Chicago a cappella's concert Global Transcendence: World Sacred Harmony and Chant was featured in The Huffington Post on Oct. 17. Read the full article here.
Do you shop on Amazon? Sign up with AmazonSmile and do your shopping at the same store and you can determine a nonprofit that gets a percentage of everything you buy! Choose Chicago a cappella as your charity of choice and 0.5% of your eligible purchases on Amazon will be donated to Chicago a cappella. Sign up today!
As part of our Mexican cultural exchange project, founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller is traveling to Mexico to conduct musical research, visit archives, and meet and confer with choral directors and composers. Enjoy his travelogue!
Sunday, May 25, 2014 – Day 9
The day began with a phone call to my wife Sandy, breakfast, and about an hour of hanging out with the little videos that I ended up having handy, since I had taken them during Thursday’s concert of children’s and youth choirs. What a stroke of good fortune. I don’t know what possessed me at the time to make videos instead of taking pictures, but it was so great – because it quickly became clear that the best way to structure the masterclass was to use the videos as the basis for feedback about each choir.
Lupita picked me up at 8:30, and we drove to the school to start getting set up. I helped her with moving a few things around, and then we hung out in her office while she talked about her work in the school. Not easy. The politics are tricky, and the lives of so many of the kids whom she serves are in turmoil. In fact, after the masterclass, she told me that the soprano in her choir who was trending sharp in her pitch is incredibly anxious all the time, due to the violence in her home. The only place this girl feels safe and lets her guard down is in choir. (I was moved to tears by a recent NPR article, which I heard after returning home, about a Latina gang member in L.A., who told the conductor of a Latina-based orchestra that hearing her conduct the Brahms 4th Symphony was the first time in her life that she actually felt some emotion. It seems that the two girls live in similar worlds.) So Lupita was explaining that the tension that lives in this girl’s body all the time was coming out in her singing, which pulled her pitch chronically sharp. Hopefully she can both learn to relax and be in tune, for the other soprano is beautifully right in the center of the pitch, a real gem of a singer.
The conductors started to mozy in, and around 9:30 we got started. Gaby went first, and I talked with her and then each director about what s/he did well and where improvement could be made. Some of them needed a little rhythmic crispness, or some help with tuning, a clearer or more compelling start to a phrase, or – in my view, which I was careful to qualify as personal opinion – a little more relaxed stage deportment like a smile from time to time. It was really fun and rewarding, and several hours whizzed by. I did almost the whole thing in Spanish…. Quite a confidence-builder. One of the funniest moments came when they all asked for my impressions of one of other festival choirs, whose director was not there that morning. I said, “Well, he’s not here, so I guess we can talk about him, yes?” We all cracked up. Then I made the analogy to the saying, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain,” meaning that if this gentleman wasn’t there, it was open season in a sense for us to mention things his choir could do a little better. We can all get better, right? The spirit was very good and playful even as we worked hard.
Afterward, José gave me scores from the padre (now deceased) at the parish where he works – wonderful 3-part works for women’s and men’s choirs, available nowhere but in Guadalajara! Now CAC has access to them…. what a blessing. And Gaby had brought 7 of her girls who wanted some coaching, which I gave them: they sang “Seasons of Love” from Rent. This was so cute. The first line of the lyric is “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes….” We spent most of the time working on American-English diction, since some of the vowels and consonants do not exist in Spanish, and I told them if they wanted to sound like they “had game,” they needed some American-sounding syllables. So I drilled them over and over again on the new sounds (a short “I” vowel as in “min-utes,” the “th” of “thousand,” and the Z sound of the S in “thousand”). Here they are singing the “EE” vowel of “mee-nuts”, which took a lot of work to make an American “ih” vowel!
“Think ‘Mic-key Mouse,’” I told them. That seemed to help. We had a great time. All of them wanted hugs afterward. So charming.
After the masterclass, Lupita drove me back to the hotel. On the way, we talked about the fact that we have both done many things in our lives, and I mentioned that I work in software sales when I’m not working as a musician, and that I have a doctorate in musicology. She mentioned that she is a medical doctor! Amazing. She just can’t get music out of her veins, so she does all the stuff that she does. We are both so fortunate to have incredibly supportive spouses. Now I just have to get Sandy and Ramón to meet – that would be fun.
Sunday afternoon was a little precious down-time. I did some shopping for friends and colleagues back home. The highlight was the hour I spent at the booth of an amazing Chilean jewelry maker, who is also a painter. He had a whole booth of semi-precious stones at the market near the Joyeria (the indoor jeweler’s mall, which is closed on Sundays). I hung around for a while as he talked to other people. Then I noticed that he had a lot of round turquoise stones. He showed me two of the same size and said, “Can you tell which is fake and which is natural?” He explained the difference. I had been on the lookout for something special for Sandy, and this guy and I struck a deal: he would make a necklace for Sandy out of stones that we selected together. I asked him for a price. Since it was outside, the custom is that you can haggle a bit. I offered a lower price, and he looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Okay, as long as you throw in a Intenso coffee from the 7-11 over there!” I had to go back and ask him what that was (a double-strength brewed coffee…. We don’t have that here). Very funny. The guy is a wizard: here he is at work.
The other task was to buy a little rolling suitcase to hold all the CDs and scores. I tried to haggle for that, but the woman wouldn’t budge; same for an Indiana Jones-style hat from Chiapas that another woman was selling near my hotel. But I bought them anyway.
The next day was a long and tiring travel day back to Chicago
* * * * * *
I am back in Chicago as I finish writing this up.
México, te amo: I love you. I had been to Mexico three times before, but never like this. What an amazing journey of heart and soul, music and friendship, history and the very rich present day of culture. This trip far exceeded my expectations. As I told the taxi driver on my way to the Guadalajara airport: “I am rich in music, and my heart is full.” That is a blessing that I will treasure forever. The cup of creativity is full and runneth over. Heart-full thanks to everyone who helped to make this happen.
As part of our Mexican cultural exchange project, founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller is traveling to Mexico to conduct musical research, visit archives, and meet and confer with choral directors and composers. Enjoy his travelogue!
