Over the years I’ve been stumbling across remarkable documents of a largely unknown history of Latin American avant-garde music. Many of these began as dislocated fragments, owing their discovery to K.F.W.’s Creel Pone series. They pushed me to look further, but it wasn’t until I arrived in Mexico City six months ago that my curiosity became a hunger. Shortly after landing I encountered a remarkable, thriving, and deeply ambitious avant-garde music scene, unnoticed by the outside world. Not only is there a fully funded national orchestra dedicated to historical and contemporary realizations of avant-garde sound (El Centro de Experimentación y Producción de Música Contemporánea), but shows that take place almost nightly across a broad range of venues, exhibiting music of remarkable diversity. At a dizzying pace, musicians and fans come together to support and push each other. As I became a member of this community, my curiosity and frustration grew. I wanted to know where it had all come from, and why these efforts were escaping outside recognition. I resolved to find the answer, and help where I could. As I delved into the history of the Mexican avant-garde, I began to discover a legacy of remarkable music hidden in the shadows. I wondered how many other similar histories existed across Latin America, and how much incredible music might be escaping notice (both past and present). It was worse than I thought. In every country I explored, the narrative mirrored the next. Largely ignored by the world beyond, Latin America has one of the most remarkable histories of avant-garde music I’ve ever encountered – so vast that I haven’t scratched beyond the surface.
An attempt at deconstructing the cultural history of Latin America during the postcolonial era would be a foolish, but there are common themes. As the yoke of Spanish (and Portuguese in the case of Brazil) rule broke across the 19th century, much of Latin America entered into a period defined by land disputes, war, infrastructure development, and attempts at cultural definition – often stemming from a tense relationship between those from European decent, and indigenous populations. During the first part of the 20th century, radical left wing political thought and action gained a great deal of traction in many countries, and with them came populist ideologies and a (sometimes self-interested) support for the arts – particularly music. This lead to the establishment of national orchestras, and attempts to negotiate the difficult waters of cultural identity. A defining component of most early Latin American movements of musical Modernism is a desire to shed Eurocentric modes, and incorporate culturally indigenous sounds and structures. This idea helped sculpt the first half of 20th century composition in Peru, one of the first countries to fall under my gaze.
Many of the defining attributes of the Latin American avant-garde stem from elements of what I have highlighted above – particularly the balance between maintaining a distinct cultural identity, and an inevitable discourse with Europe (and North America). This became more pronounced during the 1930’s and 40’s when many of Europe’s most distinguished composers and musicians fled Nazi persecution and laid roots in Latin America. Their presence changed everything – igniting conversations, influence, and a flurry of a activity, much of which worked toward the development of new forms of composition and tonal range. It also helped keep European and Latin American voices closely connected in the decades following the Second World War.
For most people, Peruvian avant-garde music begins in the 1950’s with figures such as César Bolaños, Edgar Valcárcel, and Enrique Pinilla, who were primarily dedicated to new electronic and electroacoustic techniques. They are perfect illustrations of a larger trend toward Latin American participation in the international avant-garde community. During the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, European, North, Central, and South American composers and musicians were in constant discourse, yielding an endless stream of remarkable music. I am yet to uncover why, but the histories and legacies of these collaborations and conversations have been largely lost, suppressed, or simply forgotten. It is a horrible sin, and something I will increasingly dedicate myself to rectifying.
When I’m tracking histories, I always begin with recordings. This has benefits and drawbacks, but remains the best place for me to start. Not long after beginning my pursuit of documents from the Post-War Peruvian avant-garde, I stumbled across two releases that were issued by an amazing label based in Lima – Buh Records. Buh is primarily focused on works by Peru’s thriving and incredibly diverse contemporary experimental music scene. The label’s entire catalog is worth exploring in depth. The two releases that caught my eye were the beginnings of their Sound Essentials Collection, which highlights obscure documents from Peru’s neglected history of avant-garde music. Though the composers like Bolaños, Valcárcel, and Pinilla are largely unknown today, they were institutionally recognized and supported during their lifetimes. Buh’s efforts are far closer to my own heart and interests. They draw from the musical underground.
