Havana Wynton

The second request from the New York Philharmonic to go to Havana ran into administrative obstacles. The United States denied a first trip last year, arguing that the orchestra’s millionaire benefactors wanted to travel with the musicians just to drink daiquiri cocktails – strictly prohibited. According to The New York Times, this time the patrons promised to work on educational activities during the tour, but the government was not convinced – it seemed like subterfuge.

This contradicts my initial assumption when I learned (through a friend who conducted documentary interviews for the historic event) of Wynton Marsalis’s trip to Cuba in October with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, organized by the Cuban Institute of Music. I thought it was part of a state strategy, or perhaps an Obama strategy: to improve the political climate through cultural diplomacy. Plausible – the following month, American Ballet Theatre traveled to Havana to pay tribute to Alicia Alonso. But the way the Marsalis tour was developed – last-minute authorization from Washington – confirmed that certain politicians and their administrators – the former in their clouded perspective of power, the latter submerged in their frozen laws – are identical everywhere: they hurt citizens, regulating their movements, thoughts and cultural exchanges. Heraclitus’s Identity of Opposites is verified anew.

One of the questions I suggested to my friend, should she have managed to interview the US Chief of Mission in Havana, was about US cultural policy in Latin America. Eternally preoccupied by drugs and terrorism, the US ends up forgetting the immense diplomatic potential of its magnificent artists, who abhor the violent, canned American media trash that is the only “cultural” content Latin America gets from the US.  If Latin Americans were exposed to the independent artists and the more critical television and cinema offerings from the US, they’d be surprised. They would better understand the complex cultural and political diversity in that relatively unknown country. The foolish image of a monolithic empire of mean exploiters would crumble, revealing the deep connection between nations, as Marsalis showed with Havana and his hometown of New Orleans.

The tour received a lot of press, and the contact between Havana’s youth and Marsalis and his musicians was profound and emotional. Traveling artists immersed in the immediacy of daily contact with foreign audiences triumph where politicians fail with their ostentatious national pride and rigid policies – futile relics of barbarism. The ensuing artistic triumph is often attributed to governments, politicians and diplomats of the day, but it remains solely the product of the audacity of organizations committed to culture and not to power.

These traveling artists, such as Marsalis and the New York Philharmonic, build the north-south cultural bridge, but as music teachers from Europe and the US realize when they come to Venezuela to teach in El Sistema, the bridge also travels from south to north. Proof of this is a recent conference at Harvard’s School of Education on the Venezuelan legacy in the new educational approaches of major conservatories in Boston and New York. There is a privileged opening, a new space that arms merchants and their corrupt clientele would like to shut down: the field of cultural transaction, where we all win. It’s the new cultural stock market with huge long-term returns for all nations. Invest.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Mondo Exotica

The most entertaining thing about recommending books is imagining the acrobatics that bibliophiles are obliged to perform in the Venezuelan desert of foreign currency in order to obtain foreign works. (Currency control has existed here for nearly eight years and Venezuelan citizens have a very limited hard currency allowance for travel or online shopping.)

Books on music fall into two categories: illegible technical farragoes and passionate free-flowing studies. I am inclined towards the latter. (Lacán demonstrated that mathematical formulae do not exist without their expression in everyday language.) Here is one of these books: Mondo Exotica: suoni, visioni e manie della Generazione Cocktail by Francesco Adinolfi (Italian: Einaudi; English: Duke University Press). In this fabulous compendium on the great cultural shift of the 1950s and ’60s – when an aesthetic of artifice and high-fidelity sound was birthed among caricatures of the exotic – Adinolfi explains, classifies and resurrects the passions of an era that sought only one thing: fun.

Exoticism is above all an escape from routine, and the complex roots of this movement, as this study reveals, can be found in the 19th century with Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and later Ravel in the liminal phase of the 20th century. But these frontiers of Orientalist or Iberian exploration were shattered when Hollywood, that great creator and consumer of orchestral scores, shifted to Incan, Caribbean or African influences. At first everything was caricature, but from the uncomfortable crucible of Hollywood promiscuity arose languages that were appreciated forty years later for very different reasons: the Incan princess Yma Sumak and her orchestrator Moises Vivanco (1954); Juan García Esquivel, master of unusual fusions; mambo king Pérez Prado or Ray Conniff, who said that trumpets and girls’ voices made a good pair. Some would include trifles such as Xavier Cugat and his chihuahua or Mancini and his Pink Panther, but Adinolfi manages to portray the importance of the Mondo Exotica with great erudition, especially when he connects musical and cinematic plots, starting with Fellini’s aesthetic Big Bang La Dolce Vita, in which the cultural cocktail is the pinnacle of elegance.