Saturday, May 24, 2014 – Day 8
This day was an unexpected blessing. It started out with a walk around 7:30am in the cool morning air, when I went to stretch my legs and find an ATM. I initially went in search of coffee too, but the nicer coffee places didn’t seem to be open. I passed the cathedral on my walk.
I popped into the cathedral and found an early-morning mass in progress. I heard the “Alleluja” verse sung, led by a nun with a clear, strong voice, before the reading of the gospel. The “j” consonant was the Mexican version that was a little like a “djz”, so the result was sort of like “Ah-leh-lu-dzja.” Very sweet.
Kamuel Zepeda is my new dear friend here in Guadalajara. He is a pianist, conductor, scholar, historian, and just a sweet guy. He has done a number of different things in his musical life, most of which he has spent here in the GDL area. His dad is rather a big deal on the local arts scene, a well-known architect and professor of architecture and former was principal of the school of the arts here, as well as a freelance painter and expert in fresco paintings. Kamuel’s dad was also a consultant on the repair of the famous Orozco frescos here in town, when they started suffering water damage at the Governors’ Palace, which is a big honor.
I met Kamuel because he is the principal at one of the community music schools that Lupita Chavira runs here in Guadalajara. He has been there since January of this year—in the right place at the right time, as he told me later in the day. Just a great guy. His gentle spirit reminds me of my friend Michael Oriatti, who is now a professor of choral conducting at Lyon College in Arkansas.
Here is Kamuel at breakfast with me. We ate a place called Chai –great buffet, easy on the wallet, open-air as so many restaurants here are.
We then headed on foot all the way to the east end of downtown, where the Instituto Cultural de Cabañas is located. It was so cool being with Kamuel on this walk, because he knows everything about art and architecture in Guadalajara, in addition to his expertise as a musician. Before we got to the murals, we saw a number of points of interest, and I got more and more of a history lesson about Mexico in general and Jalisco in particular as we moved through the day.
Here is THE SPOT where the city of Guadalajara was founded, 470 years ago.
And a close-up of the inscription at the bottom, showing the date of February, 1542 – amazing:
Kamuel explained that there were a few attempts to create a city called Guadalajara in various places around here. The others didn’t stick; this one did. A rather fierce woman named Beatríz Hernandez was part of the crew that made sure this Guadalajara would endure, and she’s memorialized here on this monument:
As we walked, Kamuel pointed out some Art Deco architecture that graces the Centro Histórico. The chevrons in the iron railing are as indicative of Art Deco (at least to this Chicago boy’s eyes) as anything else.
As with so many cities, there are areas where there are restrictions on making changes to historically-protected buildings; as in some others, the government here gives no funds for the upkeep of the buildings, and many owners aren’t interested in keeping them in good repair. This is true of buildings from the Virreinal period up through more recent ones.
Despite the lack of interest/funds for remodeling, there’s a movement afoot wherein more people are moving back to the central city from elsewhere, and formerly dormant office buildings are becoming shops, restaurants, schools (beauty schools etc.), and even a few apartments.
On the way to see the Orozco murals, we stopped in to visit the University of Guadalajara’s School of the Arts. This is where Kamuel himself studied, and his father was the principal here for many years and taught architecture.
In the main courtyard there were a number of young people practicing instruments. Anyone, student or not, can come in here on the weekend and practice. It was Saturday, and the place was hopping.
Through a door we entered another courtyard where students are working on sculpture. I took extra pictures for Laura, my daughter, who is studying ceramics and art in college. Here are a few.
Upstairs there are painting studios, dance studios, you name it. Kamuel has taught a variety of things here, including rhythm and music to dance students. I thought that was cool; he covers the basic dance forms, has them learn the structure and what to count and listen for when dancing and choreographing, and so on. I had never connected those dots before.
Here’s a dance-studio mural:
Remembering this makes me even more excited about our upcoming collaboration with Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theatre in February 2015—the artists there are so inspiring for me. When Matt and I met with José and Irma from Ensemble Español a few weeks ago, we talked about which songs to choreograph—and, rather than showing us much dancing on video, the main thing they did was play music, which is what gives rise to the choreography.
Sidebar: I like drawing parallels between things. Reflecting on my discussion with Kamuel, I wonder if, in the creative process, music is to dance the way words are to choral music. What I mean is this: does one give rise to the other, more or less, in the creative process? I am thinking about my experience as a composer. I write choral music to a text. If anything, the melodies in my head are tunes to songs I already know. I generally don’t have new melodies floating around in my head, by which I mean melodies in search of a text. Beethoven did, and he famously carried a sketch book around to make sure he wrote down his best ones. Some composers, of course, have the gift of writing music without a text (Stacy Garrop can do both texted and untexted new music, for example, which gets my respect).
- When I am fired up by a piece of poetry, then I start to hear new music, usually with the rhythm first. My favorite example of this is my Shehecheyanu, which came to me as I was walking down the street, thinking about the prayer and having my feet hit the pavement. Similarly, the Ensemble Español people choreograph to a piece of music. José and Irma were talking about creating a new dance for our collaboration, and we need to pick the music first. So it seems that, depending on your art form, one of the other arts can propel yours. And I suppose the opposite direction can work too, in that Chopin wrote waltzes and mazurkas, which could have been inspired by watching dancers. Anyway, end of digression.
Then we went on to the main attraction of the city, from a cultural point of view. The Instituto Cultural de Cabañas houses the amazing, huge frescoes by Orozco. Kamuel explained that these are the largest installation of frescoes in the world, second only to the Sistine Chapel. The building is a UNESCO cultural treasure. Here is the courtyard that you enter first, en route to the main event.
The interior of the building, where the frescoes are, was originally a hospital for orphaned children. What I did not know is that fresco does not refer to being out of doors—these are indoor frescos—but rather to the artistic technique, which is to put cement on the wall and to paint it while it’s still fresh. (Duh, it makes sense, but I never studied art!) I won’t go into a long treatise about them: the pictures speak for themselves. Here are a few:
Amazing. It also had a fantastic gift shop, where I bought ten CDs of traditional Mexican music.
There are more Orozco murals in the governors’ palace, where we went next. Here’s a plaque there, showing that Benito Juarez used Guadalajara as the center of Mexican government for a while (he moved around the country to avoid getting killed).
