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A New Music Journey From The U.S. To Havana

Composer Patrick Castillo leads the Third Sound ensemble in a Havana performance in November 2015.
Anastasia Tsioulcas/NPR
Composer Patrick Castillo leads the Third Sound ensemble in a Havana performance in November 2015.

When you think of Cuban music, contemporary classical most likely isn't the first — or possibly even fifth — genre that springs to mind. But a group of American composers and musicians couldn't resist an opportunity to travel to the island to present their own music and seek out their Cuban colleagues' work — and frankly, neither could I. We traveled together last month to the Havana Festival of Contemporary Music, for the event's 28th edition.

This American delegation of 10 composers and six instrumentalists was put together under the auspices of the Saint Paul, M.N.-based American Composers Forum. The Havana festival is a week-long series of concerts organized by UNEAC (La Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba), the country's official association for writers, artists and musicians, which is headed by composer and conductor Guido López-Gavilán.

New York-based composer Patrick Castillo (who also serves as the vice chair of ACF's board of directors) attended this festival in Havana in 2014, when two of his pieces were performed as part of a program of music from the U.S. He was the one American composer who was able to travel down for the 2014 edition — just weeks before President Obama announced plans to begin normalizing relations with Cuba. "I was a delegation of one!" Castillo says.

While Castillo was in Havana in 2014, he says, López-Gavilán suggested that ACF and the Cuban festival create an ongoing relationship: "He said to me numerous times that he hoped that next year all of ACF's composers could come."

"I said, 'I don't think that you want all 2,000-plus composers to come down to Cuba!" Castillo recalls saying. But within that misunderstanding, an idea germinated — and quickly picked up speed.

Castillo was at that point putting together a chamber ensemble called Third Sound (with Sooyun Kim, flute; Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet; Karen Kim, violin; Michael Nicolas, cello; Orion Weiss, piano; and Castillo as composer and managing director) that could deftly handle new music as well as more canonical works. Smartly, the size and range of the group meant that Third Sound could bring a real variety of textures and sounds with them to Havana, from a movement from ACF president Libby Larsen's intimate Dancing Solo for clarinet to Michael Harrison's gargantuan-sounding piece for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and sine waves called Radians Phase II.

ACF put out a call in the spring for composers to submit scores that Third Sound could bring to the 2015 edition of the Havana festival, with the intention of having all 10 composers come along to Cuba this time around. The Americans would put on a concert Nov. 17 at the 18th-century Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís, right in the city's historic center.

The Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís in Havana.
Roberto Machado Noa / LightRocket via Getty Images
LightRocket via Getty Images
The Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís in Havana.

In many regards, a dialogue between U.S. and Cuban composers isn't new — it's a restoration of a much older exchange. In the early decades of the 20th century, Cuban composers like Amadeo Roldán and Alejandro García Caturla corresponded with American contemporaries, including Charles Ives and Henry Cowell. Cowell went to Havana to give performances in 1930; back in the States, he also published and performed Caturla's music, as well as giving concerts of Roldán's music. After George Gershwin traveled to Cuba in 1932, he wrote his Cuban Overture.

Conductor Leopold Stokowski and composer and critic Nicolas Slonimsky were also particular champions of Caturla; Slonimsky, in his inimitable fashion, wrote in an article for the Boston Evening Transcript of the Cuban arts community: "Young musicians in Cuba are much more alert to the possibilities of new music than their sterilized colleagues elsewhere. The Philharmonic Orchestra of Havana under Amadeo Roldán has performed more modern music, including modern Americans, than the Philharmonic of New York ever will."

Back in our own time, however, that flood of correspondence and communication has mostly dried up. ACF discovered that their American composer members had a real thirst to understand Cuba better: after putting out its invitation for submissions, the organization received more than 400 scores.

"When you pick 10 out of that many, it's not like the 10th-best score is light years better than the 11th-best," Castillo says. "There were easily 20, 30, 40 pieces that we would have been very happy to have represent new American music in this international setting."

The ones Third Sound selected formed a very complementary program, but also represented a wide diversity of aesthetics and backgrounds. The 10 composers came from all over the U.S., are at very different points in their careers and have varying degrees of public exposure — from students to a Pulitzer Prize winner, Jennifer Higdon. And 40 percent of the composers chosen were women.

"In Cuba, they swim in it — a giant pool of cultural sound."

"All of that was a happy accident," Castillo says. "We didn't ask for anonymous submissions. But we really went about it from a very purist point of view, choosing just the pieces we were most compelled by, and what we most wanted to present."

Before his first trip to Cuba, Castillo remembers, he was advised by a colleague who had traveled there numerous times that he should think about bringing scores and CDs — not just of his own work, but of other contemporary American composers as well. "The most recent American music that a lot of those guys down there have had access to," Castillo says his colleague told him, "is Copland."

"So I went there the first time with this fantasy," says Castillo, "that I was going to go down there like Prometheus, coming down to Cuba with Music for 18 Musicians, and set the scene on fire with things that they had never heard."

Flutist Sooyun Kim and violinist Karen Kim perform at their Havana concert in November 2015.
Anastasia Tsioulcas / NPR
Flutist Sooyun Kim and violinist Karen Kim perform at their Havana concert in November 2015.

"And that wasn't really true," he adds quickly. "The economic and social and cultural isolation has, it seems to me, prevented some things from getting in, but not everything from getting in. For example, I met a young Cuban composer, who must have been 16 or 17 years old, and he had written a piece for two flutes called Homenaje a Philip Glass (Homage to Philip Glass), which I thought was a fabulous piece of music that stands shoulder to shoulder of anything by Philip Glass or anybody else in the United States today. But he hasn't heard everything by all the American minimalists, I can say that with certainty."

