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Alexis Cuadrado's 'A Lorca Soundscape' On JazzSet

Alexis Cuadrado sets surrealist Spanish poems to music in a concert at 92Y Tribeca.
John Rogers for NPR
Alexis Cuadrado sets surrealist Spanish poems to music in a concert at 92Y Tribeca.

It began with the crisis on Wall Street in 2008. Alexis Cuadrado, from Barcelona and now Brooklyn, remembered the poetry of the surrealist Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936), whom all Spanish students study in school.

In 1929, Lorca took a self-declared sabbatical from his life in Spain to New York, where the Hispanic cultural elite celebrated the young poet like a star. His timing was fateful; he saw the 1929 Wall Street crash firsthand. Poeta en Nueva York (Poet in New York) is his collected verse about his experience. A few years later, Lorca was murdered in Spain. The Franco regime banned his writing for decades.

From Cuadrado's 2009 vantage point as a New Yorker, he read and re-read the poems and developed a new appreciation of the poet. "I almost think that if Lorca would have been alive now, maybe he would write short pieces for The New Yorker," he told JazzSet in an interview. The poetry is stark and bleak and scary with images like a "great cold hall of snow," "the deceitful moon," "camels of empty clouds," "tree trunks and elevator shafts" and "your grand king, a prisoner in the uniform of a doorman." Harlem was Lorca's favorite neighborhood.

Cuadrado chose and combined the lines, trying to find the music inside them. He used Spanish and African modes and melodies, Flamenco rhythms (with their menacing quality), and more transitory inspirations. As he eagerly confessed to Josh Jackson onstage on The Checkout: Live at 92Y Tribeca, Cuadrado even steals: "[I] grab an idea and form it into something else, like playing with Legos. That's my thing."

Riverside Drive is the locale for the verse "Asesinato (Murder)," an overheard conversation about a killing. On his blog, Cuadrado writes, "The first line, '¿Cómo few?' — which is a title of a famous love song in the Afro-Cuban bolero style — inspired me to write a dark death bolero" for this poem.

"Danza de la Muerte (Dance of Death)" starts with the image of an African mask, which later arrives on Wall Street. Cuadrado "imagined that the mask could very well be the Occupy Wall Street 'counter-movement,' [which] led me to think of contrary motion." Pianist Dan Tepfer opens with a four-note pentatonic (blues scale) riff in two hands and opposite directions. Chaos and order co-exist; some people like this movement the best.

Alexis Cuadrado says "La Aurora (Dawn)" is the heart of Poeta en Nueva York, opening with "Dawn in New York has / four columns of mire / and a hurricane of pigeons / splashing in the putrid waters." Cuadrado melodizes it with a short canon à la J.S. Bach and the hint of a song by Sting. The rhythms come from the Flamenco. "The groove of 'Aurora' is based on the Flamenco 'Tanguillos,' in which the pulses of 12/8, 4/4 and 3/4 are simultaneously heard," he writes.

And about the closing piece, "Vals en las Ramas (Waltz in the Branches)," Cuadrado writes, "I loved the waltz rhythm of this poem that almost feels like a lullaby. I couldn't help stealing some of the harmony from 'Autumn Leaves' for it."

Throughout the creative process, Alexis Cuadrado had these five musicians in mind — the vocalist from Chile (Claudia Acuna), the saxophonist from Puerto Rico (Miguel Zenon, but listen for the Bird in him), the pianist who grew up in France (Dan Tepfer), and the drummer from San Francisco (Mark Ferber), who is Cuadrado's closest musical partner. The composition grant included support for rehearsals leading to three consecutive performances over a 30-hour period at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, on WNYC, and here at 92Y Tribeca. It is a beauty.

This program originally ran May 24, 2012.

Set List

  • "Norma y Paraiso / Rey de Harlem"
  • "Asesinato"
  • "Danza de la Muerte"
  • "La Aurora"
  • "New York (Oficina y Denuncia)"
  • Credits

    Original live broadcast produced by Joshua Jackson of WBGO. Recording by David Tallacksen with Michael Downes, Surround Sound mix by Duke Markos.

    A Lorca Soundscape by Alexis Cuadrado and the Alexis Cuadrado Group has been made possible with support from the Chamber Music America's 2011 New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

    Copyright 2013 WBGO

    Becca Pulliam