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Dimitri Cervo
13 Jan 2008

Tom Moore Interviews Dimitri Cervo

Oct. 25, 2007, Sala Cecilia Meireles

I met the young gaucho composer Dimitri Cervo at the 2003 Bienal of Contemporary Music, where his works for solo flute and strings, Pattapiana [named for Pattapio Silva, a great Brazilian flutist who died tragically young at the beginning of the last century] made quite an impression.

Above: Dimitri Cervo


His work Canauê, op. 22 was heard at the 2007 Bienal. We spoke at the Sala Cecilia Meireles, in Portuguese.

TM: What was the musical environment like in your family? How did you become a musician?

DC: My family does not have a tradition of professional musicians, but there was a tradition of listening to classical music at home. Music was always present. I remember dancing to the Symphony no. 6 of Beethoven when I was three years old. We also listened to Brazilian popular music. Something drew me to classical music, and I asked my mother to study piano. We had a conservatory near the house, and at eleven I started piano lessons. We didn’t have a piano at home, and I would go to the conservatory three times a week. The following year, when I was twelve, I was already beginning to improvise and compose things. Since I didn’t have a piano, I would play the piano pieces on the guitar. I began to learn guitar — a friend of mine was teaching me classical guitar. Thing went along like that for three years, playing piano and guitar, until when I was fourteen, my parents rented a piano, and from that point on, I began to dedicate myself more to music, began to compose, and write scores. I decided at fourteen to be a musician, something I remember clearly.

I went to college at 18, and wanted to do composition, but at the time the course in Porto Alegre in composition and conducting was a six-year program, and I had the impression that I would learn more composition if I went deeper into the piano. So I did a bachelor’s in piano, a five-year program.

TM: What was the music you enjoyed as an adolescent? Were there important classical pieces? What kind of popular music or jazz or rock was present for you?

DC: There were some formative musical experiences. One was the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo — when I was thirteen I would listen to this piece every day — I heard it hundreds of times. I used to listen to the university radio station at the time, which played classical music all day. At home I would listen to Beethoven — the Sonata Pathetique, the Appassionata, the third piano concerto. These were pieces I listened to a great deal, since I would dedicate myself to one work over many months.

In the area of popular music, the centerpiece was Chico Buarque — my parents very much enjoyed Chico Buarque. I knew all of his records. This was at the end of the seventies, beginning of the eighties.

Later I began to listen to more music from the twentieth century, when I was 19, 20.

TM: Is your family from Porto Alegre?

DC: In fact we were born in Santa Maria, which is four hours from Porto Alegre. I was born there; my parents were born in the vicinity, and studied at the Federal University of Santa Maria. But after I was born they moved to Porto Alegre, so I grew up there.

TM: Every Brazilian is a mixture….but is your family from Brazil, or do you have immigrants from Italy, Portugal…?

DC: On my father’s side my family is Italian. My great-great-grandfather came from Italy to Brazil, with my great-grandfather on his lap. My grandfather also married an Italian, so my father’s side is all Italian, pure Italian, let’s say. My mother’s side is more mixed, a mix of Spanish, Indian and Portuguese. My second name is Avila — Dimitri de Avila.

TM: What are the Italian traditions in Rio Grande do Sul?

DC: The culture there is mainly formed by the Italian and German culture of the immigrants. You also have the indigenous traditions through the missions [Jesuit centers for catechizing the Indians].

There is a tradition of quadrilles. The folklore of Rio Grande do Sul is very much influence by European traditions. I couldn’t say, since I was never much involved with Italian culture.

TM: Your undergraduate studies were in piano, but with the idea of becoming a composer.

DC: I had been planning to be a composer since the age of 14. When I finished the program in piano, I began to dedicate myself more to composition, although by then I already composed several works. I began to develop my own voice in composition with a piece called Toccata, which I wrote when I was nineteen, twenty years old. In 1988, when I was about twenty, there was a touring program of minimalist works by German composers, which was in Porto Alegre for four or five days, so I had a lot of time to get to known that esthetic.

TM: Which composers were represented?

DC: Arvo Part, which was my first contact with his music. Hans Otte. No Steve Reich or Philip Glass, since all the composers were European.

I did a number of workshops of contemporary music. Once I finished my undergraduate degree I began to do recitals of chamber music with my works, and so I moved more decisively toward composition.

TM: What is the classical music scene in Porto Alegre like? What are the important institutions? Is there a contemporary music scene?

DC: The institutions were the Symphony Orchestra of Porto Alegre, the Chamber Orchestra of the Teatro S. Pedro, which was more amateur, but still playing at an impressive level. Contemporary music events tended to be limited to those at the Goethe Institut, usually with composers who would come to do master classes and workshops. I remember a musical life in Porto Alegre that was quite rich overall, with classical music being strong there proportionally. If you look at sheer numbers, Rio has more, but if you look at their relative populations, Porto Alegre may be stronger in classical music.

