OF THE STREETS
Coro Hispano's Juan Pedro Gaffney, with muralista Collette Crutcher
JUAN PEDRO GAFFNEY
CORO HISPANO de SAN FRANCISCO
Vision and opportunity overtook San Francisco native Juan Pedro Gaffney when a chance discovery made on a Sunday afternoon in Venezuela gave focus and direction to a lifelong, ruling passion. Tapped at the tender age of six for an appearance as José in the annual Christmas production of ALas Posadas@ presented at his parish church, the City=s Mission San Francisco de Asis (popularly known as Mission Dolores), Gaffney thereafter became increasingly taken by the world of choral music, particularly that of the Roman Catholic, Episcopalian and Russian Orthodox apostolates, though his devotion to the sacred was at all times leavened by a comparable enthusiasm for the various strains of Irish and Mexican music once common to his native Mission District neighborhoods. But during an extended stay in Caracas in the early 70s, Gaffney was suddenly visited with a fleeting glimpse of a vast but nearly forgotten choral literature penned throughout Latin America during its Ibero-Indigenous Renaissance of the 16th and 17th centuries, a body of work formidable in its breadth and achievements but subject to generations of such severe neglect as to have become all but lost to contemporary Latin culture.
Tapped again, but now on a scale far more dramatic and challenging. Captured by the idea of initiating a restoration of this literature to the community from which it sprang, Gaffney returned to his home parish and saw an opening in the forthcoming 200th anniversary of the founding of Mission San Francisco de Asis. For his contribution to the event, Gaffney formed the Coro Hispano de San Francisco and the Conjunto Nuevo Mundo, a professional instrumental accompaniment to the Coro, with each reflecting his commitment to drawing on kindred spirits from Mission District neighborhoods for the talent with which he would work, and to drawing upon the Latin American Renaissance as the principal part of their choral repertory. Meeting the target date of their parish=s bicentennial celebration, the two ensembles debuted to an acclaim that they have enjoyed to this day. Since then, under Gaffney=s continuing leadership, the Coro and Conjunto have established a permanent presence in the Bay Area, while their role in the mending of what Gaffney describes the Abroken tradition@ of Mesoamerican chorals has steadily loomed larger throughout the western United States and Central and South America. His story:
WBR: How did your life evolve toward forming the Coro and the Conjunto?
JPG: Well, I didn=t grow up with the repertory the Coro and Conjunto do, because back then nobody was doing it. Starting as a kid, there were numerous key influences in my musical formation. First came my mother, who played piano. I was entranced by her music, though the literature she played was not really heavyweight; no Beethoven, no Bach. I=d like to say Romantic, but that=s not the word. It was more the fin de siècle French salon music--songful, charming and untroubled by heavy thoughts.
In a way, though, that music was very consonant with certain musical tastes of Latin America that I didn=t discover until later. French and Italian music was all the rage in Latin America during the last century and into the first portion of this century. It wasn=t until the 1920s, as a sort of cultural corollary to the Mexican Revolution, that you got a pro-indigenist reaction against European influences at large. And that, of course, produced some very powerful stuff, especially in Mexico; Chávez, Revueltas, and a whole host of lesser lights, like Luis Sando, Blas Galindo.
Gaffney: By age 6, a member
of the Mission Dolores Choir
Another key influence was church music. I grew up with chant in my ear. By the age of six I was a member of the Mission Dolores Choir, under Herbert Bergmann, the organist and choir director there. I remember them recruiting me in first grade. I was called upon to knock on the door and sing the part of José in the form of ALas Posadas@ that was in observance in the parish back then. Bergmann introduced us as kids to Gregorian and Ambrosian chant, that was my first taste of what chant was like, and certain pieces of polyphony.
The hymn books we used regularly were the ones in vogue in Catholic America through the first half of the century: the St. Gregory=s Hymnal, the St. Basil Hymnal. But once in a while, Mr. Bergmann would pull out this little hymnal from St. Louis in which most of the hymns were of German origin from the 18th century and even further back. I=ve flashed more than once on how that hymnal, plus chant, was my intro into AEarly Music.@ I would compare the contents of that hymnal against the others we were using and think, My God, this is a whole mark above. Even at that age, without any musical consciousness, kids can have taste. And you don=t even label it, you just know it. Well, the music Bergmann gave us from that hymnal, 120 to maybe 150 hymns, turned me on to the good stuff.
The next liturgical choir I sang with was directed by Leonard Fitzpatrick, choirmaster at St. Dominic=s Priory here in San Francisco. I owe Fitzpatrick many things but chiefly learning how to read chant. Because what I read up to that point was just straight A, B, C, D music on the modern G and F clefs. What chant uses are moveable C and F clefs on a four-line stave with a notation not in notes but in neumes--note-clusters, capable of expressing more than just pitch relations. If you don=t get the house rules, that notation will throw you. But once you learn how to decipher it, you can practically float as you sing the stuff.
Then I camped out with the Anglicans. I spent a couple of years as a choir boy at Grace Cathedral when Richard Irven Purvis was organist and master of the choristers there. He was a powerhouse musician, and just by working under him I learned a lot about style and interpretation--how the music wants to go. That, plus choral directing--how to get others to make the music go where it wants to go. I think back on him, and think on all I learned from him and all my other maestros, and I=m grateful, man. I say (gracias! to them all.
