Song Of The Day 4/7/2016: Juan Blanco – “Musica Para Danza”

Cuba: We Cool? – Of course, when discussing traditional music of Cuba like the danzón, the rumba, the mambo, you can't leave out the electronic avant-garde. Well, maybe Perez Prado and Desi Arnaz did, but you don't have to. Electronic music was actually only a relatively small segment of the career of Juan Blanco (1919-2008), an innovator on several levels probably unknown to a lot of us due to the (tentatively) now-kaput isolationism of Castro's Cuba.

Blanco's story is prodigious and awe-inspiring. He was born in the coastal city of Mariel and and taught himself piano, the legend says, by age four. Growing up Blanco studied at a conservatory and developed an interest in evolutionary music technology. This is my favorite bit: In 1942 Blanco drew up plans for a keyboard in which all the keys were connected to individual recording apparatuses. He couldn't afford to have it built. This exact same principle and plan - I mean exact same - was employed in 1963 when British designers built the Mellotron, in which keyboards triggered the playing and looping of pre-recorded tapes. Everyone from King Crimson to the Beatles used Mellotrons. Blanco was 21 years and a healthy research grant ahead of his time.

Blanco wanted to pursue avant-garde music that relied on Cuban folk traditions, but local academia didn't share or support his ideas. So he formed an independent society to investigate and produce such works, which eventually added non-musical artists under its umbrella and became known as  Sociedad Cultural Nuestro Tiempo. They were much acclaimed during Cuba's mid-century renaissance, until invading Colonel Fulgencio Batista overthrew the Cuban government and starting picking on intellectuals. Blanco was jailed several times for leading the Nuestro Tiempo, but eluded worse threats because he also was a tax attorney deeply established in the business community. Nice to have that in your back pocket.

When Castro deposed Batista the situation became a bit more hospitable for Blanco, at least in terms of his music career. Che Guevara was a Nuestro Tiempo admirer and gave everyone government posts. In the '60s Blanco rekindled his interest in electroacoustic music and devoted himself to the form full-time. According to musician Neil Leonard's web post from which I've gotten virtually all of today's information,
Unable to leave Cuba to visit the studios where the more advanced electronic instruments were being developed, he bought three consumer-grade Silvertone tape decks from the local Sears department store and began making electronic pieces. Limited to one oscillator and an inexpensive microphone, Blanco manipulated sounds using tape feedback, sound-on-sound techniques, tape reversal, and splicing. Lacking the sophisticated vari-speed decks used by his foreign peers, Blanco resorted to manipulating the speed of the tape reels directly with his fingers. (emphasis mine)
"Musica Para Danza" was Blanco's first electronic work, completed in 1961 and debuted in 1964. It's centered on what Leonard calls "a one-bar ostinato," which is then layered, treated and overdubbed onto itself. More colors emerge throughout the piece, and before you know it things build up, bloom, then contract until you're left with the original ostinato. Maybe that sounds commonplace today, but you try it without ProTools at your beck and call.

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