TM: In terms of literature there are many important figures from the south of Brazil.

DC: We have Érico Veríssimo, a great writer, perhaps the greatest gaucho writer of all time, the poet Mario Quintana…there are some composers who have made an impact on the national level, but few, since the south has always been a region which is more isolated, a state which was separatist, another Brazil, really.

TM: It has its own traditions, the figure of the gaucho

DC: It has much more to do with the culture of Buenos Aires and Uruguay than with the culture of Brazil, perhaps because the presence of the African element there is minimal. So the idea of brasilidade, which has a strong Afro component, is something we don’t have in the south. This is something which sets us apart.

TM: You mentioned the minimalist music of Part and other European composers. You went on to do a master’s after your bachelor’s in piano…

DC: I went to Salvador. After I finished my bachelor’s I spent several months traveling in Europe. I spent a month in Italy and managed to get a fellowship to study composition at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena. I returned to Italy some months later, did the two-month course with Franco Donatoni. I enjoyed the experience, but it was not the kind of music that I wanted to write. I was still trying to find a voice, and my music at the time had influences from impressionism, a little minimalism, a language that was more modal and tonal, but without influences of any sort from Brazilian music – nothing. I even remember that once I played at the Academia Vulcan, in Sao Paulo, in 1990, played the Toccata which I consider my first mature work, my opus one, and pianist Yara Bernete said “your music doesn’t have anything Brazilian in it, does it?”, and that made me start thinking about the matter.

I was living in Salvador from 1992 on, where I was doing my masters at the Federal University of Bahia.

TM: That must have been very different from Rio Grande do Sul.

DC: It was a considerable culture shock for the first six months, a shock that was greater than when I lived in the USA several years later. In Salvador I began to have a contact with a very strong afro-brasilidade. You see various cultural manifestations, capoeira….I had a colleague who was doing work on candomble. She was doing ethnomusicological study, and I went with her and was present at various sessions of candomble, which made quite an impression on me — that rhythmic music. Salvador was a very important experience for me, something that I only realized later, because while I was there I continued to write the sort of music I had been doing before. The Passacaglia Fantasia, for example, which is a work that blends romanticism with minimalism, is from 1991-1993. Later, in 1993, still in Salvador, I wrote Flot, music that had no connection with Brazilian music.

But when I left Salvador in 1994, then the thing clicked, and I began to incorporate in 1995 a rhythmic dimension which had not been present before, an emphasis on rhythm, and this is something I associate with my experience with rhythm in Salvador. I began to write music which I enjoyed more and which had a Brazilianity, but which still had a lot of use of repetition. The pieces for clarinet and piano, the Abertura e Toccata for orchestra….this was music I started to do in 1995.

In 95-96, I had a almost nationalistic phase. There is the Variations, op. 10, on a theme which then becomes Luar do Sertão [a Brazilian popular song], and I wrote a Bachiana Brasileira [Renova-te, op. 9] for chorus. I felt the need to write something Brazilian, but it seemed the nationalism was too explicit, as if I had said “Now I am going to do something Brazilian!”. The piece for chorus op. 9 is one which I really like — I think it is an excellent work, while op. 10 seems to have a nationalism which is too heavy.

I stopped composing for two years. I went to Seattle in 1996, and between 1996 and 1998, I had a period of little compositional activity, a year without composing anything….I was in an environment of post-serialism, with a professor who wanted me to write that sort of music, and it wasn’t working very well. I wasn’t going to write music in the way that the professor wanted.

My experience at the university was excellent, since I had access to scores. This is when I went deeply into minimalism, because I had access to scores, recordings and musical literature. I got to know the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass very well, some La Monte Young as well.

TM: Let’s go back to Bahia for a moment. Who were your professors?

DC: The Federal University of Bahia always had a very strong presence of contemporary music. Koellreutter settled there, and created a school of composers in Bahia — Ernst Widmer, Lindenbergue Cardoso — so it was always a school that had space, opening, movement in contemporary music. When I got there, this strain was diminishing somewhat, but there were still many opportunities to have pieces played. My adviser was Jamary de Oliveira, but I didn’t work on composition with him. We had seminars on Schenkerian analysis, analysis of atonal music, etc.

My final work for the masters’ was the Passacaglia Fantasia for piano and orchestra, which is a piece that I have rewritten three times. When I got to Bahia I wrote the second version, and recently once more. Now I consider it finished. It’s the same music, just that I worked on the writing and the orchestration. I presented this piece with the UFBA Symphonic Orchestra in Bahia.

It was a propitious environment, but my musical language was not affected.

TM: In Seattle you were studying for the doctorate?

