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Pianist in the grips of singular prose

October 02, 2009|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

Juan Rulfo was -- Susan Sontag notes in her introduction to his novel "Pedro Paramo" -- a man of many silences. The great Mexican writer and seminal influence on Latin American literature in the second half of the 20th century produced little (the slim novel in 1955 and, before that, short stories), and what Rulfo produced says little. Yet he wrote magnificently between the lines in a prose magical and musical even in translation.

In the spirit of the artist Marcel Duchamp, who said that a spectator finishes a work of art, Mexican pianist Ana Cervantes commissioned a number of composers from five countries to "finish" Rulfo. She made two CDs of these pieces for the Mexican label Quindecim, and she played a dozen of those works Wednesday night in her impressive Los Angeles debut at REDCAT. All were California premieres.

Rulfo's novel concerns a young man who follows his mother's deathbed instructions to visit her hometown, Comala, and look up Pedro Paramo, his father. The son finds, instead, a ghost town and ghosts. Cervantes' program was titled "Rumor de Paramo: Murmurs from the Wasteland," and many composers evoked dry landscapes, wind and emptiness. They hesitated to say what couldn't be said. They tried not to stir the air, awaken the dead or make trouble. Rulfo's prose is unsettling enough.

Impressionism was a shared musical language Wednesday. Moody chords and arpeggios, in one form or another, were common practice. So were rumbling bass lines and fantasies of repeated notes. Climaxes were less welcome.

The compositional similarities may have had something to do with Cervantes' own sensibility in her selection of composers, despite a wide geographical and generational spread. But Rulfo's writing also intimidates. He was extraordinarily precise in his descriptions and imagery and almost too musical for music. He inspires respect, not feistiness.

This was, then, an evening of moody beauty and more of misty, soft-edged music than drama. It is not surprising that the Mexican composers tended to be referential. Arturo Marquez's lovely "Solo Rumores" ("Solo Murmurs") was Rulfo-like in that a few notes swirled in patterns that implied larger landscapes. Marcela Rodriguez's "Entre las Ramas Rotas" ("Among the Broken Branches") was jerky but awe-struck.

Georgina Derbez's "Del Viento, la Esperanza" ("From the Wind, Hope") created its spell with repeated notes. Ramon Montes de Oca's "Ecos del Llano" ("Echoes of the Plain") felt like an extended introduction to the blues. Mario Lavista's "Paramos de Rulfo" ("Wastelands of Rulfo"), pregnant with unresolved chords and gestures and slightly Morton Feldman-like, was an intriguing study in music about to happen.

Works by Silvia Berg (Brazilian-Danish), the Americans Jack Fortner and Alex Shapiro, Spaniards Zulema de la Cruz and Carlos Cruz de Castro and Brit Paul Barker had a bit more ego and percussiveness but weren't as impressive. The last piece, though, by Anne LeBaron, on the faculty at CalArts, changed the equation.

Her "Los Murmullos" ("The Murmurs") was the one work that directly and theatrically addressed Rulfo's text. Screams weren't silent but real. Cervantes began by putting a black shawl over her head and crashing into the keys with her elbows. She read bits of text. "Ay-y-y-y," she howled into the piano, creating haunting resonances on the strings to introduce Rulfo's shocking sentiment, "Life I am too good for you!" She rattled percussion.

In gripping, short musical phrases, LeBaron captured the moment the soul turns to ice and the buzzing of a swarm of bees. Tapping on the lid of the keyboard represented the erratic heartbeat. Death, ever changing and inescapable, made a series of appearances.

This is, like so many lines of Rulfo, a piece not easily forgotten and impossible to ignore.


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