• Joshua Basseches
  • Part One | Introduction
  • Part Two | Early Life
  • Part Three | Leaving Cuba
  • Part Four | A New Phase
  • Part Five | Alchemy of the Soul
  • Nancy Pick
  • Cuba Distilled
  • Esther Allen
  • Constellations in Sugar
  • In the PEM Collection
  • Image Gallery
  • About
  • Menu


    Bringing Sound to Alchemy of the Soul

    Nancy Pick

    Composer Neil Leonard is sitting at his laptop, shaping the sound of glass.

    For this new electronic composition to accompany Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits, he wants translucency, first of all. Clarity. So he takes a recording of himself playing saxophone—one with the right timbre—and cuts everything except the "tail" of the sound, as the note dies away.

    Starting from this pure tone, he then reshapes it digitally, the way that a glassblower shapes molten glass. Using specialized software for composers, with a couple keystrokes he makes the note grow louder in the middle. So that it balloons. Just the way the blue glass swells in Maria Magdalena "Magda" Campos-Pons's reimagined rum distillery, before it tapers off again.

    And suddenly there it is, clear and curvaceous: the sound of glass.

    Hearing Leonard's composition, a viewer of Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits might not consciously make the connection between the shape of the sound and the shape of the glass. But for Campos-Pons and Leonard that is not the point.

    Leonard's piece is part of the conversation he and Campos-Pons have been holding for nearly thirty years, and its underlying subtext is personal. There is nothing literally or straightforwardly Cuban about the works Leonard creates for her installations. Instead, the real goal of his compositions is, as he puts it, to "take you to Magda."

    It is her artistic lifework—sensual and deeply poetic and steeped in memory—that has been at the heart of their long collaboration. With that place as their starting point, Campos-Pons and Leonard have created a synthesis of art and music, Afro-Cuban and American, ancestral and electronic. They have created something new and entirely their own, as syncretic as the cultural intermingling that has taken place in Cuba itself between Europeans, Asians, and Africans. This remarkable dialogue between Campos-Pons and Leonard began when these two artists from vastly different worlds first met in 1988.

    In the 1980s, it was rare for museums to invite visual artists and composers to create works together. Today, the situation has changed dramatically. In recent years, interdisciplinary, multimedia, and cross-genre exhibitions have seen explosive growth in the museum world, driven by new technology and changing tastes. "Multisensory immersion has taken the place of disinterested contemplation as the goal of much art," write Nina Levent and Alvaro Pascual-Leone in The Multisensory Museum. At its origins, the collaboration between Campos-Pons and Leonard—bringing sound into art museums—was far ahead of its time.

    Bringing Sight and Sound Together

    Campos-Pons and Leonard were introduced while she was studying in the U.S. at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt). At the time, Campos-Pons was working on a film, Rito de Iniciación/Rite of Initiation, in which she reinterpreted Afro-Cuban religious rituals through a personal lens, taking a daring approach. She wondered who could compose music that would fit.

    Video | Film clip from Rito de Iniciación/Rite of Initiation, film, color, and sound, 31 minutes, Western Front, Vancouver, Canada. Courtesy of the artists.

    A friend suggested Leonard, who worked in the college's media lab and made electronic soundscapes. He had already visited Cuba and owned an impressive collection of Cuban recordings. "Back then, I had no idea I would end up using them for a project lasting several decades," he said of the dozens of albums he had brought home. "But to me, they seemed far more valuable than cigars."

    Campos-Pons showed him her sketchbook, containing images of the scenes she intended to enact. Then she went off to film and he went off to compose. "When he played the first sample of what he had done for me, I was mesmerized," she said.

    His composition for her film used a kaleidoscope of sounds to evoke religious devotion, including flowing water, bells, percussion played on a synthesizer, and samples ranging from avant-garde jazz to the guitar of Jimi Hendrix. "I call him the bastard child of John Cage," said Campos-Pons with a smile, referring to the experimental twentieth-century composer.

    Since then, Leonard has created sound accompaniments for many of Campos-Pons's artworks. While their backgrounds could not be more different—she the descendant of Cuban slaves from Nigeria, he a Protestant from white suburban Philadelphia—part of their success as collaborators lies in their overlapping talents. She knows music and was a gifted oboist in her youth. He, before discovering electronic music, was a visual artist. (Early in their friendship, he took an extraordinary photograph of her feet, with white crosses painted on their soles.)

