A Reflection on a Perception

Alcides Lanza (1929-) is an Argentinean composer who has been living in Canada since 1971, when he joined the music faculty of McGill University in Montreal. His extensive catalog includes works for conventional instruments as well as for electronic media of various types.

I am familiar with only one of his compositions, his Tres piezas (1960, Three Pieces), which was composed for unaccompanied clarinet during a period when Lanza was working as répétiteur at the Colon Theater in Buenos Aires. Three years later he applied for advanced professional training in composition at the Torcuato di Tella Institute, which had recently been established under the leadership of Alberto Ginastera.

Like many Latin American composers of his generation, during the 1950s Lanza witnessed a pronounced tension that had been developing around two differing points of view as to the nature and essential characteristic of Latin American classical music. In Argentina, the country in which this tension was particularly pronounced, an antagonistic Juan Carlos Paz (1897-1972) confronted Ginastera and his followers by declaring that the latter’s folkloric approach to musical style was not fit for consumption outside of Argentina. Rather, Paz was convinced that only by adhering to universal vanguardism, such as Schönbergian atonality, would Argentina’s music come to be recognized and appreciated throughout the world.

Although today there no longer seems to be any enmity between composers in Latin America who may happen to follow different stylistic tendencies, more than sixty years after the publication of Paz’s Introducción a la música de nuestro tiempo (1955, Introduction to the Music of Our Time, in which Paz outlined his most strenuous defense of musical vanguardism), the question nevertheless seems to remain the same: what constitutes Latin American classical music? That is, what element or elements serve as undeniable markers of its Latin American-ness?

Interestingly, though, with but a few notable exceptions, the Latin American composers that I know nearly universally agree that there is no identifiable element; rather, as long as a composition has been composed by a Latin American, then that work is Latin American.

However, as someone who occupies the space between Latin American composer and North American performer, I would have to say that at times I get the impression that the performer’s answer—were the question to be asked—would be less decisive.

Why is that?

Comments 2

  • To position himself as a cutting-edge and universal composer in Argentina during the 1940s and 1950s, I find it curious that he chose to practice twelve-tone serialism, which is one of the most characteristic compositional techniques of the European tradition, comparable to counterpoint or tonal harmony. This way of thinking seems to have diminished today, or at least I like to believe that it has. However, as Dr. Walker rightly said, the question remains the same ….

  • Latin American classical music can be many different things and draw on a variety of different musical styles, compositional techniques, and source material, not only from the composer’s home country or the larger Latin American and Caribbean region, but from Europe and other parts of the world. In this sense, I don’t think that asking this question of Latin American should be any different than asking it of composers in other parts of the world. Take the United States, for example. Should American classical music be explicitly defined by specific musical or stylistic elements? If so, then does that mean that people like John Cage should be excluded? Conversely, does that mean that Ives or Copland are too “provincial” to be considered universal composers? Latin America is a diverse and complex place, that includes not only different European, indigenous, and African cultural and musical influences. It also includes a broad variety of different types of musics (popular, folk, traditional, art, etc.) and people of different socio-economic backgrounds. It then stands to reason that there are many different ways of defining what is or is not Latin American music and that these ways are being continually debated and in many cases worked out by composers in their own music.

    It should also be recognized that the expectation that Latin American classical music should have a specific sound or character can at times be imposed from outside Latin America. US audiences, for example, tend to want to hear certain folk or traditional folk musical influences in Latin American music. In recent decades one can say that this stems from a growing interest on multiculturalism and cultural diversity, and there is plenty of excellent music that would in different ways meet those expectations. At the same time, such expectations can tend to, intentionally or not, pigeon hole composers so that people who do not have an easily recognizable “Latin American” style are dismissed or ignored.

    Separating between “Latin American” and “universal” also needs to be questioned, since it suggests that somehow, composers can only be one or the other. As Juan Lopez-Maya points out, many of the styles and techniques that are often called “universal” are European. But, because it is assumed universal, there does not seem to be a similar concern with European composers needing to sound explicitly “European” which sets up a bit of a double-standard. Oliver Messiaen can be regarded simultaneously as universal and to some degree, very French. Furthermore, no one questions his authenticity as a French/European composer when he draws on Indian classical music for example. People, however, have a harder time extending that way of thinking to Latin American composers, creating this impression that sounding “Latin American” is something that they must overcome if they want their music to have universal relevance.

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