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Ana Cervantes’ CD Debut
This story by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 27, 1999.
All rights reserved.
Atypically, pianist Ana Cervantes has scheduled no
central New Jersey concerts for the near future. The Roosevelt resident
is here all right, teaching 35 students at Hightstown’s Peddie School,
as well as her private students, faithfully practicing, and taking
time out to leaven her work at the piano with the well-timed stint
on her Nordic Track machine. However, she has been so fully occupied
with her first CD, a self-produced recording, that she hasn’t had
time to tend her career, a self-managed enterprise, by scheduling
Now Cervantes’ debut CD, "Amor de la Danza/Love of the Dance,"
captures the passion and intelligence of her pianism. Released in
December, the album is available in Princeton-area music stores and
other outlets ($17). In the moments of respite since its appearance,
Cervantes thinks that a new step in her evolution will be to delegate
some of the work of arranging for concerts to professional management,
and she is currently shopping for an agent.
The artist plays some music from the CD and talks about the recording
process at Encore Books in the Princeton Shopping Center on Friday,
January 29, at 7:30 p.m.
"Amor de La Danza" is inspired by the movements, rhythms,
and spirit of the dance. The earliest piece is a Pavane by the 16th-century
composer William Byrd; the latest is a set of 12 Cuban dances by Joaquin
Nin-Culmell, a composer who turned 90 in September. The Nin-Culmell
dances and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor are the
largest pieces on the recording. The recording also includes a reading
of the e.e. cummings poem, "I carry your heart with me," followed
by an interpretation of the poem for piano by Princeton area composer
Olga Gorelli, whose pieces often find their way onto Cervantes’ live
programs. Also featured is a sonata by the 18th-century Spaniard,
Sebastian de Albero, and "Sunny’s Game" by the 20th-century
Argentinean, Astor Piazzolla. The Albero and Gorelli pieces were recorded
live during a performance at Princeton’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation
in February, and the other works were recorded later at the same site.
Interviewed by telephone from her home in Roosevelt, Cervantes talks
volubly about making the recording. Better known to area concert goers
as Anita Cervantes, she says she recently decided that "it is
time" to use her given name, Ana, rather than the diminutive form
she acquired in childhood. Her account of making her first solo recording
illuminates an intensely personal experience that turned up opportunities
for introspection at every corner. An expansive person, Cervantes
reveals her intimate observations with gusto. When I observe that
she has a gift for talking off the top of her head, she says, "Just
put a glass of wine in my hand and I could go on all day."
There were no artistic surprises in making the recording, she says.
"I felt ready artistically. I had been playing and performing
the music for a long time. It was a part of me and I felt very at
home with it. But I learned a tremendous amount about the process
of making a recording."
A major obstacle for Cervantes was seeing performing and recording
as distinct activities. "I had to come to terms with philosophical
questions about recording," she says. "I’m such an inveterate
live performer, the main thing I learned was that I had to distinguish
between recorded music versus live music. It was a real issue for
me. If you’re really a performer, you get yourself out in front of
an audience. That’s your job. With the recording I was struggling
with post-production editing and splicing. I knew that some editing
would be necessary, but I was having trouble with it. I was worried
about artistic integrity. There was some part of me that felt I was
not presenting myself truly if I modified what I played at all. I
solicited the counsel of friends. All of them said, `You don’t want
to go out there with a product that’s not superior artistically.’
Brad Garton, who wrote the liner notes said, `Forget thinking that
recording is some representation of a live performance. You perform
these pieces compellingly all the time, but this is something different.’"
Another issue Cervantes had to put to rest was her reliance
on an audience for energizing a performance. "I was afraid that
in recording I would lose my sense of connection to the audience,
which nourishes me when I perform. In a funny kind of way, though,
I felt very connected to the music and to an abstract, intangible
listener out there while I was recording." She realized that recording
for an unseen audience is similar to playing music in solitude. "I
feel that even when I’m playing alone there’s always an ensemble partner,
which is the music."
Noting that the entire album, both concert and studio performances,
was recorded in an "acoustic" venue, the Unitarian Universalist
Church of Princeton, she says she finally reconciled live and recorded
"The sound of the CD was one of the factors that contributed to
making my peace," Cervantes continues. "If you pay attention,
you can hear crackling and room sounds on the recording. A realization
I had about myself as a musician was that part of my commitment to
live performance is a commitment to all that goes with it. Sometimes
there are non-musical sounds. When you hear a guitar, you hear the
sounds of the instrument, the fingers hitting the fingerboard —
it gives a feeling of intimacy. I love that. With CDs there’s a cult
of perfection having to do with both sound and note-perfect performance.
One of the things that reconciled me to editing the CD is that I don’t
buy into that cult of perfection. In fact, perfection can take away
from immediacy and intimacy. Probably there are one or two wrong notes
on my recording, and I don’t care."
Cervantes vividly recalls the production details. "Our first recording
session was on the hottest day of July. I wanted to record in the
Unitarian Church. I love the sound there, and they have a good piano.
The building is all wood and glass, and it began to react to the heat.
It reacted audibly by making creaking and crackling sounds. John Baker,
the sound engineer, and I talked about what to do about this. I decided
I just can’t bend myself in half to get rid of sounds that are part
of the natural environment. So we left in the building noises, just
as you would leave in some audience noise in a live recording; you’d
have to be listening for those sounds to hear them. I liked that.
"Both live and recorded music come under the aspect of communication.
Making music is an act of love, not an act of conquest or of proving
yourself. It’s a love of the music, the instrument, and the audience."
With one CD now on the market, Cervantes has already made tentative
plans for the next. To be called "Many Voices, One Piano,"
it will consist of contemporary music from the United States and Mexico.
