From the CG Vault: A 2008 Interview with Leo Brouwer, Plus Some History


(Next year, 2019, will mark the 80th birthday of Leo Brouwer. For most of this past year—2018—he has been traveling the world, picking up honors left and right at guitar festivals, holding master classes, and generally soaking up some much-deserved appreciation from the guitar word for his long, illustrious career. So, we thought it might be fun to dig back in to the CG archives for this (slightly edited) interview and story by Thérèse Wassily Saba, timed around Brouwer’s 70th birthday. Think about all the amazing things he has accomplished since! —Blair Jackson)

For over a year, the Cuban composer, conductor, guitarist, and inspirational teacher Leo Brouwer has been tirelessly touring the world, attending many international celebrations for his 70th birthday.

Brouwer was born in Havana on March 1, 1939, and his work as a musician has been multifaceted and prolific. His debut as a guitarist was in Havana in 1955, and by 1961 he had become a professor of harmony and counterpoint at the National Conservatory there. Composing has always been a part of his work from the very beginning. Brouwer has created an impressive body of works for solo classical guitar, as well as guitar in ensemble and with orchestra, which has reflected and responded to musical and intellectual explorations in the contemporary classical music world. In his writing, he has explored previously uninhabited technical forms of expression, which have expanded our vision of the classical guitar and its potential in a way that no other 20th century composer has. Yet it is important to remember that his works for guitar are only a portion of his compositional output. (Brouwer mentions some in the interview that follows.)

In order to assist in the publishing of his vast compositional output, in 2005 Brouwer and Isabelle Hernández established Ediciones Espiral Eterna ( in Havana, making it possible at last to  buy the music of pieces such as Hika (1996); the Suite No.1 (antigua) (1955); the rather uniquely orchestrated Gismontiana (2004) for four guitars, string quartet and chamber ensemble and so many others.

I caught up with Maestro Brouwer after having heard the première of his Concerto da Requiem (guitar concerto no. 12) played by Shin-ichi Fukuda, with the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie, conducted by Rasmus Baumann, at the Koblenz International Guitar Festival on May 9, 2008. However, at the time of the interview, we were both at the Córdoba Guitar Festival 2008, following another première—his Sonata No.2 for solo guitar, played by Odair Assad on July 8, 2008.

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Now that I have heard the première of your Concerto da Requiem I am really interested to know about all the non-guitar orchestral references I heard. I felt as though I was listening to an articulate conversation, which is expressed in orchestral music. Are there many musical references in there, for example to Stravinsky?
Yes, but it came not from Stravinsky; there is the um pah um pah rhythm, but it came mainly from Vaughan Williams’ 4th Symphony, which is one of the masterpieces in the history of symphonic music: that um cha um cha um BA BA um cha um cha rhythm. The 4th Symphony by Vaughan Williams is one of my favorites in the whole symphonic repertoire.

Is that the reference in the Concerto?
For that specific thing; the rest of it is really very much my own. Do you know my Helsinki Concerto?

No, I don’t know that concerto.
Because it’s a very early one; it was guitar concerto number five. There are many things from my symphonic work, which are known more or less, such as resuming resonances, colors and cross-fading. And also film technique: I use the concept of flashback from film very much, and I use “stop motion” a lot, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, when some of the music is frozen, with riuuuuuu, and then another musical idea comes in with dop dop dop, and it stops there; it’s like something which you see and you are walking right in front of it.

Is that something that you were inspired to do through watching films?
No, through writing music for films. I have written nearly 100 film scores; we have to survive.

But you like doing it as well, don’t you?
Of course, I love it because it’s a challenge. It’s a real challenge because you cannot compose on your own for films; you have to be polite with the scenery, respond to the historical period in which the film is set, and to many things like that.

So it gives you a forced structure.
Of course, and also there is the concept of the novel’s story, the literary concepts, and chapters. I like to use the idea of chapters very much—not movements, because movements can be separated. In early Baroque music, the movements were not separated but were united because of a kind of harmonic structure. In the prelude of a Baroque piece, you have the whole structure of the harmony and then every dance comes out of this harmony. Usually, the first allemande has the melodic trends that are later introduced, but are exactly the same. So we can conceive of a suite, the Baroque suite as a theme and variations.

Can I just take you back to the concept of “stopping motion”? For example, I noticed in the Sonata No.2, which Odair Assad has just premièred here in Córdoba, you started off gently and built to a big development, which suddenly came to a complete musical stop, and focused just on one single note. Is that an example of your idea of “stop motion”?
Yes, one of the “stop motion” moments is like that. Or, for example, when he finishes with a tremendous climax and then a low powerful chord with the appoggiatura that remains vibrating for a long time afterwards.