A year or so later I wandered into the Russian Orthodox Cathedral on Fulton Street near Fillmore. It was en route to St. Ignatius High School, so I had passed it a lot of times, had seen the monks on the streets around there with their long beards, their sweeping cassocks and their veiled headpieces. You can imagine what a reservoir of curiosity that scene would build up in you. The day I finally entered the Cathedral, it must have been at the end of the service. I swear to you, man, it was like stepping into the world of Dostoevsky!: the hundreds of icons, the thousand candles flickering, the bearded monks and deacons, the rich brocade of their vestments, all the people, bowing, murmuring, blessing themselves, a cantor intoning a long prayer in a pure, ringing tenor voice.
Then, coming out from a sanctuary behind a wall of icons, a bishop, looking at least a century old, thin, hunched over, crowned with a jeweled crown, helped down to a platform by two young men vested in white. They hand him strangely doubled candles, which the bishop takes, and while singing a benediction in a voice that matches his body, he blesses everybody, making crosses in the air with the candles. Then a deacon starts intoning a chant and with every succeeding phrase, moves the chanting up by half-tones, growing louder as he goes up, until he finally climaxes, full voice, on a tone at least an octave and a fifth, maybe two octaves from where he started.
And wham!, on the chord of that tone the choir upstairs joins him, fortissimo, in a choral response that leaps and bounds and cascades down to a cadence that says: Athis is IT, folks.! AMEN!--even though the word they were singing wasn=t Aamen.@ Guess what?: after that, I was ready to go to Russia. I wanted in on that culture, in on that music, in on that life; and all without wanting to abandon any part of my Irish-Hispanic Catholic identity.
Such was my intro to Russian Orthodoxy and its musical heritage. A few years later, without leaving San Francisco, I did immerse myself in the culture. I studied Russian, sang in Orthodox churches and cathedrals for Vespers on Saturday nights, liturgy on Sunday mornings, and learned a very rich repertory and choral style. Best of the maestros, by far, was Sergei Constantinov, director of the choir at the Fulton Street Cathedral (which later moved to Geary Boulevard near 26th Avenue). He was a window to the whole style. He really understood rubato, accelerando and ritardando, a true parlando, all accompanied by a tremendous dynamic flexibility that is the very soul of the Russian choral school. During those years I composed and arranged a fair amount of music for Orthodox liturgical use. Eventually I lived in a Uniate monastery out in the Richmond for a year, where we sang the liturgy in Staroslav every morning. I was blissed out--could have spent my whole life like that. But as it proved, that wasn=t my destiny. Otherwise, Coro Hispano would never have been born.
Some years later I sang with the San Francisco Bach Choir, directed by Waldemar Jacobsen. I worked for about two or three years both as corolista and solista under masestro Jacobsen, and in the process I learned a lot from him, too. One of the great things I owe to Waldemar is choral organization, all the nonmusical things that have to happen in order to make a music group work: the mechanics of setting up and breaking down concert sites; how to organize repertory lists, rehearsal schedules, calendars; how to integrate the instrumentalists with the chorus; who takes care of welcoming the audience when they come in; all the managerial stuff.
WBR: Were choirs and chorals your only source of musical development over these years?
JPG: As a child, I was self-taught on the piano. As a kid I could never persuade my parents of the importance of lessons for me. Those years weren=t easy for them; they had plenty on their minds.
I loved my mother=s piano playing, but she stopped playing when we moved to our house on Sanchez Street. That very year I figured out how the logic of pitch-relations on the keyboard worked on an afternoon=s visit to the Sutro family. We knew the family and used to visit them two or three times a year. They lived in a mansion up on the top of Sutro Forest, where the tower is now situated, in a Disney-esque castle, with turrets and little windows, and stone steps wrapping around to side doors. Every summer my mother and sisters would go up to pick blackberries in the forest to make what seemed like hundreds of jars of jam. That year--I was five or six--I didn=t want to go out picking. I asked Mrs. Sutro if I could stay inside and she said yes. Their Afront room@ was a ballroom, immense, with hardwood floors, paneled walls, and at one end a twelve-foot (I swear!) Bösendorfer concert grand. I sat down at it and tried to play some tunes I had heard--maybe something from what I heard my mother play, but simplified. Once I figured out the half-tone relations between mi-fa and si-do, and then how the black keys worked, I was home! If I slowed it down, I could play anything. When I got back home I started composing all kinds of melodies of my own invention.
I was 15 when I started studying keyboards seriously for the first time. And it was organ, not piano. My teacher was Maurice John Forshaw, an organist formed by the French school. After WWII, he and his wife lived for eight years or more with the family of a major French composer for organ, Jean Langlais, so Forshaw was drenched with that whole school. Lo and behold! here was serious music with certain roots in common with the salon music my mother played. But this was much heavier stuff, these guys were all products of the Conservatoire de Paris and major-name composers. We=re talking Langlais himself, Olivier Messiaen, Gaston, Listaize, Jéhan Alain, Maurice Duraflé. My studies with Forshaw converted me. Till then, I was really limited in my willingness to listen to anything beyond tonal and modal music--music that built on diatonic scales. I stopped at the end of the 19th century, had no ear whatsoever for Stravinsky or Bartok, or anything else non-tonal. It was by virtue of the Post-Impressionist French, thanks to Forshaw, that I managed to open my ears to the whole spectrum of 20th-century sounds.
WBR: That=s a large spectrum; it must have taken some while.
JPG: Well, you learn a new language by learning words one at a time . . . .
But actually, it turned on a single event that served as a conversion experience. Forshaw invited me to come sit in on a private, afternoon recital he was giving for Darius and Mme. Milhaud and Joaquin Nin-Culmell at the First Baptist Church of Oakland. I remember it vividly, man!. It was three in the afternoon in a church that had no windows. Can you imagine? no windows! The outside walls did have windows but they were all offices and schoolrooms or the like. The inside--the church proper--is totally walled in. The only illumination is overhead lights.
