Mario Davidovsky: A Long Way from Home

Mario Davidovsky: A Long Way from Home

From electronics to Romanceros, Mario Davidovsky is not an adherent of any system, although his music is respectful of cultural traditions that go back millennia.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

Never a Nationalist or a Serialist

FRANK J. OTERI: You have a rather unusual background.

MARIO DAVIDOVSKY: My background might look unusual, but it’s not. Argentina is a very big country; it’s almost like the chunk of land east of the Mississippi in the United States. It was a country that was extremely rich naturally: wonderful soil and mining potential. There was a period that the government was bringing immigrants from all over Europe to populate the country. When I was born, we had maybe twenty million people. The village where I was born was in the edges of the Pampas, southern Buenos Aires. It was populated with Italians, White Russians, Orthodox Russians, and Jewish settlers coming from White Russia. In many cases, by the third generation, the children of those immigrants were educated. Many of them became professional and moved back to the city. They succeeded in harvesting big properties and became really profitable. That was a very, very common pattern. My father’s side of the family left Russia during the Russian-Japanese war. That was in the turn of the century. My mother’s side of the family comes from the basic same region as my dad’s, actually. My dad came when he was two years old. So he became very assimilated with the language, the culture, and the country.

FJO: What language did you speak growing up?

MD: Spanish. My father and mother spoke Yiddish to each other. We understood it, but we always talked to them in Spanish. And when they did not want us to know what they were talking, they switched to Russian, Polish, or German. I knew the languages, but I did not understand the meaning.

FJO: So you heard a lot of different sounds. What was your initial exposure to music?

MD: My father’s side of the family were all amateur musicians. Dad played fairly well clarinet, and not so well the violin. And then his brothers played brass instruments and there were a few ladies that sang. Once or twice a year, in order to raise money for the local infirmary and things like that, they used to produce a Reader’s Digest version of Traviata. They were very active. They used to listen to a lot of classical music radio. In the family, there was folk music, popular music, and classical music. Not the great literature, but the shorter, smaller popular pieces of Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart, so on and so forth. We were like six, seven, or eight hundred kilometers from Buenos Aires, where real musical culture was alive. It was almost like a country town with a general store—very similar to America. But communication of culture didn’t move the way it moves today. It was really in a way quite primitive. I remember that my dad bought a very potent radio, and we would hear the BBC at twelve o’clock London time, six o’clock our time. And the whole village would come to see what was going on with the war. They would actually transmit in Spanish.

FJO: You mentioned popular music and folk music. Would you listen to tangos?

MD: Yeah, mostly tango, milonga, paso doble, you know, all this Spanish and Creole. There was a tradition among the gauchos, which obviously came from Spain, like a troubadour tradition. They used to improvise quartets, quatrains. Usually it was a duo between two improvisers, mostly with guitar, very simple, 1-4-5-1 kind of harmony and the three first verses would be a description of what’s love, or what’s night, or what’s the moon. The last quatrain would end with a question being asked to the next, to the other partner; the partner would have to answer the question exactly in three verses and the fourth verse would be a question. And it would go back and forth. Some of them were actually quite masterly in improvising poetry. The tune was basically always a kind of formula, the same. The musicians in the country did not really officially study the instruments. They just maybe studied a few years. They were kind of semi-amateur.

FJO: I’m interested in how those influences played out in your subsequent development as a composer.

MD: Well, I studied violin there in the village. Actually my teacher was the guy who had a Ford franchise. He sold tractors, and also he used to sell gasoline. I remember the heavy smell of gasoline during the lesson. I studied for one or two years with this guy. And then, we kept moving, and I went to a city called Bahía Blanca, which means “white bay,” where they have a real conservatory and people were studying mostly violin and piano. And I found my first real teacher of violin. He was a very old Spanish man who for many years was the first chair of the second violins of the London Symphony, and he still had his basic black suit. I don’t know exactly how he wound up in the city.

We played Strauss, Debussy, Grieg, very famous composers. Sometimes we would play exercises for two violins, and it was the first time that I was in a real context playing double strings, so it sounded like a quartet almost and it was the first time that I felt [the experience of] sitting in the middle of a progression of harmony. And that was very significant to me because that’s all what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to practice the violin. I just wanted to play and hear the harmony and voice-leading in a very constrained situation. And out of that I remember starting to arrange. I would take little pieces of the methods and orchestrate them for three or four violins. The only thing that I sort of knew were violins. So I would get together with friends that studied in the conservatory, and we would just play. I made sure that I would play the tune, and they would just do the pizzicatos in the background.

I had a little room with a violin, a little desk, and a stand. That was it. And so that was my sanctum. I remember writing my first piece: a piece for violin and piano. In the morning I went in; when I got out of the place, it was night. 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. I’m talking being probably 11 or 12 years old. And that was it. I liked it very much. I liked the absolute loneliness of being totally isolated from everything and being able to just exist in the function of an idea. It was not a great idea, but that moment was discovering the mechanism of the mind. I did not plan anything about a career—I was too young—but that was the moment I decided I wanted to keep doing that thing. There was quite a bit of support in the house, because they, father and mother, they love music, and my mother was also very involved in cultural affairs, even within the spectrum of culture in that context. Later, when I was 15, we moved to a big city, Buenos Aires.

