It was while watching those beautiful black and white films like ‘Lucia’, ‘Memories of Underdevelopment’, ‘Histoire de Revolucion’ and others in the Film and Television Institute of India and National Film Archives that i heard Leo Brouwer’s music for the first time. I was not aware of his work then or knew that he was a guitarist-composer of great repute. But i do remember that those soundtracks had something special in them. They had made a sonic impression on me which is as fresh today as it was then.
Later on, as me and a few friends became more and more interested in classical guitar repertoire and western classical music in general, his music was always discussed amongst some friends and fellow musicians. The works that attracted me most at the time were the ‘Preludios Epigramaticos‘(1981 – Epigrammatic Preludes). This is a set of short preludes; each prelude has a title which is taken from the ‘Poemas de Amor’ by the great Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez. It is interesting when one looks at some of the elements of form and structure used in these preludes and associate the poetry with the piece. I have come to understand this work now more as an impressionistic sketchbook. The first prelude has the title (loosely translated) ‘Ever since the dawn wanted/wished to be, you are mother’. Is the B and D ‘ostinato’ in Prelude No.1 a design element used to convey the eternal and perennial? Brouwer breaks the ‘ostinato’ with piercing rhythmic motives which provide the contrast and take the narrative forward creating an impressionistic texture.
One of Brouwer’s most famous solo guitar work, the ‘El Decameron Negro‘ (1981) is based on some ethnic African folk tales collected in the 19th century by Leo Frobenius, a german ethnologist and archeologist. If one looks at Brouwer’s range of works, it is evident that Brouwer was taking inspirations from different art forms such as poetry, folk tales etc. It’s important to recognise the strong musical and cultural connections between Africa, Cuba and Latin America which go back to the slave trade and migrations to be able to contextualise and appreciate this music. The deep rooted relations between Africa and Cuba were studied and articulated by the ethnomusicologist and afro-cuban culture scholar Fernando Ortiz in the 1920s. From that period on, there was a school of thought in Cuba which looked to go to the roots of Cuban culture and identity. On the other hand, there was another school of thought which felt the need to look for universality in Cuban music without destroying its essential cuban character. These musical discourses must have influenced the musical climate in Cuba when Brouwer was growing up and does help contextualising some of his musical thought processes.
Brouwer in various phases of his work has drawn heavily on the folk musics of these regions. His music has deep connections with Spanish, Latin American, African and European music. European classical music from the early 20th century and popular music from the 60’s onwards seems to have been a constant influence. It is important to recognise Brouwer as a pivotal figure at the crossroads of all these musical influences and cultures. It is vital to note the proximity of Brouwer to various types of popular music from the Beatles(Brouwer re-harmonised some Beatles songs) to Eddie Van Halen(‘Paisaje cubano con campanas‘ is said to be a tribute to Van Halen). Brouwer seems very interested in creating sonic textures which stretch the guitar’s sonic palette and possibilities. Much of his music seems dramatic and narrative with powerful rhythmic motives which weave together the themes and motifs in a very effective way. He seems very involved with the ‘visual’ aspect in music and this is not only because he has composed a lot of great film, theatre and opera music. The ‘visual’ character in Brouwer’s music is a subject which maybe deserves a detailed study on its own. His musical output is vast; he has written many concertos, chamber works as well as a great number of solo guitar works and it is very difficult to make any easy generalisations about his output. Having said this, his music does have his characteristic sound, sometimes evident through his motifs, sometimes through his angular rhythms and at other times when he paraphrases his own music in a completely different context.His contribution to guitar pedagogy cannot be overstated. The 20 studies for guitar have become standard repertoire for guitar students and concert performers alike. The ‘Etude Simples‘ are great studies and have great musical expression as well.
The Emergence of Leo Brouwer’s Compositional Periods: The Guitar, Experimental Leanings, and New Simplicity – Kim Nyugen Tran