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Marcela Pavia
03 Nov 2010

Marcela Pavia — An Interview

Composer Marcela Pavia was born and raised in Rosario, Argentina, and comes from a family of Italian immigrants.

An Interview with Marcela Pavia

By Tom Moore

Above: Marcela Pavia


She has made the journey back to the “old country”, having first studied with Donatoni in Siena, and then established herself permanently in Italy, although like most contemporary composers, she is no stranger to the inside of a jet, with an international presence in Europe, the United States and South America. We spoke via Skype on February 22, 2010.

TM: Where did you grow up? Was there music in your family?

MP: I was born in Argentina, and grew up there and studied there, at the University of Rosario. I also studied with two Argentinean masters, one from Rosario, Dante Grela, and the other from Buenos Aires, Francisco Kröpfl. With regard to my family, there are no musicians, but my mother studied philosophy, so she has a cultural background in the humanities.

TM: Was the family originally from Rosario?

MP: I was born in Rosario. My parents were from Argentina, but almost all my grandparents were from Italy. They met in Argentina. They were almost all from northern Italy. I belong to a second generation of Argentineans. I was able to have Italian citizenship, without losing my Argentinean citizenship, because my father’s father never lost his Italian citizenship. There is an agreement between Argentina and Italy.

TM: Where in northern Italy did the families come from?

MP: The father of my father, from Piemont. The mother of my mother, from Piedmont. And I think my father’s mother was also from Piedmont. There was only one who came originally from south Italy.

TM: What music were you exposed to as a child in Rosario?

MP: We listened to classical music, and my father listened to a lot of jazz. When I was a teenager I discovered progressive rock and roll. At that moment I started to study music seriously. I had been studying music since I was a child, but as a hobby. It was as a teenager that I started to do it more seriously.

TM: Had you started with the piano?

MP: No, I had started with the accordion. Then I went on to study flute and guitar. And I finally I started piano when I began to study composition.

TM: You mentioned jazz and progressive rock. Was there also tango in Rosario?

MP: At that time, when I was a teenager, tango was part of history, there were people who listened to it, but not young people. Young people at that time were devoted to rock ― progressive rock, like me, and that was a minority; commercial rock, and there were a lot of people who liked that; and the people who were politically on the left were connected with folk music, but folk music that was reworked and mixed together with rock. I also liked that sort of fusion of rock and folk music.

TM: What would be an example of a group that played that kind of music?

MP: There was a group called Arco-Iris (which means “rainbow”). One of the leaders of the group was Gustavo Santaolalla ― he is now in the United States, in Los Angeles, I believe. Another important member, who continued to do music, was Ara Tokatlian.

TM: What progressive rock groups were exciting for you as a teenager?

MP: I liked Jethro Tull, and especially the LPs which were conceived as a single work, like Thick as a Brick, or The Dark Side of the Moon, or Tommy. It was not by chance that I liked progressive rock and then became devoted to classical music, because progressive rock was based on classical music ― it was very orchestral. Thick as a Brick, for example, is a mix of rock and baroque music, and it’s a very successful mix. I could listen to it today with a lot of pleasure.

TM: I listened to it myself in the United States in the 1970s, and I think that music is almost unknown today. It has fallen into oblivion in some respects.

MP: Yes, and it was not replaced by something better, really.

TM: When did you start to study composition?

MP: In 1980, when I was at the university already. I studied at the university and at the school of music ― I did both, up to a moment when I decided that I would stay with composition, because it was very difficult to do both things. I started with anthropology, and then three years of biochemistry, and always doing composition at the same time.

TM: Had you been playing pop music as an adolescent?

MP: Yes, when I was in Rosario, we had a group of friends, and we played and did some concerts. We did the arrangements. It was a very nice experience, but it was difficult to go on, because we all had different ideas regarding what we wanted to do with our lives. The only one who is now devoted to music professionally is me.

TM: Your university study was also in Rosario. Could you say a little about the culture of Rosario? Rosario, if I am not mistaken, is the third largest city in Argentina.

MP: Second or third. It belongs to the same cultural zone as Buenos Aires. In fact, it is very near to Buenos Aires by Argentinean standards, which are very different from European ones. For us, 300 km is close by. Rosario’s culture is very similar to Buenos Aires, but with many fewer possibilities, since by comparison Buenos Aires is much larger. It’s everything. The other cities get the leftovers ― this is the problem with Argentina.