Mondo Exotica is the account of an indispensable intrusion; of how extra-musical factors influence sound creation; a great tale of how fashion, that volatile whim, seeks artists capable of expressing its fragile and fleeting lightness. Space-age pop, spy-jazz, lounge music or bachelor apartment music, Hawaiian style, voodoo… From all this popularization of intermingled (and often imagined) languages emerges a cultural workshop, a laboratory of ideas that attain their ultimate value when the observer is distant enough to see them as alien codes, albeit decipherable or danceable ones.

We no longer hear this music firsthand. We study it as we might study a hairpiece of the era or laugh at a mask in a carnival. Through the complex process of intelligent listening we reach the core of what characterizes the exotic in relation to the European; we grasp the root concepts juxtaposing popular and cult, vulgar and refined. We rarely see texts that handle so many dates, discographies and filmographies, so much information and crucial biographical gossip, without losing the reader. Above all, music is not simply a universe of sounds but a universe of ideas.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Form and Silence

In art, the formal value of presentation is taken very seriously. Frames, white walls and empty spaces exalt the significance of the contemplated object to the point that after Duchamp’s urinal, almost any trash that falls on a pedestal is worthy of an aesthetic reading. The staging of the piece, the artist’s dialogue with the void surrounding it, is so powerful that it sometimes usurps what was formerly called talent.

In music we have the concert ritual, the sacred space of silence that surrounds the event, focusing attention on the discourse. Although the first to strip this ritual, placing an empty frame in the sound gallery, was John Cage in 1952 with his work 4’33” (forty years after Malevich’s non-painting The Black Square – music is always late), prohibiting musical sounds for 4 minutes and 33 seconds ironically revealed the importance of formality, since the dawn of music, in the creation of the object. But silence was not always part of the framing ritual. Music used to be an ingredient in very noisy multimedia entertainment: Greek tragedy, gladiators (strident organ, percussion and wind orchestras were famous accompanists of blood in the arena), masses, coronations, and opera, where feasting went on during the shows. Gradually, music distilled the tool of silence as it was freed from liturgical or dramatic functions, preserving its sacred, solemn character: the power to congregate. The privilege of transmitting, within a frame of silence, on the wavelength of the sublime or the divine.

Something didn’t work when the famous violinist Joshua Bell did an experiment in a Washington, DC subway: incognito Bach partitas played beautifully in tunnels for uninterested listeners who would have paid $50 to hear him onstage. He got pennies – nobody was ready for ecstasy without prior notice. It proved the importance of the concert ritual, the strength of the commandment that forbids the extraction of a musical object from its frame, from its liturgy, without losing it; a law condemning sound to the same fate as coral reef fish whose brilliant colors fade when they are caught. Formality also has an extremely important educational function. The strength of Venezuela’s first youth orchestra 35 years ago would have served for nothing had Maestro Abreu not begun the saga with a formal concert, a basic teaching resource he has perfected over three decades.

A strict, formal appointment with an audience in a hall became the principal instrument in a revolutionary pedagogy – the ultimate justification of all the individual and scattered efforts, the full realization of each person’s role, all crystallized into a single, simple, precise event, scheduled on a regular basis: the concert ritual. Educating musicians simultaneously educated the public, and in return the increasingly keen and attentive listeners strengthened the concert. Within this collective ritual lies everything for music. And outside it? The proliferation of never-ending musical noise without frame or pause; a commercial scrap mill that exerts undeserved authority over precious silence with ubiquitous, disproportionate loudspeakers. Artistically unacceptable technological power – one of the subjects of a strange and interesting book by the Frenchman Pascal Quignard, which we’ll talk about another time: Hatred of Music (La Haine de la musique).

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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For years I explained to my cello students the art of overcoming uncertainty on an instrument whose bowing and fingering parameters don’t seem to have precise boundaries. The bowed instrument beginner should anticipate the geometry of hand-position shifts within a continuum of infinite possibilities. For many students, an upward octave shift on the A string becomes a leap into the void: cold sweats, trembling bows, frowning faces and, in most cases, a slippery note ending in painful approximation. “Uncertainty in the upward left-hand shifts” was one of my invariable conclusions in the classes I gave in an old painter’s studio – a glass box with a tin roof sitting atop an old building in Caracas’s Bosque Sans Soucí.

One afternoon, while spotting the inevitable hole for the cello spike in the vinyl floor, a student showed me a patch of light. “Professor, your roof has a puncture.” Indeed, precisely between my legs was the dot of a sunray I had never noticed. We looked for the bullet. Among a pile of old paintings, there it was, a 9mm, flattened by its impact on the tin roof. The vinyl tile had a trace of the projectile in front of my chair. As I always sat in the same place during classes, the bullet would have pierced my skull had I been giving a cello lesson at the time of the shot. From then on, we didn’t just talk about uncertainty in upward hand-position shifts. A few weeks later there appeared another hole in a corner of the room. What really annoyed me about these holes was not the leaks that would flood the place but the pellets raining from the sky. By 2002 I had left teaching to devote myself to making music in a forest exile, trading the certainty of a regular income in lead for no certainty of an income at all.

