Last modified: Sat Jan 20 16:09:37 AST 2001
Cuba's Pioneer of Electroacoustic Music
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WEATHER IN HAVANA
The first time an audience heard electroacoustic music by a Cuban composer was when Juan Blanco (b. 1919) premiered his Música para Danza, at the Union Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, in Havana, in 1964. Blanco had been yearning to create electroacoustic music for years. In 1942, he designed an instrument (never built) that predated the similar Mellotron by twenty years. In recent years, he has learned computer programming to create a number of computer music compositions, yet he is prolific in other genres as well. For over half a century, Blanco has pioneered Cuban contemporary music, exploring ways to update the island's rich musical heritage. In all, he has composed over 160 works, which have been premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra, composer/guitarist Leo Brower, jazz saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, and Afro-Cuban masters Merceditas Valdés, Tata Güines, and Guillermo Barreto.
I first visited Cuba in 1986 with a group of U.S. musicologists hosted by the Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos (ICAP). I traveled across the island listening to and sitting in with musicians along the way and met Blanco at ICAP, the site of Blanco's studio in Havana. Over the next ten years I returned to Cuba eight times, once for the period of a year, to research both modern and traditional music. Early on it became clear that no Cuban composer epitomized musical innovation better than Blanco, who melded new music, electronic instruments, improvisation, and the island's unique musical heritage. Yet, despite Blanco's contributions little is known about him in North America and very little has been written about him in English. (See Leonard 1994 for an earlier survey). This article provides an overview of his life's work, focusing on the significance of several major electroacoustic works.
Early Life and Works
Juan Blanco was born on 29 June 1919 in the town of Mariel, a coastal town in the province of Havana. His family acquired a player piano from the pianist at the local cinema as payment for a debt to Juan's father. Juan was fascinated with the instrument and its ability to perform automatically; by age four he had taught himself to play it. Classical studies came several years later. Juan also loved popular music, and at age ten he formed a sextet that played Cuban songs around the neighborhood.
Later the same year, the family moved to Pinar del Río, a rural province of sugar and tobacco plantations. Juan made a habit of following his father to work at the sugar warehouse so that he could be surrounded by the Afro-Cuban stevedores who celebrated payday by playing the cajón, a large wooden box that substituted for a drum. As Blanco put it, "In this way I was put in contact with one of the purest musical manifestations in all of the Pinar del Río." (Garcia 1989).
Moving to the city of Havana when he was in his mid-teens, Blanco began composing and studying composition in the provincial conservatory. He is proud to have studied with José Ardévol, one of the island's most influential composers and a highly demanding teacher. Realizing that his chances of living on music alone were slim, he also enrolled in the law school of the University of Havana. While in school, Blanco found time to win the national diving championship.
While in his early twenties, Blanco was still fascinated by the possibilities for creating music with new technologies like the player piano. In 1942, he drew up the blueprint for a device that attached a separate wire recording deck to each key on a one-octave keyboard. But fabrication costs proved prohibitive, and the instrument was never built. A similar instrument, the Mellotron, was built no less than twenty years later and was popularized by rock groups like the Beatles, Genesis, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, and Yes. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) collected Blanco's original schematic for their electronic music archives in Paris.
Like Alejandro Garcia Caturla (1906-1940), a brilliant composer of the previous generation who studied with Nadia Boulanger, Blanco wanted to create a new classical music rooted in the island's folkloric and popular music. Blanco was also greatly influenced by Amadeo Roldán (1901-1939), composer, violinist, and director of Orquesta Filarmónica de la Habana. Roldán emerged in the mid-1920s, a few years before Caturla, and took nationalism in Cuban music a step further by integrating Afro-Cuban instruments-the marimbula, clave, hand drums, and quijada (mule's jaw)-with the symphonic instruments. Roldán's Rítmicas V and Rítmicas VI (1931) were among the first classical compositions written exclusively for percussion. Today, scholars of Caribbean classical music debate whether these pieces predated Edgar Varèse's Ionisation, for a percussion ensemble including Cuban bongos, guiro, clave, and maracas. Roldán maintained a correspondence with both Varèse and Henry Cowell (Brower 1989). Ardévol asserts in his "Introducción a Cuba: La Música" that Varèse was "in debt to Roldán for important aspects of his use of drums, and in the newest conceptions related to the function of percussion" (Ardévol 1969). The contribution of these early Cuban composers was to create an identifiably Cuban avant-garde that was, as Ardévol states, "practically without precedent" (Ardévol 1969). With Blanco as a catalyst, this genre later blossomed into a national movement.
