Tag: composer diaspora

Classical and Contemporary Cambodian Music and Dance

What happens to a country’s rich classical music after a small group attempts to systematically destroy it?

I have wondered about the answer to this question since I read about how the Khmer Rouge tried to eradicate nearly all of traditional Cambodian culture after taking over the government of Cambodia in 1975.  Thankfully, in the face of this tragedy a number of people dedicated themselves to preserving the Cambodian classical traditions by helping artists escape Cambodia, as well as by learning, teaching, performing, and helping to develop organizations dedicated to preserving the Cambodian arts.

My mentor, Chinary Ung, is one of these people who has devoted much of his life to preserving traditional Cambodian culture.  For nearly ten years, starting in the mid-1970s, Chinary stopped composing to dedicate most of his energy to this task.  It was not until the mid-‘80s, when he was confident that classical Cambodian music was finally safe, that he began to compose again.  After this gap in composing, his compositions from the ‘80s until today all reflect his deep understanding and relationship with the music of Cambodia.

During my doctoral studies at the University of California San Diego, Chinary Ung regularly spoke to me about Cambodian and Southeast Asian music, as well as his thoughts and dreams for its future. Since graduating in 2012, I have been working with and collaborating with him on some of these projects and, recently, I have begun to regularly travel to Cambodia to help work on some of his and my own projects in the country.

I first travelled to Southeast Asia last February for the 2015 Music and Performing Arts International Festival at Burapha University in Chon Buri, Thailand.  A dear friend and another one of Chinary Ung’s former composition students, Koji Nakano, invited me to attend this festival as a guest lecturer as well as a participant in the Asian Young Musicians’ Connection activities.  For the latter, I collaborated with young Thai musicians at Burapha University on a composition for three Thai instruments, two handheld transducers, and live electronics—…spaces to listen to from within (iv)—that was performed during the festival.  During the same festival, Chinary Ung was also present as a featured composer. Chinary gave a keynote lecture and had his work, Spiral XI, performed as part of the AYMC concert.  While at Burapha University, Chinary also led a one-week composition workshop for a small group of young Thai and Cambodian composers.  Three performers prepared the young composers’ works and then presented them to a jury consisting of Chinary and guest composers from throughout the region.  Koji had helped Chinary organize this workshop as part of Chinary’s Nirmita Composers’ Institute (NCI), a mobile institute dedicated to fostering the next generation of Cambodian composers.

Right after the festival in Thailand, I joined Chinary and his wife Susan Ung in Cambodia.  Chinary had invited me to join him for this trip so that I could help him make recordings as well as join him and Susan for some important meetings about the future of music composition and new music in Cambodia.

Before continuing, I would be remiss not to mention the impressions that Thailand and Cambodia left on me.  When I arrived in Thailand, I had expected that it would be far different than anywhere else I had been.  Instead I found that what I saw of Thailand resemble a less developed Taiwan to me.  My wife, who is from Taiwan and joined me on this trip, had a similar impression.   She told me that Thailand reminded her of what Taiwan was like in the ‘80s.  Cambodia, on the other hand, was drastically different than anywhere else I had been before.  Soon after leaving the airport in Phnom Penh, I was struck by a deep disparity between the rich and poor that I had never seen before.  For example, along the streets of Phnom Penh one regularly sees slums and piles of uncollected garbage next door to gated mansions or luxury car dealerships; or across Palace or National Museum, adults and children rags mob tourists begging for money.  I don’t want to go into more details about this disparity here, but many signs of deep economic inequality that I encountered left a strong impact that continues to resonate within me to this day

The day after we arrived in Cambodia, Chinary, Susan, and I attended a concert that the Cambodian composer Him Sophy had arranged in honor of Chinary Ung’s visit.  This concert took place at the Him Sophy School of Music, a private school that Him Sophy founded.  (As an aside, because there are few government institutes for the arts in Cambodia, a number of individuals such as Sophy and Sethisak Khuon have recently founded their own schools and organizations to help with local arts education.)  The concert included performances by the only marching band in Cambodia, a student pianist, and music for a Khmer harp that Sophy had designed after a lost Cambodian instrument, as well as an outstanding performance of traditional Cambodian music featuring one of the few living masters of the roneat ek.  For the last piece of this concert, violist Susan Ung and I performed my work Vanished into the Clouds (雲隠) for viola and live electronics.  Chinary wanted us to perform this piece on the concert because it used technology and had an approach to sound that the Cambodian audience had likely never encountered before.  After the concert, it was obvious that this performance had made a strong impression on many of the audience members as a number of people spoke with Chinary about wanting to combine this new approach with traditional Cambodian music.

On our third day in Cambodia, Chinary, Susan, and I led a three-hour workshop for the members of Cambodian dance troupe Amrita Living Arts.  As Cambodian classical dance and music are traditionally combined as an art form, the Amrita staff members were eager for us to discuss how they could improve the music in their productions.  After a lengthy discussion with the staff and then the troupe members, they then showed us some videos of their previous works so that we could critique the music selections.  Although the music obviously needed more consideration or expertise, we were all struck by the very high quality of the dance work and, in particular, by how all the works meaningfully addressed Cambodian dance traditions and demonstrated thoughtful ways to move these traditions forward and make them relevant for today.

A few days later we met with a number of arts administrators from Cambodia as well as staff from the Cambodian non-governmental organization Cambodia Living Arts to discuss Chinary Ung’s plans and dreams for the Nirmita Composers Institute (NCI).  As I mentioned earlier, the main goal of NCI is to help foster the next generation of composers in Cambodia, as well as to heighten compositional activities throughout all of Southeast Asia.  In the near future, the main project for NCI will be a two-week workshop ­for young Cambodian musicians who either compose Western-based music or perform Cambodian traditional music.  The workshop will include composition and performance faculty from the USA and across Asia and will take place in July in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  The long-term hope is that this workshop will continue annually and that NCI’s activities will broaden to include many other music projects that take place throughout the year as well as throughout Southeast Asia and, eventually, the rest of the world.   One of the main reasons to work on this project is Chinary’s observation that although Cambodian traditional music has been preserved, the music is no longer developing and now more closely resembles a museum rather than a living art.  In our discussions during this meeting, many of the local Cambodians were very excited by Chinary’s project and brought up how in the last decade or so, nearly every other art form besides music has begun to pulse with new creative energy in Cambodia.  The hope among many of the people there was that the Nirmita Composers Institute and our initiative to educate and promote the work of young Cambodian composers and traditional musicians will be able to help music reach the international stage in the same way that other Cambodian art forms and artists have in recent years.

There are multiple cultural sounds in Cambodia that Chinary Ung has wanted to record for many years to use in compositions that include electronics.  As Chinary does not have very much experience with writing for electronics, he has talked about collaborating with me.  When we were in Cambodia, we thankfully had the opportunity to make some of the initial recording for these composition projects.

Two stone idiophones from the National Museum of Cambodia’s collection

Two stone idiophones from the National Museum of Cambodia’s collection.

The first sound that Chinary wanted to record was an ancient percussion instrument that he had seen a number of years before at the National Museum of Cambodia. Chinary had messaged the National Museum’s director a request to record this instrument while we were in Cambodia and, although the director did not give us a response to our request, he arranged for us to meet him in person to discuss our plans. Hopeful that we would get permission, Chinary, Susan, and I showed up early to our appointment at the National Museum with my recording equipment.  While waiting, we also tried to find the instrument that Chinary remembered but, unfortunately, couldn’t locate it.

When we met with the director he was rather enthusiastic about Chinary’s musical ideas and graciously gave us permission to record whatever we wanted to from the museum’s collection.  After we all then toured the museum’s public displays and were again unable to find the desired instrument on display, the director mentioned that they had some ancient “stone bells” in storage that might fit Chinary’s description. When we saw the objects, they were unfortunately also not what Chinary had remembered. However, after we examined and heard them, Chinary, Susan, and I agreed that they would be worth recording and might even be superior to what we had originally sought to record.

Jacob Sudol sitting at a table recording a pair of stone idiophones located underneath the table.

Recording the stone idiophones in the National Museum of Cambodia.

According to the National Museum of Cambodia’s archives, the two stone idiophones (or “stone bells”) had belonged to the museum since it first opened in 1917.  There was no information in the records about when or where the idiophones had been acquired.  Likewise, the staff and archives had no information about their age, what they were originally used for, or whether they were a part of a set of idiophones or isolated instruments.  While there, one of the staff members mentioned that archeologists had recently found a number of similar but smaller stone idiophones in the Cambodian jungle.  He also showed us photos that demonstrated the how the newly found idiophones resembled the ones in the museum’s collection; however, as Cambodia contains a lot of archeological terra nova, it’s hard to group objects together.  Although I’m not an archeologist or an ethnomusicologist, the two stone idiophones we recorded remind me of separate blades from the Chinese bianqing (編磬) or the related Korean pyeongyeong, as well as the descriptions of the lost ancient Chinese stone bells that Confucius wrote about and supposedly played.

One of the stone idiophones was originally broken in two and was recently fixed with a metal bar.  The other idiophone was unbroken and has a remarkably resonant harmonic timbre.  This unbroken idiophone also has a few low pure frequencies that sustain for a very long time after the idiophone is struck.  The timbre of both idiophones also changed significantly depending on where and how loudly I struck them.

Chinary Ung and Yos Chandara with a Cambodian singing kite.

Chinary Ung and Yos Chandara with a Cambodian singing kite. N.B. the blade and reed are attached to the top of the kite.

For over forty years, Chinary Ung had dreamt of recording the sound of Cambodian Singing Kites.  On the last day of my first trip to Cambodia, Chinary worked with the former dean of the Cambodian Royal University of the Arts, Yos Chandara, to arrange a morning where staff from the Khmer Kite Museum would fly three Cambodian singing kites for us in a dry rice field just outside of Phnom Penh.

The sound of the Cambodian singing kites comes from a blade on the kite that houses a long stiff reed that is suspended by a piece of rope on each end.  When the kite is flown, this reed makes sound by spinning at different rates.  The timbre of this reed is rather faint when the kite is flying because of how high one needs to fly the large kites to keep them in the air.  To better capture the sound of the reed, I attached a wireless microphone to the kite itself.  Thankfully, this approach worked and I was able to make very clear recordings of each of the three Cambodian singing kites.  When we were flying the kites, a local Cambodian told Chinary that in Khmer mythology, the gods are said to fly on these kites.  Following this myth, in a sense, we had just recorded what these gods hear when flying.

Since the kites were large and hard to fly, the director of the Khmer Kite Museum removed the blade with the reed from the kite and attached it to a string so that he could spin it around his head.  By doing this, he had much greater control of the tones than one could while the blade was on a flying kite.  This sound of the isolated blade is loud, beautiful, and also very musically expressive.

With gracious funding from a Fulbright East Asia Regional Travel Grant, I returned to Cambodia for a week last November.  For this trip, Amrita Living Arts had invited me to be an International Guest Expert for their Fall 2016 Contemporary Dance Platform in Phnom Penh.  The platform is a recent initiative for dance and theater that provides artists with resources and a period of time to create or refine a new work.  At the end of a platform, the new works are presented publicly.  For the Amrita platform I was invited to participate in, three dancers/choreographers from the Amrita Dance Troupe were each given six weeks to create a new work.  As the guest expert, I went to the first performances of the completed works and then gave a four-hour critique of the works as well as a four-hour workshop on new music to all the dancers/choreographers of Amrita.  Although the dancers are not trained as musicians, I was impressed by how critical, open-minded, and hungry for knowledge they all were.  I was also struck by how much they had learned and absorbed from the brief workshop Chinary, Susan, and I had had with them in February.  Likewise, I was impressed by how Amrita Artistic Director Chey Chankethya had noticed that the music has been one of the weakest components of their productions and was eager to bring in people to help the group’s members improve this.  Since this trip, I have also begun to regularly collaborate with Chey Chankethya.  For example, she has used some of my music in some of her recent dance works that have been performed in Japan and Singapore.  I am also currently discussing other ways I can collaborate with Amrita in the future.  In particular, I want to develop projects where members of Amrita and I can combine dance, music, and live interactive technologies.

While in Cambodia in November, Chinary, Susan, and I also met with staff from Cambodian Living Arts to work on organizing logistics and meet the student participants who will join the aforementioned 2016 Nirmita Composers Workshop.  While we auditioning and meeting with the workshop’s participants, I was particularly struck by how strong and musically talented the traditional Cambodian instrumentalists are.  Although the traditional musicians don’t have experience with writing their own music, I believe that they are much stronger and more creative musicians than the participants who will be studying Western-based composition at the same workshop.  Following this, I’m wondering how we can help to teach traditional Cambodian musicians to move their music forward in a manner similar to what the dancers in Amrita have done.  I’m also wondering how we will be able to help young Cambodian composers advance in ways that composers from other Asian countries such as Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, China, and Japan have.  I’m also hopeful that the young Cambodian composers who mostly write Western-based music will learn from their culture’s strong classical music tradition.  Hopefully, with many people dedicating their time and energy towards projects such as the Nirmita Composers Institute, the answers to these questions will begin to reveal themselves in the near future.

Chinary Ung working with Cambodian musicians in a village outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Chinary Ung working with Cambodian musicians in a village outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Classical and New Music Culture in Taiwan

While it’s relatively easy to find English language articles about new music ensembles, new commissions, or festivals that take place nearly anywhere in the West, I rarely ever find any information about such activities happening in Asia. This disparity in coverage is somewhat unnerving to me considering that the combined population of China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (over 600 million) is about double that of the USA (~318 million) and nearly the same size as Europe (~750 million). I am certain that the lack of coverage is partially the result of language barriers and socio-economic issues, as well as political complications between various Asian and Western countries, but there clearly must be a lot of fantastic new music from Asia that we just don’t hear about in the West.

As a composer, I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to live in and personally get to know many different musical cultures and communities. I mostly grew up in and did my undergraduate studies in Tucson, Arizona, where I got to know a smaller and mostly academic-centered new music community that largely focused on new American music and earlier 20th-century music. When I did my master’s degree, I moved to Montréal, a vibrant and diverse new music community that largely programs and focuses on music from Europe and Canada. I’ve also had contrasting experiences when doing my doctorate at the University of California, San Diego, and when I moved to Miami in 2011 to teach at Florida International University. Through these experiences, I’ve come to understand that the only real way to get to know a music culture is to actually interact with and become part of that culture’s community.

Following this, I feel very fortunate that eight years ago I met two people who have given me a personal connection to the broader new music community in Asia. One of these is my mentor, the Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung, who has many connections to Asian composers both abroad and in the USA. The other person is my wife Jen Chen-Hui (任真慧), a young and very talented Taiwanese composer who didn’t live outside of Taiwan until she began her doctoral studies in San Diego.

In 2009, I began to regularly travel to Taiwan with Chen-Hui and now usually spend my entire summers there. During these trips, we attend multiple new music concerts and often meet her former teachers and many of her performer and conductor friends. While making these connections, I’ve developed a strong interest in both traditional and contemporary Asian music. Wanting to learn more about Asian music, I applied for and won a Fulbright Taiwan Senior Scholar grant for the 2015-16 academic year. I have now been living in Taiwan since last August, teaching composition and music technology at National Chiao Tung University.

Over the years, I’ve realized that many people don’t know that much about Taiwan. Despite its contentious status with China—which considers Taiwan a rogue province and has repeatedly prevented the UN from recognizing it as separate country—Taiwan has a completely autonomous government and most Taiwanese people I’ve met will tell you that they consider Taiwan a country. Taiwan is very small, with only about 23 million people and a geographic size similar to the state of Maryland. Despite this, Taiwan is also one of the world’s largest economies. When it comes to music, if you consider the population, Taiwan also produces an exceedingly large number of highly talented classical musicians who live and perform all over the world. As a personal example, nearly all of my wife’s classmates from throughout her schooling later went abroad to the USA or Europe to study and most of them have remained abroad as professional musicians. I’m often surprised that Chen-Hui seems to know a former classmate living in every large American city we visit. In addition to moving abroad, many Taiwanese musicians also return after their studies to live in Taiwan and, as a result, the skill level of Taiwanese performers and composers is very high.

As a composer, I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to live in and personally get to know many different musical cultures and communities

Now at this point I don’t want to generalize too much, as I still am very much a foreigner in Taiwan and don’t speak or read enough Chinese to fully interact with the culture. This said, I’ve made a few observations over the years about classical and contemporary music here that I think are worth sharing:

1. Classical music concerts are very well attended.

Nearly every concert of classical music or new music that I’ve attended in Taiwan (as well as everywhere else I’ve traveled in Asia) has had an audience that filled two-thirds to three-fourths of the seats. It’s also worth noting that these audiences include people of all ages. This has been the case for concerts in medium to large halls performed by Western and Chinese orchestras, choirs, and even small chamber ensembles.

