Music and national identity

After listening to my string quartet “La Caresse du Couteau”, composer Toshio Hosokawa confessed to being disappointed at not finding any traces of Peruvian music in it. He then went on to encourage me to utilize folk music from my country in order to give my compositions a personal seal. After the lesson, I exchanged impressions with a Korean composer who had also had a meeting Mr. Hosokawa that same week. He had suggested her to infuse her music with references to her native homeland. I understand why he would say this; Hosokawa’s music is truly indebted to the music and culture of his native Japan; but I am not sure this formula works well for everybody. Later that same week, during a public conference, I told Hosokawa that the westernization of my native country and that of Japan were completely different. Peru is multiethnic; Japan is homogenous. In Japan, Westerners came gradually and the original culture was not entirely obliterated. The Conquest of Peru by Spain, on the other hand, was extremely violent and it brought along the imposition of a whole new set of values, including a new religion, a new language and the extermination of large part of the native population.

I lived in Lima until I was 21 years old and I had always considered myself a Limeño. I had no real connection with the Andes or the rainforest of Peru. I did not see myself as a direct descendent of the Incas or the Spaniards, I just saw myself as a city dweller who had more in common with an inhabitant of any other major city in the world than with a person from the Andes. Traffic, smog and the sea were real to me, while Machu Picchu, llamas and 3500 meters of altitude felt like a world apart. In other words, my understanding of my country was limited to my immediate surroundings. Luckily, this changed when I moved to Finland, where I gained perspective and took conscience of the multiplicity of cultures and races that make up my home country.

The classical music market is practically limited to Europe and the United States and any composer who wants to make an impact on the field usually needs to emigrate to one of those places -at least temporarily- to get an education or further his/her career. Most record labels, publishing houses and symphony orchestras are based there, and although there is a growing market in Asia; it will take some time until the latter can shift the balance. Latin America does not have many towering figures in the field, and my country is yet to produce one, as a result I have always been perceived as exotic. As an immigrant, one is faced with a dilemma. One can get absorbed into the culture, that is one can adapt to the local taste and therefore sound like another local composer, or one can exploit one’s exoticism by drawing on the native culture of one’s country of origin. I am yet to solve this dilemma for myself, but I am gradually reaching a middle ground where I start to feel more comfortable.

Commissioners and concert programmers are often concerned with ways to sell a product and the best way of doing this is by placing labels on composers. No matter how hard we try, we will be labeled eventually as “minimalist”, “spectral”, “microtonal” or any other easy-to-remember label that may suit their marketing strategies. In this context, those who are not originally from Europe or the US will be expected to bring something fresh and exotic to their music. This expectation can place some unfair pressure on the composer, but it is not to be dismissed entirely.

Enrique Iturriaga, my first composition teacher, advised me during a recent conversation to go back to Peru to teach to a new generation of composers. The offer is tempting because I want to contribute to the development of the musical scene in my country, but I am also conscious of the enormous limitations that a composer has to face back home. However, his most persuasive argument was that the place where a composer lives has a definite influence on his music. Plainly put, Sibelius would not be Sibelius had he moved permanently to Palm Springs in an early stage of his career. Now that I have gained a renewed interest in my own country I am tempted to go back there and admire the landscape, speak the language and breathe the culture so that these too can make their way through my music. However, the fact that I have lived abroad for more than a decade has turned me into a cosmopolitan person. I am no longer interested solely in the culture of Peru but also in other cultures, countries and past civilizations and I think this is a perfectly valid point, especially today where information travels fast and the world is more interconnected than ever before.

The name of Béla Bartók can’t be absent from any discussion dealing with music and national identity, precisely because he exemplifies the ideal of how a composer can create a personal language albeit rooted in the folk music of his/her country. My admiration for him is great but I feel neither well equipped nor motivated to conduct an exhaustive ethnomusicological research; instead I would work toward blending influences that have made a deep impression on me. In 2002 I wrote “Aires de Marinera”. This piece is inspired on a folk dance from the north of Peru called “Marinera”. I made every effort to make it mine by changing the harmonies, rhythmic patterns and timbral sonorities associated with this genre. The piece had to be scored for big band; a very interesting constraint, so I went on to study both, Marinera and the literature for Big Band. After the premiere, I asked a friend who is specialized in Jazz to listen to the recording. He said it was not accurate to say it was scored for Big Bang because although I was using the right instrumentation, the instrumental groups were not interacting in the same way they do in a traditional Big Band composition. He said it would be more accurate to say it was scored for wind ensemble. Intrigued, I went and asked a friend who was very knowledgeable in Marinera to listen to it. He said my piece could not be considered a Marinera at all because it lacked some of the basic traits that make up a Marinera. None of them liked the piece -unlike a group of colleagues and the also audience, who has always reacted positively. This experience made me realize that I had actually succeeded. The piece was neither a Marinera nor a piece for Big Band. It was something else; it was mine. I didn’t create a new genre, but I had assimilated and dissolved both genres to the point that they were almost unrecognizable and where my own musical language had prevailed. This was a valuable lesson for me. There are clear allusions to Peruvian dances in other works of mine (in some they are obvious in others less so) but what is important is to have control over these factors and not let the material overwhelm the composer, or else the composer will have simply succeeded in writing a good transcription.

In the end the question of whether there is still place for national identity in music is truly a personal one. There is no wrong or right answer. An artist needs to work with whatever inspires him or her. If this means writing music based upon the native culture of our own countries, so be it. If what inspires us is something completely foreign but equally fascinating for us, fine: go for it. We don’t need to create labels for ourselves; there will be plenty of people trying to do that for us. I know composers who seek to make political statements with every piece they write,  others prefer purely musical abstractions such as “piece for piano” or “suite for orchestra” while others draw on their country’s musical heritage. What is important is that, when writing music, composers are trying to express something meaningful to them at a very intimate level. If the subject of inspiration is not meaningful to the composer, it won’t make for a good piece of music. That at least, we can be sure of.

About Jimmy López Bellido

My name is Jimmy López Bellido and I am a composer. I was born in Lima, Peru 40 years ago and I have lived in several places including Miami, Helsinki, Paris, and now Berkeley, California. The decision to open a blog stems out of a personal need to voice my views on the situation of the contemporary composer in our world today. Through my words, I hope to spark constructive discussion on issues relevant to the aforementioned topic. I invite you to participate by expressing your thoughts and opinions and to visit my website, at Welcome!
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