We often hear about those defining moments in a person's life that guide them into what they should be doing. For me, growing