Since first I encountered the label, Luis Alvarado, who runs Buh and curates the Sound Essentials Collection, has been busy. In a few short months, it has rapidly expanded from two releases to six (in the days since I began writing, this has actually grown to seven, but I’ll attack the newest addition on its own. I’m afraid the series might grow further if I take anymore time). One after another, he has brought incredible obscure documents to light. Whether or not the outside world was listening, he has proved that Peru is not only part of the conversation, it has been continuously contributing to and advanced it. You can pick them all up directly from Buh, and I seriously recommend that you do.
Arturo Ruiz del Pozo – Composiciones Nativas (1978 / 2015)
Composiciones Nativas was the first release in the Sound Essentials Collection. Alvarado couldn’t have chosen a better place to start. Arturo Ruiz del Pozo studied at both the National School of Music in Lima and at the Royal College of Music in London. Like his pedigree, his music illustrates an interesting evolutionary bridge between Peru and Europe. The generation of avant-garde composers and musicians who proceeded Pozo reacted strongly against the nationalism and indigenous sonic palette of their predecessors, and often worked within pure electronic fields that defied association. Pozo’s work illustrates a logical evolutionary shift from the concerns of the Post-War generation. Though Composiciones Nativas is unquestionably an electroacoustic work, rather than utilizing synthesis it draws from sounds indigenous to Peru (instruments and otherwise). The result is a distinct and brilliant hybrid. Primarily constructed with tape loops and collages played in conjunction at variable speeds, the album unfolds into a brilliant statement of Musique Concrète. It’s a wonderful display of varying relationships between structure and source. Because many of the sounds are recognizably drawn from instruments, certain pieces and passages find the studio interventions less easy to discern, eluding to free-improvisation rather than electroacoustic process. In others, the intervention is so aggressive that any tangible relationship to the source dissolves, allowing them to appear to be purely electronic. In both cases they are compositionally striking. Over the course of the first seven tracks, Pozo weaves a disorienting world of sound which stands against (more well know) efforts by Groupe de Recherches Musicales from the same period. The only thing that feels out of place is the addition of two more recent Chamber Music works by Pozo at the end of the album – D quartet (strings), and Kanon Expansivo. After the wild excursions of the original album, they run the risk of letting the air out. Even with this slight misstep, Composiciones Nativas is an incredible work that I wouldn’t pass up for anything. Check it out below.
Miguel Flores – Primitivo (1981 / 2015)
Miguel Flores’ Primitivo is incredible. Shockingly, despite being recorded in 1981, Buh’s issue seems to represent its first proper release. Flores belongs to the same generation as Arturo Ruiz del Pozo, but attacked many of the same cultural concerns (Peru’s sonic identity) from the other end of the spectrum. Where Pozo came from a conservatory background, Flores spent the 60’s and 70’s playing Rock and Peruvian folk music, before his practice evolved toward more avant-garde gestures. These influences ripple through Primitivo. The work was instigated by choreographer Luciana Proaño as a score for her performance Miros y Muyeres. This is worth keeping in your mind while listening. Each track holds a reasonably independent approach, seemingly adapted to the demands of a dance lost to memory. The album begins somewhere between electronic research and a sloppy (and I use this in the best possible way) drugged out psychedelic jam, before a headfirst fall into traditional Peruvian and Spanish melodies and instrumentation. It’s brilliant and incredibly engaging dichotomy. As the work evolves, it becomes harder to define – at points flirting with outright experimentation, moving between atonality, gestures familiar in Free-Jazz, pure ambience, and drifting passages which recall New Age music. The timelessness of its totality is striking. Outside of certain moments where 80’s production values allow you to place it, it’s structures and sonorities push era and association away. Primitivo is clearly an important work in its own right. It doesn’t need to be tied to the efforts of others, but given the context in which we find it, it should also be recognized as a window into the concerns of a neglected generation of Peruvian composers. Buh’s issue has politic. It helps us form a more accurate vision of history, broadening our understanding of global discourses with experimental music during the 70’s and 80’s, and thus the origins of contemporary practices which might otherwise be obscure.
