Hydraulis

From the Pythagorean monochord – the first theoretical unification of art and science – to the technological bunker of IRCAM (the Institute of Acoustic and Musical Research and Coordination in Paris) where the immutable heirs of Pythagoras digitized sound at the end of the 1970s, music always has accommodated and accompanied scientific and technological advances. An odd dialectic between the discoveries of physics and the immediate use of these discoveries to play music characterizes the symbiosis between music and science. In some ways, the physical world has been the playground giving birth to musical symbols, whose needs in turn have driven technology. Major breakthroughs in both spheres are closely related. In his book on pneumatics, Heron of Alexandria describes the inventions of Ktesibios 2,300 years ago: the piston, the syringe for extracting fluids from the body, the hydraulic pump, and of course the hydraulis – literally “water flute” – ancestor of the organ, whose presence in ancient times is confirmed by several very detailed mosaics, in particular one in Syria at the end of the Roman era, five hundred years after Ktesibios. This perfect mosaic displays a group of musicians: a flutist, a percussionist with a table of melodic cymbals, a harpist, and an organist. The instruments can be seen in luxurious detail down to the hydraulic systems of the organ, but not the keyboard, whose existence is deduced from the extremely modern posture of the performer sitting in front of it.

The principles of physics, embodied in technical advances, are immediately absorbed by music in the most sophisticated manner. The history of the organ, from the hydraulis of Alexandria to the Syrian-Roman keyboard, the mediaeval positive organ to the organ of Bach, the Moog synthesizer of Wendy Carlos to the multitimbral keyboard of numerical synthesis, reflects the immediacy with which the community of inventors and musicians reacts. We also see that the ancestor of the computer and of all mechanical music reproduction – the intelligent machine that reads pre-programmed instructions – was conceived from the mechanical organ’s perforated card readers whose extensive use in Handel’s England bequeathed to us the first recordings in history, perfectly playable today on replicas of 18th-century mechanical organs. The concept of the computer keyboard comes directly from the organ. The idea of organizing sounds through finger control is the precursor of the computer keyboard; it should not surprise us that Bach’s fugues stimulate intelligence – they embody one of the earliest forms of enjoyment in a virtual space blessed with multidimensional coordinates. The modern orchestra founded, organized, and nourished in repertoire by organists and keyboardists is the incarnation, the social prolongation of this high intelligence and all the associated technological advances imaginable, including metallurgy, precision metal mechanics, polymer chemistry, and forest engineering (the production of wood and reeds applied to countless traditional crafts such as violin or woodwind-reed making). The educational revolution launched from Venezuela’s systematic formation of orchestras starting at the pre-school level represents perhaps the boldest and most complete step in pedagogy since the integral formation of the human being. In the center of the orchestra, in its nucleus, lies the historical key to intelligence.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité

In the musical world, where everything is planned years in advance, sudden diplomatic breaches seem absurd, if not comical, and they seem to be propitiated by people who don’t know the quality or depth of bonds textured by the fellow citizens of other nations. France has offered many distinguished Venezuelan musicians a free education of the highest quality in its municipal, regional, and upper-level conservatories. The Venezuelan students needed only talent and dedication, but the French government invested substantial taxpayer resources to meet its generous goals. Soloists who give prominence to our country’s music include Aléxis Cárdenas, William Molina, José García, Jaime Martínez, and Horacio Contreras, to name a few of the teachers and pillars of Venezuela’s System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras (El Sistema). They were trained in France, receiving hundreds of hours of free classes that in other countries with private education systems would have cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

The quality of the French education system, truly socialist, should be a model for Venezuela. Our leaders should discern, analyze, and better understand the interests of the people, recognizing gestures of deep cooperation. To cut ties with the developed world for political pride condemns us to remain an underdeveloped fraternity in a tunnel of Macondo* failures typical of poor and chaotic autodidacts. Ignorant pride does not transmute into knowledge. The tombs of post-colonial misery are covered with unsubstantial dignity defended at an absurd cost. It is time to change the game. Music is a spectacular and visible symbol of cooperation between nations. Behind all these educational and cultural exchanges is a universe fed by relationships that may be less visible but are just as important. Significant numbers of Venezuelan doctors, scientists, and intellectuals owe much to France, to its free and always excellent education.

