Confessions and Bagatelles
On the Music by Mexican Composer Sergio Cárdenas
by Michael THUMSER*
Let's tell a story,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
and let's face it, it's a bad story. It takes place in a convulsed country, torn socially by partisan bickering, paralyzed by delayed reforms, numbed by the appeasement slogans of the authorities, and wandering mentally and spiritually down many wrong paths. The story is about a dissident who not only has sufficient civil courage, but feels compelled to speak out against the ruling classes and the prevailing spirit of the times. Warm, eloquent, he observes five heads of government and their governmental crises; and in the end he sees his country, which follows an unwise policy of alliances, surrounded by enemies. The rebel is not afraid to paint the devil on the wall: he demands the most resolute peace policy, appeasement, demilitarization, even surrender without a fight; there is no other way to defend against the total loss of national identity. He was arrested as a substitute for military service and imprisoned in degrading conditions. But his predictions are frighteningly correct. The country was invaded, the capital besieged and captured, the population mistreated or killed, dispersed and kidnapped. In exile, the Resistance writer records the memorable events of his life and dies, far from the homeland that no longer exists.
The story seems like something from the twentieth century. And yet it happened, in this or a similar way, more than 2,600 years ago. The Bible tells us about it: its protagonist is called Jeremiah, the messenger of misfortune is one of the "Great Prophets". A desperate prophet whom the course of history confirmed in all his cries of Cassandra.
Music also tells this story; Sergio Cárdenas, to whom we dedicate ourselves on this occasion, tells it to us. And paradoxically, almost provocatively, the title of his score seems to go against the sermons of the biblical doomsayer: So I will Hope (1). In his half-hour oratorio for solo baritone, choir and orchestra - which the Hof Symphony Orchestra premiered here (in Hof), in 1999, he combines six fragments from the "Lamentations of Jeremiah"; although they do not come from the prophet himself, they came into the Old Testament under his name with good reason.
In fact, they report, entirely in their spirit, God's judgment on an ungodly people: the destruction of Jerusalem, the ruin of the state of Judah, the Babylonian captivity under Nebuchadnezzar. Cárdenas deliberately stages the incongruity between the character of Jeremiah and the message promised by the very title of his work: hope; a sign also for our apparently hopeless times. The message, drawn from disaster, is a message of salvation.
At the same time, the composer tells the terrible story in its entirety: insofar as he does not spare the listener despair. Even more: he takes him into its deepest abyss. His oratorio begins, so to speak, with a composed nothingness: a painfully high violin tone, percussive accents isolated from other instruments; pale gloom: sonorous symbol of devastated, "widowed", orphaned Jerusalem. The haughty and proud princess of yesteryear crouches helplessly in sackcloth and ashes. Cárdenas has translated this situation, a motionless event, into atmosphere: it is the consummation of a fatality, which relies on simple means.
The choir begins in silence, lamenting, as if paralyzed at first, and then becomes emotional. The orchestra temporarily yields to the inner pressure that bursts forth, and then joins in the wailing of the vocalists, also with a cantilena from the solo tuba. In the second section, Jerusalem's neighbors take the floor with contempt: they are quick to speak of the shattered. The percussion joins in, the choir claps and whistles - as the text intends - and the baritone soloist wallows in a jazzy chant of rabid topicality.
Such ruthless cynicism is then contradicted by a call for appeased piety unto death; Cárdenas, building from the low strings to the high, weaves his setting into a fugue counterpoint of baroque density. The chorus cries out a lament, but immediately afterward, in an abrupt but wonderfully coherent transition, late-Romantic orchestral chords signal a consoling softness: they announce a future consolation while the chorus continues to sing tears and sadness. Once again, the baritone intervenes, and changes his role: he no longer appears as a brawler, but as a herald of grace in a meditation, accompanied only by harp arpeggios. Thus, in a friendly and peaceful way, he gives the signal for a new beginning, a new start, which the choir, charged with positive energies, culminates in the final movement, which is like a march. In the end there is a festive, radiant harmony in pure C-major, which is repeated insistently, many times, irrefutably. Hope turned to salvation - "from night to light": it's the old, good story.
