All of the Estudios sencillos represent, in a few lines of music, the stylistic evolution of Leo Brouwer throughout his compositional itinerary. The first series of ten pieces, conceived as a pedagogical study of particular difficulties, was written in 1971 and still embodies the Cuban influences of the early Brouwer. Starting with the very first, which had been largely sketched in the early Sixties, and in which the study of syncopations against a bass is joined to a typical South-American rhythm, all of the Studies focus on the challenges which the students may face when confronting a style markedly different from that of the simple tunes or regular arpeggios found in the teaching methods hitherto used – and which dated back from the early nineteenth century; this does not apply, of course, to the concert etudes written for the professional performers.
For Brouwer, in all of his musical aesthetics, it was crucial to find what he called “the magical note”: i.e. a keystone passage or modulation expressing a poetical moment (thus attempting not to leave the interpretation in the hands of mere technique or mechanism), as well as the importance of thinking his music more in terms of intensity than of speed. Thus, he leaves room for the player’s interpretation of the performance tempo, while wishing that performers will not transform his music into a mere finger gymnastics.
Within the series of the Etudes, a single technical difficulty is encountered in each piece, so that the pupil will have to deal with a single problem: the syncopations in Etude 1, chorale-playing with a balance in the voices in Etude 2, a quick succession of triplets in nos. 3 and 7, arpeggios with a hidden tune to reveal in no. 6, diminished chords in no. 5 and so on. The beauty of these Etudes is also found in the freshness and in the simple style which does not permit any distraction: thus, every Etude immediately immerses us in its aural world with no intermissions.
The series of the new “Simple Studies” was published in 2003, more than thirty years after the first, and after a second series published in 1983. The style has changed, becoming more refined and consistent since almost all of the studies are built on an ABA structure (with a first theme, “A”, an internal development, “B”, and a brief recapitulation of “A” in the fashion of a coda). What has not changed is the pedagogical purpose: every time, a different technical challenge to face is put under the spotlight. This time, we have an arpeggio of triplets in no. 1, syncopations in no. 4, accents in alternation on the strong and weak beats in various form between single notes and chords in no. 7. Moreover, each Etude is dedicated to a great composer: from the great Debussy and Stravinsky to others, which are seemingly far from the world of the guitar, but whom Brouwer chooses to honour nevertheless: for example, Caturla, a Cuban composer of the early twentieth century, or the Polish composer Szymanowski, or others who achieved fame as composers for the guitar such as Tárrega, Sor, Villa-Lobos, Piazzolla etc.
Danza característica is instead among the first pieces written by Brouwer when he was just eighteen years old; it was published in 1957. This dance leads us deeply into the music that the young student could hear and live in the roads of La Havana; the rhythm in the bass is an ostinato repetition of a two-bar rhythmic formula, which, in the composer’s own words, is a typical “Conga rhythm”. The connection between Cuban music and its true cradle, in Sub-Saharan Africa, was the cornerstone of his style already at that time; it will be further developed in the more recent Rito de los orishas. There is also a contemplative moment, when the rhythm, which had been brought to the apex of its tension, is slackened on casual semiquaver triplets played with harmonics and basses in synchronicity; this gives to entire piece a sense of fullness, already revealing the overflowing personality of its composer.
Danza del Altiplano is one of the pieces in which young Brouwer took inspiration from various strands of ethnical and folkloric music from Central and South America: such is, for example, the Cancion de Cuna whose tune is a famous lullaby sung in the roads of La Havana. Here, instead, the composer’s inspiration is the Andean music typical of those years, which was brought out of the national borders by worldwide famous folk groups such as the Bolivian “Los Awatiñas” or the Chilean “Los Inti Illimani”. Thus, the reference to the Andean Altiplano, 2,000 meters high, is obvious in the chords of the charango, the typical Andean guitar, or in the flutes which accompany the slow but constantly beating drums: a typical popular tune is thus heard from the mountain peaks.
In the Elogio de la Danza Brouwer composes his own Sacre du Printemps. It was written as an original and experimental accompaniment to a ballet by Luis Trapaga; as in Stravinskij’s model, Brouwer makes use of polyrhythmic combinations, which are adapted to a typical Afro-Cuban rhythm. It is almost as if the music would follow a ritual, whose stylistic roots are found in the magical rhythms of Africa, as in a voodoo rite, but structured and modelled upon the typical form of Stravinskij’s ballet. This is a form of postmodernism, of which Brouwer became the greatest champion and a driving force; he would eventually write experimental music of different kinds throughout his life, from the Seventies onwards (the best example of this kind is the Espiral eterna). However, some rhythmical formulae of the Cuban tradition would always remain present in his music and constitute a fundamental component of his aesthetical view.
