A Musical "New Humanism"

Interview with Elisabetta Brusa

Elisabetta Brusa with conductor Reimar Neuner at Aachener Kammer Orchester, Koln
Elisabetta Brusa with conductor Reimar Neuner at Aachener Kammer Orchester, Koln
12 MAY 2016
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Defined as "a brilliant Italian composer with a meticulous sense of orchestral color and an appealing lyrical gift," Elisabetta Brusa is a pioneer woman in the growing number of modern composers who have chosen to write music in a tonal style which consequently communicates to the public. Her musical language covers a wide range of expressions. She is professor of Composition at the Conservatory of Music in Milan, where she teaches Composition since 1985. Since 2002 she also holds traditional orchestration courses.

Tell us about you...

When you are over sixty and not in perfect health, you start to... count backwards. As a young woman I had all the typical hopes of youth. Now my thoughts are exclusively concerned with completing some of my compositions. I would suffer greatly if I left an unfinished work. I am convinced that physical and mental pain greatly help to compose. Suffering, and witnessing that of others, resizes the ego and raises the mind, making it deeper and more essential, which inevitably affects one's Art. I never realized that I was a child prodigy or had particularly high compositional skills till quite late. I have had a rather particular and fortunate life. My mother was English and very independent, especially when young, even though later in life she often ended up by following my father because of his way of thinking, always level-headed with a clear perspective and always projected forwards. My parents never made me feel particularly male or female, but only a person. I always realized that I was not as beautiful as my mother, nor intelligent and cultured as my father, but I think that this has in time made me more level-headed too. During my life, I have never had wild ambitions to emerge as a composer. Knowing that my music did not stylistically fit in the historical period I was living, I composed for the drawer. I always thought I would have more of a chance to emerge once I passed away. I don't think that I have ever found opposition as a woman composer, but simply as a composer, because I was always working countercurrent.

"Personality" and person.

I have never thought of, nor have I ever felt the need, to create an artificial image of myself; an outward image as a public figure. I behave at home just as when teaching at the Conservatorio, as on stage, as at a party, or when I have the occasion to speak in public. I won my shyness of time ago when I started to feel more and more sure of myself. This happened gradually, discovering the intellectual vacuum and lack of humanity of the many individuals who tried to mortify me, penalizing me in my work and above all my students because they regarded me as a conservative composer in an environment which was and still is strictly Avant-garde. Today I am happy and calm because I receive respect everywhere, especially as a professor at the Milan Conservatory. I have always done my best to pass on my knowledge to my students and most of them have been grateful. Before the publication of my two CDs, during examinations my students received lower marks than they deserved. I graduated with a very low mark too, but It has never bothered me and it does not stop me from pursuing my efforts. Strangely, now my students receive more or less the votes they deserve...

Being a woman yesterday and today...

As a girl, I looked at all women with great suspicion and contempt, because I considered most of them insignificant. I think that the problem resided in the excessive intelligence, culture and generous humanity of my father who I adored. I did not wear makeup because I considered it a ploy to lure men. My mother was a very beautiful woman, and she used only a slight layer of lipstick. I too have followed this model, and nothing else. I have always dressed simply with trousers and a sweater or T-shirt, whilst my mother had beautiful and expensive clothes. During my youth I wanted to be male because I thought that I would have more opportunities. Now I do not care any more and it seems to me that there is more equality than during the times of my parents. I'm glad now to be what life has given me to be and furthermore I have a wonderful husband. As a child, my father gave me little trains, cars, and even a tank. I remember that day in Paris at the Galeries Lafayette when my mother laughingly said to my father, "Well now, however, I have decided to give her a doll, at least once in her lifetime!". Gradually, with the arrival of very gifted, intelligent and humorous female students, I started to change my mind about women. I do not know what to think about the liberation, integration and equality of women in the Western world. As time passes I have noticed more and more intelligent and cultured women emerge in all fields and the media have helped a lot to make them known. I have also noticed that my female colleagues have the same opportunities as males. Obviously, there are fewer concerts of women because there are fewer women composers. But I'm not an expert and I have never done research on this matter. I think in today's world there is not much difference and that women have come to have the same power as men. However, Music, by nature, is neither male nor female. It is just the expression of different sensibilities which are common to both men and women.