"I have been spending a lot of time in the last year and half
working with Mexican composers," she says, "and I’ve fallen
head over heels in love with that music. Partly it’s purely personal
and partly it’s artistic. I’m half Mexican, and half North American.
It gives me a nice feeling to make a general manifestation of my personal
identity and the mixture of my heritage."
Cervantes, 47, was born in Washington, D.C., the daughter of a Mexican
father and a mother from Nebraska, who met in the nation’s capital
in the 1940s. She does not know of any family connection to the author
of "Don Quijote," although she now incorporates the Don’s
name into her E-mail address.
English was the language of Cervantes’ childhood, though she has become
fluent in Spanish. "My first foreign language is French,"
she says. "My father, like many immigrants, didn’t want to speak
Spanish in the home. It’s unfortunate. Speaking only English leaves
kids without any connection."
"My whole family was musical," Cervantes says. "My mother
was an accomplished pianist. I grew up playing her seven-foot Steinway
that I have now. My father was also a pianist; one of his brothers
sang and danced. My Mexican grandmother sings — all Mexicans sing.
It’s a stereotype, but all that stuff is much closer to the surface
in Mexico than in the United States. There was a lot of artistic activity
in my father’s family even though they didn’t have two pennies to
Cervantes is the only surviving member of her immediate family. "I’m
an orphan," she says, somewhat ruefully. Her only sister died
in 1997; her mother died within the past year. "There’s a way
in which my CD is for my mother," she says.
After graduating from high school, Cervantes says, "some obscure
impulse prompted me to go to Mexico, and I smelled Mexican air for
the first time in 1969. "When I went that first time, I was very
young, and I was enchanted. I remember most of all the affection of
the people, the light, and the colors. I didn’t go back again until
1996. In 1997 I visited Guanajuato, my father’s birthplace, for the
first time. It’s in the mountains 250 miles north of Mexico City,
and it’s very beautiful. The visit was significant.
"My only sister died very suddenly in early 1997," she continues.
"After she died, my impulse to reconnect with Mexico became extremely
strong. I had already started playing increasing amounts of music
from Latin America. Personally and artistically, the whole Mexican
thing had collected a huge amount of energy. The past year has been
a time of tremendous contact with Mexico for me."
Cervantes earned her bachelor’s degree in 1973 at Bard
College, a liberal arts college in New York’s Hudson Valley. "I
didn’t want to go to a trade school, a conservatory," she says.
"I was interested in literature. Going to a conservatory is not
necessarily a recipe for being narrow, but it can end up that way.
And a one-directional focus can really sabotage you as musician."
She hunts up a quotation from pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni to
reinforce her point: "A great artist has to be extraordinarily
intelligent and cultured. He has to have a thorough musical and literary
education. He has to have character, too. If one of those things is
missing, it will be apparent in the performance of every phrase."
Cervantes likes to quote the entire Busoni essay, even to her younger
Peddie students. "They get it," she says.
She also likes to reach out verbally to the audiences for whom she
performs. "I don’t mean a lecture-demonstration, but I want to
lead the audience into the music." This sometimes leads to animated
exchanges with the audience. Cervantes remembers being chastised by
an audience member for saying she approves of applauding between movements.
"It was not until the late 19th century that audiences got intimidated
out of applauding when they felt moved to do so," she says. "But
you have to trust an audience, not tie their hands to their chairs.
People who don’t go to concerts often are nervous because they don’t
know when to applaud. I tell them, `Don’t worry. You’ll know when
to clap.’ If they’re not inhibited, audiences will clap after the
first movement of the Bach Partita on the CD. They’re out of their
seats with excitement. But nobody claps after the Sarabande. It’s
so tender. People just want to draw a deep breath and cry a little.
Audiences shouldn’t feel they have to clap. They should also feel
free to remain silent. Sometimes it’s nice to be with the end of a
piece for a time."
Cervantes’ desire to avoid restrictions on applause is part of her
desire to avoid categorization in general. "A big part of me as
an artist is to get away from labels and niches," she says. "When
people ask what kind of music I play, I say that I play what it turns
me on to play, what reverberates within me. I have a fairly diverse
audience. I have friends who are rock and roll musicians who come
to hear me play Bach. He has such good bass lines. All good rock and
roll musicians like Bach. I don’t want to play for a mink coat crowd.
I want people in Dead-head T-shirts at my concerts. Music is about
inclusion. It’s the urge to communicate. How can you possibly set
Cervantes makes a point of including contemporary music within the
boundaries of her concerts and values the chance to work with living
composers. Working in California with Joaquin Nin-Culmell she says
"there was a spot in one of his Cuban Dances where it seemed to
me that the music should suddenly broaden, as if someone was walking
more slowly. He said I could slow down even more. Nothing was shown
on page. It showed me that my initial instinct was 100 percent correct.
Now the experience of working with Nin-Culmell has become an inseparable
part of my working on the music of Bach and Schubert and Mendelssohn.
"You have to trust your instincts and go further than the printed
page. Maybe that’s the really important lesson of working with living
composers. Not only are you playing what’s in the score, but you’re
cultivating your imagination by asking, `What could he be trying to
tell me to do here?’"
Poetry enters into Cervantes’ musical approach. "Poetry is another
kind of music," she says. "I’m thinking of poetry on a strictly
sonic level. When the poetry is in foreign languages, I tell people,
`If you don’t know the language, just listen to the sounds.’"
In her next major concert, poetry may be an important theme. "I
want to do a big gangbuster performance of music and poetry,"
she says. "I think I’ll call it `Songs of Love and Desperation.’
It’s in the works in my head right now. But I’ve been too busy with
the recording and making a living to work out the details just yet."
— Elaine Strauss
Center, 609-252-0608. With composer Olga Gorelli. Free. Friday,
January 29, 7:30 p.m.
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