Friday, 29 June 2012

Mexican Music...a Modern Miscellany

What come after Moncayo and the demise of Mexican musical nationalism? Well, an explosion of modernism and the development of an avant-garde. So it's out with mariachi, huapangos and Mayan folk tunes and in with electronics, extended playing techniques and staggering levels of dissonance? Well, that's only one part of the story...

Here's a final, rather chaotic and sketchy sprint through some of Mexico's recent musical offerings. There's music for all tastes here!

Take two composers born in 1916. The still-living Luis Herrera de la Fuente (1916-) was taught composition by Rodolfo Halffter, the man who brought serialism to Mexico from Spain. The only piece I've got hold of by Herrera de la Fuente is the Piano Concerto of 2011, where Schoenberg's lingering influence is plain to hear. He appears - on the evidence of this one piece! - to have persisted with modernism. 

The other notable Mexican composer born in that year, Carlos Jiménez Mabarak (1916-1994), is somewhat different. He was taught not only by Revueltas but also by that leading French apostle of the post-war serialist revolution, René Leibowitz. Mabarak subsequently began employing serialism - and using magnetophonic techniques, as you can hear in the remarkable El paraíso de los ahogados ('The paradise of the drowned') from 1960. (How splendidly odd - and dated - early electronic music can sound these days!)  Jiménez Mabarak had at one time been firmly in the camp of the nationalists, writing fine music full of Mexican spirit such as Balada del Pájaro y las Doncellas ('Ballad of the Bird and the Maidens') and La Balada del Venado y la Luna ('The Ballad of the Deer and the Moon'), plus Neo-Classical works such as the String Quartet in D major. Like so many other composers across the world, he was also to abandon modernism again late in life, as can be heard in his traditionalist 1982 opera La Güera and in his score for the 1984 horror film Veneno para las hadasJiménez Mabarak, incidentally, wrote the fanfare which opened the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. 

With Manuel de Elías (1939-) we really do enter the world of the post-war avant-garde, Mexican-style. He was a pupil of Karlheinz Stockhausen no less. An example of his electroacoustic work, Non Nova Sed Novo (1974) for tape, shows the more radical side of his work, while two solo cello pieces written in memory of Shostakovich, Artificios and Capricho (both exploiting the Russian's famous DSCH motif), show a more traditional brand of modernism. 

Mario Lavista (1943-) was also a Stockhausen pupil, as well as being taught by (among others) Ligeti and Xenakis. His music is very much that of the international avant-garde. A selection of his solo pieces should give you a clear impression of what kind of composer he is, including Madrigal for solo clarinet (1985), El pífano: retrato de Manet for solo piccolo (1989), Cuaderno de viaje for viola/cello (1989) and Natarayah for solo guitar from 1997An interest in John Cage seems to have led to the gentler spirit of Quotations (1976) for cello and piano and most definitely led to the prepared piano piece Jaula (also from 1976), an explicit homage to Cage. From roughly the same period comes Game for one or more flutes (1971). Simurg for piano (1980) and the Cinco preludios en recuerdo a Eduardo Mata (2005) show Lavista writing for conventional piano. Also worth hearing is his Danza de la Bailarinas de Dégas for flute & piano (1991-92). 

With the same year of birth and some of the same teachers - Stockhausen. Xenakis and Ligeti (as well as Messiaen) - Julio Estrada is another leading light of the Mexican avant-garde. Xenakis seems to be the main influence. Estrada's eua-on-ome (1995) is a turbulent orchestral score that has plenty of Xenakis-style ferocity and follows the Greek's example by manipulating dense masses of sound. It re-casts an earlier piece electroacoustic piece eua-on (1980). For more such fierce modernism, please give these other representative Estrada pieces a try (if you dare): Canto Mnémico for string quartet (1973-83); Quotidianus for voice and string quartet (2006); Memorias for piano (1971); Yuunohui'se'ome'yei'nahui for violin, viola concertante, cello and double-bass (1983-90); Miqi'nahual for double-bass (1995); and ishini'ioni for string quartet (1984-1990).

So, the avant-garde swept all before it in post-Moncayo Mexico? Er...

Federico Ibarra
Federico Ibarra (1946-) was taught by the French composer Jean-Etienne Marie, whose main influences were Messiaen and Mexico's very own microtonal master Julián Carrillo (two of my favourite composers!). Ibarra strikes me as a fabulous composer. Listening in sequence and at one sitting (then repeated) through his series of six piano sonatas has been a real pleasure. The first of the sonatas is the most experimental, with its clusters, plays of resonance and Henry Cowell-like insides-of-the-piano writing. Thereafter we journey through a series of what seem to me to be masterpieces. No.2 is a gripping single-movement piece unified by the recurrence of the flourish which opens the piece. The influence of Messiaen emerges most strongly in No.3, a very beautiful work. No.4 is, in my opinion, the best of all. The fierce toccata-like eruption in the first movement is as exciting as the music which it interrupts is beautiful. The slow movement is rapt and withdrawn to begin with but reaches a sustained nightmarish climax of considerable power before withdrawing again. Maybe it's my recent total immersion in Scriabin that makes me think that the swirling, darkly-dancing wonders of No.5 have something of late Scriabin about them. No.6 contains a good deal of delicious, delicate fantasy but also has passage of wild passion. There is an urgent need to get Ibarra's sonatas into the repertoire of leading pianists. That he can be just as compelling when writing for the orchestra is shown by his Second Symphony, subtitled Las Antesalas del Sueño ('The Antechamber of Sleep').  The exciting, nightmarish music towards the end of the work is not, I think, too far removed from a Revueltas rite. His tuneful, tonal one-act opera, Antonieta (concerning the ill-fated Mexican intellectual Antonieta Rivas Mercado, beginning with her suicide in Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris), reminds me in more than trivial ways of Puccini. (Tasters of other stage works by this composer can be heard on his own YouTube channel). The song-cycle Navega la ciudad en plena noche, setting a recent poem ('Vaivén') by Octavio Paz, is further proof of Federico Ibarra's gift for conjuring atmosphere.