FJO: When did you become aware of this phenomenon we call contemporary music?

MD: Oh that was very late, actually. I started to study seriously composition when I was 18, and I went through a program, basically like the Hochschule Berlin, because all my teachers were Austrian and Germans who escaped the war. I had a very good training that way, and I was very happy, because somehow that way of focusing the music was very natural to me. I felt very comfortable. It was very hard work, but it was a very natural way of approaching music. The country basically was mostly trained by Schola Cantorum, French Conservatory, and Santa Cecilia. The Germans brought a very modern look to pedagogy and the literature. It was almost as good as studying in Berlin as far as I am concerned. But when I started to study, it took me a few years and a lot of patient work of my teacher to slowly guide me to contemporary music, probably via Bartók and Berg. I was writing a lot of music, but at that point it was mostly very 1850s, stylistically speaking.

FJO: When did you begin using the twelve-tone system?

MD: I actually am not a twelve-tone composer. I did work for two or three years when I was studying. Not because I was inclined to it, but because I think I had the curiosity to find out what kind of system would help me. Of course, it was not serial music in the sense that we talk today. It was very much like the way Stravinsky used the system in his early twelve-tone pieces. And I did write for two or three years in this style and somehow I grew out of it because it didn’t necessarily help me as a composer to do what I wanted to do. If something doesn’t help me, I look for something else.

What I was developing was a kind of hybrid system borrowing from just about everywhere I could borrow in order to find a path that helped me write whatever I wanted to do. Despite a lot of musicians thinking that my music is ideologically serial because I was at Columbia, in the Uptown, it’s not. I do use a lot of techniques that were born and developed out of those systems, but not in an ideological way. Even today, I would say that I have my own way of working, which is basically a compound of techniques available during the 20th century, plus whatever else I learned myself.

FJO: You studied with Copland in the late ’50s. Like Stravinsky, Copland also developed a very individual take on what twelve-tone music was and didn’t quite follow the procedures.

MD: I studied with Copland in Tanglewood. He was very much the nationalistic composer and very close to a whole series of important composers in Latin America that were more or less the same—Carlos Chavez, and Ginastera in Argentina, Villa-Lobos in Brazil—who were basically cultivating folkloric material, very much like Bartók or Stravinsky, in a way. He was aware that I was compositionally on the other side of the fence, but there was never really any tension or problem. He was very generous and very supportive. I remember when he was trying to look at the pieces I was writing at the time, he was always very practical rather than raising any aesthetical issue. Once later, he somehow bumped into a piece of mine in a competition, somewhere in Latin America, and he said that he wished that my melodic material would have been less derived from Central European sources. That was the only time that he said something aesthetic.

FJO: It’s interesting that Bartók was an early influence, a voice that you heard when you first heard contemporary music, but that you eventually rejected this kind of music.

MD: Somehow the fact that he was working with Romanian or Hungarian material, he became almost like an icon of how to process folkloric material into larger, more ambitious musical expression. A lot of chamber music pieces I heard of Argentine colleagues sounded like Bartók rather than Argentinian music. Somehow they were imitating Bartók’s processes beyond a certain line. Some of the early music of Ginastera, particularly chamber music, has a Bartók-ish taste to it. The most influential of all the composers of that era was probably Chavez. For many years, the Sinfonia India was the model of Latin America music, and it influenced everybody very strongly.

FJO: But didn’t really influence you.

MD: No, I was not interested. I love folk music; I used to play with my father and my uncle in little groups, but it was not really the thing I was interested in. Maybe I was too neurotic a young kid. Basically when I became interested, it was just issues of feeling music and trying to understand what it meant. I did understand that I could write “nationalist music” by basically making a conscious decision to take a little tune or big tune and then elaborate it in a way. But it really never occurred to me to do that. I was not interested in doing that. I was too interested in pursuing something that was more abstract than that.

FJO: So, as far as nationalism goes—you grew up in Latin America but you’ve lived in the United States for more than half your life—at this point would you identify yourself as an American composer? Are such identities even as issue for you?

MD: No, they’re not an issue. I assume that if you belong to a culture, that culture is going to predetermine certain choices that you may do. I remember a review in The New York Times of one of the very, very early electronic music concerts in the ’60s. I think it was [Harold] Schoenberg writing. He said that undoubtedly my music was full of freedoms of the jungle rhythm. To me that never was an issue. I’m not coming from the jungles. It’s the idea that we are all living in the Brazilian jungle. Well, Latin America is a very varied territory and very varied culturally. And spheres of different cultures very clearly influence the make-up of the southern part of the continent.