I composed Altiplano 1982 on a commission from Austria for the opening ceremony of the ISCM Festival that year. The festival itself took place in Graz but the inauguration came off in the small industrial town Mürzzuschlag. The form of the event emanated (with a twinkle in the eye) from the traditional ceremonial applied to high festivals in rural Austrian towns: Speeches by potentates in strict hierarchic order alternating with band music. The orchestra I had been asked to compose my piece for was the Stadtkapelle Feldkirchen in Carinthia, an excellent amateur orchestra with an ambitious conductor - Alois Vierbach - who is familiar with new music.
Altiplano is also the name of the vast tableland in the Andean mountains in South America. This is where the ancestors of the Inca indians are living under the moderately humane influence by the followers of the conquistadors.
In spite of the fact that the air at the height of 4000 meters above the sea level has a very low density, the people of the Altiplano, surprisingly, like playing wind instruments. And if there is a feast they play, without restraint, various kinds of music simultaneously. In a small Peruvian town I once heard seven bands play their own music from different corners of the plaza.
One of the most ancient forms, still practised, is the Síku music, performed with pan flutes made of reeds from Lake Titicaca. They are built in pairs so that each of them with their pile of thirds, combined, cover a diatonic range. However, this is not just a way to produce a scale. It also has other consequences. The playing together between the two halves of a Síku orchestra becomes integrated in a very special way which is music-sociologically interesting but simultaneously gives the music a very special articulation.
In the early 1970:ies I was travelling on the Altiplano and the "blessings of civilizition" were obvious. One example: The houses are traditionally built by material from the surrounding nature which makes the villages merge with the environment so that they become practically invisible. But already at that time the shining tin roofs announced settlements from far away.
There is a musical correspondence to this. The Indians were making their Síku flutes from the same reeds which were used for houses, rafts and boats. But at that time they were beginning to abandon the flutes, buying shining and expensive brass instruments from the U.S.A. The repertoire was in general traditional but of course it sounds quite different from when it was played on the Síkus.
How sad is such a development really? A living music tradition is constantly subject to influence and change. What is actually an authentic state? Where is point zero in history? The very process is maybe, in fact, a reflection - or a part of - life and reality. But of course it easily becomes a matter of putting everything down to a uniform level! My experiences from the Altiplano are from the early 1970:ies. I am sure there have been more drastic changes since those years.
Altiplano is a somewhat ceremonial piece which I composed for an inaugural concert. It is written for a group of skilled wind instrumentalists in one montainous country and is built on traditional music from another montainous country.
Folke Rabe 2000