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Latin American Composers: Two generations and their methods


Latin American Composers:
Two generations and their methods

Most composers of Latin America from the 20th and 21st centuries are not well known in North America. While the music of Carlos Chavez, Alberto Ginastera, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Astor Piazzolla has penetrated our repertoire in North America, the extensiveness of their output is not emphasized or they are composers about which we know little when compared to those of the United States and of Europe. Other composers of a younger generation are also worth noting such as: Marlos Nobre, Gerardo Gandini, Celso Darrido-Lecca, and Mario Lavista. Through these composers one can find a rich array of music that utilizes the experienced environment of the composer. These two generations of composers also represent at least two general aesthetics in compositional techniques that were influenced by trends occurring in Europe and the United States. Basically, what occurred in European and United States music history had its parallel in Latin America. However, Latin American composers were also influenced by native, folk, and popular musics of their homeland. Some composers were more affected by one or the other, but all in all, in their music there is a unique blend of European styles and techniques with Latin American influences.

Before we go any further, I would like to point out the use of the term "Latin America." Latin America is a varied place with many countries, cultures, traditions, influences, and ideas, contrasting cultures within in countries, varying traditions within cultures, traditions that influence and shape various countries simultaneously or at different times, and so on. The use of the term "Latin America" can be used in a misleading way when used to describe a generality of that area. When the term "Latin America" is used in this paper, it is meant to portray a physical area of the world and the people of it and not a generalized idea that can be applied to all of Latin America. As varied as North America and Europe are, Latin America is too; or it can even be argued that it is more varied.

Nearly all the composers mentioned above studied abroad in Europe or the United States at one point or another and learned the current trends that were occurring in art music of their respective times. Generally, the composers then took these new ideas and utilized them in their own compositions when they returned to their countries. On a superficial level, it can be assumed that these composers were merely copying European and American techniques and ideas, but were they? What use was it to them that they learned these techniques? Did they form any uniquely ideas on their own, such as Boulez and Babbitt with total serialism? What is different about Latin American composers? music than from Europe and the United States? Is it distinctively "Latin" or mere copies of their European and American counterparts? Or are these questions of any relevance at all? These questions are more relevant to some composers than others, but the idea of what is "Latin American" art music is still evident. These questions will be explored below as biographical accounts and thoughts on selected composer?s works will be given.

The Older Generation, Nationalism and Neo-Classicism

It can be said without regret that Villa Lobos, Chavez, Revueltas, Piazzolla, and Ginastera were all great composers. Each composer's music is different from one another but still have similar influences. The idea of nationalist music was en vogue in Europe at the end of the 19th century in Europe with Dvorak, Smetana, Rimsky-Korsakov and others, and later to some extent in the United States in the first half of the 20th century with Copland. The same occurred in Latin America in the first half of the 20th century when counties were looking to identify themselves. Again, this is a generalization as some composers were more "nationalistic" than others. Also with the influence that Copland and Nadia Boulanger had on Latin America composers, "neo-classicism" made its way to Latin America.

Nationalist music and neo-classicism can mean many different things. Either description is neither a style nor an aesthetic but an idea. Some may argue with me, but I say this since there are varying styles within each term. Dvorak's music is different from Smetana's, as it is from Alexander Borodin?s. Stravinsky's neo-classical music is different from Copland's as it is different from Prokofiev. What pervades in their music is the idea of nationalism and neo-classicism. Nationalistic music is art music that is influenced by nationalistic themes and ideas that can range from folk tunes (as in Smetana's case) to political propaganda (as in Shostakovich?s case). Neo-classicism is music that is influenced by the idea of classicism in music, or music from the 17th-19th centuries. Perfection, symmetry, consonant harmonies, hierarchy, the music of Mozart, Pergolesi, and Bach all have influenced the "neo-classical" composers in some way or another. However, the neo-classical music of Stranvinsky is different from that of Copland. It can even be said that Copland was not an intentional neo-classicist, but in the idea of neo-classicism it can be seen, due to the fact that he chose not to write music that was "avant garde" but tonal and tradional?-in an "American" way with his open harmonies. Copland can also be considered a nationalistic composer as well and through that we can see that both these terms can be applied to one composer instead of one idea applied to one composer.

