Sinfonía Op. 68 could be described as a musical saga: The romantic European orchestra washes ashore on the coasts of South America and undergoes a radical, often mysterious transformation. In the first movement, the sense of time, the melodic and instrumental roles are shattered by an intense polyphonic layering and moody transformations. There is an underlying thematic coherence in the progression which goes from an initial romantic texture to a roaring wilderness. As the movement gathers momentum, the Caribbean and Venezuelan rhythmic elements take over. The centerpiece of the movement is a thick, organic crescendo with reminiscences of Twist and 1950s Latin dance bands; the color gets richer and denser as the complex fabric interweaves exciting orchestral masses and percussion. Yet all this this intensity is punctuated by several expressive, marvelously soothing episodes: an ethereal quotation from a mass by Palestrina, or the final reggae section in particular, with its slightly melancholic tuba solo, a relaxing tropical delight in a musical sunset.
The second movement, "Ocaso de los Shamanes" ("Twilight of the Shamans"), is inspired by several important Venezuelan elements: First of all by the throbbing, repetitive motifs of shamanic and medicinal Amerindian chanting (which can also be seen as an anthropic reflection of the throbbing of insects, batrachians and birds of the tropical fauna); secondly, by the Venezuelan orchestral legacy of composers such as Antonio Estévez (in his Cantata Criolla) and popular singer-songwriter Simón Díaz (in his famous Tonadas). The orchestra takes on the appearance of the savanna at dusk, after an intense sunset. A mixed choir of human pulsations, bird calls and cricket rattles marks the mysterious territory in which distant orchestral reminiscences bring up fragments of Estévez's and Díaz's themes, like watermarks in thin orchestral air.
The third movement, "Scherzo," begins like an urban Latin American Mendelssohn, an impatient string section playing a fierce modulating spiccato line which heads straight into a brief Afro-Venezuelan commentary; the stage is set. Surprise after surprise, the hyperactive theme of the string section, in its endless ternary feast, emerges in an Andean dance and ends up splashing into a hyper-cool reguetón. The progression is incremental, constantly reaching new highs as we enter one of the hottest spots in the symphony: the Afro-Venezuelan antiphonal chanting and drumming, represented by huge interacting orchestral masses. The climax is the antiphony between a single piccolo clarinet against the entire orchestra blasting back at it, in a traditional style, strictly within the grammar of this very special ethnic music from Venezuela.
The finale, "Reguethoven," is like a circus piece. In a totally different key of macabre humor and irony, the movement mocks both the reguetón and the symphonic finale, as if they were similarly terminal phases of music; the former as the ubiquitous terminator of subtlety and charm in Latin American music, the latter as a caricature of the hopping, exalted mood that ends the protracted boredom of endless symphonic pomp in a little circus trot. But this music doesn't boil down to that ironic gesture only. There is a fragmented element, like the residual noise of the creation of symphonic music, a Beethovenian stride, a massive set of gestures, albeit apocalyptic ones, and a few scattered moments and chords that point to an underground stream of emotions, a sediment of harmony and sadness. This had to end in a circus Galop – it is pointless to think when the end is near.
Street demonstrations have been our weekly or even daily fare in Venezuela, marching, banging on pots and cans, or shouting out slogans on both sides of the political divide. There is something childish and invasive about the idea of protesting with rhythmic noise, and after a while here, one can barely think without putting everything into a throbbing binary pulse. Once the layers of subdivisions, disruptions, syncopations, and fantasies begin to develop, the sounds of a walking crowd can become an interesting theme for a concert piece, even if the core is the silly, constant beat of a spoon on a pot. Afro-Venezuelan culture has always used antiphonal forms of rhythmic singing and hand clapping, and this is perhaps the source of our tendency to put everything spoken into rhythms. This is expressed in the buildups and phase dislocations that make up an important part of Gran Cacerolazo – its form has no clear recurrent theme, therefore no return to its origins, no cycles of memory, only a constant progression through various textures under a steady, constant pulse representing the unending present. This pulse is connected to various musical references: the raw, throbbing motives of a riot reappear occasionally, but are covered quickly with Caribbean musical forms – salsa, Dominican merengue – and even the debris of disco music or ragtime, forming an extremely vigorous patchwork of complaining, dancingand banging. The piano glides through these passing musical forms and brief roles, becoming a metallic polyrhythmic tin can instrument, then suddenly exploring registers of huge velocity and very tight syncopation. The strings and percussion provide the collective rhythmic backdrop to several of the buildups, but the orchestra also brings a decisive, thematic element that shifts the whole climate of the piece at various points. A few concessions to the concertante form are present, in spite of the rhythmically saturated, streaming character of the piece: a relatively structured introductory phrase that puts things in motion; a central relaxation with an open space for solo piano improvisation; and a final dancing salsa phrase that ends the movement with panache.
- Paul Desenne
66. POSTCARDS FROM KANNIBALIA (2009)
Trio for clarinet, violin and piano
Postcards from Kannibalia stages a general view of the southern rim of the Caribbean (Venezuela and Colombia) in musical hybrids, combining ethnically rooted material with more abstract digressions that put the former into various perspectives. Our region is bursting with social and cultural upheavals, and music is often the centerpiece of many identities – genres that remain widely unknown to broader audiences throughout the world. This work, something like a suite of local-genre cocktails, is by no means a folkloric showcase because it builds highly individual, particular expressions using strands of traditional music DNA grafted onto totally untraditional contexts. This is a slow, natural process happening in popular musical hybridization when rural forms reach the cities and start to combine in the most unexpected ways. I have tried to mimic (and accelerate) this process in a concert piece, expanding the playground to the domains of Western chamber music, where ideas can take unexpected turns into the abstract world.
"Gypjab" is a nod to Bartók's roots in Middle Europe combined with a Caribbean dance. "Cari Kum Ba" is a Colombian cumbia cocktail with an obsessive cricket-song nocturne. "Gnossienne Tonada" (a play on words that sounds like the Spanish "No siento nada," or "I feel nothing") combines the slow Venezuelan tonada with an interlude of frogs in a Satie-esque neo-classical context. “Sapokalypse” is a set of variations on "El Sapo," a popular Venezuelan song that could be seen as a ternary calypso.
