Definition by Exclusion, and A Belated Invitation

A curious piece, and a curious perspective about Roberto Sierra...

Roberto Sierra's music crosses cultures, traditions

The ancient origin of the tunes may be tied to a specific tradition: Judaism in medieval Spain.

They may?

But as composer Roberto Sierra re-imagined the seven tune fragments and set them to poetry about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain,

Oh, they are. The tunes (or tune-fragments? Same thing?) are from that tradition, and then set to poetry about that historical epoch. That seems fair enough. Thus the "may...but" construction is leading to something...

...he wanted his creation, Songs From the Diaspora, to resonate in a modern, mobile world.

Also logical, since he composed it in a modern, mobile world. So: although the material is from an old tradition, it is combined with poetry related to the same period (the source of which is not cited) which gives new meaning and perspective to both. Multiculturalism!

“This is perhaps the sign of the times,” Sierra said in a telephone interview last week. “There are no more boundaries culturally. Nowadays we have available the music from the whole world at our fingertips, from all times.”

First: Yes, we do, but especially if we're Western and have technology and money. However, this does not diminish the effort or concept of the work.

Second: This idea has been around for a while, now. Perhaps Houston has just now received its invitation to the 1889 Paris World's Fair?

Music that crosses tradition, time and culture has been one of the themes of Sierra’s compositions.

Not to diminish Sierra's work, or this sentiment, but composers, artists, and the public (again, mostly Western) have had access to and drawn influence from other cultures ever since they started invading them and taking their stuff. Earlier even; but the ages of Exploration and Colonialism(tm) certainly brought many influences into the work of curious artists and fascinated audiences for generations.

Famously, at the aforementioned Exposition Universelle of 1889, a young Debussy (looking at you from the left, here) heard the Javanese gamelan ensemble and was taken with and inspired by its repetitive rhythms and shimmering sounds. (For an interesting study, see this work detailing the wealth of musics in Paris at the Fair.)

"Exotic" influences became a staple of many facets of modernism, and later postmodern thinking. This kind of cultural collage is, indeed, as Mr. Sierra says, particularly representative of the information age.

For whatever reason, here is a picture of a Javanese gamelan that is fun to look at.

Javenese Gamelan Ensemble

So yeah! What else?

Born in Puerto Rico, trained in Europe,

Sounds like a good dash of multiculturalism right there, for starters...

Sierra, who is not Jewish,


now makes his home and composes music in Ithaca, N.Y.

Um. Wow.

Obviously the tunes (or tune fragments, see above) have their origin in Spanish Judiaism. But Mr Sierra seems to have all of the hallmarks of a multicultural pedigree anyway. What is the point of pointing out his not-religious affiliation?

Is he unworthy, or unqualified to use this material? Is he co-opting Judiasm for his own ends? Notice that his acutal religion (if any) is not revealed. Is his lack of Jewishness so inportant vis-a-vis his using ancient Sephardic source material that it merits mention in the same sentence as his heritage?

Clearly there is not a total lack of context; mentioning that a composer (or anyone, for that matter) is not this or that in an informational vacuum would be another matter. But it still struck some kind of nerve, obviously.

This writer, left with no further information, can only assume that Mr Sierra is Zoroastrian.

"I'm standing on a lizard!"


Anonymous said...

Good points, SA.

I like "I'm standing on a lizard!" "Trained professional: Do not attempt at home," could also apply.



Empiricus said...

...as if some composers were still writing Gregorian chant, because, you know, they don't get out of he house all that often.

You're right, this is nothing new. Nothing new at all.

That's what confuses me about fusion. Okay, "so you're telling me that because you were influenced or inspired by something other than that with which you are familiar, that's gonna be cool and significant, purely because of the cross-cultural pollination aspect?" Cool, maybe. Significant, probably not.

Apparently the melting pot hasn't melted anything yet.