These ideas ring true with the composers of Latin America. Nationalistic and neo-classical movements were ideas rather than styles in the art music of Latin America during the first half of the 20th century. Now we will turn to take a closer look at how these musical movements and ideas affected the aforementioned composers.

Carlos Chavez was a Mexican composer of importance and arguable the most well-known. Born in 1899, he went on to write music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, ballets, chorus, and solo piano (Radice, 2003). His career was multi-faceted as he was not only a composer, but a conductor and lecturer (Behague, 1979). Ch?vez directed the Orquestra Sinfonica de Mexico until 1949 as well as the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes until 1953 (Behague, 1979; Radice, 2003). After that phase of his career, he dedicated his time to composition, won the Guggenheim in 1956 and delivered the Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard from 1958-1959 (Behague, 1979). Those accomplishments are life time awards given to composers and great musicians which signify their importance and relevance to art music.

Two important works written for orchestra were Sinfonia de Antigona and Sinfonia India. Sinfonia de Antigona is said to have been influenced by Stravinsky's neo-classical "style" (Behague, 1979). This was considered to be one of the non-nationalistic pieces which utilize European techniques (246). Other works reflected that characteristic as well. Sinfonia India incorporates Native America (Mexican) stylistic elements (Radice, 2003). Pentatonic scales, modes, quartel harmonies, meter changes, repetitive motifs were used to depict native elements (Radice, 2003). The 1930s-1940s was a time in which Mexican art music saw the rise and fall of nationalism in Mexico with the assimilation of different techniques and styles such as neo-classicism and polytonality (Behague, 1979). These two works mentioned reflect all three of those trends and ideas.

Upon hearing Sinfonia de Antigona one can be struck by the colors Chavez uses from the orchestra. Another thing that is striking about this work is the fact that he hardly writes for a full texture. Only certain sections or groups of instruments play at a time, which give way to its thin texture. For example, the violins usually play without the rest of the strings but with woodwinds and brass. The piece incorporates heavy use of woodwinds in a dark manner by using the lower pitched woodwind instruments. Also, the quality of the chords, give the music its dark character. Through this the texture is still thin but sounds full; the mix of dark colors and thin texture give the piece a unique sound. The writing is mainly vertical, in that chords and harmony play an important role, but there are some melodic occurrences apart from the chordal writing. The harmony prevalent in this piece is of modal nature. The rhythmic drive is slow and intense but still contains drive. By listening to this I do not hear Stravinskian neo-classicism at all. I hear a unique and highly personal composer's music with a clear aesthetic all his own.

Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) was a self-proclaimed nationalistic composer. He "came of age" during the peak of musical nationalism in Argentina and gained his reputation as a national composer in 1937 with Danzas Argentinas for piano and his ballet Panambi (Behague, 1979). In 1941, he established himself as the leader of the nationalistic movement in Argentina with another ballet, Estancia in 1941 (Behague, 1979). However, those two ballets were problematic to some in its reception due to its extra-musical content (Radice, 2003). Ginastera defined three periods in his compositional life: objective nationalism, subjective nationalism, and neo-expressionist (Schulz). It is interesting that a composer would define periods of his work, usually periods in a composers work occur naturally and unintentionally as with Beethoven. Nothing is ever said that Beethoven set out to create three distinct periods in his music. Nevertheless, these distinctive periods show Ginastera's variety and capability as a composer.