I was also recently quite surprised when I attended the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea. Tongyeong is a small and remote town and is over an hour by car from the nearest big city, Busan. Despite this, the concert venues were relatively large, beautiful, and yet the audience attendance at these concerts was also usually quite sizable.

2. There are not many new music ensembles in Taiwan.

In contrast to some large North American cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, or Montréal that have multiple new music ensembles, Taiwan has only a few. I’ve spoken to some composers from China who have said that there are also very few new music ensembles in China. It’s worth mentioning that three of the most active groups in Taiwan that regularly program contemporary music—Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra, C Camerata Taipei, and Chai Found Music Workshop—all feature traditional Chinese instruments.

3. Most concerts in Taiwan are at least two hours long.

When I help with programming or producing new music concerts in the United States, I try to keep all the concerts around one hour long and never include intermission. I’ve also found that many of my friends programming new music concerts in the USA also keep their concerts at a similar length. From my experience, I’ve found that most people consider this near the perfect length for a concert of new music, because it doesn’t overly tax one’s concentration or appreciation. By contrast, the two-hour concerts I often hear in Taiwan are often exhausting listening experiences. I’ve asked my wife and a number of my other local friends why people usually program such long concerts, and most of them suggest that concerts are so long because audiences expect to get their money’s worth when purchasing tickets.

4. There is almost no DIY approach to new music in Taiwan.

When living in the USA and Canada, many of the most exciting concerts I’ve attended have been performed at small non-traditional venues like art galleries, lofts, studio spaces, bars, or even people’s living rooms. Often many of these venues will host these events at no cost just to help promote the music or build the community.

In Taiwan, almost no concerts are produced in this manner. Also, one usually has to pay large fees to rent any performance space for a concert, including smaller art galleries. Also, music departments at universities don’t own their own concert or recital halls and therefore have to apply to their own university’s concert hall or performance space for the right to produce a concert. This makes it difficult even for faculty and students to program concerts. For example, the concert hall at the university where I teach in Taiwan rejected nearly every concert application our department submitted for the spring semester.

Personally, I think these restrictive concert procedures and costs prevent a lot of new music concerts from happening in Taiwan. In my opinion, it would really benefit the Taiwanese new music community if more people here would try to follow the sort of American and Western DIY approach to concert productions.

5. Western classical music is very popular in Taiwan.

A few things I’ve mentioned before—namely how many classical musicians Taiwan produces, as well as how many people attend classical music concerts—already demonstrate the popularity of Western classical music. I’ve also noticed that when I survey my classes of non-music students in Taiwan, that more than half of the students had studied classical piano or violin and mention that Western classical music is their favorite music to listen to. Also, when I’ve mentioned this observation to a number of my local friends, some have said that listening to classical music is often viewed as a symbol of higher social status in Taiwan.

Related to this last observation, I am sometimes a bit bothered when I consider that the most popular classical music in Taiwan, like most of the rest of the world, is from the classical and romantic periods—a time when the same Western countries were committing terrible colonial atrocities. To me, there seems to be something strange with associating a higher cultural status to an art form that comes from the foreign nations that gained most of their wealth and influence by military force. I don’t mention this to deny the beauty of Western classical music, but rather to state my own perceived reflections on how an over-exaltation of Western culture might corrupt or alter the way the Taiwanese or other Asian cultures view their own classical traditions. For example, I think of how this exaltation has influenced the modern Chinese orchestra, which sought to “improve” traditional Chinese instruments by conforming them to Western classical music models of the symphonic orchestra and equal temperament.

This question of Asian musical and cultural identity in relation to the West is actually a topic that is widely discussed in Taiwan and a lot of Asia. For example, three senior composers—Hsu Tsang-Houei (許常惠, 1929-2001), Ma Shui-Long (馬水龍, 1939-2015), and Pan Hwang-Long (潘皇龍, b. 1945)—have served as models for younger generations by researching and incorporating traditional Chinese and Taiwanese music cultures and instruments into their works. In addition, as educators these composers have included training in traditional Chinese music, such as the guqin, in college composition curricula throughout Taiwan. In my opinion, this sort of hard work to develop what Chou Wen-chung (周文中) calls a “confluence of musical cultures” is far more intriguing than when one just uses Western classical techniques or attempts to westernize Asian musical instruments and ensembles.

In my next few posts, I am going to share some more about my experiences in Asia. I plan to share some contemporary Asian works and music for traditional Chinese instruments, talk about some concert and festivals I’ve heard and have been a part of in Taiwan, as well as share some experiences I’ve had working on developing new music in Cambodia. Also, please feel free to share your comments, thoughts, or observations below!

Jacob Sudol performing at an electronic keyboard.

Jacob David Sudol

Jacob David Sudol writes intimate compositions that explore enigmatic phenomena and the inner nature of how we perceive sound. His music has been performed over one hundred times across the USA as well as in Canada, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, Thailand, Japan, Singapore, and Cambodia. In 2012, he founded a cello/electro-acoustic duo with distinguished cellist Jason Calloway and, since 2010, he has been in a piano/electro-acoustic duo with his wife Chen-Hui Jen. He also regularly collaborates on interdisciplinary projects with architect Eric Goldemberg, visual artist Jacek Kolasinski, and Cambodian dancer/choreographer Chankethya Chey. For free sounds, videos, and more information visit his website and his Soundcloud page.

Blogging from Estonia–A Search for Fresh Sounds

When I began graduate school, I had this naive expectation that when I graduated, I would have my musical project more or less figured out. I assumed I would have an idea as to what I wanted my music to sound like and what I wanted my music to do over the course of my career. My doctoral degree would magically transform my student status to that of a Capital-C Composer. Although I knew from the beginning that this would be a moving target (I doubt any composer wishes to find a style, methodology, etc. and stick with it for the rest of her career), I expected to have a general plan. Yet as each year passed, I became increasingly more anxious that I would not achieve this goal. Every master class, music festival, and colloquium that I attended filled my admittedly impressionable mind with new ideas and models. By the time I was studying for my qualifying exams and finishing up my coursework in 2013, I felt less sure of my musical identity than I did when I first began composing. I knew then that I needed to make a major change, so I decided to uproot myself from my comfortable habitat at Boston University.

Applying to different international education programs, including the IRCAM Cursus, the DAAD scholarship, and Fulbright, had always been on my radar. A year abroad could significantly benefit my identity anxieties; I wanted to throw myself into a brand new musical environment where I would need to explain, to strangers, my intentions as a composer. I decided to focus my efforts on applying for a Fulbright to Estonia for several reasons. Most importantly, I wanted to study with composer Helena Tulve, a composer whom I had admired for a long time and felt I could learn a great deal from. What attracts me most to Tulve’s music is its viscosity; her music pulls you in and surrounds you like a living, breathing, rich environment. Each piece is its own self-sustaining world, yet they all orbit her unique musical language. In fact, that is what I admire most about the other composers I have studied with: Benjamin Broening and Joshua Fineberg. Their music is unmistakably theirs no matter what new ideas they are experimenting with. When I strip away the anxieties surrounding my musical identity, I am left with the desire to create works that achieve the same result; I want my music to evolve, but I want it to remain unmistakably mine.

In addition to wanting to work with Tulve, I also wanted to be on the periphery of the European contemporary music scene. There are definitely moments when I wish I was working in Berlin or Paris, but I am self-aware enough to know that my musical identity needs time and space to develop and gain confidence. Research interests also informed my decision. When most people hear ‘Estonian composer’, Arvo Pärt immediately comes to mind. Yet Estonia has an incredibly diverse contemporary music scene, beyond Pärt, that is connected to the national history, socio-political climate, and cultural identity in fascinating ways. I wanted to examine Estonia’s musical environment firsthand with the hope that my findings might inform my personal thoughts on identity and composition. After several months of application writing, interviews, and nervous waiting, I learned that I received the grant and prepared to move to a completely new environment.

An aerial view of Tallinn, Estonia, showing the rooftops of old buildings

I arrived in Tallinn, Estonia’s northern sea-side capital, in mid-September to work with Tulve at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater. The city is small, with a beautiful historic Old Town full of cobblestone streets and coffee shops that also serve as concert venues. Tallinn is also incredibly manageable for an American knowing only a few key phrases in Estonian. Now that I am a temporary resident I am entitled to free public transportation, although most things are walkable. The common description of Estonia as ‘the most wired country’ appears to be true: I had perfect cell service in the middle of the forest while on a mushroom foraging expedition.

My expectations about the contemporary music scene have been both met and surprised since moving here. Although I am sure my observations will shift slightly over the course of my stay, my initial impression is that the scene is incredibly diverse and active for such a small country. Composition students at the Academy of Music are welcoming and lack much of the competitiveness that I came to expect in American schools. There are different aesthetic sectors, much like in the United States, but there also appears to be crossover between them. I am also surprised by the public support for contemporary music. I recently saw a huge banner on the side of one of Tallinn’s major shopping centers promoting an upcoming concert by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir featuring works by Carlo Gesualdo, Salvatore Sciarrino, György Ligeti, J.S. Bach, and a premiere by Helena Tulve. I have a hard time imagining a similar advertisement hanging on the Prudential Center in Boston. The most striking difference though, at least from my experience, is the lack of gender discrepancies: there are just as many female composers working at the Academy as male, and this appears to be a consistent trend rather than a blip in statistics.

I am the co-founder of a concert series in Boston called Acoustic Uproar. Our mandate is to present new works in ways that bring in audiences outside of our normal circle of composer/performer friends. Concert producers in Tallinn seem to be very skilled at doing just that, and I believe that there is a lot to be learned from how they present contemporary music. The concerts I have gone to, no matter the genre, have all been well attended by enthusiastic and diverse audiences. A great example is being spearheaded by flautist Tarmo Johannes. He is programming a new initiative for community involvement and education that he calls ‘participation concerts’. In each concert, the audience is able to engage with ‘sound games’ that Johannes codes. For the first concert, each audience member could control the amplitude of a particular partial over a given fundamental using a slider on their smart phones or tablets. This led to a small lecture about harmonic spectra and additive synthesis, after which Johannes improvised with the audience and their Csound-produced harmonics. After a brief discussion, Johannes performed a few pieces for flute and electronics that exemplified the harmonic concepts he had illustrated. Later concerts will work with other areas of sound, including reverb, subtractive synthesis, and noise.

Another memorable experience and example of the type of events I’ve witnessed whilst in Tallinn was a performance of Stockhausen’s Tierkreis. Tierkreis exists in many versions, but the version I saw was not like any I have ever read about. The performance was produced by Ensemble YXUS, a group created with the main purpose of doing major Stockhausen works in Tallinn each year. YXUS completely transformed the piece into a staged, evening-length experience. The venue turned out to be an enormous and perfectly disintegrating cinema. The crumbling brick, peeling paint chips, and rusty lightning fixtures felt like a set for a horror film. I imagine staging something like this in the United States would be impossible because of liability concerns and because a venue like that would probably be demolished. YXUS took over the entire building beyond just the main cinema hall. They used small rooms above, below, and behind the great hall to stage different orchestrations of Stockhausen’s 12 zodiac-inspired melodies. Each place housed two musicians who wore elaborate costumes and performed the music with convincing theatricality. Audience members meandered throughout the building to each of the rooms where they could stay for as long as they liked. The rooms themselves had lighting effects and prop staging. My personal favorite was a tiny side room that housed a kannel (a traditional Estonian instrument) player in a bunny suit and a trombone player with an odd assortment of old dental equipment.The whole experience culminated with the singer and piano rendition in the main hall, with video projection on the back brick wall of the theater. The singer wore an elaborate headpiece that looked like an EEG hookup attaching her to the pianist. The soprano sang with haunting clarity in a hall without heat, the moisture from her breath visible in the cold blue light.

A musician in a bunny suit performing on the traditional Estonian kannel

YXUS’s concert has been criticized by some for not having enough Stockhausen, that the music became secondary to the elaborate staging and costumes. While I can understand that point, I think the performance has to be seen as a success: it brought out a relatively large number of concertgoers to witness something unlike a ‘standard’ concert experience. YXUS and Tarmo Johannes are both examples of how many Estonians are intent on presenting contemporary music in new and exciting ways. For such a small country, the ideas are big and people work hard make them happen. YXUS’s next project is set to be Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Streichquartett, which is problematic because Estonia does not own enough helicopters. I have no doubt, though, that YXUS will find a way.

A musician performing on a traditional harp

My later articles for NewMusicBox will focus on working with Helena Tulve, thoughts on gender in Estonian contemporary music, and more observations about the music scene from the perspective of an American composer, fresh with ABD status and eager in her journey to gain confidence about her musical identity. I am not as naive as I was when I began graduate school, and am therefore not expecting to leave Estonia knowing exactly why I am writing and what I want my music to accomplish. Yet this experience will most certainly give me new tools for navigating the often difficult path of pursuing a life in contemporary music.

(Note: the views presented here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.)


Heather Stebbins

Heather Stebbins

Heather Stebbins is a composer of acoustic and electroacoustic works with a background as a cellist. At the core of her music is a deep fascination with the inner structures and intricacies of sound. Whether these sounds emanate from an instrument, an object, or a computer, Heather uses sounds that strike her viscerally and intellectually as the germinating elements of her music. She is currently on a Fulbright Fellowship in Tallinn, Estonia, where she is working with composer Helena Tulve. Back in the USA, she is a Center for New Music Fellow at Boston University, where she works with Joshua Fineberg.

Island Exports & Descendants Broaden Jazz Expressions

Photo by Molly Sheridan

Photo by Molly Sheridan

The contribution of jazz musicians of Caribbean lineage is as old as jazz itself. The difference with the current generation is their perhaps more overtly prideful embrace of elements of their native culture in their expressions of jazz, reflecting the more ecumenical nature of the 21st century approach to the genre. There is a growing cadre of jazz musicians of Haitian descent, and other Caribbean arrivals or first gens, who openly embrace elements of that most misunderstood island’s rich musical heritage. Owing much to its historic position as site of the West’s most successful slave revolt, coupled with its often dire economic conditions on the wings of cruel dictatorships, muddled politics, and natural disasters, Haiti has an image that has been cloaked in negativity by the world media for far too long. Consider the Haitian derivation of Yoruba religion, known as vodoun or voodoo, and the misunderstanding and intensely negative connotations that practice has long endured. First and second generation Haitian arrivals, as well as many of their peers from other parts of the Anglophone or Francophone Caribbean, have enthusiastically embraced music and rhythms found in voodoo rituals, such as Racine (or rasin), incorporating these elements in their 21st century expressions of jazz.

For ages jazz from the Caribbean islands has been primarily defined by the dominant strain known as “Latin Jazz.” That potent and well-chronicled form has concentrated on the influence of the Spanish-speaking sector of the Caribbean, particularly the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. This is despite significant evidence of cross-island pollination. There has been much written on so-called “Latin Jazz,” often citing the historic enterprise of Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban hand drummer/vocalist/dancer Chano Pozo as the key touchstone. That partnership was primed by Dizzy’s friendship with trumpeter Mario Bauza starting when they both sat in Cab Calloway’s trumpet section. But little has been written on jazz influences from the English and French-speaking islands of the Caribbean. There have certainly been no books on the order of the John Storm Roberts classics Latin Jazz: The First of the Fusions, 1880s to Today (Schirmer) or The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin Music on the United States (Oxford University Press), and the writings of numerous others like the scholarly Cuban author-critic Leonardo Acosta.

Jelly Roll Morton spoke of the “Spanish tinge,” insisting, “If you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning for jazz.” Haitian rhythms, however, were perhaps of equal importance in early jazz developments. So what of that Haitian tinge, or tinges from Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Trinidad, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, Martinique, Barbados, St. Lucia and the rest of the former English and French colonial islands?

This writer recently had an opportunity to more closely ponder those tinges when invited to deliver a presentation on Caribbean jazz at the conservatory in the lovely southern Italy seaside town of Bari, as part of the annual Bari in Jazz festival last May. As I tossed around ideas, how illuminating would it have been to reiterate all the historic facts, partnerships, recordings and copious research that’s been done on the so-called Spanish or Latin tinge so essential to jazz? Listening to an advance of Naked (BBjuiss Records), the latest release from the emerging Miami-based saxophonist Jowee Omicil, who performed on Bari in Jazz as the festival’s lone U.S.-based representative sparked some ideas. Omicil is a first generation Canadian raised in Montreal by Haitian immigrant parents, and his music often reflects that birthright. I determined to focus my presentation on artists whose heritage is in the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean islands, primarily Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, and Haiti.

