Tlatelolco (soprano and ensemble)

Additional Information

In the early autumn of 1968 and the eyes of the world were on Mexico, where the Olympic Games are about to begin; student riots were taking place around the world, including Mexico, and on October 2nd around 10,000 university and high school students gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, Tlatelolco, to protest the government's actions and listen peacefully to speeches. The number of people who died at Tlatelolco is not known.  The official memorial lists 27 names but the consensus is that the final death toll was between 300-400 people; others suggest that that it was more than 1000.  Witnesses to the event claim that the bodies were first removed in ambulances and later military officials came and piled up bodies, not knowing if they were dead or alive, into military trucks, while some say that the bodies were piled up on garbage lorries and sent to unknown destinations. The soldiers rounded up the students onto the Chihuahua Building's elevator walls, stripped them, and beat them.

Dr Victoria Carpenter, then a colleague at York St John University, approached me in 2015 with a view to collaboration. She had heard me speak about my composing at a conference and thought I would be the right person for the work. Her interest in the subject was a significant part of her research, and her book The Tlatelolco Massacre, Mexico 1968, and the Emotional Triangle of Anger, Grief and Shame (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2018) was launched last week, on the 50th anniversary of the massacre.  At our first meeting she outlined to me the narrative of events at Tlatelolco and introduced me to the epic poem by Marcela del Rio, which she was translating into English at that time. I was immediately drawn to the project, attracted by the subject itself, but also to the many ambiguities and inconsistencies in the narrative and the multilayered nature of the poetry which re-tells events from multiple perspectives, something which has long been a feature of my writing.  I wrote the score – which lasts some 45 minutes – in the spring of 2016 and the music was performed at the university that summer.  The unusual ensemble of soprano with cor anglais, trombone and marimba was one I had used previously in Art of War, a composition for my colleagues in the music department which turned out to be a study for this piece. 

The poem tells the story using three separate voices: the first is a witness to the massacre: a poet, watching from above, high up on the thirteenth floor of the Chihuahua Building (the building with two H’s in its name, according to the text).  Her voice is spoken, accompanied only by repeated chords on marimba. The second voice could well be the poem that she wrote about the massacre, her pensive reflection on the events of that day.  This is softly sung by the soprano, accompanied by the languid lines of the cor anglais and gentle, low rolls on marimba. The third voice borrows lines from an ancient source; it quotes from the 16th century account by the Aztec informants of Fray Bernardino de Sahagun telling of the Cholula massacre and the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.  The parallels with the events of 1968 are made clear.  The music varies: sometimes it is angry and violent but elsewhere it is sad and resigned – it features bass trombone in addition to cor anglais and marimba.