Panambi and Estancia reflect the objective national period in Ginastera's output. This period (1937-1949) is defined by the inclusion of the gauchesco (Argentinean cowboy) tradition, strong local color, conscious treatment of indigenous themes, a clear tonal idiom with inclusion of some extremely dissonant passages (Behague, 1979). However, Ginastera rarely directly borrowed actual folk materials (Behague, 1979). His second period can be understood from its given term. Subjective nationalism (1948-1958) encompasses nationalism not in a direct way but by implication (Behague, 1979). The "Argentine accent" is what is said to be prevalent in this period as it does not employ folklore material (Behague, 1979). His third period does not contain nationalism in its being, but compositional techniques of the 20th century are used, such as: twelve tone, serialization of other elements in music, micro-tonality, polyrhythms, and atonality in a non-serialist manner (Behague, 1979). His last period, obviously, does not reflect the ideas of neo-classicism and nationalism, but again shows his varied talents and interests as a composer. For that reason, this later period will be looked at in the next section of this paper.

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) was a very prolific and significant composer of Brazil. His musical training consisted of instruction on the piano and cello but was also compelled with the music of Brazil (Radice, 2003). After receiving classical training in music, as a young man, Villa-Lobos ventured on his own to explore Brazil and its native musics (Radice, 2003). He also collaborated with musicians in popular music idioms at the beginning of the 20th century, such as the Chor?es (Behague, 1979). Villa-Lobos also met Milhaud and through him, developed a liking of the music of Debussy and the French composers of Le Six (Behague, 1979). With his trip to Europe, Villa-Lobos began to obtain international acclaim, and especially with the promotion of his music by pianist Artur Rubinstein (Behague, 1979).

It is safe to say that Villa-Lobos was no doubt a nationalistic composer. With his varied influences and experiences, it is no wonder that his music has an innate blend of European techniques and nativistic elements. Villa-Lobos was a nationalist of a folkloric sort, in which nationalism was inescapable (Behague, 1979). Through use of native music, Villa-Lobos aimed to evoke a "total vision" of Brazil (Behague, 1979). His approach to the incorporation of folk elements in his music, were intuitive and not scientific (Behague, 1979).

Nonetto for flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, harp, celesta, battery, and mixed chorus was influenced by urban popular music through its rhythm and woodwind colors (Behague, 1979). Other elements are evident such as use of tone clusters, quartal/quintal harmonies, parallel harmonic movement, and "altered" chords (Behague, 1979). There is a strong rhythmic drive and element to this piece. The uncommon mix of this ensemble creates very unique colors and sounds not usually heard together and the inclusion of a chorus further adds to that claim. His melodic lines are clearly passionate with short-lived motivic and rhythmic patterns. The gestural and melodic ideas "jump around" throughout the music that then goes into another groove or short-lived idea. This creates a very intuitive and improvisatory sense to the music. The music is fresh, alive, and exciting, the listener does not know what to expect next while there is a constant rhythmic pulsating drive.

The other two composers, Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940) and Astor Piazzolla are also notable composers of their respective countries: Mexico and Argentina. Due to the limited extent of this paper, these composers will briefly be explored. Revueltas career is similar to Chavez's in that he taught, composed, and conducted, but Revueltas studied abroad and became familiar with European and United States currents in music of his time (Radice, 2003). He was able to hear music by Sch?nberg, Stravinsky and Les Six in Europe and met Henry Cowell, Roy Harris, Edgard Varese and Copland in America (Radice, 2003). Revueltas was a nationalist composer of international reputation who made the popular and folk music in Mexico of his time a source of his style (Behague, 1979). When those who know of Piazzolla hear his name, one word can immediately come to mind: tango. Piazzolla studied with Ginastera and Boulanger and composed in a variety of genres (Behague, 1979). As a young composer, he utilized Western European genres, such as sonata form, but later as a more experienced composer, he elevated the tango with striking dissonances, chromaticism, jazz, inclusion of counterpoint, and virtuosic writing (Behague, 1979). Through the progression of the tango brought forth by Piazzolla, he can be considered a nationalistic composer.

