Tuesday, October 30, 2018

El Tricentenario: The Music of San Antonio’s 300th Anniversary

By Stefan Greenfield-Casas

San Antonio, TX. Best known as the home of the Alamo, the Spurs, and some of (if not the) best breakfast tacos in the US.<1> (It is also, incidentally, the meeting place of this year’s joint meeting between the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory). The city is currently celebrating its 300th anniversary, and with this Tricentennial have come myriad artistic and cultural projects commissioned by the city to celebrate its rich heritage. Music has been no exception, and a number of pieces have been written in honor of the city’s founding. Drawing on interviews conducted during summer 2018, this essay examines a few of these pieces, especially those connected to two prominent San Antonian artists: composer Ethan Wickman and poet John Phillip Santos.<2>

The origins of these musical projects extend back a few years prior to the Tricentennial with Ethan Wickman’s cantata, Ballads of the Borderlands. Though not officially affiliated with the city’s anniversary at its premiere in February of 2017, the piece still celebrated the history and mythos of San Antonio. For the work, Wickman drew on texts from San Antonian poets, including Carmen Tafolla (San Antonio’s first poet laureate) and John Phillip Santos.<3> When asked how he chose these works, Wickman responded that he was looking for texts that dealt with “identity and assimilation,” but which would also lend themselves to a “mythical, spiritual” narrative. Upon reading Santos’ poem “La Ruta,” Wickman felt an instant connection: “He was thinking on a plane that I was just imagining musically.”<4>

This collaboration between Santos and Wickman led to a Tricentennial event centered around the creative process of Ballads of the Borderland. The two were given a grant by the city to commission other artists to create similarly collaborative pieces. This resulted in the Ballads Educational Initiative, which involved both a mentorship program, as well as the composition of three new songs for San Antonio’s SOLI Chamber Ensemble and the mezzo-soprano Tynan Davis.<5> The songs were created by pairs of UTSA students (San Antonio’s next generation of artists), with texts written by creative writing majors and set by composition majors. The pairings of students included Letslie Aguirre (music) and Eric Pitty (text); Jamail Chachere (music) and Fernanda Covarrubias (text); and Angelo Salgado (music) and Daniela Riojas (text). Wickman envisioned a kind of familial documentary process in these works: “how can your family stories inspire something you make?” Yet, according to the students, they were empowered to adapt this prompt as they saw fit. Riojas, for instance, noted they could connect it “to whatever we wanted to talk about or express in terms of our experience living here or experience even in south Texas or speaking to… the desert landscapes.” How each pair (and indeed, each individual) approached their original piece speaks to their unique stories.

Pitty’s poem for his and Aguirre’s piece, “Dead Horse,” was based on his experiences with death while living in rural south Texas: from the eponymous dead horse, to the abandoned infrastructure and mass murders in and around the town in which he was raised. Pitty noted that he “wanted the landscape itself to serve as a connection between so many painful stories.” To match this feeling, Aguirre composed the music in Messaien’s 7th mode of limited transposition. She noted that even within this framework, she was frequently employing extended tertian chords, and that “even without a pitch center, I kept coming back to an E-flat augmented 7th chord as if it were a chord of resolution.” The two also decided to include a (musical) quote from a border song: “Tragos de Amargo Licor” by the Norteño artist Ramón Ayala.


In contrast to the arid imagery of death and decay in “Dead Horse,” Covarrubias’ poem, “Madre Azul,” tells the tale of a primordial and mythic mother-character. She stated that “I wanted to create a piece where time is not linear, the narrative... of this mother is not linear, where the past, present, and future all coexist and interact with each other in this common space agua… I wanted to demonstrate the idea of how migration is a birth on its own, and how birth can occur at any point. Water is a life source for all, whether that be physical, spiritual, or giving us a chance at a new life.” Though Chachere’s setting of the text is predominantly tonal, the piece cycles through no less than five tonal centers, harmonically suggesting the fluidity of water, of time, and of (familial) migration.

The last piece in this trio of works, “La Tierra de San Antonio,” was created by Angelo Salgado and Daniela Riojas. Similarly to Covarrubias’ text, Riojas’ poem deals with notions of time. She draws attention not only to the 300 years of San Antonio-as-city’s existence, but also to “the land” and “the indigenous people before us… There’s a sacredness here, and if we can pray to that while we celebrate today, then we can sort of move forward more consciously with the two hand in hand.” The process of composition for this piece was somewhat different than that of the other two, in large part because Riojas is the lead singer of the genre-eluding band Femina-X, and brought her experience as band member to the collaboration.[<6> While Salgado (a member of another local band, Mírame) composed the majority of the piece, Riojas contributed her own musical ideas to certain sections which Salgado then incorporated into the composition. Salgado noted in an email that Riojas “having a musical background helped a lot in communicating what sonic soundscapes we wanted to create. Daniela even participated in the creation of the music, she would send me recordings of her singing melodies to the text she wrote and [I] would transcribe it and put it in the piece.” Likely because of the collaborative nature of composition between band members, this level of musical collaboration seemed typical to Riojas (and indeed she seemed surprised when I suggested their piece was unusual in this regard).