The hall where the legislators used to meet (they don’t any more) is covered with Orozco murals. Just beautiful. The acoustic in there is great too, although Kamuel told me they don’t use it for concerts, only poetry readings and other sorts of events from time to time. I’m getting an idea…
We next stopped at the Biblioteca Octavio Paz. The music selection was pretty slim, but the building was pretty. A few blocks down the road is another main building from the University of Guadalajara, which is now not only an art museum but also the place where the Board of Regents meets whenever it has serious official business to transact.
As you might imagine, there’s a surprise inside: more Orozco murals and a great acoustic!
This one is famous, the “five faces of man”:
Next, Kamuel took me to his father’s studio. The guy has a rather wacky imagination, which I really liked. Here are a few pieces of his dad’s work:
Kamuel himself has a studio in here, with a piano that he uses when he needs to get away from the city’s bustle. He also has a nice personal library of recordings and scores, and after I had offered a “Bound for Glory” CD and some Louis Sullivan-inspired stationery, he very graciously offered me copies of many of his scores to take home for browsing, which was very generous. This was an unexpected addition to my growing goldmine of music and sound. It’s almost impossible to get access to scores of Mexican choral music, as most of the publishers are out of business, but most of the 20th-century music is still under valid copyright due to their laws, so it will be a journey to find out how to get legitimate scores for performing purposes of some of these. Of course, the first task is actually to get hold of the repertoire, so I can decide whether or not I actually want to pursue a particular piece or composer. I was blown away by all that he was willing to share with me, especially since musicians can be quite territorial about the scores that they actually do have… believe me, I heard stories.
We then went to a beautiful place for lunch, which Kamuel called a fusion of Mexican traditional dishes and haute cuisine. I ordered two things I’d never had before, and it was a memorable meal.
By the time “lunch” was over, it was almost 5pm. What a day! We drove back along one of the main streets sporting stately homes, most of them repurposed as event spaces, high-end bridal shops, and so on:
What a nice day. Kamuel is truly one of the kindest people I have ever met. After returning to the hotel, I started thinking about packing to come home, and I’m glad I did, since I had so much new stuff that it quickly became clear I needed to go to the open-air market the next day and buy a cheap little suitcase for the trip home! I had a pretty quiet evening, which I very much needed, especially since Sunday morning was the masterclass with the conductors from Thursday night’s concert.
As part of our Mexican cultural exchange project, founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller is traveling to Mexico to conduct musical research, visit archives, and meet and confer with choral directors and composers. Enjoy his travelogue!
Friday, May 23, 2014 – Day 7
I woke up late – for the first time on the trip, I got 8 hours of sleep. Hallelujah; I really needed it. I am really glad that people in Mexico are so chill, especially the tapatíos (people from Guadalajara), because I sort of put my foot in my mouth today. Before I left for Mexico, I had arranged to meet an American musician, Tim Welch, who relocated from Chicago (where he sang with many choirs, so he knows tons of people including Matt) to Guadalajara about 15 years ago. He was gracious in inviting me to his home in the Centro for breakfast on Friday the 23rd. He supposed, correctly, that I probably wouldn’t have eaten in anything but a hotel or restaurant or airport during the whole trip up to that point. So I was grateful for the invitation.
Not having much access to WiFi except in my hotel room, where I wasn’t spending much time, and having turned off data roaming on my phone, I hadn’t realized that Tim had pinged me a few times Thursday on Facebook to confirm. To compound that, having totally spaced out on our breakfast in my bleary, Spanish-saturated fatigue, I had agreed late last night that Ramón would pick me up at 10 for a day trip to Tequila! After “me di cuenta” (I realized this), and after being quite flustered first thing in the morning at having realized this, a few phone calls allowed me to keep my original breakfast date with Tim, mostly thanks to Ramón’s being so relaxed.
I walked the 20 minutes to Tim’s house, passing some beautiful buildings on the way. Tim was great. He made a fabulous home-cooked breakfast of eggs (with lots of onion and garlic), homemade frijoles refritos and salsa, tortillas, and killer coffee. He has a dog, Kia, who totally got it that I’m a dog person, so of course she wanted to play fetch the whole time I was there. This was nice, since I miss Moseley and Higgins very much. Here she is, nose at the breakfast table, eager for the orange ball.
Tim and I talked and talked, finding much in common, and two hours went by very quickly. He has made a great life for himself here as a pianist, vocal coach, piano teacher, and choral director. He is also quite entrepreneurial and has a mind for business, which is useful when you’re a musician! Tim has been, for several years now, the music director at the Anglican parish in Chapala, a mostly-expat community about 45 minutes south of the city, situated along the largest fresh-water lake in Mexico. (An Anglican church in Mexico still strikes me as a little funny, but I guess it shouldn’t surprise me any more than a Chinese restaurant in el centro or a Chilean artisan at the mercado.) There is a section of the Chapala area, called Ajijic, which is almost all expats. Tim has created a community choir in Chapala, called Los Cantantes del Lago, comprised of 60 or so singers, from age 11 to 74 (maybe older), which is about 1/3 Mexicans and 2/3 expats. He said it’s important to him to include the Mexican community in the choir. They have toured many places in Mexico and have gone out of the country to perform as well. He gets 900 people in the audience at every concert in Chapala—amazing. The guy is doing something right. When they go on tour, everyone gets to go; people with resources to share ensure that those with limited funds don’t miss out. I think that’s so great.
Tim also has a treasure-trove of Latin American choral music. He is moving down to Chapala next week, where he has a house, and he offered to make me single browsing photocopies of hundreds of scores that might be useful to Chicago a cappella. What a guy. This was just one of so many times on the trip when I felt showered with generosity.
I walked back to el Hotel Morales and texted Ramón, who said he’d be by at 1:45 to pick me up. I got a few nice pictures of buildings on the way back, as well as a shot of a horse-drawn carriage while I waited outside; the sun was really hot.
I also took a few pictures of the hotel’s interior. They renovated it, after it had fallen into disrepair and disuse, and opened again in 2005—just beautiful. (There’s a plaque outside commemorating the reopening of the Hotel Morales.) My room is off this courtyard.
Here’s the other interior courtyard: notice the Virgin of Guadalupe on the lower left wall.
Here’s the street sign right outside and the hotel as viewed from across the street:
The hotel gets great reviews, the staff is wonderful, and the prices are excellent. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to be able to see pretty much everything in el centro on foot.
