Female Latin American Composers of Chamber Music in the U.S.

Although chamber music composition in the Americas is still a field largely populated by men, there are nevertheless encouraging signs that this tendency is changing; indeed, since about the 1990s there are increasingly more Latin American women who are gaining prominence and recognition as composers. In this article, I would like to review the contributions of five composers, Tania León, Angélica Negrón, Ileana Pérez Velázquez, Alba Fernanda Triana and Adriana Verdié, all of whom are currently residing in the United States.

Although in alphabetical order, the first name on this list, however reordered, would be Tania León. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1943, León settled in New York after having earned a master’s degree from Cuba’s National Conservatory. In addition to her activities as a composer and conductor, she participated in the formation of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and founded the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series. Since 2010, her “Composers Now” festival has organized collaborative performances and innovative events in New York City. She has been honored by lifetime achievement awards, Guggenheim fellowships and Grammy nominations, among other awards.

Her catalog of over two-dozen works for chamber ensembles includes conventional combinations of winds or strings as well more unusual conformations. Many of them reveal the influence of her Cuban origin. Her brass quintet, Saoko (1997), for example, is named for a Cuban drink made of rum and cocoa. “Like many alcohol-inspired compositions, ‘Saoko,’” León says, “staggers and trips over itself, shouting (literally) as it makes its way home.” In the liner notes of its release on compact disk in 2008, she explains that as “the sonic concoction swirls towards the end, the players literally let out a ‘saoko’ celebratory toast.”

Born in 1958, Argentinean composer Adriana Verdié is on the composition faculty of the California State University Long Beach. She holds degrees from the University of Cuyo in Argentina and the University of California, Berkeley. Her music has been featured at numerous festivals, such as the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and Oregon’s Ernest Bloch Festival. Critic Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times has described her music as “compelling and original,” and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Allan Ulrich has favorably compared her piece, Flute 3.2.4, with Varèse’s Density 21.5 in “its vivid exploration of this instrument’s capabilities.”

Composed in 2009, Verdié’s O.C.T.E.T. for brass ensemble (three trumpets, horn, three trombones and tuba) is in five movements. The not-very-descriptive subtitle of each one (“Only…,” “Could be… (bagpipes),” “Though…,” “Even if…,” and “Then”) begins with each successive letter of the word “octet.” However, in keeping with these rather enigmatic titles, the composer has mainly chosen to not develop any specific musical idea; rather, the focus seems to be on the exploitation of the range of color and timbre that these four brass instruments are capable of producing. For example, in the third movement Verdié juxtaposes sharp, hammer-like strokes in forte in the outer and middle voices of the ensemble with Harmon muted machine gun like notes played by one trumpet and a short but soft scalar fragment played by two trombones.

Ileana Pérez Velázquez (1964-) has been on the faculty of Williams College in Massachusetts for the past fifteen years. Prior to immigrating to the United States in 1993, she graduated from the Instituto Superior de las Artes (now known as the Universidad de las Artes) in her native Cuba. She later received her master’s degree from Dartmouth College, and as a Cintas Fellow in Composition was awarded a D.M.A. in 2000. Her richly harmonic and rhythmically intricate musical style is inspired by her Cuban heritage, and though perhaps challenging for performer and listener is nevertheless deeply expressive and poignantly evocative.

Since composing her first work for piano trio in 1986 Pérez Velázquez has put together an impressive catalog of works in the chamber music genre. One of her most recent compositions for string quartet, Alma de güije (Guije’s Soul), was written in 2012. The composer explains: “El güije is a character from Cuban mythology that behaves like a goblin; he is capricious and mischievous. There are many testimonials that support the existence of this creature in the northern and central regions of Cuba, usually in the dense forests and brooks. Although el güije is respected and even feared by many Cubans that live in the countryside, there are no stories that corroborate that he has done any real damage to anyone. Perhaps its only ‘fault’ is to look and behave differently than the rest of us. I was always fascinated by this Cuban goblin while I was growing up. Today, what I see as a güije’s soul served as a source of inspiration for my composition.”

