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An Interview With Leo Brouwer
Guitar Review
No. 75

Leo Brouwer - Cuban guitarist, composer and conductor - turns fifty next year. His musical career embraces three decades of evolution into, through, and away from the avant garde. In his extramusical life as a citizen of Cuba, Brouwer has matured with the Cuban Revolution which occurred when he was twenty. He is a prodigious worker; the balance he has struck between his creative and public lives reveals an unusual effort to integrate an artistic calling with a rigoruos perception of social responsibility.

Along with his ongoing status as an advisor to the Cuban Ministry of Culture, Brouwer has held a number of administrative positions in Cuba. He has been head of the Music Division of the Cuban Film Institute since 1964. He has been Director and Guest Conductor of the Havana Symphony for most of this decade. He has also been involved with, and honored by, the United Nations in several capacities. In 1980, he became Cuban Representative to UNESCO's Caribbean section. Last year, he was named a "Member of Honor" - a distinction accorded to a select group of international artists such as Herbert von Karajan, Isaac Stern, Joan Sutherland, Yehude Menuhin and Ravi Shankar. "I am one of the kids of this group," he says. He will use this position to encourage UNESCO in an ongoing project: a comprehensive encyclopedia, Music in the Life of Man.

Brouwer enjoys the unusual privilege of travelling outside of Cuba, teaching at and directing guitar festivals in Martinique and Toronto, along with regular visits to festivals in Europe and Japan. He maintains a close liaison with the British guitar world, composing guitar concerti for Julian Bream and John Williams, and conducting the BBC Orchestra.

A hand injury four years ago stopped Brouwer from performing on the guitar. It has healed, but he is reluctant to subject it to concertizing. Even without concert commitments, Brouwer is a peripatetic traveler who speaks several languages and composes on the run. He wrote variations to his Fourth Concerto in airports and on a plane to Greece, sending them page by page to John Williams in London, several weeks before its Toronto premiere.

At home in Cuba, Brouwer lives with his wife and two daughters in a comfortable suburb, a few miles from the ramshackle austerity of Havana. Brouwer painted as a young man, and the works of Cuban artists Portocarrero, Lam, and Cabrero-Moreno hang on his walls. He works in a small, shuttered room several steps from the kitchen of his house. The proximity is symbolic for a man who rises before dawn to compose, and study calling reading "an absolute necessity, not only for information but as a kind of food, spiritual food."

CONSTANCE MCKENNA: How did you acquaint yourself with the guitar?

LEO BROUWER: My father is an aficionado who taught me by ear for three or four months. He was peculiar; instead of playing pop guitar, he was an aficionado of Tárrega, Villa-Lobos and Granados, and he played this stuff perfectly be ear. His technique was quite good. With him I learned some Villa-Lobos - Chôros and some preludes, and Tárrega - the preludes and mazurkas.

In six months, I was at a dead end. So I found Isaac Nicola, who was probable the best professor - he was a student of Pujol, who was a student of Tárrega. This gave me continuity with the Tárrega school, but I was not really satisfied with Pujol. I found a couple of things to add to the classical, let's say "old-fashioned," school.

Pujol's school was the last of the gut-stringed instrument. The contemporary guitar - the Fleta and Gilbert - with nylon strings and a huge sound, is like the Steinway or Bösendorfer pianos. Technique should change for these instruments.

I applied technique from the Renaissance instruments. This led me to the possibility of new right hand positions. I took different articulations of the left hand from the cello, which I played a little bit. And I took some tricks from flamenco; I was in love with flamenco when I was a kid. Then I did some recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, ERATO, and RCA Italy.

CM: Was there a particular moment when you knew you'd be a composer?

LB: That is a very easy question. When I was learning the guitar like crazy, I was obsessed by repertoire. I received a big shock from my teacher, Nicola. When I first went to him I played several minor pieces. But he played for me - and very well indeed - Robert de Visée, Gaspar Sanz, Luis de Milan, Sor, Albéniz. I had no culture, but I perceived immediately that aesthetically, this was my world.

So I started learning the so-called great repertoire, the grand repertoire, and at a certain moment in the '50s I realized that there were a lot of gaps. We didn't have a Brahms quintet for the guitar, we didn't have the L'Histoire du Soldat by Stravinsky, we didn't have the chamber music by Hindemith, we didn't have any sonatas by Bartók. So, as I was young and ambitious and crazy, I told myself that if Bartók didn't write any sonatas, maybe I could do it. What a beautiful thingit would be if Brahms had written a guitar concerto! But he didn't, so maybe I can. This was the beginning of composing for me.
Three months or a year later, I realized that composing was my entire world. This changed my attitude towards life. I consider life as a whole composition: landscape, architecture, even the rhythm of people when they are walking and talking. All of this I transferred - not Freudian! - into terms of music. This was one of my obsessions: form as a universal complexity.

