In search of Musical Integration Between the United States and the Rest of the Americas

Today, across South America, one finds dozens of tourists from all over the world (including many from the United States) who wish to explore the richness of the region. But within the world of notated music, the situation is the opposite. In fact, we can no longer talk about Latin American as a single unit, given the lack of information that exists between its different countries.

Written By

Álvaro Gallegos

Translated into English by Clara Schuhmacher

(Ed. Note: The original Spanish article is available here.)

A photo of the street sign showing the intersection of Grand Street and Avenue of the Americas with a rusty plaque of the USA on top

In 1945, Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue was officially renamed Avenue of the Americas to honor “Pan-American ideals and principles.” The rusty USA plaque atop the street sign in this photo taken in March 2015 on a street that everyone has reverted to calling “Sixth Avenue” once again is a reminder of an earlier era. Photo by Frank J. Oteri

In early 1963, Leonard Bernstein appeared on American television with a program from his popular “Young People’s Concerts” series. This particular episode was titled “The Latin American Spirit,” and during its first few moments, the charismatic conductor/composer attempted to explain to the audience that in each “civilized” place on earth, there were composers putting notes on staff paper. In other words, composers did not exist exclusively in developed countries. Of course, in those days, South America was something of a mystery to the everyday American, many of whom probably imagined it as place full of jungles, with Buenos Aires or Río as the only large cities.

But: what was happening with music during this time? With American music? This was another matter. This was an era of interaction and dialogue between American composers and their counterparts to the south. South American musicians traveled often to the United States with the support of grants and other funding, and Aaron Copland travelled several times to South America, not only to conduct his own music, but also to get to know and work with composers, which in many cases led to Copland extending invitations to these composers to visit the United States as his guest. Many composers relocated to the United States as a result, such as the Chilean Juan Orrego-Salas (b. 1919). In a splendid interview with Orrego-Salas, which was published here on NewMusicBox last April, the aging composer recalled this very era.

It is a different situation in 2014.

Today, across South America, one finds dozens of tourists from all over the world (including many from the United States) who wish to explore the richness of the region. It is now clear to these tourists that South America is not all impenetrable jungles and humble villages. There is great geographic and cultural diversity, and we can say that the Americas are an entire world onto themselves. The problem is that, within the world of notated music, the situation is the opposite. The era described above seem part of a distant past, one in which there existed a greater connection between the composers working in this part of the globe, and their colleagues working in the vibrant American scene. In fact, we can no longer talk about Latin America as a single unit, given the lack of information that exists between its different countries. For example, in Chile, we are not informed about what is happening in Ecuador or in Colombia with respect to their musical life. Only occasionally do we pay attention to our neighbors in Argentina, and only because of their proximity. The important role Buenos Aires plays in the development of new music does not encourage us to seek them out.

What happened?

One might think that the globalization that governs today’s world would have brought closer together the composers of the thirty-five countries that make up the Americas, but in reality, connections exist primarily between neighboring countries, and even then it is limited. We could look for reasons to explain this situation. It occurs to me that the dictatorships that proliferated in the area beginning in the 1960s, and with which the United States always had a complex relationship, might be a reason for the loss of connection. However, there is no value to figuring out the cause; rather, it is better to consider how we might reconstruct the cultural-musical bridge that once united the United States with the countries to its south, from Mexico to Chile and Argentina.

Orrego-Salas was not the only South American composer to settle in the United States. And, surely, there are American composers who are interested in, and feel a certain affinity for, the culture and music of a given Latin American country. (As an aside, I do not particularly like using this term. Why make such a categorical distinction between countries that speak Spanish and Portuguese, and those that speak English?) During my career as a music journalist, I have studied the history of composition in the United States, its contributions and incredible diversity (and originality), and I have determined that an important characteristic of American composers is their curiosity. This is something that I have verified in person during my visits to the United States (in 2009 and 2014), and during meetings, conversations and interviews with American composers.

Of course, I can’t speak on behalf of the entire Spanish-speaking world in the Americas, only on behalf of Chile, the country where I live and work. I can say that here, as in the United States, there exists a diverse group of composers. And I can say that here, musical curiosity also abounds, as does imagination. Americans will find in equal measure both aesthetics that are different from theirs, as well as composers for whom they feel an affinity. And, Chile is only one of the thirty countries that form that which we insist on calling “Latin America.”

All of which is to say that I believe it would behoove us to reconnect the musical world of the United States with the rest of the countries that make up the continent. This website has been a constant platform for reflection and discussion around new music, and I believe it is the best place to put out this call to action. A call to generate spaces for our composers to discuss and exchange ideas, and to come to know the music others are making. Composers do not live only to compose; many work in institutions associated with music, and through these we will be able to work to realize new encounters. Ultimately, the idea would be to extend invitations on behalf of festivals, conferences and other activities related to new music, both on the part of Americans to composers from other countries, as from the part of all of us to our colleagues in the north.

In South America we still have much to do to disseminate and protect new music. However, we will be able to make significant progress if we help each other. We need to ensure that today’s music is interpreted, heard and appreciated. If an entire continent rallies around this vision, we will succeed.

Álvaro Gallegos holding a copy of the score of Edgard Varèse's orchestral composition Amériques.

Álvaro Gallegos is a Chilean music journalist based in Santiago, Chile. He currently works at Radio Beethoven, where he is editor of its website. He also collaborates on newspapers, magazines, has delivered lectures, and soon will debut as a record producer.