Pensively Entertaining Cinematic Soundscapes From the Mexican Avant Garde
This year’s Celebrate Mexico Now festival wound up yesterday at the Queens Museum with the multimedia performance of Paisajes Sonoros, a deliciously textural, boisterously entertaining, relentlessly catchy electroacoustic score to powerfully metaphorical projections by Vanessa Garcia Lembo, performed by violinist/keyboardist Carlo Nicolau and percussionist Vicente Rojo Cama.
The projections pondered humankind’s dubious impact on nature, and its many ramifications. One recurrent, provocative image was fingerprints or zoning diagrams superimposed on imposingly out-of-focus images of a massive, grey Mayan temple. Another persistent image was a twisted, bright crimson heart. The funniest sequence of all was when the percussionist crinkled a couple of empty plastic water bottles together, running them through heavy-duty reverb while an old, faded black-and-white turn-of-the-century German postcard of bathers at Coney Island faded into and then out of the picture: look what I found in the waves, ma!
Another amusing interlude involved an old 1950s beatnik avant garde trope: rubbing two balloons together. Put enough reverb on them, and suddenly the squeak and squonk take on an unanticipated menace. Symbolism anyone?
The rest of the program’s twelve pieces, segueing into each other, were more pensive and often downright troubled. A handful turned out to be intimate arrangements of orchestral pieces from Nicolau’s recent album Music For the Moving Imagination. One of the more animated themes was a Romany-flavored violin melody and variations, which could have been Schubert. When Nicolau wasn’t playing that on the violin, he was layering shadowy ambience and white noise, bubbling through an uneasy microtonal patch on the keyboard. In more concretely melodic moments, he built lingering, austerely moody piano themes. Meanwhile, the percussion echoed and whooshed in and out, other times evoking steel pans or a gamelan via an array of singing bowls and small gongs spun through a vortex of effects.
The video aspect was often similarly grim. Something that could have been a mossy rock but also some kind of dead cetacean washed up on a beach; gritty industrial decay contrasting with serene, ornate doorways and architectural ornaments from bygone centuries. Yet ultimately both the music and visuals reflected a resolute optimism, hope residing in the handmade and the artistic rather than the machine. At the end, the musicians dedicated the suite to the survivors of the Mexico City earthquake, and also to the hope that cross-cultural collaboration will trump conflict. It made a vivid reminder that long before the days of Frida Kahlo or Luis Buñuel, Mexican artists have been a force in the avant garde.