I studied by myself. I am self-taught in composition, in harmony and counterpoint, in everything. I got a scholarship at Juilliard and taught for a few months at Hartt in Hartford, Connecticut. Finally, I had found a place to teach, a good career. But I cam back to Cuba. I was a little homesick, and I felt pushed by difficulties in politics from both sides. So I came back and paid tribute to the Cuban government which had helped me to achieve the dream of Juilliard, Persichettie, Isadore Freed and other great conductors.

CM: You were out of Cuba during its most difficult periods, the Revolution in 1959 and then the failure of the sugar crop in the early '70s. Were you affected by that?

LB: The problem of so-called liberty - to go out and come back - this was not a great problem. The problems in Cuba were elemental problems of surviving, of Cold War and blockade and economic sacrifice. I went to Europe in 1961 to see the great masters who had been in Cuba once or twice. They had heard some of my music and felt empathy for it, so they invited me to Europe. I'm talking about the composers Luigi Nono and Hans Werner Henze, the musicologist and Schoenberg expert Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, the Spanish poet Tomás Marco, and others. I played a major role in the world premiere of Henze's opera, El Cimarron which was based on the Cuban book by Miguel Barnet. I met wonderful people who became my friends: the Italian writer Moravia, the poet Hensenberger, and Michelangelo Antonioni, the film maker. A great door opened suddenly, and it was the beginning of a growing career.

CM: Deutsche Grammophon offered you a contract, yet you turned your back on that to return to Cuba.

LB: I consider Deutsche Grammophon one of the great recording companies, but their imagination towards repertoire is a little conservative. They asked me to do a record of Spanish music - Rodrigo, Albéniz, Granados - after a whole anthology by Yepes and hundreds of similar records had come out. I didn't realize that they were trying to start a competition. It seemed a little crazy, to compete on the same label with the Yepes anthology. So I suggested a Latin American anthology, or a history of dance from medieval to contemporary times, or a sophisticated record of Baroque music including works by Silvius Leopold Weiss, ornamented in the rigorous style of Franz Bruggen and Gustav Leonhardt, to which I was connected. They didn't accept it. They wanted a routine Spanish record. We got into an argument and I quit. But I recorded my Scarlatti "integral" which was quite beautifully accepted, and a few more things. Later came a moment of silence when I
was composing.

CM: Was that after you returned to Cuba?

LB: I was coming and going several times every year, as I do now seven or eight tours a year. Each month, I am here one or two weeks.

CM: Was there a moment of commitment when you realized that you had to
live in Cuba, not Europe?

LB: In the beginning, I thought like that. I was in the United States, but thought it would be better to come back and do something here.

CM: "Something," is an understatement. Why do you put so many hours of
your day into administration?

LB: In the beginning, I was building things. This is something I love. I built a radio station network. I built the music department of the film industry. I made 120 recordings in one year, conducting and writing the program notes. Every night I was with a chamber orchestra, or quintet - everything. I was professor in harmony and counterpoint. I built a group to experiment in film, and I was with the trovadores for "New Song."

Then I built up the symphony orchestra; it had been a disaster of monotony and routine. I built new series which were not my own "genius," but very simple. We have a "Pops" series with maybe Johann Strauss, or John Williams' Star Wars. And we have "Orchestra in the Streets." The orchestra plays in the park, and curiosity develops.

That's what I did in the beginning. I was not properly a bureaucrat. The minute the ministry of Culture was organized, they called on me as an advisor. I thought we were going to begin a new era in the relations with music. It was not until the past six or seven years that I became involved in the bureaucracy, because I believ3ed in the Ministry of Culture, yet there were terrible conflicts there.

To be specific, the problem with a bureaucracy is that there's a contradiction between the man of action and the man of thought. This has existed since the Romans. When the Roman emperors pushed out the philosophers, Roman decadence followed. This is history; it happens all over. Bureaucracy is a way of dealing with power. What is a bureaucrat? He is nothing but a caricature of a man of power. He doesn't trust a man of ideas, and there is a divorce between them. This dichotomy has to be solved somewhere and somehow, dealing with love. The bureaucrats should in some way love the art, the materials, with which they are involved. That's my theory. That is why I've been in the bureaucracy for the last eight years. But it's tiring. It's too

CM: It's a sacrifice, isn't it?

