How Taco Bell inspired a concerto about California’s colonial history
Speaker 1: (00:00)
A piece of classical music is examining California's colonial history and our state's long and complex relationship with Mexico. Gabriela Ortiz is a Grammy award-winning composer, she's from Mexico, but she's a familiar presence in California's classical music scene. She's gotten high profile commissions from the LA Philharmonic, the long beach opera, and the OHI festival. The new flue concerto is called me colonial California. Now a lot of things can inspire a piece of music, dramatic vistas, broken hearts, but as KQ EDS, Chloe Veltman tells us this new piece is inspired by a California fast food chain.
Speaker 2: (00:44)
The new flute concerto is part of an event exploring the legacy of El Camino reality, the colonial name for the ancient byway dotted with missions that stretched from the Mexican border to Northern California. These ringing sounds aren't really meant to evoke the bells of the old Camina rail missions. At least not directly
Speaker 3: (01:07)
Crispy bacon and fluffy eggs might just be better. There's only one delicious breeze in the way of the perfect dream farewell. As soon as you wake, as Tsuneo gets hosted breakfast burritos, only at taco bell,
Speaker 4: (01:20)
You see the logo of taco bell. It's a bell that reminds you that the missions, but in a very modern or public way. Yep.
Speaker 2: (01:32)
You heard right over a zoom call from her home in Mexico city composer. Gabriela Ortiz tells me the fast food chain founded by an American named Glen bell in California in the 1960s. Partly inspired her new work.
Speaker 4: (01:46)
Nothing that's serving taco bell is really Mexican food, but it's not American too. It's becoming something new. And this is the point.
Speaker 2: (02:00)
This postmodern Omar's to California's fast food culture. Isn't all that farfetched, taco bells, crispy chicken sandwich tacos, or cheesy Fiesta potatoes come from a hodgepodge of influences. And what we know is El Camino reality is really just a mixed up fantasy of an idealized California.
Speaker 5: (02:19)
The mission, uh, past becomes kind of the founding story of the Anglos.
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Robert sinkewitz is a history professor at Santa Clara university. He says white people in Southern California at the turn of the last century, came up with a notion of a so-called Royal road as a way of romanticizing the past
Speaker 5: (02:38)
The past, which emphasized heroic missionaries, happy contented Indians, Fandango's all over the place, you know, wonderful Ranchos and, and sort of a Lotus land of, of contentment and bliss, where everybody was, was happy.
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Cinco. It says the automobile association soon glommed onto this idea as a way to get people to go on road trips and down the California coast, they begin.
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And the push, the notion that the missions were located a day's journey from each other, you know, which kind of, when you think about it, it makes them motels rather than what they actually were. Agents of assimilation of the native people.
Speaker 2: (03:14)
The absurdity of all of this isn't lost on composer, Gabriela Ortiz in writing, and you can share out, she says she was inspired by the taco bell sign, as well as other bits of California architecture influenced however, questionably by El Camino Dao.
Speaker 4: (03:29)
It's interesting in this dialogue that goes and comms between us and Mexico and how you mother California and see Mexico, or how Mexico sees California.
Speaker 2: (03:41)
The title of Ortiz's concerto is the colonial California Arno. It's a reference to the colonial California now architectural style, which borrows from the historic missions by way of California,
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As the daughter of an architect, or T's knows about the subject intimately. This section of the concerto is titled mission revival, nostalgia. It references a similar style to colonial California. Now that became popular north of the border, The easygoing triplets on flute, harp and vibraphone evoke Californian, sentimental feelings about the white stucco walls, stone, arches, and red clay tile roofs of the old mission buildings. You can see a more modern riff on the style today in places like the Andalusia building in Santa Barbara and the Stanford university campus. And in the section titled Maurisco ornaments, a curly Q solo flute line tanged with Arabic sounding scales alludes to the intricate Morriston embellishments that can be found on some 20th century, California and in Mexican buildings. The ALK is our theater in San Francisco and the shrine auditorium in LA. A good examples of the style
Speaker 6: (05:02)
Does the cultural appropriation going on on both sides. So American architects stole things from Spain and Mexico and then Mexican steel, the fake, so to speak
Speaker 2: (05:14)
That's Lewis oil. He's an emeritus professor of architecture at California state Polytechnic university Pomona. He comes from Tijuana
Speaker 6: (05:22)
Once the fake has been built in California, we steal it and we build it for cheaper. And Mexican
Speaker 2: (05:28)
Oreo says architectural history can tell us a lot about how cultures collide
Speaker 6: (05:33)
Buildings do talk and what we put in them and how we use them. There's another language that gets examined.
Speaker 2: (05:42)
The concerto ends just as it begins with a haunting flute passage After making fun of the copycat architectural back and forth between Mexico and the U S composer, Gabriela Ortiz evokes an era before all those mission style buildings appeared and now musical instrument expresses the spirit of pre-colonial times better than the flute with its deep indigenous roots for the California report. I'm Chloe Veltman.