For whatever reason, Forshaw saw no need to turn the lights on. I arrived late because I looked up the First Baptist Church in the Oakland telephone book and the first one listed was Albany, not Oakland, so I was totally off track. By the time I got to the right church in Oakland, Forshaw was well into his program. The lady in the front office very kindly showed me how to get to the sanctuary--the only way in was from the second floor, because the seats were steeply raked, like a theater. And man, it was BLACK! I heard the music from the organ, all right, but could see nothing except the outline of the console, illuminated only by the music-rack lights, nothing more, way down at the bottom of the pit. I was feeling my way like a blind man down these ampitheatric steps towards this teeny source of light, and the music my master was playing began to hit me.
It was a work by Messiaen--L=Apparition de l=Église Éternelle, a slow-moving piece that comes in waves at you. It starts out rather softly and just builds and builds, asking more and more from the registration of the organ. The effect of the piece is like cosmic bodies dancing slow-motion in orbit. It starts out not so much with a melody as with a pair of chord changes. And you can=t quite call them chords because he=s not working with a do-re-mi or any Awhite key@ scale anymore. He=s using the octotonic scale that goes half-whole, half-whole. . . . And out of that scalar material he builds Achords@ that aren=t thirds anymore, they=re a fourth, a third, a whole tone; then it shifts to a third, a fourth, and a half-tone; the next step up replicates the first pattern, but higher. That=s the stuff he uses in this piece; he repeats the gesture, slightly twisted, then shifts it, moves upward, then settles down. Over and over again, he revisits the same building blocks, turning them slowly from one place on the scale to the next.
Well, me, working my way down in that sea of darkness, I was ready for a conversion, man, and it came: wave upon wave of sound washed over me and baptized my ears. And you know what? I could understand it! For the first time I could understand something other than the seven-degree scales with all their chromatic inflections. This was something declaredly not diatonic, and it made sense to me. I could hear what he was doing! And from there, I grew to understand the language of Stravinsky--different language, but accessible now. And eventually Bartok. And the rest of the century.
WBR: So these experiences ground you solidly in the rich traditions of choral music as well as an in affinity for twentieth century classical music. But how does your affinity with Latin American music come into the picture?
JPG: The choral maestros I worked with represent one collective influence that led me to produce a ACoro@ But totally different influences led me to the AHispano.@ My ears were always hungry for more. I=m a Mission District home boy. When I was a little kid, the Mission was Mexican and Irish. The music scene in both cases was very strong. In my late pre-teens and into my teen years, I soaked up mariachi music and ranchera and norteña, which were all over the Mission at that time--still are. Then my Irish roots: I would run down to the Knights of the Red Branch Hall . . . .
WBR: Come again: Knights of the Red Branch?
JPG: To tell the truth, I don=t know that it was ever a functioning society. I never met a Knight of the Red Branch. All I know is KRB hall is still standing on Mission Street some place around 10th or 11th. There was also a more modest Irish hall down on Valencia, right off 16th Street. A group called Eire Og, which means AYoung Ireland,@ used to hang there. I was much younger than their youngest; they were in their 20s, I was a kid of 12, 13.
But I soaked it up. They=d have set dances every Tuesday night. A minimum group was eight, because you couldn=t do it without four couples; it was all change patterns. On Friday or Saturday night I=d run down to the KRB hall to drink in the button accordion music. Their dances tended to be a bit wilder--fueled by liquor. Then afterwards, midnight or so, I=d truck off on my bike, and I wouldn=t go home. I=d run over to a place on Valencia Street, La Rondella, to catch the mariachi bands. The doors would close at 1:30 or so in the morning, but some of the musicians would keep going until 3. And I=d absorb this whole other language; marvelous. Mariachi music is melodically very rich and I fell in love with it.
There were other things out there that stretched my ears, too. I=m
talking the mid 50s; Aworld beat@
was not a happening phrase, amigo, but hey!, there were significant record
labels that did bring it out--Folkways in particular had a lot of stuff
available. And there were radio stations that aired world music. Doug Pledger!
He was an institution. Raspy voice. He=d
come on from 10 o=clock to midnight
for his program on KKHI that was all world music, long before it was in vogue.
He=d have pirate imports from the
Soviet Bloc and Eastern Europe at a time when it was all Abig,
bad communist land.@ Stuff from
Hungary and stuff from Russia, Ukraine; Siberia, Poland, Czechoslovakia. I
remember some stuff he played one night from some place in Central Asia, totally
not European. Nobody else played that kind of music; but he did. ________________________________________
Pledger on Pledger: "When I first went to work for KSMO in
San Mateo--that was the original KKHI--I originated a program
of world-wide folk music called 'Music Around The World.' In
1953 I was called to KNBR-NBC in San Francisco, where I
hosted a morning show of show tunes, melodic strings, and folk
music. At night I had a program called 'Adventures in Folk Music.'
My formula was a freelance of the most melodic and entrancing
music of the world. It became one of the most popular programs
on the air as far as the ratings were concerned. In 1968 KNBR
went rock-and-roll. They asked me to stay on. I refused and
went to KKHI where I hosted a Saturday night opera program
of highlights, in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego
--although I am not presently on the air.
