Women in (New) Music: Remembering Graciela Agudelo (1945–2018)

by Michael Schell

Composer Graciela Agudelo, who passed away on April 19, was a well-loved figure within the Mexican new music community, but her work is largely unknown in the United States. This is a shame, because surveying her output reveals it to be that of a talented and forward-looking musician whose creativity has seemingly been hidden from us by a line drawn on a map.

Born in Mexico City in 1945, her full name was Graciela Josefina Eugenia Agudelo y Murguía. As a young girl, she displayed proficiency on the piano, and she went on to study the instrument in college, eventually turning to composition in her mid-20s. Despite that relatively late start, she developed quickly, and wrote a number of solo, chamber and orchestral works in an avant-garde style enlivened by an individualistic approach to national identity that avoided folkloristic clichés.

Her percussion quartet, De hadas y aluxes, is a good introduction. It comes from a long line of Latin American percussion works that originated with Amadeo Roldán’s Rítmicas 5 and 6 of 1930 (thought to have edged out Varèse’s Ionization as the first modern compositions for percussion alone) and continued through Chávez’s 1942 Toccata (one of the most popular works by any Mexican composer). Agudelo’s title refers to Mayan mythology: an hada is a fairy and an alux is a counterpart to the Celtic leprechaun. The piece rumbles through a zigzagging array of different moods, with textures built from sustained rolls and soft tamtam strokes abutting more active passages featuring mallet instruments. The first steady beat appears at 6:52 in the above track, a soft four-note march in the timpani:

It soon speeds up, other drums joining in at their own tempo, eventually turning into a cacophonous spritely dance. A vibraphone cadenza ushers in a slower, quieter section (the sprites need a breather), then at 11:10, a sudden bass drum stroke sets off a vigorous bacchanal. When this winds down, the coda emerges, based on a pentatonic theme—the only real melody in the piece—which refers back to the earlier march riff:

This piece is so obscure that it has no performance history in the United States, but think it holds its own against many newer, better-known percussion works.

Even when Agudelo’s models are obvious, she still displays invention and craft. Her Arabesco (1990) is inspired by Berio’s Sequenzas, a series of solo pieces written for new virtuosi proficient in both traditional and extended techniques. But whereas Berio wrote for modern instruments, Agudelo applied this zeal for finding new sounds to the recorder, one of the oldest, most hackneyed instruments imaginable. At various points the performer is called upon to sing, perform glissandos and multiphonics, and even play two recorders simultaneously (one with each hand).

Like Arabesco, Agudelo’s suite Meditaciones sobre Abya Yala for solo flute explores a variety of standard and modern techniques, this time in service of an anguished nostalgia. Abya Yala is an indigenous name for all the Americas, and the movements include such suggestive titles as Curare, Guanacos, and Tacuabé (the name of the last surviving Charrúa tribesman of Urugray, captured in 1833 and taken to France where he was displayed as a museum piece). The last movement is entitled Tambor (drum), and befittingly explores a range of percussive and noise effects. In one notable passage, flutist Alejandro Escuer is heard whistling and playing simultaneously.

A highlight of Agudelo’s oeuvre is the 1993 orchestral piece Parajes de la Memoria: La Selva (Places of Memory: The Jungle). It proceeds in moment form, a succession of recollected mental snapshots inhabiting a timbre-centric world that anticipates several recent (and admired) compositions from the US and Europe (compare her bird flock at 3:02 with Georg Frederich Haas’ In Vain). Latin American rattles and drums add a touch of local color, and the music even breaks out into the briefest of bossa novas at the end, but Agudelo constructs her personal rainforest without sentimentality and without backing into full-fledged Villa-Lobos style folklorism.

