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Classical Music Blog by award-winning composer Kati Agócs



Kati Agocs

    The first American Composers Forum Delegation to Cuba has brought ten composers and about forty patrons to Cuba this week to present a concert of our works and to experience the culture here during The Havana Festival of Contemporary Music. Our performance is being billed as the first live concert of contemporary American music in Havana since the Cuban revolution. I’ve been in La Habana, as the Cubans call it, for three days, and have had the chance to attend a few events.

   Almost everybody seems to be an artist here. There isn’t a clear delineation between who is identified as an artist and the rest of the population, and creative people often wear many hats. For example, the majority of the young composers that I see here are also performers, often playing their own works.

   If I were to spend more time in Havana, I would want to learn the style of drumming that they have here. One hears it wafting from various places, and it gets under one’s skin. I believe that one thing that makes it so addictive is the irregularities. If there is a big triplet across smaller regular duple rhythms, they will place the second beat of the triplet just slightly late. When they bring in an interesting cross-rhythm they never keep it going for very long, leaving one wanting more. These things are like catnip for my ear (and I don’t know if I’m writing that because of all of the stray cats hanging around). Soul is in the irregularities. It’s the polar opposite of when young American composers play their percussion parts back through Midi to see how they line up.

   The new-music concerts here in Havana include works going back to the 1980s, so it isn’t exactly contemporary music. There are composers from many different nationalities represented, such as Italian, Venezuelan, and Belgian, as well as Cuban. In general, the music by the Cuban composers falls into one of two categories: 1) based on jazz or popular music, often dance forms, that are extended or embellished; or 2)“experimental”, usually with some type of repeated pattern that gets varied, and sometimes with small areas where things get aleatoric or “effect”-driven. The second of these two approaches is experimental more in the localized techniques that are used than in the construction. Some pieces combine the two.

   The pieces are informed by strong instinct, and they do not overstay their welcome.  Rather than being pretentious, I would say that they lean more toward the precious. One can tell that the music that the composers know is inconsistent, with little awareness of the American or European canon from the last 50 years. The reasons for this are very complex, of course, but longstanding limits on trade mean that communication and the dissemination of recent music have not occurred freely. So for me these concerts are a kind of vignette of what composers come up with writing in an absence of the tradition that we as American composers largely take for granted - -they literally don’t know what they are missing.

   As an American here one feels largely irrelevant. People in Havana can separate what American people do and think from the activities of our government. They generously share ideas, information, and things with U.S. visitors despite a long history of antagonism from the U.S. side. But one feels the absence of a “U.S.-centric” way of thinking. The arts scene is very multi-cultural; it is just that the U.S. is not a major player. Mainstream media and the Internet are not omni-present, so there is room for other things. Without the presence of commercialization, an abundance of products, and large-scale media, one is left with the essence of who one is as an artist. Looking at artists collectively, one observes a multiplicity of identities that seem to elude definition because they keep changing with every moment.

   There was a decent showing at our concert by the composers that we had met when we attended their concert at the salon of the composers’ union one day prior. There is little “following” for new music here, and no evident government ministers or cultural attaché types attended. The U.S. was represented in our concert by a huge diversity in terms of media (there were three works that used electronics), instrumentation (the core ensemble was a Pierrot, configuration but they used many subsets in various permutations), and styles. The ensemble, Third Sound, had curated the program, and they did not walk any stylistic line, which I thought was appropriate. The players navigated a rich array of voices masterfully. I had the sense that the incisive New York new-music ensemble playing presented a huge contrast with what the Cuban musicians were used to hearing. For our concert we had the use of what is supposedly the best piano in Cuba, but the sustain pedal was not working properly. (I noticed this in particular because they performed the middle movement of Immutable Dreams, my Microconcerto in Memoriam György Ligeti). Most of the pianos here probably having came from the former USSR in the 1980s, and the soundboards are in terrible shape.

   I had the sense that they liked what we presented, but perhaps found it challenging. The Cuban artists and musicians that I have spoken with know some mainstream American media, but little current “high art”. In talking to them after the concert, I sensed that things are changing in terms of relations between the two countries, and that both sides want this to happen. Young people are not wary of this change, perhaps because they don’t have as much memory of emotionally-fraught earlier times between the two countries. If relations continue on this path, what can each side hope to get out of it, and what can we give each other? The Cuban artists express a need to get to know more “elite” art, for exposure to the international arts scene, and for the chance to be seen and heard abroad. They want to make connections. One of the most important things that we can do as citizens of any other country is to facilitate connections, even if we start small with one unique project, such as inviting a Cuban musician to collaborate. Of course, there was a precedent for this kind of exchange in Sonidos de las Américas, the festival of Latin American music presented in New York by the American Composers Orchestra in 1999 that brought important Cuban composers to New York, and now our trip is bringing Americans to Cuba. Hopefully the future will bring further exchanges in both directions.

   Now that there is less perceived threat from the U.S., and now that avoiding disunity among the Cuban population in the face of this threat isn’t as necessary, people here will be able to push the boundaries of debate more. With the private sector becoming a permanent and dynamic part of the economy, they will also have access to more music.  The influx of so much different work will surely be invigorating for the composers. Will their way of thinking become less rigid once they become more accustomed to considering a multiplicity of possibilities?  Will they will feel a need to “catch up” once they hear a wider range of music, or will they leap over what they have missed to find a new synthesis? It will be a different road for each individual artist, but by continuing the dialogue I believe that we will actually influence the outcome.  Of course, music always tends to be behind other art forms like visual arts and dance, so change may take longer in this realm.

   As Americans we can derive a sense of appreciation for our own individuality as composers, and perhaps view our work through a wider lens so as not to get caught in a rut where our thinking is always the same. Personally, I was struck by the individuality of the American composers on the concert, and I believe that is something to be celebrated and cultivated. Seeing the strength of their popular music tradition puts things in perspective - -we aren’t the only thing going on!   Finding common ground and explaining what we do to someone who has little or no familiarity with the tradition that we come out of brings us back to our essence. Finally, getting to know musicians who have gone through so many hardships to get where they are now, and seeing the joy and conviction in their music-making, can get us closer to that impulse behind why we became composers in the first place.