'To Be Useful Is Something Incredible': Leo Brouwer Reflects On His Legacy : Deceptive Cadence Brouwer, one of Latin America's most renowned classical composers, sees music as a form of service. "When [humans] give ... they're doing one of the most beautiful things in life," he says.

'To Be Useful Is Something Incredible': Leo Brouwer Reflects On His Legacy

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Composer and guitarist Leo Brouwer is considered one of the most important living figures in Latin American classical music. He's scored more than 50 films, and concert halls worldwide play his works regularly. Betto Arcos met Brouwer at his home in Havana and has this profile of the musician.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: A few days after his 78th birthday, Leo Brouwer finds it hard to reflect on his legacy. He says he's just grateful that people are moved by his music.

LEO BROUWER: (Through interpreter) To be useful is something incredible. Humans, when they teach, when they show, when they give, they're doing one of the most beautiful things in life. Perhaps because of my roots in solitude, of being an orphan, it forces me to these reflections.

ARCOS: His parents divorced when he was little, and his mother died when he was 11, so he decided to go look for his father.

BROUWER: (Through interpreter) I found him. I found him playing guitar, and it was the instrument that fascinated me.


ARCOS: Leo Brouwer taught himself everything about music. Even though his grandmother was a sister of renowned composer Ernesto Lecuona, the wealthy family refused to pay for any kind of music education and wanted nothing to do with him.

BROUWER: (Through interpreter) I'd say that being in an orphanage made me reflect on the what and why, the essential things in life.


ARCOS: Brouwer says he listened to Cuba's classical radio station all the time and learned how to read sheet music by haunting music stores in Havana.

BROUWER: (Through interpreter) I arrived and showed my clean hands so I could touch the sheet music. Sure, come on in, boy; come on in, boy, they'd say. I'd spend four hours a day standing, studying Stravinsky, Mozart's string quartets. And so that's the world in which I began to compose.

ARCOS: He was 15 years old.

BROUWER: (Through interpreter) I didn't have a piano. I trained the ear, and I wrote on the table. And I still write music that way.


ARCOS: Brouwer's models were Bartok, Schumann, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky. He wanted to do for the guitar what they had done for instruments like piano and violin.


ARCOS: Brazilian guitarist Carlos Barbosa Lima first heard Leo Brouwer's music when he was touring in Europe in the early 1970s.

CARLOS BARBOSA LIMA: For me, it was a new experience because I saw a composer, guitarist with an incredible view of music and different styles, too. And I think probably he had his style when he was in his teens already.

ARCOS: Part of that style is incorporating traditional music and Cuban instruments in classical music forms. But Brouwer is also a big fan of popular music and says it's just as important as anything written for the concert hall.

BROUWER: (Through interpreter) That's the case of the Beatles amongst others, including those that could be labeled commercial.


ARCOS: Brouwer has a special place in his heart for the Beatles.


ARCOS: The composer decided to arrange Beatles music for classical instruments because of a particular Cuban minister of culture and his views on music.

BROUWER: (Through interpreter) He even felt the North American music deformed people. That minister banned my music, too, and that of composer Silvio Rodriguez, who was a hardcore revolutionary. We were forbidden. We became close friends, and here we are. The minister is long gone.

ARCOS: In addition to his prolific career as a composer, he created the Cuban Institute of Art and Film Industry and helped organize the conservatories on the island. Brouwer stopped playing the guitar in the late 1970s. Today he focuses all his energy on composing.

BROUWER: (Through interpreter) And now I have many more ideas. The problem is much more serious. It's a lot harder to compose because I have too many ideas, and I have to be selective.

ARCOS: If the previous decades are any indication, Leo Brouwer will continue to give to audiences around the world. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.


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