Placing Tania León, Indígena of the In-Between

For the last entry I listened to an album with origins in Carnival on Trinidad: steel band music, preserved for posterity (thanks, Nonesuch!) as it was in the mid-1960s. No performers are mentioned by name on the album; it’s just The Westland Steel Band, so that the listener is encouraged to conceive of “music as culture” instead of as an account of the intersection of the complex lives of complex individuals.

The album I listened to this week—Indígena, featuring music by Tania León (b. 1943)—also has a connection to Carnival in the Caribbean, this time in Cuba. 515J6W88JEL.jpgBut perhaps it’s better to read the composer’s explanation of the work’s background: “Growing up in Cuba was a kaleidoscopic experience with sound. . .You have all of these revelers in the back of my home, preparing themselves for the Carnival. Even when I was actually trying to play Chopin or Tchaikovsky or, you know, I mean, Czerny, they would parade in front of the house, I would stop playing the piano, go, see the revels pass by, and when they pass by, we all dance, you know. And then, when they were gone, everybody went back to their chores. I went back to the piano; I continue practicing. . .Of course, upon my return [to Cuba, years later], I realize that the revelers were not there anymore, and these are just my memories.” [1]

In January 2018 there are lots of places one can go to read about Tania León’s life and career: her own website, Grove, several dissertations and scholarly articles. But here are three pieces of information, culled from those sources, to provide a bit of context or to send you looking for more. The first is reported almost every time León is introduced in print. She claims five distinct sources of heritage: French, Spanish, Chinese, African, and Cuban. She “take[s] pride” in each and “represent[s] all of them.” [2] Second, she was a founding member of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem and served as accompanist, and later music director, resident composer, and conductor of its orchestra. Third, León is currently working on a new opera—with libretto by Thulani Davis aided by “historical research” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—called Little Rock Nine, about those extraordinary black students who began attending Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. [3]

What do we take from these three pieces of information? Something about race or ethnic identity? Something about musical influences? Something about the production of contemporary concert music in late-20th-/early-21st-century America? If you read any interviews with or writings about León, it quickly becomes apparent that she resists attempts to make her into the voice of a particular ethnicity (and/or gender). Marc Gidal discusses this at length in a 2010 article for Latin American Music Review, ultimately arguing that Homi Bhabha’s phrase vernacular cosmopolitanism is a useful concept for understanding composers such as León, finding in it a way “to join contradictory notions of local specificity and universal enlightenment.” [4]

Local specificity. Such as? Well, for example, in Indígena (from which the album takes its name), after a spiky and dissonant, almost Varèse-like opening, León “conjures up a comparsa, the group of revelers that roams the streets during Carnival season.” A solo trumpet even quotes an “authentic comparsa melody.” [5] This is local knowledge. And universal enlightenment? This is achieved through the expert use of orchestra—a sign for universalism, however problematic—with ample evidence of mastery of the musical modernist’s toolbox. Read against the interview with León quoted above, Indígena becomes more than a juxtaposition of distinct cultures, coming together for a multicultural extravaganza. A new creature is made, growing from exile and loss, memory and a wealth of contemporary experience. The title of León’s piece, Indígena, is not an answer, but a question. She is not saying, “Listen to my indigenous, Cuban authenticity in the context of a universalizing orchestral treatment.” Instead, she is asking us to consider what in-between place she is an indigene of, from what “cosmopolitan” city-state of the mind she has picked up all these intriguing elements. Those synthesized elements are capable of communicating broadly, in part because of connections they spark with people who recognize the individual elements, in part because her audience includes fellow in-betweeners who also live a synthetic existence. Indígena seems to ask the listener to consider how we all come to create our sense of belonging in this world when we’re made of so many fragments, disconnected from their original context.

Nexus entry.

Having felt myself invited, I journey. When listening to this album of León’s music, so many fragments and elements come to mind from the world of twentieth-century concert music. The second track, Parajota Delaté (1988), which means “For J[oan] from T[ania]” was written for the Da Capo Chamber Players, for which Joan Tower (b. 1938) was longtime pianist. The ensemble—flute, violin, clarinet, cello, piano—is of course the Pierrot ensemble, and the experience of listening to the piece for me was like listening to a telescoped version of Pierrot lunaire (1912), with textural, timbral, and rhythmic ideas pointing to specific songs in Schoenberg’s twenty-one-movement work. 51zrYS4zNmL._SX368_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe connection is suggested in part because of the episodic nature of Parajota Delaté: a gait is established, then arrested and joined to the next by an interlude, as often in Pierrot. I hear fleeting references to “Enthauptung,” “Serenade,” “O Alter Duft.” Is León suggesting some alternate reading of the Pierrot narrative or exploring the ensemble in a way that playfully interacts with one of the touchstone works of the twentieth century? According to Ellen K. Grolman’s Grove article on Joan Tower, the composer “sometimes offer[s] musical salutes in titles of her works” (e.g., Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, in response to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man), so there’s also a kind of echo in León pointing to Tower (and, more obliquely, to Schoenberg) through a work for her and her ensemble.

