martes, 31 de julio de 2012


2012-07-14 stereotypes & art _wp cadets concert

Three weeks ago today, with poet Lirio Garduño, I did a concert-conversation with a small group of students from the US.  This was not just any group: they were five cadets –members of an elite language program- from West Point, the elite military academy of the US.  But more of that anon.
Combining poetry and music is something that Lirio and I have done quite a lot together in various forms, since we started to collaborate in the Spring of 2007, designing some concerts in which we alternated music of Rumor de Páramo with readings of texts by Juan Rulfo.
At the time, having performed the World Première of 18 of the Rumor pieces in October of 2006, I was thinking about ways to bring this music to audiences who had less experience listening to new and recent music.  I’d collaborated a lot with poets and writers in previous lives, and knew how poetry and music, well-joined, can make each other even more powerful.  As it turned out, this has been something extraordinarily fruitful: we brought concerts of Rumor y rumores (Murmurs and Murmurings?  hard to translate into English) to various small towns in the State of Guanajuato where surely music like this had never been heard, or Rulfo’s words –in effect, poetry—read with such expressiveness.
Over time, ore stuff happened: in May of 2007 we were invited to do a concert in the National Book Fair in León (GTO) and invited Mexican author and literary commentator Pablo Boullosa to join with us.  Adding the male voice to the piano-Garduño duo made a sort of chamber music. A year later, we were invited to the Raritan River Festival in New Jersey (US); and there we added distinguished US poet David Sten Herrstrom as English reader.  Just as wonderful a voice and the other language added yet another dimension.
As to concert-conversations, I’ve done many.  For me it’s been a marvelous vehicle for a more interactive concert.  Often it’s a good way to offer a less-specialized public a door into the music; but it’s been just as satisfying and interesting with hard-core music-lovers.  The idea is simply that my listeners have space to ask questions; and I have time to respond right in the moment, with the piano nearby to demonstrate or play excerpts.
So what happened?  About a year ago I was invited to a cocktail party here in Guanajuato, for a group of West Point cadets, on a visit to Mexico with their faculty advisor.  The small group were part of an elite program, "AIAD", which stands for "Academic Individual Advanced Development". In the words of the group’s Faculty Advisor (my translation from the Spanish), AIAD is an opportunity for the individual cadet to concentrate in a particular part of her or his program of studies, in this case learning about Hispanic language and culture.
They were here for very little time, about four days.  I applauded, in the first place, that they’d come to Guanajuato: the heart of Mexico and a very different Mexico than places like Cancún and Vallarta, or the Frontier Zone as we call it here, so corrupted by the cheapest of la cultura gringa that it’s barely even Mexico.
From what I understood that evening, their visit had focused almost entirely on the predictable questions, speaking of Mexico and of the scant general knowledge of this country in the US: security, narco, narco security.  Security and more narco in case anyone didn’t get it the first time.  Since I have no shame in these matters, I commented that Mexico’s art and culture, in the right hands, are more powerful than any machine gun.  And I offered –like the former Fulbrighter that I am— to give the next year’s group a doorway into said culture which, moreover, consists of major and beautiful creation happening Right Now.  It’s way more than Olmec heads and Aztec pyramids, I said, as important and imposing as those certainly are.
And a couple of months ago, they took me up on it!  One day in my mailbox was a message from the people who –so admirably!— organized both this year’s visit and the previous one, asking me if I still were interested in doing something like what I’d suggested.  Count on it! I said, How would you feel about a little concert-conversation on Mexican history, through the lens of Monarca music? The response came back, Wonderful! So Lirio and I talked about it and decided the best way to do it would be chronologically; the organizers agreed.  When Lirio and I started to design the program, we were astonished to find that it really worked: the historical breadth of the chosen muses lent itself excellently well to this kind of presentation.
The value-added on top of the music --so to speak-- was Lirio’s poems.  Suddenly, after winning the International Nicolás Guillén Poetry Prize in ‘09, and the local León one in ’10, and I can’t remember exactly what other goodies, she felt inspired –by the muses and by the music—to write some poems.  The first came after a visit to the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City, where she saw a bracelet that had belonged to Carlota of Belgium -- the muse of Alba Potes’ (of Colombia) austere yet passionate From the Air: Six Instants.  Then, if memory serves, the Casa Azul (Blue House) of Kahlo and Rivera, inspiration of Brazilian Silvia Berg’s heartbreakingly beautiful work.
In the end a whole torrent of poems poured forth, most inspired by the Monarca muses. Reading the first few, I felt the urge to translate them into English (as some may know, another interest of mine).  My first attempts met with Lirio’s approval, and I did more.  A few months ago, when I decided to go back to doing house-concerts –now as a way to raise funds on a small scale as well as to mature this repertoire (see a blog soon to be posted)— Lirio did me the huge favour of reading in some of them, she her original Spanish and I my version in English.  And when she couldn’t be there, I read both. 
So the program went like this:
Poem: Lirio Garduño, El sueño de Quetzalpapálotl
Horacio Uribe            El viaje nocturno de Quetzalpapálotl (2010)
(México, 1970)            (The night voyage of Quetzalpapálotl)
(Quetzalpapálotl  is a sacred butterfly of the Mexica culture, into which metamorphose women who die in childbirth, and warriors who perish on the field of battle)
Poem: Lirio Garduño, Malinche
Paul Barker            La Malinche:
Concert Aria  (2010)
(Gran Bretaña, 1956)
Poem: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Pilar Jurado            Primero sueño  (2010) [Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz]
(España, 1968)
FRENCH INTERVENTION: (ca. 1860, 50 years post-Independence)
Muse: Carlota of Belgium, the environment
Poem: Lirio Garduño, El brazalete de Carlota
Alba Potes            Desde el aire: seis instantes (2010)
(Colombia, 1952)            (From the Air: Six Instants)
            1. Pensativo con Premoniciones (Pensive with Premonitions) 
            2. Certidumbre: incertidumbre (Certainty: Uncertainty)  3. Los juegos
            se desvanecen (The games disappear)  4. Detalles distantes (Distant details)
            5. Aprisa (Hurried)  6. Introspectivo
Poem: Lirio Garduño, La casa azul
Muse: Frida Kahlo y su Casa Azul (Blue House)
Silvia Berg            El sueño … el vuelo (2010)
(Brasil, 1958)             (The dream ... the flight)
Muse: La Sandunga
Charles B. Griffin            “ … like water dashed from flowers …” (2010)
(EUA, 1968)            (“… como  agua arrojada de flores …”)