DC: The two years in Seattle were part of a “sandwich” scholarship [where Brazil supports the student abroad for part of his/her doctoral study]. In 95 I started the doctorate at UFRGS, and in the middle of 96 I went to Seattle, intending to stay for one year. But since I loved it there, I extended the fellowship, and managed to stay for two years, and really managed to take advantage of the second year, since I had mastered the language, knew my way around the library…..I did a seminar on minimalism with Jonathan Bernard, who at the time was editor of Music Theory Spectrum. But the people there at the University of Washington were into post-serialism – my professor had studied with Ferneyhough. It was an esthetic position that did not interest me, but I absorbed what there was to absorb, did three semesters of conducting, which was wonderful. I had opportunities to hear excellent concerts.

TM: What was your experience being a Brazilian in the United States?

DC: Look, I felt more relaxed in the USA than in Salvador. In Salvador I felt more like a fish out of water, since I was tall, white, had green eyes – I felt more different.

TM: As a Brazilian in the USA were you something exotic, different?

DC: No, I didn’t feel that, since Seattle is a city with many foreigners living there, a port city, a city which is the closest to the Orient, with Indians, Koreans, Chinese — there is even a Chinatown there. There are Russian immigrants.

I found it to be an extremely cosmopolitan city. All port cities are cosmopolitan. I had a very negative impression of the United States before living in Seattle.

TM: How?

DC: I had that idea that Americans were alienated, knew nothing about anything, were cold personally…..that stereotype we have, that might be true of people from the interior, the South….but I was very surprised by Seattle. I loved being there, and never felt like I was different, always felt respected and well-treated. I didn’t have problems fitting in. It is a nice place to be.

TM: And very beautiful to boot.

DC: Beautiful, beautiful, with an excellent quality of life. But perhaps even within the US Seattle is an exception, a privileged city, in terms of natural beauty, in terms of the population, the connection with the East. I know that Cage, Lou Harrison taught there –

TM: the “Left Coast”….

DC: It’s a different United States, and I don’t know the rest, just a little of Los Angeles and San Diego. This United States was one that I liked a lot.

TM: When you returned from Seattle to Brazil, where did you end up?

DC: I finished my doctorate, and began to compose quite a bit before returning from Seattle. It was clear to me that my esthetic was one that would combine minimalism and Brazilian music. I composed Papaji for cello and piano in Seattle, in 2000 I wrote Toronubá, in 2001 Pattapiana. This was a phase where I had lots of time to compose, since I didn’t have a steady job – I taught piano, had odd jobs….Time was available, and inspiration was not lacking. I came back to Brazil in 1998, and in 2000 I was awarded the fellowship from CNPQ for those who have recently completed their doctorates. I went to teach at the Federal University of Santa Maria (UFSM), classes in ear-training, counterpoint, harmony. My research led to a book on minimalism and its influence on contemporary music in Brazil.

I also spent two years at the Universidade Federal de Pelotas, and then returned to the University of Santa Maria for another two years, and since 2006 I have been in Porto Alegre at UFRGS.

TM: Let’s talk a little about the piece which we will hear today at the Bienal.

DC: Canauê is a piece I wrote in 2005. It is the last piece in the series Brasil 2000, which is a series of nine pieces for various instrumental forces. Since the series was directly inspired by the Bachianas of Villa-Lobos, as Villa-Lobos intended to fuse Brazilian music with Bach, I wanted to produce a series of works that would combine Brazilian music with aspects of minimalism.

TM: What does the title mean?

DC: The titles of my works allude to things, but many do not refer to something specific. Canauê is a word I invented, like Toronubá, but with an indigenous sound. I feel music in an abstract way, so I prefer not to give titles which are explanatory, but that instead have a sonority that has some connection with the work.

In 2004 maestro Roberto Duarte gave a course in orchestral conducting with the Orquestra Unisinos, which is no longer active, lamentably, but it was very active and had a winter school. I did two courses with maestro Duarte, and in the second was in contact with the Bachianas Brasileiras no. 9, which I directed in the students’ concert — I did the prelude, and another conductor from Rio did the fugue.

The score made quite an impression on me, with its ample writing for strings, full of divisi. The following year, when I began to write Canauê, I think there were subliminal influences from this work, because the Bachianas no. 9 begins with a mystic theme which becomes a fugue. So Canauê follows this same structure — a slow, mystic theme, which in the second part of the work becomes a quick theme, just that in Canauê you have an expansion of the theme, with a return of the slow theme, which closes the work, a ternary structure, ABA.

