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SEARCH EVENT V, 26 October 2002, University of California, San Diego
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As music makers we are dealing with the concept of time every day, and yet to try to predict
what will happen in the future seems a rather impossible task. We can make plans for our lives,
we can have dreams, and we try to lead our lives in such a way that those plans and dreams will
be fulfilled. But when the present arrives, it is always full of unexpected results.
Trying to predict the future of music, seems to be quite a daunting enterprise. As a point of
departure, let us look at how things have turned out in the last decades of the twentieth century
and then hope that perhaps there will be some continuity. No doubt, many questions will be raised
about what is happening and could happen in the future.
There have been some important phenomena that have affected the music making of our times. One is
undoubtedly the development of technology, another is the diversification of languages and, in more
recent years, the areas that media have accessed have made it possible for music to reach more
people than at any other time in history.
Although there were several attempts to explore different sound resources in the earlier part of the
century, it was only since the late fifties in Cologne that electronic technology began its rapidly growing
development. The electronic pieces created then sowed the seeds for future developments. It was
in 1970, for example, that Stockhausen created a 360-degree "wall" of speakers for the German Pavilion
at the World's Fair in Osaka, Japan in order to provide the most effective spatialisation for his piece Hymmnen.
And the spatial exploration that Luigi Nono attempted by placing musicians in different parts of the auditorium
in pieces such as Prometheo, or moving sound sources (the performers) and diffusing the tape
for La Lontananza Utopica Futura over 8 channels, has now found further extension through new technologies.
In the earlier part of the twentieth century, Varèse brought forward a new concept of musical sound
by integrating sirens into his music. The idea of bringing the sounds of unusual sources into pieces became
a fascination and the French school developed musique concrète. Their idea was to begin with everyday
sounds and to turn them into electronic music by means of manipulation in the studio. We now have a richer
palette of sounds to explore, and this richness is continually being enhanced by new developments in
technology. I am very optimistic about the continuity of these developments in the near future.
The generation of composers that was active after the Second World War laid the ground for the future
development of a diversity of languages that formed the music of the second part of the last century.
As Boulez stated in a lecture given at Saint-Étienne on 13 May 1968, transcribed and published in his book Orientations [pp. 445-6] :
The discoveries we made between 1945 and 1950 were comparatively easy: it was simply the primary
effort needed to lay the foundations of the new language, starting from the existing
sources, which we had chosen afresh for ourselves. This language developed in a way that might
have resulted in a new academicism. It was to avoid this that every composer began to explore his
own world, which is the normal and desirable way for things to happen, the most serious fault that
could be found with composers of the same generation in different countries being too great a
mutual resemblance, a following too closely of the same path. There were cases in which this accusation
was justified, though not for long, individual personalities developing and becoming more marked with age,
and divergencies with them. There finally appeared temperaments able to express themselves with the
freedom that all of us had striven so hard to achieve.
An important point underlining this statement is that artists who lived through the war felt the
need to restore and rebuild from the most basic foundations a new proposal for a new world. Artists
have reacted immediately to the times they are living in at every point in history, and
their works become a statement of their dreams and hopes as a response to these times.
They rewrite a new version of history with a different language than that of historians. This is
something that I am sure we continue to do.
So what are the times we are living in now and how are they affecting our music making ?
I have talked above about technology in music. Technology has also provided us with means to
get our music known by other people through improving the quality of recordings, broadcasting,
etc. We all enjoy the convenience of being able to listen to any kind of music at any given time in our own homes.
We certainly can access music more quickly and easily than at any other time. There are many festivals of
new music, recordings, and more opportunities than there have ever been. Is this going to
In some countries more than others we are encountering a new, rapidly growing industry of
entertainment, which seems to be establishing new principles based on profitability rather than
aesthetic innovation. While composers are laying the foundations for new languages, many concert
halls worry about programming the kind of music which will attract the largest audience possible,
often trying to find an aesthetic that would please the largest numbers. These two very different views
seem to be pointing in different directions.
The composer cannot be alone, like a fish out of water. Composers need to be heard, to communicate. And
how can they do so if their languages are different ? Can we really ask composers to express themselves in
a common, accessible language ? Yet, this is often the demand that the entertainment industry has
attempted to set for the music of our time. The word "accessibility" has become a common coin for
negotiation, and yet there are composers whose mission does not fit this bill.
