Yungueñita

Yungueñita, on the other hand, is a straight arrangement. "Straight" in the sense of not having as its primary objective to establish a dialogue between two musical languages, as is the case with the Beethovenianas bolivianas. In a wider sense, however, every arrangement is a dialogue between the arranger, his time and his cultural context, and the composer of the original - whether known or anonymous - his time and his context. 

My own understanding of arranging was transformed radically when I discovered the work of Percy Grainger. I did so somewhat belatedly. About twenty years ago (I write this in 2019) my friend, the magnificent all-round musician Alan Fearon, played me a recording of Shallow Brown. We were in his sitting room in Jesmond Vale, overlooking the Dene, and I remember being struck by the sea-like texture provided by the guitar tremolos and by the epic, affirmative responses from the male choir. I knew too little about the context of the sea shanty and the context of Grainger to give it much more thought than that.

About a decade later, my beloved, my companion in life, experienced something of a Grainger epiphany. Of course she knew her Grainger already, but something must have happened to bring it back to her attention. I remember her exhilaration when she came back to the house having listened to Shepherd’s Hey in the car. She played it again for me and I was thrilled; it was the orchestral version, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. That launched a period of listening, reading and talking Percy Grainger. Before long my composition students had to engage with some Grainger too. Said beloved went on to curate a very successful Prom concert showing the connection between Grainger and specific tunes from the English repertoire.

Having immersed yourself in Grainger, arranging could never again be the workaday task you once did semi-reluctantly, usually on request and as a compromise between your keenness to have work performed and the performer’s half-hearted commitment to do your work – keen enough to do something you have written, but not so keen as to play one of your original pieces.  

Grainger elevated for me the task of arranging a folk tune to a level of the highest order of creative challenge. Any arrangement to be undertaken from then on would have to engage not only with the melodic and rhythmic contents, but with the performance practice of the tune’s time and place, and with its cultural context. And it would have to do so from a position of respect, affection and as much knowledge as possible. Daunting.

I met these challenges headlong in the next arrangements I wrote after that. The first was Collier’s Rant which began for six choirs and then had to be shrunk for four. A quick scan through this blog reveals I did not write about it at the time; that has to be remedied and I should do it soon.

The next was not one, but a series of arrangements for string orchestra commissioned by Bolivia Clásica, which I refer to as Arreglos bolivianos. Two of them, Collita and Viva mi patria, are being performed and reproduced with touching frequency in Bolivia, for example by the television channel ATB during a ten-day period leading up to the 194th Independence Day this year. I may come back to that project in this blog if I have time.


Today’s post is about Yungueñita, a taquirari – another taquirari, if you remember that the piece in the last post, Beethovenianas bolivianas No. 1, is also one. Taquirari is probably the first music I knew, or at least the first music I remember hearing back in my childhood in Montero. My current obsession with the genre may have something of a closing of a loop.  

This arrangement, which I finished a few days ago, is for Trío Apolo, Bolivian friends, based in my native town. They are the ones who commissioned my Trio back in 2004. They are currently embarked on an ambitious programme of outreach work and, as part of that, they have asked me to write a number of arrangements. I understand that they were motivated to approach me about this after hearing Arreglos bolivianos when Bolivia Clásica did their patriotic project with Jaime Laredo in 2014.

It was perhaps wayward of me to give them Beethovenianas bolivianas No. 1 as my first instalment, since, as I hope to have explained in the last post, that is not an arrangement of any known folk tune. Yungueñita is closer to the brief.

Yungueñita closes a loop in more than one sense – not only by virtue of being a taquirari. This arrangement is, in fact, informed by another arrangement, one I wrote around 1978 for Orquesta de Cámara Municipal. I was a member of it at the time, leading the viola section, and I was very much in the position I alluded to above, desperate to have my work performed but finding that the management, although well disposed, was not willing to risk a contemporary work. They suggested a folk arrangement instead, and I gave them Yungueñita.

