Sunday, March 8, 2020
Celebrating Mario Davidovsky 1934–2019
John Knowles Paine Concert Hall
“Laura, I want you to drop all the baggage and hold one tune in the
center of the palm of your hand.” He made it sound so simple.
Mario Davidovsky was a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who opened up new vistas in chamber music by pairing live acoustic instruments with electronics. Like many of his fellow composers in the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Davidovsky was drawn to the new possibilities offered by technology. But he was uneasy with the prospect of music that was immune to human interpretation. Beginning in 1963 with “Synchronisms No. 1” for flute and tape, he coaxed electronic sounds into partnership with traditional instruments to create musical pas-de-deux that were full of mystery and drama. His “Synchronisms No. 6” for piano and electronic sounds won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1971. The composer Eric Chasalow, who studied with him beginning in 1977, said in a phone interview that Mr. Davidovsky was among the first “to make electronics nuanced the way a violin is,” adding, “He tried to make the electronic an extension of the organic.”
—excerpted from the New York Times obituary by Corinna da
Fonseca-Wolheim, August 30, 2019
Welcome and Introduction
Anne C. Shreffler, James Edward Ditson Professor
Hans Tutschku, Fanny P. Mason Professor
Synchronisms No. 1 for Flute and Electronic Sounds (1963)
Jessica Shand ’21, flute, and Kelley Sheehan, electronics
Synchronisms No. 9 for Violin and Electronic Sounds (1988)
Alexander “Sasha” Yakub ’20, violin, and Kelley Sheehan, electronics
Martin Brody, Wellesley College/Composers Conference
Susan Blaustein, Columbia University
Eric Chasalow, Brandeis University, Composers Conference
Kurt Stallmann, Ph.D. ’99
José-Luis Hurtado, Ph.D. ’09
Matias Davidovsky, son
Anne C. Shreffler, James Edward Ditson Professor
Good afternoon! I'm Anne Shreffler, a professor here at Harvard, and I am happy to welcome you to this memorial gathering honoring the memory of Mario Davidovsky, who taught at Harvard from 1994 to 2004 as the Fanny Peabody Mason Professor of Music. We have come together to celebrate Mario's life and legacy in what will be a solemn and, I hope, also a joyous occasion. We are honored to have with us members of Mario's family, including his son, Matias Davidovsky, who will speak to us today. We are very grateful to Matias as well as to the former students and colleagues of Mario Davidovsky who travelled to Cambridge to share their memories with us today (in a time when traveling, even on the T, is risky!).
A memorial for a composer would be incomplete without music, and we'll hear two works by Mario this afternoon. They will be played by three brilliant student performers: Kelley Sheehan, electronics, Jessica Shand, flute, and Sasha Yakub, violin. Kelley is a graduate student in Harvard's Ph.D. program in composition; Jessica is a joint concentrator in Mathematics and Music who lives in Kirkland House; and Sasha is a Music concentrator from Currier House. I want to thank Kelley, Jessica, and Sasha for all their hard work in preparing this pieces and for taking the time to share their artistry with us. I would also like to thank my colleagues Claire Chase and Hans Tutschku for coaching the students. None of this would have been possible without the efforts of our marvelous Music Department staff, and here I would like to thank especially Nancy Shafman, Enrique Marquez, and Lesley Bannatyne.
After the program, please join us in the Taft Lounge for a reception, where we can continue to exchange reminiscences and stories about Mario.
Mario's long compositional career resulted in path-breaking works that reformulated space, timbre, and time. He established an international reputation early on as a composer of "tape music," particularly with works that combine live instruments with electronic sounds. Davidovsky's twelve "Synchronisms" for solo instruments and electronics are among his most often-performed works. He composed orchestral music, chamber music, piano music, and songs, which exhibit a heightened awareness of what "conventional" instruments are capable of, along with a humane spontaneity and impeccable craftsmanship.
Today we'll hear about different aspects of Mario's life and music, by people who knew him much better than I did. His life was a remarkable journey, starting from his birthplace in Médanos, Argentina, as the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, moving on to his studies in Buenos Aires, and then on to that pivotal invitation to Tanglewood, where he met Milton Babbitt. Mario was there at the very earliest days of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio, which led to a professorship at Columbia University. Later he accepted a professorship at Harvard, where he taught for a decade before his retirement in 2004. Apart from his academic appointments, Mario was utterly devoted to the Composers Conference, an annual summer gathering of composers, performers, and new music fans, which he led from 1968 until his death. I remember as a grad student here in the 1980s many times piling into somebody's car to get out to Wellesley for concerts, which were a real treat because of the incredibly high level of performances. (I remember I first met Elliott Carter at one of those concerts.) During his long career, Mario touched the lives of countless students, composer colleagues, and friends - many of whom belonged to all three categories.
