Exploring our October theme, Classical Remix, Project Jumpstart celebrated National Hispanic Heritage Month. Naturally, our October Entrepreneur of the Month is the IU Latin American Music Center and its director, Javier León!
Project Jumpstart had the opportunity to catch up with LAMC Director, Javier León, to chat about his experiences with the Latin American Music Center.
Javier León is academic specialist and director of the Latin American Music Center at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
He earned his Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from the University of Texas at Austin. He was most recently assistant professor of folklore and ethnomusicology at IU. He has also been a faculty member at the Newcomb Department of Music and the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University.
He is an experienced performer and ensemble director of a variety of Latin American and Caribbean genres. His research interests have dealt with multiple aspects of music in the region, including music and nationalism, the intersection of popular and art music traditions, African and indigenous musical heritage safeguarding, and the history of cultural policy and music research institutions in the region.
León’s work has been published in a number of research journals, edited volumes, and reference works. Most recently, he was coeditor of the forthcoming volume A Latin American Musical Reader: Views from the South (Illinois University Press).
He has been a consultant for a number of music arts institutions, including the Music Instrument Museum, National Endowment for the Arts, and Smithsonian Institution.
PJ: What led to the creation of the LAMC? What makes your program unique?
JL: The Latin American Music Center was founded as part of a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation. The purpose of the grant was to create an international infrastructure with which to support the activities of Latin American composers, to promote their music, and to encourage further research in various aspects of Latin American music and music making. Led by Chilean composer Juan Orrego-Salas, the Latin American Music Center was created in 1961, taking advantage of IU’s well-known reputation for developing international programs and its outstanding School of Music. The LAMC was envisioned as a centralized archive for the works of Latin American composers. It also serves as a research institution, regularly organizing music festivals and conferences that bring composers, scholars, and performers to the United States; fostering artistic and cultural exchange; and creating new professional opportunities. In 1962, Orrego-Salas’ close friend, the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, helped to found a counterpart institute to the LAMC, the Torcuato di Tella Latin American Center for Advanced Music Studies (CLAEM), in Buenos Aires. CLAEM’s mission was to serve as a more regionally-accessible training ground for aspiring Latin American composers.
PJ: How the LAMC has changed since its foundation in 1961 under the direction of Juan Orrego-Salas?
JL: Since its founding, the Latin American Music Center continues to work with leading composers, scholars, and performers in Latin America to promote the performance, study, and research of various forms of Latin American music. Changing times, however, and a growing interest on the study of Latin America, have led to an expansion of the scope of the LAMC. Initially, the main focus was on the work of the growing number Latin American composers that emerged between the 1940s and 1970s, and whose music was not as well-known in the United States or Europe. This repertoire remains at the core of what the LAMC has to offer, it having one of the largest archives of Latin American art music in the world. By the 1980s, that interest expanded, not only to keep up with generations of new emerging composers, but also to being to emphasize the role that Latin American performers have had in championing the music of these composers. In the last few decades, a growing academic interest in the folk and popular forms of Latin American music has also opened up new possibilities, allowing the LAMC to work with composers and performers who not only seek to find innovative ways to blur the lines between art, folk, and popular music, but also increasingly, to support the cultivation and study of different forms of music and the sheer diversity of Latin American culture.
J: How does the LAMC respond to the complicated issue of positioning Latin American heritage in the wider context of American culture?
JL: The United States, as a nation of immigrants, has always had mechanisms through which new populations from different place have managed to make a home for themselves in this country, in the process making important contributions to American society. While in practice, these mechanisms may not have worked as well as they could have for all the different communities that have come to form a part of the United States, the aspirational commitment to welcoming others remains an important and distinct feature that makes this country a special place. I think that championing the performance, study, and research of Latin American music becomes an important way to highlight the contributions that Latin American artists have made and continue to make not only to their own community, but to American society in general. While perhaps to some, Latin Americans may appear as relatively new arrivals to the United States, there is a much deeper history than some would assume. Much of the American Southwest was part of Mexico before it became part of the United States. There a number of important cultural, musical, and artistic traditions that are still alive and well in those parts of the country that have had an influence on what we think of as American culture in, especially, the Southwest part of the country. For more than a century, Spanish Caribbean and South American forms of music have had an influence in the development of different styles of jazz, ballroom dance, and popular music, even if the source of those influences are not always apparent. Part of the activities of the Latin American Music Center are designed to highlight these contributions and to create spaces for discussion regarding the role that Latinos have had in shaping the soundtrack of the American experience, much like people of Native American, African, Asian and European origin also have.
