William Ortiz:

A Panoramic View of Puerto Rican New Music

Puerto Rico is a musical warehouse of traditional forms, dance and song. Music is an intimate part of the daily lives of Puerto Ricans and has a long history as a primary vehicle of expression within Puerto Rican culture. Puerto Rico also has a lively world of new music, which, as everywhere else, wages a constant struggle against all-embracing traditionalism and commercialism. Puerto Rican new music is a mosaic made up of different trends and currents that has its roots in the so-called "classical" tradition that can be traced to the early church music of the Spanish colonizers. There is not a mainstream contemporary music in Puerto Rico and it probably does not follow a logical historic evolution. Yet it parallels somewhat musical development in the United States and Europe. After 1970, strong countercurrents have arisen. Today there is a search for a national way of expression, though the techniques may be universal. To fully understand this manifestation and cultural phenomena in Puerto Rican society, it should be taken into account the sociopolitical conditions from which this music emerged, sociopolitical conditions that have been shaped primarily by the colonialism imposed on Puerto Rico first by Spain and then by the United States. One segment of the new music world is engaged in the simmering independence movement, and speaks out against all non-Puerto Rican influences. But the most active forces in Puerto Rican new music have fought to bring to the island the latest musical currents from around the world, and many of the composers have arrived at unique and enticing fusions of old and new.

Puerto Rican reality is complex and contradictory. The island was one of the poorest and ignored territories of the New World since its discovery and colonization by Spain in 1493. In 1898, the island was handed over to the United States as a consequence of the Spanish-US American war. All of a sudden, during the fifties, after approximately four hundred and fifty years of isolation and margination, Puerto Rico is transformed by the industrialization program called "Operation Bootstrap", into one of the most developed areas of the hemisphere and economically the most powerful Caribbean island. The dream of independence was practically buried when Commonwealth status was granted to the island by the USA in 1952, with all its commodities, contradictions and paradoxes. The fifties were years of optimism, strengthened by a real improvement in the living conditions.

It is within this social-time frame that occurs the most important transformation, up to this date, of Puerto Rican concert music: the so-called Puerto Rican Nationalist School of Composers, the senior generation of Puerto Rican new music. They were Héctor Campos-Parsi (1922), who studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris; Amaury Veray (1922-1995) who also studied at the New England Conservatory and at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome; Jack Delano (1914) who was born in the Ukraine and moved to Puerto Rico in 1946, after music and art studies in the United States, to found and direct the cinematography section of the Division for the Education of the Community; and later on, Luis Antonio Ramírez (1923-1994), who studied at the Madrid Conservatory of Music with Cristóbal Halffter. The movement focused on and amplified the essence of Puerto Rican traditional folk music within the frame of European classical forms. The emergence of this aesthetics responded to a nationalist sentiment - somewhat belated - of the Puerto Rican artist to the intents of cultural nihilism by the North American military governments at the turn of the century. The leadership and pedagogy of these seminal figures opened a new world of possibilities for future generations of composers to explore, enrich and transform.

But this musical occurrence was not an isolated event nor an accident. As in all art, the advent of a new aesthetic idea is usually not an instantaneous eruption. Musical modernism and national sentiment began to be manifest in the works of earlier twentieth century island composers such as Braulio Dueño-Colón (1854-1934), José Ignacio Quintón (1881-1925), Monserrate (Monsita) Ferrer (1885-1966) and José Enrique Pedreira (1904-1959). It also involved the advent of government sponsored institutions of musical performance, music training and cultural agencies. It is relevant to point out that this movement got its impetus when the then recently created Division of Community Education (1946) began commissioning film scores from these composers. An equally important ramification of ths was Jack Delano’s 1948 score for the film Desde las nubes which was among the world’s first to use "musique concrète". It is also pertinent that the first major music compositions of Héctor Campos-Parsi and Jack Delano, the Divertimento del Sur for string orchestra and the Sonata en la menor for viola and piano, respectively, were written for a composition contest sponsored by the government-owned radio station WIPR in 1953. In 1955, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture was created and the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra was established in 1958. These government branches engaged performers and commissioned new works either directly or through grants to such groups as ballet and theatre companies. An example being Campos-Parsi’s Urayoan, Veray’s Cuando las mujeres and Delano’s La bruja de Loiza, which were all commissioned for the Ballets de San Juan. The enthusiasm felt within this cultural rebirth also establishes in 1957 the tradition of the Casals Festival. In the words of its founder, the world renowned Catalan cellist Pablo Casals:

"Puerto Ricans will be exposed to the best music performed by the best musicians."

