Sounds Heard: Sergio Cervetti—Nazca and Other Works

Sounds Heard: Sergio Cervetti—Nazca and Other Works

I’ve long been a fan of Sergio Cervetti’s Guitar Music: The Bottom of the Iceberg but having only heard any of his music on compilations led to aesthetic experiences which were ultimately unfulfilling. Each of his compositions created such an evocative sonic universe, so I found it extremely frustrating every time I was jolted into another reality when someone else’s music appeared on a subsequent track. Therefore I was delighted when earlier this year Nazca and Other Works, an entire disc devoted to Cervetti’s music, was released on CD by Navona Records.

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.

I was delighted when earlier this year when Navona Records released Sergio Cervetti’s Nazca and Other Works, since it was finally an opportunity for me to hear an entire disc of music by a composer whose music I have been intrigued with since the early 1980s. Thirty years ago I fell in love with a 10-minute piece for solo guitar called Guitar Music: The Bottom of the Iceberg that I heard at the Columbia University Music Library when I was an undergrad there. It was on an LP issued by CRI, a label which then had a reputation for primarily releasing austere modernist pieces by composers based in academia. (This was a decade before CRI launched the Emergency Music Series, which redefined the label in its final years.) I religiously listened to everything put out on CRI even though most of it was very different from the music I personally wanted to write. But Guitar Music: The Bottom of the Iceberg was music I very much wanted to write—its relentless minimalism felt inevitable as well as bit subversive, although admittedly the latter was heightened by its appearing in the same catalog alongside Roger Sessions, Seymour Shifrin, Mario Davidovsky, et al. Who was this composer, Sergio Cervetti? There was an additional piece of his on the same side of that LP which involved a multi-tracked solo clarinet in textures that can best be described with decades of hindsight as proto-ambient. But, as far as I could tell, nothing else of his had ever been recorded. The notes on the LP offered very little information, not even a photo. He was born in Uruguay in 1940, moved to the United States in 1962 to further his composition studies, and his recent music explored “restricted pitch classes.” (How’s that for a serial explanation of minimalism?)

Fast forward several decades. I briefly met Cervetti at some composer gathering in New York City and told him how much I loved that guitar piece. Not long after that he very kindly mailed me a score of it. Returning to the piece so many years later, after all the uptown vs. downtown battlegrounds had lulled to a cease fire at least in my own personal purview, it still stood out and sounded every bit as exciting as when I had first heard it. (An audio file of the piece is on our online library, so you can listen to it, too.) I also managed to track down a few other recordings of Cervetti’s music. There are three captivating and idiomatic yet completely contemporary sounding solo harpsichord pieces on a disc issued by Vienna Modern Masters in 1999. Another VMM disc issued that same year featured an exciting Latin-tinged orchestra piece of his called Candomble II. Some of his music was used in the motion picture Natural Born Killers and the commercially released soundtrack for it includes an edit of his Fall of the Rebel Angels scored for a virtual orchestra. Nevertheless, even after learning about all this other music, having only a handful of short pieces on compilations led to aesthetic experiences with his music which were ultimately unfulfilling. Each of them created such an evocative sonic universe; I found it extremely frustrating every time I was jolted into another reality when someone else’s music, no matter how satisfying it too might have been in its own right, appeared on a subsequent track.

So it is such a pleasure to listen to Nazca and Other Works, the Navona CD devoted exclusively to the music of Sergio Cervetti. I’ve since learned that there are several additional discs of Cervetti’s music for virtual orchestra floating around in the world, so my journey with his music is apparently far from over. Nevertheless, Nazca is a great destination. The disc opens with an evocative single movement work for soprano and orchestra composed in 1991 called Leyenda which uses as its text an excerpt from Tabaré, an 1888 epic by Uruguay’s national poet Juan Zorrilla de San Martín (1855-1931). It is extremely lush and expansive, very far removed from the insistent austerity of Guitar Music: The Bottom of the Iceberg. But if that early guitar piece is comparable to pieces like Steve Reich’s Violin Phase or Philip Glass’s Music in Similar Motion, Leyenda is comparable to the music of post-Wound Dresser John Adams.