Rosario had a movement in contemporary music which was very important, because of the composer Dante Grela, who led a school in the sense that most of the composers who are active and well-known today were pupils of Dante Grela. Rosario was important from this point of view. It was also important because in the seventies there was a big moment for rock music ― I belonged to that moment for a while ― and there were a lot of rock and pop musicians who went on to become famous in Argentina. Most of them went to Buenos Aires, but they were originally from Rosario.

TM: There are also some important literary figures who are based in Rosario ― Angelica Gorodischer, if I am not mistaken.

MP: Yes, I know here by name, and she has a son who was a friend of a friend of mine. The world is very small.

TM: Please talk about how you came to study composition, and whom you studied with.

MP: I came to Italy, because I came to the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, and at that time the composer giving the master course was Franco Donatoni. I arrived in Siena in 1991 to do the summer master-course with Donatoni. It was something that changed my life, because I decided to move to Italy. I already had Italian citizenship, and so after I went back to Argentina, first I had a residency in the United States, at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and then went to Italy in 1992 to live. I went to the Chigiana for a second year, and then continued studying with Donatoni.

TM: Please say a little about your teachers in Argentina.

MP: In Rosario, there was Dante Grela, and in Buenos Aires, Francisco Kröpfl. Kröpfl is known outside Argentina since he was on the jury for the Bourges competition and in the Venice Biennale and so on.

TM: What was your musical language like before you studied with Donatoni?

MP: Contemporary, absolutely contemporary, because both Grela and Kröpfl came Juan Carlos Paz. Juan Carlos Paz was the one who introduced the Vienna School ― Schoenberg, Berg and Webern ― to Argentina. From him the contemporary music movement in Argentina was born. We all come from Juan Carlos Paz, in a way.

TM: To return to Italy, please talk about study with Donatoni, and the works you were writing as a student of his.

MP: Studying with Donatoni was very important because it led to a change in the way that I was writing. At that time, he did not teach technique ― he assumed that had already been done by his pupils. I was particularly interested in his esthetics, as I very much liked his music. It was very useful for me, because, in my experience, an analytical approach prevailed. In Argentina, the musical experience in the academic world is very different because each university or conservatory may have its own curriculum, unlike in Italy, where the state mandates examinations that are the same for everyone. If you study in the conservatory in Turin, the examination to conclude your studies will be more or less the same as the examination at the conservatory in Cagliari. Things are centralized. In Argentina, it’s different, because each conservatory or university is free to design its own curriculum, and the curriculum must then be approved by the Ministry of Education. I studied at the School of Music of the University of Rosario, and the School had an historical and stylistic approach. In the first year of composition, we studied the Middle Ages, and Gregorian chant. We started at the beginning of Western music. Then we went to polyphony, to Baroque, to Classical music, and so on. And by the end one would arrive at the twentieth century. This was the approach in Rosario. Other universities and conservatories had different approaches. What I realized about the Argentinean approach, when I arrived in Italy, was that it was very analytical. This is very useful in the moment of analysis, but it’s not useful for everybody.

With Donatoni I learned the importance of the gesture. The gesture could be the first idea of a piece, the strong idea, and could be defined in all its aspects, so the gesture means that you see everything ― this means the rhythm, the pitches, the dynamics. Then you let the gesture evolve over time. This was very useful for me, because at that moment I could put together the poetical ideas that very often are the thing that impels me to write music. The strong idea that you have inside is the only thing that gives character to the music. When you don’t have a strong idea or concept ― you can call it whatever you want ― the material is indifferent. It is only the strong idea, the one which moves you, which makes the material lose its neutrality. At that moment the material becomes significant. This is one approach to composition; there are other approaches that put the accent on the parametrical way of composing (I am talking about the process of composition),

TM: One can think of composers who are capable of elaborating the original material, but unfortunately the original material is mediocre. And if the original impulse does not grab you, the final product is fated to be not worth listening to.

MP: Yes, because it becomes simply a matter of technique, like an academic examination. Sometimes these things are noticeable, because one thing is simply the same as the next. A piece may be simply a way to demonstrate how to work with parameters in an analytical way, which is something that I don’t like, or the music can be a means, an instrument for expressing ourselves. It’s a way of expressing something significant.

TM: Could you tell me what piece would be your opus one, the point at which you moved from being a student to being a creative artist?

MP: In general I can say that I really started writing music here, in Italy.

TM: Could you talk about a particular piece in more detail?

MP: Yes. There is a piece from that period, Nayla, for flute, which is on my website. It is still receiving many performances, although by now it is a very old piece. It’s a piece which I still appreciate.

TM: What was the genesis of this work? Was it commissioned by a particular performer?

