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Prof’s book examines long, bumpy musical relationship between U.S., Latin America

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Carol Hess, a UC Davis professor of music, will sign copies of her new book on Saturday at The Avid Reader. Philip Daley/Courtesy photo

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From page A3 | February 06, 2014 |

The United States and Latin America have had a long, complicated, alternately happy-and-unhappy relationship — and that assessment applies to the arts, as well as politics. While close together on the globe, Latin America and the United States sometimes seem far apart in other ways.

UC Davis music professor Carol Hess takes a deep look into this seldom-explored relationship in her new book “Representing the Good Neighbor: Music, Difference, and the Pan American Dream,” published recently by Oxford University Press.

Hess, who joined the UCD faculty as a musicology professor in 2012, will talk about the complicated musical relationship between the U.S. and Latin America, and sign copies of her book at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at The Avid Reader, 617 Second St. in downtown Davis.

She writes in the book’s early chapters about Mexican composer/conductor Carlos Chávez (1899-1978), who became a prominent artistic figure in his homeland, and then went to New York in the 1930s, where he befriended composer Aaron Copland.

Copland wrote an orchestral piece, “El Salón México,” incorporating Mexican folk music, and Chávez conducted the premiere, in Mexico. Copland’s piece later became quite popular in the United States.

And in New York, Chávez conducted a series of concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, when the orchestra’s famed conductor Arturo Toscanini was out of town. Chávez also composed the music for the ballet “H.P.” (standing for “Horsepower”), which was premiered in Philadelphia in 1932, with sets and costumes by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, and the eccentric conductor Leopold Stowkowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra leading the orchestra.

“H.P.” mixed images of traditional indigenous Yaqui culture with futuristic touches suggesting electricity and the industrial age. The ballet includes a “Dance of Men and Machines,” but did it foreshadow unity between tradition and technology, or the survival of hardy Latin American culture despite the growing dominance of modern technology? Critics and audiences weren’t sure what to make of it; “H.P.” is now very rarely performed.

Hess also writes of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), whose music was featured at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, an event that combined Pan American internationalism, brash corporate sponsorship and “world-of-tomorrow” displays (some of which look a bit quaint in retrospect).

At that time, political and artistic relations between the United States and Latin American were guided by President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy, which promoted the idea that the U.S. and Latin America had many things in common. Politicians played down the importance of the border between the United States and Mexico. This period of warm relations continued into the 1950s, when the U.S. pursued a “guest worker” policy that brought Mexican farm laborers into California’s fields.

But the advent of the Cold War — as the United States became increasingly preoccupied with determining which countries were allied with America and which were allied with the Soviet Union, and Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution led to chilly relations with some Latin American countries — transformed the realm of music as well.

“Everything changed very quickly,” Hess told The Enterprise. Latin American music was increasingly described as “exotic” or “national” — and composers also were criticized if they leaned too far to the left, Hess said. “The enemy was Communism.”

And Hess writes about American composer Frederic Rzewski, whose epic and inherently political 1975 piano piece “36 Variations on ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated!’ ” (based on a contemporary Chilean protest song) caused a stir at its premiere. Rzewski later performed the piece at the Mondavi Center in 2009, by which time it had become less politically controversial.

Things changed again in the 1980s and 1990s, as scholars in the United States — where the prevailing view had long been that “American” music began in New England in the years before 1776 — began exploring scores written in Mexico during the early 1700s, which was also the Baroque Era in Europe.

Albums of this Mexican music, released by the San Francisco vocal ensemble Chanticleer and other groups in the 1990s, drove home the realization that sophisticated music from Latin American composers had been performed during the 1700s in California, which is now part of the United States, but was then a province of the Spanish colony known as Mexico.

“There’s a whole century of music from the non-English-speaking world that was performed in parts of (what was then Mexico) that became part of the United States,” Hess observed.

At the bottom line, Hess pursues the question “What do we in the United States know about Latin American art music, and how do we know it?” And this question developed in part through her own experience.

Hess earned the first Ph.D in musicology granted by UCD, in 1994; her last year at UCD was also the first year that Argentine composer Pablo Ortiz served on the music faculty. She went to Spain in 1998, and then to Argentina in 2005 with support from the Fulbright Foundation. She taught at Michigan State near Lansing, and traveled to Detroit to see the famous murals that Mexican artist Diego Rivera painted at the Detroit Art Institute in the 1930s.

(Rivera also began a set of murals at Rockefeller Center in New York, but when he included an image of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, and refused a demand from Nelson Rockefeller that Lenin’s image be removed, Rockefeller had the mural destroyed before it was complete.)

And oh, how things have changed again within the past decade. The city of Detroit declared bankruptcy, and the Detroit Art Institute has been pressured to sell Rivera’s murals as a result. And Frida Kahlo — Rivera’s wife, an artist who played second fiddle to her husband during most of their marriage — became arguably better known than Rivera in many circles, as her troubled life became the topic of books, plays and films.

Much of the music of Carlos Chávez is now seldom heard, though his feisty “Sinphonía India” (based on the composer’s impression of indigenous Mexican music) is still performed with some regularity in the United States.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8055.

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