 It was very cool, how this historical perspective required me to re-examine my ideas about the music itself and on the design of the program.  For example, I’d never thought of beginning with Uribe.  No reason, except that it’s a very intense and exalting piece.  But starting with Uribe WORKS!  Its warmth and beauty just energize the audience, they’re hooked going in.
As I said, it was also astonishing that it was possible to construct this micro-summary of Mexican history through the Monarca muses … chosen, permit me to say, by the composers themselves.  (I assigned nothing to anyone, in spite of advice from wiser heads who counselled me to be a bit more authoritative, or at least specific.  I’ll write about this soon).  I put Closing the Circle as the heading for the last piece, Charlie Griffin’s, because at the start of the piece I declaim a text which is translated into modern Spanish from 16th-century Nahuatl.  Yet another blog, because believe me, it’s quite a story. 

OK, the concert-conversation.  I began by asking, What do we think about when we think about a country – any country, in this case Mexico?  Of course: geography, history, economy, sociology.  The country’s art is always a subheading, assuming it’s mentioned at all.  And yet, speaking of any country at all, you can sum up all of the above-mentioned topics through its art . . . because art is the mirror of everything that happens in any society.  Yet another subject for yet another blog-post.  I know.  Patience.
There was a tad of last-minute panic on account of if we should talk Spanish-English, or just in Spanish.  I was getting a bit wound into a twist about this; and Lirio said, with that sensible simplicity which is one of the things I most appreciate in her, “Why don’t we ask the cadets what they’d prefer?” Ah HA, I said, and that’s how it was. 
At the absolute gospel last minute, they called to tell me that there was a couple who wanted to come whose Spanish, truth be told, is not terribly strong.  I decided, Well, let them abide by the cadets’ decision.  And we are in Mexico, after all, jiminy.  And that’s how it was.  Lirio asked the cadets if they wanted our presentation in Spanish or bilingual and without missing a beat they all said, In Spanish.  ¡¡BRAVI!!  Their concentration was palpable and WOW, did they get it: I could tell from the questions afterwards.
So Lirio gave a mini historical context for each period and it was then that I spoke briefly about the piece when I considered it necessary, something to give them a way into the music.  Then the poem and its translation.  I really did not want to interrupt that magical moment between poetry and music with prose  about the music.