Martin Brody, Wellesley College/Composers Conference
I first met Mario in 1977, on the campus of Johnston State College in Northern Vermont, where the Composers Conference was then held. In this rustic place, he led hundreds of young composers through a portal into a new world: a world of musical creativity expressed in its fiercest and most glorious forms. Mario stamped his personality on every nook and cranny of the Conference. By sheer force of charisma, he inspired a cadre of spectacularly gifted and already legendary performing musicians to make the pilgrimage up to Johnston each summer. There, they enacted a grueling ritual. This involved a vortex of rehearsals, recordings, and concerts, reams of new music to learn, orchestral repertory to read, chamber music to coach—and at the end of the day, viciously competitive volleyball games, always featuring the merciless Bob Miller (namesake of the Miller Theater at Columbia), spiking at the net. Throughout the two-week ordeal: lousy food and relentless pranking. The latter was often directed at an acerbic but lovable character, the bassoonist, Lester Cantor.
This was a Fellini-esque utopia, with equally heavy doses of the sacred and profane, the sublime and the absurd, high purpose and focused play, self-awareness and theatricality. Presiding over it all was Mario, with his lifelong friend, the clarinetist and conductor, Efrain Guigui at his side—the two incessantly debating in a rapid-fire, lyrical mix of English, Spanish and Yiddish.
Now more than four decades later, this scene is still incandescently bright in my mind. But over the years, my memories of this life-reorienting encounter have also been colored by many things Mario has said, especially about his Argentinian hometown. A few years ago, Anne Shreffler and I interviewed Mario, One of the things he told us about his childhood home was this: “You know, the government was moving whole villages from Italy, Lithuania, Russia, Germany, Russian Jews, Russian Orthodox, you name it—to populate a countryside where there was no one living. The village was a strange mix, but it became a complete community. People would get together on the national day to play the national march. My dad played the clarinet. It was mostly a Jewish town, there were genuine Jewish gauchos, Jewish cowboys.” I now wonder how much Mario saw the Composers Conference as a place to build a second complete community, a utopian musical community, from another disparate mix of people: a multi-generational cohort of performers and composers.
Mario’s playful turn of phrase, “genuine Jewish gauchos, Jewish cowboys” also says a lot. He and Efrain Guigui, an orphan who had been taken in as a small child by the Davidovsky family, both grew up to become cosmopolitan cowboys, well-equipped for the multiple dislocations and contingencies of migration; but they also became urban cowboys, primed not only to span continents but also to flourish in big cities. Who else could so keenly see what would be needed to lead the young into the rarified world of musical modernism?
Mario liked to say that our ethical rules come from the book of counterpoint. But what exactly does that mean? Here is what I think: I think it means that we are given a few commandments, a lot of norms, and a sliver of freedom. The commandments must never be broken. The norms should be questioned but respected. And the sliver of freedom must be ruthlessly enlarged.
When listening to Mario’s music, I feel that the tilt of the earth’s axis is subtly shifting. This was the first music that seemed oracular to me. It provoked (and still provokes) a quiet, but ineluctable shift in consciousness. The philosopher, Giorgio Agamben recalls a pertinent teaching in his aptly titled essay, “The Coming Community”: “The Hassidim,” he says, “tell a story about the Messianic world to come. Everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too she will sleep in the other world….Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.” So it is with Mario’s music. It concentrates our awareness—and then everything is as it was…just a little different.
Over the years, the Composers Conference gradually came to seem less glamorous to me, but the individual at its heart remained forever astonishing. As the point-person for the conference onsite, after it moved to Wellesley College, I was able to spend time with Mario, and often Elaine and Adriana, almost every summer for more than 35 years—and I got to see Mattias too, mostly in New York. Mario and I spoke often. The conversation was rarely broken for long over the years. Mario was, of course, a master of the epically long phone call. Looking back on our marathon conversations, I now feel that there was a common element running through all of them. Our deliberations might feel sublime, thrilling, irreverent, funny, or tense. Or all of the above, and a lot more, depending on the business at hand; but I never once lost the sense that I was talking to a prophet. Whatever else was going on, I always felt that Mario was setting a singularly high standard: that he was showing me (as he did so many others) how to prepare for the long-anticipated coming of the Messiah—the epiphanic shift in consciousness, whereby everything will be as it is now…just a little different.