The title means "female from Yungas". Strictly speaking that would be yungueña, but there is a very Bolivian diminutive ending which makes the word more personal,  more affectionate. Yungas is a semi-tropical region near La Paz, and this song is something of a classic of La Paz folk music. Taquirari, quintessential to the eastern lowlands, is by no means a La Paz genre – even though, strangely, another La Paz classic which I have also arranged, Collita, is a taquirari too. Collita’s lyrics make it clear that the song is a homage to a woman of La Paz by a man from the east of the country. There is no such explanation for Yungueñita. All the lyrics do is reproach her for a change in her loyalties, mentioning in passing that the man singing is black. 

I was blissfully ignorant of Yungueñita's authorship in 1978 and, to my shame, the first few performances had the composer’s credit as Anonymous in the programme. It was after one of the concerts of Orquesta de Cámara Municipal that the manager, Juan Antonio Maldonado, came to tell me that a composer had materialised, that his name was Víctor Hugo Serrano and that he was indignant that he was not being credited – but that he was delighted with the arrangement. It was all settled in a friendly manner.

I do not have access to the score of the 1978 arrangement, but, although forty-one years have elapsed, we played it so often around that time that I remember it reasonably well. The new arrangement for Trío Apolo retrieves the melody of the introduction (not part of Serrano’s tune) and a couple of countermelodies. The rest is new.

Something that was distinctly lacking in the older arrangement was any serious attempt to engage with the rhythmic subtleties of taquirari. I did some detailed exploration on this for Collita and for Pensando en ti (both are in Arreglos bolivianos of 2014). I take the search one step further in Beethovenianas bolivianas No. 1 and, I think, another step in Yungueñita.

Computer simulation!


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Beethovenianas bolivianas, No. 1


At this bizarre conjuncture maybe I should be saying, as Samuel Beckett said to Edna O’Brien when she asked if he was writing anything: “and what use would it be, anyhow?” What use, indeed, if he was on his deathbed and if any lines he might pen at that point could be his last, going nowhere, leading to the completion of no meaningful work?

In my case, I am composing, but not in any sense I might have been at any time before.

The circumstances of the last year have precluded a proper immersion in creative work. I have remained productive, first of all in order to fulfil existing commitments, such as LoA (Sage Gateshead, September 2018) and A Northumbrian Anthem (August 2018). Composing them was difficult, not least in a logistical sense, with no music keyboard or even of an alphanumeric keypad, which until then had seemed essential for music notation input. But the effort also helped to sustain me when things were hard, and to focus on something positive.

After that, other pressing challenges - not of a musical kind - absorbed my energies. But it was not possible to defer composing for very long. Writing music was and is essential to who I am, and to abandon it for any length of time would endanger my sense of self.

After some struggle, I found a compromise: I could go on composing by writing shorter, less demanding pieces in the crevices of time and strength the situation allowed. And, since we don’t know how long I will be in a position to continue to write music, thoughts have to turn to debts, that is, pieces I had been feeling for some time that there was a moral imperative to write. That was the case of the choral piece A Don Franklin (October 2018), a homage to Franklin Anaya Arze which is intended to rectify an imbalance left by the oft-performed (too oft, I wonder?) Himno al Instituto Laredo (1979).

There are also what could be termed aesthetic debts to repay. I cannot forget the mission statement I came up with in a late-night conversation with my eldest sister, Beba, back in 1970 or 1971. I was twelve or thirteen then, and was in the process of discovering the classical repertoire after a few years spent playing folk and traditional music. I told my sister that my ambition was to absorb the technique of the classical masters to put it at the service of a new folk music. I said words to the effect that my music would have to be a conversation between the two traditions. Mind you, I had not heard much twentieth-century music at that point.


Naïve and juvenile perhaps, but that manifesto was sincere, and in some important ways I have adhered to it. There is no denying that my immersion in classical music became total for many years – as it had to be, given how much there was to learn. But it is equally undeniable that the “classical” music I wrote throughout the 1970s in Bolivia (say, Rapsodia, or Misa de Corpus Christi) was, recognisably, also folk music. In the following decades I wrote music which, to British and USA audiences, might sound “very Bolivian” (or, for those who know less, “very Latin”), whereas for Bolivian audiences it would sound “very classical” (or, for those who know less, “very contemporary”). Those are typical reactions from audiences. Each constituency would be aware of the otherness. This could mean that, as in today’s BBC bias argument (“if all sides are unhappy they must be getting it right”), I have been hitting the right spot. Or it could mean that, whatever the demographic of my audience, they find my music alien.

