Mr. Danger and Musical Bestiary

Ever since Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, musical creation has delighted in the zoo as extra-musical program content. Despite its Olympic gold medal in abstraction, music has the ability to evoke, to caricature, to imitate the animal world with the most diverse resources. It offers a humanized appropriation of quadrupeds, amphibians and birds on which anthropologists and linguists have commented widely, to the point of suggesting that the origin of music is the totemic assimilation of the shouts and songs of the animal kingdom.

Non-linear technology has enabled recording studios to create masterpieces of the genre such as the miniatures of Brazilian pianist and composer Jovino Santos Neto featured on the famous Hermeto Pascoal record Festa Dos Deuses (1992), in which we can hear exact musicalizations of tropical bird songs. They are not like Messiaen’s Catalogue of Birds for piano (1958) – unbearably hammered transcriptions of bird songs – but catchy Brazilian dances, unusual sound haikus made from real bird recordings accompanied by keyboards or percussion. Little jewels of Latin American poetry. Even the rooster has its samba school. Then comes the principal rooster – the political animal: Collor de Mello, former president of Brazil, about to be fired. His speeches, like those of other feathered creatures, are musicalized on CD.

The art of copying human prosody in melodies turns out to be much more complicated than copying nightingales. The sentence becomes a rhythmic and capricious instrumental figure. In Venezuela in 1995, perhaps inspired by these zoo-political pieces, composer Alonso Toro created the famous No me perdonan, based on the farewell speech of another president who was about to be fired. The swan song of Carlos Andrés Pérez, with his slight tongue twists, became a classic; every word of his speech is harmonized in a magnificent, darkly romantic bolero – a tour de force. The record, named after the Pérez piece, opens with the cumbia of Agustín Loro, presenting conceptually powerful original variants of the recording concept inaugurated by Hermeto Pascoal.

Fifteen years later, Venezuelan guitarist Felix Martin’s Mr. Danger appears ( – another masterpiece based on a historic presidential address, where a finely wrought progressive rock clockwork apocalyptic laser scalpel operates a ruthless linguistic dissection on a most impressive piece of Chávez oratory. With the two previous presidents, Jovino Neto and Alonso Toro remain elegantly removed from mockery – they manage to elevate the level of ambiguity. Felix Martin reaches perhaps the highest point of semantic chaos with his montage of President Chávez echoed meticulously by the electric guitar: “You are a donkey, Mr. Danger.” (Chávez refers to George W. Bush as Mr. Danger.) In this game of musical reflections arises a certainty: our judgments judge us more than they judge others, as Sainte-Beuve put it. But with this “Mr. Danger” we are helpless. Here, “bestial” means that all aesthetic codes are smashed. Such is art.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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¡Azuuuucarrr! *

For those who think with some justification that progress is a narrative subterfuge designed to induce enthusiasm as it drags us from alpha to omega, our culture offers sufficient examples of decay. Nobody sings like Gardel anymore, good movies are dead, pop is junk, no writers remain, kings look like football players and football players think they’re kings. But there is nothing quite like the impoverishment generated throughout 20th-century music by the invasion of pseudo-scientific discourse in academic arts.

Forced to sell their services in an era dominated by scientists, postwar composers were obliged to rejuvenate their discourse and blend in with the avant-garde by constructing algebraic gibberish. The venture consisted of a fusillade of every subjective parameter – taste, poetic expression, aesthetics, the whole realm of meaning and ambiguity – pretending that composition is an exact science, a sum of techniques governed by mathematical principles, driven by specialists aligned on the axis of historical progress. In certain centralized European countries, the creative community faced harsh administrators who were allergic to the proverbial imprecision of musicians. Given the blatant deterioration of their cultural criteria, powerful technocrats invoked the “objectivity” of a supposed art science run by the curators and critics who allocated funds.

Consequently, and by selection, an official arts discourse was installed and adjusted to fit these scientific parameters. The driest and shrewdest proposals triumphed and genuine talent was marginalized. Cultural Meccas (centers of faith more than centers of knowledge) imposed their dogma on the entire world, replacing expressive needs with the imperative of supposed progress in one sole direction, absurd and hermetic. By 1970, most composers were bowing five times a day in the direction of Paris, and even today the embers endure in academic departments where sorcerers and apprentices of pentagrammed graphomania explain their untouchable masquerading-as-science speculations in hackneyed phrases of useless rhetoric.