"The fish" is a nickname for a character who is slipping away from the grasp of something terrible, who is forced to swim like a fish in many waters, not to run from his obligations but to stand by his beliefs and save his life. He is the individual in collective tragedies, faced with the absurdities of history. Chronologically, we could place him in Central Europe in the first half of the 20th century, but he was in danger long before that, in many other places and times, and he still swims today, escaping from pogroms, fascist mobs, militarization, totalitarian states, and the hunger that goes with them. He lives in a wagon or a tent; he rides an old bicycle with a little sack on his shoulder, his violin wrapped in some old trousers; he is rained on; he plays by the campfire. He boards a ship and leaves Europe before destruction, reaching a port in America – North or South is the same at this point of community fragmentation. He continues playing, in good humor – there’s no looking back when you're running – but now it’s a tango... and where did his friends and family end up?
This piece is a musical tale of flight and dispersion. I conceived it as an homage to those anonymous musicians who escaped with their instruments and nothing else, like my two great-great-grandfathers on my mother's side, two good friends, two fiddlers who left Bohemia together in the 1860s and landed near Chicago. One of them traded his violin for a clarinet and their duo continued... who knows how they survived? But a hard life clinging to music in America was probably better than death in some imperial madness in Mittel-Europe! Their descendants intermarried and some of their music was passed down.
What I composed here is imaginary. The piece refers to several ethnic sources but doesn't quote any in particular, and escapes all of them ultimately. Music can be a timeless link between past and future, moving backwards or forwards in time warps, offering a place we can revisit with new ideas and meanings, a place where we can build a story without too many explanations or sad details. To me, this piece is a silent movie - music in black and white. A silent movie that could be shown at a fair near the trailers and tents of an old circus. It's a nostalgic adventure with a great flight into the unknown; a gypsy-rock dance, an odd tango.
A girlfriend I once had mentioned her ancestors as we were visiting her native Haifa in Israel: "In Ukraine, my family name was Schtúpak – a type of fish." I never forgot the name of that slippery one who swam away before it was too late. The ones who stayed are all gone. Swim, swim!
- Paul Desenne
64. NUMBER NINE (2008)
Quintet for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano in one movement
The number nine in this piece is a predominant time signature and a symbol – the last number before re-setting to zero, the maximum point of complexity before tabula rasa: panic. As a time signature, it presents an interesting array of internal subdivisions, from the peaceful subdivision in three groups of three – seen by ancient scholars as a symbol of divinity and perfection – to something that sounds like the Morse code SOS panic signal. Two references come to mind here: Messiaen's Danse de la fureur pour les sept trompettes and the I Ching hexagram "The Army," which says that inner danger demands implacable outward order to fend off chaos.
This piece begins like a Danse de la fureur, reacting to the inevitable panic of the times. The group dances tightly together in a series of collective and explosive movements. Then, this single body begins to open up and individual voices appear in various roles, but there is a constant rhythmic drive that plays on short and long cycles tending towards chaos and regrouping in tight formations. When the scattered voices regroup at certain points, something terrible happens, individual directions are cancelled, and a severe rhythmic world imposes its rules. The middle section of the piece is a contrasting moment where loose strands of slow Latin music gestures float in space before the meter of nine returns for a peaceful dance and the group’s single body progressively dissolves into individual voices.
- Paul Desenne
El Totunel de Warena
Guasa del monocordio de lata
1. El Totunel de Warena
The opening piece of the suite is based freely on the popular Venezuelan song "El Totumo de Guarenas" ("The Gourd Tree of Guarenas"). The totumo produces gourds that are traditionally used to make the maracas that accompany this genre of central Venezuelan harp-and-song dance music. Until the 1950s, Guarenas was a small rural town about fifteen miles east of Caracas in a lower, much hotter pocket in the mountains; a quiet, almost forgotten place. As in most rural areas in Venezuela, music was the only available form of entertainment, and Guarenas was an important center for the harp and its traditional joropo – an important family of brisk ternary song forms.
After the 1950s, Caracas grew at a wild pace – the postwar petroleum boom, which lasted into the 1980s, covered Venezuela with a grid of roads. There is no trace of the gourd tree in modern Guarenas. The old, slow winding road connecting Caracas and the valleys of Guarenas – probably a mule trail originally – was replaced by a commuter death-strip of almost vertical asphalt rushing down to the new, hot, crowded, randomly developed suburbs. This highway enters a curved tunnel just before a straight section where tanker-trucks and buses compete to crush smaller cars before rolling over into deep ditches as their brakes fail on the evening race to Guarenas. So, "Totumo" in the original song is replaced by "To-tunel." "Warena" is a mispronunciation of Guarenas, but it also sounds like an original Indian name, which makes us wonder if the Warena were a tribe and this was their valley.
The theme of the original song – a phrase in two sections (short question-answer and second theme) – is presented in the opening bars and used throughout as a rhythmic stencil or grid through which different harmonic colors and rhythmic textures are sprayed onto the score like quick graffiti. The free flow of the original ternary dance is interrupted in this version by sudden hemiolic episodes that install a binary frame in the same quick tempo: surprise cuts in the meter, akin to the appearance of a car’s loud sound system blasting a different, pounding rhythm. The extremely brisk tempo marking should be heeded, making the violin part as risky as a fast ride down the highway to Guarenas: high-register skidding, sudden braking, sudden lane-shifting.
There are two basic ternary rhythmic modes in the traditional music of Hispanic South America, clearly visible in the huge geographic arc spanning from the easternmost tip of Venezuela to the Andean countries, including regions of Argentina. These two modes are the trace of a very early diffusion (perhaps a 16th-century set of song forms) of original strummed instrumental and vocal music throughout the continent.