Susan Blaustein, Columbia University
Mario was so important to so many young composers – over decades, for Harvard, Columbia, and City College students and for Composers Conference fellows -- he would see us, he could see where we were aiming, he could see where we fell short, and he could always -- sometimes very obliquely, mind you, with a joke, with a parable, sometimes quoting Kabbalah – he could always help us find a way to get there.
Mario was never officially my “teacher” – he was more like my mentor, my guru, my rabbi. I met him for the first time at The Composers Conference, where he had accepted me as a fellow; eight years later, after he helped hire me for my first fulltime academic teaching job at Columbia, he was also my boss.
But always, and most of all, Mario was my friend. Like so many other composers, young and old, we would call each other and talk – never for less than an hour, mind you! – about the state of the art, about other musicians and composers -- mutual friends, Mar-teen-0, See-moore, Ell-ee-yott, Meel-tone – I’d listen to him rail on about this or that assault by the barbarians and philistines, on those he believed were pursuing a sacred quest, the life of the mind. He’d ask how things were going with my boyfriend or family, or in my graduate program at The Yale School of Music (where I’m sure he thought I was dwelling among the philistines!), or about my latest piece, and usually, he’d tell me about his current struggles with whatever piece he was working on, which was always a bit like learning that Artur Rubenstein also had to practice, or, more subversively, having the chance to eavesdrop for a moment on a shrink appointment of the person you most admire.
One time, when I was here at Harvard as a Junior Fellow, I was really struggling to finish several commissions and under a lot of pressure. I was all backed up, still finishing a cello concerto for the Library of Congress, and I had another piece to write, and then a chamber orchestra cantata on the Song of Songs that I had to get done for the American Composers Orchestra, for a specific date.
I told Mario how nervous I was about even finding time to THINK about that piece. I knew he’d written a magnificent treatment of The Song of Songs, which is one of my very favorite pieces of his, and I knew that the Canticles were very, very meaningful for him, that he had written the piece in memory of his beloved sister. I knew Mario had studied every ounce of those sumptuous poems, that he’d read them in multiple translations in Hebrew and Aramaic and had literally loved and overthought each line, as he infused them with life and with sound.
At that point, I’d spent a lot of time writing really dense, lush, tough music, fussing over each sonority and voice, and I told him I was worried I couldn’t do these sacred texts justice. Mario told me not to worry -- “You know, you just peek your almond, and your raisin,” he told me, “and you walk into the desert weeth them, and you weel find your way.”
And he was right. Those few words just changed everything for me – it was so clear, what he said: it was so lean – it was so true. I found my nuggets, if you will – my almond and raisin, or the core DNA of my piece – and those few precious bits took me into the desert, and all the way home, and my Song of Songs is one of the pieces that speaks most clearly and of which I’m most proud.
As a composer, Mario always found his almond and his raisin. He wrestled against the dark to find them sometimes – but once he found them, once he carved them out of the stone or marble that served as his musical clay, they sparkled like gems. Mario’s music is indeed gemlike – each piece stands like a sculptural object, glinting as it somehow turns in the sunlight, always revealing different facets to its listeners.
As we hear again this afternoon, in that lovely performance, his music is magical: it transports you into different lights and different realms, even as it makes time stand still.
That’s what a conversation with Mario was like for me, and for so many of us --
Mario, I can hear your voice.
I deeply miss our conversations, and
I miss you, we ALL miss you, so very much.
But you gave us your music – to make sound shimmer, and to make us all think -- to put us in touch with the tradition, and in dialogue with our forebears, to challenge our every supposition, and to subvert the very medium itself, by somehow making time stand still, long enough for us all to think we’ve somehow caught it, in our ear.
