Composer Mario Davidovsky
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Mario Davidovsky was born on 4 March 1934 in Medanos, a town in
the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His main teacher was the composer
Guillermo Graetzer. In 1958 he was invited to participate in the Berkshire
Music Center at Tanglewood, where he studied with Aaron Copland. Davidovsky’s
interest in the fledgling field of Electronic Music was further encouraged
by meeting Milton Babbitt,
a faculty member that year. Learning of the imminent opening of the
Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1959, he joined the early
group of composers there and later became the Center’s director.
Widely recognized for his seminal contributions in the realm of electro-acoustic
music, his Synchronisms No.6, for piano and electronic sounds,
won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971. He received commissions in the US
and abroad from various organizations including: the Philadelphia Orchestra,
the San Francisco Symphony, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Juilliard and
Emerson String Quartets, Speculum Musicae, the Parnassus Ensemble, NYNME,
Chamber Society of Lincoln Center, and many others. He also received numerous
grants and awards including Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowships, The
Kaske Prize (Germany), Naumburg Award, Asociación Wagneriana, and
Asociación Amigos de la Musica (Argentina), to name a few.
Davidovsky was the Fanny P. Mason Prof. Emeritus at Harvard University,
former MacDowell Professor of Music at Columbia University, and the
director of the Composers Conference and Chamber Music Center at Wellesley
College. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters,
the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Academia Nacional
de Bellas Artes (Argentina). His music has been recorded by Columbia
Records, CRI, New World Records, Wergo, Nonesuch, Finnadar, Turnabout,
Bridge Records, DGG, Albany Records; and published by C.F.Peters Corp.,
E.B.Marks Corp., and McGinnes & Marx. He died in New York City on 23
One of my greatest pleasures while working at WNIB, Classical
97 in Chicago (1975-2001) was my series of programs devoted to “Mostly
living, mostly American composers.” Quite early
on, I discovered an interesting sorting process for placing the material
each month, and that was to use ‘round birthdays’.
When the composer (and for another series, performers) turned 60
or 65 or 70 or 75, etc., they would get a special program. No muss,
no fuss, no red tape (as some old advertisement used to proclaim). Since
everyone has a birthdate, this method was gender-blind and color-blind,
and guaranteed that no one would be missed, and no one would get a lot of
That being said, late in 1993 I made contact with Mario Davidovsky,
anticipating a program to be done the following March for his 60th birthday.
He was interested in having a program of his music done on Chicago
radio, and at the beginning of February of 1994, he permitted me to call
him for a conversation. He was enthusiastic about the topics I raised,
and seemed pleased to answer my questions.
Here is that chat . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You are both a composer and a teacher.
How do you divide your times between those two very taxing demands?
Mario Davidovsky: Basically, I found out through
the years that teaching takes away about the same type of energy that
you would use in composing music. This is particularly because the
way I like to teach is to get very much involved with basic materials that
a student of mine will be using in order to write a piece. I almost
appropriate those materials as if they were mine. Mentally I compose
a piece, and use my experience to compare that with what the students are
doing. So, in a way, it’s almost like I compose without writing it
down, but I am almost following a composing process in tandem with a student.
BD: Do you ever find any of the ideas from
those sessions working their way into your own real compositions?
Davidovsky: I wouldn’t even know, but it is
the best way that I can offer my own experience as a teacher to the
student. You really cannot teach composition. You cannot
teach imagination. You cannot teach people to have an impulse,
but you can learn, and basically what I do essentially is pave the material.
I imagine what I would do with it, and sometimes my student might
have much better ideas than I have.
BD: [Genuinely surprised] Really???
Davidovsky: I may suggest, for example, two
or three alternative solutions to a problem, which a student will think
about and come up with a fourth solution that is very, very good that he
wouldn’t be able to attain without the footing that you gave him.
So, in a way, it’s a give-and-take, feed-and-feedback relationship which
makes teaching very, very involved, and very, very consuming.
BD: As the students progress, do you find that
they need you and your suggestions less and less?
