Vol. 38 Issue 2 Reviews

Juan Blanco: Nuestro Tiempo / Our Time

Compact disc, 2013, innova 248; available from innova Recordings, ACF, 332 Minnesota Street #E-145, St. Paul, Minnesota 55101, USA; telephone: (651) 251-2823; http://www.innova.mu/.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

In 1961, using only an oscillator and three Sears Silvertone tape decks, Juan Blanco (1919-2008) became the first Cuban composer to create a piece of electroacoustic music. This composition, Música Para Danza, and five others, appear on Innova’s recent release entitled Juan Blanco: Nuestro Tiempo/ Our Time. It contains the first collection of Blanco’s work on compact disc, featuring his compositions spread over four decades. Blanco’s early works, composed in the 1950s, utilized nationalistic themes. During the Batista regime he was a successful tax lawyer representing large U.S. corporations such as Coca Cola. After his clients fled, following the overthrow of Batista in January of 1959, Blanco gave up law to practice music full-time. Apparently Blanco’s negotiating and compositional skills were savy enough to win over the likes of Che Guevara, who met with Blanco’s Nuestro Tiempo composers’ group to congratulate them for their role in the resistance movement. During the 1970s Blanco created electroacoustic music for the Department of Propaganda of the ICAP (Instituto Cubano de  Amistad con Los Pueblos). Later, he was appointed the director of the Laboratorio National de Música Electroacústica (LNME), and also served as musical director for the National Council of Culture (Consejo Nacional de Cultura).

Saxophonist and composer Neil Leonard not only supplied the well-researched liner notes for this cd, but also performs on a piece that is dedicated to him, and contributed his mastering and audio restoration skills to this project, which he co-produced with Philip Blackburn. Leonard first met Blanco in 1986 during a visit to Cuba, and went back to work with Blanco at the LNME studio from 1989–1990. From then on Leonard kept in contact with Blanco, closely following his work for the last 22 years of his life. In 1993 Leonard worked with several organizations based in Boston, as well as Dartmouth College, Wesleyan University, and the Berklee College of Music to bring Blanco to the U.S. for a series of concerts and guest lectureships. Given the personal connections to the composer and his work, this Innova release represents a real labor of love.

Cirkus-Toccata (1983), the first piece on this collection is scored for two percussionists and tape, and like Ella (1983) and Galaxia M-50 (1979) was realized in the ICAP studio. For Cirkus-Toccata Afro-Cuban percussionists improvise to a tape part that Blanco prepared using a Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizer and an eight-track tape recorder. According to Leonard “the co-existence of electronic sound, Afro-Cuban rhythm, improvisation and experimental composition had never been explored to this extent in Cuba.” Blanco used the sequencer on his synthesizer to compose melodic patterns that he then manipulated in real time by changing their tempos and timbres, and by detuning them. The arpeggiator was used to produce a succession of melodic fragments that adhered to a steady sixteenth-note pulse. For the live percussion accompaniment he originally wrote parts in order to guide the performers through changes in style, meter, and tempo. But the two percussionists heard on this track decided that they were more comfortable, and could perform better, simply improvising along with the tape part.

Near the beginning of the piece, after a brief percussion introduction, Blanco fades in a harp-like timbre playing major thirds. Eventually the harp sound changes to other timbres through timbral manipulation and by changing the attack values of an envelope generator. Juxtaposed arepeggiated lines are heard together, each at a different tempo. On the surface one hears the percussionists playing in a similar, relentless manner to the tape part. This is clearly one of the primary focal points of the piece. But the machine and humans also swap attributes. The tape part provides a mechanical, motoric approach to rhythm that begins to take on human characteristics as the piece progresses, through subtle envelope changes and perceptual, streaming mechanisms produced by the arpeggiator, while the percussionists begin to sound more and more mechanical or machinelike, due to high levels of rhythmic consistency. Additionally, the percussion parts are hard panned, fixed in space, so that any audio traces of the players’ physical movements are minimized.
After the halfway point in this piece, Blanco detunes his oscillators to get distorted, metallic timbres that are matched with the live cowbells played by one of the percussionists. This texture, a little absurdist due to the fast tempo, continues through the end of the piece and might remind you of the work of The Residents.

The second piece, Música Para Danza (1961), as has been noted, is a historically important electronic work. Blanco sets different rhythmic cycles against each other to create highly repetitive, kaleidoscopic pulse patterns. One pattern uses simple frequency modulation with a wide pulse wave low frequency oscillator to modulate a sine wave carrier. Another uses a very narrow and fast pulse wave to frequency modulate a sine wave, sounding like a swarm of crickets. A third pulse pattern is formed in the same manner as the second but in a lower octave, and a fourth essentially duplicates the first but slower and in a lower octave. Altogether, the result can be described as a streaming, cyclic series of pulses that revolve at different rates of speed. Because each stream has a different length they start together but become increasingly out-of-sync with each repetition. Blanco uses the same techniques for each pulse pattern but methodically changes one or more parameters to produce different sounds. This way of proceeding can also be found in the other works on this disc. One gets the sense that Blanco sought unity by creating his work from a small number of essential materials or techniques.