The history of our past century has taught us that a large proportion of composers has always been
ahead of its time and most of them have not been understood, because of a common fear of the unknown,
a fear of losing certainties acquired over the years. Those composers who have seduced us by awakening
our passions, our imaginations, and that have taken us into another reality beyond the limits of our tangible
world, have created the music of our time. Is it those composers who are creating the music of the future ?
Maybe it is not for us to know the answer. But it is this seduction by our predecessors that sparks
off our imaginations in the first place and that has inspired many composers to communicate, if not with
their predecessors directly, then certainly in their terms.
But what about the audience of today, we could ask, as if the term "audience" could refer to an abstract
mass ? Audiences are made of people, each with a history of his or her own. Are we in a
position to please ? Couldn't the ambition to please each one of them lead us towards the banal ?
What is then the role of music if not to excite human passions, to inspire people with vision,
courage, even faith ?
Often we are confronted by the question of whether very refined new music is made for a few of
the chosen, specialized in the subject, and has, therefore, become a deterrent to larger audiences.
Probably from nostalgia, fear or sheer despair, people often like to cherish the illusion that ART
will be preserved from PROGRESS, hoping to preserve one inviolate, unassailable corner of paradise
in an otherwise apocalyptic world. This is quite a normal reaction when faced with the unknown –
even the hardiest explorers have had their moments of panic and second thoughts, and yet they have
gone on under the stimulus of a force stronger than fear – curiosity.
Boulez wrote this in 1972 [originally in "Pour éveiller la curiosité de la nouvelle musique", The New York Times, 6 August 1972.
It appears in Orientations translated from the French text in Points de repère, p. 472].
How much has the situation changed in thirty years ?
I never cease to be surprised by the reaction of audiences where there is a complete lack of musical education.
As an example, I would like to talk about my own experience in Mexico, my native country, where there is a complete
lack of musical education, and the chores of every day life are so challenging that there is hardly any room
to think of aspiration. And yet it seems that the imagination, faith, or the intangible, are the only means
of escape from the immediate hardships of life. Having worked as a radio producer of new music,
and having been closely involved with the small world of new music making in Mexico, has made me aware
of the perceptions and reactions of audiences which have no preconceptions about what music should or
should not be. I am constantly surprised at the growing number of young people that has become interested
in such music, despite the fact that the media tries to sell them the most commercial and accessible forms.
Is this a reaction against the commercial manipulation of the media or a result of stimulation, born out of the
discovery of unknown experiences ?
These experiences lead me to believe that it is not necessary to be knowledgeable about music to be able to
enjoy and discover something in new music. Intellectual pleasure can be enhanced by knowing more
about it, but it is not an essential requirement. In fact, it often is the case that a knowledge of classical music
can get in the way of being able to appreciate new proposals.
Music can stimulate many parts of our inner selves and, if we allow it, it is capable of striking a
chord within ourselves, one which we did not know existed. In this way, it leads us to new discoveries.
Stockhausen mentioned that his experience with Indian music made him discover the Indian within
himself. Like him, many composers throughout the twentieth century, have found in the traditional music
of non-western cultures a rich source of inspiration.
This has also been my own experience. What has fascinated me the most are the very many different
concepts of time in different cultures, and how this is reflected in their music. Today I will talk
first about my experience with Indian music and secondly about the concept of time for the ancient
My interest in the music of India began when I was living in London as a student. I have since
found that many Indian rhythmic procedures can be applied in Western music. This has also influenced
some of my decisions concerning ways of manipulating rhythm and structure. The example I will play
for you here is an excerpt of Uy U T'an for string quartet. This is the last of four sections of the
work. Towards the end we will hear the use of a device I borrowed from Indian music; it is
derived from a Kathak rhythmic phrase. (See Example 1.) This is just one example of many devices I
have developed from my encounter with the music and dance of Northern India.
In my first encounter with Indian music I was fascinated by its sophisticated rhythmic qualities:
the very small subdivisions and intricate structures within the different rhythmic cycles.
I have been exploring these possibilities further. The following example of Metamorfósis,
is built out of rhythmic phrases of 11 beats (the beat being equivalent to the crotchet),
7 beats, and then also a short phrase which repeats three times to complete a 2-beat cycle.
