Marcela Pavia — An Interview

She has made the journey back to the
“old country”, having first studied with Donatoni in Siena, and
then established herself permanently in Italy, although like most contemporary
composers, she is no stranger to the inside of a jet, with an international
presence in Europe, the United States and South America. We spoke via Skype on
February 22, 2010.

TM: Where did you grow up? Was there music in your family?

MP: I was born in Argentina, and grew up there and studied there, at the
University of Rosario. I also studied with two Argentinean masters, one from
Rosario, Dante Grela, and the other from Buenos Aires, Francisco Krˆpfl. With
regard to my family, there are no musicians, but my mother studied philosophy,
so she has a cultural background in the humanities.

TM: Was the family originally from Rosario?

MP: I was born in Rosario. My parents were from Argentina, but almost all my
grandparents were from Italy. They met in Argentina. They were almost all from
northern Italy. I belong to a second generation of Argentineans. I was able to
have Italian citizenship, without losing my Argentinean citizenship, because my
father’s father never lost his Italian citizenship. There is an agreement
between Argentina and Italy.

TM: Where in northern Italy did the families come from?

MP: The father of my father, from Piemont. The mother of my mother,
from Piedmont. And I think my father’s mother was also from Piedmont.
There was only one who came originally from south Italy.

TM: What music were you exposed to as a child in Rosario?

MP: We listened to classical music, and my father listened to a lot of jazz.
When I was a teenager I discovered progressive rock and roll. At that moment I
started to study music seriously. I had been studying music since I was a
child, but as a hobby. It was as a teenager that I started to do it more

TM: Had you started with the piano?

MP: No, I had started with the accordion. Then I went on to study flute and
guitar. And I finally I started piano when I began to study composition.

TM: You mentioned jazz and progressive rock. Was there also tango in

MP: At that time, when I was a teenager, tango was part of history, there
were people who listened to it, but not young people. Young people at that time
were devoted to rock ― progressive rock, like me, and that was a
minority; commercial rock, and there were a lot of people who liked that; and
the people who were politically on the left were connected with folk music, but
folk music that was reworked and mixed together with rock. I also liked that
sort of fusion of rock and folk music.

TM: What would be an example of a group that played that kind of music?

MP: There was a group called Arco-Iris (which means
“rainbow”). One of the leaders of the group was Gustavo Santaolalla
― he is now in the United States, in Los Angeles, I believe. Another
important member, who continued to do music, was Ara Tokatlian.

TM: What progressive rock groups were exciting for you as a teenager?

MP: I liked Jethro Tull, and especially the LPs which were
conceived as a single work, like Thick as a Brick, or The Dark
Side of the Moon
, or Tommy. It was not by chance that I liked
progressive rock and then became devoted to classical music, because
progressive rock was based on classical music ― it was very orchestral.
Thick as a Brick, for example, is a mix of rock and baroque music, and
it’s a very successful mix. I could listen to it today with a lot of

TM: I listened to it myself in the United States in the 1970s, and I think
that music is almost unknown today. It has fallen into oblivion in some

MP: Yes, and it was not replaced by something better, really.

TM: When did you start to study composition?

MP: In 1980, when I was at the university already. I studied at the
university and at the school of music ― I did both, up to a moment when
I decided that I would stay with composition, because it was very difficult to
do both things. I started with anthropology, and then three years of
biochemistry, and always doing composition at the same time.

TM: Had you been playing pop music as an adolescent?

MP: Yes, when I was in Rosario, we had a group of friends, and we played and
did some concerts. We did the arrangements. It was a very nice experience, but
it was difficult to go on, because we all had different ideas regarding what we
wanted to do with our lives. The only one who is now devoted to music
professionally is me.

TM: Your university study was also in Rosario. Could you say a little about
the culture of Rosario? Rosario, if I am not mistaken, is the third largest
city in Argentina.

MP: Second or third. It belongs to the same cultural zone as Buenos Aires.
In fact, it is very near to Buenos Aires by Argentinean standards, which are
very different from European ones. For us, 300 km is close by. Rosario’s
culture is very similar to Buenos Aires, but with many fewer possibilities,
since by comparison Buenos Aires is much larger. It’s everything. The
other cities get the leftovers ― this is the problem with Argentina.

Rosario had a movement in contemporary music which was very important,
because of the composer Dante Grela, who led a school in the sense that most of
the composers who are active and well-known today were pupils of Dante Grela.
Rosario was important from this point of view. It was also important because in
the seventies there was a big moment for rock music ― I belonged to that
moment for a while ― and there were a lot of rock and pop musicians who
went on to become famous in Argentina. Most of them went to Buenos Aires, but
they were originally from Rosario.

