The Story of the Latin American Music Center, as Related by Carmen-Helena Téllez
The Latin American Music Center is an organization of inestimable value, and in 2011 its members decided to celebrate 50 years of informed advocacy by releasing eight CDs [with six reviewed in this issue and two in the next]. Carmen-Helena Téllez, the multitalented and extremely busy director, generously lent some of her time to elucidate the aims and procedures of the center for
and, coincidentally, to tell us a little about her life and career.
Q: How would you describe the role of the Latin American Music Center?
A: The Latin American Music Center promotes Latin American music in the United States and abroad. Individual Latin American countries all have their research institutes focused on their own heritages and there are many websites and research collections, online and in major libraries in the United States, that specialize in individual popular-music genres, or in other areas of the repertoire, such as music of the Latin American Baroque, or music from pre-revolutionary Cuba. These are all supremely important resources. The Latin American Center, however, aspires to provide a comprehensive overview of the Latin American repertoire, which is vast and complex. The LAMC started with a focus on contemporary art music, but now also seeks to understand the impact of Latinos in the United States and the spheres of influence of Latin music in the world.
Q: What events led composer Juan Orrego-Salas to found the center?
A: Juan Orrego-Salas belongs to a generation of Latin American composers who lived through a period of deliberate diplomatic initiatives through cultural exchange between the United States and Latin America. These initiatives were sponsored by the American government (examples include the Good Neighbor Policy and the United States Information Agency) and by different organizations, most notably the Rockefeller Foundation. Juan Orrego-Salas traveled to Tanglewood to study with Aaron Copland. He was later contacted by an officer of the Rockefeller Foundation, Jack Harrison, who was promoting the idea of creating a major archive of Latin American music in the United States. In many interviews and in his published memoires, Orrego-Salas has told of his dialogs with Harrison, and later with the dean of the Indiana University School of Music, Wilfred Bain. He persuaded them that such an archive should exist at a major university, allied to a program of courses in Latin American music, to advance serious knowledge of this repertoire. In fact, several universities were considered to house the archive, and in the end, Indiana University won the opportunity. Today, the Latin American Music Center is a research unit affiliated with the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Because of the eminence of the school, extremely gifted students come to study there from all over the world. The Latin American Music Center aims to provide them with opportunities to know the Latin American repertoire in a variety of creative projects.
I’ve gotten slightly ahead of myself, so I’d like to backtrack a bit to point out that the LAMC was founded in 1961, with sponsorship from the Rockefeller Foundation, alongside the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies, “Torcuato di Tella,” also sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, and led by Alberto Ginastera in Argentina. At that time, Orrego-Salas moved permanently to the United States, where he has enjoyed a distinguished career as a composer and pedagogue for more than fifty years. Like all composers of his generation, he worked with many compositional languages, but through it all, he maintained an unmistakable neoclassical elegance. This can be appreciated in the piano and violin collections we labeled
Piano de pampa y jungla
Eco de violín
[reviewed in this issue].
Q: This may seem to be a superfluous question, as you grew up in Venezuela, but how would you assess the importance of Latin American music in your life and studies?
A: It is an odd reality that Latin American music was not studied at all at the conservatory during my studies in Caracas in my childhood and teenage years. I have been able to ascertain that this situation was the same in all other Latin American countries. Nowadays, some progress has taken place, noticeably that some Latin American universities have started courses and degrees in Latin American musicology. For me, as for many, the insightful appreciation of the specific features and merits of Latin American music began in college. Beyond the popular music that I could enjoy by cultural affiliation, my first serious study of Latin American music began through the discovery of the great Latin American composers of the 20th century. It continued with a gradual awareness that, historically, great performers have promoted the music of their culture and that I should humbly learn from them and do the same. My first professional concert in the United States was a recital of Venezuelan works in Chicago. After that, I made the point that every year I should have a performance devoted to music from Latin America. By the time I took over the direction of the Latin American Music Center I had begun to understand that Latin American music enjoys unparalleled diversity, and that the dialog between so-called high and low cultures has been constant since the cultural region exists as we understand it today, that is, since the arrival of the Europeans. In many respects, postmodern musical criticism has permitted us to understand the true profile of Latin American music. Since I understood this, I have changed my whole approach to programming and concert presentation, and I’ve come to view compositions in light of their possible sources in popular music and as part of a social, economic, and cultural context.
Q: Have your compositions been influenced by Latin American music?
A: I’ve had a very long hiatus as a composer, to the point that I would not be recognized as one by most people. When I first started composing—very secretively—as a teenager, Latin American music did not influence my youthful compositions overtly. My goal then was to persuade my teacher that I had something to communicate, and to assimilate experimental compositional languages that fascinated me, especially those of the Eastern European composition school. As I return to the art now, my creativity is not channeled through conventional composition
, so I realize Latin American traditions offer many sources of inspiration. It can influence the choice of materials but also the mode of presentation, so that the work is multilayered and can be read from diverse perspectives, just like all Latin American culture in general. Like many other Latin American artists, I tend to absorb multiple influences, almost like a collector, because Latin American culture is the heir of many world traditions, by history and by choice. In my case, it’s still too early to define the full extent of the impact.
