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Mexicolore contributor Cristina Garcia Islas

Introducing pre-Hispanic sounds from Mexico into modern music

In terms of (re)discovering ancient music from Mexico, things are finally beginning to happen. Here we publish an intriguing article by Cristina García Islas, an award-winning Mexican musician and composer, currently completing her doctoral thesis at the Université de Montréal, Canada. She writes ‘My current doctoral research sets the introduction of ancient Mexican timbres into contemporary orchestration. The duality between darkness and light is very present in my music as it is in ancient Mexican philosophy. Also, the theme of legacy, the ritual, the mysticism, and the strength of nature are essential in my art. Furthermore, I like to create rich-colour atmospheres using noisy sonorities or very lyric melodies. I find the use of both of these to be interesting in order to create a contrast between strength and lyricism. My goal is to develop a different musical language and conception of these instruments that unfortunately are very misunderstood...’

Octophonic loop sound installation in the forest: rehearsing ‘A’nayahuari’, for 8 percussionists and pre-Hispanic instruments
Octophonic loop sound installation in the forest: rehearsing ‘A’nayahuari’, for 8 percussionists and pre-Hispanic instruments

The music of pre-Hispanic Mexico is still seen by the world as something exotic waiting to be discovered and properly studied. Many musical instruments and sound artefacts have been misunderstood for many years, mistaken for toys or adornments and relegated to museum cabinets and beautiful photos in books and magazines. What about the actual sounds of these amazing cultures? The ancient Mexicans were people of great knowledge and wisdom, and knew to a tee how to generate and manipulate sounds in order to invoke a range of feelings, through rituals and ceremonies, and even to seek cures for illnesses and the veneration of gods and animals.

Exploring the internal structure of a ‘death whistle’
Exploring the internal structure of a ‘death whistle’

Contemporary musical composition

Just like pre-Hispanic music, contemporary, modern, ‘highbrow’ music from this century is very little understood - often as the result of prejudices and ignorance. In contrast to those in Classical and Romantic eras, today’s composers enjoy tremendous freedom, unrestricted by or to a single genre. Electro-acoustic music has taken on huge importance in our time, and many composers have decided to abandon the use of melody in favour of obscure sounds which create moods that are more important than any lyrical chant or tone. At the same time other composers are actually returning for inspiration to tonal music, in which the harmony and melody recapture the soul of the past, as for example with medieval music whose motets find new resonances in modern times. Many others find their inspiration in popular music such as rock and folklore.

Extract from the score of ‘A’nayahuari for 8 percussionists with pre-Hispanic instruments’ played back continuously over two years in the forest using an ‘octophonic loop’ sound system
Extract from the score of ‘A’nayahuari for 8 percussionists with pre-Hispanic instruments’ played back continuously over two years in the forest using an ‘octophonic loop’ sound system (Click on image to enlarge)

Creating a new form of musical orchestration

My music does not fit into a single, specific category, nor does it attempt to imitate or recreate pre-Hispanic music. To me, creating new melodies, light and dark moods and chant-based rituals are all complementary and vital elements in my artistic expression. As part of my recent doctoral research I have begun working with instruments like the ‘death whistle’, Tezcatlipoca flute, chameleon ocarina and eagle whistles.
Far from being, as many assert, instruments with very limited possibilities, I’m convinced that, once their main characteristics have been explored, they can be called on to create extraordinarily powerful tonal qualities through which nature and ancient lyricism combine forces to urge us to develop a new way to listen to sound.

Pic 4: Standard playing
Pic 4: Standard playing (Click on image to enlarge)

What follows are fragments of the manuscript for my third attempt to write a part for solo ocarina, taken from my piece Yaxkin (which is to be renamed Nahui Ocelotl or Jaguar Sun) for percussion and pre-Hispanic instruments.

