Creative Fusions A Choral Tour from the Andes to the Sea
By Thomas May
El Sistema, the music education network pioneered by Venezuelans, has been attracting international attention in recent years as other countries try to emulate its overwhelming success in motivating a new generation’s love of music. But along with the instrumental ensembles that El Sistema immediately calls to mind, its program and structure have been providing a model for parallel developments in the world of choral music. These in turn draw on elements already established earlier in the last century, well before El Sistema was inaugurated, when the larger reawakening of identity across Latin America encouraged a widespread amateur-choir movement.
As a result, Venezuela has become the epicenter for an extraordinarily dynamic choral scene that extends to neighboring countries as well. It encompasses not only inspired participation — among singers and audiences alike — but fresh creativity from composers who are expanding the scope of the choral repertoire. Tonight’s program takes us on a musical road trip from the Andes to the sea as the Master Chorale illuminates the colorfully innovative spirit that flourishes in South America’s choral music-making. We’ll discover how this is rooted in a fertile mix of traditions from the Old and New Worlds, the intersection of folkloric and avant-garde sources, a love of poetry, and the heartrending beauty of the landscape.
In fact, our program’s first half begins in Peru, stepping back in time to the earliest known sources of choral music in the New World. The all-important principle of fusion is already apparent in Hanacpachap cussicuinin, considered the first piece of polyphonic music printed in the Americas. It was included as part of a liturgical instruction manual for clerics (Ritual Formulario) published in 1631 by the Franciscan friar Juan Pérez Bocanegra, who was stationed in the town of Andahuaylillas, southeast of the Incan capital Cuzco.
It was around this time that the town’s Church of San Pedro Apóstol was built — a space where this processional music in honor of the Virgin Mary would have resounded as the singers entered. Elaborately painted scenes were later added to the walls and ceiling, eventually earning San Pedro a reputation as “the Sistine Chapel of the Andes” (currently, these are under restoration). They mix Christian symbols with images of plants and animals from the indigenous environment — a visual parallel to the fusion represented by this music, in which European polyphony is used for a text in Quechua, the imperial language of the Incas. “Hanacpachap” refers to the “upper world” in Incan cosmology; the title, which can be translated as “The Happiness of the Upper World,” was Christianized into a paean to “the glory of heaven.” Scholars suggest the melody may have been indigenous and the piece itself composed by a Quechua student, though he (she?) wasn’t named in Bocanegra’s collection. The accompaniment would have featured such Incan percussion instruments as the goat-skin drum and chajchas, rattles made of llama hooves.
“For the early colonizers,” writes Geoffrey Baker in his fascinating recent book about colonial Cuzco, Imposing Harmony, “the maintenance of European musical traditions provided an affective link to the Old World and a means of domesticating their new environment.” A good example of this transplanting of traditions can be found in the surviving choral music of Gutiérre Fernández Hidalgo. Like Bocanegra, he emigrated from Spain, arriving in the New World in the 1580s, where he pursued a musical career as chapelmaster across a large swathe of the continent (and generated controversy over his pushy tactics). His Magnificat Quarti Toni (i.e., “of the fourth tone,” referring to one of the medieval modes, here associated with adoration) brings the sounds of worship familiar from Hidalgo’s native Spain to the newly built cathedrals in Cuzco, Lima, Quito, Bogotá, and Sucre — all cities where he was active. Written for six parts, his Magnificat setting alternates between plainchant and voices that dovetail in canon, employing all six voices for the concluding Gloria.
We leap from the era of the conquistadores into the here and now with the Master Chorale’s brand-new commission by San Francisco-based composer Gabriela Lena Frank. Winner of the Latin Grammy for her Inca Dances in 2009 and a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, Frank gives us a contemporary perspective on cross-cultural links in The Singing Mountaineers. The work, for eight-part choir and narrator, Andean winds, percussion and guitars, comprises seven parts, including one entirely instrumental section, and draws on the poetry of José María Arguedas (1911-1969), whom Frank describes as “a literary hero of mine” (see page 9 of the printed program).
Frank uses some of the anonymous poems collected by Arguedas in her new work, which takes its title from The Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quechua People, an anthology of poetry that Arguedas wrote or collected that has been translated into English by Ruth Walgreen Stephan. The music, she notes, “reflects a fusion of both western and traditional Peruvian instrumental/vocal techniques.” Frank has dedicated her new composition to Music Director Grant Gershon and the members of Huayucaltia — whose own name derives from a Nahuatl word for “kinship” and reflects the ensemble’s instrumental fusion of Andean, African, jazz, rock, and classical styles. Gershon notes that Frank spent lots of time working with the musicians “to look for untapped potential from these instruments, so that there are more than the expected folk sounds.” The resulting musical idiom, while diatonic and modal, features writing for the singers that Gershon describes as “very virtuosic and personal,” and the score’s “overall character is mysterious and wistful, with strong dance rhythms from the highlands.”
Despite its use by the Church as a way of consolidating colonial power, by the 20th century South American choral music had spread out of the churches and was establishing new roots in the secular context of reawakened national pride. Composer Cristian Grases, an authority on Latin American choral music whose work is among the pieces featured in the program’s second half, observes that the evolution of a “healthy amateur choral scene” at the end of the 19th century provided “a perfect ground for composers with training in Europe to mix European traditions with the nationalistic movement that became such a powerful force in Latin America in the 20th century.”