It is not so long ago, barely a century, that we Europeans took due note of the music of other continents: as art. Today, American music is everywhere; U.S. popular music dominates worldwide, but its art music also plays an active role in the world concert. However, it is not heard much from the southern climes. Latin American composers: with which ones do we associate an aural memory? Which ones can we list from memory?
Let's face it: the tango wave of recent years not only provides us with clichés of sweaty machos confronting pointy-chested femme fatales; it also brought us the encounter with the great Astor Piazzolla and the unexpected sound world of bandoneon combos. It is true that we know the rhythmic indulgences of the Bachianas Brasileiras of the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, and probably also his guitar concerto, but we do not perceive the main part, much more advanced, of his gigantic work. And yet: that Alberto Ginastera, Argentinian like Piazzolla, belongs among the greats of the 20th century, the Hof concert audience was allowed to suspect a year ago, when the Symphony approached him with his exquisite Harp Concerto - but who, apart from incorrigible enthusiasts, would want to presume to have ever concentrated on his intoxicating ballets, on the incomprehensible piano concertos, on his masterly but intricate string quartets?
Mexico is even more of an exotic unknown to us: the country where Sergio Cárdenas was born in 1951. Even the initiated are the ones who most associate two names with it: they may come across Silvestre Revueltas, who died in 1940 of a mixture of despair and drunkenness, at only 41 years old. A militant socialist as well as a composer, he was a rebel; he shook off academic norms with rhythmic vehemence, recreated an Afro-Cuban invocation rite in his tone poem Sensemayá and evoked the pre-Columbian past of the indigenous people in La noche de los mayas. Cárdenas' work, however, does not have much to do with this direction in recent Mexican music.
Manuel María Ponce may also come to mind for some connoisseurs. Although he was very receptive to the folk music of his country, Ponce went through a thorough European school (he was taught by the Frenchman Paul Dukas) and preferred a romantic-impressionist, even neoclassical idiom. Cárdenas explicitly refers to this composer, born in 1882 and died in 1948, in several of his productions.
So we can ask ourselves: can there be anyone more alien to us than Sergio Cárdenas, a contemporary composer from Mexico?
He himself simplifies things for us. Because he doesn't stay in the field: he comes to us. (Let's not forget that he was chief conductor of the Hof Symphony Orchestra from 1985-89). As both composer and performer, he alternates between America, Europe and Germany in a cosmopolitan way: Cardenas is an internationalist. His artistic home is not a nation, but the music of the 20th century. Admittedly, the attempt to situate him here requires some circumspection.
The 19th century had its most important epochal style with Romanticism. The 20th century has not made such a "school": in it, the compositional spectrum oscillates between adherence to Romantic traditions, the abolition of tonality and the total dismantling of sound material, to the silencing of music. The work of Sergio Cárdenas also reflects this unfolding in many styles, the alternation or mixture of heterogeneous means of expression, the encounter between traditional and new, experimental models.
We like to ennoble this pluralism in an epochal phenomenon: under the term postmodernism; and we recognize that it hides the danger of superficial arbitrariness. This is why some cultural critics label postmodernism as "recycling". On the other hand, we can be quite neutral about it if we translate "recycling" in a value-free way: as the recovery of something lasting from a cycle. The composer Alfred Schnittke found one of several suitable terms for it: "Polystilism": the diversity of traditional and contemporary modes of writing in simultaneity. Cárdenas knows how to make this abundance fruitful: by providing historical friction in his works, he ensures current tensions between moods.
In this way, he contradicts the overly smug progressive party among artists who consciously refuse to accept the broad public taste with their productions, because they consider it flat, addicted to pleasure, contaminated by commerce. They are the target of the popular prejudice that "modern art" remains fundamentally obscure and elitist. This is a prejudice, because the opposite is also true: all over the world, radio and CD make music available to everyone without interruption, a development that demands a new intelligibility of music. Cárdenas is in this field.
However, he is a "modern" composer. In his works, too, yesterday's basic law of major-minor tonality is often suspended. Dissonance no longer craves resolution and has been completely emancipated in his scores as well. The scores themselves change their face: the CD we have put together to present contains, with the Two Motets for the Feast of Pentecost (2), from 1975, works in graphic notation and with aleatoric elements, that is, random; their interpretations will therefore be different at every moment.