The only solo piano work on the album, Rituál (1987), seems to me to possess a sort of dance logic. The opening—sonorities built from accumulating ascending pitches—is like a body in a crouched position gradually opening up, gaining height and exploring space. A contrapuntal section with jazz-tinged harmonies gives way to a one that K. Robert Schwarz describes as having a “savage, brutal rhythmic power.” [6] That description of a solo piano work inevitably calls to mind Bartók’s Allegro barbaro (1911), though Bartók’s suite Out of Doors (1926) might be a more apt comparison. Then the next work on the album, León’s A la Par (1986), for piano and percussion, just as inevitably descends from Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937). Both A la Par and Bartók’s Sonata are in three movements, with a fast-slow-fast(er) design, and both find ample room for the atmospheric and the kinetic, though of course Bartók’s rhythmic drive draws from a different source. The two works inhabit different timbral universes, too, with Bartók’s score favoring timpani and “old-world” percussion and León’s highlighting “new-world” percussion (e.g., toms, marimba, vibraphone. . .bottles!)

The final work on the album, Batéy (1989), was written with “Dominican-born pianist and composer” Michel Camilo. MI0001119973.jpgIt’s a work of about twenty minutes for six amplified voices and percussion, on a text created by the collaborators in a mixture of Spanish, Yoruban, a Cuban dialect, “nonsense syllables,” and a little English. Sometimes it reminds me of Steve Reich’s Tehillim (1981), another work situated at the fruitful intersection of art music and a distinctive linguistic and spiritual heritage. In Batéy’s third movement, “Rezos” (“Prayers”), composed entirely by León, I hear a debt to Luciano Berio’s choral writing, particularly as found in “O King,” the second movement from Sinfonia (1969). The final word in “Rezos” is the English word “DREAM!” which references the famous speech by Martin Luther King. Why? A batéy is a slave village at a sugar plantation; the text of the piece fittingly centers on labor and oppression, on the one hand (and also weather, which perhaps signifies powerful forces beyond our control), and, on the other, the freedom achieved through ritual, community, and music. Perhaps this collection of ideas suggests parallels with the civil rights movement in the U. S., which in turn anticipates León’s current operatic project, Little Rock Nine.

Nexus exit.

Does all of this make León speak a language of “vernacular cosmopolitanism” as Marc Gidal proposes? I wonder if León would prefer to think of it in terms of inviting her listeners to hear as vernacular cosmopolitans.

[1] American Composers Orchestra, “Composer Portrait: Tania León,” August 2, 2007, accessed December 30, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpXH149-bBY.

[2] Tania León, Indígena, liner notes by K. Robert Schwarz, CRI eXchange 662, 1994, compact disc.

[3] Carmen Pelaez, “‘The Little Rock Nine’: Composer Tania León Hopes Opera Fosters Important Dialogue,” NBC News, September 25, 2017, accessed December 30, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/little-rock-nine-composer-tania-le-n-hopes-opera-fosters-n803931

[4] Marc Gidal, “Contemporary ‘Latin American’ Composers of Art Music in the United States: Cosmopolitans Navigating Multiculturalism and Universalism,” Latin American Music Review 31, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2010): 40-78.

[5] León, Indígena, 6.

[6] Ibid, 5.

Panning for Gold: Hits in and beyond Trinidad

In the last entry I found myself (unavoidably?) making a reference to Beetlejuice (1988), which (unavoidably!) got me thinking about, yes, the score by Danny Elfman (b. 1953), and also the film’s two moments of spirit-possessed dancing, both accompanied by classic Harry Belafonte recordings: “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora).” maxresdefault.jpgPart of me wants to write this entry on an album by Harry Belafonte (b. 1927): musician, actor, activist. After all, his album Calypso (1956), which opens with that unforgettable “Day-O,” was the first LP to sell a million copies and was #1 on the U. S. charts for 31 weeks. But that’s not the album I pulled from the shelf.

A thorny, troublesome something—an interpretive Demogorgon—lives at the intersection of Caribbean music, spirit possession, and “strangeness” in postwar Euro-American culture. To limit this to the present topic, maybe it goes something like this: The makers of Beetlejuice had seen examples of the Terrifying Dangers of Caribbean Music in movies and TV shows growing up, and the terror thrilled them.

