Afrocubanismo was an early 20th-century Cuban aesthetic movement that focused on the recognition, assimilation, and validation of the African cultural features present in Cuban society.
The new ethos found musical expression in a seminal group of composers whose works reflected neonationalistic musical concerns that emphasized the manipulation of timbral and rhythmic elements in a modern harmonic vocabulary. These experiments marked a significant juncture in the evolution of the Cuban concert repertoire, forging the representation of race and class at the intersection of art/popular and rural/urban music dichotomies and establishing a discursive site for the negotiation of national identities.
Ultimately, afrocubanismo provided a transition from nationalism to cosmopolitanism in Cuban concert music, and mediated between ethnicity and social class to articulate a Cuban national musical identity founded on the hybridity of African and Iberian-derived cultures.
This according to “The rhythmic component of afrocubanismo in the art music of Cuba” by Mario Rey (Black music research journal XXVI/2 [fall 2006] pp. 181–212).
Above, Wilfredo Lam’s La jungla, a celebrated example of afrocubanismo in painting; below, excerpts from Almadeo Roldán’s Ritmicas, one of the works discussed in the article.
In 2016 Studien-Verlag launched the series Schriftenreihe des Archivs der Zeitgenossen with Mechanismen der Macht: Friedrich Cerha und sein musikdramatisches Werk.
Founded in 2009, the Archiv der Zeitgenossen (archive of contemporaries) is a collection of artists’ estates donated both during their lifetimes and posthumously. Established by the state of Lower Austria, it is housed at the Donau-Universität Krems, which curates it.
The inaugural volume of the series draws on the archive’s Friedrich Cerha collection, which documents Cerha’s life, primarily as composer and conductor, but also as musician, musicologist, scholar of German literature, teacher, private person, and public figure. The archival holdings provide scholars with a unique source for studying Cerha’s musical work, and also contain a wealth of materials on questions regarding cultural politics, reception history, media studies, and musicology.
Below, excerpts from Cerha’s Onkel Präsident, one of the works discussed in the book.
In 2016 the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro launched MusMat: Brazilian journal of music and mathematics, which brings together articles, interviews, and news on the interactions between music and mathematics in applications in analysis and composition. The journal is peer-reviewed and open-access.
Below, a work by Rodolfo Coelho de Souza, who discusses his compositional methods in the inaugural issue.
Central among Lou Harrison’s pioneering East-West fusions, his works for gamelan and Western instruments are frequently cited either as exemplars of the composer’s Californian, postmodern musical sensibility, or as noteworthy instances of cultural hybridity. However, close examination of Main bersama-sama (1978) and Bubaran Robert (1976/1981) shows that these pieces can and should be understood for what they tell us about Harrison’s deep engagement with melody.
Harrison has mistakenly been regarded as a West Coast musical dabbler, writing tuneful pieces that lack the complexity that characterizes the work of his East Coast contemporaries. Yet analysis of the pitch structure of these pieces reveals intricate compositional games similar to the pre-compositional strategies of composers more typically associated with algorithmic compositional methods. Because these intricacies lie beneath the melodic surface of the music they have largely been unheard and unappreciated in Harrison’s work.
The melodic nature of these games challenges the widely accepted depiction of Harrison as a mere tunesmith, showing how he explored the ability of melody—as opposed to large-scale tonal or harmonic schemes—to create form and serve a central generative function in his music.
This according to “Unheard complexities in Lou Harrison’s Main bersama-sama and Bubaran Robert” by Rachel Chacko (Journal of the Society for American Music VII/3 [August 2013] pp. 265–94).
Today is Harrison’s 100th birthday! Below, the two pieces in question.
Heitor Villa-Lobos’s choro no. 10 (Rasga o coração) is a choral-symphonic tour de force that expresses the composer’s ardent nationalism through some of the most progressive compositional techniques of the mid-1920s.
The work’s opening imparts impressions of Brazil’s sonorous natural riches with indigenous melodies and birdsongs, providing an extended prelude to the choral section. The mixed chorus functions at the same level of value and distinction as that of the orchestral architecture, singing vocables meant to evoke aboriginal languages. With the appearance of the Rasga o coração melody, according to the composer, “the Brazilian heart becomes one with the Brazilian land.”
This according to Heitor Villa-Lobos: The search for Brazil’s musical soul by Gerard Béhague (Austin: University of Texas, 1994, pp. 87–96).
Today is Villa-Lobos’s 130th birthday! Above, the composer ca. 1922; below, a performance by Orquestra Sinfônica Municipal de Campinas.
