wait a moment

Mesias Maiguashca and the Ivory Tower

…por el Yasuní… and why not …for Standing Rock…?

by Pablo Santiago Chin

Art’s Ivory Tower?

The creative impulse is as natural to humans as our instinct for survival. Even the history that traces mankind’s creativity became a creative substance. When entering the realm of Western art, creativity eventually resulted in an aesthetic duality. This dual perspective was first manifested between cosmic proportions (mathematics) and the representation of affect (rhetoric); later between disinterested pleasure or non-utilitarian art (Kant) and art that moralizes and is capable of mirroring the world through formal representation (Hegel). Today that duality has morphed into the insular artistic quest for novelty rooted in technicism and indifferent to morals (displacing Kantian beauty), and a subversive utopia pairing art with social revolution (Marx replacing Hegel). Traits of social conformism against subversion oppose both of these approaches.

Mesias Maiguashca’s …por el Yasuní… for violin, cello and electronics, embodies the conflict of art’s ultimate purpose. In this piece Mesias expresses his concern about “the enormous gap between ‘sympathizing’ [with a social cause] and ‘acting’ [on its behalf], to keep living in the proverbial ‘ivory tower.’” …por el Yasuní… was composed in 2015, approximately a year after a massive celebration of a referendum to stop the large scale plans to drill oil in the Amazons’ Yasuní park in his native Ecuador.

“It seems that poems and the songs of protest and liberation are always too late or too early: memory or dream,” said Herbert Marcuse in his An Essay on Liberation. But Marcuse finds value in subversive artworks “in their refusal of the actual,” and elevates them to forms of sensibility that will have an impact in future times. Sincere artworks of protest do not exist in vain, and their capacity to transform societies is not necessarily surpassed by the immediacy of politics, or by philosophy’s prophetic aura. But how long should it take for a “song of protest” to permeate society’s sensibility and propel political change? Drawing parallels between the Yasuní, and the recent tensions in South Dakota’s Standing Rock may situate Maiguashca’s work in a more illuminating position, one that is further away from the “ivory tower.”  

Yasuní and Standing Rock

The Yasuní National Park in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest and the Standing Rock Indian Reserve in South Dakota hold remarkable similarities. Both territories are about the same size (over 9,000 km2), are inhabited by native peoples, and are greatly valued for their natural environments. Despite these similarities, there are also significant differences. While Yasuní is considered by many to house the richest biodiversity in the planet, a true wildlife sanctuary, Standing Rock is more precious for its water resources, which are vital to its native tribes; and, while these native tribes in Standing Rock (mainly the Sioux people) have been systematically confined to this territory by the US authorities since the 19th century, the tribes in the Yasuní are uncontacted people since they live in voluntary isolation.

Yasuní and Standing Rock also share turbulent destinies driven by the rampant expansion of the oil industry. While an area of the Yasuní known as ITT hides crude oil reserves under its subsoil worth more than $3,000 million, Standing Rock supposes the “best” route to transport oil from North Dakota to Illinois through the controversial pipeline project known as DAPL: one more venture of the capitalist project to mitigate its boredom under the promise of a better quality of life for the masses. In the meantime, the Nation of the Sioux and other Native Americans in the South Dakota reserve remain poorer than the true beneficiaries of DAPL, similar to previous exploitative expeditions by the ruling class (1). In Ecuador, the promise represented by the world’s first constitution to protect Nature’s rights was undermined by a lost battle against the most appreciable source of wealth worldwide: oil.

The oil drilling project in Yasuní was confronted by the national population, led by environmental groups that gathered enough signatures to call for a national referendum to decide Yasuní’s future. The festive handing of the signatures to government officials in 2014 is what Maiguashca re-contextualizes in …por el Yasuní…, despite the boycott to the referendum that later followed by suspiciously corrupt, official means. While the efforts to protect the Yasuní may have failed, DAPL was suspended after the bravery of protesters who peacefully claimed their rights over the land in question. However, the shadow of a new US government that denies climate change and threatens a nuclear arms race may raise suspicion about a permanent cease of DAPL activities (2). In light of the Sioux’s recent victory but perhaps imminent defeat, why not …after Standing Rock…? In other words, can art transform society’s sensibility and aid in the creation of “an environment in which the non-aggressive, erotic, receptive faculties of man, in harmony with the consciousness of freedom, strive for the pacification of man and nature”? (3).