Later in June, at a 70th birthday celebration, the distinguished Jamaica born and raised virtuoso jazz pianist Monty Alexander, on the heels of his Harlem-Kingston Express Vol. 2, The River Rolls On (Motema), quite convincingly played Alexander’s mento/ska/reggae-based jazz grooves at DC’s Howard Theatre with his Jamaican crew. That performance followed Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles’s joyous performance on the DC Jazz Festival. Subsequent research as well as communications with Omicil, Charles, and saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart revealed a vibrant community of island-proud emerging young jazz artists. Charles and Schwarz-Bart were also guests of Alexander’s 70th birthday band performances in DC and New York. What distinguishes these artists from their Caribbean forbears who’ve impacted the jazz landscape from the early days of jazz is their seemingly more explicit desires to view their jazz perspectives through the lens of their island heritage and subsequently reflect that marriage in their music. Many of their jazz forebears from the islands did indeed evidence some measure of their island heritage in their music, but not as readily as this new generation, reflecting the broadening diversity of jazz as global music in the 21st century.

There is a growing generation of musicians either arriving from the Caribbean islands or second generation Caribbean-Americans who have or are in the process of immersing themselves in the musical heritage of their respective ancestral homelands. They’re bringing their own flavors to the jazz firmament and expanding our sense of Afro-Caribbean jazz expression, Haitian musical culture predominating those influences.

The Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 delivered a great influx of Haitians to New Orleans. Many others who fled Haitian bondage landed in Cuba, so even the island generally credited with having the broadest and deepest impact on jazz was significantly influenced by Haitian rhythms. Turning our gaze to the American city with arguably the greatest impact on jazz development, post-rebellion roughly 3,000 black refugees fled Haiti for New Orleans. Coupled with the approximately 2500 slaves in the New Orleans vicinity who were imported from Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1776-77 and Jelly Roll Morton’s vaunted “Spanish tinge” begins to broaden.

Consider Caribbean island music or rhythmic traditions that have seeped into jazz: calypso (the rather strident, highly syncopated, late 18th century Trinidadian music that arose from the islands plantations), Jamaican mento (an Afro-Jamaican acoustic music construct with a kinship to calypso whose topical lyrics focus on the human condition) and its derivatives ska (characterized by a walking bass line and rhythmic accents on the upbeat) and reggae (with its characteristic offbeat 1 & 3 accented rhythms, staccato guitar chords played on the offeats of the measure, and liberal use of call & response), kompa (the national dance music of Haiti, a modern merengue attributed to the 1950s multi-instrumentalist Nemomas Jean Baptiste), quelbe (an indigenous Virgin Islands form that engages improvised instruments like gourds and washboards), racine (or rasin, a Haitian musical movement that is a voodoo ceremony roots music fused with rock rhythms), zouk (a jump-up Carnival beat from the French Antilles that was popularized in the 1980s by the Haitian band Kassav, a band which influenced late period Miles Davis), Gwo-ka (a family of indigenous hand drums characterized by seven rhythms or dances; the largest of the drums plays the central rhythm while the smaller drum embellishes that rhythm), just to cite a handful. (Note: true to African nomenclature, many of these forms, traditions (e.g. voodoo), or rhythms are known by multiple spellings.)
The jazz festival phenomenon has found a welcome home in many Caribbean islands’ tourism profile. Jazz festivals are hosted on the islands of Aruba, the Virgin Islands, St. Croix, Bonaire, Cuba, Curacao, Guyana, Barbados, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, Jamaica, and St. Thomas (which experienced a jazz festival launching in 2014). Some measure of these events may prove inspirational to succeeding generations of island musical youth in terms of their own professional pursuits. Taken island by island we find a growing number of emerging jazz artists making—or poised to make—their marks on the contemporary scene. Many of them have expressed their island heritage in recordings rooted in jazz principles, or have expressed imminent plans to do so. Here’s a representative sampling of some of the more compelling of the Caribbean exports emerging in jazz.


Jean Caze playing a trumpet

Jean Caze

Trumpeter Jean Caze was a finalist in the 2007 Thelonious Monk Competition. When he was a baby his family migrated from the island to Queens, New York, where he grew up. The year prior to the competition Caze (pron. Cos) found himself back home, where he’d been invited to perform with the noted Haitian jazz pianist Reginald Policard. “He has been blending jazz and Haitian rhythms for a long time,” says Caze, “and when I played that music for the first time I felt liberated! I write music with Haitian rhythms in mind, also the Creole language is very colorful and has a very musical sound to it. I use the words to come up with melodies often. In Haitian music there are hundreds of rhythms to choose from. All of the rhythms have West African origins. New hybrid rhythms were developed when West Africans from different regions were grouped together in Haiti as a result of the slave trade,” Caze asserts. “When composing with Haitian rhythms I like to use uptempo 4/4 rhythms named Petwo and Rara. When writing in 6/8 I use Yanvalou. In 3/4, I use Mayi. There are interlocking call and responses in the rhythm of the drums that set it apart from rhythms used in jazz swing.” To best illustrate these traditions Caze offers the following demonstrations from a Haitian drummer.



Caze is currently working on a new recording that he suspects “will stir interest in the music of Haiti, featuring many musicians with diverse backgrounds.” Though his previous release was more straight ahead jazz, this original “Kitem Pran” from his forthcoming release—with fellow Haitian-Americans Godwin Louis on alto sax, Obed Calvaire on drums, and Tiga Jean Baptiste on hand drums—illustrates how Caze has embraced his ancestral traditions in his current sense of jazz.

Like many of his contemporaries, pianist Willerm Delisfort has crossed over freely between pop sounds and the art of the improvisers, where he’s encountered employers ranging from NEA Jazz Masters Jimmy Heath and Curtis Fuller to saxophonist David Sanchez and worldly guitarist Fareed Haque. His family began arriving in Miami in ’75 and Willerm was born stateside in ’83. “As I look back at the nights as a child listening and dancing with my mom to kompa music, I realize I was learning the language of music, the piano simply gave me that tool to express it,” Dellisfort declares. “Kompa is simply the fusion of traditional Haitian music with jazz. It’s usually in 4/4, but as for the traditional part of it, you can definitely hear the roots of it coming from Africa, also its influences all over the Caribbean and in Brazil.”

Willerm Dellisfort playing a grand piano

Willerm Dellisfort

Trained at Northern Illinois University (on a Liberace scholarship), Willerm was mentored by the perpetually swinging Chicago pianist Willie Pickens. Bringing his Haitian roots to that foundation is a natural move. “The incorporation of folkloric music, harmony, rhythm… is almost impossible for me NOT to incorporate!” he insists.

Jonathan Michel, photo by Amara Photos.

Jonathan Michel, photo by Amara Photos.

Bassist Jonathan Michel was raised by parents who migrated separately from different Haitian towns, each landing in Brooklyn. “Growing up I attended and played multiple instruments at a church that worshipped in the Haitian Protestant tradition. In addition to French and Creole translations of traditional hymns, we sang worship choruses composed with traditional Haitian melodies and rhythms,” Michel details, recalling his early immersion. “The rhythms I grew up on helped me to understand and internalize the swing beat that defines American music. I realize that it is the underlying pulse of the ‘swing’ feel that is similar to me. With Kompa it is the underlying pulse of the ‘swing’ feel that is similar to me. If you compare the traditional New Orleans ‘street’ beat to Kompa (the Haitian rhythm style I grew up playing) you hear the same syncopation in the pulse. You can also feel a similar ‘four on the floor’ implication in Kompa that connects with the walking bass element in American swing beat. I did not make this connection until well after I discovered Black American Music [BAM] as part of my musicianship,” Michel declares, subscribing to the BAM declarations famously, and not without resulting controversy, espoused by trumpeter Nicholas Payton.

In addition to working with such exemplary jazz pianists as Orrin Evans, Aaron Goldberg, and Johnny O’Neal, Michel has also collaborated with Etienne Charles and fellow Haitian-American saxophonist Godwin Louis. He declares himself “At the outset of developing my own Haitian music project.”

A drawing of Sarah Elizabeth Charles

The cover for Sarah Elizabeth Charles’s latest CD, Red

Vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles is among a trio of notable young Haitian-American singers poised to make their marks, including Melanie Charles (no relation) and Pauline Jean. Raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, by a Haitian father and French Canadian mother, Sarah credits the tutelage of bassist Vishnu Wood, at Springfield’s Community Music School with really encouraging and pushing her artistry. “He wanted me to compose, arrange, and eventually have my own band and I consistently struggled to meet his expectations.” Growing up, her father kept such Haitian icons as Tabou Combo and Michel Martelly (“Sweet Micky”) in heavy rotation. Martelly is currently the president of Haiti. “It wasn’t until 2009-2010 that I really started delving into Haitian music, folkloric music, with the help of my amazing singer-sisters Pauline Jean and Melanie Charles. I began to arrange very well-known [folkloric Haitian] tunes like “Wongolo Wale” and “Mesi Bondye,” both of which she arranged for her current recording Red (Truth Revolution Records), “and worked on my Creole pronunciation with Pauline and my father.” Last January she played the Port-au-Prince Jazz Festival and “the [Haitian] influence expanded to another level,” she enthuses. Besides leading her SE Charles Quartet, Sarah can also be heard in keyboardist Jesse Fischer’s unit.

Godwin Louis holding a saxophone

Godwin Louis

Born in Harlem and raised jointly in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Port-au-Prince, alto saxophonist Godwin Louis was first immersed in jazz through a jazz guitarist uncle who, urging him in Haitian Creole, insisted that Godwin focus on Charlie Parker. Later, as a Berklee student, after a gig with Haitian trumpeter Edy Brisseaux the elder encouraged Godwin to more deeply investigate his Haitian roots, saying “You are a Haitian-American. Don’t forget about that identity.” When he entered the Thelonious Monk Institute graduate studies program at Loyola University in New Orleans, the Haiti connection hit home. “As soon as I landed in New Orleans, I felt like I was in Haiti. The cultures are very similar, the cuisine, the architecture, I was amazed by it all.” This immersion encouraged further research and “I found out that without Haiti there would be no jazz music.” The scholarly altoist regularly returns to his family homeland to research and further develop his own music, an investigation that was most recently realized in “a series of compositions all based on a research trip to Haiti” that he performed as part of a residency at the Jazz Gallery in Manhattan. “The rest of the world is still unaware of Haiti’s contribution to music in the Americas,” a disparity Louis aims to close at least partially.

Jowee Omicil's Selfie with former U.S. President Bill Clinton

Jowee Omicil’s Selfiewith former U.S. President Bill Clinton

Saxophonist Jowee Omicil has made a remarkable transformation from the callow teenaged saxophonist first encountered at a Thelonious Monk Institute summer colony in Aspen in ‘01 to the confident artist whose energetic performance earned him many new friends at Bari in Jazz. Where the Haitian grooves show up most vividly is in his tribute to Michel Martelly, titled “Micky’s Groove Reloaded,” an extension of his original “Micky’s Groove” from his Roots & Grooves previous release. That record also featured the traditional Haitian songs “Wongol” and “Mesi Bon Die”. “Wongol” is half of the traditional Kompa [or compas] groove, with a cadence bass line,” speaking of the influence of a Haitian merengue form that has been the core of a national folk music since the 1800s. “I really mixed different elements from the Haitian/Cuban roots with [Francisco] Mela [the Afro-Cuban drummer and Jowee’s Berklee classmate on the date] to the African roots in the bass line and Lionel [Loueke] on guitar and asked him to dialogue with me in call and response,” Jowee characterizes his work on the track “Mesi Bon Die” with Mela and fellow Berklee and Monk Institute alum Loueke. “Overall it’s really my interpretation of Nat Simon’s “Poinciana,” Ahmad Jamal’s groove Jowee style.”

The lure of Haitian folkloric traditions is not limited to strictly Haitian-American musicians; in the case of hand drummer Markus Schwartz those hypnotic vibes reached all the way to his native Denmark. After migrating to the Bay Area to study he came under the influence of Haitian drum traditions as a result of an internship with an Afro-Haitian dance company. “I realized that playing Haitian rhythms exposes one to a vast cross-section of various African-based musical traditions that have survived in Haiti,” he says. In the early-90s “I was privileged to have the chance to work closely with the members of Jean-Raymond’s band Foula, a pioneering “Voudou-Jazz” ensemble from Haiti.” By ’94 Schwartz had moved to Brooklyn “specifically to put myself in closer proximity to a larger Haitian community.” Once in Brooklyn he began collaborating with such Haitian jazz artists as the ensemble Mozayik, with whom he recorded Haitian Creole Jazz (Zoho) in ’05, as well as saxophonist Buyu Ambroise and singers Emeline Michel (who has also collaborated with Jowee Omicil), Pauline Jean, and Riva Nyri Precil, all Haitian artists based in the New York City area. He has also collaborated with Omicil and Jacques Schwartz-Bart, who guested on Markus self-produced Tanbou Nan Lakou Brooklyn release.

From that recording the track “Gede Drum n Bass” is based on the drum rhythm maskawon, “and is traditionally played in Haiti for the Gede spirits; the intro melody played by the bass is a traditional Gede song as well,” says Schwartz. “On “Danbala,” which features Jean Caze and veteran Haitian saxophonist Buyu Ambroise, “the melody is a traditional song for Danbala, typically played over the rhythm Yanvalou, another 6/8, 3-drum Rada beat, one of the most well-known rhythms and dances in the traditional Haitian repertoire,” says Schwartz. “My drumming is informed mostly by the Yanvalou drumming language, and drummer Jeff Ballard is playing freely, yet inside the groove.” The recording also includes “Tanbou Ti-Roro” a tribute to the legendary Haitian drummer known as Ti-Roro (Raymond Ballargau), who was a powerful influence on the master drummer Max Roach, who traveled to Haiti to study with Ti-Roro.

Trinidad and Tobago

Always stylishly topped with a narrowly-brimmed fedora, trumpeter Etienne Charles’s growing prominence is linked to the evident bliss he puts into his performances and his skill at transforming an audience attitude into a carnival atmosphere, though his music is thoroughly immersed in the improvisational principles of jazz. In his series of recordings on the Culture Shock label Charles’s music has incorporated everything from the traditional carnival chants of figures like Roaring Lion (Rafael de Leon) and Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) to Bob Marley to re-imaginings of songs of the calypso king Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco). Growing up in Port-of-Spain, “there was lots of improvisatory music around,” says Charles, “lots of calypsos with improvising, steel pan and many players fusing jazz and calypso. I’m heavily inspired by the classic calypso arrangers, the folk drummers, storytellers, dancers and calypsonians.” Charles’s latest recording, aptly titled Creole Soul (Culture Shock) employs the haunting voice of Erol Josue, a Haitian Houngan (voodoo priest) who practices in Brooklyn, on the two-part title track.

Etienne Charles playing trumpet in a recording studio

Etienne Charles in the recording studio.

That disc also includes his original “Roots,” which is steeped in a rhythmic tradition from Martinique (ancestral home of his great-grandfather) known as belair. Elsewhere Etienne investigates the Haitian mascaron rhythmic tradition, which “inspired the melody and underlying grooves for ‘Midnight,’” the trumpeter reports. The product of a conservatory jazz education, Charles studied at Florida State under Marcus Roberts and completed his graduate studies in the Juilliard jazz program. He currently holds an assistant professorship in jazz studies at Michigan State University.
U.S. Virgin Islands

Ron Blake holding a saxophone

Ron Blake

Tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, who has worked with such notables as Jack DeJohnette, Christian McBride, and Regina Carter, grew up in St. Thomas where his father Tom Blake, an ardent jazz enthusiast, laid Cannonball Adderley’s “Phenix” on him for his 10th birthday after the youngster expressed an interest in playing saxophone. “I think I gravitated towards jazz eventually in my youth because the saxophone was featured more. My [island] heritage influences my musical style and composition entirely. I think that my preference for the most melodic solutions in my soloing and the way I think about composing, even when I’m writing something based on Caribbean grooves, is based in some way on my Caribbean heritage,” Blake insists. Hearing Sonny Rollins dig into his “St. Thomas” celebration of familial roots was an early inspiration for young Ron.