Luis David Aguilar – Hombres de Viento / Venas de la Tierra (1978-1982 / 2016)
As a rule I’m a little allergic to the sound of the pan flute. There was a bit of a fetish for Peruvian traditional music in America when I was a kid, and certainly a period when every subway ride in NY put you at risk of being assaulted by it, but I doubt you’ve heard pan flutes like this. Luis David Aguilar wrote both Hombres de Viento and Venas de la Tierra as the soundtracks for two short documentaries. Despite that being an important part of their history and development, it has little bearing on the way they operate as autonomous musical works. They’re incredible! Seriously.. this record is amazing! Yet again, Buh brings us a member of this remarkable generation of Peruvian composers who looked for ways to combine the diverse musical approaches of their culture, both through explicit avant-garde practice and traditional sound sources. Hombres de Viento and Venas de la Tierra are among the most balanced and explicit realizations of this ambition I’ve heard. Though the compositions utilize many of the same instrumental sources, we encounter them less obscured and processed, and thus their cultural connection reveals itself more clearly. Despite this important distinction, the way they are used, and the structures applied to them, are more closely connected to larger bodies of electroacoustic research. The cross-cultural conversation operates as a segmented duality. Because of this, the works offer clearer vision into their relationship to global concerns of musical practice, without risking becoming lost within it. These works are distinctly Peruvian, speaking outwardly as much as inwardly. Both pieces are built around washes of texture, ambience, and dissonance. We enter a cavernous realm of sound, punctuated by discrete moments of voice, pan flute, rattles, violin, guitar, and the dissonances of strummed piano strings. What makes this record particularly special is the dichotomy between source and structure. You never fully lose track of what the sounds are, but the composition makes you question them. They’re forced into abstraction without sacrificing their integrity. The album is so structurally seductive that you get the sense it would have worked with any instrumentation. Aguilar’s choices simply allow insight into the works’ larger conceits. Hombres de Viento and Venas de la Tierra is one of those records that holds the rare possibility of opening the door to the wonders of avant-garde practice for any listener, without losing its rigor. It’s as inviting and accessible as it is challenging. If I had to pick one of this group to recommend, this might be it. It’s absolutely astounding and not to be missed.
Manongo Mujica & Douglas Tarnawiecki – Paisajes Sonoros (1984 / 2016)
One of the most engaging aspects of Luis Alvarado’s curation of the initial run of the Sound Essentials Collection is how he guides the listener through different artists’ approach to the same larger conceptual concerns, and how those approaches evolve over a reasonably short period of time. While Arturo Ruiz del Pozo’s efforts feel firmly grounded in the 70’s, Manongo Mujica and Douglas Tarnawiecki’s Paisajes Sonoros feels equally rooted in the 80’s. Despite many common conceptions, the 80’s was a fascinating period for music – in part because of the odds it faced, and how it faced those odds. As conservative economic and political forces asserted themselves across the globe, and the dream of the 60’s was officially pronounced dead, those who refused to compromise often pursued their “outsider” position more fiercely, issuing some of their most ambitious works during the period. These records stand in stark contrast to the zietgiest, many of which embrace a sonic palette similar to the one found on Paisajes Sonoros. While social, political, and creative forces entered a new period of struggle across the globe, the context in Peru was far more extreme. In 1968 the country’s long standing democratic process was overthrown by a military coup – instigating an extended period of conflict within its borders. Military rule lasted until 1980, and though I don’t pretend to fully understanding of how the dictatorship affected the arts, I know that free speech was heavily curtailed. This might shed light on why some of the recording within the Sound Essentials Collection are as obscure as they are (either directly or indirectly) – one being an unreleased recording, one being soundtracks for films, and Paisajes Sonoros being a self-issued cassette. Though the restoration of democratic elections in 1980 ended the dark period in the country’s history, it also began another. The moment marks the entrance of The Shining Path, a Soviet-funded communist organization who instigated a program of action against the Government, leading to heavy handed reprisals by the military, police, and US funded counterinsurgency groups, and an endless string of human rights violations which left tens of thousands of ordinary citizens dead. Like Vietnam had been, the country became the center of a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States which had little regard to those caught in the middle. This is the context that Paisajes Sonoros entered – though you have to listen hard to hear it. I’m in the throws of a serious love affair with the record. It’s incredible. When I first listened to it I wasn’t thinking about larger political contexts. It felt perfectly of its moment, and a logical extension of the search for a sonic Peruvian identity which defines the other releases in the series – but there was something lingering below the surface. The record shares the dark temperament of the decade. When I started to think about where it might have come from, the possible reasons hit me like a brick. Peru was in a pretty fucked up place when it was recorded, making what it is, and what it achieves, even more remarkable. Manongo Mujica and Douglas Tarnawiecki began the project with extensive field recording research into Peruvian sounds. They spent a year traveling across the country recording the desert, jungle, markets, city streets, the sea, wind, and radio transmissions, before entering the studio begin work on the composition. Like the previous releases in the collection, Paisajes Sonoros sets out to define the sonic identity of Peru through avant-garde practice. The result is stunning. It might be considered a work of Musique Concrète into which instrumental interventions are placed by an ensemble of players. As an image of the country’s landscape unfolds before you, musicians weave rhythms and sonorities into the body of sound, stitching together a picture of the country’s rich cultural life and expressions. Whether simply using your ears, or addressing the larger context or conceptual concerns of the construction, the result is remarkable. The work is celebratory and brooding, familiar and challenging, in discourse with larger global contexts of politics and music, all while facing what was unfolding inside the countries borders. Though it’s obvious I can’t pick favorites, I’m not sure how I could live without Paisajes Sonoros after hearing it.
