lørdag den 6. september 2014

Xochicuicatl Cuecuechtli – the first contemporary opera in Nahuatl: A Review

Having just returned from the first performance of Xochicuicatl Cuecuechtli – billed as the first contemporary Opera with a libretto in Nahuatl, composed and directed by Gabriel Pareyón – I had to make this the topic of this blog post which will take the form of a review. [Edited: In fact it turns out that in 2005 the Opera "La Conquista" by Lorenzo Ferrero, premiered in Prague. Its libretto was partly in Nahuatl, written by the Nahuatl specialist Frances Karttunen. Thanks to Dr. Karttunen, for pointing this out to me!]

First a little background: The opera is written by Gabriel Pareyón, a Mexican polymath who works both as a composer, a musicologist, a linguist and a semiotician. He has previously written pieces of contemporary music with long titles in Otomí some of which can be heard on youtube, but this seems to be his first work featuring Nahuatl. In the program Pareyón describes that the work is part of a research project on how to understand indigenous musical traditions of Mexico, and give life to an aesthetic vision that harks back to Mesoamerica before European contact.

The libretto is based on one of the Cantares Mexicanos, which is a collection of songs in Nahuatl, written sometime in the 16th century. The text are considered by most Nahuatl specialists to be among the most intrigueing texts written in colonial Nahuatl, and among the most challenging. The particular songtype is what in Nahuatl is called a Cuecuechcuicatl, which John Bierhorst translates into English as “Ribald Flowersong” and philosopher and Nahuatl scholar Patrick Johansson translates as “Canto florido de travesuras” (flowery song of naughtiness). Based on descriptions of the songtype in ethnohistorical sources which describe it as being sexually inappropriate for a good Christian audience, Johansson reinterprets the flower and nature images of the song as sexual metaphors. This interpretation forms the basis of Pareyón's work which is built around an erotic theme.

The music is written for an ensemble of instruments of types known to have been used by pre-contact Mesoamerican musicians (this kind of music is increasingly beoming known as pre-cuauhtemic music in Mexico, alluding to Cuauhtemoc the last independent ruler of Mexihco-Tenochtitlan). These instruments include large standing drums (huehuetl) and smaller lying slit-drums (teponaztli), as well as other percussion instruments and different types of flutes and conch trumpets. The music is written for and performed by the pre-cuauhtemic ensemble Kuauhkiyahuitzintli/Lluvia de Palos led by percussionist José Navarro.

The plot of the work, created by Pareyón based on the song, evolves around an erotic relation between a Huastec by the name Tohuenyo (performed by Ricardo Diaz Mendoza, known from Mel Gibson's Apocalypto), three ahuianimeh “pleasure girls”(performed by Silvia Moreno, Abril Mondragon and Priscella Uvalle) and a cuicamatini “knower of songs” (performed by César Juarez-Joyner) who at the end of the work turns into the Aztec god of sexual debauchery Xochipilli.

Unfortunately I missed the conference that was given by the composer and several Nahuatl specialists, including Patrick Johansson before the performance, and I arrived to take my seat just before the curtain went up.

It was not the first time that I had heard pre-cuauhtemic music, but I was very surprised at the enormous range of expressivity that Lluvia de Palos were able to create with their limited means. In spite of clearly being in the genre of “contemporary” compositional music, the sound was not easily associated with any specific place or time in the world. At times it was reminiscent of Japanese music, as I know it from Kurosawa movies, or of balinese gong music. But at other times it sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. In a good way. I particularly liked the part where the three Ahuianime use the metates (grindstones for grinding corn) as musical instruments, the sound of stone grinding against stone creating a rich texture with the wooden sounds of the slit drums.

The singing was something else. In an interview given to the diariodigital, Pareyón explained that he had worked consciously to try to arrive at a singing style that was not based on European singing. In the same interview Enid Negrete, coordinator and scenographer stated that “The Nahuatl language gave opportunity to, provoked and required a different vocal technique, completely distinct from the European technique which is based on articulation rather than embodiment, and which is also used in order to make sure the Nahuatl is intelligible and retains its intonation.” The vocal technique was definitely very different from any European technique (and also from any non-European technique I have heard). The technique involved singing in a high-pitched highly glottalized (what linguists would call “creaky voice”) register, where the voice frequently breaks into falsetto. It was at times difficult to distinguish the composition from the vocal technique. The singers seemed to repeat a small number of melodic figures most of them based on a rising falling melodic contour, with different accentuations and phrasings, chopping them up into staccatos with strong accent on each syllable, breaking into violent falsettos on the high point of the phrase, or glottalizing the descending phrase into a fading shriek. The goal of creating a completely distinct vocal aesthetic was certainly achieved. The other goal of making a technique suited for Nahuatl I think was less well achieved. I was able to hear quite a bit of the libretto and recognize parts of the poem, which were repeated in the voices of the different singers. But many times I was unable to hear what was being sung at all – perhaps this is a result of the technique being focused on embodiment rather than on articulation, and I certainly also cant always hear what is being sung in a European opera, so that may not be so big of a deal. But also the intonation of the language was completely changed, a lot of the times the speech rhytm was weirdly staccato sounding like no variety of Nahuatl I have ever heard, and frequently stress was placed on syllables where they would never occur in spoken Nahuatl. Overall the delivery of the language came across to me as extremely artificial and unnatural (in a not good way). 

