Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija is known for his interdisciplinary practice in which he takes cues from the core of life, reframing simple gestures—childishly jumping on a bed in pajamas or sitting on a bench at a museum, for example—as monumental acts of existence through performance, film, and photography. In other cases, he intervenes into the course of history, subverting and repurposing elements of the bygone. For his most recent project, Mariachi Wagner, the artist collaborated with the all-women mariachi band, the Rosas Divinas, to perform Wagner’s music during the fourth iteration of Dallas’s SOLUNA International Music and Arts Festival, which previously hosted performances by St. Vincent, Nas, and Pharrell Williams. Translated into mariachi tunes by composer Jesús Echevarría, Wagner’s music received an exuberant treatment through the band’s mastery on different instruments and warm chemistry with the audience during the performance at the Moody Performance Hall in Dallas’ sleek Art District on May 15th.
Lebrija sat down for a coffee at his hotel lobby next morning to catch up on the process coming to last night’s performance. Relaxed but still impassioned, the artist talked about his own association with music—including Wagner’s—and poignancy of working with an all-female mariachi band in the United States. Preparing to return to Mexico after his short stay in the southern city, Lebrija seems thrilled to see his work in a context outside the white cube. “It’s great to be invited to an arts and music festival as a conceptual artist,” the artist said. “I showed a musical piece at a theatrical venue for the first time.” Collaborating with musicians on an art project excites the forty-six years old artist, who embraces the challenges of giving up his omnipresence over the work. “I like that interdisciplinary aspect, actually,” he explained while saluting Antoine Wagner, who was visiting in town to present his documentary about his controversial great-great-grandfather in the same festival. “We all acknowledged the difficulty at first, including the musicians, but we feel the whole process was worth all of that in the end.”
YEREBAKAN: This is my first time here in Dallas and so far it’s been great with nice weather and hospitable people. How has it been for you between preparing for last night and exploring other performances during SOLUNA?
LEBRIJA: Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to see other performances between arranging the stage and finalizing the rehearsals. This was a very short trip for me, but I found a chance to some amazing art collections here.
YEREBAKAN: How did you come across the Rosas Divinas?
LEBRIJA: When SOLUNA invited me, I already had some ideas. I’ve always played music unprofessionally, and mariachi music is something I grew up with. This project gave an opportunity to experiment with different aspects of myself including my admiration for classical music, and especially for Wagner. Initially, I looked for a mariachi band from Jalisco, but bringing them here was almost impossible due to the visa situation. Each musician had to apply for a visa to perform here. When we turned to local mariachi bands in Dallas, I remembered hearing about a local all-female mariachi band.
YEREBAKAN: And, you didn’t look for any further!
LEBRIJA: Exactly. I thought I don’t even care if they are good or bad; this was perfect for the project. I listened three of them play during a visit in Dallas with the SOLUNA staff, and they were very good. When I first approached them about the project, they were very insecure but willing to take the risk.
YEREBAKAN: When the performance started last night, I remembered how universal music actually is, which is something we often times forget after training our ears for specific types of music and instruments.
LEBRIJA: That timeless and placeless aspect of music is very important. We might think Wagner and mariachi music are completely different in many senses, but hearing them blend is very refreshing even simply on a musical level separate from any political discussions. The drama embedded in Wagner’s music is still present with all the intensity and fluctuation of emotions, which is difficult to achieve with thirty musicians rather than an entire symphony. Maintaining characteristics of both traditions is very crucial. The translation from one tradition to another with the band’s utilization of trumpets or violins worked really smoothly, especially with little time we had for rehearsal.
YEREBAKAN: Aside from the artistry, the performance made me think about the geographical charge of music. In this case, we are talking about an unexpected connection between Mexico and Germany.
LEBRIJA: Yes, it took us somewhere else that is neither Germany nor Mexico.
YEREBAKAN: There is a riff on the common understanding of classical versus traditional. Listening to the Rosas Divinas, I thought how Wagner is considered classical and mariachi music is traditional. Why do we label certain music as classical, but others as traditional when they are equally historic?