Ramón picked me up around 2pm, and we headed out of town. Traffic was a bit nuts on Friday afternoon—he said everyone was ready to party—so it took a while to get out of the centro. Once we did, things went pretty smoothly. Ramón is a bit of an impatient driver. He’s originally from Mexico City; around Mexico, natives of D.F. are called chilangos. We laughed when he did a few wacky things like driving on the shoulder, zooming around here and there, taking very wide corners to go around buses, and so on. He said he could easily imagine the tapatíos saying, thinking, or yelling, “F-you, you f-ing chilango!” I told him that I appreciated him wanting to get us to Tequila and reassured him that there was no timeline for the day. I looked in my pocket dictionary (the best $6.99 I have spent all year) and found the phrase “tener prisa,” which means “to be in a hurry.” So I told him, “No tenemos prisa.” It became sort of a running joke during the day. Several times, when traffic was cramped or there was road construction, one or the other of us would say it. Once, at the end of the day, we looked at each other and said exactly at the same time, “No tenemos prisa, ja ja ja!” Very fun and funny, just like him.
The road to Tequila is not that interesting. However, once you turn off the main highway onto the road that goes into town, it’s much different. There are agave plantations everywhere, and it reminded me of the California wine country:
Blue agave on every side, and mountains beginning to rise up in the distance: a beautiful vista.
Ramón made a reservation for a 4:00 tour for me, and then we walked around for about 20 minutes until the tour started. First, we went over to Jose Cuervo Mundo, a kind of museum/store/restaurant complex run by the famous tequila brewer. (Lupita for several years directed the Coro Jose Cuervo, a group of singers from Tequila puebla [town] that is funded by the Fundación Cuervo. That is an unusual form of direct philanthropy from a corporate foundation to a cultural organization.) The foyer here looks a lot like the Hotel Morales: heavy pillars, orange paint, tile floor.
On the men’s room door was advertised a Beatles tribute concert, to be held here in a few weeks. I wish I could be here for that! Ramón said that Lupita’s brother is the drummer in the tribute band. Mundo pequeño. Here’s a picture of me with the status of the guy tapping a barrel of tequila.
There’s a little bar here, no surprise. The surprise was the plaque on the wall, telling the story of the invention of the margarita. Evidently a woman named Marjorie King used to go to a bar in Rosarito, and she was allergic to all forms of alcohol except tequila. Nobody drank tequila without a mix, and in 1938 she asked the owner, Danny Herrera, to come up with something. He improvised something with triple sec, lime juice, and crushed ice, and called it “La Margarita” in honor of Marjorie. Make a toast to her memory next time you have one!
Here I am with another barrel person. Ramón said I should put my arm around her shoulder and say “tequi-laaaaaa.”
Here’s the tour bus. We drove around to several tequila companies and learned about the history of the town as well as the history of how tequila was and is made. It takes 8 years for an agave plant to mature. It used to take 6 weeks to ferment tequila, but now, with modern methods, they’ve accelerated that to a week. Shelly, my bilingual tour guide, was born in California and returned with her Mexican father when she was 12. She now sings 2nd soprano in the Coro Jose Cuervo and is a protégée of sorts of Lupita. Mundo pequeño, anyone?
One of my favorite things to see was the truck that takes the “chaff” from used-up agave leaves and hauls them away. You can see at upper right the green discharge location where the used-up leaves are dumped out. Look carefully and you’ll see the pile building in the center of the truck bed.
They are used for all sorts of things, including making paper. I wonder if my friend Craig Jobson has ever made paper from agave leaves!
Here’s a pretty horse, standing on a street in town. Is he phoning home?
Here’s the entrance to the old Sauza plant. The new one is further away; this is where the tour goes, and where you can see old, no-longer-operational ovens, fermentation tanks, and more.
Here’s Shelly with the four bottles from which we were given samples. I asked for the smallest possible samples, since I am not one who can hold my liquor!
After the tour, we went into the little parish church, which has beautiful Stations of the Cross in ceramic tile:
Then we had dinner in town and headed back. Ramón demonstrated the technique of putting a drop of salsa on the back of the hand in order to test how picante it is, before dousing your food with it. I thought that was cool. Thanks to Ramón for being a great tour guide again.
Thursday, May 22 – Day 6
After about 4 hours of sleep, off to the airport to head to Guadalajara. I don’t know why they tell you to get there 2 hours early, but I actually got there 3 hours early because Jorge said I needed to leave early to beat the traffic, which worked. Thanks to a kind waitress, I caught up on my e-mail in an airport restaurant and drank lots of coffee! Here’s a mural at the Mexico City airport, Terminal 1.
The trip to Guadalajara was pretty uneventful. You have to understand, as I did not, that “a tiempo,” or “on time,” does not mean that my plane actually left at 10:15. It means we sort of started boarding around 10:20, and we pulled back from the gate a little after 10:30. We were about 20 minutes late getting to Guadalajara, but maybe that counts as “a tiempo.” I sure wouldn’t consider it “a tempo” if I were conducting, but nobody asked me!
My main contact in Guadalajara is Lupita Chavira, a singer from here who lived in Mexico City for many years as a professional singer and director and teacher. She was tapped about ten years ago to return to GDL to begin a youth choral movement. It is incredible what she is doing. In the four main sections of the Guadalajara metro area (about 6 million people, but almost no choral culture relative to its size), she goes to public squares and hands out flyers to kids, inviting them to be in her choirs which are free of charge, funded (not without some gnashing of teeth and losing of sleep) by the Jalisco state government. She is deeply concerned about the prevalence of depression among the youth, and she’s both drawing on and doing her own research that shows improved health outcomes for kids who sing. She also mentioned that domestic violence is a big deal in Mexico, and she’s trying to help counter that, too.
Lupita had urged me to be sure to be in Guadalajara for her concert tonight, so I made sure it happened. She was pretty busy with preparations for that after she and her wonderful husband picked me up at the airport, so Ramon (that’s his name) was my host for the afternoon. Boy, did we have fun. I love this guy. He is a blast. He’s a businessman, proud to support Lupita in her musical passions. Ramon took me around the main squares of town, and we passed some beautiful trees:
Here’s the double-spired cathedral:
There is a market downtown with all sorts of hand-crafted goods, both inside and outside. Ramon pulled out a hand-carved wooden cane and mugged for the camera: in this pose he reminded me of Doc from Snow White! But he’s not Grumpy, he’s hilarious.
