Con Alma

December 4, 2020

Composer Paola Prestini and vocalist/composer Magos Herrera present Con Alma, an operatic tableau on isolation that will be released as an album recording and live digital experience, featuring original works alongside classic songs from the Mexican and Jazz songbook.

Write, therefore, what you have seen
What is now, and what will take place later.

The long, lonely months of the 2020 pandemic have shown us all a great many things about how we as humans operate: what we need in order to survive, what we want to help us flourish. Isolation has taught us to cherish the closeness we all took for granted: the hug, the handshake, the kindly pat on the back. We’ve discovered – and continue to discover – how personal biases can prevent an entire population from healing, physically and spiritually. And we certainly have come to realize that nothing will be the same after this long season of multiple, interrelated crises.

Nor could it. Nor should it.

But along with the sobering revelations gleaned through confronting hardship and cold truths has come a broader recognition of the breathtaking courage, ingenuity, and drive embedded within the creative process. The urge to make is as indomitable as it ever was. Everyone involved in art – the creators, the interpreters, the chroniclers, and the consumers, among all of whom no hard, fast boundary ever existed in reality – have responded to a terrible moment by building, adapting, and mastering platforms and technologies that barely moved the public-awareness needle just a year ago.

Talking via computer screens in no time led to singing and playing with one another. Web connectivity fostered human connection. At nearly any moment of practically any day, anyone with the privilege of high-speed access can open a laptop or whip out a smartphone, and instantly be in the presence of music being made in real time in a loft space across town, or halfway into tomorrow in a loft on the other side of the planet.

Recording, of course, is something different. Savvy artists and engineers have assembled albums using contributions from collaborators not present in the same recording studio for decades now—a practice that accelerated in the digital age. This album you’re hearing right now – or are about to listen to, or perhaps just did – could have been assembled anytime in much the same manner it was pieced together between March and October of this month.

But, and this is important: it would not have produced this album. Con Alma is a result of the impulses that arrested the minds and hearts of two extraordinary artists – the gifted singer-songwriter Magos Herrera and the protean composer Paola Prestini, who also happen to be dear friends – at a time when they were prevented from being together with each other, and with the broader community of fellow artists they work with regularly and love. Drawn from and enriched by timeless passions, historic musical practices, and contemporary responses to a world teetering on the brink of drastic transformation, Con Alma is a document absolutely of its moment.

The two creators say as much in a joint statement they circulated in advance of the album’s arrival. “Con Alma is a sonic painting representing a 15-year friendship through a collaborative process of writing, telling the story of shared ambitions and triumphs, love, trials, hope, and losses,” Herrera and Prestini wrote in a joint statement about the project. “The artists we worked with form our international musical family, and it’s a joy to be able to connect through this album, leaving an artifact of this time, and our response to the pandemic: alone, but together.”

That these two artists might forge a harmonious union that defies terrestrial distance makes perfect sense, in light of their common bonds to Mexico and to New York, places where both have spent significant portions building their characters, their lives, and their work. Nature and mysticism inform the creative flow that Herrera and Prestini draw upon; science and spirit fuse together in potent alchemy. Further energy and inspiration was gleaned from the surrealist images of Spanish-Mexican painter Remedios Varo, whose vivid works challenged orthodox views of femininity.

The album’s nine selections, enacted by an exemplary cast of performers, comprise an intimate conversation—one in which idioms and dialects grow close and mingle, without shedding their individuality.

La luna miro
Y un ave lanzó
emprendió su rumbo


Crucially, the visionary energies that course throughout Con Alma emanate from, and resonate with, specifically feminine forces and sources. In “La creación de las aves” (“The Creation of the Birds”), by Herrera and Vinicius Gomes, the moon in her loving kindness sends to earth a winged creature whose song creates life. Prestini developed “Tree of 40 Fruit,” the splendid choral work that follows, with the writer Maria Popova, an intrepid explorer of the human condition. The tree of the title, onto which the artist Sam Van Aken grafted 40 different varieties of apple, yielded data compiled by Popova and transformed into music by Prestini, in an ingenious demonstration of coexistence.

In “Rojo sol,” Herrera responds to dreams of an all-obscuring red sun in a paean to patient observation. (Once again, a bird is present.) Prestini’s “Alma Muerta” begins and ends with impressions of apocalypse delivered by women’s voices; in between, fragmentary evocations of pandemic and climate crisis root the song in our present moment. Prestini derives her musical material from “Con Alma,” the Dizzy Gillespie jazz standard; that song follows in an arrangement Diego Schissi made for Herrera, who finds in the gracious song – translated, “With Soul” – an evocation of anima mundi.

Drawing upon memories of childhood in church, as well as an adulthood spent learning, teaching, and sharing music, Prestini uses Palestrina’s Fratres ego enim accepi, a setting for double choir that relates the Last Supper, as a springboard for her own uncanny Fratres. Here, Mary Magdalene – present for the blessed event, but not afforded a seat at the table in the gospels – is given voice and agency at last in the form of a wordless soliloquy by Herrera, which immediately impacts everything that surrounds it.

Birds feature prominently in “Interlude: The Sound of Isolation,” framed alongside train and bell sounds in an evocative tableau. The birds link the interlude to “Thrush Song,” a work for children’s chorus and narrator with words by Popova in homage to the writer and environmental activist Rachel Carson, derived from Prestini’s composition of the same title for the groundbreaking New York Philharmonic initiative Project 19.

Que una paloma blanca muy de mañana le va a cantar
A la casita sola con sus puertitas de par en par…

One last bird remains: the mourning dove that represents the spirit of a loved one departed in “Cucurrucucú paloma,” by Tomás Méndez. The song, a Mexican standard from 1954, ends Con Alma with commingled strands of isolation, longing, conciliation, and hope—a pungently bittersweet condition that calls to mind our present stasis, while also suggesting that patience, perseverance, and faith might yet see us all through to a brighter day.

– words by Steve Smith

"New York composer Paola Prestini and Mexico-based singer-songwriter Magos Herrera (plus a crew of musicians) used the lockdown to collaborate at a distance, and the result is a melancholy but uplifting quasi-cantata full of bird calls, phone calls, and calls across frozen borders."

Album info

Release date:
December 4, 2020

"New York composer Paola Prestini and Mexico-based singer-songwriter Magos Herrera (plus a crew of musicians) used the lockdown to collaborate at a distance, and the result is a melancholy but uplifting quasi-cantata full of bird calls, phone calls, and calls across frozen borders."

New York Magazine

December 4, 2020

Con Alma

December 4, 2020

Con Alma

Composer Paola Prestini and vocalist/composer Magos Herrera present Con Alma, an operatic tableau on isolation that will be released as an album recording and live digital experience, featuring original works alongside classic songs from the Mexican and Jazz songbook.

Press Quotes

November 25, 2020
"New York composer Paola Prestini and Mexico-based singer-songwriter Magos Herrera (plus a crew of musicians) used the lockdown to collaborate at a distance, and the result is a melancholy but uplifting quasi-cantata full of bird calls, phone calls, and calls across frozen borders."