Learning through the Ears: Reflections on Heard in Havana

In 2014, President Barack Obama announced that his administration would begin the process of normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba, restoring full diplomatic relations with the island nation after 50 years of tense, frozen relations. In 2015, Third Sound presented the first concert entirely comprising contemporary American music, and with all composers in attendance, to take place in Cuba since before the Cuban Revolution. This concert would be presented as part of Festival de Música Contemporánea de La Haban, a festival that Composer and leader of Third Sound, Patrick Castillo attended just one year prior. The Festival was founded in 1984 and since its inception has included the music of composers contemporary music from all over the world.  We sat down with Patrick and fellow composers who joined him and his group for the historic 2015 concert, Jeremy Gill and Kati Agócs to reflect their travels. Kati and Jeremy were a part of a group of composers that also included Ingrid Arauco, Kai-Young Chan, Cindy Cox, Michael Harrison, Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Wendell Jones, Amadeus Regucera, and Spencer Topel.

Patrick Castillo explains how the organizers of the festival were committed to showcasing the music of American composers: 

“[The American Composers Forum] was approached by someone who had a connection in Havana in 2014 and put them in touch with the Festival because they were interested in showcasing American music. The Festival organizers didn’t really understand what the American Composers Forum was, thinking that it was all the composers in America. It was the natural outlet that they thought of when trying to solicit music from composers of contemporary American music.” 

ACF put out a call for scores and among the pieces selected were a couple Patrick Castillo.

“All of the composers were invited to go but so how, due to logistics or scheduling, I was the only composer who made the trip.”

Patrick talk about all of the things he did to prepare for this initial trip to Cuba, from watching documentaries to reading an extensive list of books and articles. But nothing could prepare him for the life changing experience. He was out there on his own at the time and would quickly discover that Cuba was whirlwind of complexities.

“At some point you realize that everything you know is wrong, everything you know is subverted in some way.” 

Patrick spent his time getting to know the people who ran the Festival in Havana. At some point during the visit, the artistic director of the festival approached Patrick with a vision of bringing the entire ACF to the Festival. Patrick understood the sentiment and felt there must be something that could be done to bring more composers of American contemporary music to Havana for the Festival. Around this time, Patrick points out, Third Sound was starting to coalesce as an ensemble–it seemed a natural fit. Patrick spoke to John Nuechterlein then president of ACF who would eventually sponsor the project. 

Patrick reflected on what he had hoped to accomplish with his second trip to Cuba for the Festival de Música Contemporánea de La Haban:

“This touches on a delicate question because I can say what we were not hoping to accomplish and we wanted to be very clear that the objective was not ‘we’re going to come to Cuba and teach people how to do new music.’ And we want to be very sensitive about, obviously there are imperialist overtones and cultural sensitivities that we wanted to be aware of and acknowledge.”

And the hope was a simple one, to share contemporary American music with the people of Havana and experience contemporary Cuban music.

One thing that seemed clear to the group was the lack of access due to the isolation caused by the American driven embargo. The training and experience, even the availability of good equipment has been uneven. However, they found inspiration in the fact that the lack of access did not temper the passion and imagination of their counterparts in Havana.

Patrick recalls hearing a piece by a young Cuban composer written for two flutes called Homage to Phillip Glass. He could tell that the composer had maybe heard maybe a couple of pieces by Glass and perhaps didn’t have all of the theoretical understanding of the composition. In the American conservatory, it would be picked apart. However, it was clear that this young composer understood the spirit of the pieces and Glass’ music. 

“The thing that was so compelling to me from the very beginning, from the first musical experience that we went to is that there was not only no shortage of talent,” Jeremy remembered, “there was tremendous talent. But there was an innate and natural musicality that I heard from all the musicians that played, all the composers that wrote. And it’s something that I rarely hear from young composers in the United States. So the idea that their ears were constantly opened and engaged, that the musicality came out of the ear.” 

Jeremy continued, “If you’ve ever had the misfortune of teaching oral skills to college students [in the US], they do math all of the time. They are calculating rhythms and figuring intervals, and all of that stuff. And that just wasn’t happening like that there, everything was felt and innate. And people were playing on clarinets where the pads were all falling off but they played in tune. It didn’t matter, the equipment was never a barrier to musicality. That, to me, was incredibly inspiring.

“All of the composers that I remember hearing were all players and often performing in their own pieces. I was really sure of what the tutelage was there but I could see there was a lot of oral work, probably from very young ages, living in the sound of music. I think an American problem is getting to know the music on the page and not through the ears.”

Kati added, “The natural musicality to me came across most or the biggest way it expressed itself was in the percussion, the improvised percussion, at least for me, that’s where I heard it come across most clearly. One could trace it back to where Cuba was populated from; you have the [African] influence and the [indigenous] influence that blend in this amazing unique way. There was just the free expression of the special cultural lineage.”

Kati responded when asked what it was like to be an American composer in Cuba: 

“It was very interesting to notice that it was very un-US-centered because they haven’t had an exposure to US mainstream media for decades. So, we actually felt culturally irrelevant to some extent. Which was refreshing. I did sense a desire to make more connections. There was a desire to get to know more works from the cannon, what they knew was sometimes spotty. They would sometimes not know works that we take for granted in knowing but at the same time would reference an obscure piece. But they wanted to make more connections with players and other artists.

“In terms of being an American composer, because the collection of works that were performed were so diverse stylistically and all strong in their own way. I just felt really strengthened by being a part of the group and being invigorated by the opportunity to be a part of that group and to see that what we had to offer was so diverse and so broad ranging and that i think is also something very positive that should be encouraged and nurtured about American composition.”

Kati continued on the importance of having such a diverse group representing composers of American contemporary music:

“There is a tendency to typecast if you don’t know the full range. If you are able to hear a full spectrum of works, you are able to put into context that no! There is this huge range, like all the colors on the spectrum of style. And people will realize that it is more about the composer’s individual voice and what they are trying to say as an individual than where they fall at in the style spectrum.”

Patrick reflected on his biggest take away from his 3 trips:

“Everybody is a musician, everybody is an artist, not necessarily vocationally but, it’s just a part of the fabric of everyday life in a way that it is not here. I attribute it somewhat to just like the socio-political landscape that has dominated everyday life there for everybody, and not to over-romanticize it too much but I think that they need it more on a more visceral level than we do.”

Kati agreed, “It is a whole different way of experiencing music.” 

Jeremy sees the necessity to keep cultivating these types of cultural exchanges:

“At base, there are relatively few things that human beings are trying to express through music. And there are a myriad of ways those can be expressed. To hear a new way to approach complexities or a new way to approach a sense of community or write a love song, that is useful to everybody.” Jeremy said.

The album Heard in Havana released earlier this year on ACF’s innova Recordings documents Third Sound’s Cuba residency and the performance at the Festival. Patrick hoped that this project would set the groundwork for further cultural exchange. The last group of composers visited Cuba just shortly after the 2016 presidential election. A lot of these types of exchanges are much more difficult to accomplish or are no longer possible. The hope was to eventually bring Cuban composers to the United States, establishing residencies across the country. There is the possibility that in the very near future Patrick, Third Sound and Festival de Música Contemporánea de La Haban can realize this goal and we can continue to learn, not just music, through the ears.

Patrick Castillo is a member of the ACF Board of Directors.

Learn more about the music of Jeremy Gill.

Learn more about the music of Kati Agócs.

Listen to the Heard in Havana from the innova Recordings