I insist on the strumming because these two opposite genres derive from the structural relationship between a very simple strumming pattern and the downbeat of each measure in a sequence of chords. In a formidable example of structural economy, a total contrast of character and drive is achieved by simply placing the beginning of the measure, or a chord change if you prefer, at a different point in the strumming pattern. This strumming pattern is a continuous, even up-and-down sequence of six strokes (six eighth notes) divided by a stopped-string stroke every three beats. This explains the constant shift from 3/4 to 6/8 in the Hispanic music of the Americas, where some layers of the music are built in three quavers and the finer ones are subdivided in groups of six semiquavers. In the smoothest, lightest mode of the two, the stopped stroke is on the third and sixth strokes, so the bar begins with an open ringing strum. This mode is seen in Venezuelan forms such as the corrío, the Colombian or Ecuadorian pasillo, and the Peruvian vals. In the second type, the chord cycle can be strictly the same as in a song belonging to the previous mode described above, but by simply shifting the chord anchorage to a different point in the sequence of stopped and open strums, this new song is totally different in character yet harmonically related. This second, harsher and more vigorous mode has the stopped strokes on the first and third semiquavers of each bar, thus conveying a powerful 6/8 subdivision while the bass patterns continue in three quavers.
In the music of the llanos – the plains of the Orinoco that are the Colombian and Venezuelan equivalent of the Argentinean pampas, the same major three-chord cycle (I-IV-Vx2) is called corrío in the first rhythmic mode and seis por derecho in the second mode. This explains the difference between the first and second movements of this Venezuelan Suite. The first movement is a brisk example of the first mode described – it has a quick vals structure. The second movement is related to the second mode, which can also be played slowly without losing its starker rhythmic character. One of the most eloquent representative genres of this second mode is the Colombian and Ecuadorian bambuco, a name we also encounter, albeit rarely, in Venezuelan music. The Venezuelan version of the bambuco is the danza zuliana, traditionally a very gallant and poised genre we encounter frequently in the state of Zulia on the Colombian border, where there is a great cultural exchange, especially in music, blurring the political border.
The danza zuliana fancies an extraordinarily versatile rhythmic subdivision within a steady frame of 6/8. The melody can suddenly use subdivisions in four instead of three quavers per beat, a feature we hear extensively in this movement. “Donzulián” is inspired by an extremely popular melody that has epitomized the genre: "Señor Jou," composed by Pablo Camacaro, a composer of traditional Venezuelan music. “Donzulián” begins with similar melodic patterns but quickly reveals a very different structure. Venezuelan melodies are usually organized in very rigid A-B forms. The charm lies not in melodic development – except in the open improvisation forms – but in the originality of statements trapped in the stiff traditional layout. Here, I tried to set the melodic course immediately in a different direction. If we feel a slight thematic symmetry in the opening bars, this impression quickly dissolves into a fantasy where traditional elements such as the subdivision in four quavers per beat, rhythmic bass and accompaniment structures, and certain harmonic and melodic traits become the ingredients of a different kind of form, a quasi improvisato on the relatively quiet pitching and rocking of this Venezuelan barcarole.
We must not forget that the state of Zulia is where the great Lake Maracaibo extends its waters from the foothills of the Andes to the Caribbean, and the indigenous villages built in its waters on stilts originally gave its name to little Venice – Venezuela. As in Venice, Zulia is a land of important vocal display, home of the most famous (and loud) singers. Vocal music in Zulia is usually grandiloquent, operatic, even in modest song forms, so there is always a vocal desire to overtake the boundaries of a melody and take expression one step further into excess. A bit of this tendency is present in the violin part of “Donzulián,” when it hits the high, long notes of the central section of the movement. Expression is the essence of this style – melodic invention within a smooth, rhythmic rocking, like a boat on the waters of Lake Maracaibo.
Throughout this movement there is also a melancholic mood running deep in the harmony and the melodic cadences – a melancholy we find in many Hispanic modes and gestures, also present in the music of Venezuela. “Donzulián” is inspired by the spirit of danza zuliana, but goes beyond the formal and harmonic borders traditionally seen in that music. It's a classical example of what I usually like to do in relation to Venezuelan forms: create an abstraction – a distillate – of certain musical traits and develop them independently on a different conceptual level.
3. Guasa del monocordio de lata
What is a guasa? A laid-back Venezuelan merengue. What is a merengue? A sort of shortened version of a song form in 6/8 in which a beat is chopped off, producing a rhythmic structure in five beats with all sorts of subdivisions and syncopations that are specifically Venezuelan, absolutely unique and extremely idiomatic of its music – particularly the music of Caracas. The origins of Venezuelan merengue could be traced back to the roots of the habanera and other Caribbean "country dances" (“contredanses” in French), a form with a triplet in the first beat and two quavers in the second. The particular limping gait of this ternary/binary measure structure was perhaps too pompous for the humorous, bantering Caribbean spirit of Venezuelan popular musicians, so the dichotomy between ternary and binary was probably progressively shortened, reaching an even 5/8 structure. This is my evolutionary hypothesis, supported by the existence of intermediate, older styles of merengue and guasa where the abrasion of the dichotomy between the first ternary half and the second binary half of the root habanera structure is not totally fulfilled.
The interesting thing about these intermediate styles is that they apply to all existing pieces of the genre, meaning that the merengue/guasa can be played laid back with an odd irregular feeling in the second half, the two last quavers of the five-beat measure being not quite perfect binary quavers in relation to the first three. Other interesting irregularities are found, such as the quaternization of the second half of the measure, contrasting suddenly with previously heard lazy, laid back final binary-ish quavers. Another interesting theory supporting the 6/8 habanera origin is the frequent use of "compacted terns," where the two final beats of a hypothetical 6/8 root melody are compacted into two sixteenth notes, producing an accented acceleration or time-warp connecting with an elision of the first beat of the next measure (the final sixteenth is tied to a syncopated extension of an eighth in the next measure); a very common idiomatic figure which is puzzling to foreigners and usually quite difficult to perform from written scores if the player is not entirely familiar with that rhythmic figure. This syncopation is frequent in 6/8 rhythmic structures of song accompaniment in Venezuelan and other Hispanic music, so the origins of the five-beat measure in Venezuelan music are probably connected to a shortening or compacting of a primitive, original 6/8-habanera structure.