Ramon wanted to show me some of the shoemakers, and we found one who obliged: first he put a sandal and tools my hand and showed me how to weave the leather.
Then he put me in this huge pair of sandals and told Ramon to take a picture!
His name was Maximo, and he was 80 years old and spry as anything. He told us that his family have been shoemakers for something like 6 generations…. Amazing.
Next we were headed to the little market town of Tonalá. To get there, we needed to take a city bus to Ramon’s and Lupita’s house. At rush hour in Guadalajara they have – get this – women-only bus cars! I guess this is to give women a place to go where they will not be accosted in any way while they are commuting. It actually seems quite civilized to me. I wonder if Metra or the CTA will ever catch on.
Here’s the sign:
In Tonalá they are making many things out of different materials – metal, wood, plastic, cloth, you name it. Since we are in mariachi-land, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see this:
Here’s another riff on the Day of Dead lady, this time adorning the entrance to a restaurant:
There is all kind of fresh fruit available at the market, including herbs for various health conditions.
Every Mexican who mentions nopales tells me how good they are for digestion and weight control.
In the lobby of the Hotel Tonala ($40/night, plus an extra $5/night if you want air conditioning), there were some metal-work “paintings”:
Next we drove to the town of Tlaquepaque, which is similar to Tonalá but a little more upscale:
Here’s another mariachi statue:
Then back to Guadalajara, where the sun was starting to set:
The highlight of the whole day was Lupita’s choral festival. There were 8 choirs in all, and here’s the program (one of the choirs wasn’t listed):
This was a revelation for me. With only one exception, all of this music was Mexican. Most of it was recent, and about a third of it was a cappella. Jorge Cózatl is a close friend of Jorge Córdoba. Jorge Cózatl is currently in the USA, working in the Vocalessence program – he’s done that for a few years. It’s nice to see both Jorges getting so much traction in both counties.
My programming brain was working hard at this concert, and the choirs were mostly quite impressive. A little group of boys blew me away. They need to learn how to smile, but they sang beautifully. Also wonderful was a group of (mostly) girls, the first to perform.
Here is a group of women who mostly do Gregorian chant, but tonight they did a few pieces in parts, all by a local padre who died a few years ago. The director is the local champion of the padre’s works, and he was friendly and eager to share repertoire with me.
Here’s a group from the University of Guadalajara, which had the best men’s section of the night:
Here’s a sweet picture of all of the directors (and kids, behind them) on stage at the end:
There must have been at least 150 kids up there. It was amazing, and very inspiring, and I am so impressed with the way that Lupita and her colleagues are deliberately using choral music as a force for social good.
I was approached by several of the conductors afterward, who (as Lupita had mentioned earlier) are eager to talk about how they can do things better. We’ll be getting together on Sunday morning to see how I can help. What a great group.
May 21, 2014 – Day 5
This was a day that made me laugh. Jorge had been telling me for days that I needed to get myself over to the Museo Nacional de Antropología, the top museum in town and the Smithsonian of Mexico, with unique and fabulous exhibits about ancient pre-Columbian societies. So I decided that it was more important to absorb that for a few hours than to keep spinning and transcribing tunes at the Fonoteca.
Here is the story of Los Tres Alejandros: After breakfast (the coffee here is nice and strong, and I liked it with “crema natural” which is heavy cream that stands up well to the java), I took my backpack and went outside the hotel to the cab stand. I asked the guy who flags down cabs If Alejandro was working today. He gave me the deer-in-the-headlights look and said “Cual Alejandro?” (Which Alejandro?) I had his business card, so I told him the last name. “Oh, no, caballero, he’s not here now, he’s somewhere else. This driver can take you to the museum.” So I asked this driver his name, and it was Alejandro. That made me laugh. Alejandro #2 had a huge car, a Honda Pilot or something like that, the biggest vehicle I’d been in while in Mexico City. (Jorge drives a little VW Lupo, like a Mini Cooper, great for the tiny streets and tinier parking places they have here.) This Alejandro was even more knowledgeable than the first Alejandro. He told me which exhibit halls to see, and they were the same ones Jorge had recommended, so that was reassuring. I had originally thought I’d be at the Museo from 10 to 11:30 and then head to the Fonoteca. After talking to Alejandro #2, I realized that was a silly plan, and I asked him to pick me up there at noon. He thought that was a better idea, so I wouldn’t be so rushed. We agreed on that plan.
The Museo de Antropología is amazing. Here is the outside:
And a dedication:
There’s a cool column in the middle of the great courtyard, once you go inside. It looks like it is modern, inspired by the centuries of Mayan, Aztec, and other cultures here.
Tenochtitlan was the Aztec name for Mexico City. It was the seat of the Aztec empire. This is the hall that was the most important one for me to see, and it blew me away. This is the stuff about the earliest civilizations here.
Just a few of the things I saw:
Then to the next hall, about the next stage of society, with more refined arts and more well-defined social classes and functions of people:
I thought this map was cool:
The art is really beautiful.
Being a dog lover, I was charmed by these:
Now to the Mayan hall. I had seen several Mayan ruins when my wife Sandy and I visited the areas around Cancun, several years ago, including the amazing Ek Balam ruins northest of Chichen Itza. What is cool about this museum is that they have some of the best artifacts from the entire Mayan landscape, and they give nice context to the whole sweep of Mayan history.
Here’s a map of Mayan temple sites:
Truly incredible stuff.
This was big!
I was touched by the delicacy and feeling in this piece:
Here is a manuscript, beautifully rendered, with lovely colors: the Egyptians had nothing on these guys. Having been a mathematician earlier in life, I also was impressed that the Mayans developed the concept of zero long before the Arab scholars did.
They could do small figures too:
Okay, now for the conclusion of the taxi driver story.