I think I understand the choice of this strange vocal aesthetics – simply because using any singing style that could be identified as “European” would have clearly marked the attempt to attain a truly “autochtonous” aesthetics as half-assed an hypocritical. But on the other hand I have a hard time believing that the style though very “foreign” and unknown was in fact a closer approximation of how pre-cuauhtemic singing sounded like. In me, the choice of vocal technique produced a very strong verfremdungseffekt, that provoked me to think critically about the whole project and the way it depicted the indigenous people as completely exotic (and savagely erotic) others. This made me ask myself the question whether the pursuit of the aesthetic other of European music in an imagined pre-cuauhtemic Mesoamerica does not easily turn into a kind of “occidentalism”.

Another aspect that bugged me a bit regarding the treatment of the language was the fact that the Nahuatl libretto was nowhere represented in writing – neither in the program nor in the running light titles above the stage. Anyone who was not able to understand the sung Nahuatl (I would estimate that would be about 98% of the audience) only had acces to the “supertitles” in Spanish above the stage. The “supertitles” also written by Pareyón, had a very indirect relation to what was actually being sung in Nahuatl. At times the titles approximated Johanssons translation, but at other times it deviated completely from the Nahuatl words, creating dialogue between the characters, or adding sexual innuendo such as “we women do not subsist on corn and beans alone, we also need chili” or “I erect my flowery pole” neither of which was present in the sung words. The supertitle in that way was more of a guide to the plot, and an representation of the composers interpretation of the poem than an actual translation of the sung text. This made the Nahuatl text stand alone isolated from the meaning of the plot, and to me gave the impression that the language was only an instrument to achieve an aesthetic effect, but not meant to be a language of actual communication. Kind of like a meaningless soundscape, that the Spanish supertitles then inscribed meaning onto. So is this cultural translation or is it colonizing and erasing the Nahuatl text and the voice of the Nahuas who wrote it?

While this performance was the official premiere, the opera had in fact already been performed for an audience of Nahua people in Arcelia, Guerrero. This was done, according to the composer, in order to show indigenous people that also non-native speakers can use the Nahuatl language. It does seem that  other than this, no native speakers were directly involved in the production. Sometimes it is difficult to be sure when the usage of cultural signs across cultural borders are demonstrations of friendship and brotherhood and when they are appropriations. Here a few hours after having seen the performance, I still havent settled on one of those two interpretations.

I'll finish by giving some examples of different translations of the first stanza of the poem, as you will see hey are quite different:

Hue nache niehco. Ya nihuehuetzcatihuitz.
Ye nixcuecuech, Aya, xochitl in ye nocuic.
Momamalina zan ic ya totoma, ho Ohuaya, nicalle.
Ye ompa nihuitz xochitl iztac ihcacan,
anca ye mochan in quiquizcalihtic
in amoxtonaticac, Ohuaya, nicalle.

Hey Brother! I'm arriving. I come laughing. I'm a leering ribald! My songs, these flowers, They are whirling and I set them free.
I come from where white flowers stand. And now it seems these pictures stand up shining in your home
this trumpet house. (Bierhorst 1985:369)
Mi gran jefe, llego: yo vengo a reír. / My great chief, I arrive, I come to laugh
Soy cara traviesa, flor es mi canción./  
I am a naughty face, flower is my song
Se va tramando y luego se despliega. ¡Ah, soy el casero! / 
It goes weaving and then unfolds. Ah! I am the one who lives here.
Llego a donde la flor blanca está
erguida: / I arrive to where the white flower stands erect:
ésa es tu casa y entre las trompetas / 
This is your house and among the trumpets
tus libros relucen como el Sol. ¡Ah, soy el casero!
/ books shine like the sun. Ah! I am the one who lives here
Á.G. Garibay K. (1955)/ (my translation to English)
Oh gran jefe, llegué, vine a reír./     O great chief, I arrived. I came to laugh.
Soy cara traviesa, aya, esta flor es mi canto. / I am a naughty face, aya, this flower is my song
Se va tramando y luego se despliega. ¡Soy el dueño de la casa! / It goes weaving and then unfolds. I am the owner of the house!
Llegué a donde la flor blanca está erguida: / I arrived at where the white flower stands erect.
ésa es tu casa entre las trompetas / That is your house among the trumpets,
donde se calienta el musgo, ¡soy el dueño de la casa! / Where the moss is warm. I am the owner of the house.
 P. Johansson (2002)/ My translation into English

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