Here the model is an urban guasa. Street banter of the old city of Caracas in the 1930s and ’40s and earlier, played on the cuatro by poor roaming street musicians, sometimes with an odd instrument (which I have heard) such as a plucked oil-can, wire-string-and-broomstick monochord delivering a wobbly melody under the sliding, fretless string-stopping of a glass or an empty pocket flask. The homeless, unshaved musicians, usually clad in cruddy old suits, perform and sing these limping guasas, making up all sorts of silly rhymes. The fantastic drive of this five-beat genre is also an inspiring structure for modern popular songwriting and instrumental composition in Venezuela.
In this piece I develop the rhythmic structures of the guasa using the typical accents on the final beat of each measure in a typical arpeggiated theme. The "monochord-violin" personage imitates a trumpet or even a kazoo, in wobbly variations of a first idea. The second idea, on the dominant (or something like a dominant degree), starts on the syncopated-compacted upbeat of two sixteenth notes. The structure of the measure seems extremely uncertain, but a listener that is familiar with this music can easily recognize the steps in the wobbly stretches between obvious downbeats. The wobbly rubato impression is given by a combination of uncanny subdivisions and syncopations: the aforementioned compacted final semiquavers in the violin part; the successive alignment of quaternized terns of quavers and real semiquavers in melodic lines (measure 23 violin; measure 26, piano right hand; etc); the frequent accented final beats in many measures, along with the odd syncopations in bass figures and accompaniment structures. The piano-violin duo creates a discourse of wavering energy punctuated by sudden breaks; the development of initially symmetric, "popular" melodic and apparently orthodox harmonic material leads to a quiet central section stylistically akin to more modern urban forms of guasa instrumental composition, in a slightly naive romantic vein that is suddenly interrupted by the harsher and darker side and potential of the 5/8 rhythmic structures (not that the music here is necessarily derived from popular sources, but the sudden whimsical change to a more tragic tone is sometimes heard in the genre). A smooth transition to the final movement is achieved by presenting the harmonic structure of the pajarillo in a quiet 5/8 frame, then in its original 6/8 setting but much slower, suddenly erupting into the finale directly in the attacca.
4. Su Pajarillo
Pajarillo is the name of a Venezuelan song form with a very simple chord cycle related to the Spanish fandango. It's probably the most popular Venezuelan relative of the old fandango which traveled back and forth from the Mediterranean to the Spanish colonies for many centuries, to the point where its origin is still unknown, whether colonial, African or Mediterranean. The word fandango is also thought to have come from Central Africa, naming a ritual of music and dance that infected the Spanish empire with its fiery, ecstatic, trance-inducing and devilish rhythms. Pajarillo is the first word of the first stanza of a famous poem sung on this particular harmonic structure, a minor (I-IV-Vx 2): "Pajarillo Pajarillo, vuela si puedes volar, te recortaré las alas para verte caminar"; "Little bird, fly if you can, for I will cut your wings to see you walk…"; a challenging and cruel expression evoking the roughness of life in the llanos, the great hot dry plains of the Orinoco basin where this music has become the anthem of its dwellers. The melodic flavor and harmonic color of this extremely lively music bear the marks of Spanish and North African roots. Even its traditional instrumental idioms such as those played by the bandola – a sort of plucked guitar-lute – are reminiscent of the ud, the diatonic harp or the fierce cuatro, the latter with its strumming which always accompanies the song, strongly evoking the Moorish and Andalusian ancestry of this culture.
Traditionally, the Pajarillo, which identifies the eponymous form, becomes a setting for improvised verse; something like a slightly melodically monotonous rap where the singer develops an account of his or her adventures over an intense hyperactive accompaniment. This rhythmic structure belongs to the second type of rhythmic mode explained in the notes for Donzulián (above). In this piece the violin uses bowing styles derived from the cuatro strumming, imitating the strong, contrasting rhythmic subdivisions of the bar that cuatro players like to produce, while the piano maintains the basic rhythmic map. This style of violin playing in folkloric contexts is often heard nowadays due to the increase in number of violinists in Venezuela, many of whom are members or former members of classical youth orchestras experimenting and developing new ways of adapting the lively rhythms of Venezuelan genres to their instrument. This phenomenon is one of the interesting consequences of the huge Venezuelan classical musical development that has yet to be studied in depth; the interaction between traditional-ethnic and western concert music forms and instruments in the hands of classically-trained young musicians who also have good knowledge of traditional music roots.
To create the violin part in this piece I used elements similar to these recently developed bowing styles (from the last two decades, approximately) which are now quite common, frequently used by Venezuelan violinists Alexis Cárdenas, Eddy Marcano, Carlos Cifuentes and others. The combined use of bariolage, battuto, ricochet to form a complex imitation of cuatro virtuosity has now become a common tool of many Venezuelan improvisers on bowed instruments. I wanted to convey an impression of the high-energy performance one usually hears in traditional harp, cuatro and maracas ensembles. These lively forms of 6/8-3/4 fandango derivates typically can last forever; each song or instrumental piece can go on for ten to twenty minutes, so here we are in the presence of a condensed moment of music which is usually developed on a sort of huge, oceanic, flood-like scale. I chose some intense moments of peak rhythmic interaction between the parts – the piano imitating the harp, the violin taking up the strumming role of the cuatro, without being in any way literal. The point of this piece is not to present a literal transcription of something authentic from elsewhere. (To begin with, there is nothing clearly established in terms of "authenticity"; there is only a certain pattern of frequency in the use of certain instrumental formulas for each instrument, but many versions of the Pajarillo and its related forms exist for many other instruments such as the guitar, the accordion, the piano and many other melodic instruments: flute, clarinet, etc.).
The central idea here is to expose the melancholic roots of the Pajarillo as a lament in a clearly Hispanic mode; the shift in rhythmic modes after the solo cadenza, the intensity of interactions between layers of polyrhythmic material. The first piece of the suite was a valse-related form with the opposite rhythmic mode (golpe corrío). The finale is based on the stronger, second mode (golpe de seis), which shifts in mid-air as the violin plays a solo. We discover the new mode when the piano comes in on the "wrong" shifted beat, suddenly turning it into a valse-mode (golpe corrío). Pajarillos are usually used as closing pieces for popular music concerts, but what is generally stretched into an endless strip of improvisations is here just a tiny pill, a sample showing the benchmark of intensity in Venezuelan music.
