Puerto Rico is the world’s oldest colony. Over five centuries ago, Spanish colonizers invaded the island, and Spanish administrative rule silenced Puerto Rico’s independent voice until the Spanish-American War. Following the war, the United States acquired the island as a territory.Puerto Rico has remained unincorporated ever since. Then, in 2017, the hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island. The United States government was slow to respond, and Puerto Rico has still not fully recovered from the disaster.
This season, the Yale Glee Club commissioned Puerto Rican composer Angélica Negrón to write a song for four-part choir and electronic soundscape called “Paradise.” The piece juxtaposes texts about colonization and disaster capitalism with descriptions of the island’s idyllic beauty. This juxtaposition evokes an image of Puerto Rico as a “paradise,” controlled by external narratives to the extent that its identity is lost and its true voice is silenced.
The world premiere of “Paradise” was scheduled for the now-canceled Glee Club tour to Puerto Rico last month. Although the premiere was postponed, the rehearsal process for the piece was still a formative experience. Discussions between Glee Club members and Negrón led to revisions of both the piece’s music and vision.
“I use a lot of my music to try to understand things that I don’t quite understand,” Negrón said. “I had the opportunity of writing for a brilliant force of voices and bodies together. I thought that was a great medium to [communicate] a perspective that we don’t often hear in the media.”
Negrón, initially trained as a violinist and pianist, now identifies as a multi-instrumentalist and composer who writes music for both traditional and nontraditional ensembles — among them choruses, accordions, robotic instruments, toys and electronics. Renowned ensembles and institutions including A Far Cry, Carnegie Hall, Bang on a Can All-Stars and the American Composers Orchestra have commissioned her music. She held residencies with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra and National Sawdust, and is the New York Botanical Garden’s first composer-in-residence.
Douma and the Glee Club initially commissioned the piece in 2019, in anticipation of the ensemble’s tour to Puerto Rico. According to Glee Club president Sofia Laguarda ’20, the commission is part of a recurring question within the ensemble: When the ensemble tours around the world, what kinds of music and perspectives should they bring to the places they visit?
Negrón initially sought to explore the effects of colonial oppression on Puerto Rico. She was inspired by texts like Naomi Klein’s “The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists,” and said that many of the long-standing effects of colonization have been illuminated by the disaster capitalism catalyzed by the island’s recent hurricanes.
Negrón emphasized the “injustice of how the island was being used to perform for others.”
The first version of the piece Negrón submitted to the Glee Club featured two main narratives. The first contained text describing the “pleasant,” “fruitful” and “luscious” treasure that is Puerto Rico — written from an outsider’s perspective. This perspective was supplemented in the piece’s electronic soundscape, which was composed of travelogue videos encouraging tourists to visit Puerto Rico.
“But there’s something behind [this narrative] that’s kind of eerie,” Negrón said. “With the electronics combined with the texts and voices, I wanted to create an environment that would put the listener in the mind of someone who’s been colonized.
The original version’s second narrative described the darker histories of colonization, in order to draw attention to the rhetorical similarities between the accounts of historic colonizers and modern disaster capitalists. This narrative was constructed using texts such as the journals from Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th-century Spanish colonist, friar, priest and bishop.
Laguarda said that after the choir rehearsed the piece, it “became clear that people had concerns” about singing the piece’s texts. She mentioned aspects of Yale’s history and the University’s involvement in Puerto Rican debt. According to Laguarda, other members of the ensemble emphasized the challenge in attempting to take on a colonial legacy, as an ensemble from an institution with “privilege, power and other responsibilities.”
“The piece contained a lot of patronizing language and overtly violently racist text,” Laguarda said, referring to the portions of the text excerpted from de las Casas’ journals. “It felt like we were calling Puerto Ricans different names.”
The Glee Club then held group discussions both internally and with Negrón. They wanted to better understand each other’s motivations and emotions so they could deliver a cohesive and powerful version of the piece.
According to Glee Club and Glee programming committee member Isabella Zou ’22, Glee Club director Jeffrey Douma emphasized that the ensemble should not “let a sense of discomfort be a barrier to expressing a voice of a Puerto Rican composer through a radical piece of music.”
Negrón and the singers spoke about the choir as a vessel for navigating both a composer’s platform and the ensemble’s own identity. Following the conversation, Negrón agreed to revise the piece and change its text. Commissions often involve many versions of a piece, and Negrón stressed the importance of healthy — albeit occasionally uncomfortable — dialogue with the performers about a work’s context.
After the revision, Laguarda said that the “location of the choir in the conversation became more clear. It removed a lot of discomfort, and I’m really grateful that she was willing to work with us to almost create that version together.”
While the premiere’s postponement was saddening to both Laguarda and Zou, they expressed hope that the group may perform “Paradise” in New Haven in the fall.
Although Negrón still has not heard a choir sing the second version of “Paradise,” she called her revised version “more appropriate for the singers, without compromising [her] original artistic vision.”
At the end of the piece, Negrón added a section representing the island’s feeling of loss through a sonification — the mapping of data values to properties of sound. Negrón mapped percentages of Puerto Rican population loss to beats of rest, inserted as pauses between the chorus’ singing of “paradise.” Negrón wanted to embrace the uncomfortable — both the uncomfortable context surrounding Yale and Puerto Rico and the uncomfortable silences created by Puerto Ricans’ sense of loss.
“The untold stories are untold for a reason, and it’s because they bring a lot of discomfort and a lot of friction,” Negrón said. “Art is a great medium to explore those conversations. It’s one of the main reasons why I write music.”
Phoebe Liu | firstname.lastname@example.org