Yes, that was incredible! Where did that particular chord come from?
From Afro-Cuban harmonization, which is also the beginning of the most ancient scale pattern in the history of music: the scale built from the tetrachord.

How many different notes do you have in that chord?
I only have a neutral chord—that is, a chord without any third; it’s not major, not minor.

It has a fantastic effect in the piece. Talking about the Baroque concept of continuity, is that why although Sonata No.2 is in four movements, it is played attacca. Is that the same concept of aiming for Baroque continuity?
Yes, yes, that’s it; bravo!


Tell me more about Sonata No. 2.
It is called Sonata Caminante—the sonata of the wanderer. It’s like many of my pieces that have been composed for guitarists—it’s a kind of portrait of Odair. Odair is a very complete person—he is not only delicate, but also powerful; he’s a kind of Robin Hood. I have a lot of tenderness inside of [the sonata], a lot of aggressiveness, a lot of joy; everything which is peculiar to Odair’s character.

It is quite something that you have written a solo work for someone who is such an established as a duo player. Did he commission the work or did you decide to write it for him?
Well, it was a surprise for him. We talked with his wife, Fa. She wanted the piece for him because she saw that after being with his brother for more than 40 years, when suddenly Sérgio went away for a short break, because of his needs to compose and to spend a little more time with his family, Odair, who loves him so much, was a little down. So to encourage Odair and to encourage his playing, to make him happy and to keep him active, Fa requested the piece.

It seems to have had a profound effect on him.
I think so; they said that to me also, so I’m so happy. This is one of the pieces I composed with more joy and ease. I compose very quickly, but I let the music sleep a bit, then I recover it and I start once more and then I let that sleep.

Did you start the piece a long time ago?
No, no, no, this is one of the few pieces—like Elogio de la Danza also—which I wrote very quickly, just in one sitting.

Are there references to other pieces in the Sonata Caminante?
I have lots of things in there, but not from my guitar music. For example, the third part of it: This continuous dance with a continuous tantalizing ding ding ding bah do dah da ding. This polyrhythmic, expanded and contracted material comes from my third string quartet and also a little bit from my Rito de las Orishas. In Yoruba language, Orisha means the “Black Gods.” That is a solo piece, which I wrote years ago. It’s like the drumming.

Yesterday, in your lecture, you mentioned your disappointment with the pop music industry.
The problem with pop music up to now has been that it is adopted immediately by commercial companies, who then try to transform the popular art of folklore into money. Then, to sell it quicker or faster—this fantastic form of popular art—they make a lot of cuts and many times they are cutting out the real values of it, saying: “No, no, it’s too complicated. No, no, the people want to dance. Don’t make complicated music.” This is amazing, but I know that these record companies are like that, and the producers.

For example, [Manuel] Barrueco did a recording of some of my Beatles music and the producer didn’t like two bars of one of my pieces. I don’t know why. The only thing is that I did a little homage to bebop and dixieland in the last chord of one of them, Penny Lane. But what I did in each one was an exercise in style: My Penny Lane was in homage to Hindemith. Another was in homage to Smetana and Moldavia. And one was an homage to Béla Bartók.

These are your pieces, aren’t they?
The melodies are by the Beatles—everybody knows them—then I use these melodies as a pretext to make an homage to the great sonorities of some of the classical composers. The producer didn’t realize it; of course he wasn’t thinking about Smetana, or about Stravinsky.

Watch Brouwer conduct the Orquesta de Córdoba, fronted by Cuban guitarist Joaquín Clerch, performing the Maestro’s Beatles arrangements:

So we have had the Concerto da Requiem, which has just been premièred, and the Sonata No.2 has just been premièred. 2008 has been a big year. Are there any more premieres coming this year?
There is a symphonic piece called The Invisible Cities.

Has that been inspired by a story?
Yes, by Italo Calvino, inspired by his book of the same name: Las Ciudades Invisibles. This will be premiered in November 2008 in Finland.

It has no guitar in there?
No, no.

Did you compose that work this year as well?
Yes, and I have also written my fourth string quartet, which was premièred in Havana. And I have completed my violin and my viola sonatas, and ten piano sonatas, which are in one movement. I wrote them two years ago. They are called Sketches because they are dedicated to painters.

