Cuban Music Festival Performs Score By Haverford Professor
Ingrid Arauco was one of 10 American composers, chosen from over 400 submissions, to be played at the Havana Festival of Contemporary Music, which she also got to attend.
Cuba has been in the headlines a lot recently as the U.S. begins thawing relations with its southern island neighbor, reopening its embassy and reinstating commercial air travel and direct mail for the first time in more than a half century. But for Professor of Music Ingrid Arauco, the largest island in the Caribbean was more than just a place to read about—it was a destination.
"It was amazing," says Arauco of her weeklong trip. "It has really changed my perspective on a lot of things. What was particularly poignant is that Cuba is so close to the United States. You feel like you are so far away, yet you are only 40 minutes from Miami."
Arauco was part of a delegation of 10 composers and six instrumentalists chosen by the American Composers Forum (ACF) to bring American contemporary classical music to Cuba for the 28th annual Havana Festival of Contemporary Music in November. She and the nine other composers from across the U.S. were selected from a pool of over 400 applicants who answered ACF's call for submissions of scores that chamber ensemble Third Sound, featuring flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, could perform. Arauco's piece, Fantasy Quartet, which was written in 2001 and uses all the ensemble's instruments but the flute, was chosen and played by Third Sound in an evening devoted to American contemporary classical music at the Basílica Menor de San Francisco de Asís.
"The concert was very beautifully put together as a listening experience and to showcase the great stylistic diversity that exists in American music today," says Arauco. "There were pieces all over the map, just in terms of their emotional message and in terms of their styles. I thought that the musicians did an amazing job of presenting a portrait of what’s going on here now, musically."
In addition to their own concert, the American delegates attended other festival performances and receptions and made time to meet with Cuban composers and musicians. Arauco was especially inspired by the level of musicianship she witnessed in even some of the youngest performers. "It was really impressive and a testament to the role of music education in their system of education," she says.
Since Cuba has been closed to American tourists (and still, technically, is for those not going for one of the 12 legal categories of travel, which include academic programs, journalistic or religious activities, and public performances), there is a shortage of hotels and tourist infrastructure on the island. So the ACF delegation, who were without the working cellphones, credit cards, and reliable internet access that usually aid modern travelers, stayed in casas particulares, rented rooms in private family homes, which allowed them to get to know Havana locals outside the festival.
"Everyone I met, from the family at the apartment where I was staying, to the composers, to the other artists that we met were unfailingly gracious," says Arauco. "There were some really quite moving moments. I remember at one reception, one of the Cuban composers said, 'We are so glad you came.' And you see what it means to them. Things don’t change overnight, but the human contact—interacting one person to another—is very important. This is how you are going to rebuild a relationship, one person at a time, seeing beyond political events and conditions, and just relating on purely human terms and artistic terms."
Arauco is still digesting everything she experienced and learned during her trip to Cuba, but she is eager to continue the exchange with the composers she met and perhaps return to the island for more interaction with them in a more casual atmosphere, outside of a busy music festival. She also expects that the trip will influence her classwork at Haverford. Arauco was especially energized by the way the Cuban classical composers utilize popular music elements and strong rhythmic influences in their work, and she hopes to develop exercises for her composition students to practice such integration in their own pieces.
"Certainly by the time I teach the composition class again, which will be in the fall, I will have worked out the answers to some of the practical questions of what happens in the classroom as a result of this trip," she says. "But of course one of the most obvious things is that when you experience conditions that are quite different from our own, where there is the evidence of deprivation, and you see such a robust musical culture, it's really inspiring, and it makes you really think about the essentials—the essentials of life and the essentials of what is really needed to make art."