Dr._No_(soundtrack).jpgThink of the use of calypso in the 1962 film Dr. No, the first Bond movie featuring Sean Connery as 007. In the opening sequence, a trio of (Chinese-Jamaican) assassins, feigning blindness, gun down the British agent assigned to the Kingston office in broad daylight and then melt back into the cityscape. Their soundtrack is a calypso rendition of “Three Blind Mice,” realized by Monty Norman (who penned the Bond theme, etc., John Barry, etc., legal action, etc.). This sounds ironic, menacingly so, and given Monty Norman’s fascination with Caribbean music and his work with Jamaican musicians, the composer probably meant it that way. But I’m not so sure that the children who would grow up to make Beetlejuice would have. Here was musical otherness paired with racial otherness, all supporting a delight in violence. What child could ferret out the ambiguity, even with the words of a children’s song there to drive it home in a sort of calypso echo of the slow movement of Mahler’s First Symphony? Instead, there’s the simultaneity of horror at and liberation from conventional mores, precisely the heady mixture characterizing the possessed dance sequences in the Tim Burton film. There’s nothing particularly unusual about this idea: It’s exoticism, simply put. What makes the phenomenon so memorable in Beetlejuice is that exoticism undergoes a kind of emptying of its original foothold in reality because of the disembodied nature of recording and the imprecision of nostalgia for a remembered childhood.

51FB-tmvWBL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis reminds me of the opening of Simon Winder’s The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond (2006), where the writer recalls seeing the Bond film Live and Let Die at the local cinema as a ten-year-old. He makes himself sick with a rum-and-raisin-flavored candy bar called an Old Jamaican while watching “voodoo worshippers. . .screaming and convulsing” in a “loosely West Indian setting.” Gross. As Winder realizes of his adolescent self. Of course, there is an irony in that Jamaica was the very place that Ian Fleming wrote most of the Bond novels; it was his second home, and he clearly loved being there. And yet. . .empire, colonialism, racism: the ugly, inescapable past that anyone with a conscience must perpetually face down.

And now for something (sort of) completely different. (Nexus entry.)

There’s much to love about Nonesuch Records. Nonesuch commissioned—yes, commissioned—Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon (1967). (That’s enough, isn’t it?) Under the visionary leadership of Teresa Sterne (1927-2000), Nonesuch released recordings by a number of important young composers and also an Explorer Series, featuring music of stunning variety recorded on site around the world. Sterne and her team at Nonesuch in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s seem to have appreciated that, in the spirit of the times, expanding minds meant expanding sonic experience into realms of the unfamiliar.

One record in Nonesuch’s Explorer Series—the one I did pull from the shelf—is The Sound of the Sun (1967), an album comprised entirely of music for steel band (as in steel pans) played by the Westland Steel Band. A brief essay by Jane Sarnoff on the back cover sketches a history of the steel band, an ensemble born of extraordinary resourceful in the wake of repeated attempts by colonial authority figures to clamp down on aspects of Carnival. Drums in the nineteenth century? Banned. Bamboo sticks thumped on the ground? Banned. Pots and pans, discarded brakes and other metal bits were promising, but then. . . As Sarnoff puts it, “There are countless rumours, calypsos, and stories telling of the One man, the thousand One men who first discovered that dents in the tops of steel drums made notes.” She continues delicately, “The large oil industry on the island gave a ready source of basic instruments.” Helen Myers (ethnomusicologist alert!) is less conciliatory in her 2001 article for Grove: “After World War II, bandsmen developed a technique whereby the discarded American 55-gallon oil drums littering the island could be fashioned into a tuned idiophone whose tempered steel extended the range of musical versatility of their groups.” So Americans leave massive amounts of toxic waste on an island in the Caribbean, wash their hands of it, and the people of Trinidad give the world the steel band.

R-1662607-1383419160-6661.jpeg.jpgThe gift of The Sound of the Sun, though, is that it reveals an ensemble in transition. Not too long ago someone shared with me a YouTube video of a steel band playing the opening of Rite of Spring. It was meant to impress, and it did, as if to say, “Anything an orchestra on a concert stage can do, we can do.” That claim could not have been made when the Nonesuch record was made. In 1967, steel bands were closer to their origin as the creative expression of urban youth seeking music to articulate movement (march, dance) during Carnival. That gives the twelve tracks on The Sound of the Sun a certain self-similarity: a walking pace, an unvarying ensemble of ping pong, guitar pan, cello pan, boom, and shak-shak. (By the time Myers was publishing her Grove article, she explains that this terminology had shifted toward the less colloquial tenor pan for ping pong and bass pan for boom.)

But where variety exists on the album, it fascinates. A track like “High Life” has an unrelenting groove with an isorhythmic figure that reminds me of the sanjuanes described by John Schechter (ethnomusicologist alert!) in his work on Andean music. Compare this with “Maria,” where the tenor pan has all the rhythmic and melodic interest of a solo vocal line, with the ensemble breaking their groove to join the melody for certain hits. This also happens in “Mambo Lake,” the ensemble coordination seeming to beg for paired movement: What would the Westland Steel Band have done if they were playing this on the move?

