Thursday, February 11, 2010

“The Cuban Thing”

So now I'm waiting for the last few orchestral parts for the opera to arrive from the copyist so I can proofread them. This is a process that began back in September, I think. First came the strings: they're the fussiest, and the concertmaster just finished a couple of weeks ago bowing the string parts (and found a few more errors or questions). After sending the corrections back to the copyist, he will prepare the bound parts for the orchestra and I will prepare the final score with all the tiny edits and corrections — until, who knows, we hear the orchestra play it and I might want to make more changes! But at that stage it becomes difficult to make big changes; tweaks might be OK. Brass mutes on or off? That's a big color change, but we need to hear the balance with the voices. Frankly, I can't wait not to have to make any more edits or changes to the score: it can be endless! Right now the deadline is March 1, when I will send two copies of the final score to the company: one for the conductor (Joe Illick) and one for the orchestra librarian. Now, back to the backstory:


I deeply hated the wave of identity politics that was beginning to sweep American culture in the 80’s and 90’s; I had grown up with the, to me, superior myth of the melting pot. I was born in Cuba the year Castro took power, but my family fled when I was five, and I went to school from grade one in the United States — New Jersey, to be exact. Union City, where we lived for most of my time growing up, boasted at that time one of the largest concentrations of Cubans outside of Cuba itself. Older Cuban exiles, like my parents, had a choice of Spanish language newspapers and television stations, and plenty of acquaintances from Cuba nearby, so learning English — a difficult task for the older folks — was not a pressing need. So the elders did not “melt,” but as a kid I picked up English fast and instinctively preferred to “melt” into the wider pot. Nevertheless, I had to keep my Spanish, because my parents spoke only Spanish, and they did not want me to forget the mother tongue — for which I am very grateful.

From the start, as a little child in Cuba, the music I loved was “Classical” music, unequivocally. I was one of those children who found their task in life very early and stuck to it, with my parents’ blessing. Later, when, as a young adult at a social gathering in New York City, I would meet someone and introduce myself — “Jorge,” an exotic name — the following pattern often ensued:
“Where are you from?”
“I was born in Cuba.”
“Oh, and you say you’re a composer. Do you write Cuban music?”
“Well, no, I write classical music.”
“And do you use Cuban influences in your music?”
Disappointment, incredulity, visible end of interest in my interlocutor.

This syndrome was not uncommon, from what I could tell. Cuban music had given the world many great dance forms, so on the one hand, as a Cuban it seemed perverse not to participate in one’s heritage. But from within the classical music world, I also felt withering disdain if one sullied the modern (essentially European) “serious” tradition with those unserious Caribbean dance rhythms. They make you want to dance and move your hips, and the music I was studying at Columbia — which I often intensely disliked — rigorously avoided anything like a steady beat. So I was caught between two worlds.

The identity politics, which essentially hold that if you are X you do all things X, (and to do things Y made you inauthentic) rubbed me the wrong way. Where in this mode of thought is autonomy, or the imagination, mankind’s greatest gift, without which empathy is impossible? And who are you to tell me who I am and what I am supposed to be doing, if I am to be authentic? So the thought of me, who am, among other things, Cuban, gay, an artist, writing an opera about a protagonist who was, among other things, saliently, Cuban, gay, and an artist, immediately sent me running in the other direction. The last thing I wanted to do was play that identity game!

But darn it all, Before Night Falls was such a great story! I realized, to exclude a possibility out of hand was as reflexive a response, and as mindless, as to include only certain possibilities. To deny myself this opportunity, out of my own anti-ideology, was as much to cave in to outside pressure, to another ideology, to toe a different party line. And the character of Reinaldo kept calling me back: what a spirit! If ever there was someone who could hold the stage, whose passion was eminently singable and lyrical, this was it! I figured, let me give it a try.

Next: where to begin?!

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