- Paul Desenne
Presenting the soloist as Hero or mythological beast in contrasting tableaux is the central theme of this work. The role of the bass solo, treated conventionally as the leading and outstanding musical line, unfolds in a labyrinth of hybrid musical styles, creating a distance between the listener and the musical discourse; you hear this Minotaur struggling through dramatic moments, or dancing to the sounds of an asymmetric son Cubano, or a disco riff, but the musical stream has something of the formal discretion and the spirit of pastiche exoticism of 1950s bachelor pad music – the feeling of a transposed world, of stage design. The romantic virtuoso is a museum figure today, and the virtuoso double bass adds a theatrical ingredient to the now outdated gymnastics of velocity and tightrope shows. These contextual values are used to build the Hero personage, but this solo bass is not merely a caricature of virtuosity; when its voice expands musically into the various spheres the orchestra proposes, it hits sincere notes. Yet these musical frames are placed in a certain way to keep emotions at a distance, they are self-contained, formal presentations, somewhat in the mode of Fellini, where nothing is taken too realistically and the seas are little more than sheets of plastic wrap swollen by air blowers.
Sísifo (Sisyphus) begins on what could be described as a heroic film set – the bassist is pushing his rock uphill under the rhythmic whip of the orchestra; lyrical interludes and carousel rides create a shifting dramatic plot that is finally squared off by two contrasting dances; the dark filmscore mood leads into a sparkling moment of pizzicati and riffs. The movement ends with an asymmetrical, modified son Cubano, to which the hero plays under the spotlights of a Caribbean dance floor. A Latin, black-tie Sisyphus dancing to the strings of a tropical salón orchestra...
La Noche is also a bit of a wink to the orchestral kitsch of the Latin 1950s, but the heart of the piece is a dark meditation of the solo voice over a recurrent, slow, harmonic bipolar swing.
Pink Bull uses an ironic combination of flamenco and disco music. A sleek miniature drumset is played by a standing percussionist in front of the orchestra, on the conductor's right hand side. The vis-à-vis of the soloist and the drummer create a playful duo while the orchestra proposes a rhythmic mixture, alternating between binary dance and ternary flamenco meters without warning. The drummer might even improvise and take the lead on some of the binary dance rhythms, making it a double featured ending – a Minotaur at the discotheque, the unexpected destiny of a mythological figure.
- Paul Desenne
50. SINFONIA BUROCRATICA ED' AMAZZONICA (2004)
For sinfonietta (21 players) in five movements
Death of the Automobile
Composing music for my friend Joel Sachs on his adventurous musical journey has been a shared enterprise. Since I live on the edges of the world's last great forest, near the coasts of what was once a sea of cannibals, I have no choice but to do as Joel Sachs does – live dangerously. This Sinfonia Burocratica ed' Amazzònica is a description of what I see in the peculiar musical world I live in.
La Leçon stages the landing point of European minds on South American beaches. The exposed musical ideas, like repetitive lessons, are greeted by indifference; the bureaucratic structures, represented at their paroxysm by an orchestral typewriter, melt into a jungle of unvarying bird and frog calls. Colonization as seen by Ionesco, perhaps.
Anaconda is the water-and-land deity of the original Amazon forest dwellers; the waters are like a giant snake, smoothly moving and conquering the land. The anaconda swallows its victims whole, yet moves very slowly. Inside its body, the anaconda has a copy of the universe. To go inside and understand it without being digested by the beast, you must go through sessions of chanting and dancing with the shamans. Coming back out is the hardest part of the journey. This movement depicts the anaconda's movements, gliding smoothly between land and water.
Guasarana is like a saudade, a sad guasa (a Venezuelan songform in 5/8). Guasarana could mean, literally, "frog guasa." The sadness of the last rainforests on our planet, the sadness of being left only with brainforests.
Bananera is like a Colombian cumbia, also full of melancholy. Gabriel García Márquez often recalls the banana plantation killings – the infamous masacre en las bananeras of the 1920s (or was it the 1930s? How many times did it happen, anyway, and in how many tropical South and Central American countries?) This is the banana-picker's blues, part of the real tropical paradise – a rough paradise. (The scientific name for the banana is musa paradisiaca.) Cumbia is a perfect blend of African and Colombian Indian cultures. I have kept most of its distinctive features, within a broader harmonic context.
The symphony ends with the Death of the Automobile. It was a very old car, anyway. How many tons of fossil fuels did it vaporize? I lost track, but the motor sounded like an orchestra!
- Paul Desenne
47. THE TWO SEASONS (OF THE CARIBBEAN TROPICS) (2003)
Concerto for violin, strings and harpsichord in two seasons of three movements each
WINTER (RAINY SEASON)
Goteras (Roof Leaks)
Coquiloquio (Frog Assembly)
Wipers' Gigavalse/Deslave (Landslide)
SUMMER (DRY SEASON)
Noche del grillo transfigurado (Night of the Transfigured Cricket)
Cumbión tostao (Big Toasted Cumbia)
Polo quemao (Burnt Polo)
Latin American culture is, for various reasons (one of them being the period during which the Spanish conquest took place), a layered, multi-faceted, complicated baroque pearl, the true value of which is not easy to appraise from afar. Some traditional songforms in the Spanish Caribbean remind us of Mediterranean renaissance and baroque forms, a phenomenon which is comparable to the presence of Celtic roots in some Beatles songs. Vivaldi's music is full of Mediterranean reminiscences, and is directly connected with our Caribbean culture through its content and its style; the extensive use of strummed guitars, mandolins, and the like, here in Latin America, seem to prolong the baroque handling of musical material into our present musical universe. One direct example: I named the last movement of this tropical Two Seasons "Polo Quemao" because Vivaldi's original season, Summer (which appears here twisted, molten and charred at the end of a terrible dry season) contains a perfect songform any Venezuelan would recognize as his own: the "Polo Margariteño," woven into a marvelous Vivaldian tapestry. This proves that the Italian composer was also weaving bits and pieces of popular songforms coming from the rich sources of popular music to create new variations for his instrument, a perfectly appropriate baroque procedure, and possibly the principal one in that particular period.