The festival was originally conceived as a cultural complement to Puerto Rico’s industrialization program. It is the most prestigious classical music event on the island and in keeping with its founder’s philosophy also the most conservative. After twenty years of existence and the death of Casals, the limited classical repertoire was challenged by Puerto Rican musicians, the press and the now defunct "Asociación Nacional de Compositores", which in 1976 was able to achieve the programming of works by some local composers. Today the music director of the Casals Festival is the internationally known Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who has put together some interesting programs, with a varied assortment of epochs and ensemble formats, although the festival is still basically mainstream.

Music education in Puerto Rico is centered in four major institutions: the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music established in 1960, the music departments of the Interamerican University at San Germán and the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, and the Free Schools of Music, which are junior conservatories for high school students. The Conservatory of Music represents the more European, conservative side of our music culture, whereas the University of Puerto Rico entertains the more progressive trends. The music department at Río Piedras boasts the only electronic and computer music studio at an educational institution and is in the process of approving Master Degrees in Musicology, and/or Ethnomusicology, Composition and Music Education, all geared towards our Caribbean reality.

By the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies the government’s industrialization program, which gave such economic optimism to the island, begins to break down. The "Shining Star of the Caribbean" or the "Isle of Enchantment", as Puerto Rico is known for its model of economic growth, starts to reveal its limitations and weaknesses. The "escape value" of Puerto Rican immigrants to the USA turns sour due to racism and oppression. The economic inequality, at first hidden by the initial improvement in living conditions now becomes clear. By the mid-sixties the nationalist music movement begins to extinguish itself. Veray and Campos-Parsi begin to respond to the new contemporary music techniques and relegate nationalistic elements. Campos-Parsi abandons nationalism but seeks inspiration in the native Taíno culture. His Petroglifos (1966) for violin, piano and cello employs aleatoric sections with twelve-tone material and Arawak (1970) is scored for cello and electronic tape. Amauray Veray undertakes the route of political protest in his Fantasía para orquesta, a la memoria de Gilberto Concepción de Gracia (1965) and De Profundis (1970) for orchestra and spoken chorus. Serial techniques are used by Veray in both of these works to express his deep patriotic anguish.

In 1968, the "Fluxus" group, under the leadership of Rafael Aponte-Ledée (1938) and Francis Schwartz (1940) was organized to ferment avant-garde music and break with the nationalist position. These two composers embraced the full range of international modernist ideas, from serialism to mixed-media expressions and made a strong impact on the music aesthetics of the decade. Aponte-Ledée has been a major figure in the promotion of new music in Puerto Rico. As founder of the discontinued Biennials of New Music (1978) and director of the Latin American Foundation for Contemporary Music since 1981, he has organized many concerts of every type including concerts of popular music. He was educated at the Madrid Conservatory and later continued at the Di Tella Institute in Buenos Aires studying with Alberto Ginastera and Gerardo Gandini. As a composer, Aponte has been interested in controlled improvisation and extensions of the playing techniques used on traditional instruments. His Seis diferencias para piano (1963) represent the composer’s early stylistic dodecaphonic language, while his orchestral works Elejía (1967) and Impulsos, in memoriam Julia de Burgos (1967) are based on the movement of order to disorder, alternating aleatoric and measured sections. His latest work Cuentos de Daniel Santos (1995) for orchestra is a homage to the late popular music singer and displays a kind of consolidation of his previous work with thematic quotes from popular tunes.

Francis Schwartz has been a pioneer in the field of music theater in Puerto Rico. His polyartistic creations, as he calls them, incorporate aromas, gestures, humor, chance operations and public participation. Philadelphia-born and Texas-bred Schwartz received his doctorate in Paris after studies at Juilliard in New York. His compositions include fully composed instrumental and vocal compositions, but he has devoted particular energy to works involving improvisation and audience participation. These include: Ausschwitz (1968), a multi-sensorial music-theater piece; Cosmos (1976), an "intercontinental polyartistic event" performed at the University of Puerto Rico, which included musical contributions telephoned live from around the world and broadcasted to the audience; and We’ve Got (Poly)Rhythm (1984) for guitar and audience participation, which refers to the song by George Gershwin, in whose memory the piece was composed. At present, Schwartz is Dean of the Humanities Faculty at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras.