Davidovsky: To a certain extent. If you
were with a student that is very compatible with you in terms of your
teaching, and how they listen to you, it may work out very well.
Probably after a few years, or sometimes less, you get to a point that
most of the valuable information probably was already given. There’s
always something you can say, but yes, sometimes I have worked with people
for two or three years, and I told them just to go... but go to pick the
brain of somebody else in order to develop other aspects of composition
which are not exactly natural to my own music, for example.
BD: But obviously they’re going to have to
go off and work on their own. Are you planning for this time when
they will leave your nest?
Davidovsky: No, but basically they do work
very much on their own. When I compose with them, I’m not composing
for them. What I am doing is like working with a bunch of children’s
blocks. I will take them myself, and mentally rearrange them.
With those blocks I would be able to do A, B and C, and then compare what
I do with what a student did. Then we talk about that, and somehow
the student can have a bouncing ball for his ideas, to see what he did and
what somebody else does. So, from that point of view, and going back
to the original question, it is very, very involved, and very, very taxing,
and the older I get, the more taxing it gets. I try to concentrate
the teaching in two or three days. Then I take the following day to
empty myself. I go to some museum or something, and then I have the
rest of the week to concentrate. I have two or three consistent days
that I can work on my own stuff, so it’s actually very civilized. To
work in the university is still a very, very good place.
BD: In the end, do you get enough time to compose
your own works?
Davidovsky: Yes. We always will complain
that we don’t have enough time. There’s a lot of meetings, and for
the last four or five years, universities have gone through hell in terms
of the economic situation, and the re-evaluation of their own programs in
order to conform to the constraints of the economy. So, that has been
difficult, and sometimes even demoralizing, and it does take a lot of your
energy and your thoughts. You come home and you think about that,
and you worry about things. But still, the university is a very, very
good and wonderful deal. Basically, it supports your work.
BD: Should the composer of concert music be
concerned with economic issues?
Davidovsky: It’s up to each composer, and depends
on what kind of connections he has with the music world. There
might be composers that are very, very ivory-towered, and extremely in
the nice cloud where music needs money to be copied, and a lot of money
needs to be necessary to produce the music. Then, there are many
other composers that are very, very involved with the process of producing
music himself. So, it depends on the personality very much.
When you are in the art of composing music, all you should be concerned
about is composing music, and basically all other considerations shouldn’t
have much weight. However, sometimes you are composing, for example,
for a restricted situation, where somebody asks you to write a piece for
a certain number of instruments, but no more, because they don’t have any
more money. Or they might say to write an easy piece because they
don’t have too much money for rehearsal. If you are willing to accept
that, then you are accepting the constraints of the reality. So,
there are a multiplicity of situations.
BD: This leads to one of my favorite questions.
How do you decide if you’ll accept or turn aside commissions?
Davidovsky: Almost a hundred per cent of what
we do are commissions.
BD: But if you get too many commissions to
handle, how do you decide which ones you will actually act on?
Davidovsky: Basically, you will think about
what your commitments are, and if somebody wants you to write a piece
tomorrow that you cannot write, you say you cannot write it. If
they want to wait two years, I will be interested in doing it. So,
it is basically for you to negotiate and organize your own time.
Sometimes, if I have an idea that I am very interested in pursuing, but
I am not commissioned for that, I just do it anyway. For example,
right now I am writing a piece for a guitar quartet. A year ago
I wrote a piece for guitar and tape for David Starobin [recording
shown below], and in the process I had to learn the guitar. In
spite of the fact that the guitar is the most popular instrument, composers
don’t know the instrument very well. I got very involved with the
guitar, and I liked very much what I heard, so I decided to write a guitar
quartet. There was no commission for it, so I started to write a piece.
It happens that Speculum Musicae is a group in New York who wanted
to play a concert of my music next year to celebrate my birthday. I
said to them that I was writing a piece, and I would like that piece to
be part of the program. So they were trying to get me a commission
for that piece. Basically, you combine accepting the commissions that
you find attractive. When you get commissioned for orchestras, they
have not really pre-proposed it. They ask you to write for their
orchestra, and then you usually have several choices within that commission.