Eric Chasalow, Brandeis University, Composers Conference
Mario Memorial Service – Harvard, March 8, 2020 – Eric Chasalow remarks
I am honored to be able to speak to you about our dear friend, colleague and mentor, Mario. I was inspired to become a composer – to come to New York to study at Columbia because I got excited about Mario’s music. Being a flute player, it was Synchronisms #1 (performed beautifully just a moment ago) that I heard first, and then performed from memory countless times. I know that I am not alone in feeling I have lost a second father, being one of the many students he inspired at City College, Columbia, Harvard, and in the summers at The Composers Conference. Mario was our guru. As I have been reflecting on our relationship these past few months, it is the warmth and humor that I feel most deeply. But I have also been recalling the tone of those three-hour phone conversations, and as I do, I have to come to terms with Mario the optimistic pessimist. He was quick to recognize his own pessimism. He had the highest of standards for what we do and considered composing an ethical act. Inevitably, the world is going to disappoint us - we cannot live up to the standard even if we wish to – which is anything but certain, and – excuse me for quoting here, our world is increasingly full of “bull shit”. And how this was true was always a very long conversation. But even so, I also think of his optimism – recognize it maybe more than he would. It takes an optimist to continue to create some of the most demanding music with great confidence and put it out in the world with a commitment to adding to knowledge and, in some way, improving things. Mario’s music has a rare elegance. It is clear and concise, yet simultaneously richly layered and highly contrapuntal, at times juggling multiple narratives – dense with meaning. There is a range of expression that many listeners find compelling, yet unlike anything else they know. How can music be at once so sensuous and beautiful and so complex? Technically speaking, Davidovsky is able to achieve these qualities by creating a new counterpoint of musical time and acoustical space. His early years of intensive electronic music experience focused his ear on details of sound so that the progression of the timbre layer can be a player in the musical narrative. While I can think of many composers from the past one hundred years with an interest ielevating the role of timbre in music, to my mind Davidovsky was the first to find a way to completely integrate timbre into musical thinking so that it motivates and works in counterpoint with harmony and rhythmic impetus. His is a music packed with subtle details that require the listener to remain completely engaged – one might say to become completely alive.
Like any artist as impactful as Mario, he had to invent himself – a job he relished. At first, this work took place with the primitive technology in the early electronic music studio. When my wife, Barb Cassidy and I interviewed him in 1996 for the Video Archive of Electroacoustic Music, he compared being in that studio to finding yourself in the desert with a knife and a jug of water and having to find your way out. This is classic Mario – down to earth and direct, but also poetic. Part of what I wrote years ago speaks to the combination of Mario’s musical personality and his humanity, so I would like to quote from a bit here: Davidovsky has always thought deeply about how one’s spiritual and ethical compass naturally transforms artistic expression. He holds that the very act of composition requires moral choice. It is a process of constant questioning and argument akin to the study of Talmud. As Davidovsky sees it, the challenging work of creating a coherent whole from a broad universe of possibilities derives from monotheism. Many elements must be embedded to make the whole, but then “the whole is indivisible.” Of this perspective, Davidovsky says, “you are a real living, concrete person, and you are a soul; you try to harmonize these things.”
Speaking in broad terms about his way of life, Davidovsky credits this philosophy to being a Jew – especially to the internal richness of contradiction created by being a Jew growing up in a Catholic country, where spiritual belief and Western art are inextricably bound one to the other. With this upbringing, music embodies both a form of knowledge, and evidence of faith. A belief in the transformative power of Western Art Music then is at the root of everything new, personal, and innovative in the music of Mario Davidovsky. The music weaves traditional classical forms – Sonata, Chaconne, and Variation – together with more “modern” narrative possibilities. These conversations with the past create dramatic conflicts that allow for new sources of surprise within traditional boundaries. And a mercurial flow in the range of expression, from delicate to course, from humorous to tragic, is inherited from Beethoven. Sudden changes of character enrich one another as they circulate, with a result best described as musical wit.
As one finds with truly inspiring artists, with Mario there was a congruity of the person and the music . From Mario we know that Music is a portal to speculations about the world, the mind, ethics, humanity – our very existence. I know from Mario how to embrace fundamental contradictions. How these define the world and shape our work in it. That everything is ultimately connected in ways few of us could imagine without a guide to point it out – and Mario was that guide.