Un día de Novembre is found in Brouwer’s soundtrack of the eponymous Cuban movie of 1972, by directors Solas and Rodriguez. While the Cuban revolution against Bautista’s rule is enacted, the protagonist discovers that he has an aneurism which could kill him at any moment; this overturns his life, leading him to bind himself to the revolution and to rediscover his feelings for his family and for his beloved. This piece, typically melancholic and with a flowing and simple musicality, has become famous also outside the film, thanks to the guitar players who turned it into one of the most performed pieces by both amateurs and virtuosos.
The Decameron Negro is a fundamental piece in Brouwer’s aesthetical world, not only because, in 1981, after many years in which his virtuoso career had died out, he once more wrote for the guitar, but also because it is the summa of his compositional itinerary to that point. It will also become the next base from which he will start again, privileging the Sonata form and the Concerto in the following years of his full maturity. In the Decameron are found Cuban rhythms, experimental forms, and a typical American folk/country style of the Seventies, such as the country rock of Nash & Young. The piece, dedicated to young guitarist Sharon Isbin, is inspired by a collection of the same name written in 1915 by the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius. During his travels in Togo between 1910 and 1915, he had written down the folklore stories of the local populations: similar to the novellas of Boccaccio’s better-known Decameron, they described habits and traditions of the tribal society in the form of tales.
One of such tales will be the leitmotiv of the three pieces by the Cuban composer: the protagonist is a warrior who, instead of fighting the rival tribe, would prefer to play the harp in order to give delight to the woman he loves, the daughter of the village chief. Once they are discovered, the two lovers elope through the mysterious and dreamlike Valley of the Echo, managing to escape and eventually finding happiness far away, accompanied by music. In the first piece, El harpa del guerrero, Brouwer fully exploit the minimalism of an arpeggio which evokes the sound of the harp and the African tribal rhythms, while the sinuous and yet rhythmic development with fermatas and broken phrasing is the musical embodiment of the warrior, who is torn between his duty and his happiness. His happiness, of course, would be in staying with his beloved, who is represented by a lyrical modal theme neatly contrasted with the aggressive and almost ritual rhythms of the first African themes and the central moments of suspension (which may represent the protagonist’s doubts between love or duty). His choice is made only at the end, with a very quick coda which adumbrates the two young lovers’ flight from the tribe.
The second piece, La Huida de los amantes por el valle de los echos, is an allusion to thematic developments and rhythmical gestures which Brouwer wished to exploit since a long time: fragments of what would become the theme are found already in the Tres Apuntes published in 1959, and are cited once more in the Etude no. 5 from the Nuevos Estudios Sencillos of 2003. They are developed in a style in which polyrhythmic techniques, experimentation (in the repetition of musical cells as happened in pieces such as Tarantos and Espiral Eterna) and minimalism (based on the obsessive development of themes or rhythmical sequences of increasing elaboration and complexity) are merged. From this all, the piece receives an atonal and dispersive configuration, almost as if the mysterious Valley of the Echoes were in fact a Valley of the mirrors, in which one can get lost at each turn and where the images are reflected and distorted each time. Moreover, the frenzied central rhythmic sequence (at first obsessive in its development, and later dualistic and dispersive, where the composer explicitly asks for fortissimo and subito pianissimo dynamics, recreating the echo on the guitar) gives to the piece an agitated style. This clearly makes explicit the flight and the tension, which remains constant throughout the piece, from the beginning to the end; in a mirrorlike fashion, the musical incipits are reflected backwards, transmitting a false feeling of peace and relax which in fact always leaves an impression of malaise.
The last piece, Balada de la doncella enamorada, is a long description of the loving feeling of the couple: alone at last, the two lovers first begin a tender and slightly voluptuous dance, and then fall into an unrestrained passion. The tempo is always dictated by the folk-ballade rhythm, with the high tune’s rhythm played in opposition to the bass (played by the thumb) which gives the typical beat of the collective dances of the North-Western African communities. Syncopated accents and the theme (played from the onset in an acephalous form) give to the piece its typical Cuban traits, while, in the explosive sections of the Più mosso, the obsessive bass line is almost like the riff of a folk piece, giving to the piece a feeling of continuous dancing movement and uninhibited desire.
Album Notes by Luca Romanelli
Translation by Chiara Bertoglio
Luca Romanelli is born in Italy in 1992. He graduated at the Conservatorio "Gioacchino Rossini" in Pesaro with the hightest marks and honour, and continued his studies in Germany at the Musikhochschüle in Münster. He has participated in numerous masterclasses with estabished artists such Pietro Antinori, Roland Dyens, Marco Tamayo, Marcin Dylla, Arturo Tallini and many more. Luca has won several prizes at national and international Competition in Europe, including "Angel G. Piñero" (Spain, 2019), Festival "Joaquin Rodrigo" (2019) and others.