Is there is a stereotype Milanese woman?

I do not think I'm any kind of stereotype. The Milanese are always well-dressed, but I sometimes give little attention to clothing. In this, my husband is more Milanese than me. Only recently I decided to improve my wardrobe, which also pleased me very much. We do not attend the Milanese high society, except on rare occasions. We bought the smallest car we could and the smallest house just enough to accommodate the furniture and antiques that I inherited from my parents. However, we have an almost equally large terrace which makes me very happy since I really love gardening. People are very complicated and very simple at the same time. We are Milanese but not stereotypes.

How would you present your music?

Music is going through a complex period in which, in my opinion, we can recognize two main currents: 1) Avant-garde and post-avant-garde (atonality) and 2) Neo-Tonalism. Personally I feel near to Neo-Tonalism and particularly to Neo-Romanticism, to be understood in the original sense of the word (and historical period), yet often used generically or misunderstood. My music comes from emotional sensations and visions, supported by rational forms and techniques, without technical and emotional complacency and notational graphics. I support the return to a "New Humanism" with the introduction of new forms and the revaluation of other well-established ones, but with new internal structures; certainly not a mere return to past models. The musical Neo-Humanism I believe in combines logical quality and flexibility that enable the balance between rationality and artistic intuition which is sometimes inexplicable even to the composer himself. My organic compositional system is applicable not only to a single work, but to my whole compositional conception. I prefer a symphonic form, which is often cyclical, rather than operatic. In my compositions I use recurring melodies and rhythms which are clearly distinguishable, memorizable or at least recognizable by ear. I'm not inclined towards superimposed, complex rhythms in a seamless succession like an infinite sea of undistinguishable notes. Therefore, I believe in a well-defined theme and clear, well-defined and consequential harmony in a broad sense, that is structural.

How can a composer get to be known nowadays?

In Italy politics have always had a significant role in the Arts, but particularly in Milan as regards Music, where there reside the two most important publishers: Edizioni Ricordi and Edizioni Suvini-Zerboni. Political and ideological circles have initially often helped artists eager to make a career at all costs. Over the decades, however, everyone I've seen rise to positions of power, without having merit or quality, have disappeared. In the past, Boosey & Hawkes, Ricordi and Suvini-Zerboni repeatedly refused my music and as a result in Milan and in Italy I have hardly ever had concerts or radio transmissions. Things went this way for me and other composers similar to myself for decades. In the Seventies long pieces for solo flute were fashionable because the Italian performing rights society SIAE payed per minute, like paintings that are charged per square meter. Realizing early that I expressed myself better by composing for orchestra rather than for individual instruments and small ensembles, from 1986 I decided I would only compose for this medium. Being completely bilingual, I was also able to get in touch with institutions and orchestras from other countries more easily. It has always been my good fortune. I have had numerous commissions and my works have been performed and radio-broadcast and televised in various cities in Italy, the United States, Europe and Asia, with major orchestras such as the BBC Philharmonic, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the St. Peteresburg Camerata State Hermitage Orchestra, the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, the CBC Vancouver Orchestra, the Gera-Altenburg Philharmonisches, the Aachener Kammerorchester, the New England Philharmonic of Boston, the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and many others. Around 2000, the Naxos record label decided to create a new series for the twentieth-century composers. At that time I had eleven works for various orchestra with instrumental parts that were ready for performance. Naxos recorded these works with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine conducted by Fabio Mastrangelo and the result was the publication of two CDs. They have also recently released my third CD with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Daniele Rustioni, in which he conducted my First Symphony. My Second Symphony is due shortly. Let me conclude with my musical poetics: Since I do not write "objective" music, all my works reflect my character and special moments that have marked my life. This also presumably reveals the inner necessity of my unconscious mind to combine my musical experiences with what has attracted me and continues to attract me in the other Arts.