Despite the fact that I have been living outside of Mexico for a great part of my life, I never
felt I had broken off from my roots, and have always felt part of the music making of my country. I
feel, as I am sure many of my colleagues in Mexico do, a sense of responsibility towards the
creation of the music of today in our country. On the one side there is an awareness of having been
privileged enough to be able to live as a musician (though coming from a country where immediate needs
are often not met), and on the other side, awareness of the lack of possibilities and facilities to develop as a
musician. In many ways it has been up to us composers to develop the conditions for the creation of
music in many more ways than only to write notes on paper, whether it is broadcasting new music,
being part of creating festivals of new music, publishing articles on music, creating opportunities
for the young musicians, teaching, and so on.
The Mexican Nobel prize winner Octavio Paz once said that there is no modernism without tradition.
It is this link with our past culture that creates our present and provides an impulse towards the
future. It is also relevant to the theme of our talk that for most indigenous cultures in Mexico, the future
does not exist and the present is unmistakably attached to one's ancestry. This is a completely
different concept of time to that in our modern western world.
I have recently become interested in the concept of time in ancient Mayan culture. "Tzolkin" is
the name for their ritualistic calendar. It comprises 260 days and has 13 day cycles with
20 different names. These are represented by glyphs, each with a unique combination of number
and name that is repeated only after the 260-day cycle is completed. I have begun to explore the
possibility of applying this to music. An example of this is the beginning of Tzolkin, the
percussion piece that you have heard earlier today.
The introduction of the piece is built on 10 thirteen-beat cycles, comprising half of a Mayan cycle.
What follows is a gradual increase of rhythmic activity – within thirteen-beat cycles – up until a
new section that is built on subdivisions related to the golden section.
For several centuries, there has been a widening gap between the modern Mexico and its indigenous
communities. It took an uprising in 1994 in the poorest communities of Southern Mexico for the rest
of the country to become aware of the rich differences intrinsic to their cultural heritage as well as the
extreme poverty in which these people can barely survive. Very few things have changed since, but I hope
that one day we will eradicate this discrimination, that we will be able to integrate into our daily
lives the different cultural heritages that the indigenous peoples have preserved, and also that they will
have equal opportunities for a better life.
In an attempt to achieve an homogenous Mexican society, many policies have been practiced through the
centuries; they aimed to eradicate different indigenous languages and to impose Spanish as the unique one. These
practices have done some damage to the development of indigenous languages. However, we have witnessed
in the last decade, strong efforts to rescue this heritage. Their literature is now being published, and
several study programs have been integrated into university curriculums.
In recent years, I have been attempting to integrate the richness of indigenous Mexican languages into
my music, searching in my heritage for new meanings for my music. For this purpose I chose texts from El Ritual de los Bacabe, a compilation of ancient spells from Mayan healers. The language used in these
texts belongs to the ancient Maya culture and particularly to that from the aristocracy of the time.
This compilation contains medical, magical and religious concepts of the Mayas with almost no European influence.
The use of some few European words makes us think that this compilation dates from the time of the arrival
of the Spaniards. The language used is esoteric and symbolic, which makes a literal translation difficult.
Instead, the very imaginative and often apparently nonsensical text provided me with the material I was looking for.
The second part the work which I will play for you is based on a text for bewitching spiders. It is also an
invocation to Ix Chel, the Mayan Goddess of Fertility, often portrayed as a weaver. As with many of
the spells in the compilation, rude words are used. Perhaps as a means to dispel damage caused by
one of the various poisonous spiders of the region. Towards the end, a subtle text play
converts the word Am (spider) into Amen, one of the very few European words found in these texts.
I have found, in this first setting of the Mayan language, possibilities which I am now exploring
in a new work for which I have recorded indigenous languages from different parts of the
country as the basis for an elaboration on tape. In this work, I am exploring the possibilities of
the sound within these languages as well as the deep meaning of their poetry. The tape is part of a
new chamber opera based on a story by the Chilean writer Isabel Allende, entitled El Palacio
Imaginado (Imaginary Palace). For the elaboration of the libretto, I have worked in collaboration with
the Mexican writer Adriana Diaz Enciso, and I have also set other Mayan spells from El Ritual de los
The story takes place in San Jerónimo, a village somewhere in Latin America where the natives had been living
for several thousand years. These Indians were an ancient tribe, so poor that no one had bothered to extract
taxes from them, and so meek that they had never been recruited for war. Gradually, the Indians who did not
die in slavery, as a result of torture, or as victims of unknown illnesses, scattered deep into the jungle.
