Miguel Ángel Estrella: (Classical) Music for the People, Dictatorship, and Memory
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the place of Argentine pianist Miguel Ángel Estrella in the politics of Latin American music, focusing on the Dirty War, the wave of repression and violence by military regimes during the 1960s and 1970s. It begins with Estrella’s recital in September 1987 as a tribute to Nadia Boulanger, who died in October 1979 and was one protagonist in Estrella’s story. It then considers Estrella’s political activities in Argentina and his being formally charged with subversion, sedition, and terrorist activities, as well as his promotion of the masterworks of the Western canon. It also contextualizes Estrella’s experience in light of a number of broader issues, relating Estrella and his traditionalist repertory to the ongoing debate among composers and critics over socially engaged music (música comprometida); the historical antecedents of this debate and how they inform present-day reactions to the status of either the avant-garde or the Western canon in música comprometida; and how scholars in the United States might understand Estrella’s story.
It is the evening of September 26, 1987. After a seven-year military dictatorship, democratic rule has prevailed in Argentina for almost four years. Argentine pianist Miguel Ángel Estrella has just walked onto the stage of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires before an audience of three thousand (Camps 1987, 2). The seven-tiered, acoustically perfect theater in neo French-Renaissance style is a bastion of “universal” culture, an ideal Buenos Aires elites have ardently defended in an ongoing tussle over artistic expression. Rejecting folkloric nationalism as fit only for “puerile and folkloric spirits,” as characterized in the 1930s by Juan Carlos Paz, Latin America’s first serialist composer, intellectual elites have traditionally taken universal culture to mean that of Europe, inclining especially toward France (Paz 1936, 80). In fact, Estrella’s recital was a tribute to Nadia Boulanger, who had died in October 1979 and who, as we shall see, was one protagonist in Estrella’s story, which blends the local and the cosmopolitan in some striking ways.
The bulk of the program perfectly complemented both the setting and the occasion. On the program were “Soeur Monique” and “La Bandoline” by François Couperin, “Le cou cou” and “L’hirondelle” by Louis-Claude Daquin, and some short works by Rameau. In addition to these French miniatures, Estrella played Five Little Preludes (J. S. Bach) and the C-Major Prelude and Fugue from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, a Scarlatti sonata, and a Gigue and Passacaglia by Handel; he also included the imposing Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI: 52 by Haydn. On the second half were Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata, op. 53, the Fantasy Impromptu by Chopin, op. 66, and three etudes by the same composer, op. 25 no. 2, and op. 10 nos. 9 and 12 (the “Revolutionary”). In the midst of this tribute to the European tradition, however, Estrella also paid homage to Argentine music, offering “Triste en la,” from Julián Aguirre’s Aires Nacionales and an arrangement of “Chakai Manta,” a well-known chacarera, a folkloric dance with alternations of 3/4 and 6/8, often involving percussive effects in the guitar (p. 334) accompaniment. Another Argentine work was explicitly political. Canción sin verano (Song without Summer), by Juan “Tata” Cedrón, is based on a poem by the recently deceased Julio Cortázar, which deals with exile and “the silenced voices of friends.” Having left Argentina for political reasons in 1951, Cortázar had watched the Dirty War—torture, imprisonment, and “disappearance” of those perceived as dissidents—from France and mourned in verse that “summer was no more” in Argentina, now “a land of ashen sun and a gray moon.” Nonetheless, one day, the poet declared, “the wheat would rise on the pampa of liberty.”
Another political move, which launched the concert, relied not on national but universal culture. Estrella began with a Bach chorale, unusual in and of itself in a piano recital. Introit-like and in four parts, the chorale (the Buenos Aires press does not specify which) was intended as a gesture of thanksgiving, as Estrella explained to the audience from the stage via a microphone. He was grateful, he announced, not only for being able to play in his own country but for Argentina’s return to democracy. Throughout the rest of the recital, he commented on various aspects of the music, seeking “total communication with the public,” as a sympathetic reviewer put it (Camps 1987, 2).
Estrella’s gratitude was genuine. Ten years earlier he had been held captive in a clandestine house of torture in Uruguay, an environment so twisted that proper names or names of commonplace objects denoted the sinister tools plied there: an electroshock machine might be called “Susana” while the pileta (“swimming pool” or “sink” in American Spanish) was a bowl filled with urine and feces in which a prisoner’s face was repeatedly dunked. From that nightmare, Estrella was transferred to a prison some sixty kilometers from Montevideo known as Libertad (liberty), in this instance, not a cruel euphemism but the actual name of the town in which the prison was located. A supporter of Juan Domingo Perón, Estrella had taught and performed in rural Argentina on the premise that the masterworks of the Western canon belonged to all citizens, not just elites. He later recalled to various interviewers the reproach of one of his torturers, later identified as Colonel José Nino Gavazzo. “‘You’ll never play the piano again,’ that individual would hiss, adding, ‘because you’re no guerilla fighter, you’re something worse: with your piano and your big fat smile you win over the shit [la negrada] of society and make them believe they can listen to Beethoven’” (Bonasso 2003, 18). An important detail here is the term “negrada.” Although literally translated as “niggers,” “la negrada” can refer generally to lower socio-economic classes of other races, the venom toward which the word “shit” seems most aptly to convey, even as it effaces the all-too obvious racist overtones. Thus, in addition to being formally charged with subversion, sedition, and terrorist activities—the actual extent of his political activities is discussed below—Estrella was also seen to threaten existing class structures by promoting the masterworks of the Western canon.
During the Cold War, when military regimes throughout Latin America were supported to varying degrees by the United States government, folk and popular musicians were frequently tagged “Marxist subversives” (Kornbluh 2003; McSherry 2005). In Brazil, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, and Gilberto Gil (later Minister of Culture in the administration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) were imprisoned and subsequently (p. 335) exiled for their politically provocative imaginations, manifested in song and theatrical displays (Veloso 2002, 216–217). Especially vulnerable were singers associated with nueva canción, whose lyrics of protest often sparked massive audience participation. In Argentina, Mercedes Sosa was searched and arrested on stage at a 1979 concert in La Plata; she subsequently moved to France. Most grotesque was the torture and murder of Víctor Jara, a fervent supporter of Salvador Allende, whose government Augusto Pinochet overthrew in 1973 with the aid of the CIA; Pablo Neruda (1904–1973) mourned Jara’s fate as the equivalent of “killing a nightingale” (Urrutia 2002, 18). These artists and many others challenged authority through song, either using subtle imagery or more direct means. In “Preguntas por Puerto Montt,” for example, Jara identified by name the Chilean Minister of the Interior responsible for ordering an overwhelming police presence on squatter families in the city of Puerto Montt in 1969, resulting in widespread death and injury (Schechter 1999, 429). Other nueva canción artists attacked the Vietnam war and the “American way of life,” which many believed US multinationals and mass culture—including that purveyed by Walt Disney—were trying to implant in Latin America (Taffet 1997, 91–103; Dorfman and Mattelart 1975). To the broad public, these musical activists were the face of resistance to the Dirty War.
