The critical discourse on Carlos Chávez’s music is full of contradictions regarding the presence within it of signifiers of the Mexican, the pre-Columbian, and the indigenous. Between 1918 and 1928 Chávez in fact developed, from stylistic preferences that appeared early in his compositions, a polysemic language that he could use equally well to address the very modern or the primitive, the pre-Columbian or the contemporary mestizo, in and only in those works in which he chose to do so. Chávez’s referents emerged in dialogue with the cultural and political contexts in which he worked, those of post-revolutionary Mexico and modern New York. But he was attracted above all to modernism and modernity, and was impacted by cosmopolitan forces at home and abroad. By the end of the decade he had earned a position within the modern musical field’s network of social relations, and had drawn the attention of agents of recognition such as Edgard Varèse, Paul Rosenfeld, Aaron Copland, and Henry Cowell. These composers and critics added Chávez’s constructed difference to their much-sought collective difference as Americans within a European art. Chávez’s own use of explicit Mexican referents in some of his works shaped the early reception of his music as quintessentially American/Mexican, eventually influencing the way we understand it today.

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