I went downstairs at noon, as we had arranged. I didn’t see Alejandro #2’s big car. I stood there for a few minutes, and then another cab driver got out of his cab and asked me if I wanted a ride. I waved him off, saying I had my own cab. Then he said “Señor Miller, going to the Fonoteca?” I said yes, that was me. He explained that he worked with Alejandro, who was busy and had sent him over to get me. I asked this driver for his name, and he replied “Alejandro.” That made me laugh harder than ever! Turns out that Alejandro #3 is married to the sister of Alejandro #2, or something like that. I joked that there should be a law in Mexico City that only guys named Alejandro get to drive cabs. He said it was sort of a family affair, that there were a lot of drivers in his clan. Or maybe it was Alejandro #1 who told me that the day before… I’m a little short on sleep. Anyway, very funny.
The Fonoteca today was about the same as before, more listening. I found one other song that I wanted to transcribe. After spending about an hour and a half there, I was to meet Jorge at the Coyoacán metro station to go to our next things. Laura at the Fonoteca told me it would take about 20 minutes to walk there. It was a very busy street, and it reminded me of a walk down a busy, congested, bus-packed street that I’ve had in many other cities before: London, Puerto Vallarta, Jerusalem, you name it. One thing was funny, a bus called “Pullman de Chiapas,” which I guessed was the most comfortable, first-class bus that you can take from D.F. to Chiapas.
After the promised 20 minutes, with help from a man on the street, I found the Starbucks that Jorge had said I’d find by the Metro station, and I was happy to order my first-ever Starbucks drink in Spanish. And how nice to be someplace with Wi-fi other than my hotel! Jorge ended up running about half an hour late, so I got cash at an ATM, which everyone says is the best way to do that in Mexico. When he picked me up, we parked at this very nice gated space, which happened to be inside the headquarters of the Society of Mexican Composers, their version of ASCAP or BMI.
Clearly the pop writers are making good money, because this place was to die for. The grounds were beautiful, and the main building was spectacular, having won many awards for architecture.
Jorge showed me the performance space, which is very expensive to rent but comes with a tech crew and sound engineers and video guys.
Then we walked a few blocks, past the Cineteca, a wonderful resource for films of all kinds, which includes a year-around outdoor movie screen, where you can see movies for free.
You can just pick up a woven fiber mat, big enough for two people, plunk it on the grass, and watch a movie. (We were there in the day, and several young couples were making out these mats, reading, cuddling, making out, etc.)
North of there a bit was the headquarters of the national radio programming organization. Jorge does a monthly radio show about Mexican classical music. Since he’s going to be away at an international choral festival for his August show, he taped two of them now, so one can run while he’s away.
They are 30-minute segments. The music was beautiful, though I was so tired I mostly took a nap during the hour and a half or so that he was taping.
Our next stop was the National Music School again. On the way there, we passed this fabulous car-repair shop that specializes in vintage cars. This was the body of a classic VW Beetle.
Then to the School, where I got to sit in on a rehearsal by Patricia Morales, with her kids’ choir, which was very good, working on (of course) a piece by Jorge. The rest of the evening was about two hours in rehearsal with Jorge’s professional women’s sextet, Tumben Paax, which was working on music for a kids’ program coming up. Jorge did a setting of a Mexican song that is sort of like “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” – hilarious, especially since the women have to make animal noises (fly, mosquito, snake, dog, cat, etc.) while they navigate all of the verses. I learned that Mexican dogs say “wow” instead of “woof” or “bow wow.” Since I say “wow” a lot, I hope that my Mexican friends do not think I am a dog.
Next in the rehearsal – most of the rehearsal – was a stunningly beautiful piece by a composition student, and Tumben Paax is performing it this weekend at the student’s graduation recital. His name is Jean Angelus Richard Vazquez. He’s 33 years old and played piano for many years before going back to school in composition. He got into Vocalessence’s program called “Cantaré” in the Twin Cities, a prestigious crucible of sorts for Mexican composers, which includes commissions, working with public schools, and so on. I loved the piece, and I told Jean to let me know when he’s in Minneapolis this fall, so that perhaps he can zip down to Chicago to hear CAC sing. Really gorgeous music that he wrote!
One of the lucky strokes at the National Music School is that it has a teeny sheet-music store right there, for selling exercise books, piano repertoire, and so on – the sorts of things that music students need.
They also happened to have about a dozen choral scores, most of them a cappella, so I snapped up them up. Jorge said most of the repertoire was very good. They are published by the School, which I was happy to support with a purchase.
That was my sojourn in Mexico City. What a great experience.
May 20, 2014 – Day 4
I’ll begin at the end of the day and work my way backwards. A late dinner with Jorge (10:30pm start time) after a long day. He made me laugh so hard, because at dinner he did a spoof of the accents of all the different main regions of Mexico. Monterrey has a very forward, earnest, Midwestern-sounding accent. Mérida (capital of Yucatan state) is more clipped, almost staccato. One of the other states is more sing-songy, almost like Swedish. Veracruz is softer and more muffled, much like Cuban dialect. The norteños are different too, and it seems like the Jalisco/Michoacán highlands are kind of neutral. People here in D.F. (Mexico City) talk quickly and sometimes drop consonants a bit. I guess the talking-fast part is like New York City. I should get him to do this for a YouTube video or something…. It was so funny.
Before dinner we stopped at the apartment of a lovely elder gentleman, Juan Manuel Lara, who is the Mexico City area’s expert about Mexican Renaissance choral music. He was conducting a rehearsal of his very good chamber choir, Melos Gloriae. Jorge says it’s the only group in town where a musicologist is in charge of the singing, and they really know their stuff. It was fun because, after Jorge told them (much more quickly in Spanish than I could have done) about my visit, they invited me to join them in singing! They just handed me a binder and I joined the other two basses. We sang for 15-20 minutes, and the time just flew. I plugged right back into Renaissance Brain as if I were back in His Majestie’s Clerkes or in a sight-reading gig at St. Peter’s in the Loop with Michael Thompson. In fact, these guys under Juan Manuel’s leadership had a wonderful, fluid, Spanish-inflected way of doing plainchant, the closest I’ve experienced to Michael’s great chant direction. We were working on music by Capilla, one of the “Rinascimiento” composers that Melos Gloriae champions. At the end of the reading session, one of the basses said to me, “Está contratado!” (You’re hired!) It was a nice compliment. I was pleased that my breath worked as well as it did at 7000+ feet. I must be adjusting to the altitude a bit. Juan Manuel continued the custom of great hospitality by giving me a CD of his group’s work with Hernando Franco’s masses, which of course incurred yet another obligation to mail more CDs to Mexican colleagues when I get home.