    "There are things that Magda can't get at through the visual," said Leonard, who holds a master's degree from Boston's New England Conservatory of Music and is Artistic Director of the Interdisciplinary Arts Institute at Boston's Berklee College of Music. "I find what she can't do, and I fill that with music."

    Figure 1 | Interiority (or Hill-Sided Moon), detail, 2003, translucent polymer, La Marrana Arte Ambientale, Italy. Shown as installed at La Marrana Arte Ambientale, Italy. Courtesy of La Marrana Arte.

    Their collaborations have taken them around the world. In 2003, they created a permanent installation called Interiority (or Hill-Sided Moon) on a hilltop in La Spezia, Italy, a work designed to be experienced at night (Figure 1). Projected from orbs, Leonard's delicate guitar music suggests the playing of a lyre. The following year, Leonard and Campos-Pons created the multimedia installation Threads of Memory in an abandoned textile mill in Dakar, Senegal. For that location, Leonard's soundscape resonated with repeating rhythms that echoed the sound of looms (Figure 2).

    Figure 2 | Threads of Memory, 2003, mixed-media installation, cast cut polymer resin, mild steel, rebar, five projected video tracks, and stereo sound, collection of the artist. Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art.

    More recently, the two have collaborated on performance pieces that involve live musical processionals. At the 2013 Venice Biennale, Campos-Pons made a showstopping entrance dressed as a cross-cultural Renaissance queen and leading a band of Afro-Cuban musicians through St. Mark's Basilica. Leonard arranged much of the music.

    Video | Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons with Neil Leonard and members of Los Hermanos Arango, performance of 53+1=54+1=55/Letter of the Year, at Piazza San Marco at the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013. Courtesy of the artists.

    Over the course of his career, Leonard has also had his work Totems performed at Carnegie Hall, directed contemporary music ensembles, and been a research affiliate at MIT. He has recorded several albums, including, in 2014, Mil Maneras, which features compositions done in collaboration with Campos-Pons.

    If his electronic sound installations began in the 1980s as somewhat "fringe," by the 2010s, Leonard was very much in sync with the zeitgeist. Museums had begun pairing visual art with sound in innovative ways, bringing live choral performances into a painting exhibition, for example, or enhancing a photography exhibition using music performed on instruments made from objects found near the site.

    In 2015, the Peabody Essex Museum became part of this trend, commissioning two sound installations by Leonard to accompany the exhibition Alchemy of the Soul, one for the entranceway and one for the gallery. This time, to make the live recordings that Leonard required, he and Campos-Pons would need to return to Cuba.

    Video | A record player spins out the sounds of Cantos del Muelle—Songs of the Docks with vocals by Rafael "El Niño" Navarro Pujada. Video by Chip Van Dyke/PEM.

    Cantos del Muelle—Songs of the Docks

    At the Peabody Essex Museum, visitors to Alchemy of the Soul will enter in a dramatic way: by riding a freight elevator. For that space, Leonard conceived of an unusual sound installation to match. The process began with recordings he made in Matanzas, the city in northwest Cuba famous for its rumba music, in the region where Campos-Pons spent part of her childhood. There, Leonard recorded singer Rafael "El Niño" Navarro Pujada at home in his living room. "I wanted the best of the best," Leonard said—and Navarro is the iconic voice of Afro-Cuban rumba. He is featured on many recordings, including the Grammy-winning La Rumba Soy Yo.

    The rumba Navarro performs is not to be confused with the watered-down ballroom version familiar to many Americans. The real rumba, the Cuban folkloric rumba, has its roots planted firmly in African soil. The music consists of two distinct and contrasting layers: vocals and percussion. The singer's melody, sung in Spanish, floats over what critics describe as some of the most rhythmically complex—and thrilling—drumming the world has ever heard.

    Video | Los Güiros de San Cristóbal, a traditional Cuban folkloric ensemble, perform in the port of Regla, Havana, Cuba. Video by Chip Van Dyke/PEM.

    But for Songs of the Docks, Leonard wasn't interested in drums. He felt that rumba's high-energy dance beats clashed with the tone of Campos-Pons's blown-glass sugar mill, which conveys a certain delicacy. A calmness. So he recorded Navarro in a way he might never have recorded before: singing a cappella.

    Figure 3 | Publicity photo for Los Muñequitos de Matanzas in the 1950s. Re-photographed by Walter Silver/PEM.

