Cesar Bolano - "Intensidad y Altur" (Peruvian Electroacoustic and Experimental Music (1964-1970))
As noted in Luis Alarado’s liner notes to this compilation, the music of César Bolaños and his avant-garde Peruvian peers lacks the indigenous flavor one might expect. Rather than rely on traditional sounds in new contexts, Bolaños and others aimed for a new sound, one distinctly Peruvian not because of a looking back, but due to a new movement forward. This two-disc set of Bolaños’ compositions contains work completed wholly during Bolaños’ time in Argentina at the Latin-American Center of High Musical Studies (CLAEM). Bolaños would return to Peru in 1973, but his career as a composer never quite regained steam in his homeland, his focus turning more toward ethnomusicology, where it remains to this day. These two discs, then, are more a snapshot than a career-spanning set. But even if the album covers a scant six-year period, its scope, in terms of tone and technique, is quite broad.
While at the CLAEM, Bolaños played a role in the birth of the center’s electronic laboratory. “Intensidad y Altura,” however, is the only track on either disc created solely via electronic sound. Magnetic tape is an oft-utilized (and highly variant) voice in the music, augmented and accompanied by pianos, small sets of woodwinds and percussion, and even a small orchestra on “Ñacahuasu.” The tape is sometimes used to interject alien electro-acoustic presence to a piece, such as the screaming synthesizer that floats above the prepared pianos in “Canción sin Palabras, ESEPCO II,” though it’s more often also a provider of the human voice. Given the political bent of Bolaños’ work, this is vital. Ironically, CLAEM was funded through the Alliance for Progress, which aimed to stem the influence of communism in Latin American arts and culture, and Bolaños was attuned to the views of the same guerillas and revolutionaries the program was inaugurated to combat. “Ñacahuasu.” uses quote from Che Guevara’s Bolivian diaries as the source of its text, an indication of where Bolaños’ ideological interests lied.
Bolaños made use of computer-generated composition on a few of the included tracks, but they don’t stick out from the rest, as Bolaños worked in an abstract, unpredictable grammar anyway. “Flexum,” for woodwinds, strings, percussion and tape, pits the instruments against each other in a game of staccato ping-pong before introducing voices into the mix, stopping for an unexpected call-and-response, and continuing on a trajectory hits on garbage-disposal thick, and creepy emptiness; scanning through the piece’s 13 minutes uncovers fragments seemingly unrelated to those that precede and follow. “I-10-AIFG/Rbt-1” featured slide projectors, black lights, radios, and a computer-controlled system of conducting based on illuminated signs. It’s one of the pieces on the album that most obvious loses something in this single-media reproduction; other compositions contain performative aspects lost in translation to an audio-only artifact, from the theatrical vocal ejaculations of “Flexum” to the inclusion of a mime(!) in “Sialoecibi (ESEPCOI).”
Whatever he was up to, Bolaños was an ever-adventurous composer. Despite similarities to some of the iconoclasts who spoke and taught at CLAEM (Xenakis, for one), Bolaños was a hard composer to pin down. His work could be grand (the aforementioned “Ñacahuasu,” “I-10-AIFG/Rbt-1”) or intimate (“Interpolaciones,” a spare duet for electric guitar and tape), his instrumentation alien or organic, the tone serious and academic or spontaneous and energetic. It’s no swipe at his talent to say that this issuance of Bolaños’ work likely won’t be a revelation to fans of the avant-garde, though it also must be said that this music is worth hearing not just for curiosity or novelty alone. César Bolaños’ time as a composer was short, and the legacy of his music has been, until now, localized. This album is a window, then, into a marginalized corner of the history of experimental music. That Bolaños is Peruvian is of interest to some listeners. That his music is diverse and compelling should be of interest to many more.