for contrabassoon (or bassoon or bass clarinet) and piano
The vast Atacama Desert (two thirds the size of Italy) in northern Chile was a favorite dumping ground for the terrorist regime of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s and 80s. Thousands of people were kidnapped by the police or military and executed without trial, their bodies left in the desert. Their families were never officially informed of their fate. This became so commonplace that the verb desaparecer, to disappear, took on an entirely new grammatical function, and it became possible to say, for example, “Lo desaparecieron” (they disappeared him).
The city of Calama is located in the heart of the Atacama Desert, and was the location of one of the early atrocities of the regime. Only a few weeks after the coup that brought Pinochet to power, he dispatched a group of his minions to several cities, including Calama, to summarily execute known or suspected leftists. They traveled in a Puma helicopter, which later became known as the “caravan of death.” The victims of Calama were killed in an especially brutal fashion and their bodies were never returned to their families, despite repeated promises by the government.
In Calama and other places, the families and friends of the desaparecidos would search the desert for the remains of their loved ones, hoping to achieve a measure at least of closure and peace.
Chilean poet and essayist Marjorie Agosín has dealt with these events many times in both her verse and prose works, from the unique perspective of a Jewish feminist in a Catholic, male-dominated culture.
I quote below Celeste Kostopolus-Cooperman’s translation of the first and last stanzas of The Widows of Calama:
I want to talk to you about them.
I dream about them on the shoreline,
beyond the narrow pass.
They are hollow women,
cracked pieces of clay
in a waterless sea.
I see them move alone
as in whispers.
The widows danced with a feather
of the silent sand.
That is what the desert widows did.
They made paper flowers
to fill the empty shoes.
One of them gave me the hand of
a dead child,
and as I took it, it changed
into a flower of the wind.
(The entire poem may be found in Agosín’s book, Lluvia en el desierto (Rain in the Desert).
The composition begins with a slow introduction, dramatic and dissonant, which gives way to a sort of valse triste, ranging through many shades of emotion until the violent conclusion. This waltz represents not only the dance described in the poem, but the dance of so many women in Chile, Argentina and other countries, who go to the central plazas of their towns to demand justice. There they dance alone, sometimes clutching pictures of the husbands or lovers who have “been disappeared.” In Chile this dance has been given the name cueca sola. The cueca, the national dance of Chile, is normally a romantic waltz-like dance for couples, so the irony is quite clear.
Las viudas de Calama was commissioned by the extraordinary contrabassoonist, Susan Nigro. The contrabassoon, like my own instrument, the double bass, is often typecast as a comic character. While it is very effective in this role, I have attempted in this piece to use a very broad range of this underused instrument’s capabilities, both technical and expressive. It may also be played on bass clarinet or bassoon. Clarinetist Richard Nunemaker has recorded the bass clarinet version on his CD, The Louisville Project (Arizona University Recordings AUR CD 3127) with pianist Krista Wallace-Boaz.
recorded by Richard Nunemaker, clarinet and bass clarinet, the Louisville String Quartet, and Krista Wallace-Boaz, piano