Since we are here immersed in this complex multi-layered baroque language, a realm of music where expression is one step beyond sentimentalism, channeled into codes of rhetoric and civilized by form, it is quite natural for many composers in Latin America to feel that we haven't exhausted the possibilities of this language; it allows us to set, in a sort of universal droit de cité, every possible regional genre of music – a Concert des Nations Caraïbes.
Think of Alejo Carpentier's novels and writings on music. The Cuban novelist in exile worked in Caracas for more than a decade in the 1950s. He developed some wonderful ideas here, expressing a very personal desire of finding the unborn creations of Caribbean baroque and classical musical history. The masterpiece of his imagination is his final Concierto Barroco, a short novel of the early 1970s where he connects popular musicians from Latin America with Vivaldi, ending in a Venetian jam session that spurs our imagination. This is the starting point of The Two Seasons. This violin concerto is one of several musical essays I have written to complete the Carpenterian project of re-inventing our musical history, without forgetting the idea that time does not exist, or is at least irrelevant, in the tropics.
The seasons of the Caribbean tropics are as intense and important as the seasons of temperate climates. The rainy season, which takes place roughly during the summer and autumn of the northern hemisphere, can be extremely annoying, with endless and sometimes devastating rainfall. The dry season comes during the northern winter and spring, roughly speaking, and it can be as devastating as the wet season. It usually ends in forest fires, and it is the time when nature's territory shrinks in agony. There is a rather tragic tone in these comments, but now more than ever, the seasons have reached extremes. Our tropical seasons in the Caribbean seem to imitate some features of the northern ones, but upside down. For example, at the height of the dry season at the end of March, most of the coastal forests shed their leaves to save moisture. The skies are grey – a northern winter scene – but temperatures reach the high thirties (centigrade), and suddenly many flowers bloom. The winter scene becomes a flower carnival. In Spanish, to keep things upside down in relation to the north, the dry season is called verano – summer. The rainy season is called invierno – winter – yet it is the greenest; but it can also be the coolest and darkest time of the year, ending in the October and November floods. (The disastrous floods and landslides on the Venezuelan coast in December 1999 took thousands of lives.) The treatment of the solo violin in this chamber concerto is relatively classical. No special effects, no innovations aside from the style and the language used – a combination of Latin rhythms and baroque developments. The innovation is mostly felt in the general contents of the piece, with a great injection of Caribbean music, an intensely rhythmic treatment of the orchestral material, and a humoresque transfiguration of famous Vivaldian fragments. The descriptive character of this music follows Vivaldi's own programmatic rhetoric, without the sonnets.
WINTER (RAINY SEASON)
1. Goteras (Roof Leaks)
Over a melancholy introduction, we hear raindrops falling from leaking roofs into tin cans. It's the endless tropical rain, and the tin and cardboard houses of the shanty towns are soaked; everything is grey and wet. Suddenly a transfigured Vivaldi appears: motives from his "Summer," first in a 5/8 Venezuelan merengue, then as a tango. A kaleidoscope of Latin styles takes us from the Dominican merengue to the Colombian cumbia, and back to a modern Argentine tango setting in a modulating baroque progression. In Argentine slang, where everything is said backwards, "tango" becomes "gotan," and "gota" is a drop. Tropical rain is dense and melancholic, but it can also be intensely rhythmic like the tango, which comes to us from the deepest south. This opening piece is also a homage to Piazzolla, the creator of the "Seasons" of Buenos Aires – another powerful comment on the same theme from a totally different vantage point. "Goteras" bows to this previous version of the same idea.
2. Coquiloquio (Frog Assembly)
These peculiar frogs can be heard almost anywhere on a Caribbean night, and very frequently in the city of Caracas, where they have become the symbol of the rainy season. It is said that the melodious nocturnal Costa Rican and Puerto Rican species were brought to Venezuela by a rich woman who wanted to hear the songs of these small batrachia in her garden in Caracas. From that first garden, the invisible black frogs invaded the whole city with their high-pitched mating calls. The song of the Coqui frogs is heard throughout this movement, replacing the barking dog in Vivaldi's famous slow movement before the summer storm. I used the exact transcription of the interacting Coqui calls over Vivaldi's accompaniment, used as a cantus firmus. The dotted-sixteenth motive of the original text goes through several transfigurations, stressing the nocturnal character: jazzy swing, nocturnal invasion by other insects and batrachia, atonal romantic drama, and back to Vivaldi with frogs. The movement represents the tropical night in Caracas, where human and animal rhythms meet without canceling each other out, each one on a different wavelength.
3. Wipers' Gigavalse/Deslave (Landslide)
The spirit of the spring shower (last movement of Vivaldi's "Spring," not quoted textually) lands on an automobile windshield, becoming a windshield-wiper jig. The droplets dance to the pulse of the wiper arms, the only moving things in a highway blocked by commuting traffic. After the wipers' jig, traffic moves ahead slowly; the solo violin plays a languid Venezuelan-style valse, accompanied murkily by the orchestra. (Our tropical cities in the rain can be as gloomy as any rainy city in the north.) The movement ends with a thick Afro-Venezuelan drumming dance, another typical Venezuelan rainy-season icon that is often heard on and around the summer solstice, particularly for the June 24 St. John celebrations, which are always drenched in rain. The orchestra becomes an Afro-Venezuelan drum ensemble, imitating everything in this exciting musical universe from the complex puzzle of percussion lines to the antiphonal dialogue of the choir with the solo voice in a dense and furious dance. This ending represents the deadly landslide – a tragic ending to the rainy season.
SUMMER (DRY SEASON)
1. Noche del grillo transfigurado (Night of the Transfigured Cricket)
A high-pitched night cricket sings in the coffee groves of the mountains around Caracas. This insect announces the end of the rainy season. I made an exact transcription of this interesting microscopic litany, consisting of a high G sharp in an endless rhythmic ritornello, like a labyrinth. The solo violin becomes the cricket, and the orchestra the nocturnal setting for this peculiar voice. Gradually, a typically Venezuelan rhythm seeps in, along with the ghost of Vivaldi's "Winter." (Remember our hot and dry leafless forests of the dry season.) The imported Italian baroque designs are transformed into a tight tropical dialogue in Caribbean dress. The movement ends with a Venezuelan merengue, an irregular songform in 5/8, showing the original harmonic progressions of Vivaldi's "Winter" under a different light, with a dialogue of battuto bowings in the orchestra imitating the Venezuelan cuatro – a small, strummed four-string guitar.
