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.

The Bottom Line of Music

FRANK J. OTERI: One of the things you began exploring during your hiatus from electronics is vocal music, which was really something new for you as a composer.

MARIO DAVIDOVSKY: It wasn’t new in the sense that I grew up with vocal music when I was a student. Simply I didn’t write vocal music because I found text a constraint. It was something that I had to put between me and the music: to introduce image or theater or something that was dealing with words, the metaphors were immediately tactile because of the meaning of words, essentially. And I found that the music I was interested in, the way I danced, and the way I sang, was not really vocal. I shied away from writing for voices because one of the things I want to do is hopefully to get the performer very interested and fascinated by what he or she sees. I am completely dependent on the performer, so being idiomatic always has been very important to me. To see, for example, how I can push the instruments to do more crazy things without almost getting out too much of the tradition of the instrument, exploit whatever is already established to the maximum.

FJO: Considering what you said earlier on about wanting to write more abstract music and not really having a nationalist center, it’s curious that all the vocal pieces of yours I’ve heard are very culturally specific. They reflect Jewish cultural history, whether it is a setting of the Song of Songs or Romancero, which is inspired by the Sephardim.

MD: Absolutely. It’s culturally specific because I come from a household that was extremely observant. [My] grandparents were rabbis, both sides. My mother was self-taught but was quite a respectable biblical scholar. So my relationship, particularly with my mother for 20 years, was arguing religious issues. I have great emotional ties with my own culture. And I use Spain. From the year 800 to the late 15th century, Spain was Israel for the Jews. This is a place where, of course, Muslims were enjoying their golden age, and Jews and Christians were participating in a society that was almost a golden age in terms of the intellectual exchange between the cultures. I am very aware of that period. I read a lot of theology and literature of the period. Also, Romancero poetry is something that children know in Latin America, at least when I went to grade school or secondary school. We knew dozens of those poems. Very often, if you would be celebrating a birthday, somebody would start to recite something. So there’s a great, popular tradition of that particular romance poetry that goes all the way to the Middle Ages. You have palace Romanceros, and country Romanceros, Jewish, Arabic, and Christian Romanceros. It really covers all aspects of life. And the tradition continues up to today.

FJO: Your describing this poetry’s connection to a popular audience makes me wonder about what you see as the role of the music you’re writing and role of contemporary music vis-à-vis people in society today, the general audience, the public. Who is this music ideally speaking to?

MD: Ah, that’s a tough question in a way because I think that somehow to me being a composer was never a profession. The way I started to write music, I almost still have that kind of interest basically between me and myself. The toughest audience I have is myself. I write twenty bars, and then I move my chair from the desk and I sing what I wrote just to feel how it feels, and then I conduct it, and then I listen to it. I react to what I have done on several levels. But a listener is a very poor quality control. It’s a moment. And I am the listener in a way. I am the toughest listener of my music. Then I go back to the chair, and I add another twenty bars. Then I move back again and start from the beginning doing the same process. It’s almost like kind of running, putting the music in real action, to the extent I can. When you do that, the experience you have is you and yourself.

What you expect the music to do basically is a very complicated question. I would assume that just about each composer would give you a slightly different answer. I try as a human being to compound all the past that makes me who I am, including writing music to a certain model that I inherit. What I would be gratified by mostly is if in a piece of mine, for three or seventeen seconds, I can offer a context of elements that are known but are presented in such a way that it gives you a different impression. Somehow you experience something new. It’s almost like you were educated in something. You relate things you didn’t relate before.

I think that art in the last analysis is a great educator. It’s very highly pedagogical. I experiment with myself seeing paintings and listening to music and being happy discovering that sometimes that piece made me relate to something that I didn’t before. It’s almost like gaining a new synapse in the brain. Of course, there is the moment where music is being played, where you get goose pimples, or you get depressed, or you feel like jumping and singing, or you feel miserable, whatever happens to you when your body is sitting in a mass of air being pieced by sounds. But then it stops. Then it’s part of your memory, and you think. Sometimes you’re aware that you’re thinking. Sometimes you’re not even aware that you’re thinking. To me, when the music stops and you reflect, it’s maybe less fun, but it’s as important as actually listening to the music itself: thinking about the meaning of whatever happened in the development section of the first movement of the first symphony that struck something that you did not know before. If you were to ask me what could be the bottom line of music, I would say knowledge. Yes: pleasure, wonderful, wonderful enjoyment; but, in the long run, it really is knowledge.

FJO: But we’re living in a time when classical music has less and less relevance in the lives of the majority of people in this society.

MD: Who cares? If your interest as a composer is to write the kind of music that will be absorbed by the market, you really are thinking about what would be successful and what people would like—which is a perfectly honorable way of writing music if you wish—then your whole outlook is very different than the one I’m describing. So in the case that you really want to appeal to thousands of millions of people, it’s an objective that is completely different than somebody who is very modestly talking about the way I am talking about what I am interested in doing. You’re going to tell me that two million people listening to something is better than three people listening to something else? If you look at history, we know that not necessarily people that contributed interesting things were all that popular at the time they were doing it.