Dion Parson at drumset holding sticks with sea in the background

Dion Parson

In ’08 Blake and fellow St. Thomas musician drummer Dion Parson formed the 21st Century Band, featuring several Virgin Islands’ born musicians, including the dexterous bassist Reuben Rogers and steel pannist Victor Provost. The band enjoys annual weeklong residencies at Dizzy’s in New York, where their second release was recorded. “I was not really exposed to jazz until I was 14 years old,” confesses Parson. “The first jazz group I heard was the Rutgers University Jazz Professors. They came to the University of the V.I. and did a concert and I was completely blown away because I had no idea what these guys were playing.” Hearing that band, which comprised such masters as Frank Foster, Kenny Barron, Ted Dunbar, Larry Ridley, and Philly Joe Jones, convinced Parson to further his studies at Rutgers. After Rutgers, working with New Orleans saxophonist (and Black Indian) Big Chief Donald Harrison on his “Nouveau Swing” record “opened me up to pursuing my Caribbean culture from a musical standpoint,” says Parson.

Reginald Cyntje playing trombone

Reginald Cyntje

The brawny-toned St. Thomas-born trombonist Reginald Cyntje, who matriculated through Howard University’s jazz program, has also performed with the 21st Century Band. Currently based in D.C., Cyntje found jazz through a savvy band director back home. “After learning the mechanics of the instrument,” recalls Cyntje, “I began meeting older musicians, most of whom were jazz musicians. But they played jazz with a Caribbean accent. I heard many jazz standards growing up but they were played with a calypso rhythm. I come from a culture that is strongly influenced by Rastafarian and African traditions. Virgin Islands traditional music is the root of all my current explorations. My latest album [Elements of Life] is a concept album connecting the elements to the human spirit. In many ancient philosophies the five elements were used to connect the cosmos to the internal organs,” asserts Cyntje. “‘Elements of Life’ (title track) is influenced by Quelbe music,” from his homeland, as is his original “Wind.” Quelbe is a folkloric tradition that is known as the official music of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The album also engages the steel pan mastery of Victor Provost, who hails from St. John, V.I.

Here’s a comprehensive demonstration detailing the Quelbe tradition by Virgin Islands musicologist Francis Callwood:


Saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart is the product of a multi-cultural, literary upbringing. The son of two celebrated authors, Guadeloupian novelist Simone Schwarz-Bart and the late French-Jewish novelist Andre Schwarz-Bart, he grew up in Guadeloupe and Switzerland, before moving to France as a young adult. A late bloomer he didn’t encounter the tenor saxophone until he was 24, but his immersion was deep enough to land him a scholarship to Berklee. “I was heavily exposed to all kinds of Caribbean music from birth, and my favorite styles were the roots music Gwo-ka [Guadeloupian hand drums which have inspired a vibrant rhythmic tradition], and Haitian voodoo music. When I became a working jazz musician, I was constantly trying to find a language that would express both sources harmoniously. My record Sonekala [2007 Emarcy] was the first mature expression of this research, as it integrated jazz and Gwo-ka music.”

Gwo-ka is a family of indigenous Guadeloupian hand drums characterized by seven rhythms. The largest of these drums plays the central rhythm while the smaller of the drums embellishes the rhythm, characterized by seven rhythms or dances.
On a 2006 journey with NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston and his African Rhythms quintet to Guadeloupe, as part of the book project that yielded Weston’s autobiography African Rhythms, a musical meeting was arranged between Weston and the Gwo-ka master drummer Kafe. Arriving at the auditorium for the initial encounter between these two masters, we were taken aback by the onstage sight of a complete set of Gwo-ka drums connected in the manner of a traditional drumset, with Kafe seated at the drums much as a trap drummer might, but immersed in distinctive rhythmic traditions of Guadeloupe.
Neil Clarke, the African Rhythms hand drummer and a tireless student of global rhythmic traditions, was subsequently invited back to Guadeloupe to further immerse himself in the Gwo-ka tradition. Neil wrote about that experience .

CD cover for Jacques Schwarz-Bart-'s Abyss featuring a photo of Schwarz-Bart's face in shadow

The CD Cover for Jacques Schwarz-Bart’s Abyss

The title track on Schwarz-Bart’s ’09 release Abyss (Oblique) is the clearest representation of the Gwo ka tradition. Schwarz-Bart describes his latest, the brilliant Jazz Racine Haiti (Motema) as coming “from a fascination with Haitian voodoo chants,” representative of the Haitian racine or rasin ritual, a music forged in the 1970s. Like his frequent collaborator Etienne Charles, Schwarz-Bart also engages the distinctive Haitian folkloric vocalist Erol Josue on his latest recording. “From the Gwo-ka tradition I use a lot of lewoz (war rhythms), toumbiak, Mende, pdjanbel, woule, graj, and Kaladja” rhythms, the saxophonist explains. “From the voudou tradition I use a lot of petwo, Mahi, dahomey, Maskawon, Kongo, Djouba, Yanvalou, and Alfranchi.”

A demonstration of Kongo, courtesy Jean Caze

As musicians from across the globe learn the principles of jazz (many through exported jazz education programs and the vivid and impactful messages carried forth by touring jazz artists and jazz festivals), and view the music through the lens of their various diverse cultures and adapt elements of jazz tradition and expression to their indigenous musical traditions, jazz becomes a true music of the world. Clearly the work of these artists and others of their peers is building yet another branch on the jazz tree; on the limb marked “Caribbean.”

Du Yun: No Safety Net

Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan

I still remember the first performance I ever attended of Du Yun’s music. It was a vocal piece on an ICE concert in an East Village performance space. She was the vocalist and at some point she was crawling around on the stage. This might sound somewhat gimmicky, but there was an element of vulnerability to it that gave it a completely different context. It was actually somewhat unsettling. Du Yun likes making herself, and often her audiences, uncomfortable. And for her that discomfort means constantly taking risks.

It’s a far cry from her intensive childhood training as a classical pianist in her native Shanghai where the goal was to interpret standard Western classical music repertoire as precisely as possible. As she explained when we spoke in her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, despite her proficiency on the instrument, or perhaps because of it, she actually avoids it when composing.

I practiced piano eight hours a day when I was a kid. … My challenge to myself is to write music without the aid of a piano ever, not even checking things. I don’t want to be too comfortable when I write music. When I create, I don’t want to fall back to the safety net that I’ve acquired. So I love feeling like I don’t know how to walk and then find the platform to focus on the next step. There’s a sport where you essentially climb rocks without roping using just your bare shoes. It’s so dangerous, but it’s all about focusing on the next step. My survival mode has always been trying to find my way around things. I was not your typical Chinese good student at all. I got myself in a lot of trouble with teachers. The subversive is always something I’m attracted to, the danger, working against people’s expectations.

Du Yun: scores
Du Yun: Book pile
This desire to constantly search for that next step and to go against the grain is probably why she’s always exploring different musical directions. When we visited with her, a Takemitsu orchestral score sat on her piano alongside a collection of Ray Charles songs. She’s so stylistically omnivorous that attempting to apply genre distinctions to her music is a frustrating exercise in futility. While she has written works that have been premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Montreal’s Nouvelle Ensemble Moderne, she has also created numerous works involving electronics, a series of uncategorizable performance art pieces, and she’s even released a dance pop album called Shark in You. Most of the time, the various elements are not clearly delineated. The score for her otherworldly Angel’s Bone, a “chamber opera” she created with Royce Vavrek about a pair of fallen angels who are forced into prostitution, is an idiosyncratic amalgam of church motets, punk, and quasi-European post-expressionism. (In fact, describing it as chamber opera somehow misrepresents it, since it fails to convey that it is also extremely effective musical theatre as well as sacred oratorio, as contradictory as being both at once might seem.) In it, moments of extreme beauty co-exist alongside harrowing sonorities. While her music is a very appropriate soundtrack for Vavrek’s disturbing supernatural story, Du Yun is attracted to all of these sonorities and so it felt perfectly natural to her to combine them.
Du Yun: workspace
Many composers her age create music that seamlessly blurs genres. But unlike composers who grew up in the United States where just about any kind of music seems part of our tradition, Du Yun approaches all traditions as somehow exotic, whether classical, pop, avant-garde, or even the traditional Chinese music that deeply influences so many other Chinese émigré composers. How she first became aware of different musical traditions has allowed her to remain an outsider and has enabled her to absorb a wide variety of influences while remaining completely unique.

I did not grow up completely with Chinese culture, so if my music were to have Chinese culture in it, it would not be a genuine reflection of who I was. I do not want to use that without understanding it. But now it’s something I want to completely explore further. … I grew up with all the Hong Kong pop which was following American pop. But I also practiced a lot of Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven. When I was just coming of age, the pub idea was just coming to Shanghai. I was in a reggae band with exchange students from Kenya playing Bob Marley cover songs. Then by 1995, China really opened up. We were totally following American culture. Radio played the Top 40—we knew what was number one on the Billboard chart. But we didn’t hear indie-pop. So I got all these bootleg tapes on the street. You don’t really know if Pink Floyd is cool or not. I bought it just because of the cover and then my mind was blown away. … There was a professor who was very instrumental in bringing contemporary music to us, but there was no collection of new music in the library. Stravinsky would be new. Bartók would be new. Penderecki would be like “Woah!” There were tapes of Penderecki and John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto, but we didn’t know those names and didn’t know the hierarchy of who comes earlier and who comes later. It all came at once so it seemed like anything goes. You could just pick what you like and your teacher is not going to tell you what is good and what is not.

Du Yun: shelf
Du Yun: fan
While her Asian heritage did not have a dominant role in her development, she acknowledges that her outlook on life is a direct result of Asian philosophy which offers a more fluid alternative to the either-or mentality that is so dominant in American and most Western societies. According to the traditional Asian world view, there isn’t a right way vs. a wrong way, there are many ways and therefore you can combine them in any way you want.

I don’t see the world in binaries. … Ancient Asian philosophy is about three points. You have this extreme and that and then the middle. The middle is something that is very attractive and intriguing. In life there’s a binary in that you have a birth and you have a death, a beginning and an end, but the process of [living your life] is the third point. If I believe that, how can I believe it’s just a binary? … The world is more of a continuum. I don’t feel the urge to see what is or what is not.

This way of thinking allows for an open-ended aesthetic sensibility that has enabled her to identify with both the “good” characters and the “bad” characters in Angel’s Bone—actually she doesn’t think of any of them in terms of good and bad. Her latest “opera” in progress, Women: The War Within, arguably blurs and ultimately transcends binaries even more than Angel’s Bone has done. It also blurs lines of chronology as well as geography—its four protagonists are Cleopatra, the 7th-century Chinese Empress Wu, Burmese Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi, and Hillary Clinton. In the process of working on the music for this she has been immersing herself in Kunqu, one of the oldest surviving forms of Chinese opera, and it has been extremely inspiring to her. “I want to see if I could write like that; it’s so beautiful,” she explained. “My challenge is how I can adapt that.” But don’t expect her music for this to be an amalgam of various Asian traditional musics and Fleetwood Mac. That would be too safe!

Pablo Ziegler: Making the Music Dance

A conversation in Ziegler’s Brooklyn apartment
June 13, 2014—11 a.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Tracing the origins of tango is nearly as impossible as tracing the origins of jazz or determining the earliest string quartet. Claimed as a national tradition by both Argentina and Uruguay, even its most prominent early musical exponent, Carlos Gardel, purported to be from each of these countries at different times in his life. But now, tango—which was named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009 as the result of a joint proposal by these two nations—belongs to the whole world. Musicians from Finland to Japan compose and perform music in this genre, putting their own spins on it; some have even mixed tango with electronica and DJs.

Photo of Piazzolla's Second Quintet standing

Astor Piazzolla with his Second Quintet at their 1978 début in the Auditorium de Buenos Aires. Pictured left to right: Oscar Lopez Ruiz, Héctor Console, Pablo Ziegler, Piazzolla, and Fernando Suarez Paz. Photo courtesy Pablo Ziegler.

Although the origin of tango itself remains elusive, tango as a global phenomenon that incorporates and absorbs a broad range of influences can be attributed to the vision of the eclectic Argentinian composer and band leader Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). Piazzolla, who fell in love with jazz during his teenage years in New York City, began incorporating saxophones and electric guitars into his music in the 1950s. A student of Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger, he also composed tango-based works for chamber ensembles and symphony orchestra, as well as for more than three dozen films. Considered an avant-garde radical at first, Piazzolla went on to become an international sensation, and since his death his compositions have become extremely popular among classical instrumentalists. The results have been extremely mixed since the performance practice of this music goes far beyond just reading the notes on the page. For over twenty years, the person who has been the de facto source for the interpretation of Piazzolla’s music has been Pablo Ziegler, who served as the pianist in Piazzolla’s final quintet for over a decade and appeared on such seminal albums as Tango: Zero Hour, Tristezas de un Doble A, and La Camorra.
An important composer of nuevo tango in his own right, Ziegler, who now lives in Brooklyn but is constantly traveling to perform all over the planet, has a particularly strong affinity for improvisation. No two performances of his music are ever the same and he is constantly reworking and re-arranging his compositions even as he writes new ones. He encourages musicians to find their own voice whether he’s working with jazz greats like Regina Carter, Stefon Harris, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, and Paquito D’Rivera or performing his arrangements with classical musicians such as Emmanuel Ax, Christopher O’Riley, Orpheus, or the members of the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, who he had just played with in New Zealand when we spoke with him. For Ziegler, having more freedom makes the music more exciting:

I always tell musicians: You’re free to change whatever you like. I can give you some examples of the way to phrase, but if you feel something different, just play. Probably it’s fantastic. That’s one of the ways that I’m learning also from the musicians, too. Sometimes they’re playing and I like it that way. It’s a very open way to play music. If I bring some Beethoven piano concerto, everybody knows the way to play that kind of music, which is very strict. But with this music, we have to feel it and do something different. I’m giving them that chance.


Frank J. Oteri: One of the ways you explore variety in your music is that you lead at least five different groups.
Pablo Ziegler: Probably more than that. Now I discovered another group in Wellington, New Zealand. I was playing with a chamber orchestra there just a couple of weeks ago and the leaders, the string leaders, play together as a string quartet and they know my music very well. But after a rehearsal one night, I went to some club where there’s an amazing guy playing accordion. For that reason, I invited him to play one tune, “Oblivion,” [with us] for an encore. He’s an incredible musician and has very good taste. Usually I play with bandoneón, which is what Piazzolla played. But no matter what instrument you play, if you have good taste, you make everything sound beautiful. That is the person that we are always looking for.
FJO: In one of your groups you feature a cello; another one has electric guitar and drums.
PZ: Yes. And in October in Japan [my group will be] a classical piano trio with piano, violin, and cello; that’s it. I’m very excited about all these combinations because I came from the classical world but, at the same time, from the jazz world.

Photo of young Ziegler playing white grand piano

Ziegler performing a classical concert at the age of 15 in the Ciudad de Caseros Concert Hall in Buenos Aires, 1959. Photo courtesy Pablo Ziegler.

I was studying in the music conservatory for ten years. I got my degree from there. I suppose, after that, I was preparing for a classical piano career, going to competitions. But suddenly I discovered jazz music and, at the age of 15, I started to play jazz. So I said bye-bye to classical competition and whatever.
Now I’m very happy that happened to me, because I could play in different ways. I think of all those classical piano players, competing [over] who is playing “La Campañera” or “The [Flight of the] Bumblebee” the fastest, repeating the same program for years. I was interested in jazz and then in composition, so I became a kind of crossover guy in between tango music, jazz music, and classical music.

Photo of Ziegler peering at a score

Ziegler looks at one of his scores. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

FJO: Your career path was somewhat unusual. You were already relatively established as a composer—you had written scores for films and television—when you became the pianist in Astor Piazzolla’s quintet. You were successful in your own right, but you wound up becoming a sideman in someone else’s group and you did that for more than a decade.
PZ: Yeah, it was a lot. Astor Piazzolla was a genius—not only as a composer, but also as a bandoneón player. Incredible. I remember all my ten years playing with Piazzolla in Europe, since the very first time in 1979 through 1988. Whenever we went to Europe and played in a new town, we were a little afraid since this is contemporary tango. But, year by year, that music became very, very hot.
I was composing before I was playing with him, but Piazzolla changed my mind in the way to compose, about your country and your experience, not composing a kind of universal music with no roots. But after Piazzolla, when I started to compose new music, I was thinking of my life and my memories, the happiness or sad moments that I had in Buenos Aires.
After Piazzolla dissolved the quintet, I created my own group without bandoneón, a quartet with piano, bass, guitar, and drums—like a jazz quartet. And I was composing new tango compositions for that quartet. My idea was that if I played with bandoneón, it would have to be someone who played with me only as a guest. But when Piazzolla died, the Argentine embassy, that was supporting a world-wide tour, said I had to have a bandoneón for Piazzolla’s pieces. That was a step back for me. When Piazzolla died, he became very famous worldwide, especially in the classical world.