In the mid-1940s Blanco was composing works for classical instruments that combined complex counterpoint with the poly-rhythms and lyricism of Cuban music. But he found the academies uninterested in Cuban roots, virtually ignoring Roldán and Caturla. So he formed the Sociedad Amadeo Roldán in the late 1940s to promote the study and presentation of contemporary works drawing on all of Cuba's musical traditions (Garcia 1989) (Ortega 1989). The excitement of a distinctly Cuban avant-garde captured the interest of artists of all disciplines. Responding to requests for a broader mandate, Blanco expanded Sociedad Amadeo Roldán to include artists and writers and changed its name to Sociedad Cultural Nuestro Tiempo (Cultural Society of Our Time). Much like the group of artists who gathered at Black Mountain College in the U.S. at the same time (John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham), Nuestro Tiempo attracted the participation and attention of the finest artists in the country. Nuestro Tiempo was not sponsored by any college or institution; Blanco often paid for concerts out of his own salary as a lawyer. With his help, the group became the most important collective voice of the mid-century Cuban renaissance.
In 1952, Colonel Fulgencio Batista overthrew the government. Batista shared U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy's intolerance of intellectuals and suspected communists. As the new head of state, Batista resorted to police brutality to enforce his will, and Nuestro Tiempo was forced underground. Despite being jailed several times for leading the group, Blanco managed to hold concerts, organize clandestine meetings, and maintain the society through years of repression and Mafia-style rule. During this time of political repression, Blanco composed works such as Elegia (Homanaje a los caídos en la lucha revolucionaria), (Elegy (Homage to the Casualties of the Revolutionary Struggle)) (1953) and his landmark work, Divertimento para Orquesta de Cuerdas (1958). Blanco's influence as a composer began to be felt during this period. Jesús Ortega points out that hearing the premiere of Blanco's Quinteto No. 1 (1954) for flute, violin, clarinet, oboe and bassoon, inspired young guitar virtuosos Ortega and Leo Brower to purse composition as well as performance (Leonard 1991) (Ortega 1989).
Blanco's standing in the business community helped him survive the Batista years. He had become a successful attorney, specializing in tax law and representing large U.S. corporations like Coca-Cola. By the late 1950s he was working for the secondmost successful law firm on the island.
When the rebel army entered Havana to overthrow Batista on January 1, 1959, Batista and many of Blanco's clients fled the country. Blanco soon realized that this could be an opportunity to make music his career, and sought a commitment from the new government to give him a full-time job as a musician. When they agreed, he donned a military uniform, went to the law firm (where no one knew of his musical interests) and resigned.
Shortly thereafter, revolutionary leader Che Guevara asked to meet the avant-garde composers of Nuestro Tiempo to congratulate them for their role in the resistance. As a reward for their loyalty he appointed them directors of the military bands around the island and named Blanco Director de la Banda del Estado Mayor, the Havana military orchestra. When the Czechoslovakia became the first socialist state to send an ambassador to Cuba shortly after the revolution, Blanco's military band was the centerpiece of a grandiose reception ceremony at the Palacio de la Revolucion. The ambassador showed strong signs of emotion when Blanco's band struck up what they thought was the Czech national anthem. His Excellency must be moved, Blanco thought, by hearing his anthem in the Americas for the first time. Unfortunately, Blanco's archivist had confused the Czechoslovakian anthem with that of Yugoslavia, with whom Czech relations at the time were tense.
