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Cergio Prudencio:

Parrot in the Garden *

The situation of the composer in Latin America

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In June 1993 a group of composers coming from the Andean countries and from Germany met in Quito on the occasion of the Primer Encuentro Andino de Música Contemporánea (First Andean Meeting of Contemporary Composers), organized by several local institutions on the initiative of Milton Estévez, a dynamic musician from Ecuador.

We composers are very much alike, particularly we composers of the so called "art" or "academic" music. We are a little bit like children: fragile, innocent or naïve (I don't know), pensive; also sensitive and vulnerable. That is why meeting each other turns out to be interesting. For instance, to discover ourselves establishing affinities and collaborations, or, on the contrary,establishing an out-of-tune state and complications. We are all, each one to the other, mirrors or precipices. It's like a birthday party with piñata [1].

But it is also true that we composers are part of a reality which takes consideration of nobody: neither of real children nor of poor people, nor of any kind of weak people; and, least of all, of composers, who I find, are left increasingly without a place in this world. So that we are almost always inhabitants dwelling below or above, in any case outside it. We are a luxurious social surplus, like a parrot in a garden, that does not plough the earth, does not give milk, does not even take care of the house, but decorates it. An irreversible situation? I don't think so. Mainly because we are what we are because of our upbringing. We have been taught not to establish links with society, not to be a real part of it. And that can change. It will change when, instead of feeling ourselves victims of that sterile situation, we acknowledge ourselves as its accomplices. It will change the moment we stop being children (in that bad sense). It will change when we discover that we have weapons not only to integrate ourselves into it but also to help change it. Because, with that image of the composer floating in the ether (which so much fills so many with conceit), the composer looses, the community looses, and only the establishment profits, this establishment that wants no more (and no less) than to perpetuate itself.

The meeting's general discussion was not unaware of the question of colonialism, as a problem deeply rooted in Latin American art music even more than in any other artistic expression. And it is incredible that, in spite of the stirring creative proposals by Silvestre Revueltas, Amadeo Roldán and maybe some others of that generation, and together with important later names, the technical and aesthetical reference for composing in our continent today is still the model from the metropolis. We refuse to produce musical thinking of our own. We refuse to listen to what is surrounding us and, worst of all, we refuse to understand it. We refuse to represent ourselves. We prefer to think like the colonizers (a question of status), to listen only to their music, and to duplicate their aesthetics badly. As if there were no other kind of music, no other signs of sound under our noses and through all the extent of the continent pointing at alternatives and courses of travel.

The German composer Wolfgang Motz, born 1952, asked while looking at a book on Latin American twentieth-century painting: Why do Latin American composers not compose the way Latin American painters paint? Look here, these colors, these forms, are not European, they are from here... . Whereupon I replied that the Orquesta Experimental de Instrumentos Nativos (Experimental Orchestra of Native Instruments) is precisely an alternative, seen under that perspective. Paradoxically, the Peruvian composer José Sosaya, born 1956, pointed some hours later at the localist character of the Bolivian project with which he said I cannot identify myself. That is Andean and I'm from Trujillo... . And I'm speaking of an excellent composer who presented original and intense works, maybe survivals of his Parisian training.

This situation to which I'm referring because of its illustrative character (and not for personal reasons), is a constant one among the composers of the continent. Our own is as much alien to us, as the alien is our own to us. Because we still believe that studying music means studying Europe's music, from Gregorian plainchant to Schoenberg (with luck). The rest ist just making "ethnomusicology", which in fact is like studying the bottom of the sea from the seashore and with sun glasses.

But what the colony brought us has become now our own, remarked the Colombians Andrés Posada, born 1954, and Guillermo Gaviria, born 1951. For five hundred years now, the Americas have two components and none of them is today more or less American than the other. But our general information regarding the one and the other component is so unequal, that the artistic proposals that we produce today could hardly be considered as a resulting synthesis. Five hundred and one years later, one of those components is still the conquered and the other the conqueror. There exists a hegemony in every sense,in terms of value and presence. Because when we, the Latin American composers, get to know our ancestral and popular music as well as we already know that of the bewigged Bach and his successors, surely then we will not be composing as we generally do today. I say this with no value judgement.

And nobody wants to listen to us. That's why we suffer too, no longer as children but as misunderstood teenagers. Our concerts took place in a wonderful auditorium. And how are the acoustics?, asked the Argentinian-Venezuelan Eduardo Kusnir, born 1939. Fine, replied José Carlos Campos, born 1953, from Peru, with the audience sitting in, the resonance will be damped, to which Gaviria remarked that the thing is that the damper will be put on tonight at the Atahuallpa stadium... (Ecuador and Uruguay playing a football match for the America Cup). And indeed. Neverthless, in the middle of the championship, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, a young Cuban genious of post-modern jazz, attracted three thousand people to the concert hall, who listened to him with fascination, as if he were telling things that everybody wanted to hear.

The "damper" in the stadium and Rubalcaba's three thousand people made me really feel like a parrot in the garden. And I am aware that there are many considerations to make on the subject of art and society: for example, education, communication media, and the classifications of music. But what about the composers? Do we bear no responsibility for our almost empty halls? Is it perhaps that we are saying things that nobody cares for, in a language nobody understands? Wouldn't it then be true that to pose these questions might be an essential thing to help us grow up and find our true place in the world without anybody being able to condemn us to stay in the open?

In informal talks and in an act of courage, I told my colleagues about my son saying once that my music was "rubbish". He said it in rage and as an act of rebellion. I was hurt. (In my defence, if any, I explained that he said so after a concert in which I conducted not only my music but also by others, so it was a shared responsibility). They all laughed, the composers. However, I began to find out that in some way or other, most of them have had similar experiences, though with variations. One day when our countryman and teacher Alberto Villalpando wanted to listen at home to the tape of his "Música para Orquesta IV", magnificently played in Quito, his little Valentina prevented him from the very beginning with a laconic ... it's frightening... it's frightening... .

I'm speaking of anecdotal incidents, it's true, and I have no intention whatsoever of disqualifying those who in many cases have important things to communicate and, in doing so, handle their technique with a great ethical sense. But that does not free us from the reflection which we are obliged to make at this crossroad. "Art" music came to the Americas through the Atlantic and is now a part of our patrimony. However, unlike many other colonial categories, we have not been able until today (with some very valuable exceptions) to turn that language into a code of true self-representation and interlocution with our society (mestizo and diverse). Here and always, I turn once more to Silvestre Revueltas, that unknown, who died alone and in loneliness, resisting senselessness, insignificance and superficiality, and who today is pointing at us, challenging us, and annoying others.

To grow up and deserve a place in the world are pending tasks for the Latin American composers of today. First of all, we will have to accept these as tasks, then we will have to accept that only through pain will we stop being something and become something else.

© 1993 by Cergio Prudencio

Published under: The situation of the composer in Latin America, in: World New Music Magazine, Nº 4, Köln, X-1994.

* With permission of Jerzy Kosinski (C.P.). The novel "Being There" by Jerzy Kosinski was published in Spanish under the title "Desde el jardín" (From the Garden). Translator's note.

[1] In several countries, a pottery jar filled with candies and little gifts that blindfold children try to break with sticks.

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