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 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.