2. Cumbión tostao (Big Toasted Cumbia)
Cumbia is the typical rhythm of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The highest social moments of that region are the festivities surrounding the Carnival – Mardi Gras – during the dry season. The cumbia is played, sung and danced on every street for several weeks, right after the celebrations of the New Year. It is a binary rhythm with a strong syncopation, and the typical lead instruments are a pair of long wooden flutes of Amerindian ancestry known as gaitas. The solo violin plays gaita lines dancing in and out of Vivaldi's "Autumn." This intense dance is very popular in Colombia, where it is seen as part of the famous Carnaval de Barranquilla – the Caribbean equivalent of the Rio Carnival. The title refers to the middle of the dry season when the fields and forests begin to shrivel and burn. The movement ends with a melancholy bolero flavor.
3. Polo quemao (Burnt Polo)
"Polo" is a Spanish song that was imported to America centuries ago. An exact harmonic coincidence linking one of the famous progressions of Vivaldi's "Summer Storm" to the form of the Venezuelan "Polo Margariteño" explains the title, and takes our living Caribbean forms back to the Mediterranean baroque. Here, I pictured the agony of nature at the end of the dry season. The movement is built almost entirely on transfigured and charred quotations of Vivaldi's music. The heat and flames melt the harmonic discourse and change the rhythmic forms of the various sections of the storm, turning the storm of waters into a storm of fire. The big unison tuttis of the original are played here as limping episodes of heavy metal; the delicate song of the Gardellino becomes the tortured call of an animal trapped in concentric flames; the famous slow chromatic episode of solo violin and continuo becomes a sort of apocalyptic, baroque Alban Berg in the fumes of burning plastic. In the end, our two tropical seasons are not always optimistic. They may be colorful, but they always take their toll on nature. Fortunately, Latin America usually faces its tragedies with the spontaneous philosophy of optimism.
- Paul Desenne
39. JAGUAR SONGS FOR SOLO CELLO (2002)
Tombeau pour l'Amazonie
Each movement of Jaguar Songs presents its own concept of time, action or contemplation, and flight. The jaguar is an Amazonian symbol of death, of frightening surprise – an energy that keeps us running, keeps us from getting caught. Here, the cello escapes from the lyrical, weeping tradition and from the artifice of sound effects. Everything springs from a specific handling of the instrument derived from a true musical reference: a gypsy improvisation on Venezuelan and Andalusian lines; a shamanic contemplation of forest destruction where the timeless nature of the Amazon is ripped to pieces by the music of chainsaws; a pop-gavotte possessed by the rage of electric blues-rock; and a restless Brazilian birimbao that makes way for the final, noisy, scraping, screaming flight through the Latin American night.
Gitane begins with the strumming of cuatros and charangos – the instrumental dance calls of Colombian music – and ends in a sort of improvised balancing act between two distant tonalities. The flavor of these lines is drawn from the huge Andalusian influence in Venezuelan music. The final phrases of the piece are a pajarillo – a Venezuelan fandango.
Tombeau pour L'Amazonie brings in a totally different concept of time derived from shamanic chanting. The cello takes up the voice of the yapururú – the long bamboo flutes of Amazon cultures that play harmonic overtones to create oscillations between deep and high notes. The static opening section leads to a contemplation of pure sound, as the slowly evolving stream of notes approaches the chainsaws in a frenzy of fuzzy ostinati. This movement was composed during the very tense days of April 2002, when huge street demonstrations against Chavez's regime were repressed by hidden sharpshooters, and political confusion ensued.
Gavotte is an ironic title, since this poppish binary tune, the initial frivolous character of which is denied by the sentiment expressed as it unfolds, is a cover for a deeper transformation of the cello into a close relative of the Hendrixian electric blues-rock guitar. This isn't merely a cosmetic connection, for the cello can and will be possessed by the voices of this form-shattering, raucous expression. To spare the furniture in the delicate formal balance, things return to their apparent normal state for a few seconds before the final race.
Birimbao is a short tribute to the surrealistic Brazilian ancestor of the cello, the berimbau, which is like a primitive musical arc strung with a single wire and banged with a wooden or metal stick and a stone or coin. The body of this primitive cello is a calabash gourd with a sound-modifying mouth that the player leaves open or covers with his bare belly – an indication of the climate in which this sort of cello is played. Our modern, metal-stringed cellos are not too different in their conception – we just have to bang on the strings a little. Our Pernambuco- wood bows come from Brazil, anyway.
Jaguar is built around rhythmic gestures, like instrumental onomatopœia, which come from the music of Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. In the middle of this rush we hear the Gregorian chanting of friars, like worm songs trapped in the maze of a deep forest from which they cannot escape. There are no conventional themes, motives, or formal developments in this final piece; the music is built upon elements of pure rhythmic intensity. Latin American music is perhaps most distinguished by its accompaniment figures rather than its particular melodies. The gestural, anonymous, faceless, collective weaving of frightened, syncopated textures is what this specific piece invokes.
- Paul Desenne
29. HAYDN TUYERO, CHICHARRAS, GALEONES (2000)
Trio for flute, English horn and cello
Allegro: Haydn Tuyero
Súbito Adagio: Romance de la perla
Poco Adagio: Fantasía de las chicharras
Motete a tres voces: Nuevo Mundo
Allegro: Transición al baile
Allegro campesino: Baile de joropo en el cafetal
This fantasy evokes the musical past of the provinces near Caracas, where coffee and sugarcane were the basic staples. South of the capital city lies the Tuy river valley. The harp music of this region is famous for its Spanish baroque roots, and the remarkably complex oral traditions still alive there suggest that there was great musical talent and practice among the settlers. The music I composed tells the tale of Miranda, the forefather of Venezuelan Independence, who traveled Europe with his flute, his unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and his gallant, modern ideas. In 1785, he had long conversations on music with Joseph Haydn while strolling through the palace gardens at Esterhazy. One can imagine Miranda asking Haydn to write something for the flute, which he played quite well. In reality, their conversation was mostly about Boccherini, the famous Italian cellist who was stirring up musical life in Madrid, where Miranda had been living since he came from the colonies to study at the military academy. After this meeting, Miranda went off on his endless adventures, visiting Russia, meeting Catherine the Great, and later, during the French Revolution, becoming an important general of the French Republican Army. Later, he conspired to free Venezuela from Spanish domination, and played a great part in the process that eventually succeeded in doing so.