The French character is not easy to understand – the high level of the Gallic education system is founded in systematic criticism. In Latin America’s lamentable cultural reflexes, we confuse intellectual criticism with personal attack, but the Venezuelans who have lived in France appreciate the quality of a rigorous training that doesn’t lower its standards for foreign students. In place of “revising” relations with France, we should multiply the invitations. Venezuelan and French musicians will continue their fruitful exchange no matter what. The Venezuelan artist flourishes in countries like France, with its great educational institutions and powerful cultural institutions. He discovers his deficiencies, but he also learns to know and appreciate by contrast the immense virtues of his own culture. If we break all the mirrors we will never know our own true face.

* Macondo is García Márquez’s lost village in 100 Years of Solitude – symbol of arrested development.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Lascivissimo Cornetto

1611: the word “orgasm” is born. Gesualdo de Venosa publishes his Responsorias for six voices, without question the most harmonically audacious work in history. Shakespeare writes The Tempest, Monteverdi is about to be named conductor of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the first part of El Quijote has been in circulation for five years, Frescobaldi plays the organ for 30,000 people in Rome – it was a transcendent moment for the conquest of new territories in art. Until about 1990, however, the king of instruments of that crucial period was unknown to most audiences, as was its repertory and sound. The most sensual and expressive music between the births of Palestrina (1525) and Bach (1685) had been extinguished in the early 18th century.

Resembling a cross between a soft-flute and a trumpet (we could call it a soft-trumpet), the wooden cornetto descended from a primitive horn with the conical mouthpiece of a French horn, but was played more like a flute. From a distance, it sounded like the voice of a castrato (delight of so many Roman cardinals) and it came in two models (like so many other things): straight and curved. The straight “mute” cornetto, more sober and dark, was perfect for the sublime madrigals of Palestrina, accompanied by organ and lute. The curved cornetto, octagonal and covered in leather, shone in the brilliant sonatas of Fontana (1571-1630) or Falconieri (1585-1656), where the fledgling tonal structures of the baroque were not yet systematized and an unpredictable and fantastical prosody could unfold. Extremely difficult to play, the cornetto was a frequent substitute for voice and violin.

An entire era of this treasure would have been lost forever had it not been for the work of a group of historical rescuers (David Munrow, Christopher Monk, Bernard Krainis) who recovered in the 1970s the performance techniques of this musical fossil that existed only in oil paintings and treatises as well as in some copies. Now we have a complete discography highlighting the superb Jean Tubéry, perhaps the most important French musician of today. The highest authority on the ornamentation of the period, Tubéry recorded jewels of the 16th and 17th centuries with his ensemble La Fenice – in particular Palestrina’s madrigal “lo son ferito,” where he reveals the expressivity of the mute cornetto. The English virtuoso Bruce Dickey revived a repertoire that reveals the refinement of instrumental composition between the Council of Trent and the coronation of Luis XIV. During this period, the popular bagatelle disappears and the dramatic individual creation that coincides with Cartesian reflection (and the discovery of American tobacco, which in my opinion propitiated it) is reinforced. It is impossible to understand that era without knowing the incomparable music of Castello, Cima, Turini, Uccellini, Giovanni Gabrieli, Schütz, or Fux, without discovering the magic of the cornetto, whose versatility allowed the fusion of vocal and instrumental virtues to enrich melodic discourse in the development of the sonata, the seed of future symphonic forms. It is the missing link that propelled the leap from the madrigal of 16th-century polyphonists to the baroque sonata. The appearance of equal temperament and modular melodic progression eliminated it around 1715 – nobody knows quite how it was resuscitated. Certain virtues of music are immortal.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Strings

