Photo: Cuban posters
Photo: Cuban posters

Music to see

9 minutos / Pepe Menéndez

12.12.2018 / Articles

On one occasion the organizers of a musical prize at Casa de las Américas showed the president of the jury, none other than the great Cuban composer Harold Gramatges, the poster that had been designed for the event. They took him before the huge canvas that hung in the same room where minutes later the corresponding press conference would take place. With the serenity of his 86 years, the teacher stopped a few seconds before the image and gave the hosts an unexpected sentence: "This poster sounds." It is probable that this affable and generous man, cultured, but inexperienced in the visual language, wished to please and be grateful for the deference towards his person. But the anecdote, beyond also the virtues related to the poster,[1] it concerns a challenging topic: that of the possible "translations" between sight and hearing.

The pairing of sounds and visual forms is a very vast topic, so to stick to the national poster seems an advisable option, rather than pretending to comment on the rich relationship between music and visual arts, or among its cultists as long, at least, the last two centuries of national history. Cuba is both a prodigious source of music and a country with a rich pictorial tradition. There was in the recent past an ambitious record project named La Isla de la Música, and there will be a great retrospective of the Cuban poster in the near future - if a Spanish collector friend manages to align his stars - under the title of La Isla de Papel. So, what do the Cuban posters sound like?

Some emblematic Cuban posters related to music. Photo: Courtesy of the author.

Oye cómo va: music theme posters

The poster is a regular accompaniment to the dissemination of music, as it announces in advance the moment in which it will be performed. It could be said that posters for concerts and musical events of various kinds are the primary cell of that link, the most elementary relationship. In the posters, there are three major players: the instruments, artists (composers, performers, singers, and dancers) and musical notations. It is curious to discover how little represented is the act of composing, perhaps by intimate and mysterious. There are also not many posters that try to reflect - that is, they have been commissioned to do so - the social and/or physiological phenomenon of listening. So the posters we usually have on hand show that part of the music that is in the air. It floats and expands, so to speak, between the hands and voices of some humans, and the bodies and sensibilities of others.

In Carnaval (Raymundo García, 1983) the rumbera dances with swing, her eyes closed, enjoying, and she moves her arms to generate a whirlwind of red cloths. In that illustration we do not see the drums, but we can feel them. In Carnaval de Cuba (unidentified author, 1970) nobody dances, however we see a drum that emits sounds, as if radiating energy. In both cases the designers find in form and color appropriate vehicles to transmit the musical sound sensation.

Another who closes his eyes - one would say that he improvises with his saxophone - is Carlos Averoff, in an image of photographic origin to announce, with chromatic sobriety and stylopostmodern, a jazz festival (Ernesto Azcuy, 1987). Whereas in Centenary of the birth of Jean Sibelius (José Manuel Villa, 1965) we are hardly shown the fingers that beat the horn. It is the unusually slender format and the metallic ink that communicate the magnificence of orchestral music, even though what we see is a single and incomplete wind instrument.

The one who sings - whether anonymous, as in Festival de la Canción Francesa (Laura Llópiz, 2009), or famous, as Pacho Alonso (Rolando de Oraá, 70's decade) - open his/her mouth and we're supposed to hear her/him. Pacho does not need more than his expressiveness to transmit the passion of the bolero in a photographic poster of a rare composition. The Francophone vocalist is helped by textures and forms that help "project her voice". There may even be hieratic singers, like the Carlos Varela con ballesta (Knot, 1990). The social implications of that concert were preferred here and, more than music, the ideas sound (or are they the same thing?).

On the other hand, the one who dances can be contained according to the norm of the time, in the style of February Festivities in Havana (Enrique García Cabrera, 1937). Others shake the skeleton outright and literally (¡La rumba!, Darwin Fornés, 2016), going through all kinds of drawn or photographic dance performances.