The Younger Generation and Avant Garde Influences

The next generation of composers also tended to follow the trends from Europe and the United States. These trends were different all together and went against the established tradition of tonal music and tonal hierarchy in music. The music of Marlos Nobre, Gerardo Gandini, Celso Garrido-Lecca, and Mario Lavista incorporate avant garde techniques of Europe in their music, but create a different result. Nationalism seems less of a concern for them. However, with the adoption of these techniques, one can wonder why they would adopt them and for what reason the acquire them. How are these techniques used in their music? What kind of result occurs and how is it different from composers of Europe and the United States? Were there any original Latin American compositional ideas or a continuation of European ideas?

To understand the trends that occurred in Latin America, one must understand the musical movements that occurred from the 1920s onwards in Europe and the United states. At the end of the romantic era, Wagner and even Mahler started to push tonality to its extreme. There are moments in Wagner's music that can be considered "atonal" as in Tristan und Isolde. Sch?nberg was a revolutionary. His early music was out of the romantic world of Wagner and Mahler, but soon started to abandon tonality and wrote "free atonal" music, utilizing intervallic cells, but actually his pupil Webern was the first to write a piece "without a key." In the late 1910s Sch?nberg started to develop an idea of writing music with all twelve pitches in a set order that came to be known as the twelve-tone method of composition. This took the music world by storm and soon, there was a movement of twelve-tone composition. Webern developed the idea further, intuitively, by serializing other aspects of music such as dynamics and register. This was found by Boulez, which lead him to create the idea of the total serialization of music after World War II, in which all aspects of music would be ordered an planned (rhythm, pitch, register, timbre, dynamics, etc.). Boulez created a following in Europe as the composer Milton Babbitt in the United States developed the same idea. Other trends that followed were the use of electronics, aleatoric writing, improvisation, and chance operations. To put it briefly, aleatoric writing is music in which the composer introduces elements of chance or unpredictability and leaves different aspects of the music, such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, etc., to the performer or interpreter. Chance operations in music are controlled by such methods of dice throwing to determine events in music. There were two extremes in art music of the 1950s: total organization (total serialism) and total freedom (aleatoric and chance music). Composers of the time experimented with both idioms.

Again, the same can be said for these ideas or techniques of composition as can be said for nationalism and neo-classicism: serialism and aleatoric music are not styles but methods of writing music. Music that is serialist can "sound" "atonal" or imply tonaliy, whereas aleatoric and chance music can sound serialist whereas both can sound "random" and like a "bunch of noise." It depends on how the composer uses these methods that will create a resultant sound. The music of these Latin American composers is no exception.

Marols Nobre (b. 1939) is a Brazilian composer that has utilized the ideas of serialism and electronics in his music. He studied at the Di Tella Institute in Buenos Aires (1963-1964) where his teachers included Ginastera, Koellreutter, and Camargo Guarnieri (Behague, 1979). He soon adapted the twelve-tone technique in his music after having been influenced by Milhaud's dissonant treatment with a nationalistic concern (Behague, 1979). After delving into the twelve-tone technique, he set out to create music that was in a "free serialist" method (Behague, 1979). His music also contained aleatoric elements "with nativisitc overtones," extended techniques, and extremely contrasting dynamics (Behague, 1979).

Two works of note by Nobre are Ukrinmakerinkrin (1964) and In Memoriam (1973), both for orchestra. Ukrinmakrinkrin is described as having an atonal-serial language with some "native ritualistic flavor" and some aleatoric structures (Behague, 1979). In Memoriam contains clusters of sound or "sound blocks," with "complex and brilliant orchestration" and Brazilian percussion instruments (Behague, 1979). From the descriptions above, it can be said that Nobre uses these techniques in his own way and not to copy or imitate other composers who utilize these techniques. The concern seems to be that of writing music he likes to write. However, this is just an assumption from reading about him.

