Commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival and School

  • viola, piano
  • 10 min

Programme Note

Composer's Note:

Cinco Danzas de Chambi (Five Dances of Chambi) for viola and piano is a partial arrangement of an earlier work for violin and piano, Sueños de Chambi: Snapshots for an Andean Album (2002). It is inspired by the work of Martín Chambi (1891-1973), the first Amerindian photographer to achieve international acclaim, albeit posthumously. In a career spanning half a century, he recorded as much of Peruvian life, architecture, and landscape as possible, having had the good luck to train with Max T. Vargas in the southern Peruvian town of Arequipa as a young boy. In 1920, he opened a studio in Cusco, the original capital of the Inca Empire, which became his home base for his study of indigenous cultures. In his documentation of both the Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas and the mestizo (mixed-race) populace, Chambi produced more than 18,000 glass negatives depicting the customs and festivals, the working lives and public celebrations of twentieth-century Peruvians.

Chambi was not interested in the business of touring and exhibiting, buying and selling, and securing listings in international photography catalogues. As far as he was concerned, his photography was in service of his subjects — ordinary Peruvians. Chambi’s desire to integrate his Indian heritage with his artistic talent, his unassuming nature and ease in meeting people (regardless of class, caste or race), and his natural curiosity meant that he avoided exoticizing the inhabitants Peru from its coast to its high altiplano to its jungles. His pictures are consequently direct but not at the expense of pictorial concerns — throughout his life, Chambi experimented heavily with light sources which can be directly related to his interest in Rembrandt’s paintings.

Cinco Danzas de Chambi is my musical interpretation of five photos from Chambi’s vast collection of pictures. I was first introduced to Chambi’s work at the encouragement of compadre and friend Rodney Waters, a pianist and fine photographer himself. Having watched me explore my Peruvian heritage (in music and otherwise) for some time, Rod purchased a slim volume containing some of Chambi’s work for me one day... and I fell in love with the images. In the summer of 2006, several years after the completion of original violin/piano version, I had the opportunity to meet the descendants of Martin Chambi in Cusco and witness their ongoing efforts to bring more international attention to Chambi’s vast body of work. I am hopeful that such exposure will encourage more study of this important and very beautiful collection.

I. Harawi de Quispe: Based on the photo, “Portrait of Miguel Quispe, Cuzco, Peru, c. 1926,” this opening movement frames the opening phrases of a cusqueño religious tune (collected by the Peruvian ethnomusicologist Daniel Alomia Robles) in a harawi, a melancholy and emotional song played by a solo quena flute, the quintessential wind instrument of the Andes. Nicknamed “El Inca” for hiking the mountains barefoot, Miguel Quispe was famous for his nonviolent organizations against the deplorable economic conditions of Indians. Here, he is photographed in profile, the lines of his face and Inca outfit quietly brilliant.

II. Diablicos Puneños: This picture (“Danzarin de la Diablada, 1925”) features a single dancer dressed as a devil from the southern Peruvian region of Puno. The piano flows attacca into this second movement from the first, setting the scene for a dance number with a singing melody on repeated notes. Black note clusters imitate shacapa percussion (seed rattles strapped to the dancers’ thighs) while the violin plays in legato and connected parallel fourths to imitate the tayqa, an extremely large and breathy panpipe.

III. P’asña Marcha: This picture (“The P’asña Marcha, Cuzco, Peru, 1940”) features women, known as bastoneras de Quiquijana, who dance for one another. In a game testing their skill, they balance large poles (bastones) on their hands while performing intricate dance steps. After a capricious opening evoking the tremolo and pizzicato sounds of charangos (instruments similar to the mandolin) and guitars, a karnavalito rhythm persists throughout as an ostinato ground in the piano. The tinya drum is alluded to as well — Small in size, it is one of the only musical instruments commonly played by women in indigenous Peruvian culture.

IV. Adoración para Angelitos: As a piano solo, this movement sets a Peruvian nursery rhyme (collected by Peruvian ethnomusicologist/composer Andre Sás) to reflect “Dead Child Displayed for the Mourners, Cuzco, Peru, 1920s,” a photograph of a deceased child laid out among flowers and candles on a bed, ready for burial.

V. Harawi de Chambi: The sixth photo is a self-portrait of Chambi which caught my eye for its similarity to the first portrait of Miguel Quispe. Both photos are in profile, in tranquil repose of quiet strength, and bathed in a halo of intertwining light and dark. Consequently, the same harawi melody from the introduction is set in the finale. Considering Chambi’s penchant for posing in disguise in his pictures in an attempt to get “inside” the setting, I like to think he would have appreciated my linking him to Quispe. I also pay tribute to the folk-influenced music of Bela Bartók by alluding to his second sonata for violin and piano.

With the exception of the photo for the second movement, “Diablicos Puneños”, all photos as well as an extensive essay on Chambi can be found in “Chambi” published by Phaidon Press Limited and annotated by Amanda Hopkinson. In addition, more information on Martin Chambi can be found at

— Gabriela Lena Frank