One of the teachings of war – its only real benefit when it finally comes to an end – is the appreciation of the most basic things: to have arms, to breathe, to see. The soldiers of the Great War returned mutilated from the Front to a devastated world like ghosts among the ruins of old Europe, and the military lie that had created the diabolical, inextinguishable illusion of victory was silently revealed: something sinister had pushed millions of people to the death trenches. The devil appears in universal literature as the great creator of illusion, and one of his best apparitions is in C. F. Ramuz’s Soldier’s Tale, set to music by Igor Stravinsky in 1918. We forget the importance that concert music – erroneously named “classical” music – had before the advent of radio-electric media. People longed to listen to a concert as much as they now long to flee from the noise that unsolicited music has become. But as there is no greater antagonism than that between music and bombs, the military madness that seized Europe buried the success of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the collective psycopathy of patriotism barely a year after its 1913 premiere.

Exiled in the neutral silence of Switzerland, Stravinsky did not wait for the war’s end to answer the military. He remembered a popular tale of his Russian infancy, the story of a soldier who sells his only possession to the devil – a dilapidated violin, allegory of his soul. In his exile, Stravinsky felt firsthand how the military caste could raise and flatten civilization: the destruction of his meteoric composing career by a brutal carnage was the most perfect representation of human stupidity. It propelled him to explore artistically the mechanisms of military temptation, particularly in the first link of the chain: the seduction of the soldier, converting an individual with his own spirit, his own expression, his violin, into a dispossessed, impoverished being who pursues the illusion of fortune. The elegance of the text, created by Swiss novelist C. F. Ramuz – Stravinsky’s friend – is almost primitive in its sobriety, almost innocent of symbolism. Recited by a narrator, it is as if the portraits of Rousseau are speaking. The characters are as plain as a pack of cards: soldier, devil, princess, king. War appears only because the soldier “just ten days of hard earn’d leave…he’s tramp’d from morn till eve.” And in French, “to march” (or “tramp” in the English translation”) also means to fall into a trap. To underscore the deconstruction, Stravinsky ushers in modernity with a miniature orchestra, using the extremes of each instrumental family along with a drummer – a musical shell emptied of all 19th-century vestiges. Superimposed are rhythmic mechanisms like little machines (broken Swiss watches?) in which asymmetric concurrences become dislocated and the violinist seems like a string puppet. The genres – military march, waltz, tango, ragtime – are treated with almost Brechtian distance, ultramodern.

Between clouds of smoke, one month before the armistice of November 11, 1918, the genius Igor re-emerged as puppeteer. In the absence of ballet blockbusters, puppets are good. Elementary: soldiers also have strings.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Popmil10

Rolling Stone, voice of the hippie counterculture converted into odoriferous perfume advertisement, still has some substance under the varnished attempts to rejuvenate refried music and rock mummies. In its last issue of 2009 it presented the 50 best CDs of the decade, where heavy metal, hip hop, drug-addicted singers, neo-pyschedelics, folk, and neo-punk co-exist. I lost the thread of this pop billboard a long time ago – boredom followed the infinite repetition of almost identical musical structures (a phenomenon that does not exempt other genres, from joropo to baroque, salsa to contemporary music) – but the magazine’s music critics manage to defend a complex genre that survives despite the CD’s commercial cave-in and the erosion of a musical language consumed by banality and the cult of nail polish. Behind the front pages exists a sound that reflects the talent of hundreds of producers and artists whose creativity nourishes an impressive cultural river, a tissue of protests, a gigantic laboratory of musical ideas and very professional swindles.