Kurt Stallmann, Ph.D. ’99
About 25 years ago, I was a new graduate student at Harvard and was studying with Mario in his electronic music class. I was just getting to know him as a person when one night I saw him before a new music concert here in Paine Hall, so we entered the hall together. Mario walked towards the front of the hall and he sat…right about there, fairly close to the stage. I sat maybe two or three seats to his left. I can’t remember the exact event…but what I do remember is that we were making small talk as we waited for the concert to start. Now to envision this scene, there is another important element I need to share. I was, and still am, an introverted quiet type. I’m a pretty shy person in public and not very loud when I talk, and I was a bit intimidated by Mario because he was larger than life, he had a way of filling a room with his presence, and he had a very public persona. Because I didn’t speak very loud in our conversation, Mario had a way of grasping his ear while saying “WHAT?” “WHAT DID YOU SAY?” when he couldn’t hear me and so I would find myself responding at, for me, uncomfortably loud levels. What I now know now, being a victim of this myself, is that years of working in an electronic music studio can have a detrimental effect on your hearing. Anyways, so there we were, sitting near the front of the hall and I felt like we were broadcasting our whole conversation to everyone in the room. Honestly, as time passed, I was getting more anxious since I was new here and didn’t really know many people and I’m normally a very private person. Mario, on the other hand, was completely open, and animated, and comfortable saying anything with exaggerated gesticulations with his hands. After what seemed like a very long time, the performers walked out onto stage and our conversation stopped, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The music had started, I don’t remember exactly what it was, but that’s when it happened… I’d say about thirty seconds into the performance, I suddenly heard Mario shifting uncomfortably around in his seat, I mean - he was a big guy, and I could sense him turning his head. So, I looked up and I caught his eye, and he suddenly said in his loud booming voice “BAD BEGINNING ALREADY, NO?” and I just immediately slid down in my seat not really knowing how to respond. That night I learned that Mario was not shy about sharing his opinions on things. He was a very open, very warm person who spoke his mind. Later, when I studied composition with him, Mario would spend as much time discussing ethics, theology, sociology, and philosophy as he did music. He tried his best to draw my opinions out on these topics for debate, and tried to show me the relevance of these ideas to my own life and to the commitment to my own work as an artist. Sometimes our debates led to disagreements and even to arguments between us, but I think he actually enjoyed a good argument and I know he also enjoyed challenging me to get out of my shell while forcing me to take a stand on issues. While studying with him, there were so many things he opened my mind to: his incredible sensitivity to timbre; the use of space as a kind of ‘ghost voice’ in musical structure; an attitude about time and work - of 2 3 he would often say that “time is irrelevant” and that he didn’t care how much time it took to complete something — if it took me forty hours to finish one minute of music, all that mattered was the quality of that one minute; he also deeply felt the responsibility to serve the profession - as evidenced by the many years that he devoted to the Composers Conference giving young, developing composers a chance to work with amazing performers and to present their work in public; and finally his attitude that as a composer, you should serve music - not the other way around. He wasn’t crazy about living in this age of self-promotion when he perceived music was being used as a vehicle to build a composers brand. In all of the years he ran the conference, he never used it as a platform to promote his own work. His biggest lesson to me, however, came many years later, when I had an opportunity to work with him on a creative project. This gave me a front row seat to see how his ideas played out in his own compositional process. In 2006 Mario came down to Texas, with his exceptionally gracious wife Elaine, for a few months to compose two new Synchronisms for electronics and instruments. Russell Pinkston, Eric Chasalow, and a few others had made arrangements for these commissions to come from SEAMUS, the Society for Electroacoustic Music in the United States, while Mario was receiving a lifetime achievement award from that organization. During the first part of his visit he composed his Synchronism for contrabass and electronics written for Don Palma. He worked in Austin at Russell Pinkston's studios with Greg Cornelius at the University of Texas. After that, Mario and Elaine came down to Houston where he composed his Synchronism for clarinet and electronics written for Allen Bluestein at Rice. My Dean, Robert Yekovich, made arrangements for them to live in a small apartment for visiting scholars on campus near the dormitories. It was an amazing, wonderful time. While at the University, Elaine would spend her days sitting in on world history classes, keeping up with the readings and enjoying the student interactions in class discussions. At dinner time in the evenings, she and Mario befriended many young students in the dining halls over evening meals. Most of Mario's time was committed to composing, and looking back on it