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Coriún AHARONIÁN (1940-2017)
Una carta
Gente, for ensemble (1990) [7:32]
Música para cinco (1972) [7:40]
Música para tres (1968) [7:23]
¿Y Ahora?,for piano (1984)[2:49]
¿De qué estamos hablando?, for three instruments (2006) [3:29]
Los cadadías, for four instruments (1980) [5:26]
Una Canción, for five instruments (1998) [3:21]
Una carta, for 15 instrumentalists (2001) [12:24]
Mestizo, for orchestra (1993) [13:08]
Ensemble Aventure
SWF SO, Baden-Baden/Zoltán Peskó (Mestizo)
rec. 1993-2019, Kammermusiksaal, Deutschlandfunk, Cologne; Sclossbergsaal, SWR Studio Freiburg; Hans-Rosbaud-Studio, Baden-Baden, Germany
WERGO WER7374-2 [63:16]

We all have to come from somewhere.

As a child, I used to lie awake at night, wondering why, in my mother’s words, I should be “thankful to come from England, even Stockport”, a town that seemed especially monochrome during those formative mid 1960s (for proof positive of this perception I commend the uninitiated to my Desert Island book, Paul Morley’s sprawling and magnificent Stopfordian homage “The North, And Almost Everything In It”). I think my mother was getting at the notion of British exceptionalism which was her most profound and obvious lifetime delusion, one that has finally been laid bare for good by the government’s all-too-hastily convened pandemic protocols which (at time of writing) currently surround us all.

This chain of thought has arisen directly after reading Tina Vogel’s outstandingly clear and extensive booklet essay (a model of its kind) accompanying this revelatory disc of music by Coriún Aharonián (1940-2017), the first Uruguayan composer I have encountered to date. His story is further complicated by his Armenian lineage (both his parents survived the 1915 genocide and emigrated to Montevideo) – his heredity forged his firm belief that his music (and that of other Latin American composers of his generation) was essentially a hybrid product characterised by the word mestizo which describes an individual of mixed indigenous and European descent. Aharonián was in essence a realist who perceived his vocation to further a particular, local style (be that specifically Uruguayan or more generally Latin-American) without entirely repudiating the European models which inevitably hung in the air after half a millennium of colonial subjugation. Consequently there is an important political dimension to his music which is most obviously realised on this disc through the tiny allusions to and quotations from the likes of Eisler, Nono and Revueltas in the three minute quintet Una Canción. The nine works included in this portrait have been carefully sequenced. The first trio of pieces for various ensembles each last around seven minutes. Then there are four extraordinarily concentrated, rather cryptic miniatures, while the final two works are larger in scale and culminate in the orchestral work Aharonián actually named Mestizo.

First up is Gente (People), for ten instruments including a steel drum and the marimbula, a box-type plucked instrument often heard in Cuban music. Dating from 1990, its opening repeated motifs and tangy, obviously Latin pulses are peppered with pregnant pauses and brassy solos. A more sombre chorale based on two chords ensues and develops into an even slower, stranger music which opens out when the unmistakable marimbula comes to the fore, triggering swinging solo lines for trumpet and trombone. The music that follows is even more static, yet the occasional instrumental interruptions leave one in no doubt as to its geographical provenance. The conclusion is relatively raucous and improbably manages to draw these diverse threads together. It’s a real ear-opener, and one cannot help wondering how utterly conditioned we are to the styles and sounds we know.

The following pair of pieces constitute much earlier examples of Aharonián’s art. In Música para cinco (1972) he deploys a quintet of alto flute, horn, trumpet, trombone and tom-toms. This is more inscrutable, contrasting brief, violent tom-tom outbursts with dissonant, long breathed chords in winds and brass. In due course the alto-flute hints tentatively at a lyrical impulse, which spreads hesitantly to the other brassier instruments – this is at first knocked back by the drums but takes a kind of static hold in a sustained gentle chord. Two tiny rising trombone glissandi suggest the piece will go off in another direction, but a further extended sustained passage only leads back to them. Its concluding gestures resemble ominous sirens. There is something of a compressed, locked-in quality to this piece, an apt sonic metaphor for where we are now, in fact. Música para tres dates from 1968. It begins in the shrill, high dissonances of flute and violin. A more lyrical flute solo is compromised by a sustained hovering high fiddle. The piano material is more abrupt and angular, yet the three very different characters of these individual components collide and cohere most effectively in this piece, which is more uncompromising and experimental in approach than either of the two previous works. Throughout this trio, Aharonián plays with the texture of each instrument while treating the spare melodic and rhythmic figures most economically. His use of silence is again impressive, even refreshing.