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More 70th birthday celebrations for Brouwer were held at the Classical Guitar Festival of Great Britain in West Dean in August 2009. At West Dean, this dedicated teacher gave several public master classes. It was clear in those classes that he really wanted to help and musically enlighten each student that played for him. To illustrate his points and help the students absorb his concepts more securely, he drew his ideas and examples from a wide range of music and musicians. He quoted Palestrina to encourage putting more into the interpretation of repeated phrases: “Nothing that is repeated is played in the same way!” writing the words on the whiteboard at the back of the stage for emphasis. To a student playing Dowland, he suggested that he listen to Jordi Savall: “Don’t forget his name: Jordi Savall!” he repeated. But fearing that the student might have too intense a focus on any one musical period or style, he continued his advice: “I suggest that guitarists do not get involved with [just] one historical period. The Renaissance is one period, but you need Scarlatti and Soler and you need Rachmaninov. Then you will be ready for everything—style is very important.” For the student playing one movement from Brouwer’s El Decamerón negro, famously played at a furious pace by some guitarists, it was interesting to hear Brouwer’s comment: “I hate velocity, but I love intensity.”

The birthday celebrations moved to Madrid and Córdoba with a series of concerts in September 2009; the book launch of Leo Brouwer: Caminos de la Creación by the musicologists Marta Rodríguez Cuervo and Victoria

Eli; the release of a recording of his complete works for string quartet —Leo Brouwer: Integral para Cuarteto de Cuerdas, performed by the Havana String Quartet; and a recording of his complete works for piano trio, Leo Brouwer: Pictures at Another Exhibition, performed by the B3 Brouwer Trio.

Córdoba has played an important part in his life as a conductor. He was the founder and for many years the director of the Orquesta de Córdoba (1992–2001). He was also the director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Cuba for an even longer period (1981–2003). In November 2009 he will be at the 41st Zwolle International Guitar Festival in The Netherlands.

Brouwer’s music is usually delineated into three distinct periods by musicologists. And even though Brouwer himself speaks in terms of these periods, it is clear that his musical style is ever-evolving and that the compositions from one period are pointing in the direction of the compositions of a later period, with a certain amount of overlap in stylistic ideas from one period to the next. For example, he composed the cadenzas for Haydn’s Quartet in D and for Giuliani’s Guitar Concerto op. 30, during his “avant-garde” years.

The first period, which was roughly from 1955 until 1964, was his “nationalist” period, where he used more traditional structures—such as sonata form, theme and variations, and fugue—and drew ideas from folk and Afro-Cuban music (particularly for his rhythmic ideas). Some of those earliest pieces included Danza Característica (1957), which used the old song Quitate de la acera; the three Piezas sin título Nos.1–3 (1956–62); and the Tres apuntes (1959), written in homage to Manuel de Falla, Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók. During this first period, he wrote his first and second series of Estudios Sencillos, which have become such an important milestone in contemporary solo guitar music. It was in 1955 that Brouwer first heard a recording of Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maitre and also Stockhausen’s Zeitmasse, so by 1958 he began incorporating non-musical forms, such as geometric patterns, into his compositions.

In 1961 Brouwer was invited to the Polish contemporary music festival called Warsaw Autumn (Warszawska Jesie); this was the main contemporary music festival in Eastern Europe, founded in 1956 by the composers

Tadeusz Baird and Kazimierz Serocki. It was there that Brouwer heard the premiere of Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Penderecki, an experience that affected him profoundly and, upon his return to Cuba, led to a fundamental change in the musical vanguard of Cuba at that time. In 1964, his Sonograma I (1963) for prepared piano was performed at the Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (UNEAC); the first piece of aleatoric music written in Cuba.

This marked the start of his second period. He also wrote Elogio de la Danza for solo guitar in 1964, but then there was a significant four-year pause before he wrote another piece for the guitar. The return to writing for the guitar was heralded by works such as Canticum (1968), and then came La espiral eterna (1970) and Parabola (1973) for the guitar, as well as a lot of his film music compositions and chamber music.

In the third period he moved away from the avant-garde style of his second period. “The third period of my music goes back to the language of my first period,” he said in an interview with Ernesto Cordero in the May 1985 issue Guitar. “I believe that aleatoric music, the structural period that we follow, the violence of the language, rupture or aggressive sonorities, belong to that moment of cleanliness that we needed once to break. Now everyone, including me, is longing for neo-romanticism, or hyper-romanticism.” Pieces from the third period include the third and fourth series of his Estudios Sencillos Nos. 11–20, the Concierto de Liège (1980–81), El decamerón negro (1981) and Paisaje Cubano con campanas (1986). While many in the contemporary classical musical scene were attempting to express their musical ideas through the “New Complexity,” Leo Brouwer called his approach the “New Simplicity.”

Happy Birthday, Leo Brouwer! May there be many, many more to come!