All I’m saying is that if your interest in writing music is entertaining people—I don’t mean a pejorative way—by producing something that is so shallow that people enjoy, it’s one way of thinking about music. If you are interested in space topology and all kinds of very abstract ways of thinking of music, then you will be writing something else that I don’t think is profit motivated. I think there is a certain danger when we say, “Did you write a book? How many books you sold? Two. Well, then the book stinks. How many books? Two million; yes, that’s a great book.” This is a completely zombie consumerism way of judging, which we are going to pay for.

FJO: So in your estimation, is it possible for people to get that new synapse you’ve described from listening to rock or hip-hop, the pop music that’s all around us?

MD: Sure. They certainly can if there is something that is very creative and very fresh. I would say probably that 90% is not all that creative, but the people that think can put things in a context that is fresh, particularly when they use such a complicated technology. If situations are fresh, it’s a very edifying experience. It’s almost like you learn something, but you don’t know what it is because it’s abstract; it’s music. It’s almost like having a metaphor of something that is not related to anything concrete. Usually metaphors come from an intellectual reality or from creative reality. But it’s almost like you create a metaphor that, because it’s so abstract, could be traveled with an idea that probably could be arithmetical, mathematical, or poetical, because it’s a connection that is not defined, but it is there. If you’re a mathematician and you love music, it might fit you because it is relating things that are transferable to something that you are thinking as a mathematician, or as a poet. That’s something that happened to me any number of times.

This is why there is so much support, at least among educators, to have children playing an instrument and playing music because it helps them decode language or do very well in mathematics. If you get music, it might help you to have intuitions of knowledge. If you go to the literature, you will see certain pieces of music where somebody is dealing with concepts in a musical language to express things that you could not express scientifically at the time. Music allows you to do that. The language and the science was not developed enough to do that. Since you didn’t have to demonstrate that music is correct or incorrect, if it was beautiful somehow those ideas started to float. You find things in certain Medieval or Renaissance pieces: sets that retrograde or that invert like they do today. And in music, you can have enormous reaches of intuition. That is the magic of music, and that’s why I’m interested.

FJO: You just brought up sets and retrogrades and inversions. You said that you’re not a twelve-tone composer, but you did identify yourself as Uptown. I’m curious if such dichotomies apply to today’s composition landscape, or if they ever had in your view.

MD: Well, I was at 116th Street, so I am Uptown. I think that during the ’60s, the cliques were much more defined. I thought at the time that was good because if I wanted to hear something related to John Cage, I would go and listen to one of their interpreters, and I would hear the best performance of that particular aesthetic. So the clique was useful to me at least. I think that the cliques grew up towards the late ’70s, and all the limits among groups started to vanish a little bit. It’s probably also a little bit parochial, because we are in New York. Of course, in Europe they also know that Uptown refers to one kind of aesthetic versus Downtown.

Basically, there are still musicians that feel that they are a very integrated part of a tradition that is 15 years old or 1200 years old and somehow conserve that magic and are iconoclasts in that magic. And then there are many average people that are much more involved in a social engineering way of looking at the world, where they feel that have to compromise to whatever is happening socially or politically. All I know is that the music that was written under those circumstances is just about always the worst music in history, at least Beethoven when wrote a piece for Wellington wrote the worst. If you are compromised, your music is going to be. I assure you, one way or the other, it’s going to be part of that kind of general trend.

FJO: The late ’70 was around the time that minimalism became such a big deal beyond the Downtown scene.

MD: Yeah, or a little bit later than that. I can think about composers that were still very ideological. Their own music became a little bit less ideological, embraced a little bit more of elements that were on the other side of the fence, so to say.

FJO: So, in the role that you’ve had as a teacher, would you say that you’ve been open to all of these trends?

MD: Well, I tell you the truth. Right now, I am retired. It was a great time to retire because I find that fifteen years ago I would talk to freshmen or graduate students, and I would understand the language of what they were after much more than in my last two or three years of teaching. I really had a generation’s caesura between reality and what I was understanding. I was just an older person and far from what they were culturally doing. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, but I don’t know if I teach anything. As a teacher, basically what I always tried to do was if somebody was subscribing to a certain stylistic bent because she or he wanted to do that, I was trying to see that they do that as good as they can. I would ask them to look into the literature for composers that they were reflecting and say, “Look at what this guy’s doing there and there.” Then, sitting on the piano, stealing the material that they were using, I would try to do something myself, offer three new alternatives of the same material being processed in a different way. If they didn’t like any of the three, just by thinking of a different alternative actually opened up a different path, and they would come with a fourth that was better than all the alternatives I offered. So I find that enormously rewarding when somebody is really mastering things and you connect that person to that idea. Of course, when outside of the lesson you have a relationship with a student that is very human and very broad, you cannot avoid telling the things you like and criticizing the things you don’t like. I think that it’s also very important that some of the students know exactly where you stand because then you become a very solid balancing wall. They know already, “Oh, Mario will hate that,” because in a way they already have a firm kind of reference point. In the long analysis, there is something that I believe very highly that a composer can do that I want to infiltrate, share with the student.

FJO: So what is that thing a composer can do that you want to infiltrate into their minds?

MD: It’s basically imagination, creativity, invention. If you have this, what can you create with that and then compare in the context of what you’re doing? What is the most effective, beautiful, intelligent way of dealing with that situation we don’t know?