¿Y Ahora? Is a tiny tango-inflected miniature for piano, but according to Tina Vogel its brevity is in inverse proportion to its importance within Aharonián’s output. The title translates as a curt “And now?” and reflects the need for artists in places like Latin-America, many of whose countries seem to constantly teeter on the edge of revolution, to be constantly alert via their critical antennae. A declamatory, descending gesture yields to a repeated note which persists alone for a quarter of the duration of the piece. After a reprise of the declamation Aharonián combines these rawest of raw materials in repeated, questioning two note phrases separated by deafening silences. ¿Y Ahora? perhaps distils a kind of paranoia; the artist’s permanent need for hyper-alertness in a context of unpredictability and extreme volatility. Another question ¿De qué estamos hablando? (which could be translated as “What’s really going on here?”) constitutes the title of the unusual trio that follows. Three lower range instruments, bass-clarinet, bassoon and cello exchange assertive and charged elements of sound which veer between brusque single notes (cello) and descending scales (clarinet). The piece reinforces Aharonián’s singular and skilful adaptation of silence almost as another instrument. It is a model of compression which owes nothing to Webern, for example.

Los cadadías (Ordinary Things) is also touched by the tango and the milonga but this is a long way from Astor Piazzolla. A dramatic piano dissonance and harsh cello scrapings very sketchily suggest Latin grooves which are taken up by a repeated drilling note in the depths of the keyboard, occasional textured cello exclamation and a sustained drone in the winds. Its harsh repetitiveness marks this piece out as the most confrontational on the album. Had Galina Ustvolskaya been Uruguayan, she might well have contrived something like this. These Ordinary Things are in fact utterly extraordinary. By way of contrast, the quintet entitled Una Canción, despite its references to Nono is effectively a reflection on a five note tune which is closely related to what some of us know as “I am H-A-P-P-Y….”. For all its subliminal ideological messaging, it’s an attractive, tangy miniature that Silvestre Revueltas himself would have been proud of.

On a larger scale is Una carta (A Letter) for fifteen instruments, which lends its name to the album as a whole. A gentle plucking leads to a tuba tread and a repeated five note brass gesture. A gawky double-bass takes up the idea, lumbering through an undergrowth of ominous chords pricked at irregular intervals by a fragment of the brass gesture, creepy gnawing sounds and arid percussion. Herein are the building blocks of the entire piece, which proceeds rather stoically until an austere but confident fanfare at 6:48. An icy high piano chord at 7:33 seems to matter – it recurs on occasion thereafter and triggers a sleazy, slurring clarinet figure. By 9.30 silence once more begins to play its part, as does a loud drum (thrillingly caught by the Wergo engineers). In the coda maudlin cello half-melodies dominate until a brassy Latin carnival erupts momentarily prior to a conclusion that barely even registers. Una carta is fascinating; ordered and austere on the one hand yet simultaneously unpredictable and mysterious.

The orchestral piece Mestizo concludes the disc and can in some ways be seen a blueprint for Una carta, albeit one laid out on a grander scale. The gestures, motifs, clusters and pulses upon which it is built constitute “a tool kit of semantically charged elements of musical language with unlimited possibilities” according to a quotation in the note attributed to Aharonián himself. By extension its quarter-hour or so duration is completely arbitrary – Mestizo has the potential to continue ad infinitum. Its opening is dominated by the sound of Andean Wankara drums whose regular beats both threaten and summon. Harsh brass chords, strange sustained static drones and curt little wind notes and motifs create an atmosphere of unbridled ambiguity. Long silences struggle to conceal inconspicuous percussive rustlings. Mestizo is simultaneously celebratory and ominous. As the piece proceeds the brass interjections seem increasingly piercing and discomfiting, but the listener cannot fail to be impressed by the clarity of Aharonián’s architecture, or by the colour and atmosphere projected by such unconventionally static music. The disorienting entrance of jazzy saxophones toward the end of the piece is surreal and completely wrongfoots the listener. To my ears, Mestizo is a cool Latin American classic. It merits the widest exposure. It receives a terrific performance from the SWF Symphony Orchestra under Zoltán Peskó in what appears to have been a recording made for German Radio back in 1993.

Everything else on the disc was laid down by various instrumental groupings drawn from Aharonián’s first choice band, Freiburg’s feted Ensemble Aventure. Each work seems to matter in its own, understated way. Wergo’s sound is crisp and analytical yet this music renders it warm and inviting. This composer has proved to be a real find. One wonders how many other master musicians from small Latin American nations are waiting to be discovered by those who pull the strings.

Back in the north-west of England in the late 1960s I developed my first bond with a football team, Stockport County. A couple of decades later the club recruited a new manager whose five years at the helm precipitated the club’s most sustained spell of success before its recent decline into the abyss of non-league. His name was Danny Bergara; he was also born in Montevideo a couple of years after Coriún Aharonián. Decades before the likes of Klopp and Guardiola, he was the first foreign coach to manage in the English leagues. When Bergara passed away in 2007, the outpouring of grief in Stockport was extraordinary, and his legacy remains. Not only does the main stand at Edgeley Park bear his name, but to this day the Uruguayan flag flies proudly above the ground during every home match.

We all have to finish up somewhere, after all.

Richard Hanlon

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