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An approach to compositional trends in Latin America *

methodological hesitations

Is there a way of generalising on the composers of Latin America? It is obvious that any kind of theory-making on creative situations implies a previous "siding-with" position on which compositions are significant and on who their authors are. Asepsis is impossible here, and I would like to make this clear. I can only determine trends, currents, lines, coincidences, when I start from a group of materials that I consider representative of what is composed in our countries. But my opinion already involves inclusions and exclusions. Every historical moment presents creators that are more or less active, more or less daring, more or less avant-gardist, and also creators that are more or less conservative. It does not seem appropriate to determine trends according to the latter. And it is not easy to arrive to solid conclusions with the former.

Though a statistical study would allow for everybody to beincluded, it would pose other problems concerning the election of subjects, such as the establishment of quantitative thresholds: are authors of less than so many works included?, is it enough to have premiered one piece to be included in the study?, which physical places are valid for considering a first performance and which are not?, is it necessary to have a piece premiered or is it enough that the piece has been composed?

A non statistical study is then unavoidably relative and unavoidably prejudiced, since it is supported by the opinions the scholar may have on what the most significant is and on who the most relevant young composers are, and also because he is not being able to escape the limitations on information about what is happening in the artistic field in our broad and long continent. It is most important to state this clearly, in order to avoid eventual hypocrisies and fruitless Byzantine-like discussions.

Anyway, it is useful not to neglect a global information, out of which the selection of reference personalities will come out. And that global information is hardly to be imagined in its magnitude: A non-complete list of 300 names, among which a good number of internationally known composers. Acting as a dialectical mirror, that international appreciation can be one of the possible measurements.

It is undoubtedly necessary to establish one's point of view under a perspective that is adequately comprehensive: first, at a Latin American level, then at world scale. To have a good perspective means to keep a proper distance with the object. Even this is not always enough. International recognition may be misleading, so that there must be place left for other considerations, which should also be discussed. This is, then, only one of the measurements.

the context

We are in a world cultural structure of colonial nature. Within this structure, which we cannot change just by individual will or from one day to the next, and which we cannot ignore following the ostrich's technique, there are pre-established geopolitical roles and socioculturally conditioned behaviours. In art music, the models are produced by the imperial metropolis —I speak here of metropolis in the sense of an area centralising political and economic power —, and the metropolis expects that the societies inside the colonial system limit themselves to consume those regularly renewed models, or eventually to reproduce them, with an unavoidable delay (a delay that, as we can confirm in the whole Third World, can be not of weeksor months but of many decades). "It is essential to take into account", so writes Mariano Etkin in 1972 1[1. Mariano Etkin: "Reflexiones sobre la música de vanguardia en América Latina". In: La Opinión, Buenos Aires, 16/01/1972.], "that Latin American `art' music —but for few exceptions which confirm the rule— only in this last decade is beginning to stop being a reflection of what is known as the European «great tradition»."

Ergo, the only way of being oneself for a man in a society depending on those metropolitan models, is to try to live the creative act in such a way that it can generate cultural countermodels (and specifically, in our case, creating countermodels in the field of a new art music). That is also why the recognition outside the borders is not a warranty of real historical value, which can be defended under an adequate perspective in half a century or in a whole century.

and then?

Going back to the methodological question posed at the beginning, I consider important to clearly state that the criterium I adopt is to consider as references the examples of composers and compositions (obviously those with sufficient technical level) which, under the limited possibilities of our perspective, stand for themselves with particular and distinct personal features regarding composers and compositions of metropolitan countries. That "international recognition" of which we talked can be one of the possible measurements, as long as we consider it a dialectical mirror.

If we established a generous age deadline of 60 years for our trend estimation and were cautious and stopped our list at the lower threshold of 30, we might perhaps include the following composers and compositions as necessary references:

possible trends

We could say that, among the observable trends, there are some, which can be considered as characteristic of Latin America and others that are shared by or shareable with different cultural areas. A comparative study could be useful in the future.

Assuming that the chosen examples were really representative, we can proceed now to point at those observable trends.