Do we want to be defined in terms of our otherness? I am sure I am not the first composer to ask this question. Of course, the absolute majority of creative artists would like to be perceived as original. But do we want to be perceived as other? As alien, even? What would the opposite of that be? What would it be like to be recognised as familiar, kindred, relevant, congenial? How would that music sound? Unappealing thought, especially if we think of the traits such music would need to have to sound familiar, kindred, relevant and congenial to listeners  present or future  of today’s contemporary music.

The thought is more appealing to me if I imagine a Bolivian listener – Latin American, even, and not necessarily one from the thinly-populated spheres of contemporary music audiences – recognising what I write as familiar, kindred, relevant or congenial. What would that music have to sound like? Have my decades of working immersion in classical music first, and then in contemporary classical music, distanced me beyond recall from that listener? To the first of these two questions I have been addressing my thoughts for quite some time. To the second, I do not have to think to answer: the answer is no.

I am not, I cannot be too far removed from a Bolivian, or Latin American, who is sufficiently interested in music to listen to something I have written. I would go further: I cannot be too far removed from any listener from any origin who happens to cross paths with my work. Not if by “being far removed” we mean that my music leaves them behind by virtue of being too rarefied. The reverse is more likely to be the case, and I am sure it has happened already. In the lofty echelons of post-serial music practice and thinking, I am pretty sure my music must have been dismissed many times as “post-tonal” or “emotive” or other such dirty words from the avant-garde lexicon – not that I have heard them; I would be very unlikely to, since such circles are oh so universally polite. These high spheres are prone to exclusivism, and my heart does not ache unduly at being excluded from them, other than to regret the denial of access to some superb performers and performance opportunities. It must be said, however, that I suspect that the reasons for the exclusion are not musical, or not always.

If those stratospheric practitioners and thinkers have shown mistrust towards my serious works – the quartets, the orchestral pieces, Approaching Melmoth – perhaps I ought to shudder at what they would say about my efforts of the last year. But I am past shuddering. I am too busy facing real dangers in other parts of my life. Let the lofties sniff, let them sneeze, let them choke if they have to. I have a job to do, and not many months to do it.

To what extent national identity can be part of a recipe for originality is debatable. I have no intention to use mine in that way, and am under no illusion that being Bolivian will save me from oblivion. All I know is that I started off as a folkie; a premature one, maybe, but an earnest one; I was serious about what I did back in 1969 and 1970. Are you too young to be serious about what you do at that age? Well, I wasn’t (too young), and I was (serious about what I did).

I started off as a folkie, I was saying, and then life put other exciting music in my way. I loved this even more, but I also saw the need for consistency, for loyalty. So that is what I came up with – the formula I confided to my sister. To save you scrolling up, it was: “my music [will] have to be a conversation between the two traditions [folk and classical].

I had hoped to have plenty of time to consider this challenge in my maturity, but I may be being overtaken by events. In an implicit sense all my work has been that: a dialogue of two traditions – at least two. But a conversation in an explicit sense in which two characters are put centre-stage and are seen to converse, distinctly enough for any listener to distinguish between them, including that hypothetical listener who is not used to contemporary music or even to classical music. Have I done that before? I hadn’t, but I have now. This is the first attempt. Ideally it will be the first of a series. Let us see.

The title should be self-explanatory as to who the characters in the conversation are. The title is also an affectionate homage to Heitor Villa-Lobos, who did something comparable. He did it more subtly – but hey, mine is only the first of a series. Or so I hope.


For those unfamiliar with the genre, the structure and rhythm correspond to taquirari, the emblematic genre from the eastern lowlands where I grew up. Is this a pastiche? Emphatically not. This is my mother tongue. 


Until Trío Apolo of Cochabamba have the chance to record it, all we have is the dreaded computer simulation. 