    Leonard also wanted the elevator experience to evoke the 1950s, the era when Navarro's band, Los Muñequitos de Matanzas ("Comic Strip Characters of Matanzas"), first formed (Figure 3). To set the scene for the exhibition, he hit upon the idea of placing a vintage turntable in the elevator that would play a vinyl 45-rpm record. Side A for the way up, and side B for the way down. Each trip (the freight elevator being enormous and slow) would last about a minute, symbolically ferrying the museum visitor to and from Cuba. Since the albums would wear out from continuous playing, he decided to produce one thousand copies of the record.

    For Campos-Pons, the four songs that Navarro sings on the elevator album represent a bridge to her Cuban youth. She knows all the lyrics, and her mother was friends with one of the band's early conga players. Like the original band members, Navarro, who joined the band in the 1970s, came from a black neighborhood in segregated Matanzas. Rumba is music of the streets, and the rumberos who play it often have a toughness underlying their Cuban graciousness, Leonard said. Descended from slaves, the original Cuban rumba players were the poorest of the poor, living in rundown urban rooming houses called solares. In the port of Matanzas, the men typically found work on the docks. When a ship came in, they were charged with unloading its cargo and filling the hold with sacks of sugar and barrels of rum. The work was intense, backbreaking. But in between the ship port calls, there was downtime. And that was when the music started.

    The original 1952 members of Los Muñequitos were dockworkers and laborers who gathered in a bar called El Gallo ("The Rooster") in the red-light district of Matanzas. When a song came on the record player, the men started tapping out accompaniment on bottles and counters, with spoons or whatever was at hand. Their rhythms were so good that people in the bar applauded, and the men decided they should form a band. The musicians found fame in Cuba and abroad, performing several tours in the U.S., most recently in 2011. The band has been together for so long that some current members are grandchildren of the original musicians.

    While Cuban rumba music grew out of slavery and hardship, its upbeat tone is free from bitterness. On Side A of the elevator album, Navarro sings in his raspy and enchanting voice:

    Nosotros los Matanceros cuando cantamos
    Cantamos con ritmo alegre y buen compás.

    We from Matanzas, when we sing
    We sing with a cheerful rhythm in perfect time.

    As Cuban musicologist and Los Muñequitos producer Caridad Diez has pointed out, there is no anger in the lyrics here. The slaves who were taken from Nigeria to work Cuba's sugar plantations had an irrepressible spirit. Despite having been torn away from everything and everyone they knew, they "learned to love this country . . . and they worked to create a great culture."

    While rumba drumming has roots in Congo, the musical form is an entirely Cuban creation. Former slaves invented the musical form by fashioning their instruments using what they had on hand: claves from ship pegs, cajón drums from codfish crates, congas from barrels. "Despite its African character, rumba (like the blues) is not a conservation of another land's music," writes composer and musicologist Ned Sublette in Cuba and Its Music. "There is nowhere in Africa where you can go and hear rumba, though you might hear things that remind you of rumba. Rumba is a synthetic Cuban tradition, in which one can feel the creativity of Africans adapting themselves to their Hispanic surroundings."

    Another song that Navarro sings in the elevator, "El Yerbero" ("The Herbalist"), hits especially close to home for Campos-Pons. In the song, a boy excitedly tells his mother that he hears the herb seller coming, and the man soon begins hawking his cures:

    Ponasi yo traigo, Señora,
    Rompe saragüey para los brotes,
    Vetiver para el que no ve.

    I carry Firebush, Señora,
    Devil weed for rashes,
    Vetiver for those who cannot see.

    "I know this song, and I know the story," said Campos-Pons. "My father was a yerbero. I used to go into the woods with him to pick plants." Vetiver may not cure blindness, but in Cuban herbalism the fragrant grass is used to treat problems of the eye. And as for rompe saragüey (Chromolaena odoratum, a shrub in the sunflower family), she said, "that plant is powerful."

    Video | Rafael "El Niño" Navarro Pujada sings a portion of the audio captured for Cantos del Muelle—Songs of the Docks. Video by Chip Van Dyke/PEM.

    Navarro's singing of "El Yerbero" also circles back to Campos-Pons's lifework. In 1994, she created her installation The Herbalist's Tools as a tribute to the father she adored (Figure 4). In the gallery, Campos-Pons placed small wooden tables adorned with fresh herbs. Among them stood tall palm-like structures, each topped with a clear bowl of water offered to the ancestral spirits—alluding to the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería.

    Figure 4 | The Herbalist's Tools, 1994, mixed-media installation, collection of the artist. Shown as installed at Indianapolis Museum of Art. Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art.

    In this way, the song sung in the elevator conveys layer upon layer of meaning. "Like peeling back the skin," as Campos-Pons put it. The songs that Navarro sings are tied to Campos-Pons's past, to her art, to her ancestral religion in Africa, and even to the trade routes that linked Cuba and Massachusetts.

