Jonathan’s Mexico Trip - Part 8

Jun 8, 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!

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.


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