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Interview with Mario Davidovsky, Argentine-American Composer

Generation One at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center

Interview conducted by telephone on 24 September 2005. Originally published in Journal SEAMUS (2007). Another version of this interview was published at the EMF Institute.

Mario Davidovsky was born in 1934 near Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was one of the first fellows of the Columbia-Princeton Center for Electronic Music, arriving in 1960. He later served as the Center’s Director, following the retirement of Vladimir Ussachevsky, in 1970. A composer of electronic and instrumental music, he is best known for his Synchronism series of works that combined the two. Davidovsky has served as director of the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University, where he is Fanny P. Mason Professor Emeritus of Music, and as director of CRI recordings. His work has been widely commissioned.

[Bob Gluck] When did you first become aware of electronic music?

[Mario Davidovsky] I first became aware of electronic music in 1956 or 57. I had heard recordings of Stockhausen’s Studie I, Studie II, and Gesang der Jünglinge. I had also heard Luciano Berio and Bruno Moderna’s pieces from the Milan studio. I also knew about musique concrète and we heard recordings of contemporary instrumental music, such as Rene Leibowitz conducting Schoenberg. There was quite a bit of radio exchange at the time between Radio France and Radio Argentina. There was a late-night hour-long radio show once a week where they played contemporary music.

Where did you compose your first electronic music work?

I did some musique concrète in Argentina for some short art films, opera and theatre, using some effects and very simple manipulation of sounds. My first real compositions weren’t done until I came to New York. A friend of mine, a Hungarian cellist named [György] Kertész, had a good recording studio in Buenos Aires. Somehow I was able to do some very simple things with tape in his studio — playing tape backwards, filtering and so on. Also in Buenos Aires, Francisco Kröpfl was doing some experimenting at the Faculty of Architecture. They had facilities for acoustical design, equipment to measure sounds, filters, other devices, and an old-fashioned reverberation room used by architects to experiment with spaces. I visited that studio, which had some very good equipment, such as European tone generators and a Swiss filter that was very fine.

What was it like to live in Buenos Aires as a young musician?

Buenos Aires was a fabulous city for new music. Very intellectually sophisticated. The connection between Paris and Buenos Aires goes back a long time. We did concerts of new music. A group of us founded a society, including alcides lanza 1[1. Bob Gluck’s “Conversation with alcides lanza” is also published in this issue of eContact!] and myself, which performed our own music and whatever we could play from the repertoire. I also belonged to the Society for New Music directed by Juan Carlos Paz, a leader in the European avant-garde. He was very close to the French scene.

The politics — not so much the politics of the government, but politics of the musical community — made it difficult for me to want to stay in Argentina. I came from nowhere, from a small farm town, moving to Buenos Aires, and when I was 18, my String Quartet [No. 1] won a major competition given by the Wagnerian Association. The premiere was very well played, but there was a tremendous negative reaction. This happened for a few reasons. In part, it was because I was a product of German and thus non-Argentinian teachers, and during that year the Germans were looked upon with hesitation. I am sure that it was very difficult for them to get jobs at the Conservatory; most them made their money teaching privately. Other reasons were because I was not well known, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was also because I was Jewish. Since the people I worked with were not South American, I became viewed as one of them in a certain way.

How did you come to work at the Columbia-Princeton Center for Electronic Music?

Setting up a studio in South America was very expensive, bureaucratic and cumbersome. So anyone who wanted to work had to flee to Europe. People had to leave to go to places where there were substantial studios. Since I had already been in the United States, I chose to return there in 1960.

Mario Davidovsky in 1997
Mario Davidovsky in 1997. Video still courtesy of Eric Chasalow and Barbara Cassidy and the Video Archive of Electroacoustic Music History at Brandeis University. [Click image to enlarge]

I had landed in America by being a Tanglewood Fellow. In 1957, someone played a piece of mine at Tanglewood, a piano quintet, and Aaron Copland heard it and invited me there as a Fellow in 1958. At that time I was a twelve-tone composer, like Milton Babbitt. Copland knew that I was not particularly interested in his music, but that didn’t in any way lessen his interest. He thought that I was a talented guy and that’s all that he cared about. Sitting with Copland, I expressed my interest in going to Europe to work in electronic music. He said that there was someone on the Tanglewood faculty to talk to. It was Milton Babbitt. The faculty then included Babbitt, Copland and Lukas Foss. I went to talk to Milton. He listened to one of my pieces and he was very sympatico. I talked to him about my interests. He said: “Well, we are on the verge of getting the money to get a studio in Columbia.”

I then went back to Argentina but I really needed to return to New York. Milton said: “Apply for the Guggenheim. Aaron and I will write on your behalf and you will get it.” I applied and got my Guggenheim in 1960 and came back to New York.

What were the early days like at the Columbia-Princeton Center?

For my first visit to the studio on 125th Street, in New York, Milton Babbitt invited me to see the RCA Synthesizer. It was on a Sunday. I waited in the outside doorway for Milton to come down. An older man arrived and also waited by the door, obviously also waiting to see the studio. It turned out to be Josef Tal, an Israeli composer, soon to become founder of the Israel Center for Electronic Music. 2[2. For more on this topic see Bob Gluck and Shlomo Dubnov’s “Conversation with Josef Tal,” published in eContact! 15.2.] Milton gave Tal a demonstration and Tal and I became very friendly.