City Hall



Walking the streets of Newcastle yesterday, I came to the old City Hall. To call it ‘old’ does not mean that it is particularly ancient; it opened in 1927, which, for the standards of central Newcastle, is mature, but not that aged. Nor does it mean that there is a new one to replace it - not formally, at least.  In musical terms, City Hall is an old venue because many of the events that used to take place there are now put on in the modern, scenic and altogether more glamorous Sage Gateshead. 

Since its opening in December 2004, Sage Gateshead has developed a high profile, attracting the artists and the punters that would formerly have come to City Hall - and more, many more artists and many more punters. The river views make going to Sage Gateshead an even more attractive, aesthetically meaningful experience.  

Not much hope left for City Hall, it would seem. And yet, it is still standing. It has survived threats of closure and it has outlived the City Baths nextdoor. It now calls itself 02 City Hall Newcastle and its descriptions of itself defiantly define it as a concert hall. 

Seeing it out of the blue yesterday, I was reminded of Mauricio Kagel's delight when he was my guest to attend the performance of a work of his at Ulster Hall in Belfast in 1993. He said words to the effect that these old halls were the heart of a city's music: good acoustics, central location, a sense of history. Why replace them?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s City Hall was a weekly stop for me. The concerts of Northern Sinfonia - yes, this was before it was awarded its royal appellation - took place there, I believe, almost always on a Friday evening. I remember some extraordinary ones, including one conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. 

For me the strongest memory is the Newcastle première in 2000 of my Approaching Melmoth for baritone, choir and orchestra. The commission had come from Northern Sinfonia's then executive director, John Summers, before he left to direct the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. The management recruited an excellent team including none other than Sir Thomas Allen in the solo part and the conductor Nicholas Cleobury. The management also asked me what piece would go well with mine in the programme, and my suggestion of Bach’s Cantata No. 4 was accepted. I had time to reflect on that choice and to build in connections to it in my own piece. 

After a pre-première in Carlisle which took the edge off everybody’s nerves, the team gave a confident, hugely committed performance at City Hall. By comparison with other premières I’ve been blessed with, say, at Lincoln Center or in those fabulous new halls in Spain, this was perhaps not the most glamorous of settings, but the piece was one of my strongest, the team was hard to surpass and the audience responded with enthusiasm. 

One of the best musical memories. 




A Northumbrian Anthem, an update


That contemporary music has distanced itself from society is a frequent contention. That society has given up on new music is the obverse claim. 

A simplistic view would be that educated composers have secluded themselves in ivory towers where rarified music is heard by a few connoisseurs, mostly other composers. They compose for themselves and for each other, and they regard any concession to the public taste as a betrayal of high art’s precepts. This, of course, is an unhealthy state of affairs, and the remedy for it is for composers to write accessible music that is designed to be heard by a general audience.

At the other end, an equally simplistic view would be that concert audiences and concert promoters have become lazy, philistine and averse to risk, as a result of which concert programmes have become conservative, excluding music written in the last century. This is seen as a symptom of a decaying society, spread by the contagion of easy consumerism. A healthy reaction to this is for composers to keep their integrity in the face of adversity, adhering unyieldingly to their aesthetic values in the face of the incomprehension of audiences and promoters. 

Each of these simplistic views has no shortage of proponents, but most intelligent people on both sides would take a more nuanced approach. This is not the blog entry where I intend to discuss the issue in depth. Will I ever? I expect I will, but not just yet. Sitting on the fence would be an evasion; coming out in favour of one contention or its opposite would give the growing number of my detractors even more rope with which to hang me. 

Today I mention the above debate only by way of context. Regardless of where one stands as a composer, it is a fact that there are times when a piece or project demands that one engages with the audience more directly than may be one’s habit. That is the nature of some projects. If one doesn’t like it, one is free to pass up the opportunity. If one accepts it, one has to deliver. It would be difficult to imagine Boulez, Ferneyhough or Barrett agreeing to be involved in such a project. But for those of us who, as well as wanting to keep challenging standards of rigour and innovation also want to keep a dialogue with society going, the ‘direct engagement’ proposition is appealing. 

In this particular case, the proposal came from a Source it is usually impossible to say no to. The piece needed to be short, simple, accessible to a general audience, with a positive feeling and - this was the key descriptor - anthemic. It was to be for organ. The fact that there was a commission fee, but that, in keeping with the spirit of the occasion, it was suggested that I should donate it to charity, made the challenge more quixotic and, for that reason, more appealing. 

