Miguel Zenón composer and alto saxophone
José A. Zayas Cabán soprano saxophone
Ryan Smith tenor saxophone
Casey Rafn piano
EL PAÍS INVISIBLE “happened by accident,” says composer Miguel Zenón, like it was “almost meant to be.” Serendipitously, the project developed when Zenón was wrestling with critical questions about Puerto Rico’s status as a nation, a culture, and an identity. He had recently read the work of Puerto Rican novelist Eduardo Lalo, who remarked that Puerto Rico was an invisible country that “exists in this limbo” between Latin America and the United States “without really being connected to one place or the other.”
With this tension in mind, Zenón drew from La Borinqeña, Puerto Rico’s national anthem, which was originally in a musical form called a danza. Rather than directly quote the anthem, however, he modified it to reflect on Puerto Rico’s status as a colony in the United States empire. Its melodic elements guided his approach in “[transmitting] a specific color, a texture that was a little denser or a little darker harmonically.”
The piece begins with staggered, contrapuntal entrances by the saxophones and piano, playing a deconstructed version of La Borinqeña’s opening motive, called the paseo. Following a series of held, dissonant chords in the piano, the group gathers intensity and moves into a staccato section with low, repeated open-fifth intervals in the piano. Over these open fifths, the piano and saxophones trade both lyrical and pointillistic phrases, finally softening to a dissonant, held chord.
After a short pause, the piece returns to the opening deconstructed La Borinqueña melody. Following, the soprano saxophone plays a chromatic solo, ascending and descending as if in search of something too elusive to grasp. The tenor saxophone joins in a duet. After a held, dissonant chord, the alto saxophone plays a jazz solo, with the soprano and tenor saxophones occasionally joining and interjecting. At the end of the solo, the ensemble plays insistent, held octaves, as the piano plays arpeggio-like, ascending, dissonant intervals.
The group quiets into a tense section, the soprano and tenor saxophones playing repeated pitches an octave apart. The piano then drops out for a duet between the soprano and tenor saxophones featuring running, chromatic figures. As the piano and alto saxophone join back in, the group builds energy into another staccato section, with low, open-fifth intervals in the piano. After a chromatic, ascending flourish in the piano, they return one final time to the opening motive. They then play a series of insistent, loud dissonant chords. Then, the group quiets, fading in dissonance.