It is forbidden to say that the music of Pierre Boulez is the most horrendous of all time. Anathema. His Book for Strings is one of the bleakest aesthetic experiences in musical history, and his affinity with Blaise Pascal, enemy of pleasure and praise, places him alongside his own work in a drawer of purgatives. “Old Boulez is calmer these days,” my friend Joel Sachs tells me. A professor at The Juilliard School in New York, Joel knows as much about contemporary music as anyone in the world today. But you should see what Boulez wrote against the musical old guard in the 1950s, trampling on greats such as Poulenc, spewing expletives. He makes Bin Laden look like Bambi. Now it’s our turn to reject – this time, the sterile yoke of scientism. We must be similarly cruel and unjust, erasing Boulez’s debasement of musical poeticism. Perhaps the music of Frank Zappa, which Boulez discovered before Zappa died, has loosened his coccyx. What will he discover next – Celia Cruz?

* “¡Azuuuucarrr!” – meaning “Sugarrr!” – was the trademark on-stage holler of legendary Cuban salsa singer Celia Cruz.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Alarm Will Sound

Wine always tastes better when the winemaker who guides us overflows with descriptions that connect our senses to the history of the soil, the wineries, the particular gastronomy. As a result, it is extremely boring to uncork without knowledge, to swallow without tasting the complexity or understanding the cultural context of a wine. The same applies to music, even (and perhaps even more) in genres that avoid academic tradition. Two years ago, I heard the group Alarm Will Sound at Duke University in the United States in a program entitled 1969 – a year of great musical fodder on all fronts, including that of Vietnam, which produced the machine-gun blues of Hendrix and the inspiration for various rebellions that would come to be reflected on the staves of new-music composers.

The young New York ensemble uncorked several sublime bottles that had been maturing since the summer of Woodstock, including an abbreviated version of Luciano Berio’s revolutionary Symphony (1968) with texts by Lévi-Strauss and Beckett recited between fragments of strange music. Interspersed among the works, they played and sang beautifully – especially the beautiful violin-soprano – fragments of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, premiered in 1971 but presumably composed at the end of the ’60s, with Latin texts and the anti-war poems of Paul Simon. As the work of a leftist (and homosexual) artist, the premiere in Washington did not help President Nixon. The ensemble also performed the celebrated Hymnen by Karlheinz Stockhausen – a collage of national anthems that emphasizes the narrowness of nationalism, revealing the “hymnorance” underlying nations and armies.

Stockhausen, an essential postwar German composer who specialized in electronic music, had arranged a meeting in New York with The Beatles in 1969 for an avant-garde concert at the height of The White Album. They never met. Forty years later, out of that failed meeting was born this exciting program, whose masterpiece for chamber orchestra, singers and performers is the live version of Revolution 9, the most enigmatic of anything The Beatles produced – arranged here by Matt Marks and John Orfe. This tour de force is one of the most remarkable works I’ve heard in any contemporary concert. The famous musique concrète collage, created by Lennon and his Japanese girlfriend in the style of Stockhausen, created a vessel of communication between the prickliest and most unpopular avant-garde and the biggest-selling pop music of all time. Its realization in concert, without pre-recorded audio, sound by sound and scream by scream, reveals a 20th-century pièce de résistance.

The magnitude of the live Revolution 9 lies in its masterful transposition, its tremendous virtuosity. But understanding Lennon in this context – next to Berio, Bernstein, and Lennon’s German electronic guru – is the fruit of the expert enologist in those great bottles of the last summer of the decade of revolutions: Alarm Will Sound.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Tell Them I Died

Not only because of the infinity of time that follows their deaths but for reasons pertaining to their work, composers are much better off dead than alive. Or rather, even alive they should appear dead and not bother anyone too much once their narcissistic, totalitarian scores are laboriously digested by orchestras and soloists. Composers breathe down the neck of conductors and exert pressure on instrumentalists, but their most exquisite form of harassment is reflected in the artistic demands they express on paper. It seems excessive to add a living presence, seeking attention, when a composer’s speculations already occupy enough of the stage. Creations that transform the aesthetic and technical apparatus of music are certainly seen as disturbances from the point of view of artistic routines, where decades of repetition have turned past innovation into banal habits.

Composers may propose horizons that nobody knows yet. The difficult task of creating a sustainable implementation is taken on by the performers: finding the style, the pace, the timings in the new work; learning the gymnastics demanded by a new score without knowing if the effort will end up being rewarded by the gratification of pleasure or on-stage triumph or both. The learning curve of a community of performers can take a whole generation – long enough to ensure that the physical lives of most composers do not match their artistic lives, creating immense frustration. And even if the music is premiered quickly, creative fishing in the oceans of the unknown isolates composers in a different time. They live in parentheses.