After accepting the commission, I confess to feeling a great deal of trepidation. I am no stranger to straightforward, diatonic, tonal, singable writing. I had done lots of it for my friends in Bolivia, chiefly the choirs at Instituto Laredo in Cochabamba.

Choral writing is a time to be tonal. This used to be a contentious notion, but the best-known composers currently producing for the medium in England and Scotland seem to accept it. Through familiarity with the people and their music (say, Tavener, Weir, Casken, MacMillan) one can feel surrounded by a relevant context. To be anthemic in that framework would be, for the composer, a natural extension, a question of channelling the available means in a particular direction, a point of focus. 

But the organ? Having never done it before, I felt the sheer fact of writing for the instrument was a steep enough challenge. And then, what was the contemporary context for organ writing with an anthemic character? I found an inspiring precedent in a work by the young Romanian composer Alexandru Murariu, Espaces IV Spezzati. Written for double choir and (single) organ, this beautiful piece is stirring indeed. In terms of the number and density of the notes it probably has the right degree of simplicity for my ‘anthemic’ challenge. But the aesthetic breadth of Murariu’s statement is on a grander scale than I understood my commission to require. Much as I enjoy listening to Murariu's piece, for my project a more demotic approach was required, one that would engage a diverse audience on more than one level of perception: accessible on the surface, melodious to the point of hummability, and also solidly constructed and capable of standing up to analytical scrutiny. 

Is it possible for a composer to write something that will stir a community in and 'anthemic' way and to remain true to oneself, avoiding a pastiche of old masters of the anthem - Walton, Elgar, even more ancient precedents? Would my own youthful and not so youthful anthemic vein, hitherto for Latin American consumption, be applicable to this project? Would I be able to manipulate these stylistic parameters to articulate the right statement? These and other questions preoccupied me, delaying the start of composition.  

In the meantime, events of a life-changing magnitude supervened. From one day to the next, I woke up to a new reality where it was not possible to know whether anything could go ahead as planned. I tried to salvage as much as I could, at least the things over which I had some control. The pieces I had committed to write were among the battles to be fought, and I fought them. In the hardest conditions, I wrote every one of them - well, it was only three pieces, but that was a hard enough challenge in the circumstances. A Northumbrian Anthem was completed as requested. I honoured my part of the deal.  

Tonight should have been the première. Whether it went ahead, I do not know. What I offer here is - yet again - a computer simulation. 



Momenta in Bolivia


The Momenta Quartet have been among my main collaborators for quite some time. In 1997 they gave the first performance of my String Quartet No. 1 ‘Montes’ at Rock Hall Auditorium, Philadelphia, and they went on playing the piece many times since. In 2008 they visited Newcastle, playing ‘Montes’ at the ¡Vamos! Festival and at King’s Hall.

Years later, Momenta successfully applied for a Koussevitzky commission for what was to become my String Quartet No. 2, ‘Sin tiempo’, which they premièred in 2013 at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, and this work too became part of their repertoire. A highlight was their performance of ‘Sin tiempo’ as part of the 2017 Momenta Festival at the Americas Society, a performance which attracted much attention and heart-warming reactions from the press.

A visit to Bolivia by Momenta was long overdue. Over the years I repeated spoke to relevant institutions in the hope of arousing their interest in a Momenta project. It was only when I eventually approached the USA Embassy in La Paz that I met a receptive response. In retrospect it seems odd that I did not think of them in the first place.   

So it was that Momenta came to Bolivia in October 2018. The project included working with the students at Instituto Laredo coaching the strings of the Laredo Youth Orchestra, giving a concert as a string quartet and taking part in an orchestral programme as soloists and as members of the string section. 


The chamber concert took place on 24 October at the beautiful church of Convento Santa Teresa, which has been lovingly restored with funding from the USA Embassy. The programme consisted of works by living composers from the USA and my ‘Sin tiempo’. Admission was free. The public began to queue up about an hour in advance, and by the time we were due to start there were so many people standing in the aisles and in the atrium that many were unable to get in and had to go home. 

