Roberto Sierra, Cantares

by Roberto Sierra

Written for the concert Music U., performed on April 19, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born October 9, 1953 in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico
Composed in 2014–15
Performance Time: Approximately 25 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (suspended cymbal, tamtam, bass drum, snare drum, xylophone, temple blocks, marimba, güiro, glockenspiel, maracas, vibraphone, bongos, congas, claves, tom-toms), 1 piano, 1 harp, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, 6 double basses, and chorus

When I was asked to write this work my initial impulse was to compose music that would evoke lost voices in time. I searched for texts that dated back in history and memory, and the inspiration for the first movement was drawn from a 17th century manuscript book of prayers that contains the hymn Hanacpachap cussicuinin written in Quechua and published in 1631 in Cuzco, Peru. This early syncretic attempt is fascinating and triggered in my mind many questions about how this music may have unfolded. At the end I decided not to reconstruct the sound or the way the hymn would have been played, but rather create my own modern reflection on a beautiful text and four voice polyphony written around 400 years ago. The text combines both the ideas and concepts coming from the Quechua culture and the Christian concept of the mother of God.

Canto Lucumí traces its ancestry to Afro Cuban ritual music of West African origins. The text consists of incantations that have been phonetically transcribed into Spanish. The meaning of the words is sometimes obscure, but what really interested me was how they sounded and their fascinating rhythmic quality. The floating nature of music and the use of extended vocal techniques of sibilant noise and percussive sounds enhance the mystery already embedded in the original texts.

The orchestral interlude is a meditation on the two previous movements and brings together the intervallic structure that has dominated both the melodic and harmonic content of the work. An interval sequence of a minor third and a second is the seed that generates the musical fabric. This intervallic sequence also determines the central note for each movement. The idea of 3 and 2 also permeates the rhythmic cells used throughout the work.

In Suerte lamentosa, a 1528 poem is superimposed to another 16th century text by the Spaniard Bernal Diaz del Castillo; is the telling of tragic events that occurred during the conquest of the Aztec Empire. These narratives offer two perspectives: one from the viewpoint of the invader and another from those fighting the invasion.

Roberto Sierra is Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Cornell University.