Jesús Rafael Soto. Double Transparency. 1956. Oil on plexiglass and wood with metal rods and bolts, 21 5/8 × 21 5/8 × 12 5/8" (55 × 55 × 32 cm). Gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund in honor of Ana Teresa Arismendi. © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

A Listener’s Guide to Modern Latin American Composers

A playlist scores the abstract art of Sur Moderno
Pablo Helguera Feb 6, 2020

I grew up in Mexico City in a family of classical musicians. At home, the daily soundtrack was my sister practicing Chopin or Beethoven on the piano, my other sister practicing the Bach suites on the cello, and my brother listening to Milhaud, Ravel, and Debussy in our shared bedroom.

Modernist music has a rich history in Latin America. Like the visual artists featured in Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction, 20th-century Latin American composers engaged with new aesthetic languages emerging from Europe while attempting to find a distinct artistic voice. This meant recognizing and incorporating the musical traditions of their respective countries, which included folk songs and other popular musical forms.

Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959) is widely considered to be the key figure of 20th-century Brazilian orchestral music. Among his many compositions, which often borrowed from Brazilian popular music, I am most drawn to those works that express saudade—a Portuguese term that describes a deep feeling of longing and melancholy. Composer Alberto Ginastera (1916–1983) integrated Argentinian folk motifs into his works. Another Argentine, Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992), is known mostly as a tango composer, yet many of his compositions have entered the classical music canon and are regularly featured in chamber music concerts worldwide.

In this playlist I also included works by lesser-known but equally rewarding musical artists, like the contemporary Uruguayan composer Miguel del Aguila and the revered Venezuelan composer and virtuoso performer Teresa Carreño, who was known as “the piano lioness.”


Sur Moderno Playlist

Sur Moderno: Journeys of Abstraction—The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift is on view through March 14. The symposium Sur Moderno: New Perspectives on South American Abstraction and Its Legacies will take place at MoMA and at Columbia University on February 6 and 7.