As for classical music in Latin America, by the time Estrella came of age most composers were under the spell of the avant-garde. In Argentina alone there was the Centro Latinoamericano de Altos Estudios Musicales (CLAEM, or Latin American Center of Advanced Musical Studies) in Buenos Aires, the most highly regarded program for new music in South America; the CLAEM, in turn, was a branch of the Instituto Torcuato di Tella, founded in 1958 as a center for avant-garde art. The same year, Francisco Kröpfl founded, under the auspices of the Architecture School of the University of Buenos Aires, the Estudio de Fonología, the first electroacoustic studio in Latin America attached to an academic institution. In 1959 in Córdoba, three hundred kilometers north of Buenos Aires, another such studio was established. Like their counterparts in nueva canción, some avant-garde composers actively resisted the Dirty War, both through direct political action or “revolutionizing” traditional musical parameters.
Estrella resisted this high-modernist ferment, remaining loyal to Beethoven, Haydn, Bach, Couperin, Scarlatti, and Chopin, a repertory that, unlike nueva canción, ostensibly posed little threat to the regime. Yet the remarks attributed to his torturer, cited above, suggest otherwise. As such, his story prompts several questions about this grim chapter in the history of Latin American music, which US scholars are only beginning to explore. How, if at all, do Estrella and his traditionalist repertory relate to the ongoing debate among composers and critics over socially engaged music (música comprometida)?1 What are the historical antecedents of this debate and how do they inform present-day reactions to the status of either the avant-garde or the Western canon in música comprometida? Perhaps most important, how might scholars in the United States, especially those mindful of the love-hate relationship between their country and Latin America, seek to understand Estrella’s story? In this essay, I propose to contextualize Estrella’s experience in light of these broader issues.
(p. 336) Classical Music for the Masses and its Polemics: Estrella in History
Since the late nineteenth century, classical (i.e., art music) composers have debated music’s role in periods of social upheaval. A central concern is the extent to which the Western canon constituted but a remnant of bourgeois culture, begging to be supplanted by new forms of expression. In determining what sort of new music was to rise out of the ashes of revolution, some argued for folk tunes, dance rhythms, or other elements familiar to oppressed constituencies. Others, especially members of the avant-garde, believed that only by “revolutionizing” form, harmony, texture, or instrumentation could composers mirror in their works the overthrow of existing social models. With regard to the Western canon itself, its revolutionary potential was up for grabs, depending largely on context and presentation.
In the first half of the twentieth century, composers and political leaders tested these ideas. José Vasconcelos, Minister of Education in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, was convinced that the masses could be uplifted through the masterworks of the European canon. Accordingly, the ministry sponsored public concerts, many in parks or other unrestricted spaces. As Vasconcelos later recalled, the newly reorganized Sinfónica Nacional presented (free of charge) “the complete series of Beethoven, the symphonies of Chaikovski, Brahms, Mozart, selections by Wagner, Debussy and Saint-Saëns, works of Strauss, the ‘Unfinished’ by Schubert . . . Berlioz and others” (Vasconcelos 1926, 1261). Vasconcelos’s compatriot and contemporary Carlos Chávez not only shared these beliefs but was convinced of the astuteness and sensitivity of this largely working-class audience. In 1939, by which time Chávez had made his mark in the United States, he wrote an essay for The New York Times. Its title, “Music in a Mexican Test Tube,” conveys the experimental nature of the post-revolutionary cultural program (Chávez 1939, SM5). He enthuses over a state-subsidized, ten-year run of workers’ concerts presented by the Orquesta Sinfónica de México, which, like Vasconcelos’s concerts, were often “out-of-concert-hall” experiences (Beckles Willson 2009a). The inaugural event, held at the Centro Social y Deportivo Venustiano Carranza, attracted all ages, including numerous children and workers in “faded overalls” or otherwise “shabbily dressed.” Other free concerts, organized in collaboration with trade-union leaders, were held at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Again, some audience members showed up barefoot while others sported worn but freshly laundered white shirts, a gesture Chávez found to be “as fine a compliment as an audience has ever paid an orchestra.” Concerts were well attended. “People swarmed in to listen,” Chávez recalled, “their eyes fixed on the orchestra; their heads and bodies barely stirred,” behavior quite different from that of the easily distracted “regular cultivated subscription audience.” For Chávez, this unaffected and spontaneous reaction was the bedrock of Mexico’s post-revolutionary cultural renaissance, namely, that “art must be . . . universal in its foundations and reach the vast majority of the people.” Further, Chávez notes, this “untutored and inexperienced” (p. 337) public possessed discriminating taste. On one occasion, a Haydn symphony that “experienced ears find charming and irresistible” made no impact whatsoever. When a Stravinsky work was played (Chávez does not identify it) the workers applauded enthusiastically, “as if they had been brought up on a diet of nothing but dissonance, atonality, and rhythms that changed with bewildering uncertainty.” Despite its material poverty, clearly this public was innately sophisticated—at least, as Chávez told it to The New York Times at a moment when similar artistic projects in the United States were being realized under the Works Progress Administration.
More than once, Stravinsky’s music was seen to speak for the masses, as if defying the composer’s own elitism. The long-awaited Madrid premiere of The Rite of Spring in December 1932 prompted a near-delirious reaction in Republican Spain, with many critics applauding not so much Stravinsky’s score as the wisdom of the people, who evidently listened to its complexities “with an interest and emotion seldom equaled,” as one reviewer declared. Another attributed this reaction to the music’s freedom “from all intellectualism, from any dialectical gesture of salon-style elegance,” through which “the great Russian himself, without knowing it, has been a spokesman, a herald of the revolution” (Hess 2001, 284–286). Clearly, if the masses were capable of embracing both the European canon and modern music, it was only natural that politically minded composers target this constituency as performers. For decades, workers’ choruses such as the Orfeó Català of Barcelona performed European masterworks, along with folk songs. In Vasconcelos’s Mexico, such choruses were sometimes founded in the poorest “most miserable” neighborhoods of the “entirely miserable” Mexican capital, as Vasconcelos himself put it (Vasoncelos 1926, 1265). One composer who tapped into this performing force was Hanns Eisler, who famously quarreled with Schoenberg over what he considered the undue complexity of new music. Eisler’s own mild brand of modernism emerged in his Massenlieder style, the meter shifts, harmonic surprises, and angular, sometimes unpredictable, melodic turns of which were imitated in the United States where workers’ choruses had thrived since the waves of immigration at the turn of the twentieth century. Aaron Copland, for example, composed “Into the Streets May First!” in 1934 while associated with the New York-based Composers’ Collective. Worker-performers might also confront the modernist idiom in the Lehrstücke of Hindemith and Weill or in the political theater of Marc Blitzstein.
