Musica Mexicana: An Introduction

Steve Koenig

[February 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:3.]

My first visit to México, six years ago, I despaired of finding experimental music outside of the University settings, knowing only Roberto Morales, whose music I knew through a disc in the Leonardo Music Journal, and Julio Estrada, who was then esconced in Paris at IRCAM. I discovered a tiny notice of an Estrada concert two years ago and dragged along my friend, painter Bernardo Gonzalez, who had taught me much about Méxican popular singers and songs. As we listened to the instrumentalists reach the painful extremes of Estrada’s microtonal composition, anyone could see the look on my face of the proverbial happy pig rolling, and in Bernardo’s eyes, the expression of a cat thrown into a vat of ice water. Despite this, we remain hearty friends. I knew Estrada’s music through his Disque Montaigne, indispensable to anyone who likes the extremes of modern composition, say, Scelsi and Ferneyhough.

This past August, I arrived in Mexico City for the tenth time, and hoping against hope for contemporary extremes of music, phoned Conaculta, the government arts agency, and discovered that in one hour would begin the first night of a week-long music festival called Ruido…primer festival de arte sonoro, or Noise…the first sonic arts festival. Held in four different venues from July 22 until the first of August, you’d have no clue that Ruido was a first effort, so well were the composers, installations and invited artists chosen. Who would have guessed that I’d come to Mexico City and meet for the first time the American Carl Stone, the Dutch Paul Panhuysen, and Alvin Curran, who now lives in Rome. More significant, I met dozens of young Mexican composers in all experimental genres from collage to ambient to multimedia. Established composers included Estrada and Morales. There was a raffle for an autographed score by John Cage. (I did not win and am not pleased.) Even the Knitting Factory showed its face with harpist Andrea Parkins and friends. Ruido was sponsored by the arts organization Ex Teresa Arte Actual and its director, Guillermo Santamarina, and curated by Manuel Rocha Iturbide.

In the series to which this article is merely an introduction, we shall explore many of the routes Mexican music has taken, both on disc and in performance. I’ll take you into the rehearsal studio with marimbist Raúl Tudón and the group he is part of, Tambuco, who have many recordings on Quindecim and Dorian Records. We’ll explore the electronics studios of UNAM with its director Pablo Silva, an excellent composer, as is his wife Carôle .

Labels such as Sony Classics have amazing releases unavailable in the US, such as a box of the music of Julián Carillo and the best version of Brasilian Villa-Lobos’ vocal work La Floresta. I’ll tell you how to obtain the first-ever recordings of the complete works of Manuel Ponce on Sony México, a well-annotated seven-disc box, and an interview with pianist Maestro Hector Rojas, who researched, planned, and performed it so that there’s hardly a dull moment, though of course in such an undertaking there are a few pieces which tread water. Mostly, I dip into this box and come out refreshed. I never cared for Ponce’s guitar music, but when I heard his piano works, and his songs with piano, I was immediately won over. This will appeal to collectors of both folk-lore based music, such as Schumann’s Kinderscenen and Bartók’s For Children, as well as romantic piano music. Most of the pieces are small and in suites, and an amazing amount are small gems. The pianist’s wife, Ruth Rojas, is an excellent sculptor, working both with small pottery and giant slabs, as well as as series dedicated to the works of Ponce.

The string quartet is alive and well in México, and the two best are probably the Cuarteto Latinoamerica, with many recordings including a complete Villa-Lobos on Dorion and dozens of other varied composers from Latin America and the world, and the Cuarteto de Cuerdas Ruso-Americano, with a series called “Cuartetos Mexicanos Desconocidos,” dedicated to unknown or underknown Mexican composers. I spoke with violinist Alain Durbecq after a concert, imploring him to record Guadalupe Olmedo’s quartet, feeling she was the Amy Beach of his country. He smiled, and showed me a disc I’d already owned for a year, in the “Desconocidos” series, and then gave me their brand-new double of the complete quartets of Brahms, now, along with the Vertovo and Tokyo, my favorite performances of pieces which in other hands make me snooze.

I was lucky enough to hear and talk with a quietly passionate harpsichordist after her performance in Museo Franz Meyer. This musician must be picked up by the majors; must. By next issue, I will have located her name in my cluttered files. The choice of repertoire from modern to old, and her ease and love of the instrument and ease while talking with her audience was a rare treat. So was my encounter with composer Mario Lavista, a man so charming that during my three-hour interview, he asked most of the questions, I forgot I was there for any particular purpose, and we never did get to talk about his own music. We talked mostly about other composers, including Luciano Berio, whom I suspected was an influence on some of his works. I spied the new DG complete Sequenzas on his shelf and smiled. He promised me a rematch.

Like the small independent labels worldwide, carefully amassing rich catalogs in select niches, some for decades, you’ll be introduced to Urtext Records (distributed in the US by Allegro) and its impresarios flutist Marisa Canales and Benjamin Juárez Echenique. Some of Urtext’s highlights are the “Mexico Baroque” series, Edison Quintana’s three-disc premiere set of the complete piano works of Rodolfo Halffter, and a beautifully-packaged series of works, mostly sonatas, by cellist Carlos Prieto, whom I first heard via the defunct Houston label O.M. I quickly bought the series, and will report in detail anon. Urtext also boasts inroads into the folkloric sector, with the first CD of Grupo Mono Blanco, which I first heard via their vinyl efforts on Discos Pentagrama, known for its folk and political troubadour releases, including the Serrat or Phil Ochs of Mexico, Oscar Chavez. While I was sitting in the garden of Pentagrama’s offices, Chavez strode in, tall and serious and smiling. Although we didn’t exchange more than pleasantries, he was a man comfortable in his own skin, and I hope to meet him again.

On the rock, punk, ethnic and prog-rock front no one beats Opçion Sonica and their sister label, Lejos de Paraíso, many of whose discs have been licensed by Rounder. On the electronic/ambient tinge, Jorge Reyes is the ethnic king, using pre-Colombian instruments to evoke a time of Mayan beauty and war. The southern California folklore label Arhoolie for decades has done yeoman work in bringing out Mexican and Tex-Mex music from the 1920s onward.

Of course, we will not overlook the street performers, the subway serenaders, the indigenous musicians, the weekly open-air street markets where the kids trade their discs, and government assistance and support of the musical arts, from indigenous to pre-Baroque, romantic-nationalistic to the most advanced and experimental, and the problems of pirating and cassette culture (now transformed to CD-r).