Before that, we were at the music department of the big state university (UNAM), where I did a radio entrevista (interview) with Ana Patricia (Paty) Carbajal, one of the movers and shakers on the choral scene here, who has a monthly radio program called Musica Encantada, all about choral music. We went into a little conference room and she just taped me on her little voice recorder right then and there. I was pleased since I did 95% of it talking Spanish, which was good since I got to do most of the talking, asking Jorge to help me translate something I was trying to say when it was needed. Paty said that it was best for me to try talking Spanish, even if I butchered a few things, since the audience would really appreciate my trying. I have certainly found that to be the case. It was fun. Jorge told me that it will be broadcast on the 2nd Wednesday in June (that’s the 11th) at 7pm, and if you go to www.imer.com.mx and click on “Opus,” there will be a link to the broadcast.
Here are a few pictures of the music school – our schedules got a little messed up, and Jorge was able to catch up with several faculty members he knows, so I had a little time to take some snaps.
I had the privilege to meet the principal of the whole school, a lovely gentleman with a big heart. Next to his door is the vision statement for the school:
Jorge told him about our project and about the “Navidad” concert we did together here. The principal was very engaged. The topic came up about having CAC come and be a resource for the students and faculty in some way, and there were good feelings all around.
One more view: seeing this guitar reminds me that Jorge pointed out a guy with a theorbo (like a bass lute) in the hall. I hadn’t seen a theorbo in years.
Before going to the university, I was wrapping up my day at the Fonoteca. What a productive day I had there! To get there, Jorge advised me to just use the hotel’s cadre of cabs; they cost more, but they are reliable and good tour guides. I had a nice cab driver named Alejandro, and we had a friendly conversation on the way to the Fonoteca. He had given me his card so I could call him to take me from the Fonoteca to the National Music School to see Paty later in the day, but we didn’t have to do that since the schedule allowed Jorge to pick me up. (That was an interesting experience, trying to call Alejandro to cancel the second trip, only to find that for some weird reason my mobile couldn’t call his mobile. I punted and called the hotel, where a nice lady offered to call Alejandro directly and tell him, and then she called me back to confirm. Hooray for a little Spanish!)
The Fonoteca is incredible. I listened pretty much completely to two field recording albums of music from Michoacán. There was a song that grabbed me, called “Otro ratito nomás,” which translates to something like “Just a little teeny bit more time,” about a relationship where the guy is really missing the girl. Quite a charming text, and Jorge helped me figure out what the guy was saying…. Field recordings are not known for their crisp sound quality or exciting diction. I spent about three hours total working on that one song, to write down the melody, the words, and the instrumental “breaks” so that I can see if it’s possible to come up with a choral edition of the piece. It has great energy.
Here’s a nice little park on Calle Francisco Sosa, just a few blocks from the Fonoteca. There was an elderly couple sitting on a bench, very close to one another; the gentleman was playing the guitar, and the lady was singing a lovely lament, sounding something like a flamenco tune. They were not playing for money, rather just for one another. It was charming, and I didn’t want to invade their privacy by taking a picture, so we’ll settle for this. (The couple was just to the left of this photo.)
This is a sort of community arts center, with art studios and classrooms and a nice little café in a courtyard. I stopped there for a cappuccino on the way back from downtown Coyoacán back to the Fonoteca.
Here’s the inside:
Walking back to the Fonoteca, I found this sweet street sign:
And a little bougainvillea to brighten the afternoon:
Here are some photos of the outdoor signage for the Fonoteca:
That’s all the news that’s fit to print for today!
May 19 – Day 3
Another memorable day. Jorge picked me up at the hotel and took me to the headquarters of the Sistema Nacional de Fomento Musical (the National System for the Promotion of Music), where I met Alejandro, the director, who conducts three children’s choirs, and – according to Jorge—is a tireless advocate to the government (which funds the Sistema) for the need to have more and more young people involved in music across Mexico. The Sistema’s choral jurisdiction covers a thousand choirs all around the country – very impressive – including choirs that operate all year ‘round as well as festival and holiday choirs, etc. Alejandro was very cordial and took me and Jorge upstairs to the last 20 minutes or so of a rehearsal with a woman who was very impressive, working with a truly excellent group of graduate students (Jorge said the average age was about 26 or 27). The group were 1 2 in number. They were singing a cycle with piano of songs by Guastavino, the important composer from Argentina. Jorge knew the cycle well and was bobbing his head and doing a little gentle conducting his own chair off to the side…. Just being a conductor!
After we finished the rehearsal, I complimented the conductor on her work, and she answered in an accent that reminded me of our wonderful board member, Maria Suarez, with whom I spoke some Spanish at our Gala a few days ago. Turns out this talented conductor was not only Cuban; her name is Digna Guerra, and she is one of the most esteemed choral conductors in the world! She proudly told me that her group from Cuba, Entre Voces, won first prize overall (not just in her category) at the very difficult German competition in Marktoberdorf. This is a prestigious international competition, and walking away with top honors is really something. She is getting invitations all over the world, and her group is touring the East Coast in 2015. Anyway, once I was duly impressed with Digna, she was very kind and immediately invited me and Chicago a cappella to come to Cuba! That is easier said than done, but both Digna and Jorge said it is easier in recent years than it had been. A new project to work on …. Very exciting. These conductors are very warm people.
The four of us then went upstairs to the office area, where we drank coffee and talked about all sorts of things. Alejandro kindly gave me copies of several anthologies of choral music for children that the Sistema has published; here’s the cover of one of them.
We joked about how singers sometimes don’t watch conductors. Imagine! I guess every conductor complains about that. Turns out that Digna was finishing a 2-year stint as visiting choral professor at the Sistema, and she’s headed back to Havana on Monday – just enough time to Jorge to run a copy of “Bound for Glory” over to her and to Alejandro later this week.