Among those who addressed the political merits of modern music was Charles Seeger. Rejecting the power structure embedded in “bourgeois” concert life, Seeger developed his short-lived concept of proletarian music, that is, revolutionary “content” realized via “the forward looking technic [sic] of contemporary art music” composed with “the people” in mind. Indeed, although he insisted that workers would “not have any trouble” performing musically complex works (Seeger 1934, 125), Seeger (who ultimately embraced folk music) nonetheless advised composers to be judicious in their technical demands, wondering aloud if Copland’s “Into the Streets May First!” would “ever be sung on the picket line” (Crist 2005, 29; Seeger 1939). For this stance, Seeger was attacked by the communist journalist Mike Gold, who argued that while “a new content often demands a new form,” audiences would rightly complain if “the new form gets so (p. 338) far ahead of all of us that we can’t understand its content” (Hess 2008, 331). Common ground was established when Seeger excoriated artists who perpetuated the status quo, targeting “the liberal composer who has sat in his ivory tower and said, whether or not there is a class struggle, music has nothing to do with it . . . broadcasting negative propaganda (tacit approval) for the social system that gives him a tower and allows him to sit in it” (Seeger 1934, 126). Decades later in Latin America, Ernesto (Che) Guevara addressed the artist’s obligations in similar terms. Acknowledging that some might take “artistic experimentation as the definition of freedom,” he nonetheless attacked avant-garde artists who indulge in mere formalist escapism as little more than “docile servants of official thought . . . ‘scholarship students’ who live at the expense of the state—practicing freedom in quotation marks” (Guevara 1989, 11–13).
If some fervently believed in “the wisdom of the people,” others saw an unbridgeable rift between the uneducated public and the educated elites. Embodied in the complexity, abstraction, and profoundly anti-mimetic qualities of modern art, this rift was energetically debated in Latin America during the early part of the twentieth century vis-à-vis the ideas of Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. Famously arguing that the “new art” (el arte nuevo) was not only unpopular but anti-popular, Ortega encapsulated some of the agendas just surveyed, especially persuasive given that the adjective “popular” in Spanish refers not merely to approbation (popularity) but also means “of the people.” The title of Ortega’s best-known essay on this subject, “The Dehumanization of Art,” encapsulates the new art’s incapacity to serve any social (human) end. “A work of art is nothing but a work of art,” Ortega asserts, echoing debates in late-nineteenth century Vienna over absolute music. “New art,” bound to the principles of “disinterested” aesthetic contemplation, was thus inimical to political utterance (Ortega 1968, 14).
Such an aesthetic stance, rudely dividing elites and masses, is of course eminently political, and Latin Americans have explored Ortega’s work as such. Some elites adapted the attitude of Victoria Ocampo, who, in founding the Argentine journal Sur (in some ways modeled on Ortega’s own Revista de Occidente), maintained that the intellectual should reflect on “the eternal questions of culture and knowledge” and remain largely aloof from politics (King 1986, 39). Yet as Vicky Unruh observes, Latin American vanguards have tended to invest Ortegan dehumanization with a meaning at odds with that intended by its creator (Unruh 1994, 23–26). Far from pursuing the realms of “disinterested” contemplation—rejecting the ivory tower described by Seeger or the “docility” of “official thought” against which Che warned—several Latin American modernists took “new art” as a point of departure for social action, arguing that it should embrace confrontation between art and experience. “Experience” could of course be political. For the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui (1894–1930), Ortega had gotten it only half right. Although the new art was an important concept, Mariátegui maintained, art that did nothing more than introduce new techniques was “decadent,” given its preoccupation with merely “formal conquests” rather than social engagement (Mariátegui 1986, 182). Neruda, too, rejected the idea that “a work of art is nothing but a work of art.” In a 1935 essay on “poetry without purity,” Neruda opposed poésie pure to a poetry “penetrated by sweat and smoke, redolent of urine and the lily,” all signs of “the confused (p. 339) impurity of human beings” (Neruda 1986, 243). For others, political engagement (compromiso) was the defining element of Latin American modern art, one that separated it from Europe. In 1927, the Peruvian poet Magda Portal (1900–1989) urged artists to reject “the vanquished ‘-isms’ of Europe,” brandishing in capital letters the slogan “HUMANIZATION OF ART,” with its “double mission of aesthetics and life” (Portal 1988, 208). As these essayists responded to Ortegan ideals, the principles of confrontation and engagement they advocated gained ground in several areas of Latin American life. An obvious example is the work of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educational philosopher whose best-known work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), confronted the unequal distribution of intellectual opportunity, a position similar in many ways to Estrella’s.
Twentieth-century, left-leaning Latin American composers have taken several approaches to these issues. Silvestre Revueltas, for example, sought to deliver a revolutionary message to a mass audience via a traditional symphonic format in his Homenaje a Federico García Lorca, composed in 1936 in honor of the slain Spanish poet. (Lorca himself believed that peasants and workers were innately receptive to the classics, having founded the traveling theater program La Barranca to bring the works of Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca to Spain’s rural poor.) Traveling under the auspices of LEAR (League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists) at the height of the Spanish Civil War, Revueltas was applauded in Madrid and Barcelona for writing music that the “unsophisticated public . . . knows how to assimilate with refined instinct” (Hess 1997, 286). Others asserted their aesthetic-political stance through modernist anti-nationalism. In Brazil, during the first regime of Getúlio Vargas, the entity Grupo Musica Viva centered around the German-born Schoenberg adherent Hans-Joachim Koellreuter, Brazil’s first serialist. Musica Viva’s manifesto denounces the “egocentric and individualistic currents” of musical nationalism. As Gerard Béhague has noted, any attempt to establish a Brazilian dodecaphonic school also defied the ideology of brasilidade Vargas had trumpeted (Béhague 1979, 279). In Cuba, modernist composers were often explicit: José Ardévol, whose 1969 book repeatedly refers to “the triumph of the [communist] revolution,” wrote two cantatas, the serialist Che comandante and La Victoria de Playa Girón, which contains aleatoric passages (Ardévol 1969, 100). In Chile during the Allende years, composers such as Gustavo Becerra, Sergio Ortega, and Luis Advis experimented with the cantata popular. Decidedly anti-modernist, that genre sought to unite the world of nueva canción and the cantata, as in Luis Advis’s Santa María de Iquique of 1969, which combines trio-sonata textures and recitative-like passages with various folk forms, such as the cueca, while commemorating the 1907 massacre of nitrate workers in northern Chile. Joan Jara (Víctor Jara’s widow) later recalled the discussion such works prompted, raising many of the same questions Seeger had pondered. Could classical forms express the voice of the masses? Were “elite,” conservatory-trained composers qualified to evoke the plight of ordinary workers (Jara 1984, 196)?