Visiones de la catástrofe – Documentos del Noise Industrial en el Perú (1990-1995 / 2016)
Once again Luis Alvarado’s brilliant curation makes my job easy. The context of Documentos del Noise Industrial en el Perú, which is a compilation drawing on documents of Peru’s underground Noise scene during the first half of the 90’s, begins where we left off with Paisajes Sonoros. During the mid 80’s, due to a climate defined by political violence and deep economic instability, the country spawned a rich culture of Punk. As in many other countries hosting their own realizations of the movement, as it progressed it claimed different territories of definition, some of which were decidedly avant-garde. Noise is one of the best examples of this. Focusing on the expression of a sonic Peruvian identity, which defines the Sound Essentials Collection previous releases, offers an interesting entry into the compilation. The sounds of Peru, utilized during the 70’s and first part of the 80’s, are gone. In their place we find rage, aggression, and assault. The music becomes another kind of mirror. What I found immediately striking about Documentos del Noise Industrial en el Perú is how ahead of its time the music feels. Though it bears similarity to other contemporary movements in mood and texture, most dominant threads had a strong connection to Punk in dynamics and instrumentation (Harry Pussy etc). Though the sound sources vary, the Peruvian realization is more connected to iterations that occurred slightly later and relied on electronics, sampling and sound collage (Wolf Eyes etc / not to be confused with earlier realizations of Noise which used electronics like Nurse with Wound and Whitehouse, who had a very different sound). It feels more stark, raw, isolated, and nihilistic. These are the sounds of a world collapsing. To be honest, I’ve been to a number of shows in the last year that didn’t move far afield from the territory it charts. Its closest equivalent might be found in the dynamics, articulations, and range expressed within Japan, but without the self-consciousness and artifice. Peru’s realization is painful, emotive, honest, and completely connected to the context from which it grew. It feels like it couldn’t have happened like this anywhere else, and would have, with or without Punk. It probably goes without saying that the compilation is a heavy and abrasive offering. It’s not going to be for everyone, but I found myself completely consumed by it. Even if the music isn’t entirely your thing, it opens an incredible window into the context from which it grew, as well as the changing concerns in avant-garde practice, and should be celebrated and explored for that alone. Check out below. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Distorsión Desequilibrada – Fusión (1993 /2016)
Fusión emerges from the same sonic landscape we explored in the previous entry. Distorsion Desequilibrada was formed in 1991 by Alvaro Portales, an active member of Peru’s Noise community. The band was an attempt to abandon the constraints and associations of Rock and Punk and move toward explorations of dissonant soundscapes which reflected the larger body of political, social, and economic turbulence in Peru. After listening to Documentos del Noise Industrial en el Perú, the album begins to offer the kind of considered insight we have encountered throughout the entire Sound Essentials Collection. Alvarado isn’t making his choices randomly. Each release contributes to the understanding of the next. Nothing exists outside of a context. Fusión brings us to a more refined and considered realization of Peruvian noise. It’s pushing toward new territory, is more connected to the country’s long history of avant-garde music, and feels as though it’s leaving its punk roots behind. It has all the energy and anger, but its elements interact and lock in more considered ways (despite being recorded in a single day). It flirts with some of the field’s ambience that Black Metal began to explore a few years down the road, and in so doing offers a multi-dimensional world of sonic brutality. Distorsion Desequilibrada’s rage is palpable, but more importantly, so is their artistry. Fusión is as beautiful as it is a speaker of ugly truths. Like the entire scene from which it grew, context is everything. These aren’t the sounds of disaffected suburban teenagers. These are the creative digestions of a country being torn apart at the seams.