Tom Moore Interviews Dimitri Cervo

work CanauÍ, op. 22 was heard at the 2007 Bienal. We spoke at the Sala
Cecilia Meireles, in Portuguese.

TM: What was the musical environment like in your family? How did you
become a musician?

DC: My family does not have a tradition of professional musicians, but
there was a tradition of listening to classical music at home. Music was
always present. I remember dancing to the Symphony no. 6 of Beethoven when I
was three years old. We also listened to Brazilian popular music. Something
drew me to classical music, and I asked my mother to study piano. We had a
conservatory near the house, and at eleven I started piano lessons. We
didnít have a piano at home, and I would go to the conservatory three times
a week. The following year, when I was twelve, I was already beginning to
improvise and compose things. Since I didnít have a piano, I would play the
piano pieces on the guitar. I began to learn guitar — a friend of mine was
teaching me classical guitar. Thing went along like that for three years,
playing piano and guitar, until when I was fourteen, my parents rented a
piano, and from that point on, I began to dedicate myself more to music,
began to compose, and write scores. I decided at fourteen to be a musician,
something I remember clearly.

I went to college at 18, and wanted to do composition, but at the time the
course in Porto Alegre in composition and conducting was a six-year program,
and I had the impression that I would learn more composition if I went deeper
into the piano. So I did a bachelorís in piano, a five-year program.

TM: What was the music you enjoyed as an adolescent? Were there important
classical pieces? What kind of popular music or jazz or rock was present for

DC: There were some formative musical experiences. One was the Concierto
de Aranjuez by Rodrigo
— when I was thirteen I would listen to this piece
every day — I heard it hundreds of times. I used to listen to the
university radio station at the time, which played classical music all day.
At home I would listen to Beethoven — the Sonata Pathetique, the
Appassionata, the third piano concerto. These were pieces I listened to a
great deal, since I would dedicate myself to one work over many months.

In the area of popular music, the centerpiece was Chico Buarque — my
parents very much enjoyed Chico Buarque. I knew all of his records. This was
at the end of the seventies, beginning of the eighties.

Later I began to listen to more music from the twentieth century, when I
was 19, 20.

TM: Is your family from Porto Alegre?

DC: In fact we were born in Santa Maria, which is four hours from Porto
Alegre. I was born there; my parents were born in the vicinity, and studied
at the Federal University of Santa Maria. But after I was born they moved to
Porto Alegre, so I grew up there.

TM: Every Brazilian is a mixtureÖ.but is your family from Brazil, or do
you have immigrants from Italy, PortugalÖ?

DC: On my fatherís side my family is Italian. My great-great-grandfather
came from Italy to Brazil, with my great-grandfather on his lap. My
grandfather also married an Italian, so my fatherís side is all Italian,
pure Italian, letís say. My motherís side is more mixed, a mix of
Spanish, Indian and Portuguese. My second name is Avila — Dimitri de

TM: What are the Italian traditions in Rio Grande do Sul?

DC: The culture there is mainly formed by the Italian and German culture
of the immigrants. You also have the indigenous traditions through the
missions [Jesuit centers for catechizing the Indians].

There is a tradition of quadrilles. The folklore of Rio Grande do Sul is
very much influence by European traditions. I couldnít say, since I was
never much involved with Italian culture.

TM: Your undergraduate studies were in piano, but with the idea of
becoming a composer.

DC: I had been planning to be a composer since the age of 14. When I
finished the program in piano, I began to dedicate myself more to
composition, although by then I already composed several works. I began to
develop my own voice in composition with a piece called Toccata, which I
wrote when I was nineteen, twenty years old. In 1988, when I was about
twenty, there was a touring program of minimalist works by German composers,
which was in Porto Alegre for four or five days, so I had a lot of time to
get to known that esthetic.

TM: Which composers were represented?

DC: Arvo Part, which was my first contact with his music. Hans Otte. No
Steve Reich or Philip Glass, since all the composers were European.