Such debates continue today. In a spirited essay of 2008, Argentine composer Graciela Paraskevaídis contrasts the long tradition of politicized music with the relative scholarly silence on Latin American music during the latter part of the twentieth (p. 340) century, when composers’ political convictions were tested as perhaps never before. Drawing on the work of the Mexican Marxist theorist Leopoldo Zea, Paraskevaídis argues that to accept any model at all is to accept subordination and that history itself is a succession of fractured models. Música comprometida must therefore reject tradition, whether from recent or distant musical history. Neither are merely setting a few texts by Neruda or incorporating symbolic references to the same sufficient to constitute música comprometida. Electroacoustic music, however, is especially well suited to resisting stylistic subordination and confronting political injustice, as demonstrated in Rafael Aponte-Ledée’s En memoria a Salvador Allende or Hilda Dianda’s . . . después el silencio, for example. Other works Paraskevaídis considers in her important essay commemorate the life of Che Guevara (Ñancahuasú by César Bolaños, ¡Volveremos a las montañas! by Gabriel Brnčić) and the 1973 coup in Chile (Cantata de Chile, by Leo Brouwer, Biografía mínima de Salvador Allende by Juan Orrego-Salas, and Chile 1973 by Gustavo Becerra). Non-Latin American composers, too, have honored the victims of political oppression in Latin America. James Tenney of the United States composed Fabric for Che for digital fixed media (electronic tape) in 1967, the year the CIA expedited Che’s death in the mountains of southern Bolivia. Luigi Nono composed works inspired by the Dirty War, including Y entonces comprendió (dedicated to Che) and Como una ola de fuerza y de luz, on the death of a Chilean militant (Paraskevaídis 2008, 5). The best-known such composition in Europe and the United States is surely 36 Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún by US composer Fredric Rzewski of 1975 (Madsen 2003, 9; Hess 2013, 171–186). A large-scale virtuosic work in a time-honored traditional form that commemorates the Allende years and the victims of the coup, Rzewski’s variations have been attacked from various sides of the political spectrum. Although Paraskevaídis acknowledges that Rzewski “expresses his solidarity and pays homage to the tortured and the disappeared,” for her the work falls short, as Rzewski has “let himself be seduced by a musical model that is hardly revolutionary,” resulting in an “oxymoron” (Paraskevaídis 2008, 7). The New York Times critic John Rockwell, on the other hand, upholds the values of capitalist society and apolitical music in his comments on the work, faulting not only Rzewski but Cornelius Cardew and Christian Wolff for failing to make “much of an impact on the working classes, or on the third-world masses, or on China, or whomever it is they are ostensibly celebrating in their music” (Rockwell 1983, 93). Thus the lines of debate are drawn: form, tradition, and intent all jostle for priority in the ideological mix.2
For performers, too, the Western canon is seen either as an unfit model for socially engaged music or as a vehicle for challenging existing social structures. The celebrated Venezuelan Youth Symphony, merely one ensemble in the network of orchestras throughout Venezuela known as El Sistema, draws most of its players from slums or poor rural areas. Like the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded in 1999 by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said to unite Israeli and Palestinian musicians, it concentrates almost solely on the Western canon. (To be sure, some see this emphasis as “tension between repertoire . . . and marketing” [Beckles Willson 2009b, 319]). Carlos Sedan, (p. 341) director of one of the orchestra’s schools in Sarria (one of Caracas’s poorest neighborhoods), credits the ensemble with bringing “the sounds of Beethoven to the masses,” thus destroying “the myth that you have to be from the upper classes to play the violin” (“Venezuelan Youths Transformed by Music” 2005). This outlook is summed up in the orchestra’s rubric “Tocar y luchar,” which urges its members “to play and to fight.” Clearly Estrella’s campaign to bring Beethoven to the masses can be summed up with the same pithy slogan.
Classical Music and the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”
Born in 1937, Miguel Ángel Estrella spent his early childhood in Vinará, a rural town in Tucumán province. He later described it as a “Macondo” (Estrella 1985, 33), the fictional town created by Gabriel García Márquez that has come to symbolize third world Latin America, the poverty of which is enveloped in a profound sense of the magical and the absurd. As a boy, Estrella sang constantly and taught himself to play various folk genres on the guitar. He especially responded to the folk singer Atahualpa Yupanqui, whose songs of exploitation and the day-to-day agonies of the rural poor Estrella considers a “synthesis of collective memory and personal experience” that transform “daily realities into poetry” (Estrella 1985, 82). His parents were working-class, leftist, anti-clericalists who forbade him from taking the obligatory class in Catholic dogma in school. Miguel Ángel’s insistence at age twelve on being baptized in the church thus came as rather a surprise. By then, the family had left “Macondo” for San Miguel de Tucumán, the provincial capital. There they lived next door to a convent from which music was frequently heard. Estrella decided to become a musician and began playing the piano on his own, since he felt that Tucumán had little to offer in the way of instructors or classes.
At age eighteen, and mindful of the gaps in his training, Estrella entered the National Conservatory of Music in Buenos Aires. He and some of his fellow students agitated for curricular reform, finding its “academicism” and “colonialism” oppressive, as he later noted. Seeking stimulation outside the conservatory, Estrella chose his own models, which ranged from Villa-Lobos (for his synthesis of classical and vernacular idioms) and, perhaps surprisingly, the anti-folkloric Paz (for his iconoclasm). These youthful explorations helped shape Estrella’s evolving belief that the supposed boundaries between vernacular and classical music were “fictitious and self-interested” (Estrella 1985, 86). All the while, he worked at his piano playing, counting Adolfo Mindlin, Orestes Castronuovo, Erwin Leuchter, and Celia de Bronstein among his teachers. He also enjoyed some success. In 1959, he entered a contest and was so nervous that he asked the jury if he could play a zamba (a folkloric dance in a slow three) to relax before beginning the “real” repertory. Surprised by his request, the jury acquiesced and he delivered a prize-winning performance.