For example, for my last commission that I wrote for the San Francisco Symphony,
they wanted me to write a concerto for percussion and orchestra. I
said, no, I don’t want to do that, but I would like to write a piece for
voice and orchestra because I never did that. They agreed to it, and
I did it. Some commissions really allow you some amount of leeway to
do what you would like to do.
BD: It’s nice that you
could negotiate your way into that.
Davidovsky: Yes, and for the previous work
that I wrote for the Philadelphia Orchestra, they asked me to write
originally a piece for orchestra, and then there was a circumstance
where the Guarneri String Quartet was celebrating their twenty-fifth
anniversary. So, I talked to their manager, and said I would like
to write a piece for string quartet and orchestra, which is an impossible,
crazy combination, and very, very difficult to make it work. There
aren’t too many pieces like that in the literature, and for very good
reasons. But somehow I was challenged by the idea of making a string
quartet work with an orchestra, and they agreed. So, I wrote a piece
for string quartet and orchestra. So, there is quite a bit of leeway
in most of the cases. They will accommodate somehow, if the ideas
are reasonably implementable.
BD: Can it be assumed that when someone commissions
you that they know your work, or at least a part of your work, so that
they know what they’re getting into, and approximately what they’re going
to get back?
Davidovsky: [Thinks a moment] I would assume
yes, because the orchestras have advisers who are more or less knowledgeable
of the music of many, many composers. Also, publishing houses will
send music to orchestras to be reviewed by advisers and be sent on to
their music director. They know who you are, but there’s no guarantee
of what they’re going to pick. [Both laugh] They have to take
* * *
BD: You’ve spent a lot of time working with
electronics. Tell me the joys and sorrows of working with music
made by machines.
Davidovsky: I came to this country in 1960, and
the second time I came, I got a Guggenheim Fellowship specifically to
work in what was then the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. That
was the first really professionally organized studio to do research and
work with electronic sounds in the United States. It’s very difficult
to encapsulate now the rather warm and very lovely experience I lived through
doing those first ten years. I was basically a composer of conventional
music, and played the violin as a young boy. Then I got very, very
interested in electronic music because I heard in Argentina some recordings
of European musicians’ compositions in early electronic music and Musique
Concrète in France. I was very attracted by the sheer
surface of the music, by the sound of the music, and somehow it caught
my imagination. I was fortunate that in 1958 I came to Tanglewood, and
worked with Copland as a composer. In that year, Milton Babbitt was
there on the faculty, and when I expressed my interest in the field, Babbitt
told me that there was an imminent creation of the Center at Colombia.
They got a big Rockefeller grant to build a studio for electronic music.
So, he was very helpful, and Copland was also very helpful in helping
me to come back and do work in the studio. [Vis-à-vis the
recording shown at right, see my interviews with Otto Luening, and Vladimir Ussachevsky.]
BD: Are you still working with electronics?
Davidovsky: Not so much, actually. I
spent probably all of the ’60s mostly quasi-exclusively
doing electronic music. But slowly I mainstreamed myself back to
my original person.
BD: Was the music that you wrote with electronics
only for electronics, or was it electronics and live musicians?
Davidovsky: They were both. In the beginning
they were purely electronic pieces because I was trying to make some
sense of the medium. There was no tradition. There was nobody
to learn from much. You would have to go and suddenly confront a set
of equipment that was capable of generating all those sounds. Then
you had to think, “Can I make a phrase out of those
sounds? Can I make a paragraph? Can I make a piece?”
So, in a way, you were starting from real scratch, and you had to develop
somehow a logical way, in a musical sense, to make something that resembles
music with those sounds. Those were very, very exciting years, and
as soon as I gained some kind of confidence and understanding of the
medium, I basically tried to mainstream it by bringing the electronic
sounds and the conventional acoustical sounds together. I got very
involved writing pieces for instruments and tapes, and there were many
more reasons why I did that. The experience in itself with working
with electronic music made me re-evaluate completely what sound was,
and I learned a tremendous amount of things about sound that I wouldn’t
have otherwise. Then, when I returned to write chamber music or orchestral
music, I was incredibly influenced by all these new ideas of how sound
could behave that I learned in the electronic medium, and I tried to mimic
that when I was using instruments. So, my music got very much impacted
by the electronic experience. We can say that twentieth century music
has been greatly influenced by electronic music, whether the composers
were aware of electronic music or not. That’s because the electronic
music exists, and they are available on recordings, and available in
concerts, so they are bound to influence.