Q: Now that you’re once again, if I can say, a productive composer, you’ve embraced electronics, opera, and multimedia as outlets for your creativity.
A: Interdisciplinary performances have become central in my artistic activity. All genres and media interest me, but working with voices has been a constant in my career since the ’80s. Inter-artistic genres first attracted me in my student days, and I have finally accepted that that’s where I’m the happiest. The unintended consequence is that this artistic practice demands a lot of time for research and production, which in turn ultimately led me to accept an offer to join the University of Notre Dame, where they will allow me the time and resources to devote myself to the creation and production of inter-artistic works. I am very fortunate in this, but as you may surmise, a trifle sad that the recording series is my last project as director of the LAMC and brings to a close one of the richest stages of my life.
Q: When did the LAMC begin issuing recordings?
A: The LAMC has produced recordings since 1995—when we commissioned Mario Lavista’s Mass—to document performance competitions and research projects. In 2011 the LAMC celebrated its 50th anniversary. This was a unique opportunity to issue a special collection of recordings of rarely recorded repertoire. We aspire to address compositions that are representative of the modern international artistic and academic culture. Traditional folkloric repertoire is outside of our range, for obvious reasons.
Q: Does the center intend to release further recordings?
A: We are working now on anthologies of chamber and vocal music, as well as a collection of music for two pianos.
Q: You’re listed as producer and artistic director on several of the CDs. Do you have any engineering background or is your role more that of someone who follows along with the score in the booth and speaks with the musicians from time to time to make suggestions, correct mistakes, etc.?
A: I do not have a sound engineering background. The sound engineers for these projects—Konrad Strauss, Dave Weber, and Chip Reardin—clearly have extraordinary musical gifts. On the other hand, I have conceptualized all the recordings, and have followed along in the booth, controlling the pace of the sessions and correcting any mistakes. This is a team effort like all the work we have done at the Latin American Music Center. I have been able to count on the assistance of excellent session co-producers Luiz Fernando Lopes, Espen Jensen, and Guido Sánchez, and I sit in during the post-production sessions and decide on all aspects of the final product. Also, I’ve enjoyed fantastic collaborations with the graphic designers, program annotators, and with managing producers Daniel Stein, Yuri Rodríguez, Juan Arango, and Marysol Quevedo. In short, everyone has had critical input, but in the end, I have made final decisions on every aspect of each project.
Q: Do you choose the repertoire and musicians for the recordings?
A: The short answer is yes. However, not all the projects have emerged in the same way. Our collections of repertoire dedicated to one instrument or genre have emerged as a result of research proposals by the performers, or as compilations of recordings by the winners of the performance competitions sponsored by the LAMC. Both activities have permitted us to promote the repertoire among gifted young artists but also generate recordings of works that we consider important but that have never been recorded or have been rarely recorded. Other projects emerge as collaborations of the LAMC with other ensembles or artistic organizations. For example, the recording of works for viola by Omar Hernández Hidalgo received support from the Orchestra of Baja California in Mexico. The recording of historical repertoire,
Hoy hasemos fiesta
, by the Lipzodes Ensemble was conceptualized and produced by the group with the LAMC’s assistance, after they won our performance award. In short, selections of repertoire and interpreters are done on a case-by-case basis, not following any method in particular, except the intrinsic artistic and research interest of the repertoire.
Q: Is there a board that makes these decisions?
A: We are an academic research unit of the Jacobs School of Music. The projects are developed by a team of faculty and doctoral candidates who themselves have their own areas of repertoire interest and contribute their ideas and opinions through the development of the projects. However, the selections of repertoire emerge also from the dialog between the performers, some of whom have won our performance competitions with repertoire they are interested in, and our preference to record that which has not previously been recorded. Alternatively, doctoral candidates or alumni of the Jacobs School approach us to record material they have been working on for years. Such was the case of Omar Hernández Hidalgo, who prepared the edition in conventional notation of Julián Carrillo’s
, originally written with a number system.
In the case of a star like Sylvia McNair, who is also a member of the Jacobs School of Music faculty, the CD was a result of her incredible generosity. She performed in two unforgettable Valentine’s Day concerts dedicated to Latin American love songs that the LAMC produced in Bloomington. After these events, the audience asked us if she would ever record this music. We asked her and she agreed; I think we have a jewel in her CD,
Q: Along with all your other activities, you’re much in demand as a conductor. Was conducting something that appealed to you from the start?
A: I started becoming interested in conducting during my college days at Indiana University. At first, I took up the study of conducting as a secondary area, but soon enough it became the specialization in my graduate studies. I have had wonderful mentors in the field, but perhaps the most influential was Jan Harrington, a student of the great Julius Herford, himself the teacher of Robert Shaw, Roger Wagner, Lukas Foss, and many other eminent choral-orchestral conductors. Jan Harrington taught me the value of curiosity and risk-taking in programming and the co-creative role of the interpreter. His programs were connected like meta-compositions, in a manner of speaking. At Indiana University he conducted always the most important new works, and kept us as informed of new musical developments as anyone in New York City or London.
