Jonathan’s Mexico Trip - Part 3

May 24, 2014

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!

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.

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