Venezuelan composer Antonio Estévez exemplifies this fascination with indigenous elements. Mata del anima sola (“Tree of the Lonely Soul”) reflects the approach of his best-known work, the epic Cantata Criolla (1954), which recounts the tale of a singing contest with the devil. (Gustavo Dudamel led a performance here two seasons ago.) Estévez, who studied electronic music in Paris in the 1960s, not only incorporates the mixed folk rhythm of the Venezuelan dance known as joropo in its fast sections but relies on another feature often employed by South American choral composers: the mimicking of folk instruments by the human voice — in this case, for example, the small four-string guitar (cuatro) and harp.
Emerging in the following generation, Barcelona-born Alberto Grau proved to be a game-changer when he founded the Schola Cantorum de Caracas in 1967 (now the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela). Grau combined his familiarity with avant-garde developments in Europe with a passion for education in a way that enabled him “to create a whole new language of choral music in the country,” explains Grases. María Guinand, who began her own musical life with piano lessons from Grau, went on to become Artistic Director of the Schola and has collaborated with such prominent composers as Osvaldo Golijov and John Adams.
Y se quedarán los pájaros cantando (“And the birds will go on singing”), which provides a taste of her own work as a composer, dates from 1980, an early point in Guinand’s career.
Guinand’s piece also evinces the deep love of fine literature that is a recurrent inspiration in Latin American choral music. The Nobel Prize-winning Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958) is the source of the text here, which is taken from his poem “El Viaje Definitivo” (“The Final Journey”). “The nostalgic tone of the poem and the metaphors he uses to describe our passing through life and the ephemeral quality of our existence,” writes the composer, “have in themselves a musical language that flows naturally into each melodic line and is expressed in various textures.” These in turn call for “an extended tonality that combines chromatic harmonies.”
While Guinand refashions the madrigal tradition for a Venezuelan context, her compatriot Otilio Galíndez does something similar with the format of the serenade imported from Europe. Caramba (yes, that word, which might be translated “oy, vey!” or “holy cow!”) combines Galíndez’s talents as a poet and musician and is especially cherished in the Venezuelan choral repertoire. Kasar mie la gaji (“The Earth Is Tired”) brings us a delightful example of Grau’s more experimental influences. He takes the folk device of onomatopoeic singing to imitate instruments several steps further, now using extended techniques, whispers, screams, glissandi, and aleatoric elements to conjure a sense of the environment — here represented as endangered by humans in this text from the African Sahel. Grases points out that Grau learned much from his exposure to contemporary Scandinavian choral music, aiming for a new fusion with nationalistic rhythmic idioms, which add “salt and pepper.” Another significant feature of Grau’s work is the energy of eurythmics, in which the singers’ body motions become part of the musical communication. Grases recalls that when he studied with Grau, he learned that a “truly deeper way of expression emerges when you sing with your entire body as part of the process.”
Our musical tour continues with two more contemporary variations on popular or folkloric idioms. The Venezuelan Oscar Galián, a composer, string player, and singer, gives us a vibrant, fresh take on the topos of voices-as-instruments in Salseo, with its seemingly effortless (in reality quite tricky) overlay of son-based rhythms and sand-shifting harmonies. Carpuela Lindo (“Lovely Carpuela”) by Milton Tadeo Carcelén, who was a farmer from northern Ecuador, uses the folk format of the Afro-Ecuadorian bomba, with its vocal mimicking of percussion instruments, to address a contemporary plight. Writes Peter Wordelman: “The words generally refer to the large internal migration of the people of the Andean highlands who go to the Amazon region to look for work with the oil companies.”
Cristian Grases, who studied in Caracas with both Grau and Guinand and now teaches choral music at USC, composed a valentine to his own memories of the Venezuelan landscape in his two-part choral work Visiones del Llano (“Visions of the Plains”). Here, says the composer, he wanted to convey “the sensation of infinite beauty in a seemingly unending geography” evoked by this landscape. The short first part, Fiesta, uses lively meters and refers to nighttime festivities as the chorus morphs into an indigenous band of cuatro, maracas, and the Venezuelan harp, singing phonemes that amplify the imitative effects. Grases also wrote the poetry for the second part, Amanecer (“Dawn”), a stirring mini-tone poem for chorus that paints “the rising of the sun as it warms up everything and awakens the diverse life in the plains.” An exquisitely proportioned a cappella gem, Amanecer won first prize in the 2008 Yale’s Emerging Composers Competition.
Concluding our program is a piece that epitomizes the fluidity between popular, folkloric, and classical idioms in the Venezuelan choral scene. Composer and conductor César Alejandro Carrillo, who belongs to the same generation as María Guinand (i.e., between those of Grau and Grases), wrote Oiga, Compae (“Hey, Compadre”) in 1996. It fuses the Old World structure of a prelude and fugue with a musical theme taken from the Venezuelan vernacular. This sort of interplay, notes Grant Gershon, “speaks to the incredible amount of creativity and vitality among these composers. It doesn’t scream out that there’s a fugue in the second part but just introduces it unacademically, as an element to be enjoyed, though the technique is very sophisticated. This is a mix I find very refreshing.”
— Thomas May is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale