National Performance Network > What We Do > Funded Projects > International Program Profiles > Digging Deep into Mexico’s
Experimental Music Scene

Digging Deep into Mexico’s
Experimental Music Scene

by Chris Cogburn

My participation in NPN’s Creative Exchange, over the course of five weeks between August 20 and September 24, 2012, led to an unforeseen whirlwind of activity and the deepening of creative relationships in Mexico City. The connections formed with artists, institutions, curators and other cultural generators in and around Mexico City were of such strength and dynamism that it kept me there for an extra 10 weeks, until my subsequent return home to Austin on December 4. All in all, through the unique structure of the Performing Americas Program (PAP), I was able to embrace, actualize and transport more fully my creative work to a new environment than on any preceding journey abroad.

For the PAP Creative Exchange, I partnered with Mexico City classical guitarist and experimental musician Fernando Vigueras and the Unidad de Vinculación Artística (UVA), an academy of arts located in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. The first step in this project was my already existing connection with Fernando and our commitment to finding a way to work together in performance, recording, teaching and curation. The second step was connecting with UVA, the host/sponsor of this project and the site of an experimental music class taught by Vigueras. The third step was the work Fernando and I did together capitalizing on the dynamic cultural situation currently taking place in Mexico City.

I first came in contact with Fernando Vigueras at the Cha’ak’ab Paaxil Festival de Improvisación Libre, Free Jazz y Noise in Mérida, Yucatán, México in 2008. Exposure to each other’s work and the discovery of sympathetic interests in improvisation lead to a quick friendship and, in 2009, while in residence at Casa Vecina in Mexico City, Fernando and I had the chance to perform together for the first time, albeit briefly.

Our meeting came at a time when I was first traveling and working in Mexico and it was situated in the context of a greater process of cultural movement and the beginnings of exchange between a new generation of sound artists and organizers in the U.S. and Mexico. At the time, Mexico fascinated my U.S. colleagues and me. It was an unfamiliar and mysterious neighbor whose contemporary cultural output was fairly unknown and limited to the stories of Mexican ex-pat musicians living in Texas or friends’ travels to the country several years prior. My brief trips to perform in Monterrey, Mérida, and Mexico City, between 2006-2010, offered me the opportunity to begin to understand the complexities of cultural production in Mexico and the unique work of those artists engaged in experimental music practice.

While my preceding trips to Mexico yielded great music and strong friendships, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something more to be experienced than my regular “touring” would allow. I wanted to know the culture, where this music was coming from. Music has always been a social practice for me – a way to connect and affirm relationships, work, difference and joy. Working, forming deep relationships, acknowledging and celebrating differences, and experiencing joy take time. The Creative Exchange program provides resources for these processes to happen and allows deep, collective artistic practice to take root and move forward.

My intention in going to Mexico City for the Performing Americas Program was to participate and contribute to the ongoing culture. Doing this in a generative and lasting way means first listening to the processes that are already taking place. Vigueras’ improvised and experimental music class at UVA was an unbelievable place to land. Housed in the sprawling Tlatelolco complex in central Mexico City, Vigueras’ students ranged in age from 17 to 50+ and came from all corners of the city. It was a dynamic crew to say the least. The class was welcoming and engaging and their openness and creativity was a challenge to keep up with. Throughout my stay in Mexico City, this class (and Fernando’s genius and kind, engaging teaching methods) acted as my home – offering me some resemblance of consistency in the tumultuousness that is “El D.F.” (Distrito Federal).

UVA students (photo by C  Cogburn)

UVA students (photo by C Cogburn)

My first six weeks in Mexico City were spent working with Fernando’s class two days a week, while taking Spanish language classes at UNAM in the morning five days a week. Early on, I worked with the class on several Pauline Oliveros pieces and that led to an inspired performance of Oliveros’ Sound Piece on the UVA campus. My previous creative connections activated quickly once I was in the city, and I found myself performing one to three times a week with a host of artists including Rogelio Sosa, Juan José Rivas, Juan Pablo Villa, Carlos Maldonado, Fernando Lomeli, Rolando Hernández, Barbara Lazara, Misha Marks, Juan Garcia, and Fernando Vigueras.

Each of these artists is moving through the cultural landscape of Mexico City in their own unique way – setting up their own concert series, forming ensembles, applying for funding, exploiting trends in popular culture, establishing themselves in the academy, and taking advantage of the great cultural houses, institutions and galleries in Mexico City. The time allotted through the Creative Exchange residency allowed me to collaborate with these artists several times and to begin to understand their own way of existing in the city. The life path of each artist reflects a socio-economic reality that speaks to the art they make. Life is different for each, and having time to contemplate the complexity of this, while simultaneously seeing how artists come together as a community to make work together, was inspiring.

It was this movement, the way in which things happen, the way in which people do things in Mexico City that I was looking for when I applied for the Performing Americas Program funding. Having the time and resources to think and act tactically is the gift the Creative Exchange offers.

Several weeks before landing in Mexico City, Fernando Vigueras and I were busy brainstorming projects. The initial event we planned for was my participation in UVA’s Cerro de Arena festival of contemporary art. UVA had invited me to curate a special mini-festival inside of Cerro de Arena, and I invited several colleagues to join the event named Desde El Silencio Festival: Exploraciones Abstractas de La Forma. With my allies in Mexico City and the collective desire for international collaboration, I was able to line-up several other events in the city for my colleagues and me to engage in. Participating artists included musicians Andrea Neumann (Berlin), Burkhard Beins (Berlin), Liz Allbee (Berlin), Bonnie Jones (Baltimore) and dancer Nicole Bindler (Philadelphia). Performances, lectures, master classes and workshops were given at UVA over the course of the 7-day festival.