LB: Not exactly. The lack of professionals in this country makes us suffer, and so we have to do many different things at the same time. It happens all over the world - in France, in the U. S. - that there are too many professionals, and they fight for power in different ways. Our only choice is to increase efficiency. Efficiency is very difficult to improve in a state so democratic as ours. Our socialism is so democratic that the man who is doing wrong things is not out. He stays in until he has created sop many disasters that it becomes obvious. This is unbelievable but true.

CM: Do you have a feeling that it is better for your composing and your art if you live in a socialist, rather than a capitalist environment?

LB: I don't know too much about other socialist countries - or I don't want to! I prefer Cuba as a socialist country to any other. Of course, I'm Cuban. But another thing; politics always deals with, and flirts around, culture and art. And artists in a way flirt with politics. This is very important. You probably consider yourself an American, but you don't think much about Nixon or Reagan. You think much more about Walt Whitman, or even Humphrey Bogart. I am the same. When I talk about Cuba, I never think of the president of our country. I think of José Martí one of the great poets of the 19th century. I think about the painter Carrero Moreno or Alejo Carpentier, a great writer who, along with Luis Aragon is part of the surrealistic movement in Paris.

This - not even the beautiful landscape, but my own culture - is Cuba for me. And my wife, of course, and my children.

CM: Do artists need to go away to discover their own heritage?

LB: Yes. True.

CM: Did you have to "go away" to the abstract, the avant garde, in order to come back to the folkloric?

LB: These are two questions in one. The first regards moving a distance from your own experience in order to be objective. This was said by Heidegger, and later by one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, José Ortega y Gassett. From a distance, you can see the whole panorama, not only the little detail in the microscope. This is important.

But then you have the philosopher, Emanuel Kant. And in Cuba, you have the writer, Molina. They never left their houses. Molina would open the door, look outside, say, "What a beautiful day" and BAM!, he would lock the door. But he travels with his imagination all over the world. He was a close friend of Bach and Beethoven. He spoke with Brahms and Copernicus - so he didn't need to travel.

CM: Is that your style?

LB: This is my style. I can dream now, and have conversations with Béla Bartók and a big discussion with Schoenberg, greater even than with

Now, for the second part of your question: to rediscover the roots through the abstract and the avant garde. That is a true problem and a fascinating question for many reasons. Without knowing it, I was gradually going into the avant garde as a natural language. It was a broken language but I was naturally involved with it. I received a great stimulus when I was in Poland in 1961 for Warsaw Autumn, an avant garde festival. It was a great exposition. I remember Sylvano Bussotti, and the premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki's famous Threnody in Memory of the Victims of Hiroshima. The older generation was also represented: Karol Szymanowski and the great Jewish composer Ernest Bloch. It was a kind of panorama from which I took the latest elements, like Cage and Berio. I brought back the scores of my new friends - Penderecki, Tadeusz Baird, and Bussotti - and held a conference in Cuba. People here were fascinated, and it was organically "in."

This was a natural contact with the avant garde. It did not follow the Polish school, which is very strong and solid. No, this took liberty entirely, which was normal for us, because in the last period of Cuban politics there was a simple law which said, "You can do anything you like." This is entirely different from some Eastern countries up to now. Today we have hopes about perestroika, but at that time there was no perestroika.

We felt the possibility of making a whole world of total abstraction and, let's say, the national roots. But not as a collage, and not as a contradiction because you can get total abstraction out of national elements or roots, and get a vital flavor. This was something beautiful and important. The essential elements of the national roots of any country are absolutely abstract. I'm not talking about the superficial elements like, in Cuba, the maracas, the bongos and the cha-cha-cha. But if you go to ritual Afro-Cuban music, and you analyze the melodic part of that, the elements are as common as Byzantine or Gregorian chant. These elements - particular endings and rhythmical inner relationships - are profound, almost abstract, and common to many things in Cuba.

Africans came here as slaves. They preserved tradition; they didn't develop tradition because they were so far from the source. They had to preserve it as an historical background, a foundation. Today, Africans come to Cuba to discover this. In Africa evolution continues, but not in Cuba.

CM: It must have been a revelation to find commonality in the abstract
elements. Did you feel that you were uncovering something?

LB: Yes, in the beginning, I felt some sensitivity in the skin, some fascination with this original music, especially the Afro-Cuban, which is so strong. But it did not have historical value - not officially. There was no academy to say that this music is gorgeous, historically perfect, and will transcend history.

Later, I got it by coincidence - similar to what happened to Bartók when he discovered that the Golden Section, as Leonardo da Vinci used it hundreds of years ago, had a foundation when applied to music.