"Today, there aren't any program directors willing to try world
music, so all you have is your strata of rock-and-roll and talk. One very salient factor is that advertising agencies want a demographic of 14 to 34, so a radio station that programs to other audiences cannot survive. This was not so much of a factor when ratings were not so precise, not broken down by demographics. Strangely enough, I had a large section of that audience because there are 18-to-34s who like decent music. 'Adventures' was sponsored by a Berkeley restauranteur named Larry Blake, who had an interest in ethnic music, by Lufthansa, by S. Christian of Copenhagen, which sold Danish furniture. Advertising support came from people of ethnic background or who happened to like the music. The results, business-wise, were amazing, so they didn't care about ratings. Years of study gave me a sense of what the majority of good music lovers want, and I use that sense in my programming. However, to do this is to have to fight to stay on the air." (1999)
Years later Pledger came to a Coro concert. Our recording engineer Dick Wahlberg invited him to an all-Mexican program we were doing at Old First Church. Later we did a tape-edit at Pledger=s studio up in Sutro forest. He and I talked at length about the music Coro was doing--he was delighted with it--and the music he programmed from decades before. I felt almost mystically honored, like an icon came to life, and came down off the wall to visit me.
WBR: And how does this translate into Coro and Conjunto?
JPG: We=re closing in!. In my early 20s I belonged to a group called the Catholic Interracial Council. One Sunday at a prayer breakfast I heard a representative of Acción en Venezuela speak about initiating social action from the ground up rather than from the top down--getting people to empower themselves by taking stock of their abilities, assessing their needs, putting the two together and then plugging into outside sources of assistance. I=m fascinated with the concepts of social change that the guy from Venezuela was putting across, so I hang with him after the breakfast to discuss it in greater depth.
Bingo! Two weeks later I=m on a plane to Caracas. Now what I went down to do was promote social change, not to do music. Still, though I didn=t go looking for it, music was all around me, and I couldn=t turn my ears off. So in Venezuela I underwent yet more musical baptisms--discoveries of worlds of music I hadn=t dreamed of. And as it proved, what I discovered in Venezuela changed the direction of my life.
My first discovery was of the Venezuelan folk music traditions, which are incredibly subtle. Wonderful stuff, and totally different from what I knew in my earlier years of Mexican acculturation here in San Francisco. For starters, in the case of their música criolla, there=s a richness of harmonic vocabulary as well as phrase-form that is directly attributable to the Franco-Italianate salon music of the last century--my mother=s repertory!--which the Venezuelan people of the last century heard and appropriated, so it became a constituent element in their own música popular.
Quite apart from that, the rhythmic sophistication of Venezuelan folk music is astonishing. They have every conceivable permutation of subdividing a beat. It=s not just 3 against 2 or 6/8 against 3/4. That stuff is simple. In Venezuela, they have 6/8 against 12/16 against 3/4 and 12/4. Everything is going on, and simultaneously. Now that=s polyrhythm. Some of this is Spanish originate, but a lot of it is African, and in Venezuela the way African idioms blend with Iberian is distinctive in its own way. It=s not the same as what you get in Cuba, or in Puerto Rico, or any other part of the Caribbean.
Then they have cinquillo--that=s rhythms of 5, which in the Venezuelan idiom really don=t get subdivided. The only other music traditions where I=ve found cinquillo present are Spanish Renaissance music and Peruvian highland music. And Peruvian not in the same way as Spanish Renaissance music. In the Spanish repertory, cinquillo admits of as many kinds of subdivision as you care to get into. In Peruvian music, you=ll get rhythms of 5 on a macro level, a melody phrased in five-bar units, but, internally, the bar is still binary--always divisible by two. In Venezuelan music, the texture is much more intimate; the five is woven closer to the grain of the melody; it which just flows along in fives.
My experiences in Venezuela served as windows to music of Latin America at large. Because just as the folk music of Venezuela was very different from what I grew up with here in the Mission, I knew that there had to be a lot of other idioms that I had not heard. And I started discovering a few. I crossed the border to Colombia on a bus trip for a couple of weeks and I heard yet other Anew@ music--new to me. And I thought, yeah! every region has its own dialect. Even within Venezuela. There was música llanera--the Agreat plains@ music; música andina that you get up in San Antonio de Táchira, aguinaldos caraqueños, música maracucha. Every region had its own flavor. There=s nothing exceptional about that. You=ll find that everywhere you go in world music. Traditions are very local. But for me, at that moment, that in itself was an ear-tickling discovery: to just go from region to region in the country and discover the local musical flavors. And then to cross the border into Colombia and see how different the flavors were in música bogotana. And of course, the música andina--music of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, with kenas, charango, bombo. . .
The second major discovery for me was encountering music from the time of Haydn and Mozart, composed by Venezuelan composers. Now hear this: we=re talking mid 60s. The barrio I=m working in, Barrio Monte Claro, had a school built by the people of the barrio named AEscuela José Angel Lamas.@ It was a primary school, grades one through six. And me fresh from Gringolandia, in my ignorance I just took for granted that this Lamas was a general or a politician, some civic figure of the last century, which is not uncommon. You name public buildings after some head honcho who had clout in times gone by, right?
Imagine my surprise on a Sunday afternoon listening to Radio Caracas and hearing a choral-orchestral Mass that sounded like Haydn. I knew it wasn=t Mozart, because even early Mozart sounds like Mozart, but it did sound like the music of that era. And I thought, AAh!, a Haydn Mass here in Caracas!@ Then at the end of the Agnus Dei, the announcer=s voice comes on: ADamas y caballeros, you have just heard the Misa en Re by José Angel Lamas, interpreted by the Coro Shell.@ I thought, AWow, José Angel Lamas was a composer--a Venezuelan composer!@
What I want to emphasize is, one, here was a revelation of a Venezuelan tradition of music composed by their own that was alive and in repertory; that was being performed thanks to musicologists who took seriously the legacy of their own people. And, two, here are people in Venezuela, the humblest of the humble, poorest of the poor--we=re talking about camposinos who came in from the hills to drill oil wells for Petroleo Creole and Shell Oil from the >30s through the >50s. And it was their children, not themselves, who would get as far as a sixth grade education. But they knew who José Angel Lamas was and they felt proud to dedicate a school to him.
