Conflicted Musical Identities

On Being a Classical Music Practitioner in Ecuador

By Felipe Ledesma Nuñez 

Jorge Oviedo conducts Boletín on its opening night, October 25, 2007, in Quito's Teatro Sucre. Photo courtesy of Mesías Maiguashca. 

Training as a classical pianist in my native Ecuador was, to say the least, an identity struggle. As I learned the Western classical music canon—Chopin, Beethoven and others—I was confronted with how alien this music was to my upbringing. For my friends and family, such music was a foreign and untranslatable language, deemed important by others—namely music professors and foreign visitors—and thus assumed to be valuable. Nevertheless, they couldn’t reconcile this type of music with the passions and anxieties of their musical selves. 

Like most practitioners of classical music in Ecuador, I had to move abroad as my performance career advanced. I performed frequently in concerts overseas and obtained advanced degrees. This, I was told, was the path to success—what one must do in order to become a professional musician. But deep inside, this success felt to me like horrendous displacement. To be a professional I had to leave home, I had to ignore the musical passions of the people with whom I grew up, I had, in other words, to become foreign. The collision of my professional aspirations and my Latin American upbringing thus resulted in a conflicted identity, the identity of a man who disseminated a foreign musical language while ignoring the musical sounds of his upbringing. 

Torn by this conflicted identity, I turned to others who, in a similar position, had apparently come to terms with this struggle of identity. I studied the works of Luis Humberto Salgado (1903-1977) and his teacher Segundo Luis Moreno (1882-1972). Both were trained in the classical music tradition while living in Ecuador and thus were arguably familiar with the anxieties that affected me. Crucially, both were deeply committed to the development and inclusion of Ecuadoran music into the classical music tradition. Salgado composed more than a hundred classical works including nine symphonies, four operas, five ballets and seven concertos, the great majority of which include Ecuadoran musical components. Moreno wrote a multi-volume history of music in Ecuador—the first of its kind—and authored several books and collections of music from Ecuador. For Salgado and Moreno, the incorporation of Ecuadoran music into classical music compositions and musicological studies served as a way to empower Ecuadoran music—to, in Salgado’s words, “elevate” it. 

Yet as I studied Salgado and Moreno, it became evident that their work was problematic. They used classical music and comparative musicology, both inherently Western disciplines, as vehicles for understanding and empowering Ecuadoran music. And in doing so, they interpreted Ecuadoran music in Western terms, unwittingly constructing them as inferior expressions in need of Western assistance. This is patently clear in their evolutionary understanding of music. Moreno openly argued that Ecuadoran indigenous music was less evolved than Western music, and that music in Ecuador had evolved beyond more “primitive” evolutionary stages thanks only to the Spanish colonization. Salgado, following his teacher, also defended the evolutionary superiority of Western music. He suggested that by combining Ecuadoran music genres with Western modernist techniques his compositions elevated Ecuadoran music to the highly evolved standard of Western modernism. 

Decades later, the noxious assumptions encompassed within Moreno’s and Salgado’s evolutionary worldview are obvious. Put simply, they denigrate Ecuadoran music, marking it subservient to Western musical values. Still, it is important to note that their intention was not to debase Ecuadoran music. Quite the opposite, they were passionate about Ecuador’s musical traditions and devoted their careers to their development. And their efforts proved fruitful. Salgado and Moreno, in a very real way, empowered Ecuadoran musicians by providing them, virtually for the first time, with a substantial and valuable repertoire of classical music and musicological studies dedicated to Ecuadoran music. Salgado in particular developed a truly individual compositional language that challenged the expressive and technical models of his Western musical training, inspiring many later Ecuadoran composers to create music that confront Western totalizing models.

The fact that Salgado and Moreno subscribed to Western musical values and evolutionary theories that undermine Ecuadoran music should not discount their outstanding contributions. Rather, it should shed light on the intellectual and musical environment in which they were operating, one in which Western music and scholarship were widespread and generally admired—an environment created largely by institutions like conservatories, universities, printing presses and recoding labels. Products of their environment, it was only natural that Salgado and Moreno would assume the superiority of Western classical music, and that they would transpose their Western values onto the music of their community—not without resistance, as illustrated by Salgado’s nonconformist compositions. Their adoption of music evolutionism thus illustrates how knowledge, usually produced in institutions, can serve to painlessly transmit power, enforcing the position of superiority of those who produce it.