I did a number of workshops of contemporary music. Once I finished my
undergraduate degree I began to do recitals of chamber music with my works,
and so I moved more decisively toward composition.

TM: What is the classical music scene in Porto Alegre like? What are the
important institutions? Is there a contemporary music scene?

DC: The institutions were the Symphony Orchestra of Porto Alegre, the
Chamber Orchestra of the Teatro S. Pedro, which was more amateur, but still
playing at an impressive level. Contemporary music events tended to be
limited to those at the Goethe Institut, usually with composers who would
come to do master classes and workshops. I remember a musical life in Porto
Alegre that was quite rich overall, with classical music being strong there
proportionally. If you look at sheer numbers, Rio has more, but if you look
at their relative populations, Porto Alegre may be stronger in classical

TM: In terms of literature there are many important figures from the south
of Brazil.

DC: We have …rico VerÌssimo, a great writer, perhaps the greatest gaucho
writer of all time, the poet Mario QuintanaÖthere are some composers who
have made an impact on the national level, but few, since the south has
always been a region which is more isolated, a state which was separatist,
another Brazil, really.

TM: It has its own traditions, the figure of the gauchoÖ

DC: It has much more to do with the culture of Buenos Aires and Uruguay
than with the culture of Brazil, perhaps because the presence of the African
element there is minimal. So the idea of brasilidade, which has a strong Afro
component, is something we donít have in the south. This is something which
sets us apart.

TM: You mentioned the minimalist music of Part and other European
composers. You went on to do a masterís after your bachelorís in

DC: I went to Salvador. After I finished my bachelorís I spent several
months traveling in Europe. I spent a month in Italy and managed to get a
fellowship to study composition at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena. I
returned to Italy some months later, did the two-month course with Franco
Donatoni. I enjoyed the experience, but it was not the kind of music that I
wanted to write. I was still trying to find a voice, and my music at the time
had influences from impressionism, a little minimalism, a language that was
more modal and tonal, but without influences of any sort from Brazilian music
ñ nothing. I even remember that once I played at the Academia Vulcan, in
Sao Paulo, in 1990, played the Toccata which I consider my first mature work,
my opus one, and pianist Yara Bernete said ìyour music doesnít have
anything Brazilian in it, does it?î, and that made me start thinking about
the matter.

I was living in Salvador from 1992 on, where I was doing my masters at the
Federal University of Bahia.

TM: That must have been very different from Rio Grande do Sul.

DC: It was a considerable culture shock for the first six months, a shock
that was greater than when I lived in the USA several years later. In
Salvador I began to have a contact with a very strong afro-brasilidade. You
see various cultural manifestations, capoeiraÖ.I had a colleague who was
doing work on candomble. She was doing ethnomusicological study, and I went
with her and was present at various sessions of candomble, which made quite
an impression on me — that rhythmic music. Salvador was a very important
experience for me, something that I only realized later, because while I was
there I continued to write the sort of music I had been doing before. The
Passacaglia Fantasia, for example, which is a work that blends romanticism
with minimalism, is from 1991-1993. Later, in 1993, still in Salvador, I
wrote Flot, music that had no connection with Brazilian music.

But when I left Salvador in 1994, then the thing clicked, and I began to
incorporate in 1995 a rhythmic dimension which had not been present before,
an emphasis on rhythm, and this is something I associate with my experience
with rhythm in Salvador. I began to write music which I enjoyed more and
which had a Brazilianity, but which still had a lot of use of repetition. The
pieces for clarinet and piano, the Abertura e Toccata for orchestraÖ.this
was music I started to do in 1995.

