In 1922 composer and self-described “noise-maniac” Carmen Barradas gave a groundbreaking piano recital in Madrid. There she performed her elegant, unsettling piano miniature Esperando el coche (Waiting for the car), which called for a small bell to be tied around the wrist of the performer. Her request was strikingly similar to the prepared piano techniques that John Cage would make famous a generation later.
Barradas was also fascinated by the idea of graphic notation, an interest spurred by her long collaboration with her artist brother Rafael Barradas. Her work with graphic notation pre-dates Morton Feldman’s Projection 1 by nearly thirty years.
You’d think someone who had explored these ideas so early in the century would be well-known and fêted. You’d be wrong. Scholarship on Carmen Barradas is relatively scarce, and almost none has appeared in English. (Accordingly, take everything in this entry with a grain of salt; I’m no great Spanish speaker.) Despite the dearth of information, one thing is clear: this impoverished Latin American daughter of immigrants was a strikingly original musical pioneer, and her ideas deserve a closer look.
Carmen Barradas was born on 18 March 1888 in Montevideo, Uruguay, the eldest child of two arts-loving immigrants from Spain. Both her father and her younger brother Rafael were painters, and her brother Antonio became a poet.
From an early age Carmen showed a special affinity for sound and music, becoming obsessed with the noise of a sawmill near the family home. At six she began studying solfege with a Montevideo music professor named Antonio Frank.
But her studies were interrupted in 1898 when her father passed away. Her mother, now a widow with three young children to support, was unable to pay for her talented daughter’s music lessons. Fortunately, friends of the family stepped forward to subsidize her education, and in 1904 Carmen earned a scholarship to continue her piano and composition studies with a professor named Martín López. In 1915, at the age of twenty-seven, she graduated from the Conservatorio del Uruguay.
In 1913 her painter brother Rafael traveled to Europe as a guest of his friend, tenor Alfredo de Médici, in search of artistic inspiration. The outbreak of war in 1914 threw a wrench in their plans. Rafael sought assistance from the Uruguayan government to return to his family, but his request was denied. Upon receiving the news, his mother, brother, and sister elected to emigrate to Spain themselves to be with him. At the Spanish border they were all forced to apply for entry as laborers. The Barradas family women ended up supporting themselves by making cloth dolls.
Presumably the upheaval was worthwhile. Carmen and Rafael were extremely close, and they shared friends, inspirations, and ideas. Rafael’s wife Pilar Lainez de Barradas later wrote:
Carmen and Rafael spend long nights working together. They proposed topics to one another that each interpreted and elaborated according to their disciplines. At dawn, they exchanged their work in a fraternal critical exercise.
Scholars have noted that the siblings’ creations – both aural and visual – often sport similar or identical titles, underlining the strength of their artistically symbiotic relationship. That strength is also evidenced by Carmen’s interest in graphic notation, which she called “Plastica Musical.” She believed that adding extra-musical elements to her notations would “open up the interpretation of her compositions.”
Carmen and Rafael weren’t exploring these ideas in isolation. In the late teens and early twenties, the Barradas home became a gathering place for members of Barcelona’s avant-garde. Friends and guests included Joaquin Torres Garcia (artist, author, and theorist), Federico García Lorca (a poet and playwright later killed by Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War), and even Salvador Dalí and Juán Miró. Together they all explored the destabilizing postwar ideas that led to the advent of Cubism in France and Futurism in Italy.
This is the environment that encouraged Carmen’s experiments in graphic notation, as well as her intense interest in atonality, polytonality, and other similar musical techniques. Her work reflected her fascinations. In 1922 she presented a “tryptic” of solo piano works – Fabrication, Sawmill, and Foundry – which attempted to reproduce the sounds heard in early twentieth century factories, down to the gears and even whistles. The Girl with the White Mantilla required the performer to play the piece without releasing the sustain pedal.
Fabricación (Fabrication), performed by pianist Néffer Kröger in 1995
Spanish critics were impressed with her work, with one going so far as to call her “the distinguished Uruguayan composer” and praising her “brilliant piano recital composed exclusively of original works.”
It is tempting to imagine what might have come of Carmen Barradas’s career if she had remained in Europe. But unfortunately, in 1928, the Barradas family left Spain. The family was continuing to struggle financially and, ominously, Rafael’s tuberculosis was worsening.
Their return to Uruguay was discouraging and even traumatic. None of the siblings found replacements for the artistically adventurous friends they had left behind; on the contrary, they found that many Uruguayans were eager to break free from European ideas. In February 1929, Rafael died at the age of 39. Carmen had lost her closest collaborator.
That year she took a job as a music teacher in the Normal Institute. There she poured her considerable creative energy into educating children, creating new teaching methods, composing works for students, and even publishing a kids’ magazine called Andresillo, which included stories and songs by Rafael.
In 1948 Carmen endured a double gut-punch of tragedy when both her mother and Rafael’s sister-in-law Antoñita (her best friend) died eight days apart from each other. The following year Carmen ended her composition career, and on 12 May 1963, she died in Montevideo.
Neither Carmen nor her brothers had any children, so many of her compositions were lost upon her death. However, her remarkable friend Neffer Kröger – a formidable Uruguayan pianist, musicologist, and Barrada scholar – ultimately took up the baton of Barrada advocacy.
There are a few recordings of a handful of Carmen’s compositions online (with several performances by Kröger herself), as well as a presentation about Carmen Barradas in Spanish. Hopefully more work becomes more available in more languages soon.
The story of Carmen Barradas remains skeletal for English speakers, but it is clearly a timely one. She reminds us all that groundbreaking artistic ideas can come from any source: even those we might consider, at first glance, to be unlikely.
As always, a huge shout-out to the patrons who make this series of articles on forgotten musical women possible! It wouldn’t happen without you. If you want to support the series for as little as a dollar a month, click here.
These articles usually come out every other Wednesday. I’m taking a (brief!) summer vacation of sorts from the series, but expect a new entry about a new forgotten woman sometime in the second half of July. :)
Here’s a list of sources:
Carmen Barradas Wikipedia page
Rafael Barradas Wikipedia page
Carmen Barradas: Una vanguardia olvidada, by Adriana Santos Melgarejo
Towards an alternative history of Sound Art and Electronic Music: Carmen Barradas and Jaqueline Nova (1888-1975), by Gabriela Aceves Sepúlveda
The Modernist World, edited by Allana Lindgren and Stephen Ross