A common misconception reinforces this tragedy: the idea that there is no oral tradition, that no space exists for extramusical verbal and cultural information in concert music. This couldn’t be more misguided. If the idea were true, we could learn to play without teachers, simply absorbing staves. For all who say there is nothing outside the musical score, even the greatest performers would sacrifice everything to have dinner with Stravinsky or a ten-minute chat with Mozart. The best part of musicology is precisely the act of putting flesh and clothing back onto the skeletons of history: Bach’s bottle of brandy, Brahms’s slippers, the florid language of Estévez. All this looks better from a distance, of course.

There are two kinds of performers: the carrion-eaters and the omnivores. (No value judgments). The first kind feeds exclusively on dead composers – a recent phenomenon, perhaps exacerbated by the indigestion caused by 20th-century atonality and the spread of conventional conservatories, where the funeral services of music are held. Performers of the second kind tolerate mothballs but prefer the smell of fresh paint, of turpentine, getting their hands on raw materials and inventing new temporalities with the composer, leaving their own mark on the gestation process. They accelerate the creative process by encouraging immediate contact with the stage, while the carrion-eaters wait for the beast to expire before attacking the feast.

To maximize their opportunities under these circumstances, composers have invented a fantastic phrase: “Tell them I died.”

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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The Russian Whirlwind

Lost in their particular chrysalises, many artists elude a global vision of the great circus of society. Although their works relate to the world, artists don’t always care about the future or the trajectories of these works as much as they care about the creative orgasm. Some specialties – choreography, orchestral conducting – combine talents and manage to lift the gaze a little from the tunnel of obsession, but there is a supreme being who shines by his very absence in today’s bureaucratic arts world (although some believe incorrectly that the cinematographer has assumed this role). Consider the great dilettante impresario who embodies all defects: whim, danger, recklessness, craziness – a person who sells the idea of a performance before a single note exists, who commits venues and troops to adventures that may become box office successes, but almost certainly will be racing against the debt clock. Consider characters like the Canadian, Garth Drabinsky, who succeeded in creating a huge network of venues in North America and who, flying from coast to coast overseeing every detail of each of his musical theater productions, managed to increase considerably the cultural offerings of many cities until he succumbed to justice in 2009 with multi-million-dollar debts.

The modern archetype of this character is the great Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes: a man without whom 20th-century art would not be what it is. After reading his latest biography (Scheijen, Oxford University Press), it is clear that everything that rose to fame did so because he knew how to place it at the center of the cultural arena with his tantrums, crises, whims and follies, making innovation an absolute necessity. In two decades (1906-1926), he enabled Picasso, Derain, Matisse, Bakst, Marinetti, Gabo, Stravinsky, De Falla, Ravel, Prokofiev, Satie, Cocteau, Goncharova, Nijinsky, Massine, Balanchine and dozens of others to work in productions that were completely imagined, informal, invented on the fly between tours, hotels and train stations with no fixed headquarters and no guaranteed money, pursued by creditors, celebrating in palaces or hovels, driven by an obsession: avant-garde creation based on pure talent, coupled with rigorous  supervision of every tiny detail. Most of these artist’s lives shifted entirely after working with the Ballets Russes. In today’s sorry world, governed by computerized accounting and the Protestant ethic of frugality, the magical Russian Diaghilev would probably be behind bars.

Today, we wonder why stage creations are so weak compared to those of decades past. We distance ourselves from blaming the uniqueness of the dawn of the 20th century – a fragile explanation. That era was marked by the particular willpower of a man who found and moved talent, breaking conventions with the supreme justification of artistic content. The interaction between librettists and composers, choreographers and artists that Diaghilev stimulated with every fiber of his being and imagination, forcing them to excel in a whirlwind of productions and practice without fear of failure, was his great achievement. If nobody today takes on that role, promoting and defending interdisciplinary creation tooth and nail, the hallmark of our time will be little more than a pale memory.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland


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The Last Fantastique?

In the field of symphonic music, Japan and Venezuela share many things. In a huge collective effort, Japan built a self-sufficient symphonic universe, filling the privileged space of great concert music in the modern cities that were rebuilt after the war. As Japanese high-precision metalwork and high-craftsmanship traditions faithfully reproduced and even improved all the European symphonic instruments, an outstanding team of professors created an educational system that would eventually bring Japan to the highest symphonic standards without compromising the character of their culture and their prodigious ancestral spirit.