The next day Guevara ordered the entire band to Cayo Largo, a remote island south of the mainland, to gather rocks for a construction crew building a tourist resort. As the army was rather undisciplined, a fellow intellectual convinced Blanco that Guevara would not notice if he skipped the construction detail. Blanco's friend proved correct until Guevara caught sight of Blanco on television hosting a music appreciation program. The next day, Blanco and the archivist turned up bright and early at the construction site to lift rocks (Leonard 1993).
Despite these setbacks, Blanco remembers the early years of the revolution as a time of unprecedented freedom and experimentation in the arts. The major venues were available to the most cutting edge composers, and Blanco's music was presented in the best symphonic halls. As the newly appointed Director of Music for the National Culture Council, he formed the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna (a forerunner of the seminal Afro-Cuban jazz orchestra, Irakere) and convinced the state to pay composers a regular salary, as opposed to paying for individual pieces.
Early Tape Music
Blanco's work underwent a major transformation during the early 1960s. His interests expanded to include the sweeping innovations in the international avant-garde. Premiere Cuban novelist, music historian, and composer Alejo Carpentier, who had traveled to Europe, brought Blanco a copy of Pierre Schaeffer's book À la Recherche d'une Musique Concrète (Schaeffer 1952). The book inspired Blanco to focus on creating electroacoustic music full-time. Unable to leave Cuba to visit the studios where the more advanced electronic instruments were being developed, he bought three consumer-grade Silvertone tape decks from the local Sears department store and began making electronic pieces. Limited to one oscillator and an inexpensive microphone, Blanco manipulated sounds using tape feedback, sound-on-sound techniques, tape reversal, and splicing. Lacking the sophisticated vari-speed decks used by his foreign peers, Blanco resorted to manipulating the speed of the tape reels directly with his fingers.
In 1961, Blanco finished his first electronic work, the five-and-a-half-minuteMúsica para Danza, which debuted in 1964. The primary motif is a one-bar ostinato played by a single sine-wave generator, dubbed to tape four times. Each dub utilized a lower speed than the previous one, and occupied a distinct pitch range and tempo. The highest ostinato sounds like a field of synthesized crickets, the lowest functions as a bass line. The four parts enter in sequence, each gradually spun down to its unique fixed speed before the next entrance. The fixed playback speeds are held for the next minute, revealing a rich rhythmic counterpoint.
After an abrupt cutoff, a long sustained chord enters. Gradually, microtonal pitch contours emerge from the chord, which evolve into melodic fragments. The first figure reappears in short bursts. For the next two minutes Blanco plays with the juxtaposition of the ostinati and the sustained notes. The final minute of the piece features variations of the first motif. The piece ends after each of the ostinati gradually bends up in pitch. The ostinati are stopped one by one, leaving highest ostinato, which also begins the piece, alone at the end.
Blanco's rhythmic counterpoint is similar to a mambo played by Beny Moré's Banda Gigante, in which trumpets, trombones, saxophones, and bass juxtapose distinct ostinati. Moré was the leading singer of son, Cuba's most popular form of secular dance music, during Blanco's youth. He transformed Cuban music in the 1940s and 1950s by melding secular Cuban dance music with jazz big-band instrumentation. Blanco's purely electronic adaptation of Cuban rhythms and ostinati introduced a new sound on the island, and anticipated the work of groups like Los Van Van, who incorporated electronic instruments into all aspects of son when they defined the next wave of dance music in the decades that followed. Musicians of popular groups like Irakere and Los Van Van still recall premiering Blanco's works during the 1960s and 1970s (Leonard 1996).
Blanco's second electroacoustic piece, Interludio con Máquinas (1961), is based on recordings of acoustic sounds, and goes farther still in exploring sound manipulations afforded by tape recorders. The mechanical rhythms of printers comprise much of the source material for this seven-minute piece. Slowed-down recordings of printers evoke quasi-industrial environments, trains, and Cuban percussion. Glissandi, abrupt transitions and mechanically produced iterations are used frequently. The piece climaxes in a train-like sound accelerated into a frenzy, which is abruptly cut off, then followed by a one-second fragment of the printer heard at low speed.