Héctor Campos-Parsi wrote in his formidable La música en Puerto Rico:

"In 1975, Puerto Rican new music is channeled into two principal routes: one conservative, that is still associated with aspects of tonality and conventional instruments represented by Delano and Ramírez, and the other in which figure the avant-garde composers Aponte-Ledée and Schwartz and their pupils and in which also participate, in their own personal way, Veray and Campos-Parsi."

The aesthetics of Aponte-Ledée and Schwartz are evident in the early work of Luis Manuel Álvarez (1939), who studied with Roque Cordero and Iannis Xenakis at Indiana University and where he also studied ethnomusicology. Serial technique was used to create various melodic designs and two-voice fuges in his Seis piezas breves para flauta y clarinete (1977). Among his other works, we find La Creación (1974) for orchestra, narrator and electronic tape, the art song Sueños de colores (1975) for soprano and traditional Puerto Rican folk instruments, using an aleatoric format, and his collection of Alvaradas for guitar. As an ethnomusicologist Álvarez has done important investigations on Puerto Rican folk music. The conservative line of composition that Campos-Parsi wrote about, is followed by composer/guitarist Ernesto Cordero (1946). He studied at the Madrid Conservatory, at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome and at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena. His output is particularly for guitar or voice and guitar, for he is a leading exponent of the Puerto Rican art song. His highly lyrical, neo-classic style is evident in the Concierto Evocativo (1977) for guitar and orchestra and the Concierto Criollo (1986) for Puerto Rican cuatro and orchestra. Cordero is founder and co-director of the International Guitar Festival of Puerto Rico.

Funding cut-backs and indifferent arts administrators continue to plague the new music community of today. The lack of music publishing and new music recording and its dissemination contribute to the apathy. For the newer generation of Island composers, Puerto Rico is an ever-surprising fusion of cultures and a continuous political battlefield where we keep trying to devine ourselves; a country of asphalt and cement where television is probably the most important member of the family; an emotional island where sensuality and garbage live in harmony; a generous people who cannot live without federal welfare and food stamps; a spiritually fertile land where traditional values and violent crime exist side by side; drug points, shopping malls, urbanizations, the San Juan-New York air shuttle, traffic jams and cellular phones; a strange hybrid of the US-American dream and the problems of the Third World. Out of this reality there emerges a group of composers who embraced various alternatives to express this period of chaos with artistic confidence. This generation of composers has in effect synthesized the two musical tendencies which Campos-Parsi wrote about in 1975. What we see is the leaking and crumbling of the barriers that separate these two currents, leading to a post-modernist range of hybridization, and a re-definition of nationalist and neo-romantic tendencies with minimalism, if any, only hinted at.

William Ortiz (1947) is a prolific composer whose broad catalog includes orchestral and chamber works, songs, chamber opera and electronic and computer music. Ortiz studied composition with Héctor Campos-Parsi and form and analysis with Héctor Tosar at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. He was later granted the Ph.D. in composition from S.U.N.Y. Buffalo, where he studied with Lejaren Hiller and Morton Feldman. Instrumental color and experimental forms are interesting aspects of his music, which is communicative, vital and anti-dogmatic. In works such as 124 E. 107th St. (1979) for percussion, electronic tape and narrator; Street music (1980) for flute, trombone and percussion; Resonancia esférica (1982) for orchestra; Graffiti Nuyorican (1983) for piano and percussion; Urbanización (1985) for solo percussion; Ghetto (1987) for singer/narrator, flute, electric guitar and percussion; Caribe urbano (1990) for woodwinds and piano; Unknown Poets from the Full-Time Jungle (1992) for soprano and piano; Suspensión de soledad en 3 tiempos (1990) for orchestra, and others, we find two fundamental ideas: 1) the need to convert the language of the street into a legitimate instrument and 2) the need to express musically his experience as a Puerto Rican raised in New York.

