About Mario Davidovsky: concert tribute June 7

My group counter)induction is presenting a concert of Mario Davidovsky’s music on June 7 at Subculture. I wrote this essay below, which will appear on c)i’s blog and in abbreviated form in the program booklet. (Also my organization Nunc will be performing his music at the Teatro Colon on August 15-17.)

counter)induction is thrilled to close this season with a concert tribute to the great Argentine-American composer Mario Davidovsky. Mario, who turned 80 this year, has been a central figure in contemporary music since his pioneering compositions with electronics in the 1960s. Through his subsequent work at such institutions as Harvard University, the Composers Conference, and the Koussevitsky and Fromm Foundations, and his attendance at innumerable concerts and events over the years, he has been a key participant in the discussion and support of the music of our time. Even as technology evolved far beyond the methods he originally used, he has stayed true to his core musical impulses and values, steadily creating an oeuvre much beloved by a cadre of remarkable performers and listeners. This August, he will revisit Buenos Aires, where the distinguished Teatro Colón will honor him with several concerts.

My own rapport with Mario began by occasionally playing his pieces for him, which led to my work performing at the Composers Conference, the summer program he has directed for nearly 40 years. He is now an advisor of my own non-profit Nunc, and has become my close mentor, friend and frequent conversational sounding-board. I treasure having had such time and encouragement from such a profound thinker and inspiringly passionate artist.

For those wanting to know about Mario, I highly recommend reading his interview with Frank Oteri, published on New Music Box in 2006. The discussion covers every important point about Mario’s background and musical thinking, and in his own inimitable words. As Frank says, Mario’s physical presence easily intimidates at first: he is a tall man with large, eagle-like features and broad shoulders, tapering to slender and elegantly clad legs. His voice is naturally, deeply resonant, his enunciation still richly Spanish-tinged and emphatic. When he speaks to you, you are immediately in the grip of his love of dialogue. He is a great believer in the value of on-the-table, open and provocative discussion. For him, the future of art and the humanistic values of culture are too important to tiptoe around, to let slide for the sake of career convenience or cautious politeness. His sharp statements and his welcoming of argument are founded in his warm love of the art form and of the people engaging in it.

He has always been urgently curious about what is going on – constantly asking what music is being written, what music is being programmed, who is playing it and who is supporting it. How is the music functioning in culture and society, how are artists living? Meanwhile, he is always observant about the state of the music itself and wants to discuss it. He pushes musicians to have a viewpoint, to assess sincerely and to define values. As a teacher, he believes it is important that people “know exactly where you stand because then you become a very solid balancing wall.”

Mario was born south of Buenos Aires to a large Russian-Jewish family, at a time when Argentina had been populated with many immigrants of Slavic background. His family members were highly active in the community as amateur musicians. Mario took up the violin with local teachers and soon began to arrange and compose: “It was the most absolutely mind-boggling experience. It was discovering that you can focus on something and almost forget that you exist. You spend hours and hours trying to write something, and there is no physical surrounding to it. That was magic. It’s discovering a space inside yourself.” He entered a rigorous, formal music program at 18, taught mostly by German and Austrian emigrés. In 1958, Aaron Copland brought him to Tanglewood, where Mario expressed an interest not in folk and nationalist music but in electronic music. He was invited to join Milton Babbitt at the new electronics studio at Columbia and was part of early discoveries there. The electronic medium was revolutionary in demonstrating new ways to control sound: precise attacks, from hard to emerging from silence; infinite potential for sustaining; decays ranging from the most gradual to sudden stops with no after-resonance; abrupt transitions between extreme dynamics, registers and timbres. In writing for electronics, Mario used his ear, accustomed to the refinement of traditional instruments, to create highly specific sounds and phrases. Seeking to combine electronics with a live performer on stage, he began to write his series of “Synchronisms” for solo instruments with tape. His Synchronisms No. 6 for piano and tape won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971.

While such success with the medium would usually motivate a composer further to use the ever-advancing technology, Mario actually turned from it and focused back onto acoustic instrumental and vocal music. His exploration of electronic sounds was already reflected in his instrumental writing, having led to new technical challenges for players and composite effects for ensembles in his effort to translate the tantalizing electronic gestures and sounds through human and tactile means. There was also a new emphasis on articulation and Klangfarben as ways of determining form and defining material. “What I was really interested in is what electronic music taught me about music, not what electronic music taught me about electronic music. The impact of the experience was much wider than just in the studio…Forty years later, I’m still finding innumerable ideas that stem from what I learned in the studio.”

Much has been written to describe Mario’s music – I will mention a few points. His music is constantly surprising, with arresting aural colors, breath-taking contrasts and piquant timing, yet also feels satisfyingly organic, with soaring phrasing and a sense of breath. It is sometimes exquisitely elegant in gesture and timbre, sometimes extremely earthy, gritty, violent. He has contrasted his work with Elliott Carter’s, in which different “stories” are layered and occur simultaneously. Mario intends instead to “tell a single, highly inflected story, in which each moment of each phrase is packed with nuance.” (E. Chasalow) His innovations in using several instruments to create composite sounds and gestures provoke startling new perceptions of musical space and internal structure for the listener.

Another important point about the music is his devotion to the meaning and beauty of abstraction. From early on, he was mainly interested in the inner relations and workings of the music itself, on its own terms and not derived from other sources. To this day, he remains to me one of the musicians most strongly concerned about the quality to be found in the construction of the music itself, apart from any associated words, title, narrative story, political message, visual image, multi-media context, or even the novelty of what individual sounds can be found. Like any artist, he has sometimes related his work to his heritage and the past: his vocal music is based on Biblical texts and Spanish or Latin American poetry, and his music does sometimes have traces of a Spanish or Sephardic reference. But he is always very clear about focusing on the music itself in appreciating a composer’s craft, a craft that should have its own expressive logic and power, and reward a listener’s thoughtful engagement. “To me, when the music stops and you reflect, it’s maybe less fun, but it’s as important as actually listening to the music itself… If you were to ask me what could be the bottom line of music, I would say knowledge. Yes: pleasure, wonderful, wonderful enjoyment; but, in the long run, it really is knowledge.”

At the Composers Conference, around ten young composers are accepted each summer to have their pieces performed, and to have group seminars with Mario discussing each other’s music. Though Mario is obviously the master of these “master classes” and he is much of the reason they come, he has always been adamant that his own music should not be performed at the Conference’s concerts. The focus must be on the younger composers’ music. I love this integrity and dedication to nurturing composers, and his ability to talk about the present, future and past with equal passion and urgency, but I must say that each time I get to play his music, I am suddenly stunned and moved once again by the beauty, poignancy and sense of discovery in the music itself. I am very happy that we in counter)induction get to play for you an evening of music by this great artist.

–Miranda Cuckson (May 25, 2014)

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