Sound Workshop at UVA (photo by C  Cogburn)

Sound Workshop at UVA (photo by C Cogburn)

This was a highlight of my time in Mexico City, as it was the first full-scale, inter-media festival that I curated and organized outside of the U.S. It was also the first time I presented my own compositions outside of the U.S. UVA was generous with their resources and our partnership was successful in several seemingly enduring ways; not the least of which was the enthusiasm of UVA’s students and the attention garnered towards UVA as a site for contemporary artistic practice.

Directly preceding Desde El Silencio, Mexico City sound artist Juanjosé Rivas invited me to join Andrea Neumann, Burkhard Beins, Liz Allbee and Fernando Vigueras for a mini-tour of Mexico City’s neighboring cities, Tlaxcala and Puebla. This was in conjunction with his excellent experimental concert series Volta in Mexico City, in which we all performed prior to this three-day mini-tour. Traveling with Juanjosé and witnessing the inner-workings of how a tour of this nature takes place was a valuable experience and it gave me some insight into the movement of culture outside of Mexico City.

In our initial stages of planning, Fernando and I left space for things to happen organically. Our largest, most satisfying work together outside of Vigueras’ class at UVA occurred in this space. Together, we organized and curated a four-week series of improvised music concerts to accompany Derek Bailey’s seminal documentary On the Edge: Improvisation in Music. The series took place at the beautiful art cinema, Cine Tonalá, in Mexico City’s bustling La Roma neighborhood. In the weeks leading up to the series, Fernando and I transcribed, translated and subtitled the four-hour documentary. (This was the first-ever Spanish translation showing of the film.) In a fashion similar to the Desde El Silencio Festival, Fernando and I invited several international artists who were passing through Mexico City at the time to participate in the series. Participating artists included Dafne Vicente-Sandoval (Paris, France), Xavier Lopez (Paris, France), Angélica Castelló (Vienna), Andrea Neumann (Berlin), Sandy Ewen (Houston), Damon Smith (Houston), Bonnie Jones (Baltimore), Vic Rawlings (Boston), Milo Tamez (Chiapas, Mexico), and Mexico City musicians Remi Álvarez, Juan Garcia, Fernando Vigueras, Juanjosé Rivas, Rogelio Sosa and Carmina Escobar.

Desbordamientos poster

An intention behind this series, dubbed Desbordamientos: Aproximación a la Música Improvisada, was to create a container to ground and actualize a diverse confluence of artists and processes underway in tandem to my time in residence. Thinking back, I see the series contextualizing my time in Mexico City in relation to others’ time in the city. PAP funding allowed me to embrace a broader spectrum of cultural production and artistic process than my normal touring affords. I was able to fully realize and transport my skill set to a new place. My work as an improvising musician, concert organizer, curator, composer and teacher were all foregrounded while in residence in Mexico City. I was able to do what I do – all that I do. The Desbordamientos series, its successes and failures, exemplified this.

Lastly, the idea of place and its relation to the “way in which one does” is valuable to consider when thinking of international cultural exchange. On one hand, there is the physical place one is acting from (in this case, Mexico City), and on the other, there is the “place” one is imagining while acting. There is a rift between the two no matter where one is working from, and perhaps this rift is amplified when cultures are crossed. My time in Mexico City was a long contemplation on this rift and all its gradations. Being surrounded by creativity – all the artists, students, teachers and the people in one of the greatest sites of daily improvised living – allowed this rift to express its flexibility and allowed me a greater understanding of the way in which Mexico City moves.

Advice for others who would like to apply for a Creative Exchange:

Working towards a residency of this magnitude can happen anywhere, at any time. Your active pursuit of a Creative Exchange residency with others abroad, coupled with creating opportunities for similar exchanges in your home city, can happen right now. Magnitude is less important than direction – becoming sensitive to the aspects in your work that facilitate exchange. The size and articulation of projects fluctuate, but the direction of working with others can remain the same.

While in residence, be patient and think in the long term. If this is your first time working abroad, or in a specific country, keep a broad view toward the things supporting your creative work. I took my PAP Creative Exchange as a time to contemplate both the relationships and resources that sustain my artistic practice at home, while recognizing similar manifestations and articulations in the city I was visiting. A special aspect of the Creative Exchange residency is that the time allows you to forge strong relationships to artists, students and institutions that can yield future work and creative projects in the region. This is a process that can be built upon.

What’s happening now:

I am writing this 10 days before the beginning of the 10th annual No Idea Festival (February 10-24, 2013) – a festival of improvised music that I organize in Austin. This year’s festival is focusing on collaborations between U.S. and Mexican sound artists. Mexican artists involved in this year’s festival include: Misha Marks, Remi Álvarez, Rolando Hernández (Mexico City) and Milo Tamez (Chiapas, Mexico). This work is a direct result of my time in Mexico City last year, via NPN’s Performing Americas Creative Exchange program.

Percussionist Chris Cogburn is an active performer, curator and educator, currently living between Austin, Texas and Mexico City. His artistic practice and curatorial interests are rooted in the collaborative context of improvisation.

Click here for information and links to the guidelines and application for the Creative Exchange residency program.  The deadline for 2013-2014 projects is April 26, 2013.

Funding for the Performing Americas Program is provided by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and, for Los Angeles artists and arts organizations, the City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs.

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