Saturday, October 13, 2012

Discovering Musicians, Part 3: Léo Brouwer

The Cuban composer Léo Brouwer is hardly an unfamiliar name, but I don't think he is as well known as he could be. He was born in 1939 in Havana, Cuba but was able to go to the US where he studied at the Julliard School with Vincent Persichetti and Stefan Wolpe. Though the guitar is his first instrument, he plainly was from the beginning, far more than just a guitarist, or even "guitar-composer". He later traveled to Berlin where he studied avant-garde music and the Netherlands where he studied early music interpretation. Apart from being a remarkable guitarist, he is also a conductor.

His early compositions, such as Danza characteristica of 1957, were folkloric in inspiration, though showed even then an inspired gift for an idiomatic use of the guitar. Here is a performance by Brouwer himself:

I wanted to put up a performance of my favorite early Brouwer, the Danza del Altiplano from 1964, but could not find a good version in YouTube. From that same year came his big breakthrough in terms of writing for guitar: the first piece for solo guitar really informed by the development of musical techniques in the 20th century, most specifically the music of Bartok and Stravinsky. Here is Elogio de la Danza, written in 1964:

For a certain kind of young guitarist, this was just what they had been looking for. Tired of the same old Ponce and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, young guitarists from all over fell on this like starving wolves. At least, they did so when it percolated out, which took about ten years! I first encountered this piece in the mid-70s and it won me over. What Brouwer did so well here was use the wide spectrum of sonorities of the guitar to full advantage. Sure, he is using dissonant harmonies, but all through there bubbles an unceasing rhythmic energy very characteristic of Cuban music. He followed this piece with a series of more radical ones of which the most successful is probably La espiral eterna of 1971 in which he succeeds in transferring the effect of tape loops to the guitar. It most closely resembles a piece for harpsichord by Ligeti composed in 1968, though, of course, the techniques are quite different. Here is La espiral eterna:

You might consider this experimental and he certainly uncovered a lot of new sonorities for the guitar, but, apart from a few pieces like Parabola and Tarantos, Brouwer was not going to go much further in in this direction. By the 1980s, he was turning back towards a much more harmonic kind of music. Sometime in the mid 80s I attended a composer's panel with Brouwer, Stephen Dodgson and Gilbert Biberian. I asked the panel why everyone seemed to be going back to writing some kind of tonal music and Léo replied that perhaps they just got tired of atonal music! In any case, 1981 was a very productive year for Brouwer in which he wrote a set of six preludes and a larger work, the three movement El Decamerón Negro. I have recorded both these pieces and will put them up in future posts. But I wanted to introduce Léo Brouwer's music first.

Brouwer does much more than just write for solo guitar. As of this date he has composed a total of eleven concertos for guitar and orchestra. In 1994 the Guitar Foundation of America held their annual conference in Quebec City and I was able to attend. I gave, in English and then in French, an analytical talk about one of Brouwer's concertos, the Concierto Elegiaco of 1986. Here is a performance of the first movement by the dedicatee, Julian Bream:

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