So it was a multiple discovery process; one, to discover the music in the first place; two, to discover that it had its own kind of flourishing continuity as a sensibility to national music, and three, to discover that sensibility was felt by people with no educational pretensions. That is grass roots. So when I heard this Mass, which was a considerable piece of music, I was bowled over. I was there for only two years, but my musical discoveries while down there planted seeds deep inside me.
WBR: And after these two years?
JPG: I came back to San Francisco saying, if there=s this, there=s more, lot=s more. From go I had an appetite to hear more, discover more, learn more, but I didn=t have a focus on how to go about it. For starters, I had not yet made up my mind to pursue music as my main thing. In my teen years, I wanted to do music as my career. But I had a mind inclined to the Great Burning Questions of the day. So before I traveled to Venezuela, I pursued philosophy, world literature; a high-powered program over at St. Mary=s College, Moraga. From there I did graduate work in philosophy up at Université Laval, Québec. It was back in San Francisco, after my first year at Laval, that I heard about the Accíon program, which is what brought me to Barrio Monte Claro.
It was only after all that that I realized that political and social action was not my path; not even philosophy. I have to go back to my first love, music.@ I finished the degree program in philosophy and taught for a year, but with my mind now clearly committed to starting from scratch with music all over again. And that I did. I took a second B.A., in music, at Cal Berkeley. A great program, wonderful teachers. Then I went and taught chorus for a couple of years at St. Mary=s College in Moraga.
WBR: So you returned right away to choral music?
JPG: That=s correct. The lion=s share of the music of the past of Latin America is choral music, as, in fact, is true of Europe also. Myself, I was directing choirs at an early age, 17 or 18. The first choir I ever directed was actually a bunch of high-school buddies who were fed up with the kind of saccharine music we heard from the organ loft every Sunday and knew I was into music. We formed a chant-choir, branching out into medieval polyphony, Russian four-part chants, and contemporary stuff that was modal but in good taste--Joseph Gélineau and the like. But nothing of Latin America, because I hadn=t been there yet.
When I worked at St. Mary=s I was doing mainstream choral literature, Euro-originate, with a few pieces by North American composers. Yet what I had discovered of Latin American music kept on beckoning to me. The Mass by Lamas--it was a one-shot deal. I never heard any other music like it while I was down there. But there had to be more. Music of that kind can=t come from a vacuum. There had to have been a long tradition of composing and music-making behind it. And if in Venezuela, then throughout Latin America as well.
Well, I knew that the bicentenary of the founding of Mission San Francisco de Asis, my home parish, was fast approaching. June 29, 1776 is the founding of Mission Dolores and, ipso facto, the city of San Francisco. Its proper name is Mission San Francisco de Asis--Mission Dolores is a nickname coined in the middle of the last century. The fact that our local bicentenary coincided by a week with the national birthday, July 4, 1776 didn=t hurt; it was a time to be reckoned with. I saw here the opportunity to put all the elements of my musical formation into focus. I thought, what better opportunity to create an ensemble, rooted right here in San Francisco, that would dedicate itself to the music of Latin America, and flourish from within our own Spanish-speaking community.
And that=s what I did. I quit my job at St. Mary=s and in August of >75 founded the Coro, with a target debut-date in March of the following year. My notion was to create a new chorus in the City from Spanish-speaking community. I was well aware that the Latin choral repertory was a broken tradition. By and large, Latinos don=t grow up hearing their own choral music. This repertory has not been in continuous performance from the time of composition down to our own times. Not here, not throughout most of Latin America. If the music of Venezuela=s classic era was performed in Caracas, that=s because in the 30's and 40's of this century, a musicologist named Juan Bautista Plaza transcribed, edited and published the music of Lamas and his contemporaries. But other countries didn=t have a Plaza. So I knew I had a job to convince people of my own community that this music was ours and it was worth listening to.
Street People: "I founded the Coro to create a new chorus in the City
from the Spanish-speaking community, people who I identified
with as my own. Coro started with declaredly local talent.
We were, and still are, a conservatory of the streets."
WBR: Who did you tap for talent?
JPG: For Coro, la gente del barrio, people who I identified with as my own. They were local folks, contacted mostly through Spanish-language newspapers, and PSA=s to local radio stations. I lined up interviews on KPOO and KPFA with guys who were hot in the local Latino radio scene, Mario Cabrera and Huascar Castillo. In fact, they both joined Coro. Coro started with declaredly local talent from the Spanish-speaking community. That=s what we=ve been doing ever since. We were, and still are, a conservatory of the streets.
WBR: When did Conjunto come onto the scene?
JPG: I founded Conjunto at the same time because I couldn=t do the repertory I wanted to do without them. What sets the Conjunto off from Coro is that it=s made up wholly of professional musicians. Their repertory focus is the same as Coro but they explore different areas of the repertory. Our very first concert featured a core trio of guitars and percussion, accompanied by two violins and continuo. Elizabeth Blumenstock was our first violin. She has grown to legendary status since, but she was dynamite back then. Conjunto=s harpsichordist was Cèsar Cancino. A superb musician, Cèsar; he hears a score with tremendous understanding, and that informs how he plays his part. He=s still with us today. Our next concert was the Bicentennial Mass at the Mission and that called for a chamber orchestra, which we put together on two rehearsals and zero budget. But the orchestra played well, let me tell you.
