Leo Brouwer: his records, Deutsche Grammophon, the ’70s
Considered as the most important living composer for guitar music, the Afro-Cuban composer, classical guitarist and conductor Leo Brouwer was named Juan Leovigildo Brouwer when he came into the world in Havana, Cuba on March 1, 1939. His enormous influence on guitar music in particular and classical music in general is demonstrated by more than a hundred recordings on which he has played, composed or conducted. Brouwer’s compositions reflect classical, Afro-Cuban, jazz and avant-garde influences. His many film scores have brought his music to the attention of a huge audience around the world. Brouwer’s influence in his native country results in part from the important positions he has held in Cuban music institutions.
In this article I consider two of his most famous records, released for the famous Deutsche Grammophon label: Werke Für Gitarre Solo Von Gaspar Sanz, Luis De Narváez, Fernando Sor, Cornelius Cardew, Hans Werner Henze, Leo Brouwer, made in 1971, and Rara, made in 1973.
During the 1960s and 70s, Brouwer became interested in the music of modernist composers such as Luigi Nono and Iannis Xenakis, using indeterminacy in works such as Sonograma I. Other works from this period include the guitar pieces Canticum (1968), La espiral eterna (1971), Parábola (1973) and Tarantos (1974). These two records reflect these interests, they show Brouwer as a performer, recording works by Sylvano Bussotti, Hans Werner Henze, Maurice Ohana, Cristóbal Halffter, Mestres-Quedreny, Arrigo, Halffter, Blanco, Cornelius Cardew, Gaspar Sanz, Luis De Narváez, Fernando Sor and Brouwer himself.
Brouwer’s playing career ended in the early 1980s due to an injury to a tendon in his right hand middle finger.
The extension of the limits of sound was one of the declared goals of the newest music. The tendency, on the one hand, was towards developing the inner spectrum of tones (quarter tones, in strumentai glissandi or imprecise notation in Sprechgesang, instead of definite pitches, finally the total availability of the complete pitch spectrum in electronic music), on the other hand, towards the crossing of the dividing line from articulated sound to me re noise (preference for unusual instrumental positions and effects, the extension of all former ways of playing and notating, and finally, total renunciation of the traditional characteristics of musical “speech”). “Everything that produces a sound” was an object of interest and of the experimental creation of the younger generation of composers. Under this motto, those instruments also achieved validity, which-as with the guitar-had been sacrificed to the ever increasing density of the sound of the orchestra (the path leads from the “classical” instrumentation of the Mannheim school over Beethoven, Berlioz, and Wagner, up to Richard Strauss). Yet in the time of the Baroque and before, the guitar had been among the most preferred instruments for art music.
With the turning to these instruments the subculture, into which they had drifted and of which they finally became representative, had at the same time to be raised up into advanced art music and brought back to it. So the unusual amount of employment of the guitar itself in the works of the most recent contemporary music is explained.
These two record are very interesting for two reasons: first they continue the same musical journey of records like Bream’s 20th Century Guitar, second we can enjoy Brouwer’s ability as an interpreter.
Hans Werner Henze as also Pierre Boulez, Wolfgang Fortner as also Mauricio Kagel have made use of the instrument and assigned it a special function in the timbral structural context of their works.
The composers appearing on these records represent a cross-section through today’s leading musical avant-garde. Common to them all is the subordination of overall musical form to strict structural arrangements, which are derived from the specific sound material; common to them, however, is also the downright fanatical experimenting with the potentialities of sound, up until alienation
through interfering noises and sounds, produced on purpose, up until the limits of technical feasability.
Sylvano Bussotti’s composition can therefore serve as a prototype. “Rara-eco sierologico” are in fact “five pieces in one, for violin and/ or viola, and/or cello, and/or double bass and also guitar”. It is, according to Bussotti’s intention, a composition in five variants, thought of as a concert cycle, which develops over several days. “For each concert one variant only will be perforrned, and so on, day by day, until the fifth. On the sixth day a complete performance or le united five sections is envisaged … “. The principle of freedom of choice is not only applied to the overall form, but is also used as an aleatoric structural impetus: the third of the five pieces, sounding the same for ali five instruments, is written in graphic notation. On the record only the solo part assigned to the guitar is performed.
