I have had an association with Latin American classical music that began more than forty years ago. At first, it was as an oboist in several orchestras in Mexico, where I was introduced to some of the finest repertoire of Latin America, such as Carlos Chávez’s Sinfonía india and Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemayá.
Later, after returning to the US to pursue a doctorate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the lingering effects of my experience in Mexico led me to take on a graduate minor in Spanish. At the same, as a member of a professional woodwind quintet, I helped organize a number of concerts on which Latin American works for that ensemble were featured. Nearing the completion of my coursework, I set out to write a dissertation on Latin American chamber music for the oboe.
But things were different back then. Finding it difficult to obtain materials, I accepted a position as principal oboist of the US Air Force Heritage of America Band in Hampton, Virginia. There, I was able to make frequent visits to a number of major libraries in the area in and around the Air Force base. Nevertheless, even though I was also willing to purchase the scores and parts that I needed to examine, the total number of pieces eventually acquired seemed shockingly low.
Meanwhile, as a member of that Air Force band, I was assigned to a team of fellow members that produced scores and parts for the band using some of the earliest versions of Finale software. Even more than before, this experience inspired me to wonder what could be done about increasing the availability of Latin American classical music here in the US.
John performing with the USAF Heritage of America Chamber Winds Gordon Jacob, Old Wine in New Bottles, IV. “Early One Morning” Recorded June 14-16, 1993.
After four years as principal oboist of the band, during the mid 1990s I was offered a position with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ecuador. Unlike my earlier experience in Mexico, this time I returned to Latin America with a fuller understanding of its music history, and therefore saw myself, in a sense, as walking in the same steps as a number of Italian musicians who had immigrated to that country near the end of the 19th century. In short, their stories reveal much about the waves of musical émigrés who, though having come seeking fame and fortune, in many cases they left an indelible legacy in the musical history of the countries to which they had arrived.
John performing the world premiere of Marlos Nobre’s Desafio X National Symphony of Ecuador, Andrei Vasilevsky, conductor. Teatro Politécnico, June 13, 1997. (Digitized from the original cassette recording).
Returning to the U.S., I won a Fulbright to carry out an extensive investigation of those Italian musicians. I also published a number of important articles and spoke about my research at several international conferences. As a college music professor, I was invited to present master classes in various Latin American countries; I also frequently presented Latin American works on my yearly faculty recital. On several occasions I received invitations to perform or conduct in Ecuador.
And so it was, in 2013, my long-simmering idea, a blend of the various strands of my experiences, finally took shape. Together with my wife, we founded Cayambis Music Press, which today has a catalog that is approaching six hundred titles. A good share of that number is due to the dozens of living composers—from nearly every Latin American country—who are now affiliated with our company. However, we have also done quite a bit of work to identify and acquire some of the most significant Latin American instrumental music of the 19th and 20th centuries. This has meant seeking out arrangements with heirs, archives, foundations, national libraries and other sources so as to “rescue” music that would have otherwise never been performed again.
Though important, over time we realized that music publishing was not sufficient in and of itself to solve what we now recognized as a fundamental problem: there is a vicious cycle of not enough performances, not enough recordings, its absence from college curricula, etc., that prevents our fellow “United Statesians” from understanding the full breadth of the richness and diversity of this genre. At the same time, our research led us to the realization that during the Pan-Americanist period of our history, from about the 1930s to the 1980s, Latin American classical music was much more widely disseminated in our country. Not only that, but composers, music educators, academics, and even common people on both sides of our southern border participated in events designed to advance the exchange of culture and ideas. Though by no means perfect, these activities helped to promote a sense of goodwill among the peoples of the Americas.
Responding to this need, in 2019, we melded our publishing company into a new nonprofit, the Cayambis Institute for Latin American Studies in Music (CILASiM), with the objective of re-imagining the musical Pan-Americanism of the past. Though we have much still to do, we have already organized two international composition competitions, and are operating our own chamber orchestra, the Cayambis Sinfonietta.
And the great thing about all of this, is that there’s still plenty of room for people who would like to join our cause!