February 5: Chelsea Burns (UT Austin)

Negotiating Identities: Carlos Chávez and the Trouble with Musical “Nationalism”

In 1940, composer Carlos Chávez organized concerts for New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) with the title “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Music.” These concerts, designed to pair with the exhibit “Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art” in the same space, provided an event that would seem to be paradigmatically nationalistic in nature: art and music from Mexico’s present and past, celebrated in the United States’s major cultural center with fanfare, national attention, and enthusiastic support from the Mexican government. However, the frame of nationalism belies the economic, political, and military realities of 1940, providing instead a seemingly celebratory approach to musical identity based upon a facile connection between composer and place.For music analysis, a nationalistic frame has dominated close readings of works by Chávez and his Latin American contemporaries. This frame misses critical musical features, focusing on touchpoints of vernacular or supposedly Amerindian elements while ignoring practical pressures—in this case, pressure on Chávez to present a stereotypical Mexican identity for consumption by bourgeois New Yorkers, a kind of musical tourism. In this talk, I take Chávez’s MoMA concerts as a case study to show how nationalism as a frame can inhibit understanding of music’s many possible meanings. I advocate for an alternative analytical approach, one that centers more specific contextual and material grounding. In so doing, I find that it is possible to understand these works in ways that are contradictory to those provided by a nationalistic frame. Further, I argue that this frame is not only imprecise and insufficient, but urgently in need of change if music theorists wish to address issues of inclusion and tokenistic diversity.