PJ: In the fast-changing music scene, how do you balance the necessity of preserving the rich popular tradition of Latin America and the need of being represented in traditional (and sometimes conservative) music scenes like schools and theaters?
JL: I think that one of the challenges that Latin American artist have faced in the United States is the need of other people to categorize them in specific boxes, that fit other people’s expectations of who is and isn’t Latino. Different people at different points have experienced this in different ways, but it has usually been articulated in the forms of dichotomies. Latin American composers, for instance, have often had to fight the stigma that referencing Latin American folk or popular music in their works could lead to them being labeled as “lesser” composers incapable of making original contributions to the “universal” development of art music, a double-standard that many American and European composers have managed to elude. Performers of folk, traditional, and popular forms, on the other hand, are sometimes regarded as more “authentic” in the eyes of American audiences if they avoid the type of obvert musical experimentation and cross-cultural pollination that has historically driven much of that music. I think that the most important way of overcoming that form of type-casting is not necessarily by positing ways of striking a balance between tradition and innovation, folk music and art music, or local and universal, but rather to find support the type of musical activity that actively questions, challenges and seeks to break out of those types of stereotypes. I believe that more diverse musical programming in various settings (concert halls, theaters, music festivals, nightclubs, schools, etc.) can go a long way to erode these types of artificial constructs and create audiences with a more diverse and complicated sense of what it means to be Latino or Latin American.
PJ: What do you enjoy most about being the director of the LAMC? How has your background helped you in shaping the LAMC and envisioning the future of the organization?
JL: As mainly an academic, but one who has also had a career as a professional performer, and a brief third career in arts management, I find that my work at the Latin American Music Center very fulfilling. It is the only job I can think of where I can still continue to pursue research interests and teach classes from time to time, but also program concerts, master classes and conferences, and work with world-renowned artists. I’ve always been a bit of a jack-of-all-trades and this position allows me capitalize on all the different skills I acquired over time. These days it seems that one of the key elements to being successful in a music career is to be flexible and adaptable, so I’ve tried to apply that sensibility to the way in which I run the Latin American Music Center. By continuously adapting to the changing place that Latinos and Latin American music have in American society, we can also make larger contributions to the various communities at hand.
PJ: What are some of the future events/projects organized by the LAMC at the Jacobs School of Music?
JL: This academic year we have a number of exciting projects, three of which I would like to highlight. First, this year the Latin American Music Ensemble is under the direction of Sarah Cranor, a talented violinist in the Historical Performance Institute. Thanks to Sarah’s leadership, and to the generous participation of faculty and students at the HPI, the LAE is going to be performing a series of concerts devoted to the Latin American Colonial repertoire, the first one will be on Nov. 30 at 8pm on Auer Hall. We are also collaborating with the IU Arts & Humanities Council in a series of concerts called Mexico Remixed, which will include multiple performances by Mariachi Perla del Medio Oeste, a student group co-sponsored by the LAMC, La Casa, and the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology; a recital of Mexican art song curated by new JSoM faculty member Julia Bentley; a two night collaboration with the New Music Ensemble that will also feature a guest performance by the renowned Ónix Ensamble from Mexico City; and a visit by noted composer Gabriela Ortiz. Finally, the founder of the Latin American Music Center, Juan Orrego-Salas will be turning 100 years old this coming January. Prof. Orrego-Salas still lives in Bloomington, so we are currently organizing a number of concerts, guest lectures and exhibits to coincide with his birthday celebration. We are also working with his family in organizing follow-up events in his native Chile and in Ecuador later on in the spring.
PJ: What advice do you have for students as they try to keep their work relevant and meaningful in the contemporary cultural/political environment?
JL: I think that one of the most important things when thinking about your career plans is to figure out what is it that you love. Then you can begin to acquire the necessary skills and search for the right opportunities to be able to do what you love in a sustainable way, where you feel you are making a difference. Doing this may not necessarily take the form of following a clearly marked career path. Increasingly, I think that the marketplace is best suited for those who can be flexible and adapt, so I would advise students to be open to change, to take risks, and to be willing to reinvent themselves. While this sometimes makes it difficult know to where one might end up, I think that we are seeing the music realm is growing more specialized markets to fit a wide variety of tastes, needs, and expectations. Truly, this is providing a number of interesting opportunities for creative music entrepreneurs. The trick is to be patient and trust that with more experience comes the ability to get closer to doing what you love.
Project Jumpstart partners with the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the IU Kelley School of Business.