I remember the black film classic The Ladykillers, in which gangsters disguised as a string quintet leased an apartment. To avoid suspicion, they played classical records as they planned their crimes. The ladies of the neighborhood, delighted by such artistic tenants, saw them going in and out with their instrument cases, where, of course, they carried their submachine guns. Now, some of our musicians have to do exactly the opposite to avoid suspicion: appear to be armed thugs in order to walk our unsafe streets, wearing sunglasses and leather gloves and handling their instrument cases with gangster style to make it to rehearsals alive.

We could be reaching a showdown in Venezuela, an opposition between juvenile delinquency and youth’s musical practice on a massive scale. Imagine an exchange: weapons for musical instruments within an educational structure. One of the most important branches of our System of Youth Orchestras [El Sistema] is working on crucial projects in prisons. I remember the pioneering work of a good friend, Manuel Mijares, who founded a pilot orchestra over a decade ago in the now-extinct Los Chorros correctional institution in Caracas. His greatest challenge: overcoming the fear to teach violent adolescent delinquents to overcome their personal uncertainties. They were all transformed by daily orchestral practice. Orchestras can be a radical treatment for juvenile delinquency.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Musical Africa

Africa, whose art forms have revolutionized the visual arts, music, and dance of 20th-century humanity, is musically an unknown continent. Like the maps of slave traders that showed only the slim lines of the African coast, the knowledge the rest of the world has of its immense legacy is shamefully superficial. Incapable of communicating the subtleties but profiting greedily from the rhythms, pop music has significantly reduced the fabulous conceptual and organological material of a continent whose cultural treasures are hidden behind the veil of material poverty.

I remember the most famous groove of an album from Radio France’s Ocora collection, featuring music of the Ba Ben Zelé pygmies: the simple song of a girl alternating in syncopation with a leaf whistle that she blew with perfect regularity. A surprising moment of genesis, a musical dawn, a meeting of rhythm and breath that becomes a form of dance; a dialogue between the syncopated human voice and the constant pulse of nature made into instrument.

From there we jump to the master drummers of Burundi, where a homogenous army of giant tumblers executes in unison the orders of a conductor who instructs the group with an improvised sequence of mimicry. The monumental sound is like the tap dancing of elephants. From Nigeria we have the most electrifying dance in the world, accompanied by the sublime Batá polyrhythmic orchestra whose sudden shifts in musical meter reveal hidden folds of time, rhythmic equations intelligible to our Caribbean onomatopoeia. Listening to the tubular harp of Madagascar – the valiha – with rattle and song, we feel a similar inexplicable familiarity – it is almost the same as the harps from the Tuy region south of Caracas. The island’s impressive ethnic diversity shows its greatest intensity in the music of the Bara, masters of hyper-speed. And we mustn’t forget the kora – the giant-gourd harp of Senegal; the oud – a fretless bandola (the tenor mandolin of the Colombo-Venezuelan plains) that covers the huge arc extending from Sudan to Morocco; the South African sanza or the talking drum of the griots, fantastic troubadours and cultural messengers; the xylophones of Equatorial Guinea speaking tonal languages; the Mongo vocal polyphonies from the deep jungles of the Congo, as elaborate as Renaissance polyphony.

Paradoxically, this image of musical Africa was crystallized in Europe (Borges said the idea of Europe was created in America) with the 1960s ethnomusicological recordings of Ocora, Folkways, and others that left us samples of the fabulous cultures that industrialized countries were destroying. We could compare this situation with the scene in Fellini’s Roma where the excavators of the metro discover Roman frescoes and invite a television crew to film the event, and before the cameras, the polluted air attacks the paintings, erasing the images forever in a macabre breeze. The microphones of the investigators in Africa captured rituals that would never again be seen, instruments now forgotten. They recorded songs and exclamations of troubadours that have disappeared, of ethnic groups that have been exterminated or crushed by poverty in the dramatic African acculturation. These lost cultures were far more valuable than all the diamonds, uranium, petroleum, wood, and blood. True appraisals always come too late.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Plato vs. MP3

Today, recorded music has the attributes of divinity: perfection (digital editions erased all flaws), ubiquity (the archives are everywhere and nowhere at the same time), intangibility (they no longer have a physical body), immortality (copiable ad infinitum), omniscience (music collections are now complete, and there is no time to listen to them), and, as with divinity, it is no longer lucrative unless a cult or church finds a way to charge for cathedral echoes and lighting equipment. Sound archives expose the defects of their attributes better than the gods. Like a life-term president who feels no urgency to carry out anything at all, we feel no hurry to listen to what we store (in many cases without paying more than the time it takes to copy it). We have the illusion of eternity in our hands.

