Last October, I selected a piano challenge: to learn a new piano work that had not yet been recorded. Blogger Hugh Sung had an article about Charles Griffin, a New York expat currently living in Latvia. I visited Griffin's website and found a short piece entitled Murmuring in Comala, commissioned by pianist Ana Cervantes as part of a project to honor the Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo. Rulfo's sole novel, Pedro Páramo (1955), is hailed as a precursor for the magical realism, such as Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). Although Cervantes has now released a CD containing some of the pieces (including Griffin's), it wasn't available when I started my own work.
Pedro Páramo is surreal in every respect, and there's not a whole lot of realism, magical or otherwise, to get in the way. The book opens in the first person, with the narrator returning to the village of his mother's youth as a fulfillment of her dying request, specifically to seek out his father, Pedro Páramo, and to collect "what he owes us." But the town is now literally a ghost town, inhabited only by phantoms whose murmurings eventually cause the initial narrator to die from fear about half way through the novel. Brief sections scattered throughout outline the story of an unscrupulous Páramo's rise from poverty to become the largest landowner in the village. First person narration eventually returns, but now it belongs to Susana San Juan, Páramo's last wife, after Páramo sent her father to his death in the mines.
But whatever plot may be present in Pedro Páramo, it's up to the reader to piece it all together, as the novel passes through an array of voices, perspectives and timeframes. Griffin's piece is an interesting commentary on the novel, perhaps not quite program music, but enough for the novel to provide interpretive clues about the music.
Murmuring in Comala revolves around almost a blues riff, a four-bar melody, in the key of A minor for all practical purposes. As one might expect from such a riff, it's set against a walking bass line, except here the bass and the riff are off balance, in a cross rhythm, two against three. The walking notes are seldom in the same key as the riff, sometimes slightly off, sometimes quite distant. The jarring effect becomes more pronounced as the piece progresses, with the riff moving through a variety of key centers, phrase lengths, and shifting modes, and changing hands. Like Rulfo's characters (or like his reader), nothing ever lines up exactly, or quite comes together.
Griffin's program note highlights the ghostly voices and the multidirectional nature of time, both in the novel and in music. I also hear the riff as the eternal purgatory in which the novel's characters all find themselves, not alive but not quite dead either. Salvation eludes them, as the local priest refuses to absolve or bless them, and they wander forever. Griffin's riff rarely harmonizes with the walking figure, leaving the music restless and unsettled, like Rulfo's ghosts. His skewed tonality never permits the theme to find a resting point. The harmony at the "cadences" couldn't be further apart.
Cervantes' performance of Griffin's Murmuring in Comala isn't available from any of the usual online vendors, but there is a Cervantes live performance on Youtube. In addition, his other solo piano work, Vernacular Dances, is on Teresa McCollough's album of New American Piano music, available both at emusic and iTunes. Griffin has an mp3 storefront on his site, where one can also view the Cervantes video, read program notes, and find links to buy his scores.