Chameleon-shaped ocarina from Colima, Mexico
This instrument can be played in differerent ways:-
1. Producing standard notes according to normal finger positions (see pic 4)

Pic 5: Aspirated sounds
Pic 5: Aspirated sounds (Click on image to enlarge)

2. Producing notes that change into sounds formed by the sucking in of breath - either going from normal (N) to air (A) or vice versa (see pic 5)

Pic 6: Incorporating multiphonics
Pic 6: Incorporating multiphonics

3. Producing standard notes plus notes from the player’s voice, creating what musicians call ‘multiphonic’ sounds (see pic 6 - the arrow indicates multiphonics with the voice and the N returning to a normal note)

Pic 7: Glissando
Pic 7: Glissando

4. Producing a note with a small ascending or descending glide, known as glissando). In this case (see pic 7) the glissando is more complex, as the player is required to produce both voice effect and instrumental note at the same time, changing texture together

Pic 8: Tremolo
Pic 8: Tremolo

5. Producing additional effects such as tremolo, with voicebox or tongue or both (mixed). In this case (pic 8) I’ve indicated a mixed tremolo which creates a sound approximating the growl of a jaguar (I call this tremolandi gruñido); this needs the player’s tongue to move back and forth across the roof of the mouth with minimal movement of the lips and without unduly grimacing while playing the ocarina

Pic 9: Mixed melodies with voice and ocarina
Pic 9: Mixed melodies with voice and ocarina (Click on image to enlarge)

6. Producing mixed melodies that increase in dynamics from soft to loud with the voice singing a deep note produced simultaneously by normal position on the ocarina (pic 9).

As can be seen in all these examples, the effects can be mixed and combined at the same time. At this point I can’t help asking, why do people say an ocarina is so simple?

Pic 10: Improvisation for solo ocarina
Pic 10: Improvisation for solo ocarina (Click on image to enlarge)

Next follows an extract from a solo ocarina improvisation, part of an experimental score (pic 10).

Use of the ‘death whistle’ and jaguar in musical composition

These instruments are of great interest as part of an amalgam of metallic percussion sounds such as the tam-tam, feng gong and Thai gongs. Alongside skins such as the caja (bass drum), congas and tom-toms this fusion takes on great depth and has the force of a cry within the earth; when combined with beats from Tibetan cymbals it is transformed into the leap of a big cat in full fury.

Though deployed on its own it can generate profound effects, the ‘death whistle’ comes into its own when employed en masse, thanks to its dual characteristics of noise and intensity. By creating a series of different audio ‘channels’, a kind of virtual noise orchestra can be formed accompanied by grainy sounds in the strings. I have recently been exploring the use of this instrument, accompanied by piano, percussion and strings in my composition El evangelio de Judas, which will receive its premiere in Canada and Belgium.
Notation for a ‘death whistle’ cannot be made using traditional sheet music (as I used for the ocarina), as it is neither a melodic nor a polyphonic instrument. It is best to notate the dirge and noise of the ‘death whistle’ as for a rhythm instrument, indicating on the page the required changes in wavelength and in aperture of the sound chamber.

Pic 11: Extract from my work ‘Yaxkin’, now renamed ‘Nahui Ocelotl’; death whistle (top line) accompanied by skins and metal sounds below
Pic 11: Extract from my work ‘Yaxkin’, now renamed ‘Nahui Ocelotl’; death whistle (top line) accompanied by skins and metal sounds below (Click on image to enlarge)

I have already experimented combining song with different rhythms en masse, but the use of the voice in both ‘death whistle’ and jaguar whistle - which work in the same way - is far from ideal and effectively does not work. The key instead is to build on the instrument’s force, character and noise by combining it with the textures of other ancient sounds, both classical and modern - for example, electronic instruments (pic 11 - example of notation style used for ‘death whistle’ and jaguar whistle).

All photos and illustrations supplied by Cristina García Islas

NOTE: You can sample more of Cristina’s music by visiting her website, below.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 10th 2013

emoticon Q. What did the emperor say to the youth about to be sacrificed in honour of Tezcatlipoca?
A. ‘I grant you one final death whistle...’

Excerpt from ‘A’nayahuari’

See our special feature on the ‘death whistle’

Cristina García’s website
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