Later the same year, Blanco composed Ensamble V, utilizing prepared-piano recordings that he manipulated by over-dubbing, changing the playback speed, and reversing the tape. In this work, which lasts just over 15 minutes, Blanco juxtaposes figures played at the keyboard with sounds produced by scratching the strings directly. There are far fewer abrupt transitions, and he often uses the natural reverberation of the open piano strings to create a smooth transition between sonic events. In contrast to the earlier pieces, abrupt transitions and real-time speed manipulation are rarely used. Tape delay and sound-on-sound techniques are saved for the climax, two-thirds of the way into the piece. Ensamble V is an ingenious arrangement of unique sonic events, in which virtuosic editing techniques were required but not subject to grand display.
Aside from being "firsts," Blanco's early tape pieces stand up to multiple listenings even today, and show how some of Blanco's favored compositional devices developed. Already, Blanco had found meaningful ways to link his electronic compositions to Cuba's rich folkloric heritage. He later stated that he used sounds of ambient and urban environments as models for electroacoustic works, and he appears to have been working along these lines from the beginning.
New Music in Cuba
For Blanco, electronic music was partially a way to look beyond the mid-century nationalism inspired by Roldán and Caturla. After the initial effort to surpass their works, Blanco and his peers found that even their most ingenious compositions of the 1950s could not surpass those of Roldán and Caturla. Blanco came to view the continued pursuit of nationalism as a closed aesthetic. For him, the new goal was to create a more international music, using influences from many sources, including electronics and new compositional techniques from abroad, as well as Cuban music. This new direction did not in any way devalue the lessons that Blanco had learned from Roldán and Caturla. Ortega insists that Blanco applied many of the lessons in Música para Danza (Leonard 1991).
The new direction, or "la música nueva," as Blanco refers to it, was initiated in the early 1960s by Blanco and composer/guitarist Leo Brower, often working closely together. At this time Brower was exploring aleatoric composition, partly inspired by a trip to the Warsaw Autumn new music festival in 1961, where he heard the premiere of Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and performances by flutist Gazzeloni, among others. Two weeks before the premiere of Música para Danza Blanco assisted in the premiere of Brower 's Sonograma I for prepared piano, the first Cuban composition to use aleatoric techniques. Together Blanco and Brower began exploring what they called "open forms" for composition, which were often presented by Manuel Duchesne Cuzán, director of the Orquesta Symphónica National, who premiered Blanco's Texturas (1964) for orchestra and magnetic tape in 1964.
Blanco and Brower refused to limit themselves to the academic tradition; they began writing for jazz musicians and listened to rock. Blanco and Ortega wrote a tape collage based on recordings of sonero Beny Moré. When an Indian diplomat left several dozen records of Indian classical music with the Casa de las Americas, Blanco and Brower locked themselves in the building and listened to the entire collection on the first available weekend. As the movement grew, Blanco and Brower were soon joined by composers Héctor Angulo, Carlos Fariñas, Roberto Valera and young composers Sergio Fernández Barroso, Carlos Malcom, Calixto Álvarez, among others.
Blanco composed the first graphic scores on the island. Included in his early use of graphic devices is a mid-1960s series of seven works called Estimulus para Sonar. In Pirophonia, members of a string quartet derived structural motives from watching a fire. In Filmophonia, the group Irakere, featuring saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, played to a six-minute film that was projected above them onstage. The group played with their back to the audience, and each member improvised to the movement of a separate animated figure on a film that Blanco had prepared at Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC). The performance was broadcast on national television.