Besides being a pianist and composer, Agudelo was also one of Mexico’s most important music pedagogues. She considered communal music-making to be an important socialization tool (“music-making is harmonious, not only in an intrinsic sense but also in a social sense”), and fought for musical education in primary schools. She wrote instructional books and music for students, and lobbied for the protection of Mexican traditional and art music against the onslaught of mass media. Her talents even ranged into literature: she wrote numerous short stories, recently gathered into the collection En Los Claros del Tiempo (In the Clearings of Time).

For much of the 20th century, Western art music in Mexico was dominated by the figure of Carlos Chávez (1899–1978), whose style of neoclassicism spiced with indigenous Mesoamerican elements established the first post-Revolutionary paradigm for Mexican composers. But his influence and personality was so towering that little else thrived in its shadows. By the time composers of Agudelo’s generation came of age in the 1960s, it was clear that a new and more contemporary movement was needed, one based on post-WW2 musical techniques meaningfully informed by a Latin American sensibility. It is this legacy that Agudelo—along with her contemporaries Mario Lavista and Julio Estrada—has bequeathed not only to a fresh cadre of 21st century Mexican composers, but also to all of us who enjoy and cherish new music.

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Juan Pablo Contreras’ “Silencio en Juarez”

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Here at Second Inversion, we love it when composers approach us with their music. When Juan Pablo Contreras dropped a line  about his latest album, “Silencio en Juarez,” I thought it would be great to have HIM tell you all a bit about the music (available on Amazon and iTunes).

Q. You say that this CD exemplifies your quest to establish a new synthesis of classical contemporary music and Mexican popular and folk music.  Musically speaking, how would you describe this synthesis?

A. I like to think of it as a musical fusion that allows for these two different sonic worlds to coexist in a unified musical language. As a composer, I find that it’s necessary to embrace all of the musical influences that shape my identity. I’m interested in telling stories about present-day issues that people can relate to. My works draw inspiration from Mexican corridos, sones, and banda music that you can listen to by turning on the radio in Mexico. Folk music embodies the essence of a nation. By alluding to it while using a contemporary music canvas, my music feels alive and relevant in our society.

Q. You get to play the role of composer-performer, doubling as vocalist on “La mas Remota Prehistoria.” Do you enjoy singing your own works?

A.“La más Remota Prehistoria” is a song cycle for tenor and chamber orchestra that was originally commissioned by the North/South Consonance Chamber Orchestra in New York. Max Lifchitz, the orchestra’s artistic director, knew that I am also a tenor and asked me if I could sing for the premiere performance. It was a very enjoyable experience, and when the time came to record the work, it felt natural to perform it myself.

Q. Which Mexican composers inspire you the most?  Who should we be playing on Second Inversion that we might not know about?

A. I really like the music of Enrico Chapela and Javier Álvarez. Chapela has written works for the LA Philharmonic and the Seattle Symphony. I highly recommend his heavy metal/jazz influenced electric cello concerto “Magnetar.” On the other hand, Javier Álvarez is like the Mexican John Adams. His music is richly orchestrated and very energetic.

Q. The harp is such a cool instrument. What was most fun about writing a harp concerto?

A. It was certainly an interesting challenge to write a Harp Concerto. I had previously written a set of harp preludes for Kristi Shade, who performs the Concerto on the album, which won an Honorable Mention at the 2014 Dutch Harp Composition Contest. This experience facilitated the writing of “Ángel Mestizo,” my Harp Concerto. I was privileged to work closely with Kristi during the writing process. This allowed me to discover idiomatic solutions to complex and “flashy” passages. Shortly after we recorded the Concerto, it won the 2014 Arturo Márquez Composition Contest in Mexico.

Q. The Claremont Avenue Chamber Orchestra sounds like a very unique ensemble.  Tell us about how this idea became a reality?

A. I founded the Claremont Avenue Chamber Orchestra in 2012 with the purpose of creating a dynamic ensemble of musicians to perform my music in prestigious venues in New York City. After several performances, we decided to embark on this wonderful recording project. I created a successful Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for the album, and I’m very excited to finally share it with the rest of the world.