(p. 342) Estrella once claimed that he had been a Peronist “for as long as he could remember”; as a child, he was entranced by “Evita,” Perón’s first wife, María Eva Duarte (Estrella 1985, 49). Perón came to power in 1946 on the heels of a military coup, which he partly expedited. Still a force in Argentine political life today (and still controversial), Peronism has always been difficult to define. At its height in the 1940s and early 1950s, Perón’s principal support came from workers and the rural poor, known as the descamisados: literally, the “shirtless ones” (they removed their shirts to perform manual labor). This base was cultivated in large part through Evita’s charity projects and her personal charisma. Under Perón, women were also given the right to vote. Yet Perón the populist also suppressed civil liberties in the universities, thus appealing to some authoritarians and pseudo-fascists, many of whom had supported the Axis during the Second World War. From its beginnings, Peronism was also staunchly anti-US, a sentiment the radical left nurtured as well. Alliances also shifted: the Argentine Catholic Church, one of the more conservative in Latin America, initially supported Perón but later broke with his government after conflicts arose over the legalization of divorce and prostitution. Defining anti-Peronism is equally difficult, since it has been embraced by Catholics and non-Catholics, civilians and the military, right and left.
Having watched Evita in newsreels, Estrella was “in love” with her when she visited Tucumán province. This reaction was hardly unnatural in an era when many workers illuminated her image in their homes with a lit candle, befitting her status as “Santa Evita,” as some called her. Her words during that visit remained engraved in Estrella’s memory: “I will die fighting for the right of each one of you to freely choose your destinies,” Evita declared (González Toro 2000, 54). He also recalls the reception some of the upper-middle-class ladies of Tucumán had prepared for her, table after table of fine pastries. But Evita pointed out to her hosts that while they enjoyed fine food every day, others were unfamiliar with such delicacies. She then opened the doors of the establishment to admit a multitude of children, mostly poor, into “the sanctuary of the bourgeoisie” (Estrella 1985, 52).
As for Peronism and the Western canon that Estrella embraced, there would seem to be little relationship, since Peronism has never enjoyed a particularly strong association with elite culture. A party slogan, “¡Alpargatas sí, libros no!” (itself a response to early anti-Peronist demonstrations by students) is part of Argentina’s collective memory. (Alpargatas, or espadrilles, are the footwear of the lower classes [López 1975, 410]; Estrella recalls that in Vinará they were so common that “one would almost never see a campesino wearing shoes” [Estrella 1985, 59].) The history of Peronism and intellectuals bears out this antagonism. Cortázar, for example, left Argentina because of Perón and Alberto Ginastera’s difficulties with the regime are well known, if inadequately documented. Nicolas Shumway traces such tensions to Argentina’s beginnings. In 1838, not two decades after independence from Spain, the author Esteban Echeverría published the short story “El matadero” (The slaughterhouse), portraying the despot Manuel Rosas, hated by intellectuals, as an indiscriminate murderer. Echeverría also observes the crazed mob that beats to death a refined youth, detailing its barbarism, bloodthirstiness, and physical ugliness. Over a century later, Perón awakened the skepticism of (p. 343) Argentine elites, who in principle supported democracy but feared mob rule, the lower classes, and the massification of culture (Shumway 1991, 143). Some intellectuals and artists allied themselves with Perón, however, especially those who believed that culture should arise from popular utterances rather than “colonialism,” as Flavia Fiorucci has noted (Fiorucci 2002; Surra 2003). The government’s occasional gesture on behalf of culture reinforced these loyalties. Much the way Evita invited workers to receptions in the homes of the bourgeoisie, she and Perón flung open to workers the doors of the Teatro Colón. Not only did the emblematic theater serve as a site for political speeches and rallies, but a series of free concerts for workers was administered by Evita and her staff (Albino 2009, 12–23).
In June 1955, when Estrella was eighteen, the Argentine air force bombed the Plaza de Mayo, the principal square in Buenos Aires, killing over three hundred and ousting Perón, who went to Spain in exile (Evita had died in 1952). The ensuing military regime presided over a polarized country. Two democratically elected presidents followed, but in 1966 General Juan Carlos Onganía (whom the United States was quick to recognize) effected a military coup. As inflation raged and university students avidly read Marx, Perón was increasingly seen as a beacon throughout the 1960s and his return was eagerly awaited. Peronism, however, splintered into two groups: the more conservative justicialistas and a radical wing, which included the montoneros, the party’s militants.
Estrella experienced post-Perón Argentina in other ways. Once he tried to attend a concert at the Colón with his future wife, Martha: “We bought the least expensive tickets . . . I was wearing pants and a modest pullover. Without beating around the bush and with an audacious smile, the usher said to me: ‘Get out, kid . . . the Teatro Colón is no longer open to descamisados and [la negrada]” (Estrella 1985, 95). Nonetheless, it was during the 1960s and 1970s that Estrella became convinced that music, like shelter, food, and medical care, was part of an ordinary citizen’s rights. Declaring, “I’m a child of Evita and I believe that the people should receive the best,” he stamped this ideal with Peronism, effectively replicating Evita’s opening of the Colón by taking the Western canon to rural Argentina (Calderaro 2000, 4). His concerts seem to have been informal and didactic: he would often comment on the music and solicit reactions from the public, sometimes playing a composition more than once. Like Chávez’s audiences in post-revolutionary Mexico, Estrella’s compatriots responded with alacrity and honesty. On one occasion, he played the opening of Beethoven’s Sonata in C Minor, op. 13 (the “Pathétique”) for a group of workers. When he asked them to give it a name, one responded “the lights are out” (Calderaro 2000, 4). On another, he was in his house playing Brahms and a crowd gathered in the street. Another time, a listener was disappointed upon learning that he would never be able to meet Bach, whose music, with its immediacy and infectious rhythms, had so affected him.
At times Estrella struggled over the concessions his career seemed to require. By November 1960 he and Martha were married; he was soon supporting two children as well. On a grant in Paris in 1964, he studied with Marguerite Long, who insisted that he make proper connections at receptions, teas, and other events Estrella found utterly stultifying. (A far happier experience was his work with Boulanger when he returned to (p. 344) France four years later; like many Boulanger students Estrella has expressed gratitude for her rigor and her desire to cultivate each student’s individual voice.) Martha, by her husband’s account a fine singer, was also a committed leftist who upbraided him whenever he wavered from his ideals. A domestic battle ensued, for instance, when he accepted an engagement to play in the presence of Onganía, whom she scathingly dubbed a “military gorilla” (Bonasso 2003, 18). Estrella’s conviction that the Western canon was the “lost property” of the masses grew ever more firm, however. Rejecting the rights of the “oligarchy” to classical music, as he put it, Estrella, like Chávez, remained confident of his public’s openness and lack of preconceptions (Caillabet 2004, 32). Estrella also denounced the conservatory system, which, he maintained, prepares students to play in the Colón or the Salle Pleyel but solely for listeners who can afford tickets. By performing in backwaters, mental hospitals, or jails as a socially committed musician (músico social), Estrella learned skills the conservatory failed to teach him. His concerts emphasized Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, French baroque masters, Scarlatti, and Ravel, and represented only occasionally twentieth-century music (Messiaen, Bartók). From time to time, he performed Argentine music: Ginastera, Aguirre, Carlos Guastavino, early works of Antonio Tauriello, and arrangements of Yupanqui or folkloric music. Conspicuously absent were works created through “radical” or “revolutionary” musical techniques.