  1. The sense of time. It is apparently different from the European one. The statistical observation of pieces composed in the last decades in one and the other continent allows to conclude as a work hypothesis —as suggested 25 years ago by Gerardo Gandini 2[2. In his lessons at the Centro Latinoamericano de Altos Estudios Musicales, Instituto T. Di Tella, Buenos Aires.]— that the psychological time of the Latin American composer is shorter and more concentrated than that of his average European colleague.
  2. Non-discursive process of music pieces. We can prove that a high percentage of pieces apply an a-discursive or non-discursive syntax, within which the chaining of sound cells in permanent process of development —a typical feature of the European tradition— is substituted by a structure of expressive zones.
  3. Expressive blocks. Within that a-discursive syntactic approach, we observe in many examples a way of structuring based precisely on a-discursive non-directional blocks, within which microprocesses occur.
  4. Reiterative elements. Those microprocesses are often the reiteration of sound cells —that is, a non mechanical repetition subtly enriched by ostinato elements—, an idiom common to American Indian cultures as well as Aguisimbian (Black African) ones, both confluent in the ethnic and cultural mestization of the Americas.
  5. Austerity. We can talk of austerity (or of a kind of "divestment") as a constant mark in many of the relevant Latin American compositions of the last decades. A sought-for austerity as far the language, the expressive resources and technical media are concerned. And also as far as an aesthetics of the"poor" and/or a technology of the "poor" aspect are concerned, sought for by several composers.
  6. Violence and the liking for the "little things". Violence is often a violence without shouts or yells or with a smothered scream. The liking for the "little things", for the tiny ones, often appears as a quality of tenderness, warmth, hypersensibility, delicacy, refinement, as sheer expressive pleasure for sound details.
  7. Silence. It is one of the most important conquests of the contemporary composer, who has gradually become less scared of the sound vacuum, who has succeeded in understanding that the expressive process in music is not a moving sound mass which breathes from time to time, but a large space where volumes exist not only by themselves but also because of the space around them, where silence ceases to be a negation to become an affirmation, that is a sound space loaded with expressiveness. In Latin America this conquest has a particularly important meaning as cultural symbol.
  8. Presence of the "primitive". The updating in relation to the metropolitan models has made possible for the Latin American composer to re-pose the question of his cultural truth and of his expressive needs beyond an amiable exoticism where often in the past he had searched for his cultural identity. The "primitive" is not any more a decorative rhapsodism with an ethnocentric vision (popular melody harmonised with chords and accompanied by piano or orchestra, or —later on— Indian recording accompanied by electronic "blips"), but serious conceptual research, ways of action and reaction, semantic behaviours, freedom in temperament, and —in short— non European approaches. (We can also refer here to the convergences the composer will find in the Aguisimbian and American Indian contributions.)
  9. Attempt to make new technologies one's own. The expressive search will lead several composers to different ways of feed-back between the technological tour and the interest in the Indian and Aguisimbian, be it in the use of experiences related to acoustical behaviours or to non-European instrumental techniques, be it in the re-invention of musical instruments. "If an electronic synthesiser does not have a nationality, the person who handles it has his own one in his hands", says Mario Lavista 3[3. Mario Lavista: "En el ambiente de la renovación creadora de los lenguajes artísticos". In: Boletín de Música de Casa de las Américas, N° 66, La Habana, September-October 1977.].
  10. Breaking through the borders. The search for such a re-statement of music language is leading to a gradual breaking through the dichotomy between "art" music and "popular" music or mesomusic (following Carlos Vega's terminology), a dichotomy peculiar to the European culture. The communication concerns of the composer of "art" music leads him to attempt a "direct" language, and the concerns of the composer of "popular" music to break through the commercial circle lead him to formal findings which are very close to those of his "art" music colleagues. In fact, several of the trends enumerated here are common to both areas, the "art" one and the "popular" one (or mesomusical). We could also add another detail to this point: we are able to observe that, while the young generation of two decades ago had not yet succeeded in simultaneously using both the "art" and "popular" languages (although several of its members were also interested in the "other" field, or studied it, or collaborated with it, or just walked along one and the other), several members of the young generation of 1994 —not very many yet— have been able to develop a simultaneous creative work in and with both languages.
  11. Ideological awareness. An apparently deeper ideological awareness is observed in the young Latin American composers of these two decades, a deeper one than in their metropolitan contemporary colleagues. For instance: minimalism is in the north mainly a mechanically repetitive movement, regressive, neo-reactionary, and even, often, a fascist-like one, whereas in the south, the works which could be qualified as minimalists show a profile that fights against the listener's passiveness through an economy of means, which multiplies the expressive potential of sound resources, of a reiterative (non mechanical) structuring, of a concern for the timbrical and the textural. Disquieting music instead of sleep-inducing music.
  12. The magic. The Latin American composer seems to be particularly interested in exploring the magic inherent in the music event. In the words of Mariano Etkin reflecting discussions during the First Latin American Course for Contemporary Music 4[4. See [1].], this refers to "going deeper and rediscovering the lost visceral and magic function of music."
  13. The identity. The young generation of the seventies adds to the updating concerning the metropolis (and this is related to point h) an interest on marking —in an intelligent way— factors of cultural identity. "One has to be always aware [...] of the imperialistic penetration", proclaims Mario Lavista 5[5. See [3].]. The composer, writes Joaquín Orellana 6[6. Joaquín Orellana: "Hacia un lenguaje propio de Latinoamérica en música actual". In: Alero, third period, N° 24, Ciudad de Guatemala, May-June 1977.], "will thus start noticing that what is really singing in that folk are the infinite environmental voices." And he specifies moreover: "sound-social situation conditions, the own environmental sound, sound-psychological state and characteristic timbres". "Music is a result of its environment, is experience which has become sound", writes William Ortiz 7[7. William Ortiz: "Du-wop and dialectic". In: Perspectives of New Music, vol. 26 N° 1, New York, 1988.]. "The materialisation of the experience varies according to the composer's environment and socio-economic awareness." In general, this attitude is sustained, though in different ways by different composers, by the young people of the eighties and the nineties. The reference to the continent's so rich popular music will be another ingredient of the utmost importance in this search.