This is a work that I conceived as orchestral from the outset, with all the colors, orchestration, but I only wrote the orchestral version in 2007. I wrote the version for strings, because there was the possibility of a performance, and I don’t like to write pieces which don’t get played. Then there was a version for percussion — marimba solo, with three percussionists, and this version has an additional movement. The orchestral version I wrote this year, and it was performed by the Orquestra Sinfônica de Porto Alegre recently. After I wrote the orchestral version I returned to the version for strings and changed a few things, so that now it seems well-finished.

TM: Brazil has an amazing wealth of composers and music, but this music is largely unknown outside Brazil, perhaps because the internal music publishing market in Brazil is too small, and so there are no scores for export. What solutions could make it possible for Brazilian music to be better known abroad?

DC: I think Brazilian music life has improved in how it regards active composers. Over the last twenty years the number new Brazilian works which have been included in concert programs has increased considerably. The advent of the CD facilitated dissemination of Brazilian music. It’s true that classical music is on the periphery of Brazilian musical life, but I think that this is not so different from other countries, even those in Europe. I think it has to do with the level of education of the population, and with the level of purchasing power.

What needs to be done for this music to have a greater presence is more emphasis on education, as well as an improvement of the economic conditions of the country as a whole.

TM: Is there some way to improve the marketing of Brazilian music before these improvements take place?

DC: There are professional activities in this regard in Rio and Sao Paulo – there are publications such as Concerto and VivaMusica! We have strong institutions in Rio and Sao Paulo which support classical music, but in order for this music to reach a larger portion of the population education is necessary, access to education.

Another problem is that our economic elite is an elite which is intellectually and culturally poor. There are plenty of people with money, but they won’t use this money to support art, which is different from the situation in the USA, where people leave bequests to support culture, fellowship, where students support the universities where they studied.

Brazil is less mature as a people, and the public good is not valued. This is a profound cultural problem. We have to be conscious of the fact that our colonization was done in a chaotic fashion. Brazil only really began when the Portuguese court came. Thanks to Napoleon Brazil began to be a civilized country, when D. Joao came, and there started to be libraries, music etc.

We have to remember that our civilization is only two hundred years old, so our people is very young and immature in a number of areas — a happy and playful people, but not ready for the sort of messages which are carried by high culture. You can’t compare Brazil with somewhere which has two or three thousand years of history.

TM: What future projects do you have on line?

DC: I have been dedicating myself to making the things which I have done better known. I haven’t been writing so much at the moment. I always like to write for particular occasions where the piece will be performed. I feel better working like that these days.

If I can have a good work played ten, twenty, thirty times, this is more interesting for me than having ten pieces which are each played once. Pattapiana, which was heard at the Bienal in 2003, is a piece which was played by the Symphonic Orchestra of Campinas last month, and will be played in Paraguay in November. There was a very nice recording made of it in Israel….it’s a piece that has been performed seven or eight times in the last five years.

TM: How did you make the connection with Israel?

DC: A flutist from S. Paulo who has connections with Israel, James Strauss, got a grant to record a disc of Brazilian music for flute and strings, which includes Pattapiana — there’s also a piece by Tacuchian, a piece by Julio Medaglia…it hasn’t been released yet, but now there’s a nice recording of the piece.

Toronubá has been played more than thirty times, principally in the version for eightpercussionists and piano, which is coming out now on the CD of PIAP. The piecebeingplayed today, Canauê, has already been performed fifteen times in two years.

TM: This is a lot of work, doing the publicity.

DC: Yes. Sometimes I prefer to use my time to make connections and publicize pieces, than to write new works. It is hard to write a really good piece — something that you almost don’t have control over, and the incentives, financial incentives for writing new works are minimal. I have written relatively little because I write on commission. If I am not writing new pieces, I may be rewriting old ones. Next year there is a strong possibility that the Passacaglia Fantasia [op. 3] will be played by the Symphony in Bahia. So this year I rewrote the piece, since I only had the manuscript, produced a set of parts, revised the orchestration, and this is more pleasing than writing a new piece for orchestra.

TM: It is certainly no fun to write things that will stay in the drawer.

DC: I only have one piece which has not yet been played. These days we have such a variety of music available. There’s no point in writing 100 works. I prefer the style of Webern or Varese — a few works, which are consistent, which are really good, and enter the repertoire, than to write a lot of works….of course sometimes quality comes from quantity, but one is busy with teaching, extension projects, administration, preparing entrance exams….

I am always doing something. Rewriting a piece, or producing the parts…..I have written only one or two pieces per year.

TM: Final thoughts?

DC: Brazilian classical music has an enormous potential, just like our popular music. What is necessary for this music to become better-known outside Brazil is simply for it to be heard, for Brazilian performers who have an international presence to bring it with them on their concert programs. They are beginning to look more to their own country.

And we have to value our classical music more, create references within Brazil, and this will have an effect outside as well.

Our Brazilian classical music, as you say, has so many good things to offer, not just the music of Villa-Lobos, but of many other composers.

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