EVERY concert is special, but this one was particularly so.  What I love so much about very small venues –which my piano room is— is how tangible, at times audible, the audience response is.  At the end, we invited their questions and comments and absolutely everyone had something to say. 
There were other people there too –some Mexican friends of the organizers, and some Quebecqois guests of mine whom I’d invited—and all of their commentaries and questions were also really good and thought-provoking.  At the end of the question part I asked that everyone take a minute to think about how we are all the Americas, that it’s not just the United States but also Canada, Mexico, our whole hemisphere.
OK, so those thoughts of mine … At the end, after all was said and done, they gave us gifts: a commemorative medal for Lirio, and for me a T-shirt with the logo of their language program, of which the image of the Lamp of Knowledge forms a part.  For some reason, when the faculty advisor explained about the Lamp of Knowledge I almost started crying.  It seems to me so precious, that Lamp of Knowledge and of Learning.  For everyone, for all of us.

Spontaneously, various of the cadets said something expressing their thanks.  Very beautiful and from the heart: these were not formal, rehearsed words.  But there was more: later, various came up to me to say something, it seemed, more intimate and closer to the heart.  The first was the most military-looking of the five: handsome, erect, surely in enviable physical condition.  He said (now in English), hesitating a bit, “I just want to thank you because … well, in my whole life I have never been this close to a piano.  Or to someone who plays it like you do … it was incredible.  Long pause, and then, We lead a pretty linear life, you know?  And what you gave us tonight, well, it was something completely different, it made me aware of other parts of myself …”
A bit later, in the little drinks-and-nibbles session that followed, another cadet comes up to me, this time the only woman of the group and of Mexican heritage.  She says, also hesitating a little as we may do when speaking in an unaccustomed vocabulary, “I want to thank you because well, you made me aware of a part of my heritage … maybe you know that my parents are Mexican, and it was only recently that I came to Mexico to find out about my roots … well, I really didn’t know about some of these women and … that piece about the Casa Azul of Frida Kahlo …Oh jeez, I’m getting emotional …” and I could see her eyes welling up.  My own eyes moist, I touched her shoulder and said something like, “It’s OK, that’s the idea!”  Knowing how we get in these moments and what is often the remedy, I assign her a task: I give her my notebook and ask her to write her name and email, and then circulate it to the rest of the group for their coordinates.  “Yes, ma’am”, she says.
I confess that I didn’t know what to expect of this group.  My own stereotype of the elite cadet of West Point is that they take them and work hard to beat out of them every trace of empathy, sensibility, and right-brain activity, i.e. weakness.  As with all stereotypes, it had something of the truth in it, as well as exaggeration to the point of falseness.
From a certain perspective –like a devil’s advocate—one could say, “Jeez, these are the very crème de la crème of the most elite military academy of the US, how on earth could you argue that people like that need art – or that they even deserve it?”  I suppose this is some variant on the theme of blaming –and punishing, at times very cruelly, as in spitting on them— the soldiers who fought in Viet Nam for that horrible conflict, instead of their commanders and the “strategists” who designed the whole debacle.
I thought about it quite a lot, in fact, and concluded that it would have been simply unpardonable to not share this splendid music, and the wonderful poetry it partly inspired, with these young people.  In the same way that, a couple of days later, listening to Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto with Arrau, Haitink, and the Concertgebouw, I decided that not one single child in this world should grow up without hearing this music.
I’ve said for a long time that we are sowers of seeds.  And as such, we cannot know when and how those seeds may germinate.  Maybe in that very moment, maybe in six months or in six years or in twenty-six … and in reality it doesn’t matter when.  It is not given to us to know.  What’s important is that you’ve tapped into a vein: some empathetic faculty has been activated which in some moment may come alive, may even go into action.
I mean, if I am going to advocate for access to art –something which I feel is now absolutely urgent— then it must be universal access.  If one of these cadets, in some moment in six months, or six years or twenty-six, may make a decision or a choice which is more human, more empathetic, who will know if it wasn’t because of some seed that was sown that night of music and history in this house? 
It’s not given to us to know, I repeat; and even less is it given to us to deny access to art because of some stereotype which we happen to have stupidly installed in our brains.  The person who made the choice to take and then circulate those photos of Abu Ghraib, or the Nazis who let themselves be carried away by the ideological current but then thought better of it and tried to do something which might make a difference … or countless numbers of humans through the ages whose conscience in some moment came alive … might that not have happened because of one of those seeds?  Human ethics and conscience move on their own mysterious and hidden ways which we can’t always make out in the moment.  And ART is one of the primary activators of conscience, because it activates our empathetic faculty.  And that is also, you see, why Art Is Dangerous. 
You see?  We can’t be arrogant that way.  Universal access to art, down with stereotypes.  That’s what I say.

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