The bells feature prominently in Gabriela Ortiz’s new concerto for flute and orchestra, inspired by El Camino Real, the name given by Spanish settlers to the ancient road dotted with missions that stretched from the Mexican border to in Sonoma.
But the composer says the tubular bells and rattlesnakes aren’t really meant to recall church bells from ancient missions, at least not in the direct sense. Instead, the composer’s intention is to satire Taco Bell, the Mexican-style fast food chain, invented by an American in California in the 1960s, which uses a mission bell as its logo.
“Think of Taco Bell’s food. Do you think it’s Mexican food? No. Nothing that is served in Taco Bell is really Mexican food. And it’s not American, either. Says Ortiz, who is Mexican. “And that’s the point. It’s not Spanish. It’s not Arabic. It’s not Mexican. It’s not Californian. It becomes something new.
Ortiz’s 16-minute work is a highlight of Chronicles of the Way, a weekend-long cultural event that takes place in San José from October 1-3 and aims to upset the anchored and fictionalized narratives of El Camino Real.
“We want to explain how El Camino has traditionally been described as a golden land of passion, romance and adventure,” said event co-organizer Marcela Davison Aviles. Davison Aviles, who is based in the Bay Area, is the co-founder of Camino Arts, a non-profit organization that focuses on cultural events around the historic route.
The Taco Bell sign is one of many popular architectural elements emerging from a mishmash of Mexican and Californian influences that the composer satirizes in her new piece.
“This architecture that developed in the 18th century, especially in California, is a mixture of several things: Spanish Andalusian architecture, Arabic ornaments and this sort of hacienda-cowboy-Mexican style,” explains Ortiz, whose father was the architect and founder of the famous Mexican folk music ensemble Los Folkloristas. “And the best part is that this architecture that was developed in California was adopted later in Mexico, as a kind of nostalgia for what the Hispanic heritage should be. So I was interested in this back-and-forth dialogue between the United States and Mexico, and how California sees Mexico. And how Mexico sees California.
The title of the concerto—D’Colonial Californiano—refers to a style of architecture in Mexico popular among people who aspire to live an almost Californian lifestyle.
“Colonial Californiano’s design ideas stem from the mission and ranch period that primarily colonized California,” says Luis Hoyos, professor emeritus of architecture at the Polytechnic University of California at Pomona, specializing in historic preservation. and urban design. “The features would be the stucco walls, the clay tile roofs and the use of patterns like arches and patios.”
The Stanford University campus has many Mission Revival-style buildings. The influence goes both ways: Its counterpart in the United States is the Mission Revival style, which can be found statewide, especially in Southern California. Ortiz’s piece references California’s sentimental passion for this style of architecture in a section titled “Mission Revival Nostalgia” which features easygoing triplets in solo flute, harp and vibraphone.
And in a section titled “Moriscos Ornaments,” an Arabic-sounding scale-tinted string solo flute line hints at the intricate Moorish-style architectural embellishments that can be found on many buildings in California and Mexico.
“Moorish design ideas, which arrived in Mexico and California via Spain, would be a lot of metal in the use of screens, as well as embellished stone columns, arches and sconces,” Hoyos explains.
Throughout the work, engulfed and spat architectural symbols find their correspondence in Ortiz’s musical vocabulary. Igor Stravinsky’s influence of European neoclassicism rubs shoulders with sounds reminiscent of Mariachi groups. The composer also takes her hat off to American composer Charles Ives, well known for mixing both melodies and tones from very different musical traditions.
Yet at the root of this streamlined musical satire of the imitating cultural back-and-forth between the United States and Mexico, there is a quiet resistance to what things have become in the aftermath of colonization. The way the work opens and ends with a melodious flute and bird passage recalls the native roots of the silver solo wind instrument.
“The fact that the work is written for the flute is very important because flutes were ubiquitous in pre-Columbian times,” explains flautist and Camino Arts co-founder Marisa Canales. (Canales was scheduled to premiere the work with Symphony Silicon Valley this weekend, but was forced to cancel a few days before the concert due to an injury. Orchestra conductor told KQED that Denis Bouriakov, the principal flautist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will be intervening.)
And Ortiz says there is a double meaning in D’Colonial Californiano, the title of the work. The “d” apostrophed is as much a play on the word “decolonization” as a reference to an old-fashioned and ambitious architectural style.
Architectural expert Luis Hoyos says that although he listens to a lot of contemporary symphonic music, he doesn’t necessarily hear Ortiz’s architectural references in his flute concerto.
“Some of the things I don’t understand,” he admits.
But Hoyos says it makes sense for the composer to use architecture as a lens through which to think about Mexico-California relations.
“The buildings speak,” he says. “And what we put in it and how we use it is another language to look at.”
D’Colonial Californiano will host its world premiere on October 2-3 with Symphony Silicon Valley at the California Theater in San José.