In 1972, Perón returned to Argentina and, in September 1973, won the presidency with some 60 percent of the vote. His second wife, Isabel, a former nightclub dancer, was his vice president. But by the time Perón died in July 1974, he had largely disappointed the left and Isabel, now in charge, lacked the charisma of her predecessor and was widely viewed as incompetent. As for Estrella, besides his musical campaign he was active in several political organizations. These included the FOTIA, the union of sugar workers in Tucumán, and the Jotapé (Juventud Peronista), the Peronist youth organization, which emerged from the justicialista wing of the party. By his own admission, he indulged in some rather silly pranks, such as writing subversive messages on napkins in cafes and then reinserting them in napkin holders for unsuspecting diners to discover (Sánchez 1992, 28). At no point, as he would repeatedly insist in the ensuing years, did he join the montoneros, which in any case, were losing steam by the late 1970s. In 1975, Martha, his wife and collaborator for social justice, died of cancer, leaving Estrella with two small children and a sense of overwhelming loss.
Months later, on March 24, 1976, Argentina suffered another military coup, known in the Orwellian language of its perpetrators as the National Reorganization Process. A firsthand witness of the period, Jacobo Timerman, editor-in-chief of the Buenos Aires daily, La Opinión, was one of the few who advocated dialogue and due judicial process among seemingly intractable factions. He describes the political landscape at this critical moment. There were
rural and urban Trotskyite guerrillas, right-wing Peronist death squads; armed terrorist groups of the large labor unions, used for handling union matters; paramilitary army groups, dedicated to avenging the murder of their men; para-police groups of (p. 345) both the Left and the Right vying for supremacy within the organization of federal and provincial police forces; and terrorist groups of Catholic rightists organized by cabals who opposed Pope John XXIII’s propositions to reconcile the liberal leftist Catholic priests seeking . . . rapprochement between the Church and the poor.
Timerman adds, “these, of course, were only the principal groups of organized or systematized violence” coexisting in Argentina (Timerman 1981, 13).
No one was prepared for the Dirty War, the state-sponsored purge of left-wing guerillas, pro-Perón terrorists, and whoever appeared to support them. As is well known, many were abducted, tortured, and killed (“disappeared”) simply because they exercised freedom of speech or assembly, or because they practiced suspect professions such as university teaching, journalism, psychiatry, or community work; liberal priests and Jews were targets as well. All were seen to threaten the status quo. Some in the military even believed that Argentina, misunderstood by the rest of the world, was the site of World War III, itself a sacred struggle between left-wing terrorists and defenders of traditionalist Christian “civilization.” Timerman, tortured and imprisoned in 1977, has reflected on the totalitarian mind, with its fear of science, Freud, Jews, and intellectuals, and its resistance to “subtlety, contradiction or complexity.” The guiding principle, Timerman concludes, was simply, “what you don’t understand you destroy” (Timerman 1981, 104). Of course, it is impossible to know if intellectuals were considered threatening because of their work or because they often openly supported the left (Plotkin 2001, 218–219). Anyone inquiring as to the whereabouts of a desaparecido (one who has been “disappeared”) would be subject to a futile bureaucratic chase. Like the “unpersons” in Orwell’s 1984, a desaparecido was ultimately nullified, as if he or she had never existed. Precise numbers of the disappeared vary widely, with Amnesty International estimating between 15,000 and 20,000 in Argentina alone (Brysk 1994). If the face of resistance was the nueva canción singer, the face of the demand for accountability—for memory—has been the Mothers (and Grandmothers) of the Plaza de Mayo. Since 1977, after fruitless and repeated inquiries on the status of family members, these women have stationed themselves in Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo every Thursday afternoon at 3:30. Silently holding photographs of their missing sons and daughters and wearing the white bandanas that became emblematic of their cause, the Madres have added their steely hope to Argentina’s convulsive political landscape.
Almost immediately, Estrella suffered a series of punishments, as promised by an article in the Buenos Aires daily La Prensa for anyone who “by any means, diffuses, divulges or spreads propaganda or images through illicit associations or individuals or through groups dedicated to subversion or terrorism” (Ministry of Education 2009). His concerts began to be curtailed or even canceled, since his habit of speaking from the stage was seen as potentially subversive. Once, being told that a certain concert venue was unavailable, he was invited to play in the “Casa de Gobierno” instead. (According to one account, he did in fact play there.) Another time, an inadequate piano was delivered to a hall in which he was scheduled to play a concerto. All the while, the massive campaign of torture, imprisonment, and disappearance was generating fear and evasiveness (p. 346) in the public mind. “Por algo será” was the phrase often uttered when an individual was disappeared—“there must be some reason.” Reactions among the population at large ranged from silent compliance to rashness.
Friends began warning Estrella that he was in danger, and he thought seriously of leaving the country. In August 1977, he moved to Montevideo as a temporary measure, having received an offer to teach in Panama. He subsequently turned down the offer, however, persuaded to do so by his children, who wanted to remain close to Buenos Aires. To be sure, there was plenty of danger in Uruguay, which was also under a dictatorship. Having established a reputation there, Estrella reasoned, quite naively as he later acknowledged, that “his prestige as a pianist would give [him] a certain immunity” (Estrella 1985, 191–208). Warnings intensified to the point that he asked for an official report on his status. Although that document certified nothing unusual, a government contact advised him to leave, as Uruguayan officials were now following their Argentine counterparts in denying him performances. In late 1977 Estrella was hired to teach in Mexico and Canada during the coming year. All that remained was to pack up his house in Montevideo, where he was living with his son Javier (age fourteen) and daughter Paula (age eleven), two Argentine friends, and his secretary Raquel. They planned to spend Christmas in Buenos Aires with Martha’s family and from there depart for Mexico.
