Choral composer and soprano vocalist Bethany Battafarano is one of six 2017 Cedar Commissions artists. Her project “Oda a la paz”, debuting on February 3rd (get tickets here), is a collaboration with Peruvian poet Helmut Jerí Pabón and Chilean musicians Vladimir Garrido and Nicolas Muñoz, exploring Western classical and Latin American sounds with a focus on choral and Andean roots. Danceable rhythms, soaring harmonies, and social justice themes challenge the underrepresentation of Latin American sounds and languages in Minnesota’s choral music canon.
As we neared the end of 2016, I was repeatedly struck by how appropriately-timed this project was for me. I first met and read the works of poet Helmut Jerí Pabón more than five years ago, but his words resonate even more strongly with me today. His texts address the environmental impacts of mining, the cancerous greed for the new frontier, worldwide war and violence that continue unchecked even by our wealthiest moral institutions, and corrupt politicians and the fight for justice. One of his poems serves as the namesake for this project — “Oda a la paz” or “Ode to Peace”.
For the past several years, I have worked as a professional choral singer, and I’ve been lucky to cross paths with remarkably talented and innovative artists. My primary collaborators on this project are Nicolas Muñoz and Vladimir Garrido, both natives of Arica, Chile, and members of local band, Alma Andina. Each plays a long list of Andean and Western classical instruments, from zampoas and quenas to the guitar and charango, as well as a long list of percussion instruments.
Through my singing work, I also met the wonderful vocalists Lizz Windnagel, Clara Osowski, Linda Kachelmeier, and Kim Sueoka, members of such prominent vocal ensembles as The Rose Ensemble, Artemis, and Lumina.
My work in the choral world has been deeply fulfilling in many ways, not least of which has been working with such inspiring colleagues. But choral music is principally rooted in white, Eurocentric traditions, and while it is making strides in some areas, there is a striking lack of Latin American culture represented in the choral canon. The void is particularly egregious in a place like Minneapolis-St. Paul, a national hub for choral music which boasts more than 10% of its population as Latinos. The underrepresentation seemed more and more offensive with time, and the Cedar Commissions encouraged me to do something about it.
When I began, my first challenge was simply wrapping my head around all the possible styles. Before launching into the compositional process, I did a very fun thing — I developed a spreadsheet! I listed classical styles, Latin American styles or rhythms, and the languages at my disposal (English, Spanish, Quichua), and I randomized combinations of each element. What I ended up with was a clear framework for each piece — for example, “chorale in Quichua”, “cumbia in English”, “festejo in Spanish” — which guided my initial approach.
The next challenge was the actual writing process. Every creative artist strives to make something unique, something that serves a new purpose — socially, musically, or both. Beyond a socio-musical fusion, I wanted each element to push its limits, and my collaborators Nico and Vlady shared that drive.
While we rooted the music in recognizable and accessible soundscapes, each piece challenges norms. The vocal lines evade harmonic expectations as they explore dissonance and stray from tonal centers. The singers improvise in several pieces, using extended vocal techniques at times to imitate and complement the instruments. Both Nico and Vlady build complicated contraptions to allow them to play multiple instruments at once, such as stands around their necks to hold the zampoñas to their lips while they also play percussion and stringed instruments. Vlady, also a sound engineer, uses a looping machine, harmony pedals, and reverb and delay effects on the microphones.
But the underlying and most important challenge was the question of my role in this process. While I had spearheaded the idea, it was impossible to develop the project alone. Beyond my basic need for musicians who knew the styles and instruments, I needed to collaborate on a moral level. As a white person, it’s not my place to dictate the way that Latin American traditions should be represented in choral music. So Nico and Vlady shaped my compositions early and often. Multiple pieces began as a cappella arrangements in my mind, only to have Nico or Vlady say when they heard it, “Oh, that’s samba!” — or san juanito, diablada, cumbia, and beyond.
In many ways, the logistics of the process have mirrored the reasons behind the project. Composing in general is a highly solitary activity. At times, whole days can go by as I sing into a recorder, pace the floor imagining sounds, translate texts, edit dozens of pages of scores, and sometimes speak to no one. Working closely with Nico and Vlady has forced me to let go of control, to share and receive ideas, and to take delight in the things that others can teach me. In every case, Nico and Vlady improved the music that I presented to them, even after I had meticulously crafted it. Working together has been an exercise in deep mutual respect and in growing humility, which continues to shape me not only as a musician, but as a person.