Momenta gave a spirited rendition of Eric Nathan’s Four to One, of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 2 ‘Company’, of Roberto Sierra’s String Quartet No. 2 and of my String Quartet No. 2 ‘Sin tiempo’. These works proved an excellent choice for the occasion, and the audience surprised us by staying put till the end of a not undemanding programme of contemporary music. 

As to ‘Sin tiempo’, it may be because over the years Momenta have grown to know my work deeply, or because they were in my home country and hometown, playing within thirty metres of the spot where I was born, or because they were playing in a beautiful church to a rapt and numerous audience, or because of a combination of some or all of these factors. The fact is that they played magnificently. Rarely, if ever, have I heard my own music performed to such standard of perfection and commitment. This was one of life’s most rewarding musical experiences. 

The next two days Momenta were soloists in an orchestral programme at the theatre of Instituto Laredo. The conductor was Alejandro Posada, a maestro with an international career who had been invited for the occasion by Fundación Bravura. The same foundation had invited three Venezuelan musicians, members of Orquesta Juvenil Simón Bolívar, to take part in the project. They played one of Vivaldi's Concerti Grossi, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante and Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 ‘Jupiter’. This orchestral experience was a logical continuation of last year’s Beethoven programme which I had prepared and conducted in August 2017. It was reassuring to see that the orchestral standard continues to rise at Laredo and that the recurrence of international projects involving visiting professionals is producing the desired results. Momenta shone in the Vivaldi in the Mozart, gaining many admirers among the orchestra members and the audience. 

Throughout the week there were rehearsals and masterclasses, enabling Momenta to leave a lasting mark in the development of all the young people with whom they interacted. 



To say that Momenta in Bolivia was a success would be an understatement. It was a truly inspirational and developmental experience for many, bringing audiences and students in Cochabamba into contact with excellent music and musicians from the USA, enabling students to improve their technique and musicianship, and making it possible for a Bolivian composer such as I to interact at a high level with his native audience. 

Thanks are due to Instituto Laredo, which is now the main driving force for music in Cochabamba, to the Embassy of the United States in Bolivia for their generous and determined support, to Fundación Bravura for seizing the moment to enhance this project with the presence of an outstanding conductor of international profile and of three young Venezuelan professionals whose contribution as performers and coaches was very noticeable and enjoyable. 

To the four members of Momenta, Emilie-Anne Gendron, Alex Shiozaki, Stephanie Griffin and Michael Haas, there are no words to thank them and congratulate them. They were outstanding in every respect, and they have left a trail of admiration and respect among those who heard them and those who worked with them.  

Première of LoA at Sage Gateshead

I was not able to attend the première of LoA on 22 September. The reports are heartening, both about how the piece was performed and about the reception by the audience.

A première is a difficult thing to miss and this one in particular was special in a number of ways. It is an intensely personal piece, condensing in ten minutes many of the experiences, thoughts and feelings accumulated over twenty-three years of life, work and love in the Northeast of England. The tune Lads of Alnwick, which underlies LoA, followed me around for much of this time, energising me with its enigmatic drive and epitomising in my mind the emblematic role Kathryn Tickell plays in upholding this region's heritage and cultural force. LoA also represents a triumph over adversity, both in terms of the disabled musicians' belief-defying achievement and of my being able to write the piece in rather difficult circumstances.

I thank Sage Gateshead for the commission, the players of Royal Northern Sinfonia for pouring their musicianship into this music, and the four guest musicians Clarence Adoo, Adrian Lee, Gem Lunt and Stephanie West. I hope to hear the piece before too long.

Meanwhile, here is the usual consolation in the form of a computer simulation. This is the version for ten instruments, which replaces the perhaps unrepeatable - or at least hard to repeat - combination that included Clarence Adoo's unique Head Space instrument.



A Northumbrian Anthem

Yesterday saw the completion of A Northumbrian Anthem, a five-minute piece for organ. It was written to specific requirements which I hope to have fulfilled to the letter. 

The brief may have seemed restrictive to start with, but in the event it proved a more than suitable vehicle for what is now an anthem of love, gratitude and hope. 

A computer simulation will be released on the date designated for the première, 23 November.   

 
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