In celebration of International Women’s Day, two music artists discuss process and performing at the United Nations.
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Con Alma was created by composer, activist, and founder of the nonprofit National Sawdust, Paola Prestini, with Mexican vocalist, composer, and United Nations (UN) Women spokesperson Magos Herrera. The project began as an album that required cross-border collaboration between more than thirty musicians from three continents, all capturing their different musical parts in isolation. Additional participants were invited to share audio and video recordings of their experiences of isolation, which were further incorporated into the album, as well as a groundbreaking digital event in December of 2020 that was broadcast via television, streaming, and radio to more than 150,000 people around the globe. Con Alma Live premiered at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes in March 2022 as a celebration of post-pandemic reunion with the support of Mexico’s Ministry of Culture, UN Women, and Morgan Stanley. Today, International Women’s Day 2023, Prestini, and Herrera reflect upon Con Alma and their upcoming concert at the UN as part of the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. —Editors
Paola Prestini People often ask me where big ideas come from. They come step by step. Con Alma started as a phone call between friends and then expanded to our community. It was April 2020. You let me know you were in Mexico; I had already left New York City to go to the border. You decided that creating something new was a way to cement our communication and healing process. Magos HerreraTo me, it was a call to understand our humanity. I saw this incredible work by Remedios Varo, a Spanish painter who lived in Mexico throughout her life; it was a powerful image of a female bird sitting in a monastic cell. Through the window, a light comes in. When the light touches the bird, the birds animate and come out through the window. It was a beautiful analogy for the mindset of isolation. Instead of feeling locked down and without possibilities, it was a moment of gathering energy in one place to create something beautiful, to find interconnections of motifs. Throughout “Thrush Song,” we see the bird symbolizing the soul. In the video for “Thrush Song,” we see a bird. I thought of this progression, harmonic progression with Spanish rhythm, siguiriya, as a starting point to write “Rojo Sol (Red Sun).”
PPThat’s when we decided we would have these two styles in the piece: I would have the vocal style, while you would be working with jazz and orchestra. So, in our compositions, we worked with very different types of voices. Did you write it all down or is it in your mind when you’re composing?
MHAt the beginning, I don’t write. I go for the harmonic progression. Once I know that’s what I want, I write it down, and the melody and the words come. Or sometimes it comes the other way around. For “Rojo Sol” in particular, it started as a progression, something longing, melancholic, but also powerful because we saw the cities in silence. I remember I sent you the siguiriya, this progression. From that motif, you wrote your “Alma Muerta (Dead Soul).”
PPThe collaboration expanded into several parts because the vocal group Sjaella wanted to do a piece that also meditated on the environment. They sent me hundreds of articles, and we cut out headlines. Then, the piece transformed completely. I sent it back to you, and you improvised into it, both with “Alma Muerta” and “Fratres.” “Fratres” is a piece which, in that tradition of the church, only men would sing; it takes after a piece by Palestrina, and I knew I wanted it sung by women, so I wrote this different take on the concept of brotherhood as sisterhood. Then, I sent it to you, and you did something powerful.
MHWe’ve been friends for sixteen years; I’ve heard your music so many times. But I think it was interesting to see it from the inside and to see the way you think not only harmonically but also in the detail, the spirit of the piece. I was careful because it’s delicate and harmonically complex. I tried to find texture that works in terms of improvisation with Sjaella. You gave me the role of Mary Magdalene, and the opportunity to embody that through improvisation was a privilege.
PPDecember 2020 was a milestone for us. You were still in Mexico; I was in New York City; we knew that we needed to do something that unified the three different continents we were working on through technology. This led to The Sounds of Isolation through the Ministry of Culture of Mexico, where we asked the public, “How is this resonating with you out there? What is your sound of isolation?” Can you talk for a moment about how it felt as we started to receive hundreds of sounds in response to our call?
MHAt first, we were thinking about the album, the music coming together. Then, for our virtual event in December 2020, the Mexican government helped spread the word to the world for The Sounds of Isolation. Since you started National Sawdust, which is a music venue as well as a performing arts nonprofit, you also expanded to think of the audience. All of this took me out of our own narrative as “Paola and Magos creating this album,” and it became larger, more powerful than two artists coming together to create something. Most of the sounds of isolation that we received were luminous. It occurred to me that it would be great to create a documentary about this incredible artifact of our time, the album and the sounds of isolation. When we decided to present this to a live audience in March 2022, we wanted to create an opportunity to bring all the musicians together in one place and experience music in person. Although we were able to put together an album with musicians from all over the world through technology, nothing ever will be the same as creating music live. Coming together in Mexico for these two concerts was very powerful. We got to know in-person all these artists who helped to give the music life at a distance. What did it mean to get to know Sjaella for the first time in person?
PPThe part of composition and process that we were missing was that part of being together. That moment where you’re together, feeling each other’s voices for the first time, the natural editing that comes from conversation and flow. I felt fortunate to have muses that “got” me. After two years of people not seeing each other, this incredible joy of our musical family coming together was stunning. And now here we are, bringing Con Alma to the UN. This incredible opportunity to complete not just the performance, bringing it back to our city, but also the documentary. Your sister Paola Herrera is an amazing film producer and put together this brilliant team that’s been capturing all of this as, not just our story, but really what it means as a time capsule. To be seen as women leaders and creators feels very important, especially in this moment of my life, and even more so with this work.
PP What does the UN performance mean to you?
MHIt was the next logical stage for Con Alma—this artifact of our time that has a strong theme in the core of things. It was the perfect way to close the circle. There is going to be a conference called the UN Women CSW 67 Conference where all the decisions of gender equality are decided for the next period. It’s beautiful that we’re going to present our concert again with this incredible lineup coming from around the world to New York City, to the heart of the UN. We will be presenting this story, taking our seats at the table, speaking up with music, speaking up with our own artistic voices and with the help of these fantastic musicians. By connecting to the things that matter to us through music, we are able to also extend that as part of our artistic voices.
PPThis piece has an activist streak and a deep community impact. It all comes from the art. The art wasn’t something that was separate from the activism. It wasn’t imposed; it was a natural, resilient strategy for us to not just survive but to thrive as artists. I think the impulse for all of us is to take every situation, grow from it, and amplify. Amplify opportunity, amplify connection, and do it with soul: Con Alma.
In honor of International Women’s Day, Con Alma will be performed at the United Nations in New York City on March 14.
Magos Herrera is a Mexican vocalist, songwriter, producer, and UN Women spokeswoman regarded as one of the most active vocalists in contemporary Latin American jazz. Paola Prestini is a New York City–based composer and activist who has collaborated with poets, filmmakers, and scientists on large-scale multimedia works, including the world’s largest and first communal Virtual Reality opera, The Hubble Cantata.