Guasamacabra (LA Phil commission)
“Guasa,” in good Spanish, defines a joking mood, a moment of banter, of playful or even ironic raillery. In Venezuela, the word is also the name of an old musical genre; funny, even infantile rhymes or nonsense poetry mostly set to very simple music. Yet, the quirky charm of the guasa comes from its odd rhythmic structures. A close cousin of the popular merengue which includes 6/8 and 5/8 time signatures (not the Dominican merengue), the Venezuelan guasa gets its special quirkiness from the latter. So, the five-beat measure displays a spicy syncopation, a “bump” on the last beat, as if a six-beat measure had been compressed, melting its two last notes into one unmistakably stressed final jolt.
The humorous guasa limps from measure to measure, with its syncopated hunched back. It's our musical Pulcinella, in a way.
This odd five-beat frame and form is part of a cultural context in which the jocular narration of events, huge or trivial, dresses them as nonsense, often with elegant simplicity, in a Taoist twist of humor.
In this vein, all sorts of personal adventures or global events are treated as if they were sung by Dr. Seuss, or by Dadaists in a boisterous café.
On a purely instrumental level, the relatively moderate pace of guasa grooves support a great variety of playful rhythmic designs. Melodies and bass lines in the guasa usually choose the unexpected syncopation; a jab here, a poke there, reveling in the onomatopoeic virtues of the Spanish language translated into “spoken” instrumental figures. Unlike the even metric subdivisions, this odd one seems to enjoy surprises, uncertainty, and unpredictability. This is both a musical and a cultural assertion; guasa expresses, in its own special way, a deep interpretation of the world: we are powerless, let us make fun of it all; nothing is square, nothing is regular, nothing is predictable. Let our music dance to this uncertainty.
In a way, even a happy guasa carries a tiny bit of nonchalant nostalgia.
Witnessing the unbelievable final collapse of Venezuela this past year, as I was composing this piece, I could only think of writing a guasa; a big Guasa Macabra that would start with a fresh, innocent tune quickly evolving into a much more complicated and even dramatic affair. This took me far beyond what I had imagined. The superior advantage of a musical form that uses elegant, lighthearted innocence or infantile derision, is that it can easily see its childish bonnet flip into a mysterious coiffe, walking us onto unsettling musical quicksand all of a sudden. Nothing can be ghastlier than a slightly altered lullaby, or a nursery rhyme insinuating ominous, hidden meanings...
I saw unfamiliar things happen to what was once, in other times and other works, a transparent cradle song I’d imagined and decided to quote here. Also, the simplest melodic rhymes in the first violins led to unsettling soundscapes, developments of melancholy, perhaps even despair.
But I would not remain in gloom and doom, there had to be a propelling agent to pull me out of the spleen: frogs, crickets, drums; quitiplás, the Afro-Venezuelan Bamboo dances... or a passing bambuco from the Andean heights... colors and shapes from the musical kaleidoscope, somewhere... hidden energies, spinning high, contained in the folds and beats of the guasa macabra. So this other fleeting world, somehow, spilled out of the poised beats of the guasa: dancers, coqui frogs, antiphonal responses, accelerations...
A classical dialog was then established between two states of matter: ternary subdivisions, in fiery dances, coming out of the cracks in the much quieter five-beat universe of the guasa and its elegant, spicy, or dark variations. Which of the elements would finally win over the other? The nostalgic, melancholic elegance of the Belle Époque in Caracas, 1913, the darker moments of guasa desolation, or the upbeat Afro-Venezuelan dances under a rain of frogs?
Spoiler alert: in the final act, the string section of the orchestra morphs into a hyper-cuatro (our little Venezuelan strummed four-string guitar), the monstrous strumming of which rocks the final, real, definitive, beastly, cathartic... Guasamacabra! And then...
(Guasamacabra is a tribute to all Venezuelan children and youth that are suffering and struggling today.)
- Paul Desenne
Cambridge, Mass., August 2018