Leo Brouwer: (b Havana, 1 March 1939). Cuban composer, guitarist and conductor. In 1953 he began his studies in the guitar with Isaac Nicola, founder of the Cuban guitar school, and in 1955 he made his performance début. In the same year, and self-taught, he started to compose (e.g. Música para guitarra, cuerdas y percusión and Suite no.1 for guitar); his first works were published in 1956. He was awarded a grant (1959) for advanced guitar studies at the music department of the University of Hartford and for composition at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, where he was taught by Isadora Freed, J. Diemente, Joseph Iadone, Persichetti and Wolpe. In 1960 he started working in cinema, as head of the department of music in the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (ICAIC); he has written scores for more than 60 films. He was involved in setting up (1969) and running the Grupo de Experimentación Sonora at ICAIC, becoming the teacher and mentor of its members, who included Silvio Rodríguez, Milanés and other important figures of contemporary Cuban music. He worked as musical adviser for Radio Habana Cuba (1960–68) and for other Cuban institutions, and taught counterpoint, harmony and composition at the Conservatorio Municipal in Havana (1960–67). His book Síntesis de la armonía contemporánea was a core text in his classes. Together with the composers Juan Blanco and Carlos Fariñas and the conductor Manuel Duchesne Cuzán, Brouwer launched the avant-garde music movement in Cuba in the 1960s. He has been the most significant promoter of the bi-annual Havana Concurso y Festival de Guitarra, and in 1981 he was appointed principal conductor of the Cuban National SO. He has also conducted many other foreign orchestras including the Berlin PO and the Orquesta de Córdoba, Spain, which, under his direction, was formed in 1992. He is a member of the Berlin Akademie der Künste, of UNESCO, of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes Nuestra Señora de la Angustias in Granada (1996) and Honoris Causa Professor of Art at the Instituto Superior de Arte de Cuba (1996). For his contribution to the Cuban and international music scenes he was awarded the Orden Félix Varela, the highest honour granted by the Cuban state for culture. Three phases can be identified in Brouwer’s work: the first, nationalistic (1955–62); the second, avant-garde (1962–7); and a third in which avant garde elements diminish and, particularly after 1980, a creative process described by the composer as ‘new simplicity’ emerges. The first phase is characterized by the use of traditional musical forms, including sonata and variation form, and by tonal harmonic structures rooted in nationalism (e.g. in Homenaje a Manuel de Falla (1957), Tres danzas concertantes (1958) and, Elegía a Jesús Menéndes (1960), among others). During this phase, despite the prevailing use of tonality, a tendency to structural fragmentation may be discerned, as well as the employment of several simultaneous tonal centres, a device that has remained throughout his output. Though never lacking formal rigour, Brouwer’s works have in general sprung more from a sonic conception: ‘I use any form to help me find musical forms: that of a leaf, of a tree or geometric symbolisms. All these are also musical forms; despite the fact that my works appear very structured, what interests me is sound’. This concentration on the sensory, and an accompanying use of extra-musical formal sources, is most to the fore in Brouwer’s second phase, which was, with the Cuban avant garde in general, heavily influenced by the Polish school; he first heard this music at the Warsaw Autumn in 1961. Variantes for solo percussion and in particular Sonograma I for prepared piano typify this phase, which also included a brief turn towards serialism, in works such as Sonograma II and Arioso (Homenaje a Charles Mingus). Basic materials frequently comprise intervals of the 2nd, 4th and 7th and chords of superimposed 6ths, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths. Complex polyphonic textures dominate, with thematic independence retained within the different planes of sound, and a resultant richness in rhythmic conjunction. Other common devices include pedals, ostinatos, sequences and melodic and rhythmic echoing. One of Brouwer’s most important avant-garde works, which has become a major piece of the guitar literature, is the solo Elogio de la danza (1964). In two movements – Lento and Ostenato – it was originally composed for dance with choreography by Luis Trápaga; it makes reference to primitive dances and to mysticism, and conveys an image of stamping feet and gyrations together with other dance elements. Between 1967 and 1969 such works as Rem tene verba sequentur, Cántigas del tiempo nuevo and La tradición se rompe …, pero cuesta trabajo approach what would now be the postmodern, characterized by sharply defined contrasts in structure and texture and employing references to various historical periods. In La tradición se rompe …, pero cuesta trabajo, for example, the interpolation and superimposition of elements of such composers as Bach and Beethoven in a suggestive heterophony borders on caricature; further, the participation of the audience is invited with a persistent ‘sh’. All this is integrated into a process of thematic and instrumental development that evolves through a powerful, controlled aleatorism. In the 1970s Brouwer continued to work on post-serial and aleatory ideas, for instance in La espiral eterna for guitar. But by the 1980s a ‘new simplicity’ had begun to take hold, involving neo-Romantic, minimalist and newly tonal elements. There is a marked lyricism in this third period, the use of varying nuclear cells to generate development, and the return of traditional forms exemplified in works like Canciones remotas, Manuscrito antiguo encontrado en una botella and La región más trasparente.