These three pieces were premiered at the Institute of Texan Cultures on March 25th, 2018 as part of the Ballads of the Borderland concert series. There was an additional encore performance (which also featured Wickman’s cantata) held at the Basilica of the Little Flower just two days later.


Outside of his collaborations with Wickman, Santos was also asked by the city to write the libretto for an opera dedicated to the newly restored San Pedro Creek. Though he joked that all the operas he had attended “were either by Pete Townsend or Andrew Lloyd Webber,” Santos was familiar enough with LA-based composer Joseph Julian Gonzalez’s Misa Azteca (1997) to approach the composer to write the music: “He was really literate [in the operatic tradition]—an expert in symphonic writing. So he was the natural person to [approach].”<7> The collaboration with Gonzalez (as well as Gonzalez’ wife, Monique Gonzalez) led to the creation of Las Fundaciones de Béjar: A Mythic Opera on the Founding of San Antonio de Béxar. The first act of the opera was premiered on September 8th, 2016; it features a Wagnerian sabor regarding its narrative: a kind of creation myth about the creek’s deity (the “Lady of the Creek”) and her relation to the mortals who would settle on her banks.<8> As a whole, Santos noted that the opera “is very much about origins and early emergence.” The rest of the opera is planned to be premiered sometime this year.

Other musical projects for the Tricentennial outside of Wickman and Santos’ projects and collaborations include works by James Syler and George Cisneros. Syler was commissioned by the San Antonio Choral Society to write El Camino de las Misiones (premiered on May 20th, 2018 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower). The five-movement work musically explores the five Spanish missions in San Antonio (of which the Alamo is most likely to be “remembered”). Outside of the concert hall, musician George Cisneros has a sound and video installation entitled “The Cacophony” currently on display (on loop) at The Witte Museum. The piece, described as a tone poem, is comprised of recordings Cisneros has taken all throughout San Antonio, played across 16 channels, along with six video projections. In my own time listening to the installation, I heard everything from songs of prayer to the roar of planes flying overhead; ringing church bells to a solo violin—not to mention the sounds of guests of the museum walking through the installation, talking amongst themselves.<9>


Early in his first memoir, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, John Phillip Santos poses a set of quasi-rhetorical questions: “Where did our forebears come from and what have we amounted to in this world? Where have we come to in the span of all time, and where are we headed, like an arrow shot long ago into infinite empty space? What messages and markings of the ancient past do we carry in these handed-down bodies we live in today?”<10> Many of the pieces written for San Antonio’s Tricentennial have similar preoccupations. They meditate on, elaborate upon, question, and critique the histories and myths of San Antonio and South Texas. Though there is a definite awareness of the past in these projects—from the familial and familiar to the ancestral and mythic—there is also a focus on the future of San Antonio in the hands of its buddings artists. Though the arrow of Santos’ forebears was “shot long ago,” it continues on through the legacy of its next generation, simultaneously bound up with(in) the past, present, and future.
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<1>Unlike their northern neighbor-city, Austin—which has joked about growing breakfast tacos in a lab—San Antonio takes the quality of its breakfast tacos quite seriously.
<2>In addition to his writings (both poetic and prosaic), Santos has worked as a documentary film maker, a “South Texas Geomancer,” and is currently the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Distinguished Scholar in Mestizo Studies. He was also the 2017 Texas Medal of Arts in Literature honoree.
<3>Both poets came at the suggestion of one of Wickman’s colleagues in the English department at UTSA.
<4>See John Phillip Santos, “La Ruta,” in Songs Older Than Any Known Singer: Selected and New Poems, 1974-2006 (San Antonio: Wings Press, 2008), 108. This poem would eventually become the text for the second movement of Wickman’s Ballads (the first movement with text).
<5>These musicians were among the core performers who premiered Wickman’s cantata in 2016.
<6>Riojas is a multidisciplinary artist, focusing not only on writing and music, but also photography and performance as well. Indeed, while not officially associated with the Tricentennial, Riojas’s band has released two music videos this year focusing on San Antonio—both its mythic past (“Black Tongue”) and historical present (“Las Caderas”).
<7>It might be worth noting that Santos had not yet met Wickman when he was asked to take on this project.
<8>Though not premiered in 2018, Santos noted the premiere was still considered a Tricentennial event, suggesting a kind of “long Tricentennial.”
<9>Specific compositions that were imported included the Star-Spangled Banner, Amazing Grace, The Yellow Rose of Texas, and “Is Anybody Going to San Antone?”
<10>John Phillip Santos, Places Left Finished at the Time of Creation (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 9.
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Stefan Greenfield-Casas grew up in San Antonio, TX. He holds a BMus with Highest Honors from the University of Texas at San Antonio, an MM in music theory from The University of Texas at Austin, and is currently a PhD student in music theory and cognition at Northwestern University. His research interests include ludomusicology, critical theory, and the relationship between music, myth, and (pop/mass/trans-)media epics. He has previously presented on these topics (amongst others) at a number of conferences, including meetings of the Texas Society for Music Theory, Music and the Moving Image, and the North American Conference on Video Game Music.

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