CM: When these universal forms became apparent to you, how did that
influence your composing?

LB: Speaking frankly, I used the European structures and models of structures, like form, as a reference. The content that comes into these forms was built out of the essential cells and units of our folkloric roots. This gave birth to many pieces: Parábola, Canticum, Espiral Eterna, the First Concerto. If you analyze my guitar music, you will see differences in style and think I am absolutely eclectic; there is an enormous difference between Elogio de la Danza and my next guitar piece, Canticum. What happened in between? Orchestral works, chamber music, electronic music, films, theater. This is continuity. You cannot analyze the guitar music without examining a hundred other pieces in between. The guitar works are prototypes of change, like spotlights, or traffic lights on a highway or maybe it's not so "high." Maybe it's a little path.

From 1967 through 1969, I composed La tradición se rompe (Tradition Breaks) for symphony orchestra. It's a crazy piece, not a collage but an integration of contemporary language and quotations from all over the world; it's a big fight. Finally le grand tradition comes together an survives because the bass chord linking the whole thing together is a medieval chord that permits any addition. This is very important. You can analyze history through the concomitance, through the theory of harmonics.

CM: You mean that music evolves historically through the use of

LB: Yes. I think, as a crazy theory of my own, that history develops out of sound itself: the discovery and development of sound. In medieval times, only incomplete chords were utilized, just the octave and fifth. The Renaissance introduced the third, major and minor. Then came Baroque and the seventh. Then a bit more development brought the augmented eleventh, the whole tone scale, Debussy and Impressionism, and so on. Then came the high overtones and microtones. I believe this theory, and it helps to understand my own music. Eternal Spiral is a compendium of the last elements. And in this way I orchestrate.

CM: May we jump ahead to the 4th Concerto with all its diverse
elements? How does this theory apply?

LB: In a way, the Toronto concerto (No. 4) is a compendium of my writing. You can perceive elements used in the Decameron Negro and in a 1958 quintet for guitar, flute, oboe, clarinet, and cello which was never published or performed. The harmonic tension in the Fourth Concerto can also be found in Parábola and Elogio de la Danza.

So there's a basic language. I'm talking about semantics, the highest point of organized language. My language has been almost the same for thirty years. I've followed something like arc structure, which I love. I started with folklore and national roots. I gradually developed into abstraction. I arrived at almost total abstraction in the '70s. And then I came back gradually to national roots through a sophisticated romantic feeling. Let's call it hyper-romantic, because what I'm using is an obvious cliché. It doesn't have the feeling of a late Romantic like Barrios Mangoré or a pure Romantic like Mahler.

This is not only a quotation of style, this is a necessity, a rediscovery of style, in the same way that some composers are using elements like the gamelon from Indonesia, and rhythms from Africa, and converting them into a new thing called minimal music. I am taking this Neoromantic style which is not "neo" but "hyper." The Concierto Elegíaco is built in this way, as are some sections of the Fourth Concerto.

CM: What are you saying about romanticism when you comment upon it in
that way?

LB: In the '50s and '60s, you had Pierre Boulez whom I admire, and Stockhausen. They became the kings of structuralistic music with a total serial and aleatoric feeling. It was the decomposition of structures, which I also used in my music: Parábola, the Second String Quartet, Sonograma for symphony orchestra and many other things. But at a certain moment, this language atomized and broke. It was failing to communicate, and becoming more and more abstract, more and more hermetic. I think that music is for everybody, for the public - both the highly sophisticated public and the simpler one. Of course, with education, with culture.

The '50s and '60s brought the climax of a dry, mathematical, structuralist approach to a language that was becoming more and more abstract with time. This was similar to what happened with free jazz. It grew so sophisticated, so personal and individual that the jazzmen were enjoying themselves, but the public wasn't. The same thing happened at that moment to art music, and I felt it. Somehow I caught the feelings of people and their needs.

I'm not making concessions. If I were to make concessions, it would be better to do arrangements for Barbara Streisand. No, I'm just changing, going back a little and taking energy to go in a new, no, another line of composing. That's all. It's nothing complicated.

CM: If, while you are composing with this hyper-romantic style, you are keeping your sense of universal cells and units, then you are being consistent.

LB: Absolutely! But there is a crazy idea in ideology - you know, ideology is not only in politics, it is also in art - that this international world of ideas, of universal elements, is in contradiction with the national roots that represent our culture. This is not true. This is an inner contradiction of ideas, because the universal and the particular are never separated. This is not understood by people who aren't involved with art.