…por el Yasuní…

Composed in 2015, Maiguashca’s …por el Yasunícenters around the emergence and dissipation of the acoustic ambience recorded during the public demonstration of 2014 in support of protecting the Yasuní. A duet of violin and cello guides these snippets of the pre-recorded sounds by an electronic setup using two vocoders assigned to each instrument. The vocoders filter the sound of the recorded demonstration so that the output resonates with the amplitude and spectrum of the violin and cello (4). The duet punctuates the experience of the demonstration through seventeen sections interrupted by pauses. The spontaneous folklore radiated from the ambience contrasts with the rigorously meditated textures of the string instruments. The piece is a dance between two classical players; between a string duet and a memory; between Mesias’ two worlds, the Andes and the metropolis (5).      

Among a myriad of narratives suggested by …por el Yasuní…, the struggle to preserve the piece’s identity while reconciling heterogeneous materials renders intense expressivity. Such struggle also echo Mesias’ lifelong search for his own identity. Despite the array of string gestures and textural changes mirroring the diversity of voices heard in the recording, the duet remains static in its linear unfolding, in part due to fragmentation. Meanwhile, the sounds in the recording progressively bloom from voices of people towards tonal harmonies and gestures of folk music. Thus, tension is created by the contrast between the fragmentary design of the piece and the continuous flow of the pre-recorded public manifestation.

The pervasive silences interrupting the flow in several of Maiguashca’s works reflect an aesthetic choice that resonates with his calm temperament. These moments of sound dissolution may also find further meaning in his recent 8 ejercicios para oír lo inaudible. Composed for and premiered in Chicago by Fonema Consort last year, the pauses in this piece were a response to the rituals of the Shipibos people of Peru,  according to which songs may be sung from a human to another human, or to a spirit, or from a spirit to another spirit (6). Thus in 8 ejercicios each pause invites the musicians and audience to listen to the “spirits” in whatever way they please.

Is it a Question of Decibels?

Returning to Marcuse’s proposed “new sensibility,” music in the late 20th century elevated quietude to the aesthetic core of several composers’ work: Luigi Nono, Salvatore Sciarrino, John Cage, Morton Feldman and currently the Wandelweiser composers, to name a few. Webern may have been the transitional link between the massive forces and grandeur inherited by the late Romantics and a microcosmic, laconic form of expression that continues to inspire young composers today (7).   

However, returning to the question of whether art could be a transformative agent of society’s’ consciousness, can the sensibility suggested by the silent works of these composers permeate the senses of the masses that ideally aspire to shape the destiny of civilization? In other words, can the quietude (both in terms of audibility and accessibility (8)) of works like those of Maiguashca match the power (beyond decibels!) of popular genres like Rock and Pop to exercise social change for better or for worse? Can Mesias’ piece actively engaged with crises like those of Yasuní and Standing Rock?

My initial response is affirmative, perhaps in self-justification of my own compositional work, but also because of the people I have known, who found hope for alternative forms of life in the quietude of works like those of Maiguashca. Collective imagination arguably begins with inner experience. The human experience of the world from birth to death is one of solitude, given that we are imprisoned in our bodies. In solitude, sensorial and rational experiences converge into imagination, and imagination sublimates when “it creates realms of freedom” (9).

Both the individual and society nurture each other’s forms of experience, and therefore their ability to create. It is possible, then, for an individual whose sensibility has been transformed by introverted art (in that it resists the mass’ experience), to create change when assuming the role of social agent.      

Maiguashca’s Struggle: Identity, Society and Music

When asked in an interview by Santiago Rosero about his indigenous heritage (10) Mesias admitted that until recently, it was an embarrassment and a burden. Ironically, it was in Europe where he was freed from social pressure and realized that what he considered to be flaws were identity traits. Mesias also recounted to Rosero how, while growing up in Ecuador, he was exposed to the “chicherías” (11) on a daily basis, in which folkloric music took over the streets. Later, when practicing Schubert at home during his studies at the conservatory, the sound of his piano fused with the national music outdoors. For Mesias there was no distinction between the two musics.   