Hideo Saito, mentor of the great Seiji Ozawa, founded the Toho Gakuen school in 1948 to start a youth symphony movement. Eleven years later, Ozawa won the great Besançon conducting prize, imposing his own radically different style, bustling with energy; a reinterpretation of the classics from the vital perspective of the culture that invented the most sophisticated martial arts. Almost a decade later, leading the superb New York Philharmonic in 1968, Ozawa premiered the Double Concerto for Biwa, Shakuhachi and Orchestra by Toru Takemitsu – one of the most important composers of the 20th century, creator of riveting soundtracks for Kurosawa. Ozawa and Takemitsu, working tightly together, managed to project the style and aesthetic complexity of Japan, universalizing them through the symphonic space, the cultural blending potential of which seems endless.

In 1984, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of Maestro Saito, Ozawa founded the Saito Kinen Orchestra – a conglomerate of teachers and soloists that eventually formed the nucleus of a great annual festival dedicated to performing the music of Takemitsu after his death in 1996. Recently, the Saito Kinen Orchestra was guest of honor at the JapanNYC festival. The Orchestra’s troubles were rife – Maestro Ozawa, cured of the cancer that kept him from the podium for many months but weakened by other ailments, had to suspend several general rehearsals and even some of his performances. There were ominous rumors that this was the maestro’s final farewell.

Last week, I had the good fortune to hear him conduct at Carnegie Hall Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a steed he has ridden many a time since his 1959 French triumph. It exceeded perfection. The magical flute of Jacques Zoon (undoubtedly the world’s finest player), the sublime, impeccable singing horn of Radek Baborák, the voluptuous clarinet of Ricardo Morales. Immaculate soloists, so important to this work, articulated a fabulously colorful discourse over a flawless orchestra. The farewell of a colossus. Sad indeed, but at the door of Carnegie Hall a great surprise awaited me. Suddenly, I was greeted warmly by the gifted young Venezuelan conductor Diego Matheuz, Ozawa’s next special guest for the August 2011 Saito Kinen tour of Japan and China. These are not coincidences. As I was saying, Japan and Venezuela share many things.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland


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The Elder

The cuatro is enjoying indisputable prosperity. The recent North American and European tour of C4 (a core of three cuatristas – Glem, Molina and Ramirez – with prestigious guests) has rocked the halls, reaping the well-deserved fruits of an initiative launched some years ago by the maestro Cheo Hurtado – a great national movement he named “The Sowing of the Cuatro.” We all reckoned the strumming-picking style developed three decades ago by soloists like Hernán Gamboa and Alí Chirinos, among others, and brought to a climax in the celebrated pajarillos (brisk Venezuelan fandangos with variations) of Cheo Hurtado, was an individual expression developed to full personal potential by each soloist without forming a unified school. The Sowing of the Cuatro, a systematic but very free movement, multiplied prodigies and established a new foundation from which all its students begin. Suddenly the pinnacle of virtuosity, joropo music caught in a whirlwind of variations ceased to be the exception and become the minimum requirement of a school that studies all the styles of Venezuelan cuatro playing as living matter; an anti-conservatory of oral tradition.

The circulating commentary – highly positive, of course – is that they cloned Cheo, but fortunately this is just an impression conveyed by the high achievements of the younger generation. With the cuatro there is room to spare for individuality and innovation, amply illustrated by personalities such as Jorge Glem and his C4 companions. With the cuatro there has always been a dialectic between those who prefer picking and those who dominate the high-speed strummed melodies of parallel chords. Between the two extremes is considerable scope for personal combinations, as heard, for example, in the highly refined style of Pollo Brito, a master of rhythmic breaks and shifts in his style of accompaniment.

C4’s tour reminds us of the pioneering tours of the great Fredy Reyna, who took his cuatro around the world in the 1950s and ’60s with a style that has since vanished, perhaps because of its delicacy and refinement. No recordings make me more nostalgic than those left to us by this master, who seemed to place a third element between the song and the listener: the cuatrista as actor performing a role. This mannerism is perhaps what we have lost by adopting sheer virtuosity and constant, inflexible rhythm as the main objectives of the modern cuatro. The subtlety of the most intimate colors of our national instrument, a delicacy expressed in the art of restraining or accelerating time that Fredy handled better than anyone, along with his mischievous way of phrasing Venezuelan merengues sharply as if with a spoke, or caressing Venezuelan valses with delicate brushstrokes. Nowadays nobody plays songs like “Duilia” or “El Latigueado,” merengues such as “El Templete,” the unbearably sad motives of  “El Tamunangue” or that unique “Danza” where the limitations of the instrument’s register are vanquished by an unmistakable mastery of prosody and character in the melodic lines and an incredibly flexible and varied accompaniment. Fredy Reyna dominated the grammar of Venezuelan style and passed on formidable cultural content that today’s cuatristas should study very seriously. There is much more than just forgotten songs in these recordings – there is the wisdom of the elders, so scarce in our excessively youthful country.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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