But the composer always returns to the "romantic" ideas of consonance, melody and harmony. He avoids the step backwards towards a "new simplicity", in the sense of Arvo Pärt or Henryk Górecki, for example. Of course, Cárdenas knows the serial techniques of the composer's craft, but he does not submit to their mathematics, hostile to fantasy, but transforms them to his will to express. Because Cárdenas' music expresses: as a purely formal progression it is not enough, it provides information, it takes a position, it tells us stories. In this way, it asserts itself as a "demanding" music: as a music that, by virtue of its substance, demands the unlimited participation of the senses.
As a rule, this type of music is aimed at a concert hall audience. However, Cárdenas, following another trend of the time, overlooks the supposed gap between serious and popular music. In his works he integrates elements of Central American folklore and also "North American" stylistic devices of improvisation, jazz and rock. Sometimes these elements appear in the sound collages as quotations and stand on their own, sometimes they are perfectly integrated into the whole.
The artist does not even hide his rap skills from us. "Voces de los Montes Altos" (3), from his Mexican home state of Tamaulipas, allowed Cárdenas, as the conductor of his own works, to make himself heard in the Freiheitshalle, Hof, a good year ago: André Wilkens strolled through the audience, crossed the podium - the city-famous rapper added his percussive voice to the multitude of orchestral rhythms, propelled the symphonic musicians with his sung mouth work, relaxed with them in brief general pauses - and set off again: a programmed self-abnegation in several attempts. Does the music here adapt with agility to the spirit of the times? Or can it not also be understood as a radical reinvention of the "singing scene" of classical provenance?
Sergio Cárdenas: right in many mounts - no subversive gone mad. The multiformity and multiplicity of his music expresses a will of integration. It poses questions to the world, but does not want to disintegrate it. Man finds himself in it, he does not go astray, he reaches a goal in it. In an era that gives us many reasons to worry, Cárdenas presents a counter-project in search of meaning, carried by an unmistakable tonic of spirit of life and optimism. No work could demonstrate this more clearly than "So I will Hope," the ominous jeremiadic lamentation proclaiming salvation.
Even the seemingly discarded category of beauty finds its place and its rightfulness again. It is true that the vocabulary, as Cárdenas uses it, has nothing to do with pleasing beauty and culinary enjoyment. Rather, it refers -as he admits- to the "honesty" of an artistic restlessness and the free faculty to express it. It corresponds to the "right weight", "that each tone gains in its place and in relation to the other tones". And the artist assures that where sound art can pretend to be beautiful and sincere in this sense, it develops "powerful and irresistible effects", healing and purifying. "There is nothing better for man than music," he sums up his credo. "You just have to give it a chance."
Sergio Cárdenas gives it a chance; and he gives it to those who listen to his music. The works have an independent tonal language of moderate modernity, as well as the trait of direct comprehensibility. However complex this tonal language may be, it does not want to be experienced as a construction, but as an expression. His art is an expressive poetic art, not an official affirmation, but a personal confession. The impulse of faithful proclamation repeatedly enters into his preoccupation - certainly in the spiritual sense, if not so much in the ecclesiastical-liturgical one.
This can be seen not only in the Jeremiah oratorio, but also in the unorthodox and 15 years older version of Psalm 23 (4): "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...", sings the adventurous King David in a moment of comfort. With Cárdenas, however, it is not a man but a woman who sings: he realized the prayer as a "cycle of four religious songs for soprano and orchestra." In many places she adds high strings to the high voice; and even the full orchestra is conducted in large parts almost like chamber music. Behavior is the starting point in the first "Lied," as well as in the fourth finale, with its extended instrumental prelude. Cárdenas makes not only the sung word, but also the spoken word, the vehicle of musical expression; proclamation occurs not only as sung text, but also as textless sound. The 31-year-old has already calculated the sound and color of this first work with great sensitivity; the atmospheres are subtly condensed in it.
Nor is the Psalm without explosions and eruptions of sound; yet even in its violent passages it asserts itself as a lyrical statement in its basic tenor, while the more epic So I will hope, with its unique inner development and the breadth of its outer development, focuses on "action." Drama unfolds in both works, each in its own way.