WBR: The Bicentennial Mass, was it the Lamas= Mass you heard in Venezuela?
JPG: No, I had thought about it, but I couldn=t locate the score and parts in time. What I was hoping to find was a Mass by a Mexican composer of the same era as the founding date of Mission. A year later, in fact, I learned of the Ignacio Jerusalem y Stella masses in Southern California Mission archives recorded by Chanticleer on their hit album AMexican Baroque.@ But we didn=t know about Jerusalem y Stella before the Bicentennial Mass. What I did get was a Misa en Sol by the Chileno composer José de Campderós, whose dates are a little bit late for the bicentenary but are roughly in the same zone, around 1798, 1800.
We performed the Campderós Mass on June 29, 1976, withchorus, with soloists, and orchestra. And we did it to the nines, albeit with rough edges. We were good from go. Our first concert got five minutes unbroken applause at the end. Our Christmas concert that first year got ten minutes. Have you any idea how long that is for applause? And we=ve only gotten better over the years.
WBR: At that point, had you intended Coro to be permanent?
JPG: Yes. For myself, it was a career choice. I knew that this repertory was vast, more than enough to last a lifetime. There would always be something fresh, something new. I knew I was tapping into a need that was real and profound, even if at the outset it was only dimly felt--I mean by the community. But as Coro grew, so did its own self-awareness, and so did the community=s awareness, both of it and of the repertory. Coro=s here to stay--it=ll outlast me.
WBR: How did you locate the repertory?
JPG: Eventually we secured access to primary sources, photocopies of original manuscripts and choirbooks in Latin American cathedrals and museums. But initially it was through secondary sources--transcriptions that others had already done. My real start was Robert Stevenson, dean of Latin American musicologists. In 1952, he wrote a book titled Music of México. That was my bible; the window to whatever else was out there, including lots more Stevenson: The Music of Peru; Music in Aztec and Inca Territory; Christmas Music of Baroque Mexico; Latin American Colonial Music Anthology--the list goes on. He has a magisterial grasp of many repertories, starting with the music of Renaissance Spain. And he brought immense learning to bear on the related musics of the Americas from the Renaissance forward. He=s at UCLA and still doing his thing. Which, of course, is very much our thing. Back in the 70s he came twice to Coro concerts and wrote glowingly of them.
Then there=s Gabriel Saldivar, a Mexican historiographer who at a tender age--28--had published Historia de Música en México, in 1936, a goldmine of information. It contains transcriptions and facsimiles that proved very useful to us back. In 1975, the Chileno musicologist Samuel Claro published an anthology of music of South America. About the same time, another came out by two Argentine musicologists, Carmen García and Waldemar Roldán.
WBR: And the primary sources you mentioned?
JPG: In 1975 I learned of a microfilm collection of the entire music archives of the Cathedral of Puebla and Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City, available for purchase. So I contacted Tom Stanford, one of the people who headed the microfilming project and asked about how to buy the set. Stanford himself served as our courier. Since then I=ve acquired microfilms of other holdings, but the Mexican set is really our major source for transcriptions. My colleagues and I have transcribed 70, maybe 80 works from this source but the collection is huge: almost 150 rolls, with an average of 850 exposures per roll--enough to keep us busy for a long time.
WBR: But your various program notes indicate that not all of Coro repertory is drawn from cathedral archives.
JPG: We haven=t talked about folk-originate choral music yet. That a strong component of Coro=s repertory, accounting for about 40% of our programming. We do it with authentic instrumentation from the various folk traditions we draw from. Of that segment, about half are arranged by su servidor.
WBR: On a cassette issued by Coro several years ago, my ear was caught by a choral work sung in an indigenous language and accompanied solely by percussion. What accounts for such an extension of the European tradition?
JPG: Aha! Threads begin to weave together here. You=re talking about the 16th century Dios Itla Çonantzin E, the four-voice votive hymn to the Virgin--invoking her by her Aztec name ATonatzin@--sung in Nahautl, language of the Aztecs. That language is still spoken by more than a million people living on the central mesa of Mexico. We perform that one work more than any other. And you know what? More people in the Bay Area know that piece than in all of Mexico! I=ve taught that piece to more than a thousand people over the past 20 years.
There=s academic back-and-forth about the author of this piece: was he the Spanish-born Fernando Franco, maestro at the Metropolitana de México, or was he an Aztec pupil who adopted the maestro=s name at baptism? The manuscript says Adon@ Hernan Franco, and in the copious entries in cathedral documents, the maestro is nowhere called Adon.@
Whoever wrote it, it=s a wonderfully crafted piece written in an indigenous tongue. The composer had to have learned the art of polyphony from a Spanish maestro; but there are elements that are definitely non-European. There=s this reiteration of syllables on a single pitch that=s not characteristic of Iberian melos. It gives a percussive character that to me serves as a window, however narrow, to the language of Aztec music. Then there=s a rising motto that moves sequentially by thirds: two voices enter in parallel thirds, singing this gesture that goes up a step then comes down again. Two more voices chime in, they repeat the same motto a third higher; the first two repeat it on that higher pitch, then the second pair moves up yet another third. You get this terraced series of entries, moving up by degrees of a third each time, sounding almost like ascending pyramid steps. Fanciful? Maybe. What is less fanciful is that those are the very pitches that the teponaztle was pitched to.
WBR: The teponaztle?
JPG: A ritual drum in Aztec sacrifices. Actually, it was more a minimum xylophone than a drum; it was a hollowed out tree truck, with a tongue carved free on either side to resonate. They governed the pitch by how deep the incision was in the log. The pitch-difference between the two tongues was generally a major second, sometimes a minor third. For temple music, they=d be struck with rubber-headed mallets in very complex rhythmic patterns.