Photo of Ziegler's original quartet

Pablo Ziegler’s New Tango Quartet in 1989: Horacio Lopez (percussion), Ziegler (piano), Quique Sinesi (guitar), and Oscar Giunta (bass). Photo courtesy Pablo Ziegler.

FJO: That’s what always happens. In classical music, when you die you’re famous, but rarely when you’re alive. And now every classical player wants to play his music.
PZ: You’re right. Finally this music went more to the classical side than the jazz side, which is why I’m now creating more music for these kinds of classical groups—piano trio, string quartet with piano. But I really like to improvise in all my groups. Even with the guys in the classical world, it’s one of the fresh elements that you can add to this music.
FJO: You’ve actually worked with quite a few really important jazz players, too. You’ve performed with Branford Marsalis, Paquito D’Rivera, and Joe Lovano—
PZ: Many times with Regina Carter; she fits fantastic with that. The blend that we have with her! And she loves to play.
FJO: Last year I heard you with Stefon Harris.
PZ: He’s tremendous.
FJO: You said that any musician, if they play tastefully, can perform this music. Are there instruments that don’t work for tango? Could a brass quintet play tango?

CD Cover for Ziegler's Amsterdam Meets New Tango

Amsterdam Meets New Tango, Pablo Ziegler’s CD with the Metropole Orkest, released in 2013 by Zoho Music.

PZ: Everything can work. If I can write a very good arrangement, then everything happens. One of my last CDs was with the Metropole Orchestra. It’s kind of crazy crossover between my music and jazz. I was very happy to have that CD in my career with that beautiful orchestra.
FJO: The first track on that disc, “Buenos Aires Report,” is really on the edge; it’s perhaps even more intense than the performance you’ve done of it with your smaller groups.
PZ: Yeah, yeah. It’s intense. I was working with a jazz arranger for that who usually works with the Metropole. I gave him my quartet or quintet arrangement, but I worked very closely [with him].
FJO: So those were not your arrangements; they were done by somebody else?
PZ: It was my arrangement. I told this guy, I’m going to give you my arrangement for the quintet or quartet. You have to orchestrate that, not adding something. And it was exactly in the form of my arrangement.
FJO: So would you say something like, “I want to have flute over here”?
PZ: No, they were very free, but they sent me all the arrangements and I said, “Oh, this is interesting. I like it. Just print it.” That’s it. We rehearsed with the Metropole for one week. It was a very intensive rehearsal with a British conductor, a very young guy. He’s very good; he knows that orchestra very well. It’s a superior orchestra; it’s like 80 or 90 guys. And this music for them was very challenging. There’s a tune called “Blues Porteña” which has kind of a tango groove with some blues. But the final rehearsal was very good. And that CD is take one, because it was the concert night. Netherlands Television shot the whole concert. When they sent it to me and I heard it, [I said], “This is fantastic. We have to do a CD with this!” It was a long negotiation, more than one year, because it’s very big. But finally we did it.
FJO: So when you do other gigs with orchestras, do you use those same arrangements?
PZ: No, I have my classical arrangements, the arrangements that I did for my CD called Tango Romance with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. That is the music arrangement I played a couple of weeks ago with the Wellington Chamber Orchestra.

Orchestral score excerpt from Ziegler's composition "El Empedrado"

An excerpt from Pablo Ziegler’s orchestral arrangement of his composition “El Empedrado.” © 1997 by Ziegler Music Publishing (ASCAP). All rights reserved and reprinted with permission.

FJO: Nowadays we’re all connected and we have easy access to just about anything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone with no background in this music will automatically be able to feel it.
PZ: For that reason I work very hard with orchestras, teaching and coaching them in the way to play the music. All the music is written. I preserve some parts to improvise, but all the articulation is there. I was working three days like crazy with this orchestra. They are very good. But it’s not easy. In some tunes, it’s not easy to understand how the tango groove works with that kind of composition.
FJO: Obviously, for a smaller group, it’s much easier to get the right energy. That’s much harder to pull off when a whole string section is playing the same thing.
PZ: Of course, [even with] poco, più o meno, poco più, blah, blah, blah. This is hard. I know it’s hard for them to dance with me when we play together. But we were playing together.
FJO: But it seems that you don’t conceive of your compositions with a specific instrumentation in mind. “La Reyuela” was the first piece of yours that I fell in love with when I heard it on your album Bajo Cero, scored for just piano, bandoneón, and guitar. Then I heard other recordings of it that you did with different combinations, and they work, too. And I know you’ve also published a solo piano arrangement of it.
PZ: Yes.

Excerpted piano score of Ziegler's La Rayuela width=

FJO: But I wonder about a piece like “La Conexión Porteña.” I can’t imagine it any other way than with that really dissonant electric guitar. For me, that’s one of the key ingredients of it.
PZ: I have [it for] my Classical Quartet with
Hector Del Curto on bandoneón, Jisoo Ok on cello, and Pedro Giraudo on bass. So I have a cello instead of a guitar. And the cellist plays deeee dah dah. I’m learning also from my musicians. “How do you do that? Can you show me?” I discovered the position for that minor second interval for cellists. It’s fantastic. And right now I’m arranging “La Conexión Porteña” for two pianos.
FJO: Really?
PZ: Yeah, I found a way. I was practicing for my two-piano program. I’m going to play two-piano arrangements again with Christopher O’Riley. We’re going to start the rehearsals next Monday and Tuesday here in Steinway Hall. I [wanted to] add a new piece. So I’m in the middle of the two-piano arrangement. I don’t know if it’s going to be ready on time, but we can play it in the future.

Photo of casette of Ziegler's album Conexion Portena

Ziegler’s original New Tango Quartet made the first recording of “La Conexión Porteña” which was issued on cassette by Sony in 1991. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

FJO: So how far can you go and have it still be tango?
PZ: I think the Metropole CD is really far away! I remember playing a couple of the tunes on one of the Buenos Aires radio [station’s] tango programs. I told the announcer, who is a very good friend of mine, “I’m bringing something new, but probably your audience is going to kill you.” He played it, but he said, “This is really, really far [out].” I was laughing. This is a new thing. I don’t know. I love contemporary music. I studied composition with guys who were writing really contemporary music.
FJO: So what pieces of yours are the most influenced by what you would consider to be a contemporary music sound world?

CD cover for Buenos Aires Report

Buenos Aires Report, Pablo Ziegler and Quique Sinesi with Walter Castro, released in 2007 by Zoho Music.

PZ: On that [Metropole] CD, “Desperate Dance.” And on [the CD] Buenos Aires Report, another is “Buenos Aires Dark.” We recorded that CD in Europe with my trio: Quique Sinesi on guitar, [Walter] Castro, and me. That trio started more than ten years ago. We had the intention to play just as a piano and guitar duo in Europe, but our manager from Europe started to say, “Everybody’s asking if you’re going to bring some bandoneón player.” So finally we invited Castro. And that really was working fantastically. The final result was very, very good. The people were very happy to have this kind of small trio. The seven-string guitar is kind of a bass guitar plus a regular guitar, so it’s like a quartet with just three musicians.
FJO: To follow up on this idea that you’re taking this music way out, I find it interesting that the name of one of your groups has been called the Classical Tango Quartet. I imagine that’s because there’s a cello in the group, which sounds like “classical music” and there are no drums. But when tango aficionados hear the term “classical tango,” they might think they’re going to hear something that sounds like Carlos Gardel.
PZ: Yeah. I know. I had a long conversation with my managers about how we can put in the mind of the presenters that this is really different music. [Ed. note: The group is now called Quartet for New Tango.] The audience for the traditional tango is not the same audience for this kind of music. We are closer to classical and contemporary jazz than traditional tango. Usually I don’t play in tango festivals because it’s not my place.
FJO: But listeners should be able to hear that your music clearly derives from the earlier tango tradition in much the same way as, if you listen deeply to John Coltrane and the generations of players who have established the sonic paradigm for contemporary jazz, you could still hear the influence of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and other earlier jazz.
PZ: Of course.
FJO: Yet when Astor Piazzolla first started performing nuevo tango, which your own music is an extension of, he was treated the same way that conservative jazz listeners treated Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and others when they started to play free jazz.

DeJohnette, Malviccino, Gillespie, and Ziegler

Jack DeJohnette, Horacio Malviccino, Dizzy Gillespie, and Pablo Ziegler meet up at an airport in 1985. Photo by Astor Piazzolla, courtesy of Pablo Ziegler.

PZ: They didn’t accept it. It was a big change, to move tango from the dance floor to the concert stage. That was Piazzolla’s idea. It’s the same as with Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey. They’re beautiful arrangements for dancers. Everybody was dancing. Even me, when I was young. But suddenly bebop appeared and the music was far away from that for dancers. Piazzolla was bebop. He invented something different. But he had very good teachers—Alberto Ginastera. Come on!
FJO: And Nadia Boulanger.
PZ: Yes.
FJO: Plus, something that people talk about a lot less, although he was born in Argentina and wound up back there as an adult, he grew up in New York City. So his formative musical influences as a teenager were happening here in the United States.
PZ: [He heard] more jazz than tango. He really wanted to be a pianist, not a bandoneón player. But his father was a strong influence and gave him this small squishy black instrument. Thank God. He was an amazing bandoneón player.
FJO: And although he was initially considered a radical, 20 years after his death he is embraced as a classic. So what began as something avant-garde is now a tradition that you’re in the position of upholding. Over the last 20 years there have been people who are making music that is in some ways even further away from tango’s origins than what Piazzolla and you have done. I’m thinking of groups like Tanghetto or Gustavo Santaolalla’s Bajafondo, which mix synthesizers, sampling, and heavy beats with tango.
PZ: Well, everybody has the right to mix and do these kinds of experiments. I remember the first time that I heard The Gotan Project, a group from Europe. A Berlin radio program put this on and said, “What do you think about this?” I said it was like disco music with bandoneón and some DJs.
FJO: Well, what’s interesting is that as radical as it sounds initially, in some ways it’s actually very old fashioned, because it has made the music into dance music for a new generation.
PZ: Of course, it’s fantastic that people can dance again the tango in this way. Disco tango. It’s dance music. But that is not music for the concert stage. That’s my opinion. Or my feeling.
FJO: You’ve talked about your music being for the concert hall, but could people dance to it?
PZ: Yes. Here in New York, there are a lot of milongas every night. And I discovered in one of these milongas they have a ballroom for traditional tango and another ballroom for modern tango. So one of my pieces could work for dancing [there]. I think you can dance to some of my first compositions. But I have a lot of tunes now that have asymmetrical rhythms—seven, or fifteen. I don’t know if they can dance to that. It’s more O.K. for classical ballet.
FJO: I know you’re performing with classically trained dancers this summer at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival.
PZ: I’m going to have some collaboration with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, playing with them one of the works that Paul Taylor did with Piazzolla’s music. I think it’s a very good experiment. I love that. Many years ago at a contemporary dance festival in Genoa, we were playing with a group of contemporary dancers and it was fantastic. I also had a really good experience with Piazzolla and the prima ballerinas from La Scala in Milan. We had those guys working with us for one week.
FJO: Now in terms of working with a dance company, there’s always some difficulty for dancers to work with live musicians, especially when the music includes a lot of improvisation. I find this very strange since before there were recordings, dancers always had to find a way to work with live music. But dancers nowadays are used to rehearsing with very specific musical cues.
PZ: It’s impossible to repeat exactly. We are going to play in our way. But the people from this dance company are very excited to do this with live music, because it’s going to change something in the way they dance, so I’m very happy to do this now with Paul Taylor.
FJO: It’s interesting that in addition to performing your own compositions, projects involving the music of Piazzolla are still among your most significant musical activities since you’re considered by many people to be the source for this music.
PZ: Yes, probably, because I played ten years with this guy. I know exactly in what way the musicians, any musician, can play it. What is the exact way to play his music? Piazzolla was very contradictory. [Sometimes] he was playing fast, some tunes, and I’d say, “Why we are playing so fast?” And he’d say, “I don’t like that tanguero rhythm—slow.” But I prefer that kind of groove.

Pablo Ziegler performing with Hector del Curto, Pablo Aslán, Claudio Ragazzi ,and Paquito D´Rivera at the Jazz Standard on December 13, 2002. Photo courtesy Bernstein Artists.

Pablo Ziegler performing with Hector del Curto, Pablo Aslán, Claudio Ragazzi, and Paquito D’Rivera at the Jazz Standard on December 13, 2002. Photo courtesy Pat Philips.

What is the way to play this new tango? I remember the first time that Piazzolla gave me a piano part and said you are free to change it. So that’s what I did. I know the way to bring that to my groups or to classical musicians. It’s not in the sheet music; it’s in his recordings. If you play with sheet music, playing [just] everything written, it’s really a bore, because you don’t know the way to do something different with that, to create some kind of fresh rhythms. It’s the way to move accents, the articulation when you play, and the very fresh manner, very tender with no rush. Most of the classical players play very square and rush. That happens in the very first moment when I start to rehearse with classical musicians. And I stop and say, “Try to dance with me.” I show them the way to dance, even to my music. That is the way to play also, to dance, because the music is going to be more accessible, tender, and fresh.
FJO: But you can’t put that on paper.
PZ: I can put that on paper. In my arrangements, I try to put it in. But I always tell musicians: You’re free to change whatever you like. I can give you some examples of the way to phrase, but if you feel something different, just play. Probably it’s fantastic. That’s one of the ways that I’m learning also from the musicians, too. Sometimes they’re playing and I like it that way. It’s a very open way to play music. If I bring some Beethoven piano concerto, everybody knows the way to play that kind of music, which is very strict. But with this music, we have to feel it and do something different. I’m giving them that chance.

2-piano score excerpt of Ziegler's Places

An excerpt from the score of the two-piano arrangement of Pablo Ziegler’s composition “Places.” © 2000 by Ziegler Music Publishing (ASCAP). All rights reserved and reprinted with permission.

FJO: It really sounds like it’s about feeling it physically, rather than just understanding it intellectually with your eyes.
PZ: I think it’s the same as with Chopin’s music, when he was composing mazurkas, this kind of Polish music. It’s in three-four, but the way you play it is in four; there’s some kind of delay. It adds to this music some kind of space, a little breath in between those rhythms; that is the way to play this music.
FJO: There are people who say that in order to play jazz authentically it has to come from the blues, and that if you don’t have that in your background, you can never really understand how to play this music.
PZ: For that reason the jazz musicians in the United States are really unique compared to jazz in Europe. American jazz musicians have this, their roots are the blues.
FJO: Is there something similar for tango?
PZ: Being an Argentinian player is different than being an American player. If you were born in Buenos Aires, you know how the people walk and talk. It’s tango music. You can see that music in the streets. That is really important in the transmission [of the music]. It is not the same if an American jazz player is playing my music [rather] than an Argentinian guy. But there are very good professionals, and I love this kind of crossover. We are playing music with a lot of roots. It’s very interesting to mix that.
FJO: Well it definitely turns it into something else. That is how music evolves. In fact, here we are sitting in Brooklyn, very far away from Buenos Aires. You have now been living here for a long time, even though you travel around the world so much you basically are living everywhere on the planet at this point. But the audiences you are playing for—whether here or in Japan or Italy or wherever else you’re playing this year—aren’t necessarily going to have that background of walking on the streets of Buenos Aires either.
PZ: No, of course. But when you play in your authentic way, the audience [claps hands once] gets it. They catch something. I know that.

FJO: One could argue that there is a kind of universality to nuevo tango at this point. But I wonder, even though Piazzolla encouraged you to embrace your roots instead of writing music that is—as you put it—universal, something without a firm basis in any particular culture, could you ever imagine writing or playing music that wasn’t culturally specific? Could you imagine playing or writing music again that was not somehow connected to tango?
PZ: That’s a good question. I was composing some kind of malambo music, which is a folk music. I’m not experienced in folk music, but I know the way to write this kind of stuff. But I don’t want to compose in that way because you have to live in the countryside to be part of that music. It’s really different than tango music, which was born in the city. Tangos are urban music, just like jazz. We have the same roots; it’s music that’s coming from the city.
FJO: There are all sorts of other styles of music happening here in Brooklyn right now. Could you see yourself responding musically to any of those scenes?
PZ: I grew up in Buenos Aires. I know that way. My father was a violin player, besides the other things he did, and when he was young he was playing tango music with his violin. And when I was a kid, my father was teaching me the way to play all the traditional tango tunes. So that means the tango music was inside me; I grew up with that music.
FJO: So has being here all these years had any impact on your music at all?
PZ: Of course. Playing with different jazz musicians and classical musicians here has had a big impact on my music. But I’m still trying to try to preserve those roots and playing with that groove. And that works with audiences.

