THE BAKERSFIELD SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
In 2008 I was invited to bring MEXICA instruments,
to coach and perform percussion parts for
Silvestre Revueltas SENSEMAYA(1936)
Carlos Chavez SINFONIA INDIA (1937)
with the BAKERSFIELD SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA percussion section.
Compositions originally composed for symphony orchestra and indigenous
percussion instruments of Mexico.
The composers had realized that most orchestras might not have the MEXICA
instruments so traditional symphonic percussion instruments were suggested
to be used in their place
a xylophone instead of a teponaztli,
a tenor drum instead of a Huehuetl etc.
Jerome Kleinsasser of the BSO did a google search and found that that not only
did these instruments still exist but that I was part of a duo performing traditional
and new music on instruments of the indigenous MEXICA in Los Angeles and that
I could also read and write western notation and had practical performance experience
with chamber music and orchestras.
(Most indigena musicians are not trained in the traditional western sense,
they are trained by rote in the ancient traditions still used by Africa, China,
India, Japan, Mexico and countless other countries where you sit across from
your teacher and play back at them what they play for you, the information is
not notated. )
Most orchestras usually rent the instruments and have their percussionists play them,
but Jerome Kleinsasser insisted that we bring the instruments and coach the percussion
section. (MEXICA instruments do not respond in the same way traditional western percussion
instruments do to sticks, hands and mallets, the techniques are quite different.)
The percussion section was led by Ernie Cervantes and the day before the performance
we rehearsed the piece with the MEXICA percussion instruments and the BSO percussion section.
The next day at the dress rehearsal conductor John Farrar actually stopped the orchestra as soon
as we started playing the indigenous instruments. While he had performed the piece several times
in the last few years he had never done so with the actual instruments and he literally stopped conducting
and asked "what was that sound?" as it was more than different to his ears. Mr Kleinsasser explained to him
and we went on with the rehearsals and performed to over 2500 in attendance the following day. I was
also asked to give a short lecture on the pieces before the concert by Jerome Kleinsasser.
COMPOSER JOSEPH JULIAN GONZALEZ MISA AZTECA
Forward to 2011 when composer Joseph Julian Gonzalez asked if I would work with him and
perform the huehuetl part for his composition MISA AZTECA @ Walt Disney concert Hall.
Joseph and I had been working together and he was getting new ideas for the percussion parts
after he saw a few rehearsals and performances and he was getting more and more comfortable
with the vernacular of the drumming. MISA AZTECA is always a huge success and has been performed
at Sydney Opera House in Australia, Mexico City, and in Carnegie Hall in New York City and Paris.
While I am more than grateful for these opportunities I came to realize that while there is music
written for these instruments performing opportunities are few and far between.
I had been told of QUINTETO LATINO, based in San Jose and the great work that they were doing
and I contacted their musical director, and French Horn player, Armando Castellano about a possible
After 2 or 3 years of communications we finally decided to move forward. While I have composed and
arranged music for years for various ensembles I had never done so for MEXICA instruments and woodwind quintet. So we talked about the possibilities and our expectations.
He informed me that every note would have to be written, rehearsed etc., and I went to work. At first
I immersed myself in woodwind repertoire to hear what others had composed and after many months
of listening to woodwind quintet music I realized that the sound I was hearing in my head had very little
to do with anything I had been listening to.
How could it?, there has never been music written by performer/composers prior to this and there was
no sonic template for MEXICA instruments and woodwind quintet to listen to.
I have been a working musician since 1975, and continue to work with various percussion instruments
from Africa, India, Japan and their musical culture and traditions. In 2005 I was invited to make music
on MEXICA instruments and when I considered writing for them I at first started very analytically and
objectively by writing down the notes of every flute, bamboo, bone or clay every teponaztli and every huehuetl
and every conch shell that we had at our disposal and documenting that to see what I had to work with and what would work with QUINTETO.
Once this was done and I started analyzing possible tone rows etc., and I slowly came to realize that the approach was less than organic.
So I changed my approach.
I went back and listened to various performances that MEXIKA had performed over the years, and I transcribed some of the melodies in western notation from various improvisation, then I started to re-shuffle,
re-imagine and re-arrange these melodic cells into different settings. Once I had the melodies I then sang parts that worked in my head with them and I proceeded to write them down for QUINTETO LATINO.
Some of the melodies are harmonized in the traditional western sense, some of them are not. MEXICA musicians play double, triple and quadruple flutes, where one person can play as many as four parts simultaneiously. Sometimes the intervals with one flute are identical but displaced so flute pipe C is a 4th, 5th or ? away from flute pipe A and flute pipe B is a drone note = 1 pitch.
With this in mind the additional melodic parts came quickly. I also listened to various Mexican composers who attempted the same thing with these instruments. The big difference is that I was not getting an instrument for the first time and seeing what it could do, I was blessed to have practical experience of making music on these instruments for several years. Some of the rhythms employed are based on traditional MEXICA danza rhythms, which are usually AB form e.g., 4 bars of A and then four bars of B repeated for the length of the danza and contain little to no improvisation in regards to form.
Because of the practical experience of making music on these instrument in various formats
percussion and flutes
percussion flutes and dancers
percussion with chamber and symphony orchestras
I was comfortable writing for them and knew that it could be done and that I am blessed to be at this moment
in time and have people more than willing and able to attempt what we had never done before.
The words of Charles Ives continually came to mind when I was composing,
"What does SOUND have to do with music"
The SOUND in my head was everything to me but I had to write it down on paper and
have people play it in order to bring it to LIFE.
The SOUND had very little to do with the "tools" of composition, counterpoint, harmony, retrograde, etc.,
and while it may be limited to what I hear, it is organic and true to my beingness
and my personal experience playing this music
While I had been instructed to write down every note for QUINTETO the more I spoke to Armando
he suggested I try anything and everything I would like to.
Here are a few of the things that happened because of this openness not usually associated with a "classical" ensemble
- they changed the way they traditionally perform,
instead of sitting down in a horseshoe configuration,
they actually stood in a straight line for the entire performance
- they all played conch shells for the opening piece
an instrument none of them had ever played before
- they "improvised" in some of the pieces,
most "classical players" do not improvise and when they do it is usually "texturally" and not melodically
QUINTETO did both
- they played percussion instruments they had never seen before and switched back and forth
between their instruments and MEXICA instruments
- they jumped in where they had never jumped before
and from what I understand they are still utilizing all of the above in different formats
KUDOS to Armando Castellano and QUINTETO LATINO for taking the chance
and MAKING the opportunity to go where none of us had thought possible