But sometimes it happens that you have a composer - like Hrenikoff in the Soviet Union - who makes claims about national art "above everything." I don't believe in that way of composing. I believe in a universal language. Maybe Shostakovich is much more Russian than the folk dances written by Composer #15, who is trying to be very nationalistic, and is probably just creating poor documents.
CM: What are the elements that make them national as well as universal?

LB: the national element is something which is recognizable in the deepest way. For example, the balalaika does not represent Russia. Some medieval chants, some strong rhythms of dance in central Asia, or some cadential devices are more Russian than the balalaika. I think of different levels of nationalism; the most superficial element of music is color.

You can have bad music with a beautiful dress, but if you undress the music - if you take out the balalaika or the maracas or the bongo - what is left? Something poor, or good, or great. But if you want the greatest thing, do not put cheap clothes on it. It is better to be naked with a beautiful body. That's a real comparison.

CM: When do you get to compose?

LB: I wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning, prepare breakfast for the kids, and compose until 7 or 7:30. If I don't compose at 5 o'clock in the morning, I have no time, so I have to do it.
Then I go back in the evening. I have a technique which is not bad. The only way to assure continuity is to go back over all the material. The problem with many composers - including some great composers - is that they go to the last idea and continue from there, losing the sense of total time. So sometimes you have a piece that should be fifteen minutes but goes on for forty minutes, or a piece like the Villa-Lobos concerto that could be a real concerto, and is just an announcement of a concerto because there is no development, there is no maturity. It has beautiful ideas and good writing, but he just did it like that, and no more. I always go back to the beginning to have the thread continue, the spine that supports the whole body.

CM: Here's a philosophical question. If you had a time capsule and could send four pieces of 20th century music into space - music that spoke this universal language you've described - what would you choose? You have to include one of your own.

LB: I'm not sure that I would include one of my own. But for sure, one piece would be Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Another piece would be Bartók, maybe the Fourth String Quartet. And I would also choose some special Takemitsu. And that would be find. There are many great things.

CM: Well, I don't know. I love a piece when I am composing it, but when I am finished, it is no longer my own. It's an adult; it's born, and it grows up, and it has its own personality.

CM: The Eternal Spiral has influenced many players.

LB: Yes, this is a piece which ahs some flavor, some qualities. You know how I wrote it? I composed this piece, like Elogia de la Danza, for electronics. Oh, sometimes I tested one chord or another on the guitar, but this piece was structured for electronic music. I did the whole plan in my head for electronic music. I did the notes.

CM: You wrote out a description?

LB: Yes, instead of writing the music, I write notes. I say, "Now the climax goes up, then there is a smashing chord or whatever, and then there is an atomized convulsion, then we go down slowly, the tempo goes down like a cascade of water, and it dissolves into drops." This is my language for composing.

CM: In words?

LB: Little words. And then I did a scheme in graphics for electronics. But when I began to score it for electronics, I realized that it would be difficult to achieve; we don't have the computers and synthesizers. So I did it on the guitar. It is much better to do an electronic piece for the guitar than to do a guitar piece for electronics! (Laughter)
Yes, I think that if I had to choose a piece of my own, it would be this< one. It's like the theory of evolution. I gradually go from pure sound to noise, and I explore the whole panorama, the whole register of the guitar, even including clichés. But the structure grows out of the three little notes including Canticum and the Concerto. So I think it is a compendium of my own music, of Canticum, of Concerto No. 1, of Per Sonate a Tre.

CM: A motive?

LB: A motive, yes, a chromatic cluster that I expand. It is reflected in numbers, 1-3-2, or p-m-i. When you go into percussion, it's also 1-3-2. All the time, I keep the same circle, expanding and contracting like the nebula, and like a spiral.

CM: I've heard you say in humor that the guitar is almost perfect. You don't seem to feel the limits of the instrument that others complain about.

LB: I don't have any limits, or feel any limits in the guitar. I consider it a small orchestra, and almost perfect. People discover that the guitar has a very small sound. This could be a defect or a quality. I consider it a quality for intimacy. The guitar has all the colors, and the polyphony, and many, many things - except powerful sound. You can communicate completely. And there's a magic tone that you can get out of the guitar.

In fact, the guitar is one of the few minor instruments, like harpsichord and recorder, which not only remains but develops and grows. The polyphony which has evolved with the guitar helps to include a modern language, along with the heritage form the Renaissance up to now. So we are millionaires in terms of repertoire, color and expressiveness! Other instruments have magic but not history. We have all!

Reprinted with permission from Guitar Review Magazine