Next comes the brief Chacona para el Martirio de Atahualpa (“Chaconne for the Martyrdom of Atahualpa”) composed the following year. Composed on a commission to write a work commemorating the quincentenary of the “discovery” of the Americas from the International festival of Contemporary Music in Alicante, Spain, Cervetti chose to create music inspired by the forgotten native peoples of South America. Scored for harpsichord and 11 instruments, the Chaconne evokes the demise of the last Inca emperor Atahualpa (1497-1533) through a wild, relentless and occasionally polytonal conga which eventually peters out, leaving only a jagged monotone on the harpsichord, which to my ears sounds like a great sonic metaphor for the flat line that streams across a vital life signs’ monitor in a hopsital when someone dies. Cervetti’s music here also reminds me at times of the great Manuel De Falla Harpsichord Concerto from 1926, the work that proved that the harpsichord, rather than being a relic of a by-gone era, still had a lot to say in contemporary music. But the Chaconne is only one of four movements which altogether comprise a harpsichord concerto entitled Los Indios Olvidades (“The Forgotten Indians”), which, if the remainder is as exciting as this, would be an extremely worthy heir to De Falla. The total timing of the disc is already over 67 minutes so there would have been no way to include the entire piece and everything else that’s on the disc and I wouldn’t want to lose any of the other works. Still, I’m disappointed to only hear part of the piece, especially since I know from those three Cervetti solo harpsichord pieces how effectively he writes for the instrument.

The majority of the disc is devoted a very recent work by Cervetti, a monumental five-movement tone poem for string orchestra from 2010 entitled Nazca. Nazca is also inspired by indigenous South American traditions. The Nazca civilization flourished in what is now modern day Peru for over a thousand years, from roughly 300 B.C.E. until about 800 C.E. Nazca civilization is mostly known to the rest of the world because of a series of mysterious geoglyphs rediscovered in 1927 which some folks have touted as being an attempt at communication with extraterrestrials. In more recent times, the modern city of Nazca was almost completely destroyed by a 6.4 earthquake in 1996; miraculously only 17 people died and the city has since been completely rebuilt. Cervetti’s music evokes the seeming timelessness of this place as well as its amazing ability to endure. Sections of this piece are somewhat reminiscent of the music of the so-called “Holy Minimalists,” folks like John Tavener or the Eastern Europeans like Arvo Pärt, Peteris Vasks, or the late Henrik Górecki. The work’s finale, “Las Manos, Himno” (“The Hands, Hymn”) additionally conjures, to my ears at least, the angel series of orchestral pieces by contemporary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. But all is not peace and serenity. The penultimate movement, “Sueños Del Extraterrestre” (“Dreams of the Extraterrestrial”) evokes the unattainable other through music filled with ghostly harmonics, somewhat amorphous low register pulsations and occasionally frenetic rhythms.

Pre-Columbian culture is also the inspiration behind the final work featured on the disc, Madrigal III, which is a gorgeous setting for two sopranos and chamber ensemble of a text by Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472), a non-Aztec Nahuan poet who ruled the city-state of Texcoco in the Central Mexican plateau region. Madrigal III is also the earliest of Cervetti’s works on the present disc; it was composed in 1975, merely one year after that solo guitar piece of his that first intrigued me about his music. It is clearly also the by-product of his then minimalist sensibility. When a full assessment of the breadth and depth of the minimalist movement in music is made one day, hopefully Cervetti’s important contributions will not be overlooked. Now that there is finally some adequate documentation of his music we can be hopeful.

Finally, a word about the documentation that accompanies this new recording: at first glance, the three-panel digipack which the CD is packed in, though attractive, seems to offer only the most perfunctory of notes about the pieces and a very short bio, albeit this time with a photo of the composer. But upon putting the CD into the disc drive of your computer, you’ll discover, as I did, a seemingly endless array of additional materials. I usually prefer listening to CDs in actual CD players rather than through my computer’s audio system since I associate my computer with work and my audio component system with play, but this disc forces me to change my tune. Not only are there a longer biography and detailed program notes for every single piece on the disc, in both English and Spanish, there’s also an extensive video interview with Cervetti filmed on a street in the Czech city of Olomouc (presumably recorded during the sessions for the present disc) in which he talks candidly about the need for composers to take charge of recordings of their own music as well as his lack of interest in Donizetti and Puccini. Though marred by frequent street noises, it’s an invaluable document. If that’s not enough, there are also full scores for every piece that appears on the disc, several of which are also printable off-line, as well as two ringtones based on Cervetti’s music. He’s made quite a journey from those restricted pitch classes!