Despite their unquestionable value, Moreno’s and Salgado’s contributions do little to help reconcile my conflicted identity. If anything, they exacerbate it. To adopt their worldview would be to consider the music of my Ecuadoran upbringing as unevolved, subdued and made legible only by the superiority of my Western musical training. In search of a more balanced way to address this identity struggle, I now turn to composer Mesías Maiguashca (1938-). Maiguashca grew up in an indigenous lower-class family and received a Western classical music education—first at the Conservatorio Nacional in Quito, where Salgado and Moreno taught, and later at prestigious institutions in the United States, Argentina and Germany. Given his indigenous heritage, Maiguashca would be likely to feel the clash between the music of his upbringing and his Western music education more strongly than most. Indeed, members of Ecuador’s indigenous communities often experience intense pressure to mask their customs, pressure usually exerted through acts of racism and public shame. In Maiguashca’s case, this pressure was magnified through his music education, as indigenous styles of music were explicitly forbidden and mocked within the Conservatorio’s halls. As a result, Maiguashca’s musical identity is particularly conflicted, formed not only by two opposing sonic worlds, but also marked by the intense pressure exerted against his indigenous musical heritage. In his words: “Living in a ‘lower-class’ social and economic context and attending…elite institutions produced in me instability, an uncertainty about which group I belong to.” “Both musics, that of the ‘chichería’ [bar frequented by indigenous] and the ‘classical,’ are embedded in me…I have two halves in my musical soul.” 

Maiguashca musically addresses his divided identity in his scenic cantata Boletín y Elegía de las Mitas (partially available at youtube.com/watch?v=e7DewJpjf_I). In this 90-minute musical setting of César Dávila Andrade’s poem of the same name, Maiguashca juxtaposes the diverse sounds of his disparate musical upbringing. Andean instruments collide with European flutes and clarinets; recordings of Ecuadoran songs, voices and soundscapes are electronically melded with avant-garde noises; choirs speak, sing and scream in both Spanish and Quichua; and novel instruments are used throughout. In addition, this work includes on-stage projections of portraits of indigenous faces. 

The result of this juxtaposition of disparate musical elements is not an agreeable fusion as Salgado and Moreno would have liked, but rather a cacophonous musical world, a world of broken melodies, distorted voices and defamiliarized musical memories. All the sounds that form Maiguashca’s musical identity are brought together in their fullest, unadjusted, colliding nature. This is not a composition that attempts to create beauty by homogenizing disparity—rather, it is a celebration of disparity. It negates the supremacy of any single sonority, instead treating all sounds in their own terms, displaying their sheer difference. Yet in the end all sounds are consumed by an increasingly thundering recording of the Ecuadoran song “Cuchara de Palo.” This ending is undoubtedly a musical triumph, a liberation. Perhaps this is the resolution of Maiguashca’s conflicted identity, a musical embrace of his divided self in its fullest, plural existence. Or perhaps the celebratory ending indicates, as Maiguashca says, a musical enactment of the indigenous liberation from the colonial yoke. I believe that it is both. I believe that in acknowledging the multiplicity of his divided self, Maiguashca musically resolves the troubled identity that his post-colonial upbringing caused. 

Boletín calms the anxieties of my conflicted musical identity. It gives me reason to believe that my disparate musical upbringings—like Maiguashca’s—can coexist despite their differences. But when I think of what Maiguashca had to do in order to compose Boletín, my anxieties return. To articulate the voice of his divided self in music, Maiguashca needed to master cutting-edge sound technologies and avant-garde compositional languages, skills that he only acquired thanks to his education abroad. Moreover, the performance of a work as ambitious as Boletín required substantial financial and organizational support from numerous institutions that was likely available to Maiguashca given his credentials as a respected professor in Germany. Maiguashca’s case suggests that, in order to address similar identity issues, one has to migrate and affiliate with foreign and powerful institutions, which—as Salgado’s and Moreno’s cases illustrate—largely precipitate these identity issues in the first place. Had Maiguashca remained in Ecuador, his musical voice would be silent. But in leaving, Maiguashca may have exacerbated the material causes of his conflicted identity. 

Trying to understand my conflicted identity through these case studies has now led me to reflect on the problematic status of Ecuadoran practitioners of classical music. Ours is a choice between making audible our personal voices while empowering foreign institutions, or having silenced voices subdued by the Western-centric knowledge and power that emanates from these same institutions. But perhaps in this dilemma there is opportunity for our empowerment. Perhaps by choosing to make use of the tools and resources of foreign institutions, we can build a meaningful understanding of our musical selves, one that would provide us, at the very least, with audible voices, and which could even give us the means to critically challenge the totalizing foreign models that constitute our identities and subdue us. As I embark on my doctoral studies in musicology at Harvard University, I truly hope that this is not mere wishful thinking.

Felipe Ledesma Núñez is a first-year graduate student in historical musicology at Harvard University. Felipe holds degrees in music history, theory and performance from Northwestern State University and Stony Brook University. He can be reached at ledesmanunez@g.harvard.edu.