Finally, the one who plays an instrument does it full-length, like Pablo Milanés in Una guitarra, un buen amor (Mola, 2003); shows the anonymous hands of the Rumberos de Cuba (Arnulfo Espinosa, 2007), or appears as decapitated figures (Sandoval, Alejandro Rivera, 1989). Frequently, designers explore the fusion of instruments and people, making them unique anthropomorphic entities. Thus, a guitar can raise its hand (Concepción Robinson, 1983) and some feet touch the guayo (Los Pleneros de la 21, Carlos Zamora, 2003).

There are, of course, many posters with musical instruments or parts of them, and others that represent the sound fact with objects that we could call "para-musical". Microphones, speakers, lecterns, headphones, cassettes, vinyl or digital discs, audio consoles or DJ dishes allude to music because they are permanent or temporary carriers and can speak in their name with full ownership.

And to complete this brief classification of direct or figurative representations of music in Cuban posters, one can not ignore the universe of notations, in which the scores are relatively frequent (Premio de Musicología, Umberto Peña, 1979), the musical notes (Festival de la Chanson Populaire, César Mazola, 1967) and other ways of referring the writing of sounds ordered in time (Festival de Canción Francesa, Pepe Menéndez, 2009).

Some emblematic Cuban posters related to music. Photo: Courtesy of the author.
Some emblematic Cuban posters related to music. Photo: Courtesy of the author.

TheAtaca Chicho: posters of musical theme ... abstract or indirect!

I comment now some examples in which music is promoted without directly representing it, that is, without notes or instruments, or performers of any kind. The aforementioned sonority, so to speak.

The conga carnavalera is tried to illustrate by means of bands in ascending curves, that remember the serpentines or the own costumes of that tradition, but that also allude to the sinuosity of the popular dance (Carnaval, unidentified author, 1971). The charanguera cadence becomes, according to its author, a free whirlwind and without straight lines in Eso que anda (Amalia Iduate, 2009). The sophisticated elaboration of concert music of the 21st century acquires visuality in a composition of points and colors in Premio de Composición (Lyly Díaz, 2017). In these cases the communication of the sound is aided by a quality that the visual can share with music: the abstraction.

Another option of the indirect, although figurative, is the allusion to music as an attitude or feeling. Thus, there are signs that carry extra musical signs of identity but that "sound" categorically according to the codes that motivate them. Metaleros (Raupa, 2012) is a possible example: the attitude of that subgenre is in the chosen gesture, in the color and typography drawn, in the action in progress within the poster.

Aguaaaa!: non-musical theme posters ... but they sound nice

Who says that there is no music in the visual composition, in the arrangement of the forms and the chromatism of a poster? Geometry is a frequent resource for organizing space and generating rhythms on the plane. 26 de julio (Alfonso Prieto, 1970) vibrates by the effect of the arrows that seem to enter and leave vigorously from the center. There are several similar examples of the use of optical effects in the art of the Cuban poster, according to the laws of Gestalt or similar. Repetition is usually a common resource. In Boxeo (José Papiol, 1968) triples the title and the photo, and as a result the figures seem to dance to the rhythm that marks the word. In short, music and sports share something essential -the rhythm-, hence certain representations of athletic events may seem musical.

With other subjects something similar happens. The reiteration of the image - growing or fragmenting - is sometimes perceived as being accompanied by sonority. Not always music, of course, but sound. It can be machete when cutting, flowing water, or boots. The spatial composition helps in these cases, and even more the color. Examples of this are Guatemala (Tony Évora, 1967) -two repeated photos and a word to convey a crescendo- and XXIV Aniversario de los CDR (Heriberto Hechevarría, 1985) -form and color articulated like a patriotic chant.

I do not know many designers who know or make music. Rather, dancers of different talents and immobile listeners prevail. But in the history of the Cuban poster the music appears again and again, visible or alluded to, and its cultores -the and the posteristas- have created a remarkable set of images that will continue to sound in time.



[1] Excuse the reader, but it was me who designed that poster for the House of the Americas Composition Prize 2004.

Pepe Menéndez

Pepe Menéndez

Diseñador gráfico residente en La Habana. Director de diseño de la Casa de las Américas. Su interés va más allá de la creación propia y se extiende a la promoción del diseño cubano en exposiciones, charlas y libros, y al coleccionismo de carteles.

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