Bells feature prominently in Gabriela Ortiz’ new concerto for flute and orchestra inspired by El Camino Real—the Spanish colonists’ name for the ancient byway dotted with missions that stretched from the Mexican border all the way to Sonoma.
But the composer says the tubular bells and crotales are not really intended to bring the church bells of the old missions to mind, at least not in the direct sense. Instead, the composer’s intention is to satirize Taco Bell, the Mexican-style fast food chain, invented by an American in California in the 1960s, which famously uses a mission bell as a logo.
“Think about the food in Taco Bell. Do you think that’s Mexican food? No. Nothing served in Taco Bell is really Mexican food. And it’s not American, either,” says Ortiz, who’s Mexican. “And this is the point. It’s not Spanish. It’s not Arabic. It’s not Mexican. It’s not Californian. It’s becoming something new.”
Ortiz’ 16-minute work is a highlight of Camino Chronicles, a weekend-long cultural event happening in San José Oct. 1-3 that aims to upend entrenched, romanticized narratives about El Camino Real.
“We want to unpack how El Camino is traditionally portrayed as a golden land of passion and romance and adventure,” says event co-organizer Marcela Davison Aviles. Davison Aviles, who is based in the Bay Area, is the co-founder of Camino Arts, a non-profit that focuses on cultural events around the historic route.
The Taco Bell sign is one among several popular architectural elements to have grown out of a hodgepodge of Mexican and Californian influences the composer satirizes in her new piece.
“This architecture that was developed in the 18th century, especially in California, is a mixture of many things: Spanish Andalusian architecture, Arabic ornaments and this kind of hacienda-cowboy-Mexican style,” says Ortiz, whose father was an architect and a founder of the famed Mexican folk music ensemble Los Folkloristas. “And the most interesting thing is that this architecture that was developed in California was adopted in Mexico later, as a type of nostalgia for what Hispanic heritage should be. So I was interested in this dialogue that goes and comes between the U.S. and Mexico, and how California sees Mexico. And how Mexico sees California.”
The concerto’s title—D'Colonial Californiano—references a style of architecture in Mexico popular among people who aspire to live a quasi-Californian lifestyle.
“The design ideas of Colonial Californiano stem from the mission period and from the ranches that basically colonized California,” says Luis Hoyos, an emeritus professor of architecture at California Polytechnic University Pomona who specializes in historic preservation and urban design. “Hallmarks would be the stucco walls, clay tile roofs and the use of motifs like arches and patios.”
The influence runs in both directions: Its counterpart in the U.S. is the Mission Revival style, which can be found all over the state. The Stanford University campus has many buildings in the Mission Revival style. Ortiz’ piece references California’s sentimental passion for this type of architecture in a section titled “Mission Revival Nostalgia” that features easy-going triplets in the solo flute, harp and vibraphone.
And in a section titled “Morisco Ornaments,” a curlicue solo flute line tinged with Arabic-sounding scales alludes to the intricate Moorish-style architectural embellishments that can be found on many buildings in both California and Mexico.
“Moorish design ideas, which came to Mexico and California via Spain, would be lots of metal in the use of screens, as well as embellished columns, arches and stone applique,” Hoyos says.
Throughout the work, the swallowed-and-spat-out architectural symbols find their match in Ortiz’ musical vocabulary. The influence of Igor Stravinsky’s European Neoclassicism rubs up against sounds that evoke Mariachi bands. The composer also tips her hat to American composer Charles Ives, who’s well known for mixing melodies and tonalities from very different musical traditions all at once.
Yet underpinning this careening musical satire of the copycat cultural back-and-forth between the U.S. and Mexico is a quiet resistance to what things have become in the aftermath of colonization. The way in which the work opens and closes with a mellifluous, bird-like flute passage recalls the silvery solo woodwind instrument’s Indigenous roots.
“The fact that the work is written for the flute is very important because flutes were omnipresent in pre-Columbian times,” says flautist and Camino Arts co-founder Marisa Canales. (Canales was scheduled to premiere the work with Symphony Silicon Valley this weekend, but was forced to cancel a few days ahead of the concert owing to an injury. The orchestra’s management told KQED that Denis Bouriakov, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's principal flautist, will be stepping in.)
And Ortiz says there’s a double meaning in D'Colonial Californiano, the work’s title. The apostrophized “d” is as much a play on the word “decolonization” as it is a reference to a hackneyed, aspirational architectural style.
Architectural expert Luis Hoyos says it makes sense for the composer to use architecture as a lens through which to think about Mexico-California relations.
“Buildings do talk,” he says. “And what we put in them and how we use them is another language to examine.”
D'Colonial Californiano will receive its world premiere on Oct. 2 and 3 with Symphony Silicon Valley at the California Theatre in San José.