At number 22, the group Green Day with “American Idiot” vomits horrifying punk music, but the poetic stance has strength. The psychedelia of MGMT at number 18 makes me curious, but it would never fall into the insipid snare of U2 – the vacuous pretentiousness of Bono, missionary of corporate benevolence with fashionable sunglasses, is a prodigious emblem of superficiality. Two Dylan CDs enter the list, in particular Modern Times, reminding us of his beginnings, influenced by the great Woody Guthrie. In the summary, rap surfaces – a much more refined product than the reguetón that assaults us in Venezuela with its sexist illiteracy. “The rapper 50 Cent sold a million copies for every shot he took,” or so number 9 tells us. Certainly gringo rappers have the advantage of writing their themes for a very demanding public with tough competition, obliging them to sharpen their quills in the delinquent whirlwind that is decimating them. Title: Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Anti-establishment? Perhaps, but in the role of anti-hero, not anti-heroin, lamentably for her health, we find at number 20 the interesting Amy Winehouse, the rebel British singer-songwriter whose raspy voice is rooted in soul music but whose body succumbs to crack and needles. Despite the scandal of the drug addiction of certain idols, we see that many songs and articles deal with these issues in immediately accessible terms, without shame or hypocrisy, without detours or charitable therapies. The first step in the fight against addiction is letting the people concerned talk about it. Here in Venezuela, we criticize obscene Anglo-Saxon attitudes, but we are incapable of articulating publicly, in the press, the painful invasion of crack that infects us to the core. In the absence of words, bullets speak.

Ultimately, what is surprising in this best-of-the-decade inventory is the vitality of a modern popular culture that never stops generating musical discourses and poetic proposals, without academicism and apparently without prejudice of any kind. One thing is sure: the best of the decade didn’t enter the Rolling Stone list. Unless you like Maya Arulpragasam.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Varadero 1983

Cuban movie clips from the 1950s with Benny Moré or La Matancera present us with cabaret situations where singers display their roguery to seduce beautiful women who dance like goddesses (or devils). The plots almost always involve a wealthy gentleman seated at a table who ends up getting angry at the triumph of the singer’s plebeian talent over money and surname. Nobody could resist the charms of Benny Moré. Analyze his handling of image, his dance steps, his fantastic pants, his melodic African pentatonics that flowed like honey in his improvisations, his mastery of the stage extending to theater and dance. I never tire of watching those old stationary-camera clips – they far surpass current productions where it is impossible to distinguish whether the artist is really singing and dancing or if it is software that makes him move. From the golden years of the 1950s, we jump into a void – all that is left to us are fragments of Mexican television with Daniel Santos smoking a bolero alone on a props bench, combed with coffin brilliantine. During those years, the future oldies of the Buena Vista quietly tuned their drums in the obligatory silence of the sugarcane harvests, pining for the times of Piñeiro while Fania invaded the commercial salsa scene with its armies of baby boomers exiled in Spanish Harlem.

In the festival of Varadero, Cuba in 1983, an extraordinary Venezuelan shakes things up, taking on the classic repertoire of Benny Moré as if nothing had happened – neither the Puerto Rican revelation of Ismael Rivera nor the street philosophy of Pedro Navaja, the formidable danceable glitter of Pacheco, the fury of Irakere Valdez, the steamrolling big band of Eddie Palmieri. I have in my hands a record of that night, a DVD of the festival where Oscar D’León demonstrates the cultural unity of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the validity of the son classics, demolishing collective apathy with a massive injection of talent, resuscitating the “Mata Siguaraya.” It’s a historical document – in it we see a phenomenon that surpasses all well-known performances: a bassist/singer/conductor/dancer/producer who ends the night by throwing himself to the floor with his instrument to invent a surprising horizontal choreography that only the cameras can capture, epilogue of a concert performed with every fiber of his being, including the indispensible white fringes on his outfit that prolonged each dance movement with surges of luxurious frivolity, as if to say to the purists, “White leather is not just for Elvis.” I try to imagine the impression he made on the Cuban public – almost Calvinist after two decades of blockades – seeing a Caraqueño, citizen of a fortunate and relatively prosperous country, execute an overwhelming demonstration of the emblematic genre of the last Spanish colony with such sensuality, such vehemence, and such ownership.