TM: There are also some important literary figures who are based in Rosario
― Angelica Gorodischer, if I am not mistaken.

MP: Yes, I know here by name, and she has a son who was a friend of a friend
of mine. The world is very small.

TM: Please talk about how you came to study composition, and whom you
studied with.

MP: I came to Italy, because I came to the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, and
at that time the composer giving the master course was Franco Donatoni. I
arrived in Siena in 1991 to do the summer master-course with Donatoni. It was
something that changed my life, because I decided to move to Italy. I already
had Italian citizenship, and so after I went back to Argentina, first I had a
residency in the United States, at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts,
and then went to Italy in 1992 to live. I went to the Chigiana for a second
year, and then continued studying with Donatoni.

TM: Please say a little about your teachers in Argentina.

MP: In Rosario, there was Dante Grela, and in Buenos Aires, Francisco
Krˆpfl. Krˆpfl is known outside Argentina since he was on the jury for the
Bourges competition and in the Venice Biennale and so on.

TM: What was your musical language like before you studied with Donatoni?

MP: Contemporary, absolutely contemporary, because both Grela and Krˆpfl
came Juan Carlos Paz. Juan Carlos Paz was the one who introduced the Vienna
School ― Schoenberg, Berg and Webern ― to Argentina. From him the
contemporary music movement in Argentina was born. We all come from Juan Carlos
Paz, in a way.

TM: To return to Italy, please talk about study with Donatoni, and the works
you were writing as a student of his.

MP: Studying with Donatoni was very important because it led to a change in
the way that I was writing. At that time, he did not teach technique ―
he assumed that had already been done by his pupils. I was particularly
interested in his esthetics, as I very much liked his music. It was very useful
for me, because, in my experience, an analytical approach prevailed. In
Argentina, the musical experience in the academic world is very different
because each university or conservatory may have its own curriculum, unlike in
Italy, where the state mandates examinations that are the same for everyone. If
you study in the conservatory in Turin, the examination to conclude your
studies will be more or less the same as the examination at the conservatory in
Cagliari. Things are centralized. In Argentina, it’s different, because
each conservatory or university is free to design its own curriculum, and the
curriculum must then be approved by the Ministry of Education. I studied at the
School of Music of the University of Rosario, and the School had an historical
and stylistic approach. In the first year of composition, we studied the Middle
Ages, and Gregorian chant. We started at the beginning of Western music. Then
we went to polyphony, to Baroque, to Classical music, and so on. And by the end
one would arrive at the twentieth century. This was the approach in Rosario.
Other universities and conservatories had different approaches. What I realized
about the Argentinean approach, when I arrived in Italy, was that it was very
analytical. This is very useful in the moment of analysis, but it’s not
useful for everybody.

With Donatoni I learned the importance of the gesture. The gesture could be
the first idea of a piece, the strong idea, and could be defined in all its
aspects, so the gesture means that you see everything ― this means the
rhythm, the pitches, the dynamics. Then you let the gesture evolve over time.
This was very useful for me, because at that moment I could put together the
poetical ideas that very often are the thing that impels me to write music. The
strong idea that you have inside is the only thing that gives character to the
music. When you don’t have a strong idea or concept ― you can call
it whatever you want ― the material is indifferent. It is only the
strong idea, the one which moves you, which makes the material lose its
neutrality. At that moment the material becomes significant. This is one
approach to composition; there are other approaches that put the accent on the
parametrical way of composing (I am talking about the process of

TM: One can think of composers who are capable of elaborating the original
material, but unfortunately the original material is mediocre. And if the
original impulse does not grab you, the final product is fated to be not worth
listening to.

MP: Yes, because it becomes simply a matter of technique, like an academic
examination. Sometimes these things are noticeable, because one thing is simply
the same as the next. A piece may be simply a way to demonstrate how to work
with parameters in an analytical way, which is something that I don’t
like, or the music can be a means, an instrument for expressing ourselves.
It’s a way of expressing something significant.

TM: Could you tell me what piece would be your opus one, the point at which
you moved from being a student to being a creative artist?

MP: In general I can say that I really started writing music here, in

TM: Could you talk about a particular piece in more detail?

MP: Yes. There is a piece from that period, Nayla, for flute, which
is on my website. It is still receiving many performances, although by now it
is a very old piece. It’s a piece which I still appreciate.