No other Brazilian musician has had as profound an impact on popular music as Antônio Carlos Jobim. He was at the vanguard of the Música Popular Brasileira movement, a cultural and sociological revolution of artists who shared a proclivity for flouting musical convention, and his 1959 Chega de saudade was fundamental in establishing the genre that became known as bossa nova.
While Jobim’s compositions contained elements of traditional Brazilian samba as well as classical and traditional music, his sophisticated harmonic sensibilities, adventurous approach to voice leading, and passion for tinkering with the traditional syntax and imagery of pop lyrics made him one of the most original and innovative musicians of his time.
This according to “Jobim, Antonio Carlos” by Jim Allen (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 489); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today would have been Jobim’s 90th birthday! Below, singing his celebrated Águas de Março with Elis Regina, perhaps his greatest interpreter.
BONUS: Gal Costa sings Jobim’s Chega de saudade, often cited as the first bossa nova song.
Ulysses Kay’s larger works have received world-wide acclaim, but his instrumental works, particularly the compositions for flute, have received far less attention.
Kay conceived of his Prelude for unaccompanied flute (1943) as an etude for developing proper breathing techniques, and its metronome marking 50 beats per minute creates long dramatic phrases that challenge the stamina of young flute players (indeed, most recordings of it are a bit faster).
The work is based in the key of D minor, with modal mixtures disguised by smooth voice leading; it seems to evade a true cadence until the last note. The tonality shifts at organized points in the structure of the music: Each section is marked by a new statement of the theme presented in a different register and a new key.
This according to Music for Flute by Ulysses Kay (1917-1995): A descriptive analysis with performance notes for three selected works by La-Tika Shanee’ Douthit, a dissertation accepted by the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, in 2013.
Today would have been Kay’s 100th birthday! Below, a performance by Kedgrick Pullums, Jr.
Today Oscar Levant is widely remembered for his mordant wit, his virtuoso interpretations of George Gershwin’s piano music, and his cameo appearances in numerous films. Fewer people realize that he was also a highly regarded composer who had studied with Arnold Schoenberg.
Levant’s hero worship of Gershwin stunted his confidence as a songwriter and a classical composer, though one of his pop songs, Blame it on my youth, has become a standard. Colleagues including Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson all considered him an immensely gifted composer.
This according to A talent for genius: The life and times of Oscar Levant by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (New York: Villard, 1994; reprint Los Angeles: Silman-James, 1998).
Today would have been Levant’s 110th birthday! Below, Nat Cole’s classic recording of Blame it on my youth.
BONUS: The 1942 premiere of Levant’s piano concerto.
Virgil Thomson first met Gertrude Stein in the winter of 1925–26. Early in 1927 he asked her to write an opera libretto, and the plans for Four saints in three acts began to take shape; the text was completed in June of that year and the music was finished in July 1928.
The opera concerns two Spanish saints, Teresa of Ávila and Ignatius of Loyola, who are surrounded by groups of young religious figures. In fact the work has four acts and over 30 saints. A compère and commère introduce the characters and announce the progress of the action. The strangely haunting and at times repetitive poetry of Stein is declaimed by the singers in a musical language derived from many sources, including Gregorian and Anglican chant, children’s songs, and Sunday School hymn singing, with a harmonious accompaniment for small orchestra. Although the setting of the words is deceptively simple and direct, there are considerable subtleties in the music to parallel the implied imagery of the words.
Four saints in three acts was first heard in Hartford, Connecticut, in February 1934, produced by an organization called the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music. When the production moved to New York City it created theatrical history with its all-black cast. The opera received over 60 performances within a year, and Thomson’s reputation was made almost overnight.
This according to “Thomson, Virgil Garnett” by Neil Butterworth (Dictionary of American classical composers, 2nd ed. [Abington: Routledge, 2005] pp. 456–59); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Thomson’s 120th birthday! Above, the 1934 New York production; below, the opening of Mark Morris Dance Group’s 2006 production.
BONUS: A brief documentary with archival footage from 1934, including the voice of Gertrude Stein.
A winner of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award, Paul Creston was entirely self-taught as a composer.
Nevertheless, he was the author of three books on composition—Principles of rhythm (1964), Creative harmony (1970), and Rational metrical notation (1979)—and contributed many articles to various musical periodicals; he wrote the first three, on dance, when he was only 17 years old.
This according to “Creston, Paul” by Neil Butterworth (Dictionary of American classical composers, 2nd ed.  pp. 100–101); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today is Creston’s 110th birthday! Below, the opening of his Concertino for marimba and orchestra (1940).