Recently, we followed closely the news of Oscar D’Léon’s health problems (now improved). He is without doubt the most beloved Venezuelan musician in the ill-named “third world” since the 1970s, and there is something supernatural, shamanic, in the incontestable energy of his Varadero concert – something overwhelming that will continue to beat for a long time: his heart.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Epiphanies

José Antonio Abreu, who has organized hundreds of monumental concerts on every kind of stage around the world, could not contain his emotion when he related the most recent phenomenon he had witnessed in the stadiums of Mérida and Barquisimeto during the year-end tour of the Simón Bolívar Symphonic Orchestra. “25,000 people in Mérida, 30,000 in Barquisimeto, thousands of children coming down from mountain villages, leaving their poor neighborhoods to hear Gustavo Dudamel conducting the orchestras, the local choirs, and the Simón Bolívar Symphonic Orchestra. A grand musical fiesta of uncommon proportions, something never seen before. We are perfecting the production of symphonic concerts in sports stadiums – the challenge of the future.” For the immediate future, it is our duty to satisfy the cultural thirst of an exploding youth with excellent performances within the titanic proportions of a stadium, but also with models that exchange the passive absorption of consumption for the affirmation of youth’s talent and intelligence.

This tour was a great event not just for the thousands of hearts that lived the epiphany of symphonic music – the colors, the astonishing synchronization, the sound poetry. Among the most attentive spectators was Marshall Marcus, Head of Music at London’s Southbank Centre, the United Kingdom’s largest arts center. Marcus knows our country well, having served as first violinist of the Caracas Philharmonic around 1980; he speaks Venezuelan Spanish and has returned here several times for various opportunities. This time, he came to bear witness to a phenomenon that is impressing many specialists – the birth of new forms of presentation for a music that seemed drained of its capacity to move people; forms that awaken a new aesthetic sense framed in a social and pedagogical purpose. “I understand it when a young audience gets emotional with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. What surprises me is the attention with which they listened to Francesca da Rimini – a much more difficult and profound piece,” he commented to me. For decades, the European musical eminences have seen Venezuela develop revolutionary educational tools based on a cultural heritage bequeathed to us from the Old World. They want to refresh their own educational programs, adjusting the plans that have distanced their youth from the healthy practice of a musical form that strengthens social integration and keeps violence at bay, that fosters teamwork and sharpens the perception of complex abstractions: the orchestra. Youth orchestra nuclei based on our System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras [El Sistema] now exist in England, Scotland, and the United States.

Alisa Weilerstein is an extraordinary young cellist whose presence on this tour confirmed that the hottest place in music is perhaps here in Venezuela. Her parents are distinguished music professors in Boston and form part of an important group of North Americans engaged in reaffirming the pre-eminence of cultural relations, developing educational ties of respect and cooperation between our cities. It is probable that this relationship is symbiotic: if they can show us how to perfect our instrumental interpretation, we can show them how to “play and fight.” *

* “Play and fight” refers to the “Tocar y Luchar” motto of Venezuela’s National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras, El Sistema.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Dominoes and Death

“Even though I’m charging more, I’m earning less each day,” Carlos Duarte repeated to me in one of our interminable rehearsals for a brief tour in 1994. “And I don’t stop playing.” He often took stock of his musical life in Venezuela in those days, in the long decade after his return from studies with important teachers overseas. He landed as pianist with the Maracaibo Symphony in the early ’80s, years of fabulous salaries in dollars with a chauffeur and a country house. Ten years later, he no longer had a chauffeur or a fortune, but he had the most fabulous dynamic extremes I had ever heard on the piano. He played in Japan with the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, recitals in North America, unforgettable concerts with Venezuelan orchestras. He delighted Caracas, his beloved city of bounteous nights that always awaited him with triumphal wines after his countless performances.

