Guillermo Galindo’s Songs of the Border
At lunch with Guillermo Galindo in Winter Park, Florida, he recounted how the photographer Richard Misrach had picked him up at a Motel 6 in San Diego where he was staying. Misrach pulled up in a huge 4×4 pickup truck. They were going to search for objects left by migrants. Misrach and Galindo headed out from the motel. They drove for over three hours down dirt roads along the border.
Misrach told him that Customs and Border Protection would be there in less than 30 minutes, because the CBP’s sensors would let them know of their presence. He was right.
When Galindo saw the CBP truck coming he asked Misrach, a white American, to do the talking. Misrach’s explanation seemed to satisfy them—they took off. Misrach and Galindo remained for a little while longer.
We were a few blocks from Rollins’s Cornell Fine Art Museum, which was showing some of Galindo’s instruments, or “sonic devices” as he calls them, originally made for the Border Cantos project. The project began in 2011. Galindo began collecting objects left behind by migrants in Laredo for his sonic devices. The objects were personal items like clothing, backpacks, toys, and water bottles, carried and left behind. There were no faces to connect the people to the objects. The objects were usually dirty, and sometimes had dried blood on them—some of the recent documentation we’ve seen in the media of caged immigrants has not suggested these narratives had happy-ever-after endings.
Some of these instruments were being featured in a show called “The Place as Metaphor: Collection Conversations.” In a few hours Galindo was going to perform Sonic Borders III in the museum.
The Border project later became a collaboration with Misrach, with Galindo creating installations from the objects. Misrach photographed these site-specific installations. His photos capture the loneliness and vastness of the border—taken with a large format camera, he attempts to give viewers the scope of the area. Galindo’s instruments, mirroring the rough terrain, feel as if they might have been made by the migrants themselves, or like they were recovered from an archeological dig.
The area is uninhabitable for someone on foot, because of the extremely hot days and often cold nights. It’s desolate and there is a lack of shelter, water, and other resources. There is also CBP, vigilantes, and others preying on the plight of migrants.
The absence of human beings in Misrach’s photos and Galindo’s work creates possibilities for viewers and listeners, who are invited to allow their imaginations to fill the void. The work was an effort to create dialogues. Border Cantos became a travelling exhibit, and later a book, published in 2016 by Aperture. Even though the project ended before Trump assumed office, the work feels like commentary on the current situation.
The collaboration between Galindo and Misrach lasted from 2012–2016. Galindo describes his work with Misrach as a “binational collaboration.”
Galindo was born in 1960 in Mexico City. His mother played piano. Her father sold pianos and organs. His grandfather used to give him parts from the the instruments to play with.
He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design from Universidad el Nuevo Mundo in Mexico City. At the same time, he was a student at Escuela Nacional de Música. In 1987, he transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he earned a bachelors in film scoring and composition. He later studied music composition and electronic music at Mills College, receiving a Masters in 1991. He also studied from 1995-97 at the Ali Akbar School of Indian Music, and now teaches at California College of the Arts in Oakland.
In 1997, Galindo wrote a symphony for the UNAM orchestra, based on the Aztec calendars. The sun- and Venus-based calendars have 360-day and 260-day cycles, respectively. According to Galindo, he "based the form of the composition on the proportions. The combinations of both proportions became an experiment in polyrhythms using tone." That symphony was later used in an installation called Border Cantos I, which became a centerpiece of the Border Cantos exhibit.
I asked Galindo if Conlon Nanncarrow, a composer famous for his studies for player piano and who lived in Mexico City from 1940 until his death in 1997, had been an influence. He said that in 1999, while he was doing a residency at the Banff Center for the Arts in Canada, he’d written a piece for a Yamaha player piano. The tuner-in-residence was Glenn Gould’s personal tuner, who had tuned the Yamaha using just intonation.
Galindo told me that he was much more of a formal composer until he went to Mills in Oakland. This is where he became familiar with Harry Partch—the hobo, musicologist, instrument maker, and composer—and other contemporary composers of new music. Partch was Galindo’s introduction to microtonality, and his book Genesis of a Music was a seminal influence on Galindo’s own work. “I used to define Partch’s music as ethnic music from another galaxy. Perhaps he was as much a post-American as I am a post-Mexican.”
Mills has a strong history in the world of experimental music, with the 1966 merging of the San Francisco Tape Music Center—an incubator for Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and other notable forces of New Music—that later became the college’s Center for Contemporary Music.
There Galindo studied composition with Alvin Curran and electronic music with Chris Brown. He would later collaborate with Brown on the Transmission Series, an interactive performance and installation using homemade, low-powered FM radio transmitters. While at Mills he also met John Cage, Lou Harrison, Maryanne Amacher, and Pauline Oliveros.
In the evening following our lunch, Galindo performed at the Cornell. He had piled a couple of tables with homemade instruments, guitar pedals, a radio, bells, and miscellaneous noise making gadgets, such as CBP shotgun shells strung together so that, when he shook them, they made a muted percussive sound.
He gave me one of the graphic scores that he used that evening. This is a man who has written symphonies and a commission for the Kronos Quartet. In an email, he described that piece: “Remote Control is a comment on today’s lack of connection and human desensitization to violence. A sonic metaphor of dis-attachment through virtual reality, remote-controlled destruction, video game assassination, and the proliferation of interaction with alternate realities in our societies. Remote Control is a piece in which each member of the audience can perform with Kronos.
“Before the performance of the piece, each member of the audience downloads one of four audio/video tracks containing audio extracted from [cockpits of bombarding planes] around the world and an ongoing stroboscopic video/light signal that is activated through the audio. The performance space is filled with a cacophony of sounds and blinking lights, creating an immersive experience in which everybody takes part.”
Galindo could have had a full time career composing concert music for symphonies and chamber groups. He has done that, but is unable to look away from what is going on in the world. There is humanity in all of his work. He responds to what he sees.
At the Cornell Museum Galindo was getting ready to perform. With his long dark hair, dangling earrings, and Western shirt, along with the gear on the table, the atmosphere felt like some combination of shaman ritual, performance art, and noise show.
Galindo told me about how silent the border is. His performance had meditative pauses referencing the silence of the desert. He wrote: “It was early Spring and jack rabbits were jumping all around us. I asked Misrach why they weren’t scared of us and he said that they never see humans. That remark reminded me of the story of the two Buddhist monks that were sitting next to each other, one of them surrounded by rabbits. The lone monk asked ‘why are you and not me surrounded by rabbits?’ The other monk replied ‘because I don’t eat rabbit.’”
Galindo asked Misrach how he had gotten so interested in the desert; Misrach told him it was due to his reading of Carlos Castaneda novels in his twenties. Galindo was surprised—those books had sparked his interest too.
One of my favorite instruments that Galindo made for Border Cantos was named “Angel Exterminador.” A name borrowed from the Buñuel film of similar name. It’s a gong made from a heavy, rusty, discarded sheet of twisted metal. Galindo said about it, “The twisted metal resembles angel wings hanging from a (gallows-like) wooden structure.”
The gong is a response to the world that Galindo sees. It is beautiful. It is ugly. It was discarded. If he hadn't rescued it from the desert, it would have never been seen or heard by most of the world. It was garbage, and he made music with it.
That may ring of hopelessness, or maybe it’s a reminder that we can’t look away.