In 95-96, I had a almost nationalistic phase. There is the Variations, op.
10, on a theme which then becomes Luar do Sert„o [a Brazilian popular song],
and I wrote a Bachiana Brasileira [Renova-te, op. 9] for chorus. I felt the
need to write something Brazilian, but it seemed the nationalism was too
explicit, as if I had said ìNow I am going to do something Brazilian!î.
The piece for chorus op. 9 is one which I really like — I think it is an
excellent work, while op. 10 seems to have a nationalism which is too

I stopped composing for two years. I went to Seattle in 1996, and between
1996 and 1998, I had a period of little compositional activity, a year
without composing anythingÖ.I was in an environment of post-serialism, with
a professor who wanted me to write that sort of music, and it wasnít
working very well. I wasnít going to write music in the way that the
professor wanted.

My experience at the university was excellent, since I had access to
scores. This is when I went deeply into minimalism, because I had access to
scores, recordings and musical literature. I got to know the music of Steve
Reich and Philip Glass very well, some La Monte Young as well.

TM: Letís go back to Bahia for a moment. Who were your professors?

DC: The Federal University of Bahia always had a very strong presence of
contemporary music. Koellreutter settled there, and created a school of
composers in Bahia — Ernst Widmer, Lindenbergue Cardoso — so it was
always a school that had space, opening, movement in contemporary music. When
I got there, this strain was diminishing somewhat, but there were still many
opportunities to have pieces played. My adviser was Jamary de Oliveira, but I
didnít work on composition with him. We had seminars on Schenkerian
analysis, analysis of atonal music, etc.

My final work for the mastersí was the Passacaglia Fantasia for piano
and orchestra, which is a piece that I have rewritten three times. When I got
to Bahia I wrote the second version, and recently once more. Now I consider
it finished. Itís the same music, just that I worked on the writing and the
orchestration. I presented this piece with the UFBA Symphonic Orchestra in

It was a propitious environment, but my musical language was not

TM: In Seattle you were studying for the doctorate?

DC: The two years in Seattle were part of a ìsandwichî scholarship
[where Brazil supports the student abroad for part of his/her doctoral
study]. In 95 I started the doctorate at UFRGS, and in the middle of 96 I
went to Seattle, intending to stay for one year. But since I loved it there,
I extended the fellowship, and managed to stay for two years, and really
managed to take advantage of the second year, since I had mastered the
language, knew my way around the libraryÖ..I did a seminar on minimalism
with Jonathan Bernard, who at the time was editor of Music Theory Spectrum.
But the people there at the University of Washington were into post-serialism
ñ my professor had studied with Ferneyhough. It was an esthetic position
that did not interest me, but I absorbed what there was to absorb, did three
semesters of conducting, which was wonderful. I had opportunities to hear
excellent concerts.

TM: What was your experience being a Brazilian in the United States?

DC: Look, I felt more relaxed in the USA than in Salvador. In Salvador I
felt more like a fish out of water, since I was tall, white, had green eyes
ñ I felt more different.

TM: As a Brazilian in the USA were you something exotic, different?

DC: No, I didnít feel that, since Seattle is a city with many foreigners
living there, a port city, a city which is the closest to the Orient, with
Indians, Koreans, Chinese — there is even a Chinatown there. There are
Russian immigrants.

I found it to be an extremely cosmopolitan city. All port cities are
cosmopolitan. I had a very negative impression of the United States before
living in Seattle.

TM: How?

DC: I had that idea that Americans were alienated, knew nothing about
anything, were cold personallyÖ..that stereotype we have, that might be
true of people from the interior, the SouthÖ.but I was very surprised by
Seattle. I loved being there, and never felt like I was different, always
felt respected and well-treated. I didnít have problems fitting in. It is a
nice place to be.

TM: And very beautiful to boot.

DC: Beautiful, beautiful, with an excellent quality of life. But perhaps
even within the US Seattle is an exception, a privileged city, in terms of
natural beauty, in terms of the population, the connection with the East. I
know that Cage, Lou Harrison taught there ñ

TM: the ìLeft CoastîÖ.

DC: Itís a different United States, and I donít know the rest, just a
little of Los Angeles and San Diego. This United States was one that I liked
a lot.