Blanco thrived during the early years of the revolution, when the avant-garde was not censured and musical establishments were open to young experimental artists. Contrapunto Espacial III (1969) was premiered in the Garcia Lorca Opera House. The piece featured his student Paquito D'Rivera along with 20 actors and 24 instrumental groups distributed throughout the hall. The actors act out various stages of human development, beginning in fetal positions, gradually rising to produce vocal noises of primitive man, progressing to monosyllabic words, followed by crying and laughter. At each stage of development they are admonished by a loud voice saying "No!" which comes from a large black loudspeaker located on the theater's stage. Finally, the actors pair off in couples on the floor, making love and sighing. At this point D'Rivera strolled between them playing alto saxophone in a manner reminiscent of John Coltrane's shrieks of the same era. When the loudspeaker shouts "No!," they revolt and break it into pieces. "After the premiere in 1969 they fired the 'responsable' in the National Council of Culture for letting me present this work," Blanco recalls (Leonard 1993). He points out that soon the administration grew more concerned about works that expressed independent political views, and it made attempts to control artists who were critical of the system.
While Cuban composers were enjoying tremendous aesthetic freedom and stipends for composing, administrators still expected them to prove their value to the population at large. Blanco resorted to creating electroacoustic music for massive public events and large public spaces, including: Fifth Exhibition of Gymnastic Sports (1965); the Cuban pavilions for Expo 67 (Montreal) and Expo 70 (Osaka); and Cuba's largest hospital, Hospital Hermanos Ameijeiras in Havana. In 1970, he processed the voice of Lenin addressing the Red Army, in a piece that was used for the celebration in downtown Havana of the centennial anniversary of Lenin's birth. Blanco, along with Brower, Valera and Fariñas began composing for films by Cuba's finest directors, which were produced by ICAIC. Although Brower and Fariñas went on to compose many film scores for ICAIC, Blanco's fascination with ambient sound and more-experimental techniques for manipulating sound led him to favor large-scale sound installations over scoring for film.
The ICAP Studio
During the late 1970s, Blanco began looking for a place to teach electronic music. The obvious choice, the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), was not interested. Each year Blanco volunteered to teach a course on electronic music at ISA and was turned down. In 1979, Blanco was appointed director of a small studio at ICAP. At ICAP, Blanco offered free instruction and studio time to composers and young pop musicians interested in electronic music. Blanco initiated a monthly concert series of live and taped music presenting works by composers as experimental as Luigi Nono and as accessible as Pink Floyd, and he facilitated the presentation of works by hundreds of composers from around the world.
Blanco's support greatly benefited several generations of young composers. Among the first musicians to benefit from the studio were Edesio Alejandro, Jesús Ortega, Juan Piñera, Julio Roloff, and Blanco's son Juan Marcos Blanco. Works by some of these composers were included on the LP "Música Electroacústica" (EGREM LD-4222), with liner notes by Harold Gramatges, one of Cuba's leading composers and teachers. Piñera and Alejandro's collaborative tape piece Tres de Dos won first prize in the Twelfth International Electroacoustic Music Competition, in Bourges, France. Roloff's Halley 86; and Juan Marcos Blanco's Ritual were selected in 1984 by the First International Tribunal of Electroacoustic Music, in Paris. (Apparently, the state-owned record label EGREM was not overly creative with album names, as the first four recordings in this genre were simply titled "Música Electroacústica" or else included these words in the title. The three LPs discussed below are also named "Música Electroacústica," but contain unique material.)
Shortly after, Roloff, who also worked for Cuba's sole record label EGREM, produced "Música Electroacústica (TIME)" (EGREM LD-4411), an LP of composers under the age of thirty from the ICAP studio. The recording included tape pieces by Fernando Rodriguez, José Manuel Garcia Suárez, Miguel Bonachea, and Mirtha de la Torre. Later, Ileana Perez Velazquez, both a fine composer of acoustic music and a fine pianist, as well as Pedro Pablo, who played violin with the National Symphony, emerged from the ICAP studio. Many of the composers from the ICAP studio were very active composing for dance, theater and multimedia events. Alejandro and Pablo fronted their own rock bands that made extensive use of electroacoustic influences.
