Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Guest-Blogger Russell Cluff on Remembering Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

It has not escaped Madam Mayo's notice that one recent and otherwise very fine anthology of 20 Mexican short stories includes work by only three--- count 'em, three--- women. Are the mexicanas literarias all going around in burkhas or what? That's a subject for another blog post; suffice it to say for now that perhaps the greatest of all American literary figures was a woman born in a tiny Mexican town in the seventeenth century-- Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Today's guest-blogger, Russell Cluff, first crossed paths with Yours Truly when he and his colleague L. Howard Quackenbush sent me their translation of an extraordinary flash fiction by Mexican writer Guillermo Samperio (which appeared, in both English and Spanish in the third issue of Tameme, back in 2003). When I heard that he had done something so original as to make a musical CD of the poetry of the greatest of Mexico's poets, I immediately invited him to guest-blog and am honored indeed that he accepted. Over to you, Russell!

Remembering Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: My Contribution

Background: After her death, certain figures in the political world of New Spain (Mexico) exerted a tremendous effort to erase Sor Juana’s memory from the minds of the populace. The principal players in this endeavor were her confessor, Antonio Núñez de Miranda, and Archbishop Francisco de Aguilar y Seijas. Her crime: her one and only foray into the area of theology (an exercise forbidden for women) in the guise of a critical analysis of a sermon by a Portuguese Jesuit by the name of Antonio Vieira. The result was that of the 300 plus years that Sor Juana has been gone, it is believed that most Mexicans forgot her for over one hundred years. However, since her books had been published in Spain, her memory sprang to life anew in the nineteenth century. From that time forward, she and her work only become more important by the day.

Reference: One of the quickest and most accurate bios on this incredible genius from seventeenth-century Mexico City (her dates are 1651-1695) is to be found in Margaret Sayers Peden’s introduction to her translation of Sor Juana’s prose: A Woman of Genius: The Intellectual Autobiography of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, second edition.

Why make the songs: It is Sor Juana’s importance—- and the musicality of her verse—-that inspired me to create a musical album that I call the “Return of the Tenth Muse...” My project might rightly be considered Quixotic, since I currently live in a world vastly disparate in terms of time, distance, language, culture, and musical tastes from that which saw the development of one of the Hispanic world’s greatest poets. Be that as it may, once begun this project was not to be denied…

Retooling: I have often told myself that making a musical CD with the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s poetry was one answer to a deep-seated need in me for a fresh, complete education. But, really, that would be an untruth! It’s the other way about-- the effect of a particular cause. As all artists know, the creative urge comes first and all subsequent actions required to bring the desired art to fruition present themselves--- each in it’s own time—demanding attention, never taking no for an answer.

Dream Talking: It’s as if a chimerical dialogue had blossomed right in my face: “Well, if you want these lyrics with chords to become a melody that other musicians can play, you’ll have to get a notation program and get it down!” / “But I don’t know notation…” / “Then learn it. You can download a program from the Internet like those sold by Finale, such as PrintMusic. And, of course, there are others. Do your surfing!”

For anyone making an album, this sort of exchange continues from composition to recording to marketing to disc production to placing the product for sale on the Internet-- in lieu of a record contract.

Phase by Phase: My choices for these Phases were the following:

Recording: this was accomplished in Rosewood Recording, a professional studio a block and a half from my house.

Marketing: for the CD front I paid a student computer guru about 300 bucks to morph me into a digital photo of the nun’s most famous painting by Miguel Cabrera (she wearing her robes, I wearing mine). For the back, I had him perch Sor Juana above me while standing in front of a Colonial shrine in Mexico City. In the first instance, I’m sneaking up on her; in the second, she’s observing me observing architecture that persists from her world). Photos of Cabrera’s painting can be found all over the Internet. (Note: that link is also a good place to download errorless Spanish versions of all her writings.)

Disc production: I chose Disc Makers.

Internet sales: CD Baby, now owned by Disc Makers. This was my choice because I can sell the physical disc as well as digital downloads all on the same page. However, let me clarify that the notion of “audience” is much more important to me than sales. Also, my music is downloadable at 18 different places on the Internet, such as DigStation, where the CD brochure can also be downloaded ( Beyond that, Google me, Russell M. Cluff.

Why Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz? From my studies as a student of Latin American Literature, I knew that Sor Juana had been a musician who had written a treatise on music (though it is no longer extant), she was the music director (cantora) for her convent for eight years, she has an important poem about music (generally designated as poem #24), and she once said that her music created to be played in the cathedrals had been accompanied by guitar and tabor (small hand drum).

Baroque music for a baroque poet: From start to finish, I intended to create a simulacrum of baroque music, based on the following elements: total respect for the text over the music (so as not to force a word into a space where it does not fit or stress a word in the wrong place), the use of instruments that were feasible for the 1600s in Colonial New Spain (insofar as possible), monody (a single melody), and the use of basso continuo. Tonality-- pitching the melody around the tonic chord-- is also a baroque value that was followed in this body of work. Where I willfully vary from baroque practices is with the use of more recent Latin rhythms, such as the bolero beat (ONE, two-two, One), the rumba, and one tune with a bossa nova beat. Among the instruments used, one will hear: hand drums, flute, recorder, penny whistle, piccolo, clarinet, guitar, mandolin, cello, and the four strings. I broke the rules a couple of times by using the piano (invented in 1711) and one or two other instruments, mainly to thicken the sound a bit.

Reference: For an excellent review of the baroque in music, see Nicholas Anderson’s book, Baroque Music: From Monteverdi to Handel (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994). According to this author, the two most important achievements of the baroque was the establishment of monody and the supremacy of the text over the music—an attempt to avoid the distortion of the words.

Composition: My choice of poems for this first volume-- boldly, I included the words “Vol. 1” in the title so as to goad myself into making Volume 2-- was guided by the knowledge that I would be the only singer on this album, a male baritone. Therefore, I chose (with two exceptions) poems with either a neutral or a male point of view. This will not be possible for Volume Two, since it will mainly be centered on the female point of view and will require women’s voices.

For this album, I used 13 sonnets (11 syllables each) and one romance (ballad: a narrative poem with eight syllables per line). Sor Juana never made titles for her poetry; therefore, I used shortened versions of the first verse as the titles (they will never match with English renditions).

More References: For the best poetically rendered English versions of seven of the 14 poems included in the album-- Regreso de la Décima Musa, Vol. 1. 14 Canciones con Letra de Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz-- consult the following two books:

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Poems, Protest, and a Dream, published in Penguin Classics with an introduction by Ilan Stavans and all texts translated by Margaret Sayers Peden.

A Sor Juana Anthology, published by Harvard University Press, 1988, with a foreword by Octavio Paz and all translations by Alan S. Trueblood.

English versions-- mainly prosaic-- of the remaining seven poems can be found both in print and on the Internet. For the most complete study ever done on Sor Juana see Octavio Paz’s Sor Juana or, the Traps of Faith, published by Harvard University press, 1988, translation, once again, by Margaret Sayers Peden. It has been argued that this work tipped the scales in the decision that gave Paz the Nobel Prize in 1990.

-- Russell Cluff

---> For the archive of Madam Mayo's guest-blog posts, click here.