Digging for Gold in the Minefield
An American Composer’s Perspective
on Latin American Music

by Robert Xavier Rodríguez

Stagebill, 1988

A musicologist from Yale once asked me to describe a recent work by a Latin-American composer colleague.  “Is it,” she asked, “‘chugga-chugga’?”

“What’s ‘chugga-chugga’?”

“Oh, you know,” she said, and she began to play an imaginary pair of maracas while repeating the word rhythmically, “... chugga-CHUGGA ... chugga-CHUGGA.”

“Oh,” I replied.  “No, his music sounds very European, in the post-Webern international style.  You can’t tell it’s Latin at all.”

“Too bad,” she said.

I thought about that conversation when I met Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla and asked him about his experiences studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.  He said he had gone to Paris with the intent of growing past his native accordion tradition, with its earthy tango associations.  Instead, he wanted to write elegant, “respectable” symphonies.  “But why?” asked Boulanger.  “Anyone can write symphonies, but only  you  can write  your  music.  Your  music is the tango.”  And so it was.

Yet, we North and South American composers of symphonic music have given ourselves the daunting challenge of working in a medium which is not indigenous to our own hemisphere.  Symphonic music is of distinctly European origins.  As such, it carries an overwhelmingly European load of traditions and expectations.

For a Latin American composer, no matter how glittering the terrain, writing symphonic music is a musical minefield.  In it are at least two ways to go up in smoke.  Boulanger successfully guided Piazzolla away from one danger, namely, “watered-down Europeanism.”  With the same concern, Ravel refused to take Gershwin as a student.  “Why,” he asked, “be a second-rate Ravel, when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?”  “Provincialism” is another potential trap.  A composer can easily step in it while trying to avoid the first.  Or vice versa, as in my musicologist friend’s classic Catch-22.  It was “too bad” if the composer tried to be a European, but it was formula maracas for him if he didn’t.

Nadia Boulanger was fond of quoting Jean Cocteau’s statement, “a truly creative artist cannot copy; therefore, in order to create, an artist need only  try  to copy.  The artist’s true self (if he has one) will then emerge.”  If this process always worked, then Gershwin’s proposed studies with Ravel might have gone just fine, and pure Gershwin would have poured forth from the American composer’s attempts to follow Ravel’s example.  (Actually, the reverse turned out to be more the case, since Ravel helped himself to liberal doses of Gershwin.)  No, the model needs to be something the composer is at home with, something with which the artist already feels some identification.  “The thing copied” must draw out of the composer music which is authentic and truly representative of his/her own background and experience.  So Latin American composers have turned to cultural traits inherited both from the Iberian Peninsula and Africa as well as from the indigenous Indian music, folk music and popular music of Latin America.  In so doing, the true Latin American giants of our century, artists such as Chavez in Mexico, Ginastera in Argentina and Villa Lobos in Brazil, have been able to achieve Cocteau’s ideal.  These and the best of succeeding generations of Latin American composers have effectively absorbed their native traditions and then allowed those traditions to fire their own creative identities in a unique and highly personal way.  The result is an art which is free-standing from any models and predecessors on either side of the Atlantic.  The path, of course, is difficult.  And, as in any music, the distinctive musical personality of the individual composer is all that ultimately matters.

But what of a group personality?  Stylistic considerations aside, is there something even more basic than specific musical materials that sets Latin American composers apart from their European counterparts?  I think so.  For one thing, Latins in general, French and Italians included, seem to share Stravinsky’s impatience with music that neither sings nor dances.  Latins like it to do both.

Unlike their European counterparts, Latin American composers have not been particularly interested in systems, twelve-tone or otherwise, to drive their music.  Rather than demanding to know  why  things are the way they are and striving to control the evolutionary destiny of music, à la  Wagner and Schoenberg, Latin composers seem more interested in the shimmer of the sounds themselves.  Things just  are, with a mystical life of their own, free of the weight of history or of the need for multiple layers of interpretation.  Latin American music is closer to nature.  It wails, wiggles, lets its hair down and takes an immediate and all-encompassingly physical road to ecstasy.  This road is a world away from the more formal, more intellectual and more psychologically analytical route of so many European composers who are influenced by the Germanic symphonic tradition.

In this context, we can see how Western music’s fascination with the intricacies of harmony is tangential rather than central to Latin American music.  In this respect, Latin American composers align themselves more with Asian and African musicians, musicians who devote their energies not primarily to chord structures (however important they might be, especially in jazz), but more to a fascinating and complex variety of melodic, timbral and, most importantly, rhythmic resources.  It is these rhythms and dances -- the  tangos, sambas, shumbas, chacareras, marineras, cuecas, sanjuanitos, batuques, shoros, jarabes, huapangos, tamboritos, joropos, bambucos, guarachas, merengues, congas, habañeras, boleros  and a host of others -- that, more than anything else, give this music its passionate and intoxicating identity.

Responding to this energy, American audiences are increasingly finding the music of our own hemisphere to be a dynamic affirmation of our collective experience.At the same time, despite the inevitable dangers, we composers of the Americas are, more than ever, recognizing and reveling in our individual national legacies as we rise to the challenge of engaging our audiences in a common musical and emotional language.

What’s “chugga-chugga”?  It’s the sound of digging for gold in your own back yard.