The Psalm: a solo spiritual cantata? Jeremiah's Lamentations, an oratorio? We should not overlook the fact that Cardenas subtitled the deliberately terse and vague song of lament and hope simply as "music." It is sacred and vocal symphonic music of a type that has little to do with the templates of the 18th and 19th centuries. For the sacred chants of the CD Enturia, the composer uses the forms of the motet, the chorale, the madrigal, but he does not simply reaffirm them, he transforms them: he makes them his own. Cárdenas clings to the idea of the work as something complete and self-contained; but just as the boundaries between genres and genres have blurred beyond recognition since the twentieth century, he himself keeps them open.
"Music," then, as the most complete, most meaningful, most indisputable designation of a work of musical art: it makes one think all the way back to Béla Bartók's music for stringed instruments, percussion and celesta, or Rudi Stephan's music (for violin, for orchestra) - why not go all the way to Handel's Water Music? Cárdenas again uses the terse name, for a work that at least has in common with Jeremiah's "music" the fact that it features a baritone as vocal soloist and carries the confessional "I" in its title. Oigo latir la luz (5) is the title of the cycle completed in 1999, which translates seven poems by Mexican Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz into brittle tones; a song cycle, in other words - but at the same time a piece of established chamber music. It is situated between textuality and absolute music, and with its sharp diction, rich in ruptures and savoring extreme dissonances, it is undoubtedly one of the most advanced creations in Cárdenas' catalog of works.
The vocal part, clarinet, viola and double bass act independently in many cases; temporarily they join together, only to drift apart again shortly afterwards. The baritone soloist has to venture into the higher registers of tenor and bass, and sometimes even fall into grunts, gasps, whispers: then he himself becomes an "instrument" beyond language. Paz's poetry murmurs in a closed, mournful and nebulous way; consequently, Cárdenas's music is also unreal and difficult to understand. He renounces everything superficially pleasant and conciliatory, he reflects - as is characteristic of chamber music - on its structures, he withdraws into reflection. In doing so, many things occur to him that might sound uncomfortable to a casual listener.
And yet he is not afraid to illustrate: enigmatically, he lets the titular heartbeat pulse, and the subsequent breaths sigh, oppressively heavy. At one moment the music parodies a waltz, at another - at the end - it disintegrates into fragile, pale slivers of light and shadow. At one point, the vocal-instrumental dialogue is reduced to a vocal line, driven by the viola's pizzicati; then the baritone insists with a syncopated, angularly rhythmic chant in the manner of rap music, a stylistic borrowing we already know from Voces de los Montes Altos.
Songs, lyrics, poetry: once again, as so often, Cárdenas is concerned with direct expression, with the message. Once again, Cárdenas tells one of his stories - this time surprisingly dark - but he does not commit himself to the idea that this must always be done directly and unambiguously. Anything chatty and redundantly fabricated is far from him. In his settings of Paz (the Enturia CD contains another, by the way), he gives the listener reports whose content and meaning bloom in obscurity, remain in obscurity. He never quite clarifies the "fog" of which, among other things, he sings. And yet this music, despite its fragility, does not renounce its most important essence: vivacity, pictorial power.
Cárdenas often links his musical art to the word. It is not surprising that the "absolute music" of his instrumental works does not stray far from "abstract" music. It remains, so to speak, representational, acting, narrating, with a sonorous discourse.
Not for nothing does it speak of Cárdenas' Latin American origins - in this, too, following a distinctive feature of music in the 20th century: it was precisely in this that authentic folklore, folk art of the grown-up, unaffected kind, found its way into art music as never before. Examples of this are, on the new CD, the opening "melody" Aleluya, Alelú (6) - or two smaller, but effective orchestral pieces. One of them is 1987's Saludo Tamaulipeco (7) - an acoustic postcard of that native district, whose "high mountains" are the subject of the rap composition already sketched. First the bass drum, then the Indian drum, then the drone of flutes and clarinets introduce us to a brass band, soon the mood changes to juicy-sweet, and strings and brass intone a waltz.... El Queretano (8) another dance, a so-called huapango, brilliantly orchestrated, behaves like a decorative orchestral étude. Lively, noisy themes and foreign motifs are used here by Cárdenas (specifically by Guillén and Bermejo), just as he makes no secret of his admiration for fellow composers.
