It is a rare opportunity to be present at the world premiere of any artistic event and particularly the interpretation of a music that has never been heard before. As part of my subscription to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concerts, I was treated to such a unique musical event last Thursdays, June 18 at Orchestra Hall in Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
Mason Bates has been composer in residence at the CSO for the last five years and completed his term with Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, a piece dedicated to his mentor Ricardo Muti the CSO tenth music director. I was captivated by the sounds, the passages and resonances that this music evoked while I was listening to it. As pointed out by the program notes*, it was a mixture of Mussorgski’s Pictures from an exhibition, Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals, and particularly to me a showpiece for the entire orchestra reminiscent of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. You can read more technical comments in the recent review. There is also an excellent image from a vantage point that is very close to where I was sitting at this memorable concert.
From the program notes, I learned the literary stimulus that inspired this amazing music created by Bates, a very young composer with interests and background in literature and music (attended the Columbia-Juilliard joint program in English literature and musical composition). The inspiration was Borges Manual de Zoología fantástica written in 1957. This was a time when the writer’s eyesight had severely deteriorated and could no longer read what he wrote. According to a recent biography of Borges (1), this was the time of a collaboration with Margarita (Margot) Guerrero with whom he was totally infatuated. So much so that he tended to ignore the fact that Ms. Guerrero’s interest in literature were not as consuming and his. Unable to conceive any kind of relationship without a literary connection, Borges proposed to her a project in accord with Margot’s interest in the supernatural and the occult. He suggested that they prepare together a catalog of the weirdest animals created or imagined by the human mind through the ages. This imaginary bestiary was published first in 1957 (2) and later an expanded version with a different title in 1967 (3), which was translated into English as The Book of Imaginary Beings. This was the point of departure for Bates’ composition.
Creatures such as ‘The Sprite’ (an elf or fairy), ‘The A Bao A Qu’ (a serpent slithering up a tower and melting at the top to return down again) and ‘The Gryphon’ (a chimera of Eagle and Lion) among others, are presented tonally and musically in Bates’ composition with a rich orchestral sound and abundant use of various percussion instruments (xylophone, glockenspiel, large Chinese drum, woodblocks, crash, cymbals, crotales and others). The sound catalog of animals with their corresponding actions and motions also include the more common and melodic Nymphs and Sirens often with the use of melodious phrases in the strings. The interlacing of these various creatures is connected with what Bates called ‘forest interludes’ reminiscent of the promenades in Mussorgsky’s intermezzos between various paintings that make up his well known composition.
From this musical experience, what connected me to the world of architecture is a masterpiece of late Gothic (Flamboyant Gothic) civil architecture in Guadalajara (near Madrid, Spain) known as Palacio del Infantado built by the influential Mendoza family in 15th century Spain, a political force behind the union of the several kingdoms of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella (of Columbus fame).
Prominent in the design is an interior patio of perfect quadrangular symmetry named Patio de los Leones richly decorated with animals that at first sight appear to be lions. However, a closer inspection shows that the architect Juan Guas magnificently designed the patio, and decorated it with pairs of lions on the lower gallery and pairs of Gryphons carved in the upper gallery, with an impeccable symmetry on each arch that extents to the helical decoration of the columns framing each module (Figs. 1-3). These images alternate symmetrically around the courtyard with the symbols of the Mendoza and Luna families. The portrayal of fiery and imaginary animals in the heraldic symbols of the Renaissance was customary to impress upon the visitor, allies or enemies certain qualities of character such as bravery and strength.
In a magical way, the kaleidoscopic musical tapestry that Bates has created with his Anthology of Fantastic Zoology brought me to the richly decorated galleries of the Palacio del Infantado via the literary and unparalleled ruminations and prose of Jorge Luis Borges.
*Program Notes by Philip Huscher program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
- Williamson, E. Borges. A Life. Viking Penguin. Printed by the Penguin Group. 2004.
- Borges, J.L. with Margarita Guerrero. Manual de zoología fantástica. Fondo de Cultura Económica. Mexico City. 1957.
- Borges, J. L. with Margarita Guerrero. Manual de zoología fantástica. Expanded edition published as El Libro de los seres imaginarios, Kier, 1967. English translation The Book of Imaginary Beings.
- Herrera Casado, A. El Palacio del Infantado en Guadalajara. Editorial AACHE. Colección Tierra de Guadalajara. No. 3.