22 May 2013

String Quartet No. 2, 'Sin Tiempo'

The Koussevitzky commission is now completed. It took me one and a half years' work – obviously not full-time, since university work only allows a fraction of my week to be spent on composition - but intensive enough. The last few months I had to find additional hours in the day, starting in the very early hours, before the family woke up. Six hours' sleep is not a regime I thrive on, but it was the only way of achieving results.

The Momenta Quartet were very tactful in not applying pressure, even as time went by and the agreed time for a première - autumn 2013 - approached. Now, with any luck, they will be able to prepare the new piece over the summer and release it to the world as scheduled. We do not have a specific performance date as yet.

This is probably a good time to explain some of the background and the nature of the piece.

'Sin tiempo' are the first two words of a longer title: Sin tiempo para las palabras: Teoponte, la otra guerrilla guevarista en Bolivia (No time for words: the other Guevarist guerrilla campaign in Bolivia). That is the title of Gustavo Rodríguez Ostria's monograph on a guerrilla campaign that took place briefly in 1970 at Teoponte, a mining district northeast of La Paz.

Teoponte is also the subject of an eponymous opera of mine, premièred at the London International Opera Festival 1988. Teoponte is not a full-scale operatic display, but a shorter affair, 35 minutes, for six singers and an electroacoustic soundtrack. A digression on this older work may be useful for an understanding of the new piece.

Living as a student in London at the time (1987), I found it beyond my reach to find a suitable collaborator to write the libretto. This did not feel like a severe inconvenience, since, as I researched the topic, I was developing a clear conception of how I wanted to treat the story. Thus came about as a natural development for me to write my own libretto, based as much as was feasible on the historical facts of 1970 - remembered from childhood and more freshly gleaned from the pages of El Diario, La Paz's conservative daily. Miraculously, many of its issues of the relevant period were available on microfilm at London's Colindale Library.

Contemporary sources were scarce. I contacted Isabel Hilton, then Latin American correspondent at The Independent. She was very helpful and pointed me in the direction of James Dunkerley, the author of a well-researched book on Bolivian politics in the relevant period, Rebellion in the Veins: Political Struggle in Bolivia 1952-1982. One paragraph in the book relates to the episode, but I inferred that Dunkerley knew more, so I sought him out. Dunkerley, too, was very helpful. He received me at his office in Queen Mary University of London, with a surprising treat: he opened a packet of Casino, a strong brand of dark tobacco much in favour among Bolivian students and intellectuals. I was not a smoker, but I could neither decline the hospitality nor resist a nostalgic taste of earlier times. Dunkerley explained his take on Teoponte, opening my eyes to aspects I had only been half-aware of, such as, for example, the influence of Liberation Theology on the catholic contingent among the insurrectionists. He kindly lent me his copy of Teoponte, una experiencia guerrillera, a succinct testimonial by the Brazilian priest Hugo Assmann, which I used intensively and returned to Dunkerley by post.

Memories, press, two conversations, one book. Based on these exiguous sources I formed a conception and fashioned a libretto that was simple, pithy and essentially distilled from contemporary speeches, reports and communiques.

Teoponte the opera was performed at the Bloomsbury Theatre, as part of the 1988 London International Opera Festival. The performers were Innererklang Music Theatre, directed by Séan Doran. The reception seemed enthusiastic on the night, but appeared mixed in the press. It was instructive to hear appraisals from colleagues who had attended, including one from Trevor Wishart - whose Anticredos Innererklang had performed in the same programme - who opined that Teoponte showed an excessive closeness of its composer to its subject. 

Wishart’s comment was perceptive, but I am not convinced that it was possible to form an informed opinion on the basis of that performance. I cannot fault Séan Doran or any member of his team; they worked with commitment and artistry in difficult circumstances. It is the circumstances I find fault with: a tight timescale and a breach of understanding between Innererklang and me as to the role of the tape part. They had expected occasional electroacoustic interventions, whereas I presented them with a soundtrack to which they were expected to synchronise from beginning to end.

It had not been my intention to surprise; I simply had not considered any other possibility than a fully developed tape part as a substitute for the orchestra, that is, as a continuous stream of sound, not only supporting and punctuating what the voices did, but also carrying the flow of expression whether the voices were singing or silent. And, it would be disingenuous not to mention it, I delivered the completed tape part to the performers two weeks prior to the première, that is, far too late for them to assimilate it properly.

This is tempting, but I must postpone a detailed description of Teoponte the opera. I will only say that it is set in a folk club, it is in four scenes or tableaux, and its structure – both locally and overall – is based on four chords which happen to be quite common in Bolivian folk music.

I will also say that, back in my very young days as a folk musician in Cochabamba, I knew Benjo Cruz, a charismatic solo singer who was a frequent visitor at the folk club where most of my gigs took place, Peña Ollantay. I greatly admired the intensity if his performances, charged with the energy of his political convictions. I did not fully understand these at the age of eleven, but I was aware, like any Bolivian of any age was, of an ideological struggle between the establishment, broadly associated with right-wing military dictatorships, and a younger front who opposed it and wanted change. I had seen the demos and the riots, I had smelt the tear gas, and I had heard the shots. Both my parents were journalists and news were always table conversation. I was certainly aware of Che Guevara and of the entrenched polarisation in public opinion after his death.

Benjo Cruz sang protest songs. He would first work the crowd with some lively traditional repertoire, and then he would hit them with a thinly veiled political message in the form of a song or a recitation. The folk club – Peña Ollantay – was a popular weekend entertainment, and it was well attended by a cross-section of the population, including the well-heeled. Benjo would not temper his message if there was a public official or dignitary in the audience. This added to the electricity in the atmosphere of his performances, and yet I never witnessed any unpleasantness.

What could not escape my or anybody’s notice was that a new guerrilla campaign had begun. ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) had made good a promise made on the death of Che Guevara: volveremos a las montañas (we shall return to the mountains) and had unleashed a new insurrection against the military regime. Among the fighting rebels was Benjo Cruz. Over the next few months, either in combat or in summary executions, the military killed 59 out of the 67 rebels. Benjo was one of the casualties.

The story of my attachment to this topic is long and entangled. I tell it in greater detail elsewhere, and will tell it in even greater detail when I have the chance.

For today’s purposes, I will say that Gustavo Rodríguez Ostria’s book opened my eyes to many facts and ideas I had only superficially known, or intuited, and many other facts and ideas which I had not known. If this book had been in existence in 1987, Teoponte the opera would have been very different indeed.

Hence the need to write more about Teoponte. My business is unfinished. In 2012 I completed Souvenir de Teoponte for double bass and piano, a piece where I return to some of the opera’s material and I test its potential in a new medium. As well as the harmonic and structural conception, there was the conversion of electroacoustic sounds into double bass and piano sounds to explore. James Rapport and Eduard Lanner, and then James Rapport and Linus Kohlberg, have done committed work with this piece in Vienna.

Now I present my Second String Quartet, ‘Sin tiempo’. It too revisits some structural and thematic material from the opera, even where it is only in passing evocation. It engages with the world of turmoil, commitment, strife and self-sacrifice for an ideal that characterised that moment in history. It brings the past to the present and it does so in several layers. It pays homage to some of those fighters – Benjo Cruz in particular – and to Gustavo Rodríguez Ostria for his enormous achievement. It also celebrates the artistry of the Momenta Quartet, who I know will do a superb job with the work.

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