A pile of Ziegler's published scores lies on the floor in his apartment next to a fan.

Photo by Molly Sheridan.

Juan Orrego-Salas: I’ve Written All I Have to Write

At the home of Juan Orrego-Salas in Bloomington, Indiana
March 1, 2014—5:30 p.m.
Recorded by Trudy Chan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Several years ago while rummaging through the shelves of LPs at the offices of Peermusic Classical, I stumbled upon a record called “The Contemporary Composer in the USA” which featured a Sextet for clarinet, piano and strings by a composer named Juan Orrego-Salas. There was something intriguing about it and thankfully the generous folks at Peer gave me the album. Upon listening to the Sextet, I immediately fell in love with the music and so was eager to hear more. The liner notes were not extensive, so I looked up Orrego-Salas in my paperback copy of the 1980 edition of the Grove Dictionary. The article there stated that he was born in Chile in 1919 and received his early composition training there, but he came to the U.S.A. to study with Aaron Copland and Randall Thompson in the 1940s; in 1961, he founded the Latin American Music Center at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. The most recent event listed therein—apart from a work list that went up to 1976—was his receiving various honorary degrees in Chile in 1971, which made it seem like he had moved back there. Having not heard about him before and not readily finding any more recent information, I was not sure that he was still alive. (At that point in time, Wikipedia was not quite up to its current content and accuracy level.) Later on, a few additional early pieces of his surfaced on old out-of-print recordings; a real find was an RCA “shaded dog” featuring two gorgeous song cycles El Alba del Alheli for soprano and piano and Canciones Castellanas for soprano with an ensemble of eight instruments.

The LP that started my search for Juan Orrego-Salas.

The LP that started my search for Juan Orrego-Salas.

Then in 2009, a music journalist from Santiago, Chile named Álvaro Gallegos, who was traveling around the United States to learn more about American composers, visited the office. We spent quite a bit of time chatting about music and I quickly learned that he was as passionate an advocate for Chilean composers as I attempt to be for composers from the United States. He started naming names of important Chileans whose music I needed to hear such as Leni Alexander and Gustavo Becerra-Schmidt (who was still alive at that time) and I cut in that I knew some music by Juan Orrego-Salas at which point I not only learned that he was still alive but that he was still living in Indiana. I stored that information in the back of my head, hoping to take a trip there to meet him as well as to learn more about the Latin American Music Center.

The cover of SVR's Orrego-Salas release

SVR’s re-issue of historic recordings of Orrego-Salas’s orchestral music.

In 2011, SVR Producciones, a Chilean record label that has done a terrific job documenting the music of national composers, issued a two-CD set of orchestral works by Orrego-Salas from rare decades-old recorded performances. It is an impressive document which includes the formidable First Piano Concerto and three of the symphonies. The Third Symphony was the last thing Orrego-Salas wrote in Chile before permanently moving to the United States and the Fourth Symphony was his first major work composed after relocating here. The similar, yet different sound worlds of those two pieces seemed like an interesting departure point for a conversation with Orrego-Salas about music and national identity if only I could find a way to connect with him. In January 2014, Juan Orrego-Salas turned 95. I learned that he was in good health and would be amenable to a conversation about his music, so I contacted Erick Carballo, the current director of the Latin American Music Center, to coordinate a meeting with Orrego Salas at his home in Bloomington which we planned for Saturday, March 1.

A day before the flight, Orrego-Salas called me, initially concerned that the time I had arranged to visit him was the same time as the Metropolitan Opera’s HD screening of Borodin’s opera Prince Igor which he wanted to see again since he had fond memories of the previous production of it he saw when he was nine-year-old. I did some math in my head as he was talking to me—that would have been in 1928! So I arranged to visit him later in the day and our in-person conversation turned out to be an even more amazing journey back in time. He spoke of his studies with Pedro Humberto Allende, Chile’s most significant early 20th century composer as well as his interactions with other important Chileans such as Pablo Neruda, Claudio Arrau, and Acario Cotapos. He described being invited to Tanglewood in 1946 by Aaron Copland along with a group of Latin American composers which also included Alberto Ginastera, Héctor Tosar, Roque Cordero, and Julián Orbón. He had some great anecdotes about Copland as well as other important compositional mentors such as Randall Thompson and Luigi Dallapiccola, with whom he came into contact when his Canciones Castellanas was performed during the ISCM World Music Days in Italy in 1949. He also mentioned his friendships with Irving Fine, Lukas Foss, Harold Shapero, and William Schuman. Of all of these people, he is the only one who is still alive, but he and his wife recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary and he is overjoyed by his children and grandchildren.

In the 1950s, Orrego-Salas was something of a cause célèbre in the United States even though he spent most of that decade back in Chile teaching composition, conducting a girl’s chorus, and writing music criticism for one of Santiago’s newspapers. Despite all of those distractions from his own composing, he created a series of major works that were premiered by the National Symphony in Washington, D.C., the Louisville Orchestra, and the Juilliard Quartet, among others. Particularly intriguing is the story of how he came to live in Bloomington as a result of representatives from the Rockefeller Foundation repeatedly visiting Santiago in order to convince him to return to the United States to establish a Latin American Music Center here which they would underwrite. Orrego-Salas refused to do so unless the center was based at an American university for fear that without such support it would cease to exist after the initial funding for it evaporated. Now, more than half a century later, LAMC remains an important part of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. The main activity of LAMC has been the amassing of a huge collection of scores (one of the most complete collections of works by Latin American composers in the world) which are housed at IU’s William and Gayle Cook Music Library. But LAMC also presents concerts on campus and runs an annual competition for performers that results in commercially released recordings of Latin American repertoire.

Over the course of the many years that Orrego-Salas has lived in Indiana, much of it spent running LAMC and teaching composition, he continued to compose and his catalog spans some 126 works including six symphonies, seven concertante works, several large-scale cantatas and oratorios, four string quartets and tons of other pieces for various chamber ensembles, chorus, and solo voice. But he decided a few years ago that he said all he needed to say as a composer and is no longer writing music. He has contributed an extraordinary legacy both as a composer and as an advocate for composers from throughout Latin America. He is revered as a major compositional figure to this day in Chile, yet here in the United States he is insufficiently appreciated despite having lived here for more than five decades, having had his music championed by high profile American orchestras and ensembles, and being the last surviving member of a major group of American composers of the mid-20th century. His story is an important story in the annals of American music and one which is finally being told here.

Photo of Orrego-Salas's home

The home of Juan Orrego-Salas in Bloomington, Indiana. Photo by FJO.


Frank J. Oteri: I’m curious about the milieu in which you grew up: the environment, the music you heard, the first things you heard. You intrigued me on the telephone the other day when you said that you heard Prince Igor when you were only nine years old.

Orrego-Salas in 2013

Orrego-Salas in 2013, photo courtesy Lauren Keiser Music.

Juan Orrego-Salas: Yes, I did. A Russian, a Russian company came to Chile at that time. I was born in 1919, so it must have been 1928, let’s say, when I heard this. Not only Prince Igor, I heard Boris Godunov and Tsar Saltan by Rimsky also. And I was very, very deeply impressed. And my wife has heard me talking about that for during our life. So when she saw that they were showing [a Metropolitan Opera HD broadcast of] it today, she said, let’s go to it. She went alone because I was committed to you. But she came back after a while very disappointed, saying that it was a very bad performance. I’m glad that I didn’t go because I don’t want to be disappointed.
FJO: What about some of the other music you heard. I know from the LAMC interview you did a couple of years ago that you were already playing piano when you were four.
JO-S: Yes. My mother played a little piano, and she started teaching me piano. So I started playing a little. I remember Peer Gynt from Grieg, pieces from that I played on the piano. It’s as far as I can go back in my training as a musician.
FJO: I find it interesting though that from the very beginning you said that you really were more interested in creating your own music rather than to play someone else’s music.
JO-S: Yeah, having fun with the keyboard and inventing things. The thing that I remember very well is that my mother was very strict that I should practice every day [for] at least one hour. When she had to go to do something, she asked the maid to follow that I had been practicing for an hour. When she came back, she received from the maid, “Oh, he’s been very good. Over an hour, I think around two hours.” I hadn’t touched anything that I had [on the piano]; I had been improvising all the time. But the maid didn’t know the difference. See?
FJO: Now I’m curious, you knew about all this classical music. Your mother played the piano. You heard these Russian operas. Did you have a sense that this improvising at that piano was being a composer, that you were creating music and that this was new music?
JO-S: I never thought of that. I liked to do it, but I never thought that word composer. I don’t think it came so early into my lingo.
FJO: At that time, did you know of Chilean composers, or were you just hearing European music?
JO-S: No, I knew about Chilean composers because my father and mother were friendly with most of the composers active at that time. When the Chilean pianist [Claudio] Arrau came to Chile, he came to have dinner at [our] home. I met him when I was a baby, really.
FJO: So who were some of the composers you met when you were young?
JO-S: Well, one that became my first composition teacher, Pedro Humberto Allende.
FJO: He wrote some extraordinary piano pieces that are still played today.
JO-S: Yes, right. He was very well known in Chile and respected in Chile.
FJO: How old were you when you were studying with him?
JO-S: When I was studying with him, I was perhaps 12- to 14-years old.
FJO: How did your family feel about your composing original music?
JO-S: I don’t think that they were too opinionated about it. The only person that perhaps would have preferred my playing Chopin rather than my inventions at the piano is my grandmother, the mother of my father, because she played the piano. She played Chopin and whenever I went to visit her, she wanted me to sit at the piano and play something. And I played always the same Chopin prelude that I had learned with my mother and she enjoyed it very much.
FJO: But she didn’t enjoy when you played your own music.
JO-S: I never did try that. I never tried.
FJO: Now, in terms of knowing this word composer, by the time you were in your teens you were studying with Allende, who was probably the most famous composer in Chile then. So at that point did you have a sense that you wanted to spend the rest of your life writing music?
JO-S: I started feeling that very gradually. I think that it didn’t happen very specifically until I was a student at the National Conservatory. I joined Allende’s class and there of course I met other composers, young composers that were studying with him: Alfonso Letelier, René Amengual, and others. Then I started feeling myself sort of associated with the idea of being a composer, of inventing music. Because for me, a composer is the one who invents music.
FJO: At that time in the rest of the world, there were very different kinds of attitudes about what contemporary music should be. There were the experimentalists but there were also many more old fashioned composers who were still actively writing music that was being performed. Also, everywhere there were composers who wanted to re-invent classical music using their own country’s folk music idioms, like Bartók in Hungary, and to some extent Allende in Chile.
JO-S: Yes, yes, that’s right, or Copland in the United States, who became my teacher.
FJO: That’s much later and I definitely want to talk about that with you. But in terms of what music you were exposed to back in the 1930s, I’m wondering if you had much contact with the Chilean composer Acario Cotapos who had a much more experimental orientation.
JO-S: Oh, yes. We were friends. I’ll tell you a very funny thing. Cotapos was very nice and very humorous. One day we were having dinner with him, and my wife asked him, “Acario, how is it that being so nice yourself, you never got married.” “My dear, I forgot it,” he said. That was his answer!
FJO: So, in terms of the music that you wanted to write, did you see yourself more carrying on a tradition from the past, from Europe, trying to invent a music that was for Chile, or being some kind of individual experimenter who was forging your own personal path?
JO-S: I felt closer to Stravinsky. I was interested in the way his music was organized.
FJO: Did you want to study with Stravinsky?
JO-S: I never thought that I could study with Stravinsky.
FJO: So many composers at that time, when they traveled outside of their countries to study music, went to Europe to study. So many composers from the United States studied in France with Nadia Boulanger. But when you left Chile to study music somewhere else, you came to the U.S.A.
JO-S: Well, I came to the U.S.A. because of Copland. Copland had been to Chile and he had seen little things that I had written. So, he said, you should come to the United States. And he was my mentor in the United States.

Robert Shaw, Juan Orrego-Salas, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Irving Fine

Juan Orrego-Salas (second from left) at Tangelwood in 1946 with Robert Shaw (to his left), Aaron Copland (standing), Leonard Bernstein (drinking), and Irving Fine. Photo by Ruth Orkin. From the Irving Fine Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Congress.

FJO: You were part of that very famous class at Tanglewood together with Alberto Ginastera.
JO-S: With Ginastera and [Héctor] Tosar and [Roque] Cordero…
FJO: You were all from different Latin American countries, so did you actually know each other before you came to Tanglewood?
JO-S: I knew Ginastera; we were friends already. Tosar and Cordero, also.
FJO: It’s quite interesting to me that in addition to studying composition with Copland, you were also studying musicology with Paul Henry Lang at Columbia…
JO-S: Yes.
FJO: You had also studied architecture.
JO-S: Well, the architecture thing is different. When I finished high school, my family said “Well now, which is the profession that you have chosen?” I said, “I don’t think I need to choose a profession because I have it already. It’s music.” “No, no, no,” my grandfather said, especially. “No, my dear. Music is very nice. We like you doing music, but that’s not a profession. You’re not going to live on music. You have to choose a real profession.” “What’s a real profession?” I said. “Well… law, engineering, architecture.” So I chose architecture, because I was interested in painting also. I did lots of watercolors. I was interested, so I entered the School of Architecture, and I wasn’t sorry because I started developing a sense that the relation between music and architecture was very close. So I became very much interested in architecture, and I completed my studies in architecture, and I became an architect, but I never practiced architecture except in designing a window for my house and things like that.
FJO: I heard that you built this whole house we’re in.
JO-S: No, I didn’t build it. This was pre-built, but I changed lots of things in this house.

An original watercolor by Juan Orrego-Salas

One of Juan Orrego-Salas’s original watercolors still hangs in a frame on the wall of the entranceway to his home in Bloomington, Indiana.

FJO: You actually gained notoriety as a composer quite early on. By the time you were 30-years old, you were already writing pieces of music that were published and were available.
JO-S: Yes. I thought I was quite lucky in that respect, you know. I don’t remember names very easily now at 95 years old. But I had met people from Boosey & Hawkes, for example. And they invited me to give them some of my works for them to administer. And there was an Argentinian publisher called Barry who represented by Boosey & Hawkes, and he picked a few things of mine, including my latest piece at that time, that was my First Symphony. Then when I was in England, I was in contact with Boosey & Hawkes, and they published a few of my choral works at that time.
FJO: You wound up having many pieces published with Peer.
JO-S: With Peer. Yes.
FJO: You were also getting significant international performances of your music. Canciones Castellanas was done during the ISCM World Music Days.
JO-S: In 1949 at the festival of ISCM in Italy, in Palermo.
FJO: That was only three years after the festival started again when World War II ended. So I’m curious how that helped your reputation at the time.

Orrego Salas LP on RCA

The first all Orrego-Salas LP, an RCA “shaded dog” with one side featuring Canciones Castellanas (pictured above) and the other featuring El alba del Alhelí.

JO-S: Enormously, because at that time, Dallapiccola was in Palermo where my piece was played and I conducted it, which was really, very audacious because I had never conducted. But the singer that I got was an Italian singer, and she encouraged me to conduct her. It’s a piece for seven instruments and voice. And, well, I did it. I think that Dallapiccola helped me a great deal because he was at the rehearsals. And he said, “Don’t do this when you are pointing. Be very relaxed. Don’t show him that he’s doing it wrong.” Things like that. He helped me a great deal in conducting that piece.
FJO: So in some ways, he was as important a mentor to you as Copland had been earlier, and there was also Randall Thompson.
JO-S: Yes, in many ways he [Thompson] helped me more than Aaron Copland. Copland showed me very useful things along his path of thought in music. But Randall Thompson gave me more freedom in conveying to me to do what you feel, what you think, what you want.
FJO: Nowadays, Copland is an internationally-known composer and a wide range of his music is still played, but Randall Thompson is mostly remembered for his choral music. Initially when I learned that you had studied with Thompson, I assumed that led to your own immersion in choral music. But he wrote so much more than that.
JO-S: Well, he was a teacher of Bernstein, also. And Bernstein I don’t think he wrote very much choral music.
FJO: But you went on to conduct a chorus.
JO-S: Yes, I was a conductor of the Catholic University Chorus [in Santiago].
FJO: The year after that ISCM performance, 1950, seems to have been a watershed year for you as a composer. In that year you composed both a really powerful piano concerto and a strikingly beautiful song cycle for voice and piano, El alba del Alhelí.