BD: [A bit concerned] You don’t ever try
to make one of your live people into an electronic image, do you?
Davidovsky: No, no, no. When I write for
live instruments and tape, the live instruments play the same way that
he or she would be playing in a string quartet. The other voices
that are generated electronically are part of the polyphonic texture
of the piece.
BD: Then the electronics become just more colors
on your palette?
Davidovsky: Exactly, more colors and more expressive
resources. It allows you to extend the palette to use all the advantages
of electronic music on one side, and on the other side there are the
advantages of the live performer, which are replaceable. You have
access to the best of both worlds.
BD: Do you ever take into account the audience,
which may or may not be receptive to the electronic sounds?
Davidovsky: This is one of the reasons that
in 1961, I immediately thought about the possibility of writing for instruments
and tape. Now, with hindsight, it was very naïve, but at the
time I thought that introducing the electronic sound to an audience hand-in-hand
with a living soul playing an instrument would actually diminish the impact
of just a loudspeaker screaming at you. I thought that having the
electronic music mixed with instruments and sounds that were already known
to people, would help to make the electronic music more acceptable.
BD: To bridge the gap?
Davidovsky: Right. I was looking for a
solution to bring the electronic sounds to the larger audience.
BD: When you write for live people, do you expect
any kind of interpretation on their part?
Davidovsky: Oh, yes, of course. Scores
for orchestras and chamber music really, in a way, are still quite awkward
for noting everything that you dream of. When you dream a piece
and you are imagining things, you always have to find the best way to
translate that onto paper that is going to be read by somebody else.
BD: The point of my question is that when you
combine the electronics with the live performer, the electronics cannot
have any interpretation.
Davidovsky: Yes, the electronic part is really
frozen. But interesting things happen. I have written a series
of ten pieces called Synchronisms. They are quite well-known
pieces. Maybe I’m mostly known for those pieces, actually. They
are for different instruments, solo instruments and small combination
of instruments, and electronic tape. What I found out was that
when the performer memorized the tape, he or she feels totally comfortable
with it by listening many, many times, and playing against it many, many
times. Then they can take liberties, and they can rubato.
They can go a little bit faster, a little bit slower, and immediately
compensate because the tape is frozen. That way they can deviate
slowly slightly here and there, and then compensate for the deviation
because the tape is going to be there for them. So, there is a lot
of leeway for interpreting a piece of instruments and tape. I have
heard those pieces literally hundreds of times, and every different instrumentalist
plays it differently. There is enough degree of variety between performers.
BD: With the advances in the technology,
would you ever want to have any kind of interpretative use made of the
tape, if the performer could change the tape slightly, say, working in
consort with the machinery to put some interpretation into that which
is really frozen?
Davidovsky: This is being done today, because
there are people working with real time music processing that will be
sensitive to whatever is happening with a live performer. For example,
let’s say they decided to slow down, the whole electronic part would follow
the performer. There’s all kinds of interactive technology today,
and every day there’s new software and hardware appearing that really
contemplates all kinds of combinations between machine and man.
I, myself personally am not very interested, because I’m really more
interested right now in writing chamber music and orchestra music more
than electronic music. But that’s my own interest.
BD: So, you are letting the next generation
of electronics go on to the next generation of composers? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Stephen Albert, Lucy Shelton, Maurice Wright, David Gordon, Richard Wernick, and George Crumb.]
Davidovsky: Yes. For better or worse, the
technology is always going to have a tremendous presence, because that’s
the world we are going into. We are in it already.
BD: Then, are you optimistic about the whole
future of concert music?