years later, I personally had never seen him happier than he was in those weeks. At that time, Mario was in his early 70’s, and I marveled at his work ethic. He had worked out a system where he would spend his morning time, while he was fresh, composing a few hours. After lunch, in the afternoon, he would come to the studio where he and I would work together to realize the electronic ideas he had composed that morning. Then at night, he would recopy the music that he had worked on during the day, make a few edits, and clean up some of the details. These were 12-14 hour days for him, and he worked consistently, day after day for about six straight weeks. He was completely engaged throughout the entire time. One particularly memorable moment I have is when we were recording some clarinet samples with Maiko Sasaki, a graduate performer at Rice. I was using a very small, but high quality DPA mini microphone that is about the size of a tic-tac. These mics are so small that you can place them just about anywhere. So in this session, I handed Mario my headphones to monitor the microphone input, and just started placing it in all kinds of crazy places and he would just start cracking up while he listened. I would put the mic in a finger hole, or clip it next to keys, and the mic would amplify these very tiny sounds into very large sounds and he suddenly became very animated. It was like watching a child play, he was spontaneously coming up with all kinds of ideas about where to place the mic while asking the clarinetist to make all kinds of different sounds. of 3 3 Seeing that piece grow over those few weeks was a great lesson. His consistent work ethic combined with the elements of play, and his deep sense of satisfaction having the privilege and freedom to bring ideas to life showed me the most important elements for developing a sustainable life as a composer. Since then, I saw Mario a few times, but since I didn’t travel to New York much, we primarily stayed in touch on the phone. We would maybe talk a couple of times a year having long conversations. In the last year of his life, my wife - the composer Shih-hui Chen - was in New York and went to visit him. He was still exploring music, spending a lot of time listening to music every day. He told her that music had sustained him through Elaine’s illness and eventual death. He spent time really digging deeply into music by composers that he knew a little bit about, but that he wanted to learn more. Here’s a direct quote from their conversation which Shih-hui recorded and shared with me: …during that time, “I discovered, to my astonishment, composers that we knew only a little bit about that really are as great as Mozart. It happened the other day that I listened to a couple of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. You know, we all know these pieces - there are 20 sonatas that everybody plays and we all love them and they’re very lively pieces. And then, I went to YouTube and found these weird recordings: first of all, I knew that he wrote a lot of sonatas, but I did not know that he wrote 550 sonatas which is almost as much as Beethoven wrote in his whole life. And I started to hear Sonatas that I did not know and I just couldn’t believe the imagination and the invention of this guy. And I heard for three days, I heard at least three or four hours of Scarlatti. You know, how come I never knew that this guy was such a great composer? And there are other composers that we don’t know anything about, we may know two or three pieces, but we just don’t know anything about them, that made incredibly, incredibly powerful music.” I think that’s a thought I’d like to close with. His words describing Scarlatti are the perfect words I would use to describe him: “I just can’t believe the imagination and the invention of this guy” As well as I knew Mario - I know so little of his entire output as a composer, I have a lot digging in to do.
José-Luis Hurtado, Ph.D. ’09
Good afternoon everyone. It is an honor to be here to celebrate the life of a great man. Matías and Adriana, please allow me to dedicate my words to you.
October of 2001. There was Mario. He had been invited to a new music festival in a University of a little town in the Gulf of Mexico. He attended a couple of concerts where his music was performed, gave also a couple of lectures, and met individually with many composition students.
October of 2001. There was me. One of those many composition students that met briefly with Mario. Trying to make the most of what I thought it was going to be the only opportunity in my entire life that I will interact with a figure of such caliber. It was only Mario, me, and a little upright piano in a very tiny practice room. The room looked even tinier for him. He would almost touch the ceiling with his head. Only the two of us for about 25 minutes. I showed enthusiasm at all times, played on the piano a couple of my most recent solo pieces, but mostly
made him a lot of questions, and tried to listen carefully and absorbed every single word that he said. It seems that he was interested in what I was doing too, as he grabbed my music score and asked me a few questions about specific passages. He also asked me about my status as a student, and gave me words that encouraged and inspired me.
After his return to the U.S. and not too many weeks after that meeting, Mario phones me home to Mexico and asks me whether I wanted to come to Harvard to study with him on a full scholarship. That call changed not only the immediate plans that I had at that time, but did change the course of my life completely.