TM: What was the genesis of this work? Was it commissioned by a particular

MP: No, it was written when I was studying with Donatoni in Milan, and was
not written at the request of a performer. It is a very difficult piece, and
requires considerable study. The idea was to use very, very few effects or
extended techniques. I liked the notion (which is a very Donatonian idea) that
the new sound of something could come from the way of writing it. The same
elements, combined in a different way, could produce a very, very different
result. For example, if you use an instrument, and make them play all the time
in a very high register, it will not be recognizable by the public or by the
listener. Perhaps you may not use unusual effects at all, but the usual
technique of the instrument, not extended techniques, but normal techniques.
Even with normal techniques we can make sound textures, even with only one
instrument, that can produce a different acoustical result. In Nayla, there are
moments where you think that there are two instruments rather than one, because
of the linear polyphony. That is the strong idea of the piece, which is very
difficult because it must be played as fast as possible. The velocity is
important in order to produce this result. The velocity is another element
which could absolutely change the way in which you perceive something. A very
simple example: you have a melody, with two notes which are not very far
separated in time. If they are not far separated in time, they are related to
each other ―they are a melody. But if you put them very far away from
each other in time, they are no longer a melody. And if you put them very near,
you no longer hear two notes, but you hear a timbre. Here we are speaking of
only two elements, and just notes. With the same elements you can produce a
very different result ― if you know how to handle them. Krˆpfl was my
master in this analytical approach; Donatoni was my master in how to apply

TM: Could you please talk about a more recent piece?

MP: I will talk about Pain is not linear. This piece is
representative of one of my areas of interest, which is working with resonance.
I have also worked with this in my works for guitar, which has the possibility
of producing sympathetic resonance. With the piano I use the possibilities of
the tonal pedal to produce these resonances. In this work the strong idea is
that deep feelings, like pain, do not follow linear paths. No psychological
process follows a linear path. The form of the piece is not linear, because
there is something that always comes back. There are resonances centered on the
A at the beginning, and they come back in the form of harmonics or in other
ways. In addition to the resonance, there is another way of working which I do
not use all the time, but many times, which is the idea that the material of
the whole piece is concentrated at the beginning. It is a very difficult piece,
which was commissioned by the American pianist Thomas Rosenkranz after he heard

TM: Perhaps you could talk about your works for guitar. It seems like in a
certain sense the language for Fideal is more Latin American.

MP: I have written purely Argentinean music, or a fusion between Argentinean
and contemporary music, or between contemporary music and other styles.
Fideal is contemporary. Malambo is a fusion between
contemporary music and an Argentine folk rhythm, a dance, and the name of this
dance is malambo. At the beginning the guitar is used as a percussive
instrument and the rhythm of the malambo becomes clear.

TM: Now that you are in Italy, do you continue to be concerned with
Argentinean national expression? Are you an Italian composer? Or both?

MP: Contemporary music is a mirror, a good mirror, of globalization, which
most of the time I think is not a good thing. But contemporary music is a kind
of language that really goes beyond borders, and so a contemporary composer who
comes from Italy is not so different from a contemporary composer who comes
from Mexico, or from Argentina, because we have a common ancestry. To this
common background we add other things, so in addition to being a contemporary
composer, I have a background of folk music from Argentina. Even if you listen
to a Japanese composer ― Toru Takemitsu ― there is no difference
between his approach to contemporary music and elsewhere. Each composer has his
own esthetics, but the differences between them are not very great in
comparison with the differences that you find in popular cultures. Popular
characteristics are much more marked, are much more evident than the
differences between individual composers of contemporary music.

That being said, in the United States, and in American festivals in Italy,
there is much more diversity between contemporary composers. You may find
someone who writes in a neo-classical way, or a rhythmic/folk-related way, or
using a mix of everything ― in Italy it is not like that. And generally
also in Argentina ― being contemporary means a certain esthetic.

TM: Would you like to talk about new pieces for this year and next?

MP: I am writing a piece for a chamber orchestra from Florence. I am also
working on a piece for guitar and electronics that belongs to a larger project
which will become a whole concert for guitar and electronics. I have also just
finished a piece for an Argentinean guitarist which will be performed in

I am traveling quite a lot. In June I have a concert in Chicago because I
have been in contact with the CUBE ensemble there, but I think I will not be
able to go because at the beginning of July I have to be in New York for the
premiere of a piece that I wrote for the Duo Quaranta-Sei for violin and
guitar. On July 7 they will play the piece, and then there will be a panel with
me and many others. The composers featured by Duo 46 are a German composer
whose name is Michael Quell, Jack Fortner, and Jorge Liderman, an Argentine
composer who lived in the United States and died sometime ago.

In July I will be in the Soundscape Festival, an American festival which is
held here in Italy, and I will be the faculty member, so I will have to be
there until the end of July. In August I may have to go to Finland for another
concert, and in October we have a festival in Argentina, so I will be there.

TM: Very busy!

MP: I am tired already…

image_description=Marcela Pavia
product_title=An Interview with Marcela Pavia
product_by=By Tom Moore
product_id=Above: Marcela Pavia