Always in hiding, they survived for centuries, speaking in whispers and mobilizing by night. They came to be so
skilful in the art of dissimulation that history did not record them. No one has seen them, but the peasants
who live in the region where the story takes place say they have heard them in the forest. (from the libretto)
One of the main characters is the dictator of the Nation, named "The Benefactor", who has built a
Summer Palace in European style. The first scene is the inauguration of the Palace on the
Anniversary of his Glorious Ascent to Power. The speech is a display of the impunity with which
power has imposed itself in many countries of Latin America, as well as the lack of contact with
local culture and the assumption that culture can only be imported from Western civilization.
The speech ends as he cuts the ribbon. After greeting his guests and dancing with the most
aristocratic lady present, he returns to the capital without a farewell.
As the celebration and its music die away, we hear on tape the language and music of the inhabitants of San
Jerónimo. At the end, there is a poem in Mazateco by J. G. Regino. My translation reads as
Death is not eternal.
Spirits of mine, descending from heaven.
I feel their presence here in imperfection
where those who are alive are dead
and those who are dead are living.
We live a day of feasting,
escaping briefly from death
for an instant clinging onto life.
Share our table with us,
eat and drink our offerings,
let us then dance later with death
that hides behind every mask.
This is our feast.
For an instant let us look into our worlds together:
we have a heart, so have you.
In this life that is not eternal.
In this death that is not eternal.
I indicated above that I have explored the intrinsic possibilities in the sound of the indigenous languages.
This is particularly done in the following example. It corresponds to a scene in the opera where The Benefactor
is raping Marcia (the main female character) at the Summer Palace. Their voices are not heard;
instead there is a setting of another Mayan spell about evil lust, sung by the unseen presence of the Indians.
This spell is also read on tape. Marcia very softly slides from under his body, but he doesn't seem to realize it.
As she stands up, Marcia sings about her freedom and about the weakness lying behind the abuse of power.
Gradually she becomes one of the unseen voices of the inhabitants of San Jerónimo.
At the end of this scene we have another poem in Zapoteco read by the author, Natalia Toledo. My
translation follows :
To travel in the sea of silence,
to become nothing in its foam,
as if the body had no sign.
Eyes subject to a vessel
and the luck of equilibrium
met like a pendulum
in the extremes.
To lose yourself in a picture guided by Matisse
the blind man, through the paper's shape.
To make that journey
as if remaining in a drawing
and never to return.
In El Palacio Imaginado, I am tackling issues that have preoccupied me over the years.
The title reflects the essence of the work, which refers to the imaginary concept of a country
that has been imposed on the reality of the indigenous Mexican civilization that has been oppressed
for five hundred years, but has survived. The Mexican ethnologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla refers
in his book México Profundo to two different realities to explain this problem: profound Mexico
and the imaginary Mexico :
What has been proposed as a national culture in different moments of the history of Mexico can be
understood as a permanent aspiration for destroying what we are. It has always been a cultural project
that neglects the historic reality of the Mexican social structure and it, therefore, does not accept
the possibility of building a future on its reality. It is a project of substitution in every case.
The future is somewhere else, anywhere but here in this concrete reality.
The task of building a national culture consists of the imposition of an alien model,
a distant one, that would eliminate the cultural diversity and would achieve a unity
by suppressing the existing. [English translation: Hilda Paredes]
By including ancient and contemporary indigenous poetry in this opera,
I am attempting to integrate their voices, as I feel they should always
be part of building the future of Mexican culture.
In the sixties, Boulez predicted the death of opera while suggesting that all
opera houses should be burnt. This was a statement from someone who was at the
forefront of the avant-garde. Many operas continue to be written since then,
and we seem to be living their absolute revival, often with new solutions and
proposals growing out of the old structures of traditional opera.
Maybe it is not for us to predict the future of music.
Maybe we can only meet the future with our feet firmly in the present.