Another piece by Nobre, Mosaico para Orquestra (1970) is an interesting one. It is a single movement work with three contrasting sections (Marlos Nobre). Thick masses of differing sounds abound in the first section, as the second is more lyrical with brief occurrences of short lived quick motivic gestures, and the third section is a "pure divertimento" for orchestra with "tightly composed writing" and "controlled randomness" (Marlos Nobre). Upon hearing it one does find sustained harmonies with mixed timbres of instruments in the beginning with aleatoric "sounding" figures, un-metered patterns that are repeated quietly in the winds. There are bits of motivic fragments in the orchestra lead by the brass with "outbursts" from the whole orchestra. There is a sense of a duality between uncontrolled sounds and directional sounds. The music abruptly changes by new harmonic and textural treatment. Thin texture is pristine where soloistic occurrences are heard as the color of instruments are brought to the fore. The music can be described as slow paced and silvery that then leads to more direction with a bit more regularity and thicker chords (roughly 3 notes). This can be considered the "textural climax" of the second section as the music returns to the quietness that prevailed before, but influenced by the thicker textural idea. Percussion is used to initiate the third section, as sustained brass notes in a quick tempo are heard with frequent and quicker motivic gestures. Aleatoric elements can also be heard in the end with regular occurring broad hits in the percussion. Upon hearing this piece, one can sense a feel of intuition, conviction, and a clear personal aesthetic of the composer that allows his creativity and voice to be heard.

Celso Garrido-Lecca (b. 1926) is a prominent composer from Peru. He received his musical training at the Lima Conservatory with Rodolfo Holzmann and soon after was the composer and musical advisor for the Theater Institute of the University of Chile (Schulz, 1992). He also later headed the National School of Music in Peru and in 1963 and 1968 won the National Prize for Peruvian Culture (Schulz, 1992). His music contains quartal and quintal harmonies, atonality, twelve tone technique, and "locally derived" musical traits such as pentatonicism (Behague, 1979). His musical output is symphonic and chamber as has been performed in Europe and the Americas (Schulz, 1992). Pieces of note are his Suite for Woodwind Quintet (1956), Musica para seis instrumentos y percusion (1956), Sinfonia (1960), and Laudes (1962).

Argentinean composer and pianist Gerardo Gandini (b. 1936) is another composer from Latin America influenced by the European avant garde. Gandini was a student of Ginastera and Caama?o (Behague, 1979). Gandini became one of the major musical figures in Argentina in the 1960s and also co-founded a professional contemporary music organization, Agrupani?n Euphonia (Behague, 1979). His teaching engagements have been with the Di Tella Institute and Buenos Aires Catholic University (Behague, 1979). Gandini is also an active performer of new music in the Americas and Europe (Behague, 1979). The techniques he uses are serialism, atonality, extreme manipulation of dynamics and timbres with rigorous economy and concentration of musical ideas and means (Behague, 1979).

Two pieces are worth noting, Musica Nocturna (1964) for flute, violin, viola, violoncello, and piano and Eusebius, four nocturnes for piano or one nocturne for four pianos. Musica Nocturna is non-thematic, utilizes instrumental effects and contains pointillistic treatment of small intervals (Behague, 1979). There is an idea of static music partnered with fast and elusive sounds (Behague, 1979). Eusebius is basically an homage to Robert Schumann's Davidsbundelertanze, No. 14 (Schuartz). These nocturnes are very short, lasting no more than a couple minutes or so. Upon hearing the first one, one can find a slowly paced sound environment in which each note is carefully sounded, nearly one at a time, sustained by the pedal in the upper register which creates a thin texture. Quartal harmonies open the second nocturne which utilizes different harmonies than the first but still with a thin texture and the idea of "carefully paced" sounds pervade. More melodic ideas encompass the third nocturne but still the thin texture is apparent. Adjectives such as reflective, quiet, careful and beautiful come to mind when describing this nocturne. In the fourth, one can find more movement and more melody with thicker voice and "new age" sounding harmonies-quite different from the others. When all four nocturnes are played simultaneously at the same tempo, the fifth nocturne is realized.

