In mid-November 2015, The American Composers Forum will lead an artist delegation of 15 composers and musicians to the 28th annual Havana Contemporary Music Festival at the invitation of festival director Guido López Gavilán, one of Cuba’s most celebrated composers and conductors. We recruited LA-based composer Sage Lewis to interview Maestro López Gavilán to learn more. Lewis is a frequent visitor to Cuba, who for over 15 years has worked with Cuban and American artists to co-create multimedia productions using music, art, film, and theater.
What is the history of the Havana Contemporary Music Festival and what are your expectations with the American Composers Forum participating this year?
The Festival was initiated in 1984 by the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). We have held it annually, except in 1992 when the economic crisis in Cuba prevented it. Among its founders are composers Harold Gramatges, Carlos Fariñas, Leo Brouwer, Juan Blanco and Roberto Valera, together with musicians Evelio and Cecilio Tieles. Since 1993 I have been the Festival chairman.
The Festival is marked by our breadth of musical programming in which different generations of Cuban composers are included, along with the most renowned international artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Each year we premiere numerous works performed by our most prominent musicians, as well as excellent artists from many different countries. Conferences, lectures, discussions and theoretical meetings complement the week of intense musical exchange. The National Symphony Orchestra, the leading choirs in our country, and the most prominent soloists and chamber groups have all become part of this tradition. Electroacoustic music also has its place in the events.
During these years we have been proud to feature composers as prestigious as Krzsystof Penderecki, Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze, Tadeuz Baird, Sten Hanson, Gerardo Gandini, Marlos Nobre, and Ramón Barce, among many who have honored us with their presence. The participation of selected composers and musicians of the American Composers Forum in this upcoming Festival has aroused great interest in the public and Cuban musicians. We are excited to hear their works, share with them our music, and strengthen our friendship.
What are your hopes for contemporary music in Cuba and the United States with the improved relationship between our governments?
Notwithstanding the political restrictions that have hindered visits by US artists, we have still been able to enjoy on many occasions the presence of excellent musicians from the United States in our Festival. Americans have always received a warm welcome from the Cuban public. Our new political situation promises to foster a boom in exchange between our peoples. We hope that this new era not only provides more knowledge of musical works, but also that the artists and performers of both countries arise with new initiatives to achieve greater cooperation.
From your perspective as a musician, what is the importance of music to Cuban culture and where is Cuban music headed?
Music has played a leading role in the formation of the Cuban nationality. Here there has been a fusion of musical elements that originated mainly on the African and European continents that have given rise to a rich music with its own unique characteristics. It is also important to note the significant presence of American musical elements in different genres of Cuban music and vice versa. The presence of our rhythms in North American genres have been very influential, especially during the first half of the twentieth century.
Cuban music depends on its artists, both of traditional and contemporary genres. One of our greatest assets is jazz. Throughout every period, excellent jazz artists have emerged here on piano, trumpet, saxophone, guitar and percussion. It is common to find jazz elements in choral and chamber compositions of our most recent generations. The formation of excellent musicians that graduate from our art schools ensures a good future for Cuban music. But we need to achieve a wider dissemination for our music of higher artistic levels. It is common for the media to propagate an imbalance of our music that is more superficial.
What specifically are you exploring and investigating in your music today and what kind of work are you writing now?
Like most composers I explore many different facets through my work. But I could say that in my music it is often possible to find elements of Cuban popular music that are elaborated on with the resources of contemporary art music such as poly-harmony, aleatoric elements, and extended techniques. There is usually a strong dose of humor and joy present. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t also transmit ideas of solemnity, sentimentality, or dramatic climax that are often required in a sonic message.
Currently I am working on a chamber opera that is about the great Cuban composer Alejandro García Caturla who was killed in 1940 when he was only 34 years old. I am also writing the libretto, examining the life of Garcia Caturla through his convictions, his conflicts, and his dialogue with life and death. I hope to finish the work soon to premiere in 2016.
Who are other compelling Cuban composers we might not yet know in the U.S., due to restricted cultural exchange over the past 50 years?
Fortunately, there are several generations of Cuban composers who are in full swing. Every year numerous works by dozens of artists are premiered in the Havana Contemporary Music Festival. Some have long and prestigious careers, such as the teacher Alfredo Diez Nieto who next month will turn 97 years old. There are others who are in their 20s, such as José Victor Gavilondo, Wilma Alba Cal, Ariannys Marino, Ernesto Oliva, Victor Pelegrin, Javier Iha, Maureen Reyes, and Jorge Denis. Some of our remarkably talented composers have obtained grants or scholarships from foreign universities where they are developing their work. This is the case of Louis Aguirre, Keyla Orozco, Ailem Carvajal, Evelin Ramon, and Monica O’Reilly (whose ages range between 30 and 40). Other older composers reside in Cuba where they develop their creative work and teach at different levels of our musical education system. They have been planting seeds for many years and continue to work for the future: Roberto Valera, Juan Piñera, Hector Angulo, José Loyola, Jorge Garcíaporrúa, Jorge Lopez Marin, Eduardo Martín, Beatriz Corona. This generation follows the pathways bequeathed by Cuban composers Carlos Fariñas, Harold Gramatges, Juan Blanco, and Edgardo Martin.
There are also Cuban composers who live or spend most of their time abroad such as Leo Brouwer, Aurelio de la Vega, Tania León, Sergio Fernández Barroso, and Flores Chaviano. Our composers enrich our music internationally, both from here in Cuba and from other countries.