TM: When you returned from Seattle to Brazil, where did you end up?

DC: I finished my doctorate, and began to compose quite a bit before
returning from Seattle. It was clear to me that my esthetic was one that
would combine minimalism and Brazilian music. I composed Papaji for cello and
piano in Seattle, in 2000 I wrote Toronub·, in 2001 Pattapiana. This was a
phase where I had lots of time to compose, since I didnít have a steady job
ñ I taught piano, had odd jobsÖ.Time was available, and inspiration was
not lacking. I came back to Brazil in 1998, and in 2000 I was awarded the
fellowship from CNPQ for those who have recently completed their doctorates.
I went to teach at the Federal University of Santa Maria (UFSM), classes in
ear-training, counterpoint, harmony. My research led to a book on minimalism
and its influence on contemporary music in Brazil.

I also spent two years at the Universidade Federal de Pelotas, and then
returned to the University of Santa Maria for another two years, and since
2006 I have been in Porto Alegre at UFRGS.

TM: Letís talk a little about the piece which we will hear today at the

DC: CanauÍ is a piece I wrote in 2005. It is the last piece in the series
Brasil 2000, which is a series of nine pieces for various instrumental
forces. Since the series was directly inspired by the Bachianas of
Villa-Lobos, as Villa-Lobos intended to fuse Brazilian music with Bach, I
wanted to produce a series of works that would combine Brazilian music with
aspects of minimalism.

TM: What does the title mean?

DC: The titles of my works allude to things, but many do not refer to
something specific. CanauÍ is a word I invented, like Toronub·, but with an
indigenous sound. I feel music in an abstract way, so I prefer not to give
titles which are explanatory, but that instead have a sonority that has some
connection with the work.

In 2004 maestro Roberto Duarte gave a course in orchestral conducting with
the Orquestra Unisinos, which is no longer active, lamentably, but it was
very active and had a winter school. I did two courses with maestro Duarte,
and in the second was in contact with the Bachianas Brasileiras no. 9, which
I directed in the studentsí concert — I did the prelude, and another
conductor from Rio did the fugue.

The score made quite an impression on me, with its ample writing for
strings, full of divisi. The following year, when I began to write CanauÍ, I
think there were subliminal influences from this work, because the Bachianas
no. 9 begins with a mystic theme which becomes a fugue. So CanauÍ follows
this same structure — a slow, mystic theme, which in the second part of the
work becomes a quick theme, just that in CanauÍ you have an expansion of the
theme, with a return of the slow theme, which closes the work, a ternary
structure, ABA.

This is a work that I conceived as orchestral from the outset, with all
the colors, orchestration, but I only wrote the orchestral version in 2007. I
wrote the version for strings, because there was the possibility of a
performance, and I donít like to write pieces which donít get played.
Then there was a version for percussion — marimba solo, with three
percussionists, and this version has an additional movement. The orchestral
version I wrote this year, and it was performed by the Orquestra SinfÙnica
de Porto Alegre recently. After I wrote the orchestral version I returned to
the version for strings and changed a few things, so that now it seems

TM: Brazil has an amazing wealth of composers and music, but this music is
largely unknown outside Brazil, perhaps because the internal music publishing
market in Brazil is too small, and so there are no scores for export. What
solutions could make it possible for Brazilian music to be better known

DC: I think Brazilian music life has improved in how it regards active
composers. Over the last twenty years the number new Brazilian works which
have been included in concert programs has increased considerably. The advent
of the CD facilitated dissemination of Brazilian music. Itís true that
classical music is on the periphery of Brazilian musical life, but I think
that this is not so different from other countries, even those in Europe. I
think it has to do with the level of education of the population, and with
the level of purchasing power.

What needs to be done for this music to have a greater presence is more
emphasis on education, as well as an improvement of the economic conditions
of the country as a whole.

TM: Is there some way to improve the marketing of Brazilian music before
these improvements take place?

