Report: Costa Rica

I’m told that among Latin American countries Costa Rica is second, after Chile, in its standard of living, and that due to the excellece of its health care system, the country has now surpassed Japan to become number one in the world in the average longevity of its population. Certainly a lot of Americans flock to Costa Rica for dental work and plastic surgery, for professionals in those fields are well-trained in the U.S. and Europe, and their fees significantly cheaper than those at home. Americans are also buying up land for retirement purposes, the country is considered favorable for business investment, and, most tellingly, the number of Costa Ricans who live abroad in Europe or the U.S. for years and then nostalgically gravitate back home is quite remarkable. Some decades ago (so I was told by a seemingly knowledgeable tour guide) the government took 80 percent of the land away from the wealthiest landowners who were basically enslaving the rest of the population and made it available for the poor to afford at cheap rates. The constitution does not permit the country to maintain a standing army. The Costa Rican Cumbres cigars I brought back legally are smoother and richer in flavor than the bandless Cuban Cohibas that, to my surprise, turned up in one of the shoes in my suitcase when I got home. Aside from the nerve-wracking craziness of trying to drive in San Jose (no worse than Manhattan, and no better), Costa Rica does seem like a jewel of the Western hemisphere.

I say all this up front to mitigate the negative PR value of the fact that within ten hours of my arrival, two men jumped out of a cab, pointed pistols at me, and took my wallet. This was apparently a fluke. Pickpocketing and petty crime are common, as in all Latin American countries and many U.S. cities, but violent confrontation is extremely rare, especially in the neighborhood around the Universidad de Costa Rica where I was staying. At six foot two I am taller than the average Central American male by several inches, and thus identifiable as a presumptive American from blocks away. Moreover, foreigners have often told me that I am the most American-looking and -sounding person they’ve ever met, and so in countries where Americans are pinpointed by thieves, beggars, and police as likely to be carrying cash and credit cards, I?m a sitting duck. Attempts to cultivate a swarthier, more Mediterranean persona have not met with success.

But the University music department’s fourth annual Seminario de Composicion Musical, in which I participated, ran smoothly and without further disturbing incident. The music students at the University are hard-working, curious, and uninformed, an odd blend of innocence and innate musicality. According to their teachers they are well trained in the European classics but have had little chance for contact with contemporary music; names such as Reich, Glass, Ligeti, and Feldman drew only the slightest recognition among a student or two. Yet pieces I saw and heard by young composers, if uniformly tonal, were sophisticated in both counterpoint and especially rhythm – and I don’t mean the stereotypical kind of 3+3+2 “Latin” rhythms one associates with music south of the border, either, but more complex cycles of 11 or 21 beats. One would almost call such pieces postminimalist, though they seem to have arisen from a blend of classical tradition and pop guitar, with no discernible influence from either modernist or anti-modernist sources.

Similarly, in the Costa Rican music on the Composition Seminar, I heard among my own generation an attempt to create a new music not noticeably indebted to either the USA or Europe. The best, freshest pieces were by Eddie Mora – professor at the University, and my host – Alejandro Cardona, and Carlos Michans. All three composers are capable of a sustained Impressionist quiet dotted by outbursts of melody, though Mora has a more active rhythmic side as well, and Cardona’s earlier music is couched in a pensively muted Expressionism. Mora (born 1965) studied violin in Russia for ten years, and his music inherited something of the Shostakovich/Schnittke sense of humor. (Russian-Costa Rican links are common; apparently the Soviet Union used to court Central Americans with generous scholarships to Russian schools.) Rather than try to characterize Mora’s music from the sampling I heard, I am posting two pieces from his recent CD, Concierto “Amighetti” for strings, piano, and percussion and Girl and the Wind for strings, synthesizer and piano (both 2003), to Postclassic Radio; I also upload the latter work here so you can check it out at your convenience.

I wish I could play you Mora’s Dos Retratos for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello, which I heard played in concert by the Seattle Chamber Players (with whom I was traveling, and who also premiered my own Minute Symphony Friday evening). It was a series of calm, still textures, through which little recurring melodic figures kept reacclimating themselves. Very beautiful, and original. Mora has gigs coming up in Austin and at Cornell in 2005, and may well become the first Costa Rican composer with an international rep.

I also wish I could play you La Delgadina by Alejandro Cardona (born 1959) for clarinet, viola, and piano, a lovely work of sustained tones breaking into bits of Italian opera melody. The three string quartets on the CD he gave me are a little less postclassical, a little more modernist, yet highly musical and not really reminiscent of anyone. I post to Postclassic Radio his Third, subtitled “En el Eco de las Parades” (1999-2000) – because 21st-century Costa Rican music is making a strong bid for independence and international relevance, and it’s high time you heard some.