Blanco's Compositions of the Mid-1980s
In the mid-1980s Blanco also completed his first LP, "Música Electroacústica" (EGREM LD-4211). The record featured Tañidos (1983), for tape alone; Espaciso II (1984), for tape and guitar; and Cirkus-Toccata (1985) (sometimes spelled Circus-Toccata), a live performance piece in which Afro-Cuban percussionists improvised to a tape prepared by Blanco. The percussionists, Guillermo Barreto (timbales) and Tata Güines (congas), were two of the most celebrated masters of their instruments, virtuosos in many Afro-Cuban genres who had accompanied the jazz group Weather Report on their mid-1970s Havana concert.
Cirkus-Toccata is one of Blanco's major works and is discussed extensively in this section. Working with the digitally controlled note sequencer on a Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizer, Blanco composed a number of melodic patterns, which he manipulated in real-time by detuning and by changing the tempo and timbre. To complement the complexity of the tape, he wrote parts to guide the percussionists through changes in style, meter, and tempo. However, after extensive rehearsing he found the percussionists inhibited by his score and decided to let them improvise freely. The following year the piece was performed by an entire folklore group in Santiago de Cuba, as well as Guillermo Barreto, queen of Afro-Cuban song Merceditas Valdés, and classical virtuosos Jesús Ortega (guitar) and Miguel Villafruela (saxophone).
The recorded version begins with a brief introduction by the percussionists, after which Blanco fades the tape up to join them. Blanco used the arpeggiator to create a rich succession of melodic patterns using a steady sixteenth note pulse. Initially the patterns are based on major triads and played on a harp-like patch. Before long, Blanco fades the harp-like line down, then fades in similar material on a kalimba-like patch followed by a guitar-like patch. Eventually, multiple arpeggiated lines are heard simultaneously, at slightly different tempi, and the harmonic content gets increasingly complex, though there is always one line that is heard above the others.
Throughout the piece Güines and Barreto base their improvisation on fragments of Cuban rumba and son, but without staying in any one tempo for long. Barreto, the premiere timbale player of his generation, draws a wide variety of sound from the heads of the drums, their shells, and cowbells mounted on the timbale stand. Güines is so persuasive with his phrasing and timbral nuance that a recording of his part alone would seem to be enough.
Before long, the simple arpeggiation gives way to more intricate melodic patterns, whose pitch contours form momentary rhythmic cycles and tonal centers. Blanco manipulated the timbres of the patches in real time as he over-dubbed the individual tracks. He favors plucked string emulations and percussive envelopes that blend well with the percussion, particularly the cowbells. Towards the end of the piece Blanco creates microtonal effects by detuning the oscillators, before returning to the equal-tempered major-triad arpeggios of the beginning. On Blanco's cue, the percussionists play a one-bar figure in unison and Blanco stops the tape on their final note.
Cirkus-Toccata addressed Cuban music's rich melding of disparate sources: the electronics drew on European and North American influences, the congas alluded to African roots, and the timbale invoked the rich legacy of dance music unique to the island. Going beyond Roldán's use of Afro-Cuban instruments in classical works, Cirkus-Toccata was a collaboration with the masters those instruments. The coexistence of avant-garde, Afro-Cuban, and jazz sources had never been explored to this extent in Cuba.
In 1987 Blanco produced a second LP, "Música Electroacústica," EGREM 4424, featuring two pieces. The first piece, Suite Erótica, is a 25-minute tape composition, consisting of three pieces that Blanco created in 1979, 1982, and 1986. The first and last acts are based on the biblical text "Song of Solomon," spoken by male and female voices. In the first section, the text phrases are edited and processed to such a degree that only occasional phrases are recognizable. As Blanco explains in the liner notes, "the voices symbolize love within a couple with both spiritual and sexual aspects." The voices are accompanied by soft notes resembling a pipe organ with steady vibrato. The second movement, comprised entirely of sustained synthetic sounds, closely resembles his Tañidos and Espacios II from the same period. The final movement juxtaposes the couple's voices with sounds Blanco equates with the "violence of nature," "the violence between everyday people," "violence of political oppression," and "violence of war." To represent political oppression, Blanco processed archival speeches of Adolph Hitler, whom he cites as "the model and inspiration for contemporary oppressors."