In mid-December, however, an old friend showed up on Estrella’s doorstep. Carlos Valladares, a montonero and music lover, reported over dinner at Estrella’s house that his mother, wife, and son had all been “disappeared.” Estrella invited him to stay overnight; Valladares refused out of concern for the family’s safety. Of course, the house was being watched. When Valladares was apprehended shortly thereafter, he promptly swallowed a cyanide pill. The two children were quickly farmed out to neighbors. Guilty largely of showing poor judgment—for having welcomed a montonero into his home without apparent thought for his family—on December 15, Estrella was taken by the authorities, along with the other adults in the household.
Naturally, the military saw things differently. A report in the Uruguayan press announced that “montoneros are in [the] country” as are “elements thereof” (El Día 1977). Estrella is by no means the main topic of the report. Rather, his name is buried in a lengthy narrative of weapons and strategies: explaining that the infrastructure of a montonero cell had been broken up, the paper displays photos of a submachine gun and two Browning 9mm pistols, presumably shipped in from Argentina, and munitions, along with the suitcase used to conceal them. Given the montoneros’ skill in making weapons, the report continued, along with their “fanaticism” and the international support they enjoyed from “Marxist-Leninist” groups worldwide, the recent capture was billed as a tour de force on the part of the Uruguayan security forces. Certainly the reader has no way to verify whether the guns in the photo are really the recovered weapons or if a staff photographer hastily assembled a few props under pressure from the Uruguayan military. Other press documents show Estrella’s photo, along with his identity number, and describe his association with the “seditious group” while listing his profession as “concert pianist”; another report, far briefer, frames Estrella’s story by announcing his capture in paragraph one and concluding with mention of his studies with Boulanger (p. 347) (El País 1977, 18; La Opinión 1977, n. p.). The latter report also notes that, according to a military source, Yehudi Menuhin was inquiring about Estrella and rails against “campaigns of calumny and lies about our own reality” that have repeatedly misled the international community.
As noted, Estrella was taken to a clandestine house of torture. There he spent some six days, which included torture of the “classic kind” and a woman in spike heels repeatedly jumping up and down on his hands (Estrella 1985, 221). As his torturers inflicted their physical and psychological wounds, Estrella, sustained by his faith, shouted Padrenuestros at the top of his lungs. He also used his musician’s ear: hooded and blindfolded during his capture and torture, he later remarked that he came to identify twenty-two different voices, among them, that of Colonel Gavazzo. As Timerman points out, the prisoner’s relationship with his or her torturer may be the only “exercise of [the prisoner’s] human condition,” however perverse (Timerman 1981, 38). This “exercise,” which Gavazzo initiated, centered not only on the “crime” of leading la negrada to believe it was capable of listening to Beethoven but of withholding this music from its rightful public. As Colonel Gavazzo reportedly told him, “you were made to play for us” but “you chose la negrada” (Camps 1987, 2). Thus the totalitarian mind, resistant to complexity and eager to destroy what it does not understand, had, at least according to Estrella’s narrative, made room in its stunted perception of human behavior for classical music.
Meanwhile, an international campaign waged by Boulanger, Menuhin, Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux, Iannis Xenakis, and others began. Based in Neuilly, France, the Comité de Soutien de Miguel Angel Estrella was engineered by one Yves Hagenauer, a French industrialist whom Estrella and Martha had met in Paris in 1969. Hagenauer seems to have left no stone unturned. He prepared press releases on Estrella’s behalf and presented the case to the United Nations, UNESCO, the Red Cross, the Vatican, Amnesty International, and other entities. He expedited the release on the Erato label of a recording Estrella had made in 1971 for Radio France to raise funds for the pianist’s children. He also obtained the signed contracts for Estrella’s teaching appointments in Canada and Mexico, thus debunking the notion that Estrella intended to organize terrorists in Montevideo (Estrella 1985, 248). Eventually these efforts began to bear fruit. After his transfer to Libertad prison, Estrella was given a silent keyboard, which he could use for about an hour a day. He was also moved to a better cell, where he received a French lawyer, François Cheron. Finally, in February 1980, after a hearing that lasted around two hours, Estrella and his three companions, held for “subversive associations and attacks on the constitutions,” were free, although expelled from the country. Whatever international censure Estrella’s torture had aroused, for the Uruguayan press he was still a montonero, however. As an editorial of February 14 states, “the montonero Estrella has his pianist’s hands tinged with the blood spilled by his crimes, kidnappings, assaults, and attacks by explosives. With this, there is plenty to judge him. Not as a pianist but as a terrorist” (El País 1980).
Two days later Estrella landed at Orly and the rest of his career took on a dream-like quality. In 1982, he founded Musique Espérance, a global version of his work in rural Argentina. As he tells it, the organization, which eventually had fifty-five affiliates in (p. 348) Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, and Africa, depends on “no political affiliation nor subsidies,” with members paying for their own travel (González Toro 2000, 54; Camps 1990). In 1985 he was named to the Legion of Honor (together with Vladimir Horowitz) and in 1988 became ambassador to UNESCO, an honor bestowed on him in Paris in the presence of François and Danielle Mitterand and which he continues to hold today (Clarín 1988, 4). In June 1989 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from University of Lille, and in 2000, recognized as a “pianista social,” he received the ACNUR prize (Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas para los Refugiados) for “outstanding humanitarian labor” (La Hora Popular 1989; La República 2000, n. p.). He began concertizing again, sometimes with folk musicians such as flutist Raúl Mercado, who played with Mercedes Sosa (La Hora Popular 1989, n. p.). He also performed internationally. In November 1984, he played at that bastion of music and left-leaning politics, the New School for Social Research in New York, in a benefit for Musique Espérance, with proceeds earmarked for the “Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo” and the “Detainees’ Parents Support Committee” in South Africa. New York Times critic Will Crutchfield acknowledged that, although Estrella was “no Paderewski,” he was nonetheless “a real pianist who would be well worth listening to apart from his mission.” Summarizing Estrella’s political difficulties, Crutchfield notes that only a “dangerously effective propagandist” would have paid such a “harrowing price” as the torture Estrella underwent. In a twisted variant of the mentality described above—por algo será—Crutchfield blithely affirms, “this is what Mr. Estrella must have been” (Crutchfield 1984, C12).
