Herder and Watunna

Ever since indigenous voices infiltrated the stanzas of Juan de Castellanos, embellishing with multicolored phonetics his “Elegies on the Illustrious Gentlemen of the Indies,” written in Tunja, Colombia at the end of the 16th century, many writers have sought to represent New World cultures in their poetic or musical works. The signature of an individual claiming authorship at the foot of a work differentiates it irrevocably from the magical collective river of indigenous traditions, but does not prohibit the artistic use, through transpositions and transfigurations, of all the magnificent paraphernalia and materials of the indigenous cultures of the Americas. The result will be measured by the rod of aesthetics and not by assertions of authenticity.

The use of lexicons and texts became a game with the resources of indigenous music. Current examples abound, from the elegant work of Thierry Pécou – a French composer of Antillean origin associated with IRCAM (the Institute of Acoustic and Musical Research and Coordination in Paris), who works with the group Yaki Kandru, who specialize in instruments of the Amazon, producing musical scores of great subtlety of timbre – to the most conceptual work of Beatriz Bilbao centered on the Yekuana maracas, or the high refinement of Gabriela Ortiz’s Nahuatl songs. There is also a whole spectrum of transpositions that take us to the other extreme: pieces such as Andrés Levell’s intense and effective string quartet Trance that do not explicitly employ ethnic elements, but suggest the effects of shamanism.

Today (March 7, 2010) at 11am in Anna Julia Rojas Hall in Caracas, Venezuelan composer Adrián Suárez premieres his symphonic work Watunna, performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Juan Carlos Nuñez. The composer states that to guarantee the authenticity of his piece, he will count on the presence of shamans who will link us to Yekwana mythology. It is certainly worthwhile to know the culture of these master artisans and navigators of the River Caura, whose basin is being destroyed by a gold fever that nobody can control. We do not know Suárez’s Watunna yet, but its presentation reproduces the discourse of the first German Romantics, Herder in particular, who saw in their ancestral mythology the foundation of a great movement that opposed the Cult of Reason and the universality of science at the end of the Age of Enlightenment. “The recited sacred songs that overlap the orchestra attempt to focus our attention on the messages of celestial language, legacies of the Ancient Ones,” writes Suárez. They are undoubtedly the same words, the same localist spirits reacting in a similar way against the global forces that raze the memory of villages in their diversity. But there are two ways to understand ethnic traditions. One is the study of their values – the way of Vico, pioneer of mythological studies; the other is the unlawful, imaginary theft that builds myth upon foreign myth, with the illusion of the primitive purity of the original race. A subtle thread connects the discourse of Herder to that of Hitler, but in Romanticism, certain voices stood out, learning to spin their own discourse without falling into the illusion of purity, invoking instead the subconscious ambiguities that are the cradle of mythology. We hope that Watunna will be in the sphere of Novalis and Schumann; remember that history repeats itself. Please attend.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

About pauldesenne

Composer / Writer
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