Premiered May 30, 2013 at the Americas Society in New York by the Momenta Quartet, the work was performed the following year by this quartet during New York City’s “Composers Now Festival” at Firehouse Space in Brooklyn on February 20.

Pérez Velázquez, El güije (mp3).

A constant interest in the expansion of the meaning of composition, performance and aesthetic experience has allowed Alba Fernanda Triana to embrace the technological developments she has encountered and freely appropriate elements from different artistic, scientific and philosophical disciplines. This is reflected in a difficult-to-classify, hybrid musical production, which takes the form of unconventional and varied structures ranging from concert music to interactive installations or vibrational objects.

Born in 1969, Triana earned her Bachelor’s degree at Javeriana University in Colombia, where she was recognized for her academic excellence. As a Mazda and Fulbright scholar, she obtained a double emphasis Master’s degree at CalArts, and began her Ph.D. studies at UCSD. After working as college professor and consultant for the Colombian Ministry of Culture, she has fully dedicated herself to a career in composition.

Composed in 2000 and premiered that year by Jessica Catron at the California Institute of the Arts, Antifony, for unaccompanied cello, confronts contradictory characteristics of expressiveness and indiscernible forms of perception that are contrasted with clearly identifiable passages and different harmonies and colorful timbres. The work’s sonorities are organized along two levels, the first of which is more immediate and comprises the notes played by the cellist; the second consists of an elaboration of fluctuating resonances, like clusters in movement around the notes generated by the first level. To put it a different way, after a performance in 2002 by Michal Schmidt, critic Cecelia Porter noted that Triana’s Antiphony “transformed the sonic riches of a solo cello into a dialogue of many voices.”1)Cecelia Porter, “Performing Arts,” Washington Post, November 21, 2002.

Composer and instrumentalist Angélica Negrón was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1981. Currently based in Brooklyn, she is interested in creating intricate yet simple narratives that evoke intangible moments in time. Her music, which she has written not only for conventional ensembles but also for accordions, toys and electronics, has been described as “wistfully idiosyncratic and contemplative” and “mesmerizing and affecting.” Allan Kozinn of the New York Times has noted her “capacity to surprise” and her “quirky approach to scoring.” In 2011 she was selected by Q2 and NPR listeners as part of “The Mix: 100 Composers under 40” and by Flavorpill as one of the “10 Young Female Composers You Should Know.”

Negrón received an early education in piano and violin at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, where she later studied composition under the guidance of composer Alfonso Fuentes. She holds a master’s degree in music composition from New York University, where she studied with Pedro da Silva and is currently pursuing a doctorate in music composition at The Graduate Center (CUNY), where she studies with Tania León. She has received grants from Meet the Composer (MetLife Creative Connections Program), Foundation for Contemporary Arts (Emergency Grants) and the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, among other organizations.

In the years since 2002 Negrón has composed about a dozen works for chamber ensembles. The most recent of these, Quimbombó (2010), for flute, violin, cello and percussion, was dedicated to and written for the Cadillac Moon Ensemble. In this piece, Negrón “evokes distant personal memories through a festive and celebratory perspective presenting and deconstructing different rhythms and melodic gestures from the Afro-Caribbean tradition of Puerto Rico. The title Quimbombó makes reference to the Puerto Rican stewed okra (a dish introduced to Puerto Rican cooking by African slaves) and also serves as an onomatopoeic reference to a distinctive rhythmic pattern persistently used in the composition. The work explores the percussive possibilities of the melodic instruments of the ensemble as well as the voices of the performers as an extension of their playing and as a direct reference to the vocal gestures of the dancers in the performance of bomba which articulate the spiritual significance of this dance.”

In conclusion, although much of the music of these composers reveals a tendency to incorporate elements from their respective origins, the sample size is too small to make any sort of generalized comment with respect to other aspects of musical style. However, I think it fair to say that each composes with considerable expertise and skill and each has developed the kind of unique musical identity to propel them to well-deserved recognition here in the United States.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Cecelia Porter, “Performing Arts,” Washington Post, November 21, 2002.

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