LEBRIJA: Definitely. Those two labels are products of two separate cultural perspectives. The members of this band are all Americans with immigrant parents. They are very Mexican with the way they present themselves, but almost none of them has ever been to Mexico, which adds a nostalgic and melancholic element to the project. These girls have that unique approach to the material with their particular sound and acoustics, but also with their particular pasts. The whole act could have been a catastrophe, but they took that risk.
YEREBAKAN: The harmony between climatic and tranquil moments was particularly noticeable.
LEBRIJA: The music starts very imperialistic, but slowly switches to sounding melancholic and romantic.
YEREBAKAN: How trained are they with non-traditional mariachi instruments? I saw a harp on stage last night.
LEBRIJA: Actually, they use all mariachi instruments, including the harp, except for the trombone. Trumpets were added in the 20th century when before classical mariachi was all string instruments. Our maestro wanted to also include clarinet but this didn’t seem enough pure and raw for the performance. Wagner’s musical grammar is very challenging to convey with untraditional instruments, and trombone makes certain sounds visibly dramatic.
YEREBAKAN: Wagner is known for revolutionizing performance of symphonic music by taking control of theatrical elements on stage to create an overall experience. The stage is noticeably minimal in your adaptation with contemporary accents of light almost like a Robert Wilson production.
LEBRIJA: Visuals of my work is always minimal. The background light starts with dark blue and makes it to yellow sunrise. In thirty-six minutes, we capture the rising of the sun, which is commonly used in mariachi serenades. With the appearance of the sun, the mariachi singer stops serenading for his lover. I like the idea of capturing passage from night to day within thirty-six minutes.
YEREBAKAN: Let’s talk about politics. We are in Dallas not far away from the Mexican border. You’re presenting an important element from the Mexican culture, but also subverting it with an all-female band playing music from a controversial European musician.
LEBRIJA: Let’s not also forget about Mexican machismo and charro culture, too. It’s difficult to find woman mariachi musicians there. This was even unimaginable fifty years ago. Our initial plan was to raise the stage for them to sing above the actual stage. Due to regulations and limitations of the theatre, we couldn’t realize this concept. I wanted them to sing on a higher concrete wall similar to a border.
YEREBAKAN: The costumes nicely balance traditional elements with femininity. Did the performers choose their costumes?
LEBRIJA: The black is usually worn for gala nights. The traditional mariachi costume comes from the charro attire worn during fieldwork. The concept of mariachi ties to Europe actually. There used to a French community in Jalisco, where I live and where Mariachi music started. The French used to invite musicians for their weddings, which is called mariage in French. You can hear the similarity between two words. That’s when mariachi musicians adapted the charro costume and, I believe, influenced the pop culture at some level.
YEREBAKAN: I liked how the performers feminized the costume.
LEBRIJA: Absolutely. We also have to mention escaramuzas who are women performing a version of ballet with their horses in beautiful flamboyant costumes. There are no women in charrería tradition, but escaramuzas are very important. The performers, however, chose to wear the charro costume and adapt it to their own bodies except for those big flowers they wore as headpieces—that’s an homage to these women.
YEREBAKAN: There was a moment through the end of the performance when one of the musicians interacted with the audience in an intimate way with a hand gesture. Cheering up the audience is not common in a symphony.
LEBRIJA: We wanted to play with that solemnity in a classical concert. I wanted to shout “Viva México!” at some point, because mariachi music asks for that joyful interaction. It’s hard to resist.
YEREBAKAN: Your work balances theatricality with reality by blending artificial elements into real-life situations. Mariachi Wagner takes this to the next level by presenting the work in a theatrical environment. Was it challenging to present your work on stage as a conceptual artist?
LEBRIJA: I like to play with the duality by blurring the line between action and performance and having the work seem both natural and organized. My concepts reside on the verge of reality and talks about the passage of time. Art becomes more important as a conceptual proposal than visuality. The aesthetic part is the package or the dress for my concepts, and this dress has to be beautiful as well.
SOLUNA International Music and Arts Festival runs through May 28, 2018 at various venues in Dallas.