Thus, the emotional string fantasy Marchita el alma (9), from 1991, is based on a theme by Antonio Zúñiga. But, in particular, the aforementioned Manuel María Ponce, one of his country's most important composers, appears in Cárdenas' work: for example, in a small tetralogy of miniatures for strings from the 1990s, among which is a lighthearted Mexican Scherzino (10) and also, as a playfully melancholic counterpart, a "song without words" for cello under the renounced album title "Malgré tout" (11 ), all subtle chats in the tone of the elegant salon.
"Bagatelles" these things may be called - a designation which, as is well known, has tradition in classical-romantic music and implies nothing pejorative. Departing from those thoroughly romantic-tonal productions for the easy-listening shelf, we can move to a more significant field of tension: to a place where the composition makes sense, while being comprehensible in expression, with modernisms kept at bay, similar to what Dmitri Shostakovich did, to name just one of the greats.
The path leads to that enigmatic suite from 1998, which bears the enigmatic title of "Material no Abrasivo" and whose movement titles, read one after the other, seem almost like a fragment of a cryptic poem by Octavio Paz: Humo azul en la penumbra (12), Leyenda de la luna llena (13), Vitalidad ranchera (14). All three are nocturnal pieces: of subdued rhythm, sparing in energy, of somber and often nuanced colors, interrupted by moments of pause and reflection, of search perhaps. The solo violin, and later the solo viola, venture without ever completely abandoning the tightly enclosed sound frame of the string ensemble. The emotions that build up and relax here and sink into temporary anguish no longer have anything conventional or pleasurable about them, but find their own credible intensity, and certainly not necessarily redemption in the happy ending.
An impressive atmospheric artistry: Sergio Cárdenas deploys it here with comparatively modest and superbly mastered material. Above all, he does so through ingenious climaxes, a strange restraint in time. At times - and especially in the central piece - it is reminiscent of the German-American Claus Ogermann and his "postmodern" lyrical search for beauty in innocence. These are by no means trifles, cultivated musical trifles.
Not even in the one-movement fantasy Mensajero Alado (Winged Messenger) (15), for flute and strings from 1997, but its creator called it a "trifle." What kind of messenger is it, I wonder - a butterfly or a bird? Or is it a messenger from God and heaven, a seraph or a cherub? In any case, he is in a hurry: carried swiftly as if by the impulse of the wind, the flute formulates the message ethereally, vaporous, fleeting, yet full of courage and importance, earnest yet companionable. In a far-reaching cadenza, it leaves its stringed accompanists behind, slowing down, widening its tonal space, extending its voice like a breath of great importance.
Material no Abrasivo, Mensajero Alado... it is no accident that Cárdenas gave works like these such evocative titles. He labeled them with words that, by their combination, seem to pose a question and, as an answer, demand from the listener the will to play a mental game; or that evoke in him pictorial and moving ideas. Close to program music, this "absolute music" is intentionally situated and thus sustained by the fact that it too has a material, a plot, possibly even a message, an appeal within itself, even if it does not address it to us with the authority of a King David, the emphasis of a Jeremiah.
So let's listen to Sergio Cárdenas and his music: let's listen to a story. Not all prophets announce disaster, and among the messengers some are as kind as angels.
*Michael Thumser is cultural editor of the newspaper "Frankenpost", Hof/Germany. 30/06/2001
Links to the Works referred to:
1.- SO I WILL HOPE:
2.- DOS MOTETES PARA LA FIESTA DE PENTECOSTÉS:
I) Gloria a Dios en las alturas
II) Y en la tierra, paz :
3.- VOCES DE LOS MONTES ALTOS:
4.- SALMO XXIII : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0_l1_feg_I
5.- OIGO LATIR LA LUZ : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-3QvWVTxxQ&t=8s
6.- ALELUYA, ALELÚ: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRy6pQZj_ho&t=30s
7.- SALUDO TAMAULIPECO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ge-e7xCQfdA&t=41s
8.- EL QUERETANO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k81mb81nZwM&t=6s
9.- MARCHITA EL ALMA : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWfgkJGLPPE&t=8s
10.- SCHERZINO MEXICANO:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iaNa0INdWtY (incluye GAVOTA)
11.- MALGRÉ TOUT: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BJCmqn4qow
MATERIAL NO ABRASIVO:
12.- HUMO AZUL EN LA PENUMBRA:
13.- LEYENDA DE LA LUNA LLENA:
14.- VITALIDAD RANCHERA:
15.- MENSAJERO ALADO:
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