So my trip is, those are the sounds that should accompany this Aztec votive hymn to the Great Mothers of God, Santa Maria Tonontzintle. ADios itla Tsonantzin é@ is the opening line: AHail, Mother of God.@ AMother of God@ was already a term that had revered usage in pre-Hispanic parlance. Tonantzin, the Great Mother, was part of the Aztec pantheon. It wasn=t for nothing that when the Virgin of Guadelupe appeared to a lowly Indian she used the same title of invocation: AI am your mother, Juan Diego. I=ve always been with you. I=m not abandoning you. I=m still with you.@ A deliberate crossover gesture. For us, that was Tonantzin appearing in the person of Santa Maria. Tonantzin and La Virgen are one. She serves as a window to past consciousness, to past religious sensibility, to past roots, and makes the bridges from one to the other traversable. So she really is the Cosmic Mother of all Mexicans.
WBR: At the time of Coro=s founding, who else was mining this rich vein of Latin American chorales?
JPG: In those years we were the only kid on the block. Throughout our first 15 years there was no other chorus dedicated to this repertory. But by the time you get to Quincentenary in 1992, everybody wants to get in on the music of Iberia and Iberoamerica: the Waverly Consort, the Hilliard Ensemble, the Boston Camarata. In the end, what can I do but applaud them for being willing to take our repertory seriously?
Since then, other Latin choruses have sprouted up here in the States, but none with the repertory focus that we pursue. What they=re doing is almost exclusively works from the last thirty or forty years, mostly choral arrangements of folk material. There=s the Coral Cantigas, directed by Diana Sàez in Washington D.C., with a largely Caribbean tilt. And I=ve just got a CD from a group down in San Antonio who are into the older sacred music, but not into folk. And in Latin America itself, choruses are more and more getting into the music of the Américas, though none define themselves, as we do, by that music. Up until relatively recently, groups in any given country were pretty nationalistic about repertory. When I was in Mexico in >91, for instance, I spoke to a rather well known director about some marvelous stuff from Perú, and his reaction was Awhy would we want to do that?@
WBR: Did the emergence of these other groups affect Coro? Did it present a challenge?
JPG: Oh yeah! I bristled at first. But we should be grateful that these early-music ensembles were putting our repertory on the CD map. Don=t get me wrong, we=ve always had a stunningly exciting concert sound. Our music has always been intelligent and impassioned and that=s what people responded to. Still do. But even with the luster of our artistas invitados from Conjunto, I was always waiting for a better sound before embarking on recording. There were flaws in musicianship because that=s where we were developmentally--an out-reach community chorus. Somebody compromises an attack or release, somebody else=s intonation falters . . . blend and vowel-timbre isn=t totally uniform, somebody=s voice sticks out. Now, what=s forgivable in a concert is unforgivable in recording. A CD is abstract, all you have is the sound. You don=t have the happy faces dancing in front of the eyes. You=ve just got the sound. I made some attempts at recording way back in 1979. And because I was green and totally without funds, I couldn=t pull it off.
Then in >92, with the emergence of other groups bringing out what I call Aour@ repertory on CD, I started saying Adamn!, this is stuff we should have had out ages ago.@ Since the emergence of CD=s from other hands, I began to take our responsibilities to a world listenership more seriously. I began to insist to myself and to the Coro and Conjunto that we attain a totally professional level of performance.
From >92 forward I began to get more hard-nosed; we started rehearsing twice a week. I began incorporating more and more voice-training into the program, inviting outside teachers for workships and four-to-six week courses. Coro grew as an ensemble: in musicianship, in blend, in richness and control of tone production, in response. And let me say, I=ve been able to get more demanding with the members of Conjunto as well. The result: we=ve gotten a CD-worthy sound in concert. But it=s the dedicated sessions that give me the master tapes for CDs.
WBR: And have you released any CD=s yet?
JPG: One so far, Vamos al Portal, came out two years ago. People love it--we did a run of only 2,000 copies and it=s almost all sold out; there may still be some copies at Star Classics on Hayes and La Casa del Libro on Valencia. Maybe some at Tower Classical down on Columbus. But before I do a reissue, we=ve got five more waiting to be released; stunning stuff, each one very different from the rest. What=s holding us up is me and money. For some, I=ve got to finish editing the tapes; for others creating the booklets. And we need starter money to go into production for each of them. I want to get at least three going on our own label--Pro Música--before we start looking for commercial distributorship. But when they come out, man, they=re going to make an explosion.
WBR: Was there a stage at which you realized that this project was actually going to work?
JPG: I never thought it wasn=t going to work. The strength of the original vision never left room for doubt about either the value or the viability of the project. But the vision is only half, if that. The other half is determination. Mine and Joyce=s, my wife. And that of course stands emblematically for all the energy that so many have put into this project from go to now.
There was a gap of seven years in the project=s history. The original Coro goes from >75 up to the end of >79. Then the money dried up. Coro came to a crashing halt in 1979 because we were working under the aegis of another organization, which initially seemed to share the vision, but in the end, not at all. I was so heart-dismayed that I vowed to myself A( más nunca! I=m never going to be at the behest of people like that again.@
I realized that it was upon me to get an advanced degree to do my act right. So I went to Stanford, got a master=s, finished the course work for the doctorate but hadn=t yet started the dissertation when we moved back to the City. I wasn=t at all convinced that I wanted to come back and do the community outreach thing again; I had intentions of looking for a college position, here or elsewhere. But when members of the first Coro caught on that I was back in town, they began gently bugging me: APedro, cuando vamos a cantar otra vez?: when are we going to sing again?@
One day Pete Gallegos of La Raza Graphics asked if I knew a good conjunto that could provide music for their board of directors= Christmas celebration. I said, OK, let me call some of the old-timers and put together a half-hour program. I phoned only the people I wanted to work with, but it was wildfire. They told the others, the whole old crew, all the people to whom I had given an appetite to make music--our music; music for many voices, sacred and secular, ancient and modern, classical and folkloric. I was licked! There had been no replacement for Coro. There was nothing like it. So I said, well, I guess this is my destiny, this is one of the things God wants me to do in the years left to me on this planet.