The second piece, Suite de Los Niños, was composed in the studios of the Experimental Electroacoustic Music Group of Bourges in 1984, and used more playful themes. The movements are called Relojes Locos (Crazy Clocks), Plegaria de los Osciladores (Oscillators' Prayer), and Canción de Cuna de la Industria Pesada (para dormir a una turbinista) , which translates as "Heavy Industry's Lullaby (to put a small turbine to sleep)." The three pieces were realized at the studio of the Experimental Music Group, Bourges, France.
Introducing Computer Music in Cuba
In 1986 Blanco established the biannual Festival for Electroacoustic Music: Spring in Veradero, an event that brought the Cuban composers together with their counterparts from the international community. Over the years the festival presented works by Cuban composers including Calixto Álvarez, Leo Brower, Carlos Fariñas, Argeliers León, Roberto Valera and the ICAP group. Foreign presenters included Jon Appleton, Peter Byles, Ricardo Dal Farra, Barbara Held, Leo Küper, Ahmed Malek, Max Mathews, Peter Mechtler, Vivian Adelberg Rudow, Andrew Schloss, Elrich Süße, Carlos Vazquez, and Fritz Weiland, among others.
Many of the foreigners presented computer-generated tape pieces and brought computers for live performances and demonstrations. Blanco had already presented tape concerts that included computer music, but this event gave many young Cuban composers their first contact with foreign composers of computer music. The foreign composers gave public presentations in Havana which widened the awareness of this music even further. With the help of many of these individuals Blanco set up the first computer music studios on the island shortly after the 1986 festival. Soon after, he was providing the first instruction on MIDI software and synthesizers.
In contrast to the tape pieces the ICAP composers presented abroad, foreign visitors at Blanco's festival in Veradero often found the group presenting more flamboyant works, frequently incorporating elements of the Cuban cabarets that surrounded them in Veradero, the island's premier tourist resort. In 1989 Blanco staged a dance performance on the beach, where dozens of dancers emerged from the water in an elaborate piece choreographed to his tape music. The 1991 festival opened with a tape piece by Pablo that included an entire company of cabaret dancers, decked out in their kitsch costumes and dancing on floats, in an hour-long procession down the main road in Veradero. Later in the same festival, Blanco staged a dance concert in the town's fanciest outdoor theater. The troupe moved to Blanco's music in a highly erotic and elaborately choreographed dance. At the climax of the piece, a curtain opened and a mobile stage brought the Municipal Band of Cardenas, from a neighboring province of farmers, to stage center playing full force. The festival ended with a midnight procession, based on a banned religious parade, headed by musicians carrying a figure of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Cobre, again moving to Blanco's electroacoustic music.
In the early 1990s Blanco acquired a NeXT computer. His sixth son, Mauricio, who served as technical assistant to the jazz group Cuarto Espacio and later to Cuban pop star Pablo Milanes, helped his father learn the C programming required to develop his own software using the NeXT's tools for direct digital synthesis. Blanco picked up the programming rapidly and began a new phase of his career, producing many pieces for this system. By 1993 he had composed over eight pieces programming the NeXT, nearly an hour and a half of music. The titles of some of these pieces, such as Para Enterrar la Esperanza (1993) (To Bury the Hope) and Five Epitaphs (1993), reflect increasing difficulties that Cubans faced. Contrastes II 20-8-92 (1992) is named for day that a decaying home collapsed on a family, who had warned the authorities of the impending danger, and killed them all. Other computer-generated pieces include Contrastes I 30-6-92, Loops, 1991, Treno (Lamentation) (1992), Paisaje (1992).