Davidovsky: One day, yes, the next day, no!
BD: Why yes and why no?
Davidovsky: Sometimes I have the feeling that
we are lost dinosaurs, and sometimes I feel that maybe we are not lost
dinosaurs! Right now, looking at what’s happening right around us
at this moment, there is no reason to be optimistic about the future of
art music because the traditions used to be finished. But sometimes,
on the other hand, it’s very difficult to predict how things will develop
in the future. The complexity of our world is such that it’s almost
impossible to predict everything, or even something, and there is always
the possibility that the context of our culture must change where music and
other arts will be necessary again. We should make sure that then the
traditions are kept alive through this very, very difficult period. It’s
not only difficult for music and for the arts in general, it’s difficult
from any professional point of view. It’s a very, very rapid-changing
world, and the demographics of the world are just explosive. It’s
very difficult to pinpoint how demographics are going to affect culture,
but there is much speculation. Often we feel we are now assisting
the Final Demise of the Roman Empire, and China, this wonderful big monster,
is waiting to lift off. All the oriental Asiatic cultures are now
much closer to us because of communications and because of business. However,
I would think that music performers will continue as long as there are
BD: How does concert music, and especially
the music that you write, fit into these changing demographics, and this
Davidovsky: Throughout history in the western
part of the world, it never was that art that was exactly populist.
It was always developed in smaller parts of the communities. Right
now, I am still basically a composer coming from a European tradition.
Though I was born in Argentina, I was influenced intellectually and socially
by Latin American music, or Latin American ways of being. I am sure
that all those influences did affect my output, even if I recognize myself
as coming from a European tradition, like art music in this country.
Basically, you eventually feel very isolated. What you are doing
is continuing a miracle of human creation, which is western music, in
a situation where there is no infrastructure that demands from us that
we produce that product. Somehow that tradition is so rich, and such
a miracle in our history, and still there’s so many possibilities of real
creative work to be done that you just continue, whether it’s relevant to
the society at large or not. It’s relevant in the last analysis to
BD: Let me pursue it just one step further.
What is the purpose of music?
Davidovsky: What is the purpose of knowledge?
What is the purpose of culture? You cannot put a gold-coin criterion
to evaluate those things. Art music is simply one of the most powerful
inventions we humans have created. It’s a language that edifies
us, that redeems us, that makes us more sensitive and more intelligent.
It’s an incredible experience, a civilizing experience. If
we’re going to measure it in its commercial value, probably we would have
problems coming up with very reasonable standards. There are still
enough people interested. There’s still a market for music, though
it is becoming smaller and smaller as we go along. But music is one
of the most powerful languages that we have created. It really makes
us so much better human beings. Essentially, there is no reason to
ask the question why should we have it. We should have a lot of it,
and we should make every possible effort to tell people, young people and
old people, to educate them, to give them access to that magnificent experience.
It’s bound to make them better spiritually and intellectually. It’s
one of the great spiritual sports that we can practice.
* * *
BD: You’re about hit your 60th birthday.
Are you at the point in your career that you expect to be at this age?
Davidovsky: When I was a young boy, I had a
dream of being famous. We all have that. We want to be famous,
and rich, and be loved by everybody. But realistically, I never expected
much gratification by being a composer. I was playing the violin
well, and then I started to go to law school, and had my entrance examinations
because I really wasn’t sure if I would be able to survive as a composer.
Then, while I was studying and composing at the same time, I started to
have some very good early successes down in Argentina. At a certain
point, I decided to make a move. I said, “I’m
going to abandon my law studies, and I’m going full-time to write music.”
I was fortunate to come to the States, and have the enormous support
of wonderful people, particularly Copland and Babbitt, and other people
who were very, very helpful in the beginning to make my life possible.
But I never really had great expectations of gratification, because
I knew that the music I was interested in was not exactly popular. To
be absolutely frank with you, I never expected to be able to make much
of a living out of music. Then I found myself having much more success
than I ever expected in my life. So, I am very happy with what happened
for my success, in the sense that I was able to be an okay teacher, and
have the great opportunity to work with wonderful, wonderful young composers,
and at the same time have a way of making a very decent living.