Another Mexican opera composer whose style has been compared to Puccini - and one whose operas have travelled to the United States - is the late Daniel Catán (1949-2011). For a taste of his neo-Romantic style please try this aria from Rappaccini's Daughter (1991), the opening scene and Paula's aria from his 1996 opera Florencia en el Amazonas or these short extracts from his 2010 opera Il Postino. The music he wrote for the TV series El Vuelo del Águila ('The Flight of the Eagle') is just as lush. (Korngold, eat your heart out!) There is, however, more than a hint of user-friendly minimalism - mixed with a little Mexican colour - in his Tu son, Tu Risa, Tu Sonrisa for orchestra.  

Next up is one of the best-known names in contemporary Mexican music, Arturo Márquez (1950-). In some ways we return to Mexicana with Márquez, whose choice of Mexican folk music is popular salon music, most famously the somewhat tango-like dance form known as the danzón. The piece that put him on the international map was the Danzón No.2 for orchestra, a piece that begins with a nostalgic but catchy tune on clarinet. This tune then acts in a rondo-like fashion as the piece gradually grows in passion and rhythmic élan. Audiences love it, and why wouldn't they? Apparently, the success of the popular, tuneful Márquez has proved controversial in some quarters - presumably with people who thought they'd seen off music like this decades ago! Mariachi was back! The danzón might be seen as being the composer's answer to the Chôros of Villa-Lobos, as Márquez has turned his Danzónes into a series, each one following a similar form but with a great variety of instrumentation. (Links aplenty: Danzón 1Danzón 3Danzón 4Danzón 5Danzón 8). Now, if you enjoyed those pieces (as I do) you might also like to line to up dance his Conga del Fuego Nuevo
Further listeningLeyenda de Miliano (for orchestra), Marcha a Sonora (a march!), Espejos en la Arena (his cello concerto), Zarabandeo (for flute and piano), Danza de Mediodía (for wind quintet) and Homenaje a Gismonti (for strings).

Moving on, briskly. Ana Lara (1959-) appears to fall firmly into the avant-garde camp if her engaging Y los ojos la luz and Ícaro anything to go by whereas, by what I can judge from extracts from his post_colonial discontinuum and from the opera Decreation/Fight CherriesGuillermo Galindo (1960–) appears post-modernist. Gabriela Ortiz (1964-) is a modernist too, c.f. her Five Micro Etudes for Tape and, rather more conventionally, her string quartet piece La CalacaI'd place flautist/composer Alejandro Escuer (1963-) in this modernist camp too, as per Templos and Trazo III for solo flute. 

Sergio Berlioz
Sergio Berlioz (1963-), in contrast, is an out-and-out Romantic. He writes serious large-scale symphonies and symphonic poems for starters. His exciting orchestral score Toledo: La ciudad de las generaciones is a true symphonic poem and his Fifth Symphony "La luz de Mayo"  (commemorating the 5 May 1862 victory of the Mexican army over occupying French forces) is a big symphonic statement. The Zarabanda para orquesta is neither neo-Classical nor Márquez-like but rather a serious, beautiful piece of old-fashioned writing of the kind a fine British composer of some seventy years ago might have written - and I don't mean that as a back-handed compliment! The quality of Berlioz's writing is exceptional. (I shall have to think of him as 'the other Berlioz' from now on!) Just listen to his gorgeous Dédalos for soprano and string quartet, his luscious yet rather introspective Cello Concerto or his warm Second Divertimento for strings. In my journey through Mexican music, there's been nothing quite like this before. If it sounds like music from my own country's past, so much the better! Mexico clearly never had the pleasure of such music before and is now getting - and, I suspect, enjoying - the experience. 
Further listening: Magma (for string quartet)

On we hurtle through the Bacanal of Armando Luna (1964-) and the rhythmic games of Juan Trigos (1965–) and his Ricercare II to arrive at Javier Torres Maldonado (1968–), another avant-gardist with a taste for electroacoustic music, as his Tiento for cello and electronics shows - as does his Fontane

I'll end though with the youngest composer in my Mexican survey, Enrico Chapela (1974-). Chapela is a typical contemporary composer in his accessible eclecticism, heard at its best in his Ínguesu which, we are told, parallels a football match. The spirit flows on in his solo guitar piece Melate Binario and in his Estropicio innato, ígneo sustrato for rock trio and acoustic quintets. 

OK, I've doubtless missed many a riveting voice of modern Mexican classical music but I hope this short, scatter-gun survey has given you a fair impression of how varied and interesting the contemporary music scene is in Mexico. 

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