In the course of his career Blanco was elected Vice President of the Cuban Committee of the International Music Council of UNESCO and became a member of its Executive Committee of the International Confederation for Electroacoustic Music. He also organized the first music concourse of the Musical Division of Union Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (UNEAC). He was selected by the Electroacoustic Music Group of Bourges to participate in the composition of the International Suite, commemorating the Bicentennial of the French Revolution for which he composed his 1789-1989 (1989). Blanco traveled throughout Europe and Latin America, and was among the first group of artists that Cuba's revolutionary government sent to China. Travel to the United States was harder, mainly due to U. S. travel restrictions.
In 1993, I worked with The Space in Boston and The Boston Creative Music Alliance to bring Blanco to the United States to direct the first live performances of his works in this country, and commissioned Espacios V, for saxophones and tape. He spoke at the Berklee College of Music, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Dartmouth College, and Wesleyan University. He presented works at Wesleyan University's New Music Festival and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, where he presented his works on programs with Ron Kuivila, Richard Lerman and George Lewis. Abraham Adzenyah of Ghana and Sa Davis from the United States were called in to play Cirkus-Toccata in place of the original Cuban percussionists.
While Blanco had to create a niche for his teachings outside of the island's musical institutions, by the late 1980s it became clear that his teachings were vital to pop musicians, who became increasingly dependent on electronic instruments, whether for home production or just for fashionable sounds. In the early 1990s, the Ministry of Culture recognized this need and assumed responsibility for the ICAP studio, renaming it the Laboratorio Nacional de Música Electroacústica. Around the same time, the Soviet Union withdrew aid from Cuba, and arts organizations faced increasing pressure to produce income for the country; Blanco's funds were cut considerably. In 1993, Blanco was unable to secure Veradero as a site for his festival, as it was a prime location for tourism, one of the island's main sources of hard currency. He tried to move the festival to the more remote city of Holguin, but found it difficult to obtain financial backing and had to cancel the festival at the last minute. Undaunted by the present difficulties, he continues to compose and travel, but difficulties as basic as the lack of electricity or transportation make it harder for him to continue to foster the community for electroacoustic music that he created in Cuba.
For over fifty years Blanco's work as a composer, teacher, and promoter electronic music have contributed to Cuba's reputation as one of the most important musical centers in the Americas. Throughout his career he has been one of the island's least compromising composers and one of the most progressive. Through his compositions he introduced Cubans to musique concrète techniques, synthesizers, MIDI systems, real-time music software and direct digital synthesis techniques. He has passed these techniques down to several generations of composers through his studio and private teachings. From his early acoustic works to the pieces he created with the NeXT computer, Blanco's works have caught the attention of Cuban and international audiences.
He is a musician who deeply understands the rich culture of his homeland. As Ortega pointed out when asked about Blanco's relationship to Cuba's musical legacy: "The fact is that the music of Blanco is Cuban music. He cannot get away from Cuban music. Regardless of his selection of instruments or themes . . . he could base a piece on an Asian theme, and it would still be Cuban music. He is Cuban-deeply Cuban, in the purest sense of the philosophy represented by idiosyncrasy of a Cuban people." (Leonard 1991). To date, Blanco has incorporated this aesthetic in a catalog of approximately 100 electroacoustic works. No other composer living in Cuba has applied this rich perspective to such a wide range of electronic or computer-based means for making music. His contributions as a composer and as a specialist in the field of electronic and computer music constitute a landmark in the history of Cuban music.
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Garcia, J. 1989. "Monólogo de cumpleaños." Clave 13: 3-5.
Leonard, N. 1994. "Juan Blanco, New Music Pioneer." Rhythm Music Magazine 3(4): 36-52.
Leonard, N. 1991. Unpublished interview with Ortega, Veradero.
Leonard, N. 1993. Unpublished interview with Blanco, Boston.
Leonard, N. 1996. Unpublished interviews with Paquito D'Rivera (Massachusetts) and members of Los Van Van (New York).
Ortega, J. 1989. "Juan Blanco 70 Aniversario, Siempre Joven." Clave 13: 3-5.
Schaeffer, P. 1952. À la Recherche d'une Musique Concrète. Paris: Editions du Seuil.