DC: There are professional activities in this regard in Rio and Sao Paulo
ñ there are publications such as Concerto and VivaMusica! We have strong
institutions in Rio and Sao Paulo which support classical music, but in order
for this music to reach a larger portion of the population education is
necessary, access to education.

Another problem is that our economic elite is an elite which is
intellectually and culturally poor. There are plenty of people with money,
but they wonít use this money to support art, which is different from the
situation in the USA, where people leave bequests to support culture,
fellowship, where students support the universities where they studied.

Brazil is less mature as a people, and the public good is not valued. This
is a profound cultural problem. We have to be conscious of the fact that our
colonization was done in a chaotic fashion. Brazil only really began when the
Portuguese court came. Thanks to Napoleon Brazil began to be a civilized
country, when D. Joao came, and there started to be libraries, music etc.

We have to remember that our civilization is only two hundred years old,
so our people is very young and immature in a number of areas — a happy and
playful people, but not ready for the sort of messages which are carried by
high culture. You canít compare Brazil with somewhere which has two or
three thousand years of history.

TM: What future projects do you have on line?

DC: I have been dedicating myself to making the things which I have done
better known. I havenít been writing so much at the moment. I always like
to write for particular occasions where the piece will be performed. I feel
better working like that these days.

If I can have a good work played ten, twenty, thirty times, this is more
interesting for me than having ten pieces which are each played once.
Pattapiana, which was heard at the Bienal in 2003, is a piece which was
played by the Symphonic Orchestra of Campinas last month, and will be played
in Paraguay in November. There was a very nice recording made of it in
IsraelÖ.itís a piece that has been performed seven or eight times in the
last five years.

TM: How did you make the connection with Israel?

DC: A flutist from S. Paulo who has connections with Israel, James
Strauss, got a grant to record a disc of Brazilian music for flute and
strings, which includes Pattapiana — thereís also a piece by Tacuchian, a
piece by Julio MedagliaÖit hasnít been released yet, but now thereís a
nice recording of the piece.

Toronub· has been played more than thirty times, principally in the
version for eightpercussionists and piano, which is coming out now on the CD
of PIAP. The piecebeingplayed today, CanauÍ, has already been performed
fifteen times in two years.

TM: This is a lot of work, doing the publicity.

DC: Yes. Sometimes I prefer to use my time to make connections and
publicize pieces, than to write new works. It is hard to write a really good
piece — something that you almost donít have control over, and the
incentives, financial incentives for writing new works are minimal. I have
written relatively little because I write on commission. If I am not writing
new pieces, I may be rewriting old ones. Next year there is a strong
possibility that the Passacaglia Fantasia [op. 3] will be played by the
Symphony in Bahia. So this year I rewrote the piece, since I only had the
manuscript, produced a set of parts, revised the orchestration, and this is
more pleasing than writing a new piece for orchestra.

TM: It is certainly no fun to write things that will stay in the

DC: I only have one piece which has not yet been played. These days we
have such a variety of music available. Thereís no point in writing 100
works. I prefer the style of Webern or Varese — a few works, which are
consistent, which are really good, and enter the repertoire, than to write a
lot of worksÖ.of course sometimes quality comes from quantity, but one is
busy with teaching, extension projects, administration, preparing entrance

I am always doing something. Rewriting a piece, or producing the
partsÖ..I have written only one or two pieces per year.

TM: Final thoughts?

DC: Brazilian classical music has an enormous potential, just like our
popular music. What is necessary for this music to become better-known
outside Brazil is simply for it to be heard, for Brazilian performers who
have an international presence to bring it with them on their concert
programs. They are beginning to look more to their own country.

And we have to value our classical music more, create references within
Brazil, and this will have an effect outside as well.

Our Brazilian classical music, as you say, has so many good things to
offer, not just the music of Villa-Lobos, but of many other composers.

image_description=Dimitri Cervo
product_title=Above: Dimitri Cervo