Whoever researches the history of Latin American music in the latter part of the twentieth century will confront not only compositions, events, and biographies, but the memories of those who lived this period. In light of still-open wounds, conflicting views will inevitably emerge. Several comments in Estrella’s account of his experiences could be questioned, for example. He remarks that in February 1977 he decided to stay in Montevideo because “several Uruguayan artists and composers told him: ‘all the musicians are gone, the country is empty and we need someone like you to work with young pianists’” (Estrella 1985, 201). In fact, “all the musicians” were not gone. Four students of one of Uruguay’s most important composers, Héctor Tosar (an associate of Copland, Koussevitsky, and Milhaud and twice a Guggenheim fellow), established Núcleo Música Nueva, an organization that exists to this day; among its founding members, Coriún Aharonián resisted the dictatorship especially vigorously (Aharonián 2002). This fact also casts doubt on Estrella’s contention that “everyone on the left was in prison or in exile” (Estrella 1985, 211; Paraskevaídis 2009). Estrella himself has struggled with his legacy in Latin America. If others, such as Veloso or Chico Buarque, returned to their native countries after exile, he never took this step. As the review by Crutchfield just cited suggests, Estrella the pianist is often described as “the pianist who was a political prisoner” or the “pianist who was tortured,” with less sensational accounts referring to “Estrella, founder of Musique Esperance” or “defender of rights of man to include music for all” instead of to his actual musical abilities (La República 2000, n. p.; Caillabet (p. 349) 1992, n. p.). The 1987 concert mentioned at the outset of this essay was sandwiched into the Colón’s schedule just before the main event (a production of Salomé) and seems to have been covered by only one Buenos Aires daily. Five years later, despite the honors he had accrued, Estrella bluntly told a reporter for a Uruguayan paper, “I don’t exist in Argentine music,” adding, “my quarrel with those who marginalize me isn’t as great as the sorrow I feel at not being able to share my experiences with my Buenos Aires public” (La República 1992, n. p.). Nonetheless, a 2009 tribute published in Buenos Aires—a scrapbook-style series of anecdotes and testimonials (some fictionalized) interspersed with lengthy extracts of Estrella’s own words—challenges the suggestion that his torturers succeeded in silencing him in his native land (Biondi 2009).
For researchers interested in memory additional complications arise. Some Latin Americans advocate “moving forward,” that is, bracketing, if not suppressing, the memory of collective tragedy so as not to unleash waves of social instability by revisiting the ravages of the past. This was largely the approach taken by president Raúl Alfonsín, who presided over the restoration of democracy in Argentina in 1983. Others seek historical clarity, including punishment for the perpetrators, who must first be identified. “Tienen nombre y apellido”—they have a first and a last name—is the phrase one often hears. Any account offered will be subject to fundamental questions of memory and conflicting versions of the “official story,” to borrow the name of the powerful 1985 movie dealing with the dictatorship and its casualties. In informal conversations on Estrella, for example, I have encountered enthusiastic accounts of his playing, which inspired some listeners to musical idealism. Other informants simply note his importance while others roundly declare, “nunca fue gran pianista” (He was never a great pianist), suggesting that Estrella was little more than a poseur.
The power of lived moments may also haunt the researcher. As a Fulbright lecturer in Buenos Aires in 2005, I regularly attended films and lectures at the “Free University” organized by the Madres and their supporters. On June 16 of that year, an important decision of the Supreme Court hit the press: the laws that for over twenty years protected the architects of the dictatorship and their lackeys were now deemed unconstitutional. This momentous event, along with the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the Plaza de Mayo in 1955, would be commemorated that evening. In the main hall of the Free University, the first two rows of seats were roped off. I soon found out the reason: minutes before the event was to begin, a contingent of elderly women entered the hall, each wearing the white bandana. As that unlikely revolutionary force filed in, the crowd rose, applauding loud and long. One does not forget such a noisy surge of gratitude nor the moist eyes in the room.
A few nights later, I was at one of Buenos Aires’s cafés, the historic Tortoni, where Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Gardel, and other luminaries have sipped coffee. I was chatting with an Argentinian acquaintance only slightly younger than most of the Madres and an impassioned leftist. She mentioned that she had an exchange student from California in her home. “You Americans!” she sputtered. “You all want to romanticize the Madres!” They hadn’t even come up in our conversation. “Why,” she continued, “they’re a bunch of hypocrites! Starting that goddam university!” “Well,” I ventured, correctly sensing that (p. 350) I was stepping into a minefield. “Perhaps what we in the U.S. ‘romanticize,’ as you put it, is the spirit of the Madres. The idea that nonviolence can effect change.” Rolling her eyes heavenward, my acquaintance snorted and I ventured no further. On another occasion, I lunched with a paralegal in her mid-thirties who lamented what she described as her “total ignorance” of the most recent dictatorship, confessing that she had gone to school both with children of montoneros and children from military families, and that no one had ever said anything about the political reality of the moment. We of the United States who attempt to make sense of these accounts may well see ourselves as stereotypically naïve American tourists when we visit this realm of silence, needless death, and the prejudices of our own government.
This essay, with its modest goal of contextualizing Estrella’s activities, leaves open the debates over music’s political content outlined above. Just as some reject the very notion of música comprometida, others promote it by denouncing subordination to existing models or traditional forms. Others reject the taint of the ivory tower by accompanying themselves on the guitar in vast soccer stadiums, prompting outpourings of popular song from the masses. Others, such as Rzewski, confront aesthetic and political bias to convey events in Latin America to a worldwide public. Obviously, the Western canon, hailed since the nineteenth century as transcendent, timeless, and “autonomous,” can be as politically charged as many a more explicit repertory. Surely it is part of the fraught tale of Latin American musical politics in the twentieth century.
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(1.) I wish to thank the numerous Argentine friends and colleagues for sharing with me their impressions of Estrella. I am especially grateful to Graciela Paraskevaídis, who provided me the great majority of the press sources consulted for this essay from her personal archive, discussed music and dictatorship with me, and commented in detail on a draft of this essay. Special thanks are also due Kevin Bartig and Marcie Ray for their careful reading of an earlier draft and to Edgardo Raul Salinas for clarification on several terms in Argentine Spanish. When possible, I cite English translations for the major sources I discuss. Any errors, of course, are my own.
As the Chilean musicologist Daniel Party notes, there is no direct English translation for “música comprometida,” a broad term for music that is “politically or socially engaged,” and, as Party points out, often “born of resistance, protest, and dissent” (Party 2009, 671–684; see http://sites.google.com/site/dparty/publications-1/beyondprotest). Neither are the terms “art” or “classical” music (or the frequently used alternative, “concert music” or the Spanish “música culta”) satisfactory although in this essay I rather unenthusiastically opt for “classical.”
(2.) However we view such polemics, it is worth pointing out that in the Colossus of the North, whose public is notoriously ignorant of both Latin America and its government’s machinations there, Rzewski’s variations have brought home to many a listener Nixon and Kissinger’s role in bringing Pinochet to power; indeed, scarcely a scholar or critic of the work fails to mention the CIA (Pollack 1992, 383; Wason 1988, 113).