Next thing was for me and Jorge to head over to a part of town where he wanted to show me a huge indoor market that was full of about 100 different tiny stands selling produce, cheese, spices, witchcraft supplies (really – this is alive and well, witness the healing outside the cathedral yesterday – Jorge called them “brujas blancas,” or white witches), meat, flowers, you name it. This one was about 4 times the footprint of the one from the first night in Plaza Garibaldi, and two stories high. Here I am with about 20 kinds of chiles, and Jorge says there about four times as many chiles in existence in Mexico. As usual, there is so much to see, and while it’s exhilarating, I keep in mind that we are just scratching the surface in this phenomenal city.
Jorge took me upstairs to a tiny shop where the two of us feasted for the whopping total of 8 dollars, and that was for both of us: a three-course meal of soup (mushrooms, huge things that are made when corn soaked in water is allowed to ferment – delicious), a broccoli version of a chile relleno, and a mushroom taco. Amazing. What the whole building reminded me of was a bigger Mexican version of the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. What fun. Jorge goes there a lot, so he introduced me to some of his vendor friends, including a sweet woman at the fish counter whose mom was born at Resurrection Hospital on the northwest side of Chicago. I said, “El mundo está muy pequena” (the world is very small), and she agreed.
Next was a visit to the motherlode of recorded sound, the Fonoteca Nacional. Oh my stars, is this place amazing. First, it’s an oasis of quiet in the upscale artsy neighborhood of Coyoacán (= the place of the coyotes in Nahuatl), and the grounds are beautiful.
The Fonoteca is six years old, a state-of-the-art high-tech archive with a mission to preserve, catalogue, and make available the entire history of recorded sounds in Mexico, from musical records to radio broadcasts and field recordings etc. It reminds of me of Smithsonian Folkways. Amazing. The lovely young man who helped us was Sergio Sandoval. He gave us a tour of the archival labs – very cool tools for cleaning old LPs and reel-to-reel tapes. Here’s the machine for de-gunking old LPs. The needle is not for playback – it’s for getting old dust and debris out of the grooves.
– and then of the “stacks” of old tapes and LPs (here’s Sergio).
Sergio then showed us the upstairs labs, where technicians and specialists create digitized copies of everything, listen carefully to make sure the digitized versions are clean-sounding, and work with subject matter experts to make sure things are catalogued properly and then backed up in a triple-redundant fail-over storage network. Here’s one such workstation.
When Jorge asked if they will do any cloud storage, Sergio replied “No, keep in mind that this is our national heritage here… we’re not giving anyone else this stuff.” But at least the third set of backups are stored offsite – very smart.
Sergio then took me and Jorge to another building that is more for the public, the “Audioteca Octavio Paz,” named after the famous poet, and located in what was Paz’s residence, a huge and elegant building. A young woman named Laura offered to help, and we decided that I’ll go back first thing tomorrow morning and start listening to stuff. Jorge has been raving about this ever since we started working together three years ago. It’s a dream come true for me to actually get to the Fonoteca. Not many people know about it, even in Mexico. It was also cool because Sergio speaks Spanish more slowly and precisely than many people I’ve met here, and I was able to track a gratifying amount of what he was saying.
After an hour or two walking around Coyoacán and talking with an organillo player – a street musician with a hand cranked pipe organ that holds little piano rolls of eight tunes, all Mexican traditional songs – we had a quick bite at a taco stand and looked at a few cafés that had interesting interior design.
Jorge decided to get extra close to one of the decorations. I couldn’t talk him out of it.
Then we headed over to the National Music School, where Jorge and I attended a rehearsal of “Staccato,” a ten-voice group of college students who are not music majors but pursuing other fields of study. I was really impressed with the quality of the ensemble, especially since these people are only doing music as an avocation. The director, Marco Ugalde, picks great repertoire for them; his favorite is contemporary repertoire from all over the world. Tonight he led them first in “Daemon Irrepit Calidus,” the famous piece by the Hungarian György Orbán – a piece for which Chicago a cappella recorded the Hinshaw Music demo about a decade ago. I was pleasantly surprised when Marco asked me if I wanted a whack at leading the kids in “Daemon,” so I did, and I think they liked what I did with the piece, emphasizing mostly things about articulation, bringing out the marcato and staccato sections. They also sang as a piece by the Mexican Jorge Cózatl, “El Cascabel,” and a piece written for a competition of new songs about New Mexico, which Jorge Córdoba won a few years ago with a cool piece called “Mi Ciudad.” It was fun to watch Jorge lead the group in his piece, which has very complex rhythms. A great day all around.
May 18 – Day 2
Not much time to write, as we have been so busy today! I will let the pictures tell the story, mostly. We hit the cathedral, and while walking past I got my first sighting of an organ grinder, who kindly let me hold the crank while Jorge took a picture.
(1) We visited the Templo Mayor, an archaeological museum that excavated the site of the former Aztec temple, literally a block away from the Cathedral. This was amazing.
(2) We went to the zocalo,the huge public square, and watched hundreds of Mayan/Aztec-inspired dancers and drummers who literally did their thing for hours.
Here’s Jorge with a big drum that someone was using.
(3) We had lunch at a rooftop restaurant that had a great view of the zocalo and the cathedral.
(4) We took the cathedral tower and bell tour, the highlight of which was the ringing of the two huge bells, one in each tower. After three initial slow bell rings, the tour guide flew through fifty “gongs” of the huge bell. Turns out that the number 50 is important in Eastertide. Then he did the same thing in Tower #2. The cathedral is awesome.
(5) We walked to the Museum de Bellas Artes and saw a cool exhibit about the history of male nudes. The exhibit was quite popular and very well done. (6) Jorge took me to the Palacio de las Bellas Artes, the big performing-arts venue that includes the home of the Ballet Folklórico de México, one of the crown jewels of the arts scene here. I bought some CDs of traditional Mexican melodies in the gift shop, as well as some whimsical postcards of dressed-up skeletons, riffing on the ever-popular motif of the Day of Dead. There’s one that looks like a spoof of American Gothic!
My Spanish is getting better, just being here. Late in the day, I told Jorge that I need a break… my brain was just hitting the wall of not being able to absorb more in this relatively new language (for me). So we switched to mostly English, and when I felt like I could handle it, I switched back to Spanish again. I am able to express about 60% of what I want to say in Spanish, which feels pretty good. The part that is harder is keeping up with people, though if I ask them to slow down I can catch a lot more of it. Mexicans talk more quickly than Cubans, for example.