El Alba del Alheli score excerpt

An excerpt from the score of Juan Orrego-Salas’s El Alba del Alhelí, Op. 29 (1950)
Copyright © 1958 by Juan Orrego-Salas. All rights reserved. Published by Peermusic Classical and reprinted with permission.

JO-S: The Piano Concerto was a path towards going out of Chile because, at that time, Celibidache was conducting the symphony orchestra. And he got very much interested in my piano concerto, and he did it in Berlin with a pianist Helmut Roloff, whom I met years later.
FJO: So you didn’t hear him do it?
JO-S: No. I wasn’t at that performance.
FJO: For the most of the 1950s you were in Chile, doing so many different things in addition to writing music. You were conducting that girls’ chorus and you were a professor of music at the University. You were also the music critic for the newspaper.
JO-S: For Mercurio. It was a lot. I wish it would have been less, and I would have dedicated more to composition.
FJO: Except the music you were writing at that time was so interesting and was getting noticed internationally. You were doing all these other activities besides composing in Chile, but you were also getting important commissions, including many commissions from the United States. The Louisville Orchestra commissioned you. Your first string quartet was premiered by The Juilliard Quartet. Tanglewood commissioned your Sextet for clarinet, piano and strings, which is a phenomenal piece. I’m curious to hear what you think about all that music now, sixty years later.

Score excerpt from Orrego-Salas's 1st String Quartet

An excerpt from the score of Juan Orrego-Salas’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 46 (1956). Copyright © 1963 by Peer International Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

JO-S: Oh, I wouldn’t—I would be very frightened to say that they were great because I always thought that even if I wrote a piece that I enjoyed very much, I could do even better than that.
FJO: So are there any pieces you wrote that you would say are your favorites, that you feel the most proud of?
JO-S: I think the Canciones Castellanas, the one we were speaking of, is a very favorite piece of mine. And there is a later piece for string orchestra called Presencias that I enjoyed very much.
FJO: I’d like us to stay in the 1950s for a little bit longer and talk about these major performances of your music in the United States that were happening while you were in Santiago. You finally wound up moving here. Was that in anyway related?
JO-S: No. It wasn’t my decision. It was a Rockefeller Foundation decision. I had been a Rockefeller Fellow years before. And one day, I was sitting in Chile, doing all the things that I did in Chile, and the American embassy called me and said that Mr. Harrison was coming to Santiago and he wanted to see me and meet me. And I said, “Who’s Mr. Harrison?” He was an historian, a member of the Rockefeller Foundation Board of Directors. So I met him for lunch. And he said, “The Rockefeller Foundation has just helped Maestro Ginastera in establishing the di Tella Institute in Buenos Aires. But that’s to train composers. We want to establish in the United States an institute to promote Latin American music, and to research Latin American music.” In other words, it has something to do with musicology, with performance, with everything. And I said, “But I’m a composer.” “Yes, you are a composer. And we want you to continue being a composer. So, we have to find a way that you do both things. That would be any how less than what you’re doing here in Chile.”
“And so,” I said, “How would it be?” “Well, we thought of establishing this center for Latin American in the United States in Washington as part of the OAS [Organization of American States].” And as soon as he said that I said, “No. I’m not interested. I’m not interested in working anything that had to do with politics, absolutely not! I have nothing against the OAS, but I don’t want the OAS associated with work of Latin nature.” “So what would you suggest?” “Well, if you want to establish an institution that would provide inter-research on Latin American composition and stimulate performances of Latin American music, do it with a school of music in United States, or a university. You have loads of them. You have Juilliard and Eastman, and so forth.” And he said, “You’re absolutely right. I’m going back to the United States and inform the board about your idea.”
So, he came back a week later and said, “Look, Rockefeller approved your idea, and we’re going to do an investigation of several universities who have important music departments, or schools of music, which would be interested in this. And I’ll be back to you.” It didn’t last more than a couple of weeks and he was back in Chile [again]. And he said, “We investigated thirty universities and we have five [possibilities], including Indiana [University].” And I was aware of what was going on at Indiana University because when I was a Guggenheim Fellow in New York, William Schuman had told me of this school and that it was growing and growing. Schuman was the head of Juilliard at that time. And he said, “If you don’t want to go back to Chile, I could write a letter to Mr. [Wilfred Conwell] Bain, who is the Dean, and I am sure he will offer you a position at his school. Do you want me to do that?” “Yes, do it. See what happens.” Well, I received an offer from Dean Bain, offering me a position as a member of the theory department at Indiana University with a salary that was less than what I was receiving in Chile, to the pleasure of my family who said that music didn’t produce more than architecture! So I said to Dean Bain, “Well, I’m sorry, I’m not interested in teaching theory. And the salary is not the one I am aiming to.” “So,” he said, “I’m sorry, but I’ll be back to you.” Well, he was back every year. I received a Christmas letter from him saying I haven’t given up the idea of having you here. So when the Rockefeller [Foundation] came with this idea, Dean Bain jumped and said, “We want him as founder and head of this Latin American Music Center and teacher of composition.” And that was what he offered me, with a salary that was at that time, decent.
FJO: So that first contact with Bain was in 1954.
JO-S: 1955 I think.
FJO: So for seven years you stayed in Chile doing all these different activities but at the same time getting all of these performances of your music in the United States. Were you traveling back and forth all the time?
JO-S: No. I didn’t travel after 1954-55, when I was a Guggenheim Fellow.
FJO: So you were just getting phone calls and letters.
JO-S: Yeah. My next trip to the United States was in 1961 when I established the Latin American Music Center.

Copland and Latin American composers.

Composers of the Americas (back row, left to right): Julián Orbón (1925-1991, Cuba), Juan Orrego-Salas (b. 1919, Chile), Aaron Copland (1900-1990, U.S.A.), Antonio Estevez (1916-1988, Venezuela), Harold Gramatges (1918-1998, Cuba), Roque Cordero (1917-2008, Panama), Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983, Argentina), (front row) Héctor Campos Parsi (1922-1998, Puerto Rico) and Blas Galindo (1910-1993, Mexico). Photo courtesy of the Latin American Music Center.

FJO: We talked earlier about identity and your teacher Allende introducing Chilean elements into classical music. You wrote all these pieces that continue in that tradition, but many of them were commissioned by groups for performance in the United States. Then you came to the United States. How much of your identity as a composer remained Chilean? How much became American?
JO-S: That I don’t know. I don’t know what to answer here. But I’ll tell you something. The Sextet was commissioned by a foundation in New York and that was arranged by Aaron Copland. And Aaron Copland arranged the first performance in Tanglewood. And I was invited to Tanglewood to attend the first performance. And I went there. And I’ll tell you a funny story. Aaron Copland was waiting for me in the station where you come from New York to Tanglewood. And he had reserved for me a room and so on. It was very nice to see him again. And he said to me, “Well, I’ll tell you, this afternoon you have a rehearsal of your Sextet. But I’ll have to pull your ears because you did a very naughty thing with the Sextet.” What did I do? I was very frightened, you know. “You end pianissimo. You should never end pianissimo a work at your age because you need applause, and they never applaud pianissimo endings.” “Well I’m sorry, because it’s written already.” Okay, he sat with me at the premiere, and when it ended, there was a big applause. I said, “I am sorry. You are right, and I’m wrong.” [laughs]

The last page of the score of Orrego-Salas's Sextet

The ending of Juan Orrego-Salas’s Sextet for Bb clarinet, string quartet, and piano, Op. 38 (1954)
Copyright © 1967 by Peer International Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
(Please note that the clarinet part is notated in C herein.)

FJO: There is something about that Sextet in particular, to my ears anyway that sounds very American, more than it sounds Chilean.
JO-S: I don’t know that. It sounds mine.
FJO: I’m curious to know more about composers in the United States you felt a strong kinship to at that time.
JO-S: I was a good friend of William Schuman. And Lukas Foss; we became very good friends, and I’m very sorry that he has left this world because he had lots of things to say still. Irving Fine was a very honest composer. And very critical with himself. One day he showed me a piece he had written for chamber orchestra which I thought it was wonderful. And he thought it was awful. And I couldn’t convince him. He was that kind of composer. Never sure of what he was. Harold Shapero was a very great composer, that is unknown now in the United States.

Shapero, Fine, Orrego-Salas, Foss, and Copland 1946

Harold Shapero (1920-2013), Irving Fine (1914-1962), Juan Orrego-Salas (b. 1919), Lukas Foss (1922-2009), and Aaron Copland (1900-1990) at Tanglewood in 1946. Photographer unknown. From the Irving Fine Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress. Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Congress.

FJO: The piece that you wrote right before you moved to Bloomington, the Third Symphony, also sounds to me as if it is in some way leaning toward a sound world that is somewhat akin to these composers. Do you feel that you and these composers were working toward a common language?
JO-S: I had never thought on those terms. Never. I wrote the Third Symphony and because I wrote it; there is no other reason to have written it. And the Fourth Symphony I wrote here.

Score excerpt from Orrego-Salas's 4th Symphony

An excerpt from the score of Juan Orrego-Salas’s Symphony No. 4 “De la respuesta lejana”, Op. 59 (1966).
Copyright © 1966 Norruth Music, Inc. Copyright assigned 2008 to Keiser Classical (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: The Fourth Symphony has a similar sound world to your Third, but it’s also the earliest piece that I know of yours that uses 12-tone techniques, albeit in quite a unique way.
JO-S: The Fourth. The Fifth Symphony has never been played.
FJO: Really?
JO-S: I’ve written six symphonies. The Sixth Symphony was premiered last year in Colombia.
FJO: Wow. And the fifth has not been played.
JO-S: Hasn’t been played.
FJO: It was not commissioned? You just wrote it?
JO-S: I just wrote it.

Excerpt from the score of Orrego-Salas' 5th Symphony

An excerpt from the score of Juan Orrego-Salas’s as yet unperformed Symphony No. 5, Op. 109 (1995).
Copyright © 1995 Norruth Music, Inc. Copyright assigned 2008 to Keiser Classical (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Wow. Now the Fourth Symphony, I want to return to the Fourth for a little bit longer, because that’s really the first really major work you wrote as a composer based in the U.S.A. You said that you’re not really thinking in terms of identity, but I wonder if in any way being in Bloomington, which is a very different place from Santiago, if that in any way affected your mind and your thoughts about music, if it opened up another set of ideas for you.
JO-S: I think it must have. But I’m not self conscious of it. Not, not at all.
FJO: So what inspired you to explore 12-tone composition?
JO-S: I’ve used 12-tone music as an experiment, which I am not really deeply associated with. That’s why I have abandoned it, and come back to it.
FJO: But in terms of places, you’ve now spent close to 50 years here in Bloomington.
JO-S: ’61 to ’14…
FJO: By now you’ve spent more time here than you did in Chile where you are considered perhaps the greatest living Chilean composer. You are honored there as a hero. But so much of your music was actually written here in this country and yet you are not often spoken about in the history of music in the United States. To my mind, you are an American composer.

Juan Orrego-Salas with conductor Carmen Helena Tellez. Photo courtesy of the Latin American Music Center.

Juan Orrego-Salas with conductor Carmen Helena Téllez who served as director of the Latin American Music Center from 1992 to 2012. Photo courtesy of the Latin American Music Center.

JO-S: Yes. I don’t mind being an American composer or a Chilean composer, or an Argentinian composer. That’s an argument that we had with Ginastera several times, because Ginastera wanted to be an Argentinian. And he had a purpose of writing music as an Argentinian composer, which I never had in Chile. I think the only work that I wrote very self consciously using Chilean folk elements was a cycle of three songs that I called Canciones en estilo popular, songs in the popular style. Because they were based on Neruda’s poems on popular things.
FJO: So did you know Neruda?
JO-S: Oh yes. Very well.
FJO: And he heard your songs?
JO-S: Yes, he thought that he had no ear for music. He said he didn’t know the difference between the national anthem and the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven.
FJO: So you can’t really say how he responded to your music.
JO-S: No, I cannot. No composer in Chile can say anything about that.
FJO: Still it surprises me—which is why I thought it was very important for me to talk to you for this web magazine about music in the United States—that while you are a national hero in Chile, more people in this country are not aware of your music. And you have also had an influence on composers here, since you taught composers here for so many years.
JO-S: I’ve had American students—United States students—but I’ve also had Venezuelan students and I’ve had Argentinian students during my teaching here. I don’t know if there is a difference, unless they decide to do it. I’ve had a composer who for me is among my very best: a Venezuelan, who now is teaching in Michigan—Ricardo Lorenz. Ricardo Lorenz is a Venezuelan composer that for me it doesn’t sound Venezuelan, or Chilean, or American. He sounds Lorenz.
FJO: So for you that should be the goal for every composer, to sound like him or herself?
JO-S: Right.

Janos Starker, Juan Orrego-Salas and Charles Webb

Juan Orrego-Salas (standing on right) listening to cellist János Starker and pianist Charles Webb rehearse his music. Photo courtesy of the Latin American Music Center.

FJO: I’m curious about the music that you have written in recent years.
JO-S: Which are the recent years? I haven’t written a thing in about the last three years. I think I finished writing music. When I saw Aaron Copland for the last time, it was here. Sitting here. Perhaps in this chair. He had one of my granddaughters sitting in his lap. And I asked him suddenly, “Aaron, what are you writing?” He looked. “Nothing. I’ve written all what I had to write.” And that said a great thing for me. I know that Aaron had written everything that he had to write. And I was starting to feel that I had written also what I had to write. I had nothing more to say in music. I transferred the legacy of all my works, my photographs, my letters and everything to Indiana University. And they possess it now.
FJO: So what would you say now to composers who are on the other side of their careers, just starting to write music and trying to find themselves and to establish a career path?
JO-S: Be always what you are when you’re writing music. That’s perhaps the best advice that I can give.


Ed. Note: For more about Juan Orrego Salas and the founding of the Latin American Music Center, here’s an excellent interview he did with current LAMC director Erick Carballo in 2011…

Sounds Heard: Heather Schmidt—Icicles of Fire

One of the benefits of my association with the International Association of Music Information Centres all these years has been being able to find out about all of the exciting new music that is being created in the other countries that are part of this network. As part of the work these organizations do on behalf of the music of their respective countries, many have issued significant recordings over the years. I’m always excited when I receive one of the “Zoom In” compilations from the Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Centre, the latest sampler from the Contemporary Music Centre in Ireland, or the annual chronicle of the Warsaw Autumn produced by POLMIC. A few music information centers have even maintained their own recording labels over the years. One of my favorites of these labels—NM Classics (a joint effort by Radio Netherlands and the Music Centre The Netherlands, which ceased operations in December 2012)—is sadly no more, and Phono Suecia (run from the Swedish Music Information Centre) has seriously curtailed its operations. But there are several other members in the IAMIC network that thankfully are still very actively releasing new music such as the Slovenian Music Information Centre and the Deutsche Musikrat, which curates the indispensable Edition Zeitgenössische Musik released on the Wergo label. Closer to home is Centrediscs, the label of the Canadian Music Centre, which has put out a treasure trove of music by Canadian composers spanning over a century and has long been the best source for learning about Canadian music. The only labels that are remotely parallel to Centrediscs here in the United States are New World Records and innova, the label of the American Composers Forum, but the broad reach of Centrediscs within Canada makes it stand apart. They also have very few competitors. CBC Records, the label of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, has reduced its once staunch commitment to the music of Canadian composers to virtually nil, although Naxos’s Canadian Classics imprint has released some fascinating music since its launch in 2011.

Although all of these recordings eventually find their way into my various CD players, I rarely get a chance to jot down my thoughts about them here since the repertoire they cover extends beyond the borders of the United States. However, since our neighbors to the north frequently relocate here and vice versa, and the Canadian Music Centre considers any composer born or currently residing in their country to be Canadian, just as we acknowledge any composer born or currently residing in the United States to be one of ours, there is some overlap. Such is the case with Canadian-born composer/pianist Heather Schmidt, whose music I first became acquainted with when she was living in New York City. She had recently completed her doctorate at Indiana University and was the youngest person to have received that degree from them at that point. Nowadays she divides her time between Toronto and Los Angeles. Her impressive 1998 Cello Concerto appears on a wonderful disc of contemporary Canadian works for cello and orchestra featuring cellist Shauna Rolston that was issued by the CBC in 2001, back when they were still making significant contributions to recording Canadian music. And I was later particularly smitten by a short solo piano piece called Twelve for Ten that she composed and performed as part of a collection of new fugues in homage to our Northern neighbor’s most famous classical musician, Glenn Gould; Schmidt’s piece is even based on a distillation of his name into musical pitches: G E G D!