One of the defects of immortality is banalization, destruction of the emotion of the irreversible. Before the record, a magical, unrepeatable halo surrounded musical execution, without metaphor: the Appearance and Death of sounds. Composing was the first step in the fight to tie that fragile butterfly to the stave and speculate on frozen time. Even so, scores depend on the art of interpretation, which is transmitted orally like any musical tradition and preserves the fragility of that which is unique and perishable. The record arrived, and musicians felt they could at last capitalize on what was previously vanishing from their hands. They wrote their new artistic and economic history in vinyl grooves whose imperfections still made live music irreplaceable. In the 1950s, values were reversed: the stage burst into living rooms, where hi-fi eliminated reasons to go and hear live versions subject to the risk of error, to the point that performers felt unusual pressure to sing and play better than sound equipment. To top it all, fictitious music in virtual spaces was birthed in the recording studio, and it was unrepeatable live.

Archival deterioration seems to be the solution both for the music business and for emotional health: a native virus that progressively scratches recordings. I remember the spirit that reigned in the era of the vinyl record: you bought only the latest, and this keepsake was the cutting edge of creation, a wave of unstoppable progress. The old record, if it was very good, was necessarily scratched. Today, we are condemned to a flawless “Let It Be” or Pink Floyd’s “Money” for all eternity – a new form of hell. Classical music is spared by eternal repetition of old recordings because the repertoire is constantly revisited by new performers, especially when creative currents of contemporary composition go astray. One of the most paradoxical of Plato’s passages (Phaedrus, 274E) is where Socrates polemicizes, opposing, in the benefits of writing, precisely the defects of its main attribute – the potentially eternal storage of ideas: “Well this invention will bring forth oblivion in the souls of those who learn it, for they will neglect the cultivation of memory…” The same can be said of the toxicity of the universal archive of recorded music. The creative spirit of musicians is kept alive precisely by the deterioration of all traces of the past. Much of creation is in trying to recover the remembered stature of what was lost. Plato versus MP3.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Cultural Selection

The Spanish Empire took pains to build a colonial system with no room for intellectual or industrial development. Everything was forbidden: gatherings, travel between provinces, free trade, printing, and above all, reading books. (There was no printing press in Venezuela throughout almost the entire colonial period – books arrived with chapters removed and whole paragraphs crossed out.) It was forbidden to make things and even to think of designing ways to make them. (Any resemblance to Cuba is mere coincidence.) Venezuela’s microscopic social mobility occurred only in military or ecclesiastical institutions, dialectical deserts. The university was a scholastic dinosaur, and law, the only viable career, could not be exercised because of procedural labyrinths. In every other province, particularly the viceroyships, Mexicans, Peruvians, Colombians found loopholes to be able to exercise that indestructible faculty: thought, whose freedom gives rise to arts and crafts. In Venezuela, a simple province, the relative poverty of the soil, the absence of minerals, the parched and indomitable natural world, barely allowed the survival of miniscule communities practically without schooling or industry. Fortunately for musical development here, there was no other way to exercise thought in the leisure hours. Music became the only spiritual source where development was allowed and even stimulated by very specific cultural and economic factors.

Our ports were the first stop on terra firma in the route of the trade winds, which meant that Caracas was the stopover for great celebrations just a few hours from the port of La Guaira, unlike Bogotá, which was located weeks or months of travel from Cartagena. Recently alighted travelers, rich or poor, had no option but to celebrate having survived the dangerous crossing; the circumstances obligated the unpacking of fine liquors, merchandise, and gifts. By good fortune, local society was perfectly trained to provide the greatest welcome and to consume the recently imported victuals. Music was the most important piece of this structure of taking advantage of the happiness of travelers, which lasted a few days before they landed in hard colonial reality. Once the victim was trapped, joyful noise, dancing, drunkenness, and seduction were the weapons of the Venezuelan after a long wait and the hurried organizing of a party to attract the traveler. The musical ingredients of mestizo culture were exquisitely honed by centuries of selection and experience in the development of the fiesta: joyful fandangos with harps and guitars, drums and antiphonal song, zapateo and proud verses, sentimental songs performed by beautiful women. Everyone knew the precise steps of a seduction that guaranteed, more than the passing consumption of perishable gifts, the consolidation of a community of selected immigrants who left the welcoming party immediately connected to social networks, measured and catalogued by their economic or political power. Venezuelan social spontaneity comes with music, with the fiesta of talented improvisers. No other province of the Spanish Empire had a confluence of circumstances so focused on perfecting the art of the party and selecting the greatest talents in the only free trade allowed: music.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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