…por el Yasuní… embodies the composer’s inner and autobiographical struggles starting with the disparate components of the piece: Western classical instruments, electronic intervention, European avant-garde tradition, Ecuadorian folklore, notated music, and spontaneous voices of people in the streets (as heard in the tape part). In the music of Maiguashca the conflict between seemingly dissimilar means and materials leads into a unified body of work. If such a fruitful fusion is possible in art, why not imagine a world in which human and nature, human and human, and human and spirit (as in the Shipibos) serve to raise one another?

In response to my question of how Mesias feels after the unfolding of the Yasuní conflict since he composed …por el Yasuní…, he says: “I have tried to understand the mechanisms of power that propel the world. On the one hand it frustrates me enormously how blind these mechanisms are. On the other hand, I believe that the human community is permeated by an essential element that has allowed, and will allow its subsistence: pragmatism. That means, I am convinced that humanity will find answers to any obstacle: trial and error. It’s my way of being optimistic.”  

(1) Among several crises, the opposition of the Lakota people to illegal white settlement at Black Hills in Dakota territory due to a gold rush, led to war in 1874 between Sitting Bull’s rebellion and General George Armstrong Custer’s troops.     

(2) This essay was finished in December of 2016. Though suggested by its author, he did not foresee the quick presidential memorandum of January 24, pushing to re-activate the DAPL project.

(3) Marcuse, Herbert. An Essay on Liberation by Herbert (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1969), 27.

(4) A vocoder analyzes and transforms an “audio” signal according to a “control” signal. In …por el Yasuní… the instruments function as “control” and the demonstration as “audio.” The recording of the demonstration thus reacts to and is transformed by the instrumental parts.

(5) Here I inevitably think of the “Madison Dance Scene” in Godard’s Band of Outsiders in which Anna Karina, Sami Frey, and Claude Brasseur dance to a music which is not the one used in the film (or they dance to silence, as has been speculated by critic Richard Brody). The ambience and music is interrupted three times during which Godard’s voice, as an omniscient narrator describes the inner thoughts of the characters. The dance only slightly aligns with the dubbed music. Thus the dancers, music and narrator parallel the instruments, pre-recorded sounds and silences in …por el Yasuní…. Here I wonder if the pre-recorded sounds could be replaced by the chants and drumming of the Yakama Nation from Washington State who joined the protests in Standing Rock, and preserve its integrity, just as the music of Michel Legrand was dubbed in Godard’s famous scene. More notable in regards to this comparison between Mesias’ piece and Godard’s scene is the potential of the silences in the former’s work to be filled by the audience’s reflections on what they hear, and not by a divine voice.    

(6) Mesias learned about the Shipibos in September of 2015, at a symposium in Montevideo, after a lecture by Bernd Brabec de Mori titled Las canciones de los espíritus: una antropología de lo inaudible.

(7) See David Metzer’s Modern Silence in the Journal of Musicology, Vol. 23 No. 3, Summer 2006; (pp. 331-374). Metzer examines silence in modernist expression through the work of Webern, Nono and Sciarrino.

(8) Accessible here should be understood as a facilitation of art to the public, as opposed to the idea that such art can only be grasped by intellectual elites.          

(9) According to Marcuse in his Essay on Liberation, “when Kant, in his third Critique, all but obliterated the frontiers between sensibility and imagination, he recognized the extent to which the senses are ‘productive,’ or creative — the extent to which they have a share in producing the images of freedom. For its part, the imagination depends on the senses which provide the experiential material out of which the imagination creates its realm of freedom, by transforming the objects and relationships which have been the data of the senses and which have been formed by the senses.”  

(10) Mesias Maiguashca: músico sapien sapiens by Santiago Rosero (trans. By Pablo Santiago Chin), retrieved from http://www.revistamundodiners.com/?p=2318

(11) Chicherías are popular festivities in Central and South American countries where the drinking of “chicha,” an alcoholic beverage made of fermented grains, most commonly corn, is celebrated.

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