Earlier this year Centrediscs issued the very first CD devoted exclusively to Schmidt’s own music. (There are several discs devoted to her piano performances of a variety of repertoire.) After having heard the aforementioned large scale cello work for Shauna Rolston and the solo piano piece she performed herself, it was thrilling to hear a disc of duos featuring Rolston and the composer herself at the piano. All in all there are three compositions on the new disc, presented in reverse chronological order, which were composed over the course of the last decade.

The most recent of the pieces, Synchronicity (2007), is in two relatively short movements, the first of which is approximately half the length of the latter. In the first dreamlike movement, a repeated cello pattern accompanies a piano melody—something of a role reversal from most cello-piano duo repertoire. The second movement is more visceral, with fierce piano thumps in the lower register that eventually give way to a melodic line that gets trades between the cello and piano and is sometimes shared by them. In its modal monody it is somewhat reminiscent of the East Asian inspired chamber music of Lou Harrison.

After the extroverted freneticism of the closing measures of Synchronicity, the more introverted single-movement Fantasy (2006) comes across as an oasis of serenity. The piece’s quiet, almost spare texture does, however, belie an undercurrent that sounds somewhat more menacing, perhaps because of Schmidt’s focus on the lower registers of both instruments. Even when they occasionally soar into their upper registers, those passages sound like they are immerging from a deep abyss.

Icicles of Fire (2003)—the last piece on the disc and also the earliest of the three—is another diptych. Again, the first movement is somewhat ethereal and meditative whereas the second movement is bristling with tensions. In Schmidt’s notes, she describes imagining icicles with little flames burning inside them as she was composing it. She explains the music in the latter movement as “the smaller flames giv[ing] way to a full blown blaze”; the musical realization of this gives both musicians an opportunity to display their virtuosity.

Aside from its inherent interest due to the broad range of music that Schmidt has fashioned out of one of the more traditional chamber music duo configurations, this new Centrediscs recording of her music is a wonderful documentation of an ongoing collaboration between a composer and an interpreter. Relationships like this are so necessary for both sides of the music-making equation but are all too rare. Too frequently a performer will commission a composer just once or a composer will choose to write a sole work for a certain instrumental combination, but it is in the ongoing working through of materials that a real surety of purpose ultimately develops. Now if only every country in the world had organizations that documented their music as devotedly as the Canadian Music Centre continues to do through these recordings. I’m just happy that some of those Canadian composers have decided to spend their time in “the lower 48” and still get the same treatment!

Sounds Heard: Fernando Otero—Romance

I’ve long been a huge fan of tango music and the various Piazzolla and post-Piazzolla extensions of what tango could be. In 2011, in search of sheet music and recordings that were nearly impossible to find in the United States, I trekked down to South America where I even wound up getting rudimentary tango lessons at Buenos Aires’s legendary Bar Sur. (I’m glad there’s no video evidence of that.)

A few years before that, I was very excited about Pagina de Buenos Aires, a 2008 Nonesuch album featuring latter day Tango Nuevo instrumental music in a variety of formats—solo piano, piano and violin duets, small chamber ensemble, even a full orchestra—showcasing pianist/composer Fernando Otero, whose name was completely new to me at that point. Because of the similarity of our names, I immediately felt a slight tinge of kinship with him, but—the coincidence of that aside—the variety of moods and textures that Otero evoked from this musical tradition is what ultimately attracted me to the disc. Sadly, since all the press materials I was sent about the CD at that time identified Otero as Argentinian, I never considered it potential fodder for NewMusicBox. However, upon receiving his latest recording, Romance, in the mail recently, I learned that Otero actually lives in far less exotic Brooklyn! And for his latest outing he has actually utilized the talents of some of NYC’s finest genre-hopping musicians, among them vocalists Dana Hanchard and Kristin Norderval, violist Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin, and fellow Argentine-American Pablo Aslan, a bassist extraordinaire whose own 2004 album Avantango is a must hear for anyone interested in rhythmically based small ensemble improvised music. So I knew I had to write something about Otero’s Romance on these pages.
Throughout Romance Otero ratchets up the contemporary classical music allusions that were already in evidence on Pagina de Buenos Aires, e.g. chamber music sensibilities, a post-chromatic—and at times post-post-minimalist—approach to harmonic and form. But on the new album he also explores and combines many other musical idioms ranging from jazz to musical theatre and beyond. According to the disc’s program annotator, Miami-based music journalist Fernando González, its 11 tracks are intended to be consumed either individually or in any sequence the listener desires, a format suggested by the famous Argentinian novel Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar in which variable sequences for reading the chapters are part of the book’s design. While Hopscotch is a great read, it’s a far more demanding proposition than listening to Otero’s Romance in whatever order you ultimately choose to do so. Besides, listening to it in your own order is perhaps inevitable given the ubiquity of shuffle mode nowadays. Still, I felt compelled to listen to it, the first few times around at least, in the released sequence which, because of its variety of tempos and styles, is an ideal way to experience this music.

Otero at the piano

Fernando Otero tickles the ivories, photo courtesy of Aleba & Co.

“Ojos Que Se Abren Brillantes” opens sans piano, with melodica, clarinet and strings playing a striking, almost speech-like unison melodic line that is somewhat reminiscent of the vocal melodies in the slower movements of Steve Reich’s Tehillim and The Desert Music, albeit minus those compositions’ procedural underpinnings. The piano enters approximately midway through, but its role is supportive rather than soloistic. In “Arbolitos,” the piano has a more prominent role, sharing more straight-forward sounding melodies in unison with the strings. “Manifestación” starts off as a seemingly meditative piano and violin duet but soon veers off into quirkier, more unpredictable terrain as almost Chick Corea-like solo piano flourishes keep interrupting the flow. Things start really percolating, however, in “Piringundín de Almagro.” It’s brimming with the same kinds of unstable harmonic tensions that help to give Piazzolla’s music its signature earthy, visceral drive. But Otero also shows in his approach that he has a kinship with the music of John Adams. On the other hand, the ensuing “En Contacto Permanente,” with its wordless vocals, is far more ethereal. Gonzalez likens it to Villa-Lobos’s famous Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5, a haunting composition for wordless soprano and an ensemble of eight cellos. I also hear in it echoes of Les Baxter, the one-time king of Space Age Bachelor Pad Music whose 1951 Ritual of the Savage is nevertheless one of the most stunning examples of how to effectively incorporate wordless vocals into an orchestration.

In the original album order, “En Contacto Permanente” is followed by Preludio 4, a whirlwind piano solo that showcases Otero’s formidable keyboard prowess. (The earlier Pagina de Buenos Aires album featured his Preludio 19, so there are undoubtedly enough of these preludes for an intrepid pianist to explore as a standalone project; it would be nice to hear a whole program of them.) But Romance is as much a showcase for Otero’s compositions as his playing, so on the subsequent “Luz Del Primer Dia” the piano disappears entirely and the music, scored just for clarinet and strings, is a tender, almost Copland-esque pastorale. But, of course, the clarinet can also be down and dirty and the next track, “En La Tierra Sagrada,” opens with an impassioned multiphonic skwonk from clarinetist Ivan Barenboim which is particularly unsettling after the relative serenity of the previous piece. According to González, “En La Tierra Sagrada” was created in memory of Otero’s mother, the internationally acclaimed Argentine singer and actress Elsa Marval, who died in 2010. A mournful quality remains throughout the entire composition as the solo role is constantly traded between the members of the ensemble.

Elsa Marval

Elsa Marval (1930-2010), photo courtesy of Aleba & Co.

“Criatures de la Noche” is another piano solo, but this time the music, though still virtuosic, is more harmonically ambiguous and introspective. The frenetic, high octane “Cancha de Bochas” marks a return to more upbeat music. But while it seems on the surface to be another frenetic Piazzolla-esque romp, replete with the legendary Nuevo Tango progenitor’s signature extended string techniques, it contains a few surprises that are entirely its own. The violin was a constant presence in Piazzolla’s ensembles and it is herein as well, but the addition of a viola, which takes the first solo, adds a deeper, more mysterious melodic layer. The closer, “Until The Dawn,” introduces yet another new element—lyrics. It is also the sole appearance on the disc of musical theatre singer Josefina Scaglione. Scaglione is probably best known for her appearance as Maria in the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story and Otero has fashioned a song for her here that is very much in the tradition of the sophisticated songs of WSS creators Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. It makes me eager to hear an entire musical by him one day.

Sounds Heard: Ernst Krenek—Complete Symphonies

Mere months after fleeing Europe for the United States, the composer Ernst Krenek visited the home of George Washington in Mount Vernon. “I was moved to tears hearing the tolling of the bell on a gunboat that passed by way down on the Potomac,” he wrote. “What a world of strength and beauty was irrevocably lost to us who are walking around among its august remains.”

That Washington moment might seem strange for an Austrian-born composer of Czech descent, but Krenek felt the gap between past and present as acutely in Mount Vernon as he did in Vienna. His hometown, and the locus of the culture he had held most dear, had succumbed to the Nazis and was no place for a composer of jazzy operas and atonal music. “I had become a preferred target of the rapidly increasing barbarian tribe of German supermen,” Krenek wrote in his memoirs.

Today, those memoirs languish practically unread at the Library of Congress. Though penned in English, they have only been published in an out-of-print German translation. The memoirs aren’t even listed in the library’s catalogue. (An intrepid librarian discovered them for me in the stacks.) Call up ML95.K83, and you will come face-to-face with a large box containing over a thousand typed pages, divided into six tattered envelopes. Each envelope bears the label: “This must not be opened before fifteen years after my death.”

Krenek was a man of many contradictions in a century full of them. He hoped to succeed Mahler as a great symphonist, but became best known for an opera about jazz (the 1927 Jonny spielt auf). He was rejected by the Nazis for being a radical and by the postwar avant-garde for being a conservative. Constantly adapting to new circumstances, learning new musical languages to fit the times while pushing to new creative heights, Krenek seemed one step behind the curve, unable to catch up with the speed of the 20th century.
Reading the memoirs while listening to a new boxed set of the composer’s five symphonies—recorded over the past two decades by the North German Radio Philharmonic Hanover and released in May by CPO—helps rekindle Krenek’s world of strength and beauty, revealing the tumultuous life and searing music of an unjustly overlooked composer.

Krenek’s life and music inform us about the cultural heritage of Vienna, but perhaps more importantly about what happened to that legacy when Hitler forced a generation of artists and intellectuals into exile. Two of Krenek’s five symphonies were composed after he arrived in the United States, and they reflect his turbulent years as a émigré. Though some exiles felt, as Arnold Schoenberg famously put it, “driven into paradise,” in the case of Krenek it was a paradise in which his name, once heralded in the 1920s, was largely and unfairly neglected.

Krenek began writing his memoirs in 1942 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He thought himself near death, and fervently documented in English his childhood in Vienna, his twenties in Berlin, his return to his home city, and its downfall in the 1930s (born in 1900, Krenek died in 1991, making him an almost exact contemporary to Aaron Copland).

The memoirs move at a luxuriously slow pace, but are rife with insights into the cultural life of 20th-century Europe. In Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg was seen as a “local lunatic, a pure crank of no significance”; in Germany, Paul Hindemith obsessed over miniature trains; and in France, Igor Stravinsky insisted that Krenek eat salad with olive oil to gain the affections of women. Unfortunately, the memoirs conclude in 1937, leaving scant details about his American life.*

The memoirs also provide a gaze into Krenek’s own multifaceted identity, one that would acquire even more intricacy when the composer went into exile. “I am neither Czech nor German, and being Austrian appears to practically every living person as an artificial abstraction,” he wrote.

Krenek’s five symphonies mirror the complexities of his persona and the upheavals of his life. His First Symphony premiered in Berlin in 1921, heard by Wassily Kandinsky and Walter Gropius; his Fifth was premiered in 1950 by the Albuquerque Civic Symphony, and heard by, well, the residents of New Mexico.

In his early twenties, having relocated from Vienna to Berlin to follow his teacher Franz Schreker, Krenek composed his first three symphonies. They are a remarkable feat: over two hours of seething, post-Mahlerian grandeur, written in under two years. The First Symphony, a single movement broken into eclectic sections, is murkily atonal, with sudden fugal outbursts—a young man demonstrating his command of traditional counterpoint. The Third is a lighter work, though it still packs a punch.

Of this early trio, it is the Second Symphony that most intrigues. In 1922, Krenek fell in love with the youngest daughter of Gustav Mahler, Anna, whom he married and divorced in less than a year. Krenek dedicated his Second to Anna. He writes in his memoirs of his skepticism towards the idea that personal matters could inspire great music, but this symphony is one of his most towering works.

Hovering between Romanticism and modernism, it is a weird piece from its very opening, an ethereal duet of violins and plinking celeste. The music rises to massive climaxes that suddenly dissolve into mist before chaotically rushing forward to the next explosion. There is a sardonic streak throughout, channeling the other great post-Mahler symphonist of the day, Dmitri Shostakovich (who himself may have been inspired by Krenek’s music). One hears a fully formed musical personality—Krenek’s lifelong balancing act between reverence and cynicism.

The 25-year break between the third and fourth symphonies did not bode well for a composer hoping to succeed Mahler, as both symphonist and family member. But Krenek abandoned the genre when his opera career took off with the success of Jonny spielt auf, which briefly made him one of the most famous composers in Europe. Combining elements of jazz and late romanticism, Jonny was a surprise hit at its Leipzig premiere in 1927, and went on to tour Europe. A tale of a black jazz violinist who helps liberate a composer from esotericism, it became a kind of fable for the wild culture and loose morals of Weimar-era Europe, and a pioneering work in the cutting-edge genre of Zeitoper.

In the wake of sudden fame, Krenek found himself at what he called an impasse, unwilling to continue down the path of populist opera. He turned towards Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, ideas of which he gleaned from the composer’s disciples, since he was not allowed into the Schoenberg’s inner circle after a nasty battle earlier in their careers.

Neither the jazz-celebrating Jonny nor his subsequent twelve-tone turn ingratiated Krenek with the Nazis. Thugs disrupted performances of his music in Vienna and Munich, and rumors that he was Jewish (he wasn’t) led to cancelled concerts. Krenek had the unique position of being a composer who could be indicted as both an American-pandering populist and a mathematical formalist: the very ideal of the Nazi conception of degenerate art.

When Hitler annexed Austria in 1937, Krenek was in Brussels. He frantically applied for a visa and sailed to the United States. Over the next decade, he moved from university to university, started cranking out his memoirs, and composed a startling amount of music.

The final two symphonies, written in Albuquerque and Los Angeles in the late 1940s, harken back to his youth in Berlin. Despite Krenek’s engagement with twelve-tone techniques throughout his American career, both works are freely atonal, and less forbidding than much of his later output.

The Fourth is elegiac, even Copland-esque in its opening woodwind lament, though it still retains Krenek’s quintessential acerbity. As in the earlier symphonies, moments of utter weirdness puncture the music, like a lurching crunch of brass in the finale, a bleak revision of the Fanfare for the Common Man.

If the Fourth represented Krenek’s attempt to make his style more accessible, he didn’t tweak it enough. It premiered at Carnegie Hall, but the present recording is the first performance of the work in nearly sixty years. The Fifth, Krenek’s briefest symphony, reclaims some of the classicism of his earliest works, ending with a mordant fugue that recalls his first attempt in the genre.

Another fifty years passed, and Krenek wrote much music—electronic pieces, operas for stage and television, choral masterpieces like the Lamentio Jerememiae Prophetae—but not another numbered symphony. He dabbled in American themes: Santa Fe Timetable, a choral work setting the names of various train stops between Albuquerque and Los Angeles; a ballad of the railroads; a set of George Washington piano variations.

Despite his love for American culture, Krenek continued to feel like an outsider. The kind of writing which might have gained him an audience in the United States—the blend of lush early modernism and jazz found in Jonny—remained behind, part of the lost world of late imperial Vienna.

Living in its august remains, he pressed onward and adapted to his new home, even if it was less welcoming than the old. His music went unheard; it is worth resurrecting.

*Those interested can consult John L. Stewart’s 1991 biography of the composer; Claudia Maurer Zenck’s German-language study Ernst Krenek, ein Komposer im Exil; Krenek’s own 1974 Horizons Circled: Reflections on my Music; and two generalized studies, Driven into Paradise and A Windfall of Musicians.