But what could the American composers and musicians learn from their Cuban counterparts? "In both directions," Castillo says, "it's a tricky equation to talk about. The fact of the matter is that we have so much more access here than our colleagues in Cuba do. But the ensemble and I, and the composers too, were all very sensitive to not going in with the attitude of 'We're going to teach you how to do new music.'"

"What we saw was that in spite of not having access to, you know, strings, and reeds, and good instruments, and things like that," Castillo says, "our colleagues there have created music of such vitality, and such imagination and resourcefulness." The entire group was also asked to consider bringing items like strings, bridges, manuscript paper and office supplies along as gifts, because access to such essential goods is severely restricted due to the trade embargo that has been in place for more than 50 years.

None of the 10 composers selected to participate had visited Cuba before. And none knew much about the sound of Cuban contemporary classical music, since there is very little material available online or on recordings of works by composers living and working in Cuba today (with the exception of an internationally renowned figure like Leo Brouwer). So the musicians were heading to Cuba with a scant sense of what to expect — as well as a whole lot of anticipation.

One of the American composers was Amadeus Regucera from Oakland, Calif., who brought his dreamlike Inexpressible for flute, violin and cello. (A Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, Regucera was not the only Berkeleyite to go to Havana; the chair of UC Berkeley's music department, Cindy Cox, was also chosen for her piano trio called Wave I.)

Regucera wasn't sure how his work would come across in Havana: "I had the feeling that the music I write would be a little strange, or at least received with a little bit of confusion, because it's received with a little bit of confusion in the States!" he says, smiling. "But I was wrong — the audience was very enthusiastic. And at the performance, I was sitting next to a young Cuban composer. Immediately after the piece, she turned to me, and started asking questions, gave me her card, and asked if I would stay in touch with her. At intermission, a group of composers came up to me, and began asking about my notation and if they could see my score."

Higdon, whose wildly whirling Smash ended the concert, says she found a lot of vitality — and a very strong influence of jazz — in the Cuban contemporary music she heard. "Nothing seemed to be too quiet or melancholy," she says. "I heard a lot of very active rhythms, and always a lot of movement."

"Rhythm would probably be their first priority, from what I've now heard," Higdon says. "There's also much more melody present than what you would find in a lot of American music right now. And it didn't sound to me like anyone used systems — they were writing pretty much in tonal schemes, in fairly traditional key changes and established forms."

What Higdon says she came away with was a deeper understanding of how music is such a vital part of daily life and its rhythms in Havana. "What I realized from staying not in a hotel, but in a private home, is that you can hear music playing all day and all night — rhumba, for example, and I heard someone playing beautiful classical guitar in a Spanish style yesterday — it's constant.

"So I realized that the composers who have grown up here may have access to music from outside this world, but the soundtrack of their every day, from their earliest infant days, has this kind of Latin rhythm thing going. For a composer, that infiltrates your brain and influences how you think about things."

That's an opinion shared by fellow American composer Spencer Topel, an assistant professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., whose luminescent Details on the Strasbourg Rosace for the full ensemble was included on the program.

You just look around Cuba — rhythm is everywhere. Movement is everywhere."

Topel wondered before the ACF composers' concert how much he and his colleagues' aesthetic priorities diverged from those of the Cuban musicians. "I had sort of a premonition of this the day before, when I went to a concert of Cuban contemporary music," he says, "and so much of the music has these continuous rhythm sections. And you just look around Cuba — rhythm is everywhere. Movement is everywhere. And these things are so intrinsically tied together. And those rhythms are very intricate. And so my first thought was, 'Oh, boy. My piece has literally no big rhythm sections in it. They're going to just absolutely hate my music!'" he says, laughing.

"Here, these rhythms have very specific meanings," Topel continues. "I feel like I'm having some glimpse into some old part of European culture, when they knew that if they heard a bourrée, or a gigue, they would dance differently — they would suddenly switch. It's the same when Cubans suddenly hear a rhumba, for example; they dance differently. People start moving their bodies in a different way, with a different dance step, almost automatically. And that kind of connection between movement and rhythm, and rhythmic patterns, is really profound."

Higdon says that what this trip underscored to her was how much music and art is valued in Cuba — and how much music figures into Cuban life not just as entertainment, but as an intrinsic part of daily life profoundly bound to the country's long and multilayered heritage.

"Absolutely everyone here, it seems, whether they dance, or play an instrument," Higdon observes, "everyone is keyed into the native culture. Culture is so big here — I don't think you have pockets of people who aren't aware. It's such a shared experience, and it's kind of their DNA from such an early age. For example, with the [batá] drumming, the understanding of what each of the drumming patterns represents, in terms of the god [orisha] or who they're paying tribute to, and how the drumming patterns interlock, I found that utterly fascinating."

Higdon says her experiences in Havana offered an interesting counterpoint to her perceptions as an artist in her own country. "I don't know that we have such a huge cultural identity in the United States," she says. "We're much more diverse and spread out, and things might even change regionally. But in Cuba, they swim in it — a giant pool of cultural sound. And the other thing is they all celebrate the arts. It is so extraordinarily valued here, and it's very obvious that it is so. And there is so much joy in their music-making — I thought, 'Oh, this is what music-making is supposed to be — a very joyful experience.' I feel like in Cuba, people know that it's a really necessary part of life. Sometimes, I think we lose sight of that. It reminds me that it's a privilege to work in the arts."

You can hear most of the works presented by Third Sound at the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Havana right here. And Third Sound plans to repeat the program in January in New York at St. Bartholomew's Church, and they are also contemplating recording all the pieces.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.