I imagined Miranda's musical request to Haydn – a petition that the composer would have rejected immediately, saying, "If you want new music, with the flavors of your land, then have somebody from your own province compose it!" In my fancy, Miranda likes this idea, and immediately writes to his nephew, Lucas de ..., who was studying music with Boccherini in Madrid. But the letter never reaches him, for the young musician had recently left Madrid and is back home at his sugarcane plantation with his new cello. Perhaps he is discovering ways to make the instrument fit into the dances and songs of the tuyero music that he loves, playing with the harpists of his village. In this very hot valley, Lucas de ... is composing, tormented by the very loud ringing of the cicadas in the burning afternoon. Instead of quitting his composition, he decides to include their piercing notes in the score. When the evening breeze finally cools the air, bringing back the precious silence, he expresses his gratitude with a motet, in the style he learned from an old codex brought to the cathedral in Caracas from the doomed pearl port of Nueva Cádix, where the chronicler-poet Juan de Castellanos had landed in the 1520s. The musical past of these regions is very rich, going back to Renaissance and early baroque sources, and it blends with pre-Hispanic and African roots, forming many hybrids. This short fantasy peers into different historic possibilities, assembling various short movements to create an imaginary landscape of Miranda's time.
- Paul Desenne
24. SONATA FOR SOLO VIOLIN (1998)
(In memoriam Alegría Beracasa)
A moto perpetuo that explores rhythmic modes of Venezuelan music with spiraling constructions consisting of transformations in the length and design of the motives and in the breadth of the interactions between the virtual voices of register extremities. The music conveys the rhythmic intensity of the quick Venezuelan valse form. The symbol of the spiral is also taken here as a representation of life, of the constant generation of ideas by a pulsating organism.
The French word "épaves" covers several meanings, beginning with the literal definition of "shipwreck." It can also convey the idea of rests, in the sense of what is left after the wreck, or even of a ship gone astray, sailing without a course, without a crew. In total contrast to the preceding movement, this modal lentissimo combines something of a Japanese mode with an Iberian feeling to reach a state of courseless navigation, of temporal flotation. The character of the movement is meant to place the listener in a very quiet limbo.
The Worm's Belly Dance
Here the worm performs a solo accompanied by an Afro-Cuban band in a Saharian cartoon setting. The dialogue between the worm and the band grows into a frenetic and sinuous belly dance. The climax smooths into a meditation, after a few spasms. A salsoso coda reminds us of the dance of life and death, in which the worm acts as the recycling force.
Andante con yopo / Alegrías
After death, only shamans can communicate with the souls of the departed. For that purpose they must sing magic verses under the influence of Yopo, a hallucinogenic bark extract. These chants are repetitive melodies that clear the path to the underworld and neutralize evil spirits with the help of certain magic associations with birds such as the Cönötö and the Nyctibius grandis, whose songs are quoted in this piece. The second part of the movement is reached once the path to the underworld is clear. The music is based on the rhythmic patterns of Andalusian alegrías, a popular setting for gypsy guitar improvisations that combines units of two and three beats, grouped in pairs to form a twelve-beat bar. These particular alegrías lead us from song to dance, ending in a meditative, inconclusive spirit.
- Paul Desenne
Seis por derecho
Guasa del borrachito
The works collected under the title Tocatas Galeónicas (Galleon Toccatas) are my earliest chamber compositions. Quinteto del Pájaro is an essay on tropical baroque music. Each of the four movements explores a different genre of Venezuelan music, expanding the formal contents of native harmonic cycles, or developing a usually simple songform. I tried to translate the very volatile spirit of Venezuelan improvisation into the formal and precise terms of a chamber ensemble, bringing in the cuatro (a small, strummed four-string guitar) as a special guest from our region to achieve the effect of a warm continuo section.
Seis por derecho is a very vital songform of the great plains in the Orinoco basin. Traditionally played by a trio of harp, cuatro, and maracas, the Seis por derecho is a lively dance in which singers and players display their abilities in improvised verse and instrumental variation. A distant relative of the fandango, the form relates in many ways to the spirit of Spanish baroque music, with a blend of African and Caribbean cultures that makes it an emblem of South American expression. The players must really let it all explode. There is no main subject or melody, but instead a collective intensity.
Guasa del borrachito is based on a songform found most commonly in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. A limping 5/8 accompanies a lazy guasa, a frequent musical setting for nonsense poetry. "El borrachito" means "the little wino" – the street drunkard who sings his little song on a bench in the town square. Guasas are frequently played by street bands, in New Orleans fashion. This movement recreates the colorful music oozing out of a tropical band on a lazy afternoon. It is also a study in the interesting syncopation possibilities offered by the guasa. The general form is like a classical sonata development of a bi-thematic popular song of my own invention.
Alba-vals is a modern Venezuelan waltz. This romantic form was developed towards the end of the 19th century after an extensive implantation of Viennese, French, and Spanish waltzes. The Venezuelan valse has a tropical syncopation stressing the 6/8 somewhat more than the original 3/4 time signature, and the form is strictly classical. This piece has the sense of going adrift in an endless valse, with some intense rhythmic riffs at the hinges; a continuous flow of melodic embroidery on a short harmonic cycle that is continuously transposed. The classical mould of the original form is broken.
The Quintet ends with a periquera ("flock of parrots"), a very lively and extroverted songform of the llanos – the pampas of the Orinoco Basin. The structure is a sixteen-bar harmonic cycle supporting series of variations. The solos or solo groups take turns to develop the arc of each harmonic cycle. The successive instrumental variations and textures in this periquera mimic various instruments and voices of the Llanero tradition: the diatonic harp, the bandola (our melodic lute – similar to a banjo), the cuatro, the singers, and the dancers, with their heels tapping on the patio dance floor.
- Paul Desenne