On this listen I was especially drawn to “Linstead Market,” originally a folk song about a mother who can’t sell enough fruit in the market to feed her children, adapted simply here for the steel band. But the song itself spirals out into the nexus. It is Jamaican in origin and had been printed and recorded many times before the Westland Steel Band gave it a go. For example, the mento band the Wrigglers (sometimes “The Wigglers”) recorded it as a single, blending it with. . .ready?. . .“Day Oh” (“Day-O”), around the same year that Belafonte released his album Calypso. FW06846.jpgLouise Bennett-Coverley (1919-2006) also recorded “Linstead Market” for the 1954 Folkways Records release Jamaican Folk Songs. Bennett, lifelong champion of Jamaican folklore, was the person who introduced Belafonte to “The Banana Boat Song,” though it had been “Hill and Gully Rider” as she knew it. And she recorded “Linstead Market” on at least one other occasion, that time with the Caribbean Serenaders featuring Leslie Hutchinson on trumpet (Melodisc 1139) in what the 78 label describes as a “Jamaican Rhumba.” Steel band, calypso, folksong, mento, rhumba, Jamaica, Trinidad, the U. S.—the fluidity of genre, the quick movement of repertory between islands and across oceans, the surge of popular and ethnomusicological interest—all points to kind of vibrancy, a being on the leading edge of a musical revolution, a postcolonial achievement of voice. The Sound of the Sun is a brightly shining page from that story in motion.

(Nexus exit.)

Pablo, Presidents, Puerto Rico

Here we are at the beginning, in media res.

I picked a record off the shelf—that’s all. A completely unscientific way to demonstrate to myself that intuition was worth something. My intuition was that whatever I chose, no matter what it was, would be good enough and would allow for the requisite dipping of the toe into the waters.

R-9578152-1483059708-7980.jpegThe record was A Concert at the White House, November 13, 1961. Do you know this story? The great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, having refused to perform publicly in the United States since 1928 because of American recognition of Franco’s government, accepted President Kennedy’s invitation to perform because, in his words, of “my deep feelings for the American people and the faith and confidence we all have in you as leader of the Free World.”

The choice of pieces will likely seem unsurprising to chamber music regulars: Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D Minor, an arrangement of pieces by Couperin for cello and piano, Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro in A-flat Major, and as an encore Casals’s own arrangement of a Spanish melody, “Song of the Birds.”

The concert was a great success, widely seen (and spun) as part of the inauguration of a new age in which the White House would celebrate and encourage the arts and artists. Among the 153 guests in the East Room were Samuel Barber, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Norman Dello Joio, Howard Hanson (my compositional grandfather!), Roy Harris, Alan Hovhaness, Gian Carlo Menotti, Douglas Moore, Walter Piston, William Schuman, Roger Sessions, Virgil Thomson, Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski. But here’s my favorite guest reaction: “Leonard Bernstein, who sat with his head buried in his hands during most of the recital, was nearly overcome. ‘I was deeply moved by the entire occasion,’ he admitted, ‘not merely by the music of Casals but by the company in which it was played.’” (Time, November 24, 1961) The folks at Columbia Records were similarly moved, so much so that “in appreciation of [the] opportunity to present this recording,” they donated their portion of proceeds to the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico.

Nexus entry.

How many questions could possibly emerge from the random selection of a record on a shelf? Here are some of my favorites. . .so far. 1) What was Elliott Carter thinking when he looked at the program? Did he roll his eyes at every perfect authentic cadence? 2) Why Mendelssohn? What did Mendelssohn mean to that octogenarian international superstar of a cellist in 1961? 3) Why is this performance recreated in Jackie, the 2016 film starring Natalie Portman? What are contemporary film audiences supposed to do with chamber music at the White House? Jackie_(2016_film)4) How’s the Casals Festival doing, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Maria? 5) Paul Henry Lang (musicologist alert!) was at the concert and wrote a review for the Herald Tribune in which he admires the first family for their “proper appreciation of the relation of art to life.” Was Lang, scholar of French Baroque music, thinking of the ancien régime when he wrote that, or of Bartók and Kodály, with whom he also studied? 6) U.S. Presidents and Puerto Rico. I’m sure there’s a question there, but I’m not sure I want to ask it, at least not in a first blog entry. Maybe it’s enough to say that the first democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Muñoz Marín, was the guest of honor at this state dinner and concert.

Nexus exit.

What do we do with these questions? Assemble a portfolio of hastily researched half-answers, labor to develop serious answers before posting an entry, or move on? What’s the responsibility of the blogger?

(So. Many. Records.)

For now we move on and mull over, with the enticing possibility of “return,” a phenomenon that takes many forms in the nexus.