Ropa vieja, Cuban Suite No. 2, for cello, accordion and percussion (bongos, maracas, and claves), (2006) dur. 14.5 min. Commissioned by Close Encounters With Music, and made possible through the generosity of Gideon and Sarah Gartner. World premiere at the Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington, MA on March 17, 2007; again on March 24, 2007 in Scottsdale, AZ; June 4, 2011 Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, MA.
The zygote for “Ropa vieja” came to be over lunch somewhere on the main street of Hudson, NY, on May 30, 2005. Yehuda Hanani shyly asked me if I might be interested in writing a piece for cello, accordion and perhaps some small percussion, with some “Latin music cross-over.” I had never written for the accordion, and was intrigued by that instrument; as to “Latin music cross-over,” I assured Yehuda I could handle that. As a composer, I like it when a commission is specific, and the challenge attracted me, so I agreed. The unusual combination of instruments was intriguing: a string instrument, a wind keyboard, and percussion: Lots of variety there!
The embryo, however, took some time in developing. I had to learn about the accordion, so I set about finding a guru. Through a friend I met William Schimmel, one of the great accordion mavens of our day. I visited him in his crowded Upper East Side studio and found there an astonishing array of accordions and related instruments — even toy ones! I was astonished at the concert accordion’s versatility and became fascinated with it. However, I was a little intimidated and took a while before I could bring myself to write something down.
The second trimester involved coming up with musical ideas to fit my broader notion of writing a second “Cuban Suite.” The first suite was for violin and piano, called “Serenata” and I liked the idea of a suite of suites that are written for different instrumental combinations. I consider these works part of a period in my output in which I was working out the incorporation of Cuban music into my own style, in preparation for the writing of my operatic adaptation ofBefore Night Falls, based on the memoir of the gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas. “Ropa vieja,” however, was written just after the opera.
The fetus developed further as I finally began to compose Spring 2006. The other delaying factor was that I wanted to write a good part for the bongós, for which I had also never written before. Vermont being a remarkable place, I found in the mountains — again through a friend — a young percussionist by the name of Simeon Chapin who was finishing up a doctorate in ethnomusicology at Tufts’ and who had been to Cuba twice to study drumming. Perfect! Now the piece was practically done.
The baby was to be delivered Spring 2007 in Great Barrington, and spanked in Scottsdale. After that, well, lots of nursing…. The title, by the way, came to me before I wrote any music. It is Spanish for “old clothes,” but it is also the name of a famous Cuban dish, in which beef is stewed until it falls apart. I have become increasingly interested in fragmentation and plurality, as manifested in the individual psyche and in social structures (morality, aesthetics, values), and as an organizing principle in works of art.