Mario not only invited me to come to this country, but he never forgot about me. He literally took me under his wing. I still remember that first summer of 2002, after attending the Composers’ Conference, spending the rest of the summer at “the barn”, Mario and Elaine’s beautiful summer house in Vermont. We used to walk around in the morning, before breakfast, to look for deers and moose. In the afternoons, we would go to auctions, as he liked to buy pottery, old furniture, but mostly old wooden objects. He had collected an important number of them, Mario: “Mirá, José Luis ¿vos qué crees que es esto?/ What do you
think is this?” Me: “Maestro, no tengo ni la menor idea/I have no clue maestro”, Mario: “it is a XIX century artifact to peel and cut apples!”, “and what about this?”, Me: “Maestro, it looks like something that an alchemist would use?” Mario: “Yes! exactly! It is an XVIII century machine to make cheese!”. He was very proud of his collection, and often refer to it as “Mirá José Luis, todo esto estará en el museo Davidovsky algún día/ Look José Luis, all these will be part of the Davidvosky museum one day.”
That first summer, one morning, without telling me anything, Elaine and Mario took me to a clothing store to buy me my first set of winter clothes. I’m sure they thought that this uninformed and unexperienced little Mexican hadn’t seen snow in his life before… and they were right!. I had no idea that I was going to need snow boots, a scarf, special socks, and a jacket (which by the way I still have). Here they were, Mario and Elaine, using me as a mannequin. Trying me on clothes, in front of a mirror, deciding and discussing about the type, the size, and the color. I had no opinion about it. But they did not only feel responsible for me. When I got married, they adopted my wife too (who they had also met when they came to Mexico). Every time my wife and I went to NY, we stayed at their apartment. We would stay at a bedroom which Mario would refer as “el cuarto de los Hurtado”, “the Hurtado’s bedroom”. We would wake up and Mario had made breakfast for us already. After breakfast, Elaine would walk us to the bus stop everyday, give us a kiss, a little paper bag with lunch that she had prepared for us, and a list of suggestions of museums, events, and activities for us to visit and attend.
There are so many memories and images like these that I have, of all different types: I remember for instance, the very long sessions that Mario and I used to have, sometimes up to 2 or 3 am, reading ladino poetry and listening to Beethoven, a composer that he loved, “if Beethoven would be a religion I would be a member of his church”. I remember how surprised he was when I told him that I was able to take video with my new cell phone, or also remember Elaine getting mad at Mario because he loved to talk a lot and make jokes while she was driving: “Mario please stop! You are distracting me!”, and also Mario giving my wife a lecture about the origin of her name “Zaira” using an old XVII century colonial book that he had acquired in the black market in Mexico City back in the 40’s.
I remember our often and endless conversations in his studio, his living room, or over the phone about music, friends, family, society, history, politics, and of course, religion. These conversations were always relevant and full of humor. We would always speak in Spanish, even in public. I used to think that since it was his native language, he felt closer, and more comfortable, but now that I think about it, maybe it was because my english was even worse than today and he did not want me to suffer. Seriously, this may be something that most of you don’t know, but his Spanish was very elegant and extremely poetic. He was a very cultured man. Even to describe the most difficult of the situations, he would say a lot using just a few words, a metaphor, or a poem. I remember his words of comfort after I had had a car accident a few years ago: “Muchacho, no te preocupes, si tenés fé la tristeza es un pecado”, or his answer when I asked him about his health after Elaine had passed away: “Me veo bien, pero los corceles negros galopan por adentro”.
He had always nostalgic stories to tell of his childhood in his beloved Argentina. About his dad the gaucho in the country side, the last conversation that he had with his “vieja” (his mom), his violin lessons with his German teacher, his house, his streets, the bookstores that he used to visit, and how while studying music he worked as an aplaudidor at teatro Colón (the most important concert hall of Buenos Aires) giving him the opportunity to listen to Rubinstein, Horowitz, and see Stravinsky conducting. An “aplaudidor” was one of a group of young music students that were placed strategically around the concert hall, sitting in the audience, and that would start clapping after the piece was finished so the rest of the people could follow them. He didn’t get paid, but he attended the concerts for free.
Curiously, we would rarely talk about music techniques, processes, or methods outside of my composition lesson. I could even take the risk to say that For Mario, music was secondary. It was just a conduct. It was the door to a higher dimension, just the mean to what he called "la intuición del conocimiento / the intuition of knowledge”. In his own words: "What happens when the performance of a piece of music is done? are there at least five seconds of the piece that remains with you? that means something to you? that provoke you wishful thinking?. Music could be an intuition of knowledge, because it allows you to perceive but you do not have to demonstrate anything. It is the phenomena in which all the summation of all parts of our soul participate. An epicurean event of pleasure but a profound source of knowledge". He would feel satisfied if his music would create a connection in your brain that could make you take the
right decision at the right time. A connection that could allow you to communicate better and be more sensitive to the person next to you. That could help you to reach and have images yet to be built, existing in a magical dimension, and since all these connections needed all the force of our memories and experiences, the result could also be mystical: "music is the summation, the aggregate, all the choices, all we do, a chaotic enterprise, a degree of understanding. If I listen to a great piece of music I don't have space for anything else at that time. It is like being monotheist. It is like the kind of language that you may eventually use to see the face of God".
