Rara: defining an aesthetic position

“I use every form that helps me to develop musical forms," Leo Brouwer once explained his aesthetic views to an interviewer. These forms, he went on, could be those “of a leaf or a tree", or they could be “geometric symbols". “Although my pieces appear highly structured, it is principally sound that interests me." One of the best examples of this approach is La espiral eterna (1971). Brouwer's starting point was a quotation by the physicist G. J. Whitrow that is prefaced to the score and that refers to spiral structures in the macrocosm and to the occurrence of similar structures in the microcosm. In the organic world, the spiral is found, for example, in the multiple fruit of the sunflower, in snail shells and in the smallest living organisms. Setting out from a cell made up of overlapping semitones, Brouwer generates a different kind of spiral-shaped rotary movement in each of the work's four sections: in the first, extended forms of the cell, together with other variants of it, are arranged around a mean value in terms of compass, register, dynamics and length, thus creating the impression that they are rotating around it; in the second section, Brouwer focuses his attention on brief arpeggiated figures grouped around individual sforzato notes. What we might call the central axis of the third section is the fingerboard itself: here the guitarist's two hands abandon their usual functions and produce percussive sounds of no specific pitch on the fingerboard, drawing closer, crossing and moving apart again. The fourth section culminates towards the end of the piece in expansively ascending and descending broken chords, their wavelike form once again suggesting a spiral.

In order to realize these spirals in sound, Brouwer uses various techniques that go beyond traditional ways of producing sounds on the instrument and that include Bartókian pizzicato effects and running the thumbnail along the string. Yet even with conventional techniques he manages to produce novel effects, with the arpeggios in this piece sounding not like chords broken down into their constituent notes but like layers of sound or internally animated clusters.

In his early works, Cristóbal Halffter followed in the footsteps of Manuel de Falla in his attempt to create a stylized, abstract Hispanicism, whereas by the 1950s he had embraced a musical language that reflected the influence of avant-garde, post-serial techniques, without, however, abandoning his Spanish roots. From the 1960s onwards Halffter has sought to combine both styles within a single piece, his aim being - in his own words - to “Latinize serialism".

Codex dates from 1963 and is Halffter's only work for solo guitar. Although its middle section is largely concerned to create its impact through its use of sonority, Halffter uses traditional sounds, with the exception of some glissando passages and the percussive effect of crossed bass strings: among these traditional sounds are harmonics, playing near the bridge and rasgueado, a method of striking the strings borrowed from flamenco. It is left to individual performers to decide how long to linger over particular passages. In the outer sections, by contrast, the pitches and note lengths are strictly organized. The opening section uses twelve-note technique to weave a contrapuntal texture, with the basic set - it is heard at the very beginning and contains the notes of the open guitar strings in odd-numbered positions - used as the starting point for four further sets. Rhythm, too, is treated serially, with different speeds allotted to the various layers, thus producing an impression of rhythmic instability even though the rhythms are in fact strictly notated. By way of contrast, the third section is dominated by a rhythmic uniformity disturbed only by a gradual quickening of the basic tempo.

“I should be lying if I tried to claim that I had chosen between painting and music," the Italian composer Sylvano Bussotti told an interviewer in 1971. “I still have to make this choice." As a result, many of Bussotti's scores resemble works of graphic art and, as such, reflect his idea of a “culture of the eye" within the context of auditory experience. Rara (eco sierologico) of 1967 is one of a series of other Rara works that include Rara (film) of 1967-70, The Rara Requiem of 1969-70 and Ultima rara (Pop Song) of 1970.

Rara itself consists of “five pieces in one" and is scored for violin or viola or cello, double bass and guitar. The score is notated with meticulous precision, creating the impression of a veritable masterpiece of calligraphy, yet on closer inspection it reveals numerous passages that are not in fact clear and that cannot be executed exactly, thus lending the piece a cryptic, associative and experimental quality that is increased in its third section, which uses graphic notation. The present recording is limited to the guitar part, a decision that seems entirely legitimate, given the random nature of the sonorities intended by the composer.

The guitar occupies an important place in the works in Hans Werner Henze, who has repeatedly used it not only in larger and smaller ensembles but also as a solo instrument. He was attracted to the sound of the instrument by “the jangling and whimpering of nerve fibres, the hundred colours, the dark and shadowy and silvery sounds, the sound of weeping, the hollow cries as of nocturnal animals, and the sonar of history". But, quite apart from its function as a “gate through which we can approach the roots of music", Henze also sees the guitar as “an entirely modern instrument" capable of inspiring a “style of writing that is full of technically innovative features".

Henze's aesthetic understanding presupposes not only a pronounced awareness of tradition (not that this requires him to compose in traditional ways), but also the belief that, thanks to its unambiguous linguistic character, music can - and, indeed, must - communicate specific non-musical ideas. These beliefs have been reinforced by Henze's sense of political commitment since the late 1960s.

Henze first became interested in the subject of El Cimarrón in 1968, when Hans Magnus Enzensberger drew his attention to Esteban Montejo's Autobiography of a Runaway Slave, the life of a former slave who was said to be over one hundred years old at the time of the book's publication in Cuba. Enzensberger produced a draft outline in fifteen brief episodes that served as the basis for the work that Henze sketched during his second visit to Cuba in the winter of 1969-70. When Henze had first visited Cuba in the spring of 1969 and heard Brouwer playing, he decided to add a guitarist to the El Cimarrón ensemble, which until then had comprised a vocalist, flautist and percussionist. “Leo helped with the composition by coming up with new ideas on ways of extending the range of sounds that the guitar can produce." The result was a “recital" with many passages in which the only form of notation was a graphic symbol “to serve as a starting point, a stimulus or signpost", suggesting an improvisatory and aleatory approach that involves the performers in the compositional process. At the same time, the freedom enjoyed by each member of the ensemble introduces an antithetical element into the music, one of whose themes, after all, is oppression and slavery.

For the five sections of his Memorias de “El Cimarrón" Brouwer took five episodes from Henze's score, essentially quoting the guitar part, but also making slight changes to it. The opening section takes over part of “The World" (El Cimarrón, no. 1), which includes a lengthy passage for solo guitar. According to Henze, this solo resembles “fragments of an old song and stands for the transfer of all things African into the world of the Caribbean". The second section quotes from “Flight" (El Cimarrón, no. 4), while the third quotes from “The Forest" (no. 5), the fourth from “The Spirits" (no. 6) and the fifth and final section from “Friendliness" (no. 14).

Listeners will be struck particularly by the frequent occurrence of unusual sounds and techniques which, in Henze's original, are generally motivated by the words and which now create the impression of distant reminiscences: they include the technique of playing the guitar strings with a cello bow (according to Henze, the strings describe the Cuban countryside “like a bridge to the fairytale about the origins of slavery"), Bartókian pizzicato effects to depict threats and physical violence, quarter-note glissandos to express pain, and floating harmonics suggesting the notes of the natural harmonic series and used by Henze to symbolize the sounds of nature in “The Forest" and elsewhere.

Stefan Lerche