His implacable musical ethic, his contempt for all things commercial or facile, and his passionate temperament kept him on a sharp edge of artistic excellence that few could understand. He rejected the compromises necessary to ascend to a career where discipline was burdened with politics and madness with politesse. For him there was only discipline and madness – farewell half measures, farewell little smiles. “I like having ugly teeth,” he told me, “so you can see the progress of death in my smile.” This co-existed with a natural tenderness that he hid behind a mask of abysses carved into his face by the constant friction of extremes and danger. I refer to musical danger – the absolute recklessness the pianist reaches onstage when he builds a crescendo whose peak can only mean the physical destruction of the piano; when the slowness of a passage surpasses the lowest vibratory limit of sound and the pianist keeps braking and the watches and hearts of the audience stop; when the speed is so fast that neither the orchestra nor the conductor nor the pianist know how the passage will come to an end. The bulging eyes of Carlos Duarte in those moments of panicked furor were the eyes of monsters in Japanese art. We saw him at the piano like a great forge, hammering his sword on a colossal anvil for a mythological battle that he unfolded before our eyes but in another world. In each work, he exceeded one more limit of sonic power, of extreme slowness or speed, in the most demanding interpretations saturated with feeling, with the precision of a watchmaker.

Those fascinating extremes are not comfortable propositions for the representatives who manage great international careers. Experimentation and radical expression are not marketable – they create anxiety, especially when the artist lives with the same intensity offstage. After his concerts, Carlos celebrated resplendently, but despite his indispensible cargo of wine, his intellectual restlessness never ceased and the great existential questions persisted. For him there were no breaks – when a discussion reached the confines of the absurd, he got out the dominoes: Let’s play! All we have left is the game. This South American rendering of Bergman’s Seventh Seal, staged until dawn with dominoes in place of chess, contained his obsession: the ivory of the keys in the numbered pieces, the endgame countdown before the final measure. Carlos died on April 13, 2003, exactly a year after his voluntary reclusion in a small apartment (facing La Carlota military airport) that he never left.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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Dudamel vs. Lebrecht

One of the smartest studies of the classical record industry, though depressing in its conclusions, is The Life and Death of Classical Music (Anchor Books, 2007) by the British critic Norman Lebrecht. In this well-documented book that claims to be the industry’s epitaph, we discover how The Beatles surpassed sales of all classical record labels combined, and how the executives of those labels adopted a sumptuous lifestyle that the classical music market, increasingly depressed, could not sustain. We read the detailed chronology of unjustified spending, absurd contracts, and unsellable projects, ending with the diminished coffers of the record companies, whose final blow came with the advent of the digital era and its three consequences: the massive re-issuing of historical catalogs, piracy, and uncontrolled internet distribution.

The figure most insistently incriminated by Lebrecht is the maestro, whose hypertrophy, propitiated by executive greed, is the first cause of the classical record industry’s decline. The figure that had been its most efficient propellant, the image and sustenance of dozens of collections of symphonies and opera cycles, creator of an entire market of post-war long-playing classical records, is converted into executioner after a couple of decades of market saturation – the erosion of a generation that had nourished its clientele. Lebrecht constructs his case very well, from the archetypal von Karajan – pioneer of integral collections, of sound conducted from the console, of stratospheric salaries – to his competitors in all categories: Solti, Giulini, Marriner, Maazel, Bernstein, and Abbado, whom executives tried to box into a business model that could not work the same way a thousand times with the same profit levels. With drained projects, melomaniacs drowning in dozens of versions of the same collections of symphonies and operas, the executive machinery lost sight of reality, continuing to generate productions whose breakeven point was ten or twenty times that of real sales. The maestros, and above all the executives, according to Lebrecht, wanted to retain the incomes they had enjoyed in the 1950s, but nobody knew how to sell product on the street. The industry resorted to pure commerce. Sony Classical, for example, under the direction of Peter Gelb, was oriented to anything it could sell: film soundtracks such as Titanic or pop hybrids that perhaps deserved the pejorative term “classical crossover music.” The vision of these enterprises turned everything into merchandise, but in the end the record would no longer exist, and nor would the record store. With the storefronts shut down, the book leaves a bitter taste.

