A Cascadia Composer in Cuba

A Portland composer brings her music to Havana, and returns with a new perspective on music in everyday life


Editor’s note: with Cascadia Composers bringing Cuban contemporary classical music to Portland for a Friday concert performed by FearNoMusic, we’re sharing Cascadia Composer Christina Rusnak’s experience exploring the Havana music scene and recording her music there last year.

Politics may divide us, but music unites us. In 2015, I was invited by Parma Recordings to come down to Cuba with four other American composers to record our pieces in Havana, Cuba. The focus of much of my musical work is at the intersection of place and culture. To experience Cuban culture and music at this historic juncture – it seemed like destiny called! Along with supervising the recording two of my compositions, I was able to explore Havana and gain some insights on Cuban music, art, and life.

Approaching Havana. Photo: Christina Rusnak.

The piece I submitted was a short work to be sung by the women’s choir Vocal Luna. Written for a wedding, Parma asked if I could I write a companion piece for them to sing. “Yes” is a composer’s best friend, so I finished a funeral piece in January and sent them both off to be rehearsed for the Havana recording session in April 2016.

The project was created under the “People to People International” program, established by President Eisenhower in 1956 to “enhance international understanding and friendship through educational, cultural, and humanitarian activities” and extended to Cuba by President Obama in December 2014. The visit included integrated cultural visits, interaction and education in addition to the recording sessions.

Havana food stand. Photo: Christina Rusnak.

Our group comprised five composers, two musicians, and three representatives from Parma. From April 16-24 2016, we stayed in a palatial colonial house, a casa particulare, in the heart of Vedado, about midway between the old city, Habana Vieja, and the recording studio. When not with the group, we were free to explore town by foot or by taxi.

Each composer was scheduled to record on a different day. On Monday, while Jeffrey Jacob’s piano concerto, Awakenings, was being recorded by Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra, the rest of us visited Old Havana with our translator. She not only gave us the history of the city, but also the evolution of the Vieja’s renovation. We explored the historic plazas and were given a tour of the former Palace of the Captains General, which has become the Museum of the City of Havana.

Street guitarist in Havana. Photo: Christina Rusnak.

Cafe Music

Cuba’s recent transformation has opened opportunities for musicians. Since the fall of Cuba’s former patron, the Soviet Union, there has been an effort to rebuild Havana; much of the revenue is generated from tourism. Most of its 2.2 million residents have never been outside the city. In 2011, the Cuban government announced limited private enterprise, from taxi drivers to food vendors, musicians, farmers and restaurateurs. The problems are numerous, but in a few short years, Havana has become a mecca for food. And of course, every restaurant must have music!

Tuesday night we headed out to Café Paris for spicy local music accompanied by Cuban rum. The band included a pianist, bassist, singer, four percussionists and a virtuosic flute player. A stellar improviser, he performed with an angular technique we’ve never seen, but it totally worked! At the end of the evening, I think Parma’s Bob Lord offered him a gig. Curiously, we did not see a single woman flute player, except in an all-female orchestra.

Christina Rusnak (bottom left) and the other composers, producers and musicians on the April 2016 exchange. Photo: Mike LaBrie.

Cellist Ovidiu Marinescu grew up in communist Romania and thus has a better grasp of the likely realities of Cuban life beneath the surface than the rest of us. He explained how jobs are assigned regardless of aptitude or interest. He began playing the cello only because he was assigned to in school. Food and electricity are expensive, and can constitute half of a person’s monthly wage. I was admonished at my casa, because I accidentally left my air conditioning on one day. Yet citizens can expect a high standard of health care, and Cuba allocates 13% of its national budget to education – the highest in the world — resulting in 99.8% literacy rate, even in rural provinces.

We attended two Cuban music education workshops, one conducted by Efrain Amador Pinero, a guitarist, lutenist and composer who is credited with the codification and pedagogy of traditional Tres (similar to a guitar, but with three sets of double strings) music throughout Cuba. Coincidentally, his brother lives in Portland. Later in the week, Jose Eladio Amat led a seminar in Cuban percussion styles and techniques.

“¿Quiere Mas Café Don Nicolas?” by Vanguardia artist Antonio Gattorno hangs in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana.

We freely explored the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, where I was struck by the works’ convergence of artistic sophistication and local authenticity. The pieces, while stylistically lagging a few years behind European innovations, seemed to be born out of this place and its people, especially the period from the end of the 19th century through the development of the Vanguardia movement, overlaying a fusion of various early 20th century modernist techniques with Cuban narratives.

This image comes from “Cuba Ocho,” an exhibition of modern Cuban art that runs through October at the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.

Music Everywhere

The pianist on the old upright at Thursday night’s dinner began with the usual round of standards and Cuban folk tunes. Then we hears Vivaldi, then Bach, and Chopin. Returning to dinner, she enchanted us with piano versions of Queen. The restaurant slowly emptied as we sang along. The pianists in our group wandered over, and one asked if she knows any Ginastera. Of course. We migrated to the hallway. She performed several complex pieces as if she were sitting on stage in the Schnitz – all by memory. Of course.

My recording session was Friday. I’d heard that Abdala Studios is world class and it is. Some things like guitar and violin strings, cords, etc. are nearly impossible to get in Cuba, so Bob spent four hours negotiating through customs to bring these to the studio and musicians.

The author with Vocal Luna. Photo: Mike LaBrie.

The women of Vocal Luna were impeccably prepared. The singers went over a couple of last minute clarifications with me. I worried because these are hard pieces and a capella. I needn’t have. Two out of the nine have perfect pitch, including conductor Sandra Santos Gonzalez, and they used a tuning fork as back up. The women set up in a circle to hear themselves blend in the expansive studio.

We all celebrated Friday night by going to hear more Cuban jazz. My flight wasn’t scheduled until Sunday, so Saturday evening I got dressed up and attended a performance by the Camerata Romeu, the renowned all-female orchestra, at the Cathedral de San Francisco. The sanctuary was packed with a mostly local audience. I had heard a program about the orchestra on NPR, but I was unprepared for the way familiar pieces seemed to dance off the stage.

The most insightful aspect of my week in Cuba has been the dichotomy between the romantic image of Havana plus the “prepared” experience of the tourist, and the reality of walking around: Eating in both “nice” restaurants and cheap hangouts. Laughing and singing children in schools that are crumbling. Locals so hungry for tourist dollars that we were hustled by a baseball team. Hot water tanks are sun powered, not solar powered. Food is bartered as much as bought. Cuba is an impoverished country, but people seemed happier than I expected.

Music in Cuba is a rich part of everyone’s everyday life. My week in Cuba, working with these musicians and composers, will stay with me forever. Vocal Luna’s dedication to excellence brought my pieces to life. The album Intersections is now available on Ansonica Records.

I bought good claves and a guiro. I gained a new and broader perspective. There are no iPhones, no streaming. Music is everywhere because they make it.

Christina Rusnak is a multifaceted composer and explorer whose work reflects a diversity of styles and points of view. Passionate about composing about place and the human experience, she actively seeks to integrate facets of landscape, cultural history and art into her work. This essay is adapted from “Report from Cuba,” IAWM Journal Volume 22, no. 2 2016.

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