possible generational differences

The above estimated trends have been found in general terms and in the last two decades among Latin American composers that are today 30 to 60 years old. Only one generational salient difference might perhaps be pointed out in relation to their fighting spirit: the young composers of 1974 were on a war footing, whereas the young composers of 1994 do not seem to be particularly interested in fighting for their positions and seem to avoid any kind of parricide, complying with a pacific co-existence (of styles, languages, proposals) with those who were young in 1974.

It is often said that the creative drive gave way in the eighties, in the art music field as well as, perhaps, in the popular music one 8[8. "To what revolution does Silvio Rodríguez belong, if we consider him from the harmonic point of view?" asks bitterly Jorge Lazaroff (article under the title "¿?", in: Asamblea, Montevideo, 6/12/1984): "to the Cuban Revolution or to the French Revolution?" And, in a later article ("Pensando mientras Silvio", in: Brecha, Montevideo, 18/12/1987) he writes: "Till some years ago, the artists that became an attraction of the multitudes (I refer only to those who have left an artistic and social alternative proposal, a counterproposal), had some infallible and necessary features: in general, theybelonged to the artistic avant-garde, were on the top of the wave; their product became a breaking point, went against the established models, broke through forbidden barriers, and continuously proposed, invented and again proposed new forms; each recording, each recital, each lyric meant new sensations, meetings, findings: the main «thing» was precisely that of the findings. [...] Is it perhaps that in the last fifty years too many things have already been «discovered» and now the moment has come to chew them, to re-situate them, to settle them down? Or is it that the musical 20th century has resigned its revolutionary character in front of superior forces? Or is there any other reason for it?"]. "The absence of risk in the works is even more worrying in the case of the young generations", observes Mariano Etkin 9[9. Mariano Etkin: "Aquí y ahora". Paper read at the Simposium de Compositores Argentinos during the Segundas Jornadas de Música del Siglo XX, Córdoba, Argentina, 27-31 August 1984.] and points at "the lack of interest in exploring the limits, not to speak of the absence of compositions that work with the limits themselves". If this be true, wouldn't it be very serious? And if this be really true, why did it happen? Or would it be necessary to wait for ten more years, that is until 2004?

* This article is based on a paper read at a panel on new techniques in Latin American music creation during the VI Encontro Anual da ANPPOM (Rio de Janeiro, 1993), published in "Pauta" N° 46, Mexico City, April-June 1993, and on two previous texts approaching the same subject: a lecture at the I Simpósio Internacional de Compositores, São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, 1977 (published with translation mistakes in the Oesterreichische Musik Zeitschrift, vol. 37 N° 8, Wien, February 1982), and a second lecture at the I Encontro Internacional de Música Nova, Curitiba, Brazil, 1992. Coriún Aharonián is a Uruguayan composer and musicologist born in 1940.

Translated from the Spanish original by G. P.

Published in the World New Music Magazine, number 4, Koeln, October 1994.

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