Carlos Cabrer’s (1950) beautifully wrought neo-impressionistic works stand somewhat at the more conservative end of the spectrum. A student of Aponte-Ledée at the University of Puerto Rico, he is currently pursuing doctoral studies in England. Modernism is evident in his relatively brief output with the use of serial technique in works like La rota voz del agua (1982) for soprano, flute, guitar and cello. Obvious folk references are not evident in his music and the orchestral works Cánticos (1977), Ceremoniales (1984) and Lago de los sueños utilize an atonal language of consonant intervals without recurring to tonality. José Montalvo (1951) has been active in computer music composition. He studied at Indiana University and New York University and at this writing he is a "Visiting Scholar" at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University. He presents concerts of real-time computer music and his works include: Ruiseñor (1993) for electronic keyboards; the orchestral Mito Caribe (1993) and Horizonte Fractal (1994) for computer-generated tape. Carlos Vázquez (1952) is also a leading exponent of electronic and computer music on the Island. An ex-student of Aponte-Ledée at the University of Puerto Rico, he completed his doctorate at the University of Paris at Sorbonne. Vázquez is the director of the Electronic Music Studio at the University of Puerto Rico and has been involved in organizational activities of new music, which include being a founding member of the "Foro de Compositores del Caribe", first president of the ex-"Asociación Nacional de Compositores" and the music director of the "Muestra Internacional de Música Electroacústica". His piano concerto Ecua-Jey (1986), the symphonic suite Brisas del Caribe (1986) and Las sinfonías de la nacionalidad (1993) embrace and amplify the nationalist tradition incorporating dance movements of other Caribbean islands such as the Dominican merengue and the Jamaican reggae. Roberto Sierra (1953) studied with Luis Antonio Ramírez at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music and with György Ligeti in Germany, after studies at the Royal College of Music in London. An instrumental purist, Sierra’s music combines a formidable contrapuntal technique with Puerto Rican folk and popular music and he forms musical structures from his ongoing analysis of the earlier masters of this century. Representative works include: Polarizaciones (1979) for orchestra, Glosas (1987) for piano and orchestra and Salsa para vientos (1983). Sierra has also held important administrative positions in Puerto Rico.

Jazz and "classical" tradition are integrated in the music of Alfonso Fuentes (1954) and Raymond Torres-Santos (1958). Fuentes studied at the New England Conservatory and is concerned with the meditative and spiritual powers of music. He is particularly known for his carefully structured piano "improvisaciones" which evoke the solos or "descargas" found in salsa or Latin jazz. Other works include a String Quartet (1983) written "to break the academic barriers"; his major work to date is the orchestral Planeaciones ancestrales (1990) where magical mysticism is realized through his evocative orchestration. Like Fuentes, Torres-Santos is active in both concert and popular music. His new music is highly influenced by his activities in media entertainment, which include scoring and performing for films and television. This has also led to his interest and expertise in electronic and computer music technology. A student of Amaury Veray at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, where he is the current Chancellor, Torres-Santos completed doctoral studies at the University of California in Los Angeles. His piece La guaracha del Macho Camacho (1983) for acoustic piano and electronic piano, synthesizes his "crossover" philosophy: the acoustic instrument representing the "classical" sound, while the electronic instrument evokes the contemporary sonority. Concluding with Javier de la Torre (1962), we come to a full cycle. An eclectic composer, his music is fundamentally rooted in the "classical" techniques and aesthetics of this century. An ex-student of Carlos Vázquez at the University of Puerto Rico, he continued studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and at Cornell University. Aulos (1992) for woodwind quintet, displays virtuosic instrumental writing, while his Cinco Piezas Breves (1986) for piano, utilize extended piano techniques with a four-note set as the motivic cell from which melody and harmony are construed. The piece is a personal tribute to the legacy of Anton Webern.

As seen, the metamorphosis and redefinition of the barriers between sophisticated concert music and popular music has been in process for many decades in Puerto Rico. We listen in different contexts and express diverse emotions which generate the distinctive colors of our music. This in turn responds to the history of our class society and its powerful ideological and cultural configurations. The ideas and searchings which began to take root in the nineteenth century with the very first Puerto Rican "classical" composers such as Felipe Gutiérrez y Espinosa (1857-1896), Manuel Gregorio Tavárez (1843-1883) and Juan Morel-Campos (1857-1896) have now blossomed and flowered, so that by the beginning of the twenty-first century, Puerto Rico’s new music manifestation has produced works which can be appreciated and enjoyed the world over.

© 1996 by William Ortiz

First published in: World New Music Magazine, Nº 6, Cologne, September 1996.


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