(excerpt of the program note from the first performance of Matapolvos, September 18, 2005, by Serenata of Santa Fe, in the the Santuario de Guadalupe, Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Gail Springer, soprano; Pamela Epple, English horn; Elena Sopoci, viola; Deborah Barbe, cello.) Matapolvo is the Spanish word for a slight shower that barely settles the dust (matar = kill, polvo = dust). The pieces of this suite are attempts at setting to music a few atoms of the great firecloud of Latin American history, so wrenchingly rendered in Eduardo Galeano's trilogy “Memory of Fire”, from which the text is taken.
In 1990 a friend mentioned this work to me, recommending it for its literary richness as much as for its courageous approach to history. 'History' books had rarely attracted me, often seeming to avoid, if not actively obscure, some essential truth. Latin America, in particular, had always appeared to me as a vast but distant turbulence beyond my powers of comprehension – an enigmatic, occasionally blazing nebula in a neighboring cosmos. I had come to assume that everything I ever read about Latin America would be packaged in either romantic (revolutionary) fervor or a gray academic flatness.
Here, now, was a three-volume work by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Glancing through, I saw that the format – short pieces, many less than a page, each with a date, a place, and a title – was completely original. Within a few pages, I was mesmerized. I realized that my aversion to history was in fact a hunger long disappointed with being fed stones. Suddenly, here was bread.
The trilogy is a mosaic of human enterprise, aspiration and folly, a living, breathing mythology, speaking of the specific in language that conjures the universal. Galeano’s prose is intelligent, musical, measured, serving up story after story of passion and violence, exploitation and innocence, mad comedy and horrific tragedy, in a deceptively understated manner. I found it tremendously noble and tremendously sad. The English translation I had purchased read like poetry, and the original Spanish, when I obtained it, even more so. Much later, I learned that I wasn’t alone in imagining this writing set to music; whole villages in South America have made operas and even held festivals based on these books since their publication in 1986.
Originally, I marked over a hundred sections for musical settings – an impossible undertaking. Useful restrictions came in the form of Pamela Epple’s invitation to compose a piece of a certain length for the wonderful chamber group Serenata of Santa Fe, with a helpful suggestion toward possible instrumentation. A familiarity with Gail Springer’s beautiful vocal flexibility further focused my choice of text. My aim was to compose a suite modeled on a good meal of Spanish tapas and wine — sharp and smooth, richly textured, varied and complex — abundance without excess.
My special thanks to Eduardo Galeano and Susan Bergholz Literary Services for permission to use the text, which comes from the third volume of the trilogy: “Century of the Wind”.