So we founded Coro again, this time under our own aegis, the Instituto Pro Música de California. My wife Joyce has been the guiding light. She and Francisco Toldi, my compa, without whose inspiration we would never have refounded. He was just there by my side through the process of incorporation. Several leaders from the Latin community came forward to create the Board of Directors, with Luisa Ezquerro at the helm. She served as president for the first five years. And Joyce took on the managerial end of things; she=s really the one who has created the fabric and structure of IPMC, all in a hands-on-way; she figured out the jobs that had to be done, then she did >em.
WBR: How did you re-establish an audience after regrouping?
JPR: In the >70s we performed a lot, but mostly all within the City, starting with Mission Dolores, then at schools, at museums, La Raza Graphics, Galeria de la Raza, and outward to City Hall, Old First Church, etc. But from >87 on, I adopted a much more aggressive policy. The Mission is still our home base, but I decided to create broader audiences and see how far we could go--six or more concerts per season, three or four seasons per year. We looked for the Spanish-speaking communities from area to area but also to the larger music-loving population as well.
WBR: You=re a composer in your own right. Are any of your works performed by either the Coro or the Conjunto?
JPG: Coro performs a lot of my arrangements, particularly of folk-originate material. My own major works, though, I have chosen not to perform through Coro because the vision statement that I created for the group is that it be dedicated to the musical legacy of the Spanish-speaking world. But, hey, my arrangements are out there, and they=re good, man. More and more people are asking for them.
WBR: Such as?
JPG: For starts, my choral-instrumental version of the Corrido de César Chávez, by the local cantoautor José Luis Orozco. Fine songwriter. He=s best known for music for kids; that=s his thing. But he has created a fair number of APeace and Justice@ songs--songs with a strong social punch. He composed this corrido twenty years ago. When I first heard it, I said, AHey, that=s hot. I want to arrange it.@ But it was in >93, the year César died that I finally moved on it. I wanted to do it as an homenaje to César in our Dia de Los Muertos series that year. So I got in touch with José Luis and he said Acon gusto.@ Since then we=ve performed it a lot, including at choral conventions and festivals. As a result, a lot of choral directors have asked for it. We=re in the process of getting commercial editions of that and other stuff out this year.
WBR: Have there been moments that were particularly magic for Coro over the years?
JPG: The tour of Mexico was certainly magic. We were there in >91; participating in three international festivals. The people loved us; wherever we went, standing ovations. It was wonderful to be able to bring the musical legacy of our ancestors back home and say, Athis, too, is part of our heritage.@ For everybody who heard us, what we brought to them was a real discovery, because the great music of Mexico=s past is not done that much. Since then a number of early music groups have emerged. But when we were there in >91, they weren=t happening.
WBR: How much touring have you done?
JPG: Not nearly as much as we=d like. We tour the greater Bay Area regularly, generally hitting each county. But we=ve done San Pablo, Sacramento, Salinas, Watsonville, Santa Cruz, San Juan Bautista, Fresno, Bakersfield, twice at Mission Santa Barbara. We=ve been on the California Arts Council Touring Roster for three years now, and we=re getting more and more requests for appearances from all ends of the State.
But money can be very problematic. The government of Mexico City puts on a Gran Festival every year; we were contracted to perform for $3000 at the third such festival in >91. We never got a dime. You learn from that.
In bright contrast, the government of the State of Querétaro contracted for twenty-five hundred and did better yet: they gave us twenty-eight. The Minister of Cultural Events was super cool. He said, AI know these things always cost more than you think when you=re contracting.@ (Que Dios le bendiga y favorezca! The City of Puebla sponsored its first International Choral Festival, which was our third performance date down there. The grunt work was really done by one chorus in town, the Coro Normalista de Puebla. They had no money to offer us, but provided us transportation and housing. They were primo hosts; they really took care of us, made us part of the family. And they tossed $500 into our kitty just to help out. Jorge Altieri, director of the Coro Normalista, terrific musician--he=s our everlasting friend.
We=ve performed twice by invitation before Regional Conferences of the American Choral Directors Association, once in Sacramento in >94, once in Reno, just last year. If I had my money squared away, I=d go for the National in 2001.
There are also international fests. Three years ago Coro got an invite to perform at a festival that happens every January in the Canary Islands. And if the Canary Islands; hey, it=s only a hop to Portugal and Spain. Earlier this year I had a chat with the new Spanish consul-general. He=s exploring possibilities of a two-week tour throughout Spain.
We=ve been invited to so many festivals in Latin America I can=t tell you: two weeks in Costa Rica, Brasil, Ecuador. There=s a quadrennial choral festival called América Cantat. We were invited to the last one in Mar del Plata, Argentine. The next one is in Caracas, next year.
It could be an ever expanding circle but, so far, we have not been able to raise the kind of money it would take to accept. For any tour, it=s financially a huge burden. At the present time, our best funding strategy is for me to finish our CDs and fund from sales. If we were underwritten with a grant or corporate sponsorship to meet our costs, we=d be on the map.