Method: Leo Brouwer’s Challenging and Modern ‘Danza Caracteristica’


Danza Caracteristica, by Leo Brouwer (b.1939), portrays a quintessential Afro-Cuban dance through the idiom of modern guitar. This lesson will explore coordination, artificial harmonics, and 20th century Cuban music.


Brouwer is a conductor, arranger, guitarist, and arguably the foremost modern Cuban composer. He composed his first pieces in 1954 at age 15. Since that point he has produced a steady flow of music that has included solo and chamber pieces, film soundtracks, concertos, electric music, ballet scores, and more—with the guitar ever present.

Two core elements evident in much of Brouwer’s writing style are Afro-Cuban music influences—especially Yoruba rhythmic patterns—and the European classical idiom fused to popular expression. Danza Caracteristica, a challenging work in dropped-D tuning, was composed in 1956, and is dedicated to Brouwer’s guitar teacher, Isaac Nicola. Within it, Brouwer explores the rhythmic “characteristics” of a particular Cuban dance: the conga. He also exploits a melody from a popular tune called Quítate de la Acera (Get Off the Sidewalk). Even though it was composed at a time when there was a movement in Latin American music toward nationalism, we can also see in it hints of Brouwer’s later musical inclinations.


Throughout this piece you will find rhythmic cells derived from the habanera (see Fall 2017 “Method”), one of which is the tresillo (triplet) cell in the bass part. This cell requires a confident level of fine control for its syncopation to stand out. Micro Study 1 is an amalgamation of the three main ostinato riffs, with Brouwer’s various accents, from Danza Caracteristica.

micro study 1 classical guitar method leo brouwer lesson

The main aim is to practice thumb control with slurs, RH independence, and barres. The piano up-pedal symbol—an asterisk*—illustrates the dampening made explicit by Brouwer’s use of rests in the original. The goal is to dampen the first bass note, after playing a rest stroke on the accented note, dampen that, and then play the third—all the while keeping the in-between notes even and running. It’s not easy, so take it slow.


Danza will test your coordination skills. Micro Study 2 (derived from bars 19 and 20), has been designed to bring to light the conga rhythm. The aim is to play the first chords together, and afterward strum the chords marked rasg. Then shift the LH down and back up with a 2nd-finger guide, all the while controlling the strings with both hands—a host of coordinated events which will bring your Cuban conga to life; try not to “just strum” these chords.


micro study 2 classical guitar method leo brouwer lesson

Micro Study 3 is for practicing artificial harmonics (AH), and it utilizes parts of the Quítate melody. Again, there’s a coordinated action between hands: The LH frets the notes normally, while the RH points to (and plucks) the harmonic node/fret an octave above–frets 15 and 17 respectively. The micro study progresses from basic AHs to the prerequisites for Danza–AHs with bass notes. This is achieved with RH finger independence: i finger marks the node, a finger plucks the string behind i, while p plucks the bass. Again, a series of fine synchronized movements where it is best to “chunk” (divide) the information: Work on the p bass pluck (with a) finger pluck, then add in the a (with i) finger pluck.

micro study 3 classical guitar method leo brouwer lesson


Danza Caracteristica is notated in an open/atonal key (no sharps or flats) with three key centers: D minor, G minor and E minor. It can be partitioned into the following sections: A B (A1 A2) C, with a short coda of A2’s material. The A sections are marked by the opening ostinato rhythm, bar 1, which is literally transposed into D minor (bar 25) and then E minor (bar 41). Section B (bar 15) utilizes the cinquillo cell, into a direct statement of the conga rhythm with chords (bar 19). Section C (bar 54) is an AH quote of the original Quítate melody, in deliberate binary contrast to the rest of the piece.

There are two main LH slurs found in this piece: single slurs off a barre (which are challenging for the
little finger), and double slurs on open strings—which require accuracy. Micro Study 4, broken into two sections, is aimed at improving both techniques. The first is an adoption of an idea for strengthening the LH fingers which Brouwer shared in a master class. Aim to slur cleanly while maintaining a barre chord. The second idea, based on bars 68–69, is for practicing the double hammer-ons and pull-offs. Aim for striking the strings accurately, fingers together, with a solid tone. Practice the pull-offs—technically a pull down movement—in one fluid motion together. Again, chunking the actions into sections will help. Concentrate on the harmonization of the LH fingers first, then synchronize the pull-offs. Bear in mind that a certain level of left and right coordination will be required to get it zinging at speed.

micro study 4 classical guitar method leo brouwer lesson


The musical language that Brouwer utilizes in this piece is full of colorful aural clashes—the opening 9th interval, the prevalent flatted 5th interval, etc. Each is used across Danza to great effect. Brouwer also cleverly employs two diminished 5th diads as a maj7 b5 sus4 chord, chromatically up the fretboard (bars 33–35 and 49–52), with the first cell of the conga rhythm. This is the start of the language that Brouwer would develop further during his avant-garde era and beyond. The ending is Brouwer manipulating time (bar 102 onwards), so mark the rests carefully. And he finally closes with what must be a joke, a clichéd V-i.


Composing, for Brouwer, is sometimes analogous to filmmaking: It is possible to zoom in on subjects, pan across them, or slow down and alter scenes. And Danza Caracteristica is an excellent piece with which to come to grips with his unique language. From the Cuban tresillo bass syncopation to the cinquillo cell, from binary ideas to a popular (humorous) song—all are part of Brouwer’s Afro-Cuban-style traits. 

rhythmic cells classical guitar method leo brouwer lesson


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