    "Navarro loaded sacks of sugar onto ships that arrived in Boston Harbor," said Campos-Pons. "Here in Boston, you eat the sugar, you drink the rum, but you never hear the voices of the people who produced them. When you put his voice in an elevator in Salem, it's a beautiful gesture of cultural negotiation."


    Sounds for Alchemy of the Soul

    In addition to Songs of the Docks, Leonard was also commissioned to compose a longer and more complex work to surround Campos-Pons's glass sculptural installation, titled Sounds for Alchemy of the Soul. Describing what she wanted Leonard to convey in this piece, Campos-Pons delivered a kind of prose poem:

    Emptiness and fullness. Mass that exists in one form translated into another form. A liquid that travels down into a narrow neck. Translucency. The rusted deterioration of a surface. A ghostly feeling.”

    Through his part in the collaboration, Leonard translates that concept into music. His sound installations are electronic tapestries that juxtapose sounds sampled from many different sources. He weaves these strands together using Logic Pro X software designed for professional composers. The possibilities for digital manipulation of sound are so wide-ranging and complex that they present nearly infinite possibilities.

    Working at his laptop, Leonard first shaped his saxophone note into something like glass. Next, he wanted to add voices. As with each of their collaborations, Leonard sought to take sound and music in a new direction. For Alchemy of the Soul, one of his goals was to bring a sense of aliveness to the installation. "Magda's colorful, luminescent sculpture evokes the presence of the people who worked in the sugar factories and rum distilleries," said Leonard. "Adding voices gives the work another dimension, one it wouldn't have if the installation were silent. In this context, silence is almost like a tomb. But we want to give the sense that the work is breathing."

    In his recorded files from Cuba, he found a place where Navarro, over the course of an interview, spoke two words important to the exhibition: cargar sacos. Load sacks. Sacks filled with sugar. In his youth, Navarro worked as an assistant to stevedores on the docks of Matanzas, loading sugar onto ships. Leonard trimmed the recording, filtered out the background noise, and inserted it next to the saxophone note.

    That done, he then clicked a second voice file, a recording he had made of Ana Perez Herrera, another lead singer for Los Muñequitos. "I played this for Magda," Leonard said. "She liked it, having a woman's voice, one that's so feminine."

    But Perez sang too fast for the atmosphere of serenity that Leonard was seeking. He wanted to slow the pace. "I could make part of Ana's song last twice as long. What if I time-stretch everything?" He tried slowing down the entire phrase, but then the words sounded distorted. So he took another tack, stretching out only the end of the phrase, after her lips had stopped moving. "This way, it doesn't sound unnatural, but it slows down your thinking. Getting your mind to quiet down so you can take in what's there."

    With that, he had succeeded in creating what he wanted. A kind of breath. And that was only the beginning. His Sounds for Alchemy of the Soul would ultimately bring together many elements, including the sound of rum flowing between glass vessels, Cuban voices, percussion, a slow distant chant, and ambient sounds from fields in Cuba where sugarcane once grew.

    "What Neil does so beautifully is to take sound bites of Cuban traditional music and bring them into the twenty-first century," said Campos-Pons. "This Yankee, with an ear that is open and sensitive, is able to distill Afro-Cuban music into something different."

    If this process of distillation is very Cuban—and very fitting for Alchemy of the Soul, Elixir for the Spirits—the enduring collaboration between Campos-Pons and Leonard also brings an element of healing through art. Given that between the U.S. and Cuba, the wounds of history, politics, and race run deep.

    "He is the Kennedy boy, I am the Castro girl," said Campos-Pons, referring to their Cold War childhoods, when U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro were staunch enemies. "Neil comes from the side of the exploiter, I come from the side of slaves. What we have done through marriage and art is to create a mixing, a blending, to bring a historical atonement, an apology, and an embrace."


    Galindo, Guillermo and Richard Misrach. "Border Signs." California Sunday Magazine, November 2, 2014.
    Levent, Nina and Alvaro Pascual-Leone, eds. The Multisensory Museum: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Touch, Sound, Smell, Memory, and Space. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.
    Searle, Adrian. "Richter/Pärt Review—History is Everywhere and the Present is Fleeting." The Guardian, July 9, 2015. Accessed November 17, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/jul/09/richter-part-review-manchester-international-festival-history-everywhere.
    Sublette, Ned. Cuba and Its Music. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2004.