“Rara” can define an aesthetic position. “I use every form that helps me to develop musical forms”, Leo Brouwer once explained his aesthetic views to an interviewer. These forms, he went on, could be those “of a leaf or a tree”, or they could be “geometric symbols”. “Although my pieces appear highly structured, it is principally sound that interests me.” One of the best examples of this approach is La espiral eterna (1971). Brouwer’s starting point was a quotation by the physicist G. J. Whitrow that is prefaced to the score and that refers to spiral structures in the macrocosm and to the occurrence of similar structures in the microcosm. In the organic world, the spiral is found, for example, in the multiple fruit of the sunflower, in snail shells and in the smallest living organisms. Setting out from a cell made up of overlapping semitones, Brouwer generates a different kind of spiral-shaped rotary movement in each of the work’s four sections: in the first, extended forms of the cell, together with other variants of it, are arranged around a mean value in terms of compass, register, dynamics and length, thus creating the impression that they are rotating around it: in the second section, Brouwer focuses his attention on brief arpeggiated figures grouped around individual sforzato notes. What we might call the centrai axis of the third section is the fingerboard itself: here the guitarist’s two hands abandon their usual functions and produce percussive sounds of no specific pitch on the fingerboard, drawing closer, crossing and moving apart again. The fourth section culminates towards the end of the piece in expansively ascending and descending broken chords, their wavelike form once again suggesting a spiral.
In order to realize these spirals in sound, Brouwer uses various techniques that go beyond traditional ways of producing sounds on the instrument and that include Bartokian pizzicato effects and running the thumbnail along the strings Yet even with conventional techniques he manages to produce novel effects, with the arpeggios in this piece sounding not like chords broken down into their constituent notes but like layers of sound or internally animated clusters.
In his early works, Cristobal Halffter followed in the footsteps of Manuel de Falla in his attempt to create a stylized, abstract Hispanicism, whereas by the 1950s he had embraced a musical language that reflected the influence of avant-garde, post-serial techniques, without, however, abandoning his Spanish roots. From the 1960s onwards Halffter has sought to combine both styles within a single piece, his aim being – in his own words – to “Latinize serialism”.
Codex dates from 1963 and is Halffter’s only work for solo guitar. Although its middle section is largely concerned to create its impact through its use of sonority, Halffter uses traditional sounds, with the exception of some glissando passages and the percussive effect of crossed bass strings: among these traditional sounds are harmonics, playing near the bridge and rasgueado, a method of striking the strings borrowed from flamenco. It is left to individuai performers to decide how long to linger over particular passages. In the outer sections, by contrast, the pitches and note lengths are strictly organized. The opening section uses twelve-note technique to weave a contrapuntal
texture, with the basic set – it is heard at the very beginning and contains the notes of the open guitar strings in odd-numbered positions – used as the starting point for four further sets. Rhythm, too, is treated serially, with different speeds allotted to the various layers, thus producing an impression of rhythmic instability even though the rhythms are in fact strictly notated. By way of contrast, the third section is dominated by a rhythmic uniformity disturbed only by a graduai quickening of the basic tempo.
The guitar occupies an important piace in the works in Hans Werner Henze, who has repeatedly used it not only in larger and smaller ensembles but also as a solo instrument. He was attracted to the sound of the instrument by “the jangling and whimpering of nerve fibres, the hundred colours, the dark and shadowy and silvery sounds, the sound of weeping, the hollow cries as of nocturnal animals, and the sonar of history”. But, quite apart from its function as a “gate through which we can approach the roots of rnusic”. Henze also sees the guitar as “an entirely modern instrument” capable of inspiring a “style of writing that is full of technically innovative features”. Henze’s aesthetic understanding presupposes not only a pronounced awareness of tradition (not that this requires him to compose in traditional ways), but also the belief that, thanks to its unambiguous linguistic character, music can – and, indeed, must – communicate specific non-musical ideas. These beliefs have been reinforced by Henze’s sense of political commitment since the late 1960s.
Hans Werner Henze as also Pierre Boulez, as also Mauricio Kagel have made use of the instrument and assigned it a special function in the timbral structural context of their works.
The composers appearing on these records represent a cross-section through yesterday’s leading musical avant-garde. Common to them all is the subordination of overall musical form to strict structural arrangements, which are derived from the specific sound material; common to them, however, is also the downright fanatical experimenting with the potentialities of sound, up until alienation through interfering noises and sounds, produced on purpose, up until the limits of technical flexability.
As you can see I talked about these records in their vinyl forms. In 2002 they were reprinted as a single cd by the same Deutsche Grammphone, the cd contains almost all the contemporary music included in the two lps, with the missing of J. Mestres-Quedreny’s Perludi para guitarra and Gaspar Sanz, Luys de Narvaez and Fernado Sor music, but with a better quality recording!