Columbia was like a dream. Vladimir Ussachevsky was wonderful to me. At the time, only Ussachevsky, Otto Luening and Bulent Arel were there. There was nothing organized educationally. Arel was fluent in French from where he grew up in Turkey. Neither of us knew English. I translated my English from Spanish and we made the same grammatical mistakes. We got really friendly and he became my teacher. I worked as an assistant to Bulent, watched what he did and learned by trial and error. By the third year, I created a syllabus and I was teaching. I became a de facto member of the studio and wasn’t doing too badly.

I was very close to Edgard Varèse, Stefan Wolpe, Elliott Carter and Aaron Copland. I was a young kid, but I arrived in New York at a good time, and after two years, just by the fact that I was there, they were very friendly with me. My feeling was that the non-electronic composers like Wolpe and Roger Sessions liked my stuff better than did the electronic composers. I was Stefan Wolpe’s guide when he visited Argentina later on. He adopted me like a son. We had a close relationship when he came to New York to teach at Julliard. Everyone Tuesday night we used to have dinner. It was a tremendous opportunity to talk with a towering intellectual.

Can you discuss your early musical works?

My first real electronic music piece was created at Columbia-Princeton. The first big concert there was to take place in May 1961, so I had just a few months to create a piece. The setting was the McMillan Theater, which was outfitted with a fantastic 8-channel mixer and nineteen loudspeakers on the ceiling and on the sides. We could rotate the sounds around the room.

Since Milton Babbitt knew a little bit about my music before I arrived, and since I came as a visiting scholar and I was working in the studio and already had a piece in the first concert, it was easier for me than for some others to have my works performed publicly. A year later, flutist Harvey Sollberger played the first Synchronism piece. By 1962, I had become an established composer. When the New York Times wrote about avant-garde music, they included a picture of me. Even if they hated it, they reported it. I was played much more then than now. Things seemed to happen for me. It helped that I was close to performers by natural osmosis, and my career developed. I am not exactly someone who promotes my own music. I am too proud to ask anybody for anything and I just don’t. Things just happened. I was lucky.

Can you comment on your advocacy for South American composers?

While I was at Columbia-Princeton, I remained aware of the situation of composers in Latin America. If it was difficult in Argentina, it was ten times more difficult elsewhere, although Chile had a decent studio facility. I became well known in Latin America from my electronic music, especially my Synchronisms pieces, and due to my travels to Brazil and elsewhere in the region. I became a ferocious advocate of Latin American composers who applied to come to the Center. For many years, with great support from Vladimir Ussachevsky, I did my best to open up the studio to people from Chile, Venezuela and other countries. The fact that they came to Columbia-Princeton was because they knew that a South American composer was there. I did my best at securing access for them. At that time, we had many visiting people. Technicians were assigned to work with them.

Héctor Quintanar from Mexico came and was trained. I helped him write a piece for piano and tape in the late 1960s. He then went back home and established a studio. Another Mexican composer, Manuel Enríquez, was in New York City to attend Julliard. He came to the studio and we tried to facilitate things for him. As a result of all the involvement by Latin American composers, even Vladimir Ussachevsky travelled extensively in that region. Other students came and went back home to establish studios.

What was the Instituto Torcuato di Tella?

In 1963–64, when Alberto Ginastera opened the Instituto Torcuato di Tella, we spoke of establishing a studio there. They had an engineer. Some information was exchanged so that they could buy Ampex tape machines and some other good equipment, comparable to what we had at Columbia-Princeton. Ginastera wanted me to inaugurate the studio by working with the faculty. The timing was right since I also wanted my son to be born in Argentina, and so I was able to go to teach there. My students were alcides lanza, Antonio Tauriello, and a few other composers.

How did your interest in combining tape and acoustical instruments begin?

The principal reason was that I immediately realized that sounds in electronic music behave in a completely new way. There is no physical constraint, no bow, no air to blow. I learned that the dynamic of the sound was really fantastically new, with a whole new idea of space and time. I immediately thought that those behaviours of sound were so good that I wanted to make them a part of instrumental music.

I wanted to translate those aspects of musical behaviours into the scores. There are certain things that you cannot do with a performer because of limitations of speed and technique. When I studied vocal music, vocal music became part of my own instrumental music. Then when I studied electronic music, it too became another possibility. I see this as an implementation of issues of musica humana, music of people, and musica mundana, music of the spheres, music of nature. Composing music is by its nature like a biologist working in the laboratory, working with cells and wanting to experiment. I like that scientific metaphor. Composing, for me, was like working in a laboratory.

Also, I think that it is a natural tendency that when you discover something new and fresh you want to mainstream it, to incorporate it into the total memory that you have. You do not want your discovery to be something that becomes ghettoized, but instead something that becomes part of the existing vocabulary.

There was another reason that greatly stimulated me. At that first concert at Columbia, there was something ungainly about presenting music on a stage with ugly looking boxes and with so many connotations implied by the concert setting but from which nothing really happened. In a way, I really thought that politically, I could help the cause of electronic music by introducing a human being playing. The audience can connect with a flutist or violin player. I thought that seeing a real instrumentalist playing could disarm the hostility that someone might have for electronic music.

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