Latin American Classical Notes

by John Walker

Segment 4: Indigenism, Part 3

In the previous segment, we learned that we know very little about the music of the Mesoamerican cultures that inhabited the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans.

Anxious to create a type of music was not European, but rather, identified them with their home countries, composers throughout Latin America, like Carlos Chávez and Pedro Pablo Traversari, developed an indigenist approach to composition from about the mid 1920s to the 1940s that I describe as a musical re-imagination of ancient cultures.

So, what musical elements did they use to create identity? To answer this, I’d like to focus on four things: pentatonic scales, instrumental resources, indigenous languages, and pre-Conquest themes.

One of the most fundamental building blocks of music is melody, which consists of a certain number of pitches that a listener would perceive as a single entity. The notes are not randomly selected; rather, they come from a very specific set of pitches that as a whole are called a scale. The word scale comes from the Italian word for ladder, and just like a ladder, you can climb up all the way, or maybe part of the way. A melody might climb up all the way, that is, it might use all of the steps of a scale, or it might use just a portion of the steps. And, just like there are ladders manufactured with a different number of steps, so too, there are scales that consist of differing numbers of steps.

Our melodies are by and large from scales that consist of seven steps, and then an eighth step, which is the same as the first, but at a higher level.

Aztec and Incan melodies were also made out of scales. But what do we know about them? As it turns out, not very much. And you already know why that is.

Nevertheless, this didn’t stop Latin American composers from determining that the scales that had been used by the Aztecs and Incans were not seven, but five-note scales. Known as a pentatonic scale, they started not on “do,” but on “re.” To get a sense of what this sounds like, let’s listen to a brief excerpt from a piece composed in 1927 by Traversari, his Himno pentafónico a la raza indígena.

In the next segment, we’ll consider other approaches to musical indigenism.