Serenata, Cuban Suite No.1 for violin and piano

Serenata, Cuban Suite No. 1, for violin and piano, (2002, rev. 2011) dur. 22 minutes. Eleven short movements based on old Cuban music.

PROGRAM NOTE by the composer:

The idea for this piece was brewing in my head for several years: a suite of pieces in a Cuban style. But I wasn’t sure either of the medium — piano four-hands with or without percussion was an early thought — or of the content. As I improvised one day at the piano, the combination of violin and piano became the clear choice, as so much of Cuban music is vocal, and the form of the individual pieces also became clearer. I didn’t want fully developed, closed numbers but rather open-ended pieces that didn’t quite end before the next number took over. This led to the image of a carnival, where one’s attention flies from one excitement to another; this carnival, like a procession, seems to approach the listener from the distance and passes away in the end, like a memory of one — a fantasy.

This idea in turn reminded me, of course, of Schumann’s great piano solo work, which depicts a similar scene. As work progressed, I realized there was another parallel taking shape between the two: I began to sense that there were two musical “personalities” pervading my suite, somewhat in the manner of Schumann’s Eusebius and Florestan, but not in the same way. My two personalities, rather than being one dreamy and the other stormy (although that is by no means all those two represented for Schumann), oppose a spiky, modernistic style and one entirely traditional. In some numbers the two fuse, or one or the other clearly dominates; they alternate and in the end coexist in their own world, reconciled or not.

The reason, I think, it took me so long to find a way to write this music was that it meant confronting my feelings about Cuban music, and perhaps also about what it means to me to be of Cuban birth. I have always found disagreeable the idea that if you are Cuban (or Black or German or Chinese) you must therefore write “Cuban” (or “Black” or “German” or “Chinese”) music. Much more attractive to me has been the notion that one can, to the extent possible, invent oneself; that to whatever givens — the time and place and culture one is born into — one can admix other influences and affinities that extend one’s reach beyond the earliest boundaries prescribed by the accidents of birth, thereby becoming a unique individual.

Further, given my own history, it is misguided to think that because I was born in Cuba to Cuban parents I should therefore be all things Cuban. In fact, our family left Cuba when I was five and the rest of my life has been lived mainly in the United States — the once-called “melting pot.” Growing up I listened to European classical music, Broadway musicals (but no opera), Motown, and several kinds of jazz, besides, of course, Cuban music. So does that make my experience, because mixed, necessarily inauthentic? Hardly: my generation, raised with the sound recording and exposed to all kinds of influences, in order to be authentic will not likely be pure. As did that arch-American of long ago, Walt Whitman, I celebrate my contradictions!

My difficulty is compounded by the fact that Cuba has given the world an enormous amount of the greatest and most popular dance music. There is something very clearly recognized as “Cuban music.” So for a Cuban to work outside that tradition is to work at a disadvantage: if you’re Cuban and don’t write “Cuban” music, many people suddenly lose interest, I have found. Mine is not a unique experience. Some people are amazed to hear my music and not find any Cuban influences in it and ask me why. The subtext I hear is: “Why have you betrayed your roots?” So the somewhat perverse reaction in me was to avoid an audible Cuban influence; to write in that style would be a capitulation to the forces that prescribe who I am to be. But that too is an unfree attitude.

This work represents, therefore, a kind of exorcism, and at one point I thought of calling it “Carnaval de los demonios,” where each successive movement was a kind of Cuban music “demon.” The pervasive tritone, the diabolus in musica, represents another species of demon. But I can see there are other demons lurking, among them, conflicting high- and low-brow attitudes, which seem to me ever less useful approaches to art in our deeply miscellaneous culture.

Be that all as it may, the work also expresses my love of the old Cuban music, and in that loving spirit I dedicate Serenata to my parents, who wanted me to be a popular composer, but above all else wanted me to be happy and so never asked me too many questions.