At 1:18 there is a clear splice as the texture radically changes from the repetitive, pulsating sounds heard previously to an evolving drone featuring sine waves that slowly change frequencies, sounding like a clearly artificial, howling wind. The first texture is periodically brought back and juxtaposed with the second texture. This culminates in a passage in the middle of the piece in which two sine waves are used to create a sense of oblique motion, wherein one moves to different frequencies while the second remains stationary. The first texture comes back for the last third of the piece. And at the very end each pulse pattern drops out after first sweeping upward to a higher frequency.
The title of this piece makes sense since the simple, explicit pulsation and formal structure of the piece lends itself to physical translations into dance. Given the precision of each pulse pattern it is interesting to note that Blanco did not have access to tape decks with varispeed capability, so had to manually manipulate the reels to achieve any kind of speed variation.

Ella (1983) takes the idea of sweeping drones (similar to those heard in the second section of Música Para Danza) and fashions an entire 15 minute piece from this simple idea. Overlapping sine wave glissandi are paired with harmonic sweeps that sound like an amplifier feeding back. Toward the end of Ella, Blanco brings in recorded sounds of a female in the throws of passion or pain, along with a white noise generator that sounds like a multitude of boots marching in lockstep. One (not always noticeable) problem with this piece has to do with the amount of hiss that is present. Given the tape medium, and assuming that the composer did not have access to decks travelling at 30 inches per second, one expects a certain degree of hiss, especially in the softer moments of the piece that carry a low noise floor. But, in this case the hiss itself, because of its invariant, unyielding nature, becomes an unfortunate distraction – a relic of a bygone era.
For Loops (1991) Blanco asked his son to teach him to program in C. This resulted in the composer writing a program to generate digital sound using a NeXT computer workstation. Exploring extremes of pitch frequency and amplitude, Blanco employs a series of sine wave glissandi that cover a wide frequency space. The use of pure sine waves and minimal filtering or processing makes this piece a challenging listening experience. In this sense it is reminiscent of some early work using Music-N type programs.

Like some of the other pieces on this cd, once Loops reaches its halfway point Blanco brings in detuned, microtonal materials to create instability and dissonant effects. An additional and effective aspect in this piece is the way in which the composer offsets one oscillator with another, changing frequency levels so that they become periodically in and out of tune. A byproduct of this technique causes patterns of polyrhythmic beating that proceed from one complex ratio to another.

The most recent work on this collection, Espacios V (1993) was dedicated to and premiered by saxophonist Leonard. It is the fifth work in a series that also features guitarist Leo Brouwer and woodwind virtuoso Paquito D’Rivera. Like Cirkus-Toccata this piece was created using the Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizer. The piece begins with sine wave clusters, occupying wide frequency bandwidths. After 20 seconds the saxophonist enters playing a series of repeated pitches at regular intervals, effectively contrasting the continuity of the electronic part. Like the arepeggiated parts in Cirkus Toccata, the saxophone part sounds mechanical and motoric. But here it sounds like the composer forgot to include breaths for the woodwind performer, who has to slightly displace each repeated pattern with every breath. Since the saxophone part apparently does not call for circular breathing, the saxophonist wages an epic battle that is especially palpable when you listen to the first two minutes of this piece. Because of how the piece was recorded, but also due to the nature of the electronic materials, there is a clear demarcation between the cadenza-like saxophone part, which remains invariantly soloistic throughout, and the accompanimental electronic part.

Leonard, the saxophonist, is adept at altering his tone in various registers, matching similar changes that occur in the electronic part. Additionally, he is especially skilled at quickly changing his approach to his instrument. One instant he sounds like a classical performer. In other moments we hear him radically changing his embouchure, working through a series of ornamental figures common in music from Eastern Europe, or playing rapid arpeggios from straight-ahead jazz practice or visceral, slurred patterns commonly found in free improvisation contexts.

Just after the halfway point the saxophone drops out to change instruments (from tenor to soprano). The electronic accompaniment switches to long, bell-like, sustained frequency-modulated tones that serve to introduce the higher pitched soprano saxophone. The two parts are also tuned microtonally, which produces some unusual beating.

Galaxia M-50 (1979), the final piece uses white noise, low frequency sine waves, flanging, and reverb to create a subtle, atmospheric composition with low amplitude sounds. Toward the end of the piece Blanco brings in recordings of a female voice, sensually whispering, recorded using liberal doses of reverb and echo.

Blanco blended modern and traditional music, new techniques, electronic instruments, improvisation, and traditional Cuban rhythms and instruments. But little was known about Blanco outside of Cuba until Leonard published several articles in the 1990s about the composer, including one in the Computer Music Journal (Vol. 21.2, Summer 1997). In addition to linking his work to Cuba’s rich folkloric heritage, Blanco used sounds from ambient and urban environments as models for his electronic works. All of this is clearly evidenced on this historically important disc by Cuba’s best known electronic music pioneer.