Perspectives from the Other Side of the World
While the popular music of the United States seemed to be everywhere in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, the significant cultural legacies of these three nations have had too small an impact on us. Yet considering that their histories mirror our own in many aspects, there is a great deal we could and should learn from these places.
I’m finally back at my desk after my first bona fide vacation in a few years. Readers of my previous missive here will recall that my idea of a vacation is in some ways not terribly different from the work-related trips I take: it was a constant search for new music in new places.
The first stop on our journey to six locations in South America was Santiago, the capital of Chile, after taking three planes to get there: New York to Washington, D.C., Washington, D.C. to Buenos Aires, and Buenos Aires to Santiago. It was also the first stop conceptually since it was someone from Santiago who planted the whole idea for this trip in my brain. Nearly two years ago I met a music journalist, radio broadcaster, and new music advocate named Álvaro Gallegos who was visiting New York City. Álvaro, who reads NewMusicBox and is an avid fan of many American composers, was hoping that I could arrange for him to meet with Elliott Carter when he was in town. Luckily I was able to connect the dots for that one. I also took him to hear a performance of Yoko Ono’s Secret Piece which was presented by the Electronic Music Foundation at the Judson Memorial Church, a location very near where Carter lives but light years away from his compositional aesthetics. In turn, Álvaro presented me with several CDs of music by Chilean contemporary composers. Afterwards over a few rounds of beer at McSorley’s Old Ale House, an NYC bar in continuous operation since February 17, 1854, I asked Álvaro if there was anyplace like McSorley’s in Chile and he said that the entire town of Valparaíso is! My fate was sealed.
Santiago is an exceedingly cosmopolitan city with an extremely efficient subway system, wonderful restaurants, and numerous museums and concert halls. We managed to see some outstanding paintings and sculptures (both old and new) but unfortunately there were no concerts of contemporary music while we were there, although tickets for performances for Verdi’s opera Simon Boccanegra, which we also missed, were apparently an extremely hot commodity.
Ever the record collector, a highlight of Santiago for me was rummaging through the used record bins at the so-called “Persian Market” on Sunday where I tracked down everything from the “tropical jazz” of Orquesta Huambaly, which was active between 1954 and 1964, to an extremely popular Chilean reggae band named Gondwana which has been active since 1987. Elsewhere I located a recording of an opera by a composer in his 30s named Sebastián Errázuriz. According to Álvaro, Chilean opera is a real rarity. The operatic community there is even more fixated on the standard repertoire than we are.
Valparaíso is every bit as spectacular as Álvaro claimed it would be. However, since we were there on a national holiday (Assumption Day) almost everything was closed including the 1896 Bar Cinzano, a McSorley’s with tango which I had hoped to see for nearly two years. Plus it was pouring rain most of the time. But we did run into a student protest filled with remarkable polyphonic drumming plus we even spotted Elvis. And once back in Santiago we were able to explore the Cousiño Macul Winery which was founded only two years after McSorley’s first opened its doors and is equally steeped in history.
Then it was time for our second arrival in Buenos Aires, but there was not enough time to settle in before we embarked on a sojourn to two cities in Uruguay. The first, Colonia del Sacramento, was established by Portuguese colonists in 1680 and is even more of a time warp than Valparaíso. Once again it was raining and by the time we started wandering around all of the museums were closed, but I managed to track down a compilation CD of Uruguayan popular music. The following day in Montevideo, however, I hit the jackpot in a gargantuan book store around the corner from Teatro Solís (Montevideo’s Carnegie Hall and Metropolitan Opera House rolled into one). I picked up a pile of discs featuring symphonic, chamber, and solo works by several historically significant Uruguayan composers including Eduardo Fabini (1882-1950). Fabini, although completely unknown here, is a national hero whose face graces the 100 peso note (roughly equal to five dollars). Every time I travel to a country which has a composer on its money, I can’t help being envious of such a thing and dream of the day when people like Charles Ives, Amy Beach, John Cage, or Thelonious Monk could appear on currency in the United States.
After a grueling 3 1/2 hour boat ride back to Buenos Aires (my wife, Trudy, informed me that I turned green), we cleared customs in Argentina for the third and final time, but it still wasn’t our final destination. We took a day trip to Iguazú to experience the world’s widest waterfall. Little did we know that this journey would put Hurricane Irene in perspective; at the time walking on narrow bridges as water was cascading ferociously right below us was mighty terrifying. The falls inspired a tone poem by the post-Romantic Argentine composer Alberto Williams (1862-1952) which has been recorded on the Arte Nova label. Although we tracked down quite a bit of Williams’s solo piano and chamber music at the San Telmo Market in Buenos Aires, I am still unfamiliar with this orchestral work. It would be hard to imagine that even the most densely scored orchestral texture could compete with the real thing.
I was surprised not to find more recordings of non-tango oriented music by Argentine composers in Buenos Aires (I did come back with a truckload of tango), although I found a store that stocked recordings by Paraguayan composers. And, no great surprise, the popular music of the United States (not just Elvis) seemed to be everywhere in all three of the countries we visited. At the same time, it’s perplexing to me that the significant cultural legacies of these nations do not have more of an impact on us here in the United States since their histories mirror our own in many aspects. There is a great deal we could and should learn from these places, although admittedly finding materials is not easy. None of these countries currently have active music information centres which could at least help to serve as vital repertoire repositories. Although the Melos store in Buenos Aires contains a treasure trove of Argentine sheet music (works by contemporary classical Argentine composers as well as endless tangos), I was unable to locate a parallel place for the sheet music of Chilean and Uruguayan composers in Santiago and Montevideo. But I’m still only at the beginning of my own investigations. Stay tuned.