Transparent City @ Chalk the Block
Mari hangs out at Chalk the Block and discovers Cuadro, the artistic laboratory downtown, and Transparent City , the music collective that specializes in improvisation.
We arrived as the music was riding the wave of El Borracho: the stand-up bass plucking dark notes while the guitar followed in an erratic melody intertwined with cello and flute. The voice of Viva Flores (the caller) somewhat menacing and psychedelic echoing out of the mic as she yelled, “El Boracho!”
I had always felt there was a darkness to Loteria. Somehow the images are evocative of darker energy, something a little more medieval, with dark and somewhat sinister undertones. The game of Loteria derived from 15th century Italy and arrived in New Spain, slowly spreading throughout the upper classes and eventually becoming common in Mexican households and fairs. The images that make up the cards have become somewhat iconic and emblematic to Mexican culture.
The musicians playing that night, as part of the collective called Transparent City, certainly tapped into this darker energy: the music building, crescendoing, often reaching odd territory, clamoring between chaos and melody, and then shifting, changing with, and according to, each called image.
The ambiance was equally phantasmagoric: the white space dimly lit, with tables covered with traditional Mexican sarapes and candles and the odd prizes showcased on white pillars. The musicians were enclosed by tables set up with Loteria boards and small plastic bowls filled with pinto beans. People sat all around the musicians and their instruments, enclosing them in a half circle as the wild voice of Viva Flores called out things like, “La Muerte” and “El Negrito.”
The project was made available through Cuadro, which is a partnership between the Rubin Center for the Arts and LA-based Machine Project, along with the City of El Paso Department of Museums and Cultural Affairs and The El Paso Community Foundation.
The musicians sat for two hours as people that walked around the Chalk the Block festivities wandered in and out of the space. People came and went, some staying longer than others trying their luck with chance and some, lucky enough, winning the prizes.
After the performance I had a chance to sit down with Randy Maguire, the guitar player for Transparent City, a collective of musicians that get together for improvisational sessions, basically made up of Randy and anyone else willing to join and take part, so the collective is somewhat open and constantly changing. That night they had flute player Krystal Mata, Tony Lizcano on bass, Chris Mitchell on cello, Linda Hains on percussion, and Randy himself doing guitar and electronics.
In our impromptu interview that night, where my voice awkwardly chimed in as I was quite immersed in the whole thing, Randy told me a little bit about the project, the space, and the overall idea behind the piece.
As a musician whose worked extensively with improvisation, Randy discussed his admiration for folks such as John Cage and John Zorn. The title of the piece was “Loteria Serpiente” and it was based on a work by John Zorn titled “Cobra,” which was a musical composition created through a set of rules, but with no specific idea of the sequence of events.
John Zorn described the piece “Cobra” as a way to implement what he described as “changing blocks of music.” And if you one sees videos of “Cobra” being performed, it is quite captivating: composed of many musicians playing off of each other and off of changing ideas through the constructs of the particular rules. Zorn explains the idea of creating a piece that does not confine the musician’s ability to improvise, but attempts to create a composition that instead highlights and is built on that ability. “Loteria Serpiente” created a similar effect, added with Loteria’s dark and eerie charm.
So I asked Randy how he worked the set of rules into the piece and how the idea of incorporating Loteria came to be.
He said, “People know Loteria people may not come off the street and want to listen to a two hour performance of improvised music, but they know Loteria and that is an interesting way of making it a more participatory event.”
Basically each possible card: El Diablito, La Muerte, La Calavera, would be divided into categories. For example: The Body, People, Birds, and Animals. Each category would have a set of general rules about what would occur when a particular card would be called.
So if the caller called out, “La Rana” there would be a set of general instructions that applied to the category of Animals and give the musicians a cue on what to do next, though not necessarily what exactly to play. Upon hearing La Rana, for example, the musicians needed to continue to play their phrase but change the musical style drastically.
On that cue all musicians currently playing would stop and all others would play but in the same style.
So for two hours, the musicians of Transparent City had to perpetually adapt to new musical rules, while staying in-sync with each other, listening to each other, implementing different musical styles, and constantly coming up with new ideas, which, as Randy said in the interview, “was a real test of endurance.”
At the same time all of this was subject to the game of chance making the musical accompaniment hang on a somewhat unpredictable variable.
The experience of playing Loteria in such a setting certainly gave the game a much more dream-like quality. It was a heightened way to experience the game that I, and so many others, grew up playing, but with an added layer of art and unpredictability.