Mario Lavista’s Contrasting Faces


Photo of Mario Lavista from Wikipedia

   For this blog on   a living Mexican composer I chose Mario Lavista. I did not know anything about him, but chose him from a list of living Mexican composers featured on a radio program called “Fiesta” on  WFMT, a Chicago radio station. I listened to a musical setting of Rabelais’ “The Infancy and Adolescence of Gargantua” ( The setting interspersed reading of the text with music played by an orchestra and sung by a chorus. I found the music very gentle and enjoyable. I heard in it the influence of renaissance church music, at times with very traditional harmonies, and at other times under or overlaid with lightly or heavily dissonant elements. It sounded largely pan-diatonic, but with occasional chromatic element thrown in for color. There seemed to be layers of contrapuntal lines, and a prevalence of open fifths.

After listening I read up on the composer. According to Wikipedia, he enrolled in the composition workshop at UNAM in 1963, and studied under Carlos Chavez, Hector Quintenar, and Rodolfo Halffler. In 1967 he won a scholarship to study at the Schola Cantorum in Paris with Jean Etienne Marie. His compositional career has touched on many interesting things: improvisation workshops, electronic music studio work, exploration of extended techniques to create unusual timbres, and use of Medieval and Renaissance compositional procedures such as symbolic use of certain intervals, canonic permutations, and isorhythm.

A more scholarly article on Latin American compositional trends counts Lavista as part of a group of composers who show certain characteristics, such as a shortened and more concentrated sense of psychological time, non-discursive use of expressive sound cells, use of expressive blocks of material, reiterative elements such as ostinatos, austerity of language and expressive resources, veiled violence, meaningful use of silence, non-European non-exotic use of cultural elements, attempts to embrace new technology, crossing of borders between art music and pop music, ideological awareness, Magic inherent in the musical event, and marking of cultural identity. In this article Lavista is quoted as saying “ One has to be always aware…of the imperialistic penetration”.

I decided to see which of these things I could hear in this particular piece. In choosing to set the words of the 16th century French author Rabelais, Lavista certainly acknowledges the influence of European culture and colonialism. Yet in this context he chose a rather rebellious, risqué text. In this work I can clearly hear the influence of renaissance and Medieval musical aesthetics; the music has a quality and style that clearly evokes early music, and  given the period the work is from,  it seems to fit well. In this particular piece I did not hear use of extended techniques or unusual timbres; for this setting he seems to have chosen to stay within traditional timbres. I heard the use of reiterative elements within short spaces of time, but not across movements;  ostinatos seem to be especially prevalent. In this particular work I did not hear the blending of popular elements, but I think the choice of text shows ideological awareness, and an awareness of magical elements expressed an music is also there tied in with the text. While the text is not strictly magical, it contains elements of exaggeration and unlikeliness that require the suspension of disbelief, such as the stealing of the bells of St. Anthony. In this piece there doesn’t seem to be use of primitive elements, either. Essentially, Lavista has chosen to give this European text a treatment that is largely traditional and European, but with colorful contemporary elements that make it interesting and expressive. The use of Medieval and Renaissance compositional techniques evokes ancient Church music in a way that very effectively puts the text in context.  When the recording of “Gargantua” on youtube was finished, the next piece that began playing automatically was “Aura”, a one act Opera based on the work of Carlos Fuentes. It presented a totally different, much more dissonant soundscape, with spoken against sung voices and unusual timbres created with mutes, flutter tongue, and extended instrument ranges. Hearing the great differences between the two works, I surmise that Lavista is a composer of multiple faces and styles, and look forward to hearing more.

-Flora Newberry


Aharonián, Coriún, and Graciela Paraskevaídis. “An Approach to Compositional Trends in Latin America.” Leonardo Music Journal 10 (2000): 3-5.


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