Q: I know you conduct programs that range across the musical spectrum, but I’d like to return to our discussion of Latin American music, if I may. One inescapable fact of contemporary musical culture is the worldwide influence of Latin American music, especially the popular variety.
A: My father once told me that, in the 20th century, the most influential repertoires derived from Afro-American, Afro-Cuban, and Brazilian popular music. I think it does not require much reflection to see that he had a point. To these three we must still add the powerful influence of Argentinean tango, and the consideration that Latin American genres continue to grow, change, and generate waves of impact through Latino immigrants in the United States.
Q: I find Latin American music’s lighter side—bossa nova, tango, samba, folk music—irresistible. How about you?
A: I think they are fabulous, but I would hesitate to say that these genres are always light. This would be a dangerous mischaracterization. Consider tango, for example, a musical repertoire that often addresses very complex emotions. All the same, it is through its urban popular genres that Latin American music has a powerful impact in the world. Concert music, by contrast, is seriously under-represented and woefully misunderstood.
Q: Although it might be superficial to generalize, do you have any thoughts on what differentiates Latin American classical music from that of other countries?
A: Clearly, the immense variety of rhythmic ideas distinguishes Latin American music. But it is less observed that Latin American music shows marvelous melodic invention and soulfulness. Furthermore, we have had our brand of modernism and experimentation that is in no way derivative or imitative, even though we certainly have embraced influences from Europe and the United States. (Consider, for example, the microtonal system of Julián Carrillo as heard in Omar Hernández-Hidalgo’s CD.) In time, this will be understood in the same way that we are already appreciating the specific brand of modernism in the visual arts of Latin America.
Q: You’ve said that concert music is woefully misunderstood. Are there any indications that that situation may change in the near future?
A: While I remain hopeful, currently there is no extensive economic infrastructure supporting the promotion of Latin American art music composers, including a viable publications and concert production network. Furthermore, the discipline of musicology is barely catching up with the Latin American music phenomenon. Some countries, Mexico in particular, have government-funded programs to support the creativity of its artists, and it shows in the productivity of Mexican composers, who also benefit from their proximity to the United States. Concert producers, whenever they wish to honor this repertoire, sometimes err in identifying what is truly Latin American or what is significant in this music, due in part to the scarcity of quick research resources. That is why the LAMC has wanted to contribute to the dissemination of some extraordinary music through our recording series.
ROMANCE: A Collection of Latin Love Songs
Sylvia McNair (vocals); Instrumental Ensemble
IU MUSIC CD 2012-02 (47:32)
Dindi. Boy from Ipanema. Corcovado. Insensatez. Água de beber.
Chorinho pra ele.
Quizás, quizás, quizás.
Solamente una vez.
El Taller; Indiana University Latin American Popular Music Ens
IU MUSIC CD 2011-01 (59:53)
Libertango. Preludio para el año 3001.
El Cristo de Palacagüina. Pobre la Maria.
Lejana tierra mía.
Rapsodia en Bolero. Maria Suite:
Faltan cinco pa’las doce.
Água de beber.
Yo soy un pobre negro
OY HASEMOS FIESTA: Music from 16th-Century Guatemala for Voices and Winds
Lipzodes Ens; Carolina Gamboa Hoyos, cond; Pro Arte Singers
IU MUSIC-FOCUS (56: 54)
20TH CENTURY MEXICAN MUSIC FOR VIOLA
Omar Hernández-Hidalgo (va); Sally Renée Todd (pn)
LAMC 2010-01 OB (59:61)
3 Danzas seculares. Cuaderno de viaje.
Canción en el puerto.
Concurso viola. Capricho para viola en 4tos, 8vos, y 16avos de tono.
Hoja de álbum 2.
PIANO DE PAMPA Y JUNGLA: A Collection of Latin American Piano Music
IU MUSIC LAMC 1-201201-4 (2 CDs: 122:58)
(Ricardo de la Torre, pn).
Caixinha de música quebrada. A prole do bebê:
(Fernando Cruz, pn).
Valsa da dor
(Sergio Massardo, pn).
(Matthew Cataldi, pn).
Piano Sonata No. 4
(Evan Mitchell, pn).
(Paulina Zamora, pn).
2 Motions in 1 Movement
(de la Torre, pn).
Suite de danzas criollas
(Nariaki Sugiura, pn).
Sonata No. 1 de El Escorial
(de la Torre, pn).
Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Handel
(de la Torre, pn).
(Jasmin Arakawa, pn).
7 de oro
(Jordi Torrent, pn).
ECO DE VIOLÍN: Latin American Music for Violin, Piano and Electronics
Colin Sorgi (vn); Jooeun Pak (pn)
LAMC 1-CSJP-1-2011 (72:49)
Sueños de Chambi.
Vueltas y revueltas.