MP: No, it was written when I was studying with Donatoni in Milan, and was not written at the request of a performer. It is a very difficult piece, and requires considerable study. The idea was to use very, very few effects or extended techniques. I liked the notion (which is a very Donatonian idea) that the new sound of something could come from the way of writing it. The same elements, combined in a different way, could produce a very, very different result. For example, if you use an instrument, and make them play all the time in a very high register, it will not be recognizable by the public or by the listener. Perhaps you may not use unusual effects at all, but the usual technique of the instrument, not extended techniques, but normal techniques. Even with normal techniques we can make sound textures, even with only one instrument, that can produce a different acoustical result. In Nayla, there are moments where you think that there are two instruments rather than one, because of the linear polyphony. That is the strong idea of the piece, which is very difficult because it must be played as fast as possible. The velocity is important in order to produce this result. The velocity is another element which could absolutely change the way in which you perceive something. A very simple example: you have a melody, with two notes which are not very far separated in time. If they are not far separated in time, they are related to each other ―they are a melody. But if you put them very far away from each other in time, they are no longer a melody. And if you put them very near, you no longer hear two notes, but you hear a timbre. Here we are speaking of only two elements, and just notes. With the same elements you can produce a very different result ― if you know how to handle them. Kröpfl was my master in this analytical approach; Donatoni was my master in how to apply it.

TM: Could you please talk about a more recent piece?

MP: I will talk about Pain is not linear. This piece is representative of one of my areas of interest, which is working with resonance. I have also worked with this in my works for guitar, which has the possibility of producing sympathetic resonance. With the piano I use the possibilities of the tonal pedal to produce these resonances. In this work the strong idea is that deep feelings, like pain, do not follow linear paths. No psychological process follows a linear path. The form of the piece is not linear, because there is something that always comes back. There are resonances centered on the A at the beginning, and they come back in the form of harmonics or in other ways. In addition to the resonance, there is another way of working which I do not use all the time, but many times, which is the idea that the material of the whole piece is concentrated at the beginning. It is a very difficult piece, which was commissioned by the American pianist Thomas Rosenkranz after he heard Nayla.

TM: Perhaps you could talk about your works for guitar. It seems like in a certain sense the language for Fideal is more Latin American.

MP: I have written purely Argentinean music, or a fusion between Argentinean and contemporary music, or between contemporary music and other styles. Fideal is contemporary. Malambo is a fusion between contemporary music and an Argentine folk rhythm, a dance, and the name of this dance is malambo. At the beginning the guitar is used as a percussive instrument and the rhythm of the malambo becomes clear.

TM: Now that you are in Italy, do you continue to be concerned with Argentinean national expression? Are you an Italian composer? Or both?

MP: Contemporary music is a mirror, a good mirror, of globalization, which most of the time I think is not a good thing. But contemporary music is a kind of language that really goes beyond borders, and so a contemporary composer who comes from Italy is not so different from a contemporary composer who comes from Mexico, or from Argentina, because we have a common ancestry. To this common background we add other things, so in addition to being a contemporary composer, I have a background of folk music from Argentina. Even if you listen to a Japanese composer ― Toru Takemitsu ― there is no difference between his approach to contemporary music and elsewhere. Each composer has his own esthetics, but the differences between them are not very great in comparison with the differences that you find in popular cultures. Popular characteristics are much more marked, are much more evident than the differences between individual composers of contemporary music.

That being said, in the United States, and in American festivals in Italy, there is much more diversity between contemporary composers. You may find someone who writes in a neo-classical way, or a rhythmic/folk-related way, or using a mix of everything ― in Italy it is not like that. And generally also in Argentina ― being contemporary means a certain esthetic.

TM: Would you like to talk about new pieces for this year and next?

MP: I am writing a piece for a chamber orchestra from Florence. I am also working on a piece for guitar and electronics that belongs to a larger project which will become a whole concert for guitar and electronics. I have also just finished a piece for an Argentinean guitarist which will be performed in Argentina.

I am traveling quite a lot. In June I have a concert in Chicago because I have been in contact with the CUBE ensemble there, but I think I will not be able to go because at the beginning of July I have to be in New York for the premiere of a piece that I wrote for the Duo Quaranta-Sei for violin and guitar. On July 7 they will play the piece, and then there will be a panel with me and many others. The composers featured by Duo 46 are a German composer whose name is Michael Quell, Jack Fortner, and Jorge Liderman, an Argentine composer who lived in the United States and died sometime ago.

In July I will be in the Soundscape Festival, an American festival which is held here in Italy, and I will be the faculty member, so I will have to be there until the end of July. In August I may have to go to Finland for another concert, and in October we have a festival in Argentina, so I will be there.

TM: Very busy!

MP: I am tired already…

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