BD: It sounds like it’s all worked out very well for
Davidovsky: Right. Being surrounded with
the university campuses, and having wonderful people around was a very
challenging environment. All in all, I think that I got more recognition
than I deserved.
BD: One last question. Is composing fun?
Davidovsky: Yes, it’s a mixture of emotions. Once
you make certain decisions of what you want to do, there is a tremendous
amount of joy in building it. It’s almost like once you know that
you’re going build a table, there’s enormous joy and pleasure on getting
the right wood and the right tools to start to cut the piece to fit into
the realization of your project. So yes, there is a tremendous amount
of fun. The challenge of coming always with ingenuity to solve problems
that you constantly find every day while your work is great fun, and when
you do find them, it’s very rewarding. But it’s fun encapsulated within
a feeling of rigor. This means that you struggle, and that might
be not so much fun. But in the total process, after you go from inception
to realization, there are moments of great elation and real happiness.
Of course, there are always the manic-depressive moments when you
finish a piece, and you feel great, but the next day you think it’s a terrible
piece! [Both laugh] No matter how sure you are of what you
do, there are always deep doubts that what you do is not all that good...
and that’s fine, because that somehow gives us human dimension, and gives
us the opportunity to have some humor about who we are, and how limited
BD: Who is it that ultimately decides if a
piece is great or if it is terrible?
Davidovsky: It’s the piece! The piece
will decide itself.
BD: Not the public, nor the critics, nor anybody
Davidovsky: No! No, no, no, because the
critics tend to be very trendy. Pieces right now that are a hailed
as The Greatest American Composition, probably five years from now nobody
will know. It’s time that makes the ultimate sound perspective.
Time brings perspective into the music, and ultimately the entity of the
piece will survive or just disappear. It’s the intrinsic value of
the music itself that will be the last judgment.
BD: [Mildly astonished] Are you saying
that the pieces actually have lives of their own???
Davidovsky: Absolutely. Very often you will
ask a composer which piece of his he likes, and he will say he likes
A and B. Then you will find that the piece A and B nobody else likes,
and everybody else likes the pieces C and D. There are very different
reasons why people like what they do. They’re like children, so you
relate to every piece in many different ways. There are many emotional
elements by which you relate to a piece that have nothing to do with the
piece itself in terms of intrinsic value. So, in a way, time and the
piece itself really will do it. I find that basically critics are
really very much trying to make a momentary connection between what’s happening
on stage and the general public. There are trends, and they follow
the trends, but the trends sometimes are only very ephemeral. There
are trends that last two or three years, and these trends maybe contribute
to music in general, but they just disappear, leaving very few pieces.
If you think about the sixties, there was an enormous amount of composers
writing aleatoric music, for example. Well, very, very few of those
pieces are known today. Somehow, they have outlived their own life,
and certain other pieces survive.
BD: Let me turn this around, then. Do
you ever find that something you have written today might be part of the
trend that is coming a few years after the actual composition process?
Davidovsky: No, you are part of a trend.
You are working with a very clear realization of history. You are
part of an ongoing tradition that is a thousand years old, and it’s very
difficult to predict if any of your contributions are going to be of lasting
value. But I am very satisfied to find that many of the pieces that
I wrote thirty years ago are played today. They’re part of the repertoire.
BD: They’ve held up?
Davidovsky: Yes, and that I find enormously
rewarding. It makes me very, very happy.
BD: Good! I hope that a lot of your pieces
continue to hold up.
Davidovsky: [Laughs] Well, thank you
very much! I appreciate that very, very much, Mr. Duffie!
See my interview with Charles Wuorinen; also
Recollections of Stefan Wolpe
by his student M. Willaim Karlins
© 1994 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on February 4, 1994.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following month, and again
in 1999. A copy of the un-edited
audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern
University. This transcription was made in
2021, and posted on this website at that time.
My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her
help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website,
winning broadcaster Bruce
Duffie was with WNIB, Classical
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