A Mexican of the younger generation of composers is Mario Lavista (b. 1943). His teachers are varied and from different parts of the world. In Mexico at the conservatory he studied with Hafter and Quintanar and in Europe with Jean-Etienne Marie, Henry Posseur, Xenakis and Stockhausen (Behague, 1979). He also has attended Darmstadt where he be Legeti and studied electronic music in Tokyo (Behague, 1979). In the 1960s he was considered a follower of the avant-garde and a "bona fide" experimentalist by incorporating improvisation, chance operations, and elctro-acoustic and visual elements in his compositions (Behague, 1979).

His Divertimento (1968) represent his experimentalist side while a more recent piece, Cuaderno de viaje (1989) sounds a bit more tame. Combined, both versions of the Divertimento include audience participation in which the instrumentation contains a woodwind quintet, five woodblocks, five loud speakers, four amplifiers, three potentiometers, and a mike mixer (Behague, 1979). From reading the instrumentation, one can immediately think "avant garde" but his "avant garde" stature is questioned when one listens to the works on his Cuaderno de Viaje CD released in 1994. On it, a work for solo viola is found, Cuaderno de Viaje. This piece is a "deep search into the viola?s possibilities in the realm of harmonics" (Brennan, 1994). It is a calm, slivery, piece that uses consonant harmonies. It has no incorporation of amplifiers, speakers, microphones or any other extra-musical effects.

Concluding Thoughts

It is hardly ever safe to classify one composer or another as being a part of one compositional school of thought. As with the case with the composers mentioned above, it can be seen that for the most part, their output is varied. Each of these composers delved into different processes of writing and have created different results within their own outputs and when compared to each other. But by using these techniques, are these composers copiers of composers of the Untied States and Europe? By using the ideas and methods, the answer is yes, but in the larger picture, I would say no. Their music reflects a different aesthetic, different ears, and tastes. Beauty and elegance was found in all the composers' music to which I listened. An innate sense of rhythmic drive clearly persists in the music of the older generation as well, which is influenced by non-European elements. These composers used these techniques in their own way and through it, their personal voice spoke. Some of Chavez does sound like Copland, such as Sinfonia India, but Sinfonia de Antigona contains a different character that is distinctively Ch?vez. In Nobre's Mosaico, aleatoric writing is used but does not sound the same as say Stockhausen. While utilizing these European and United States techniques, these composers used according to their personal taste and ear to create distinctively personal music.

It was not found that any of these composers created an original idea apart from European and United States thought. However, the apparent inclusion of indigenous musical influence and a different ear for music than their counterparts creates different sounding art music. It can be assumed that beauty and elegance are more of a concern for these composers than their other western colleagues. That is an overgeneralization of course, but those two adjectives come to mind immediately upon hearing each of these composers' music. The music, in general, also seems more paced; the music is patient and lives and absorbs the sound. This music should be regarded on equal footing with music of Europe and the United States when taught in other parts of the western world. This music has validity, conviction, and a voice of its own different from what our education as classical musicians in the United States brings us. When one thinks of western art music, Latin American art music should also come to mind.

March 2004, Northwestern University



Works Cited:

Behague, G. (1979). Music in Latin America, an introduction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-
Hall, Inc.

Brennan, J. (1994). Mario Lavista Cuaderno de Viaje [Audio CD]. Mario Lavista Cuaderno de
Viaje. Leaflet from: NBA, Difusion Cultural UNAM Musica, Cenidim: DDD

Radice, M. (2003). Concert Music of the Twentieth Century, Its Personalities, Institutions, and
Techniques. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Schuartz, H. Haydee Schuartz: New Piano Works from Europe and the Americas [Audio
CD]. Eusebius for piano, four nocturnes for piano or one nocturne for four pianos. Leaflet
from: Mode Records: AGK 5163

Schulz, R. Villa-Lobos, Ginastera, Lavista, Orbon String Quartets [Audio CD]. Ginastera:
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 26. Leaflet from: Elan Digital: CD2234

Marlos Nobre [Audio CD]. Marlos Nobre (b.1939). Leaflet from: Lemon Classics: