Friday, April 13, 2018

Ila Cantor's Encanto

Tracing a musical arc from the guitarist Charlie Christian to the charango, an Andean stringed instrument barely known in American music, Ila Cantor is a composer and performer of considerable range.  “The reason I play the guitar is because of Charlie Christian,” she told me in a conversation about Encanto, her new recording for the Maginus Project. 
Ila Cantor (photo by C. Goldwyn) 

Despite her deep connection to traditional jazz forms and musicians, Cantor’s personal expression is much harder to categorize.  “Even though I played standards when I first began performing, when I started composing, nothing at all like standards came out,” she says. But it is not so much a departure from jazz as it is an evolution in her view:  “I think the music I am composing now is its own thing, but the early influences are always there.”

The impetus for her new music is the quixotic Andean instrument called the charango, a probable descendant of the small Iberian stringed instrument known as the vihuela, once used to entertain Spanish Renaissance aristocracy.  Prior to the conquest of South America by Europeans, no stringed instruments existed on the continent.

Refined in the mountainous Andean regions of South America, indigenous Quechuas and Aymara developed the ten-string charango, most likely by copying the vihuela.  Historically the instrument was constructed from either wood or harvested from found materials like pumpkin shells, bull hides, and armadillo shells (quirquincho), which have been gradually phased out through conservation initiatives.

The non-linear aspect of how the charango is tuned — it follows a zigzag pattern with the central pair of strings tuned to both the highest and lowest pitched tones — creates a dynamic and novel platform for performance and composition.  After hearing the instrument for the first time, Cantor was hooked on its haunting timbre.  “I was so taken with it, I put down the guitar for a year and only practiced the charango,” she says.

In Cantor’s hands, the charango fulfills its mythical reputation.  The phrasing and articulation of her compositions sounds as if it emanated from within the body of the instrument itself.  Indeed, she invokes the birthing process as a metaphor for how the project came about.  “It needed to be recorded; for me this is music that comes from the heart,” she says.

Outside of South America, thanks in large part to innovative performers and composers like Cantor, the charango is evolving from its almost exclusive use in Andean ceremonial music to modern ensemble forms.  Cantor was also inspired to compose with her frequent collaborators in mind. The ensemble is comprised of Rob Reich (accordion,) Ben Goldberg (clarinet,) Todd Sickafoose (bass,) and Scott Amendola (drums.) In addition to the traditional rhythm support of the bass and drums, the inclusion of the clarinet and accordion in her recording provides a depth and richness of tone in an ensemble that is likely the first of its kind to be heard in the US.

The debut performance for the compositions came about through the support of the Bay Area-based nonprofit organization San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music .  About a year after the debut, Cantor met Phil Lewis, Executive Director for the Maginus Project, who became intrigued about how the project would take shape in recorded form.  For the Maginus Project, the opportunity to record an emerging artist like Cantor featuring an ancient instrument like the charango is doubly compelling and embodies its prevailing mission of preserving the legacy of lesser-known artists through recording.

Recording her new music is the beginning of the process for Cantor.  Although she loves vinyl recordings and has explored it previously as a medium for releasing her work, it is still prohibitively expensive.  She plans on printing CDs, and publicizing the release through social media.  “Everyone who hears the instrument falls in love with it.  The charango is its own ambassador.”

-Daniel Lilie, special contributor to the Maginus Project Blog

No comments:

Post a Comment