Friday, October 30, 2009

Sounds of the Modern Nation: Music, Culture, and Ideas in Post-Revolutionary Mexico.

By Alejandro L. Madrid.

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, November 2008. Cloth:

ISBN 978-1592136940, $54.50. 224 pages.

Review by Russell Cobb, University of Alberta

The work of twentieth-century Mexican painters looms large beyond the borders of Mexico. Indeed, many of the images we associate with Mexican identity were created by iconic artists such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. When it comes to modernist Mexican music, however, there is a rich and varied tradition that gets little attention outside its country of origin. In Mexico, meanwhile, this music has been overdetermined by the rhetoric of Mexican nationalism, according to Alejandro L. Madrid. In this book, Madrid examines the intersection of twentieth-century Mexican classical music and politics, a fertile terrain left largely unexplored by scholars. Madrid's ability to draw on theorists from anthropology, literary studies, and history lends the book breadth and depth, despite a rather jargon-laced, wordy style that bogs down the reader.What makes this terrain interesting, Madrid argues, is that Mexico produced at least three extraordinarily complex composers whose fates depended on their relationship to the emergence of a post-Revolutionary state in the 1920s. The Mexican Revolution began with the overthrow of the Europeanizing dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1911, but took so many twists and turns during the following violent decade that even scholars of the field have trouble keeping the names, dates, and factions straight. Unfortunately, Madrid does not help clarify matters, and readers are left to piece together the Mexican Revolution through outside reading. A brief overview of the Revolution would certainly have helped since, as Madrid says, the development of Mexican high culture depended upon the connections artists had to the emergence of a nationalist state that created the paradox of an "institutional revolutionary party," which would go on to dominate Mexican political life for over 50 years.

Madrid focuses on three composers, all of whom produced most of their work after the armed phase of the Revolution ended and the nationalist state consolidated its hegemony. These three composers represent different approaches to politics, aesthetics, and Mexican identity. The first, Julián Carrillo, was, perhaps, the most pro-European of the bunch. Carrillo identified his work with what he called "the glorious German music tradition." This was a tradition that was at the fore of the atonal music revolution in the early 20th century. Carrillo, with his Sonido 13, brought the atonal revolution to Mexico, while avoiding a simple mimicry of European innovations. Using Nestor Garcia Canclini's idea of hybrid cultures, Madrid argues that Carrillo was more than an imitator of Europe but that, in a chaotic society struggling with modernity and dominated by a Hispanic-Indigenous nationalism, there was no space for Carrillo. Indeed, Madrid provides a consistent critique of Mexican nationalist rhetoric in the arts. The writer-politician-educator José Vasconcelos is at the heart of this critique. Vasconcelos believed strongly in the idea of the Mexican race as a "cosmic race" and that artistic expression should reflect Mexico's "authentic" indigenous cultures. For Madrid, this quest for authenticity is an essentializing move, one that has the power to include and exclude works of art along purely ideological lines.

The one Mexican composer non-specialists may recognize is Carlos Chávez, the second of Madrid's subjects. Chávez towers over other musicians, Madrid suggests, because he was closely connected to powerful people, including Vasconcelos. Chavez attempted to synthesize Mexican folkloric music with European art music, and achieved international recognition for his works, including Energía and Exágonos. Chavez's career, in many ways, parallels that of Diego Rivera. Early on, they circulated in cosmopolitan avant-garde circles, then moved on to experiment with indigenous themes. Madrid argues that both Rivera and Chávez were canonized in official Mexican cultural history as nationalists, but their work contains "multiple identities." It is a compelling argument, but it remains unclear who is responsible for the one-dimensional legacy of these artists.

Finally, there the figure of Manuel M. Ponce, known as the "paladin of musical nationalism." Ponce is best known for compositions written for the Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia. Ponce's connections to Europe (he also spent time studying the latest in musical modernism in France) "cross-fertilized" his interest in Mexican folklore, creating a distinct hybrid sound. Ponce believed that reorganizing and reprocessing Mexican folks songs would "dignify" and "elevate" them as art music. It is an interesting story, and one that fits within the larger context of Mexican nationalism, which, at this time, was creating an idealized Indian mythology to represent that Revolutionary state. In this chapter, Madrid makes a curious digression into a discussion of Hispanic modernismo, claiming that it shares with European modernism a "crisis of language." This is quite a stretch and one that ends up confusing, rather than contextualizing, Ponce's contributions to the Mexican cultural scene.
The most serious flaw of the book, however, is stylistic in nature. Rather than launching into a discussion of music history, Madrid constantly describes the nature of his research. It is an annoying trope that is often found in dissertations; the author tells his readers that he will perform such and such an analysis rather than simply doing it. Furthermore, the book is weighted down by unnecessary trendy jargon that will likely sound dated in ten years. The effect of so much description is such that the entire book reads like an introduction. This reviewer was reminded of the old writing workshop adage: show, don't tell. For a story as interesting and vital as Madrid's, this is especially important, since the polemics and controversies of twentieth-century Mexican art music are not well known outside of Mexico. A tighter narrative with accessible prose would have done much to rectify this problem.

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