Fortunately, Lebrecht’s analysis has a central flaw and its thesis a rival Venezuelan who challenges it magnificently. If the facts in the book are indeed exact, no study of concert music can resolve its equations without factoring in the pleasure of playing or listening to live music, without taking into account the social, educational, and cultural factor of this complex and layered ritual. The lucrative era of recording covers perhaps a tenth of the history of classical concerts. And the rest of that history? Perhaps classical music is dying because the big record labels are dying? From Venezuela, facts dispute Lebrecht’s thesis. The great transformation that Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphonic Orchestra operate on a world level is no more than the rescue of a healthy, ancestral, profoundly genuine form of living music, detached from mere commercial management, reconnecting with a public that returns en masse to the world’s concert halls to rediscover emotions that had been frozen in tariffed recording sessions, trapped in speakers. Ironically, one of the victories of this era of piracy and infinite cloning is the re-appreciation of something that cannot be cloned: a live concert, a beating heart, music that will never die.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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The New Man

After several generations of revolution, the Soviet Union had perfected the New Man: a functionary capable of sacrificing his moral principles, groveling in hierarchical pyramids to carry out the orders of a psychopathic tyrant who continued to massacre people from his naphthalene bed. Pavel Apostolov was one of those New Men who exerted his little bit of tyranny from the offices of the association of Soviet composers, giving the go-ahead for the premieres of new musical works. His favorite word was No, as with all commissioners who tighten repressive frameworks in the name of intangible assumptions – the will of the shadows. Dmitri Shostakovich knew this, and had in the envy of Apostolov the perfect image of the absurd, the most powerful combustible for the composition of works that were increasingly harrowing and brutal, where you can feel the oppression, asphyxia, and death in sublime pages – perhaps the best music of the 20th century.

Let us hear the initial atmosphere of Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, or the orchestra’s entrance after the solo that opens his second cello concerto. I have no words to describe what I felt some years ago on discovering his Symphony No. 14 for strings and percussion, soprano and bass, with texts by Lorca, Apollinaire, and Rilke on the theme of death. From the cheapest seats on the top floor of Carnegie Hall fell a painful drizzle of tears on Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica, closing with this work a program that included an orchestration of the Violin Sonata and the celebrated Quartet No. 8. I was on the edge of my seat. I understood what Shostakovich had lived, from his first symphony in the 1920s – playful, bizarre, and full of humor – to the premiere of his fourteenth in September, 1969: the most abrasive period in humanity.

My friend Yuli Turovsky played in the orchestra for the “pre-premiere” that was in reality a performance for the Soviet censors, to obtain permission for a premiere. He says the proverbially concise Shostakovich – making the most of a hall stocked with faithfuls who came to witness perhaps the only concert, if Commissioner Apostolov decided to prohibit such a dark and pessimistic work – pronounced, “I want the audience to reflect on this new symphony so they understand that they should lead pure and fruitful lives for the glory of their mother country, their town, and the most progressive ideas that motivate our socialist society. I want my audience, on leaving the hall after hearing my symphony, to think that life is really beautiful.” Shostakovich spoke in code, like all citizens of oppressive regimes. The baton of Rudolf Barshai would reveal immediately the true meaning of the discourse, scattering through the hall the ice of the gulags, the terror of the KGB, the premature death of so many innocents sacrificed in the inexorable march towards the Happiness of a classless society. All this was expressed obliquely through the most moving texts, from Lorca’s “De Profundis” to Rilke’s “Death of the Poet” and Apollinaire’s “Suicide” – eleven poems that surely conveyed the highest sum of happiness possible behind the iron curtain and (this is the greatness of Shostakovich) on our side as well. Minutes after the intro, a clamor of slamming doors in the theater announced something terrible. Barshai interrupted the performance to ask what had happened. Someone had suffered a mortal heart attack, and it was none other than Pavel Apostolov. The severity of his censorship had sharpened the musical dagger that would kill him in his seat, one day in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich.

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

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