I did see many times these words translated into actions. He was a very passionate, deeply spiritual, and a extremely generous man. I have no doubt that the worlds of all of us whom had the opportunity to interact with Mario are much better after him. That’s why, even though everyone knows the great composer and teacher that he was, I think his legacy goes beyond his music.
If I understood the message well, and as his student, I will try to give in the same way I saw him giving. I will try to honor and celebrate him with my actions. I think that’s what he would want from me.
I miss him. I miss him dearly. I have felt disoriented and empty since I learned about his passing, as Mario was not only my friend and my mentor, he was also my guidance. Whenever I had a bad day, or a complicated situation, I would call him, as his voice had a special effect on me, it was like an oasis, a space in time. He was the light that was always showing me the path, always next to me, supporting me, giving me advice and encouragement.
Queridisisísimo Maestro Mario, I know you are listening, and I know you know, but I will say it one more time: meeting you changed not only the course of my life, but of my son’s life, and the life of the son of my son. And for that, I will be eternally grateful. Al hombre culto, profundamente espiritual, y dadivoso sin mesura. Al hombre de las conversaciones inagotables, español poético, humor Latino, y añoranza presente por su natal Argentina. Al hombre que creyó en mí, me trajo a este país, y me apoyó y aconsejó en todo momento. Al hombre que cambió el curso de mi vida y mi descendencia... a mi queridisisísimo maestro y amigo Mario, I only have to say: Gracias, gracias, gracias, gracias, gracias... mil gracias sin
límites, infinitas y eternas. Thank you.
Matias Davidovsky, son
On Behalf of myself, my sister Adriana, my wife and kids - Thank You all for being here and honoring my Dad’s memory. Many thanks to those who made the effort to put this event together.
As you can imagine, the 6 months since my Dad’s passing has been a difficult period for me. He was such a meaningful presence in our lives that his relatively sudden passing left us with a huge void that I really wasn’t equipped to fill. Of course, I try to fill some of that empty space by trying to find time each day to reflect and to remember him.
I, like many Jews, practice the tradition of saying Kaddish daily for the year following losing a parent. I’ve come to cherish these brief opportunities to remember things about my Dad –My Dad before his health started fail - remembering him for his vibrancy, his passion and for his warmth – memories that help fill the void
I remember things like watching football games with him, time spent with him, my Mom and sister up in Vermont, his smiles when he was with his Grandchildren, and of course discussing the meaning of life with him.
As most of you know, my dad loved to talk. And it didn’t matter what you spoke to him about – even if it was something that he knew nothing about – he would share his opinion – often going on at great length. In fact, all I really had to do is ask him “hey pops – how’s it going” and then I could sit back and relax for the next 20 or 30 minutes as he explained to me how he was doing, how the world was doing, at times even how G-d was doing.
Despite knowing about many of his accomplishments, I realize now that there is a lot I didn’t understand about his professional life. Many folks, some here today, have shared thoughts and memories of my Dad after his passing – either in emails, blogs, or articles or through other forums. Many of those thoughts and memories go beyond what I knew of his “musical life” and thanks to you, exposed nuances about him that until now I didn’t know.
I think the most poignant reflection shared by many folks was the idea that he looked at the exercise of making music as a highly ethical endeavor that should result in something good beyond the actual creation of the musical sounds themselves. I’ve come to realize this idea of doing meaningful things is something he shared both in his professional life as well as his family life – Life to him was about being good and more importantly about living with meaning.
I remember sharing time with him, especially in his last years, usually just the two of us - discussing what he thought it meant to live a meaningful life.
Possibly the very last thing he said to me when I left from my very last visit at his apartment – “Matias Ciao – be good”. Because of what others like you have shared, I realize now, more than ever, how profound those 2 simple words coming out of his mouth really were.
Thank you for sharing your memories. Thank you for playing his music, thank you for being a part of his meaningful Life - May his memory be for a blessing.