y ensambles de países que han tenido poco protagonismo en la historia de la música moderna parece inyectar nuevos bríos a los cursos de verano.

La música del danés Simon Steen-Andersen (premio Kranichstein del 2008) se distingue por su autenticidad, casi una hazaña en medio de la miríada de obras que se tocan cada día en Darmstadt.

Entre los galardonados de este año figuran dos suecas (Malin Bång en composición y Karolina Öhman en chelo) y cinco belgas (Stefan Prins y Tim Mariën en composición). La mayor parte de los compositores premiados colaboraron con los ensambles Ictus y Nadar, ambos de Bélgica. En suma, una gran cuota para un país mas pequeño que Costa Rica (aunque triplemente poblado).

Costa Rica en Darmstadt. Por último, y como prueba de la internacionalización de Darmstadt, este año, Costa Rica estuvo por primera vez representada en los cursos. En distintos conciertos se estrenaron obras de Mauricio Pauly y de quien esto escribe.

El ensamble Noruego Asimisimasa interpretó Con tentáculos. No patente pero subpatente en el salón Orangerie. Esta obra le fue comisionada a Pauly como parte del premio Staubach Honoraria 2010, acreditado a cinco compositores antes de los cursos.

Miembros del cuarteto Anubis de Estados Unidos estrenaron Como la leyenda de la Gran Muralla China, de Pablo Chin, para dos saxofones, en la Akademie für Tonkunst.

Es difícil calcular el gran valor que tiene experimentar Darmstadt. Atestiguar el trabajo de más de un centenar de compositores de alrededor de 40 naciones permite al participante agudizar el juicio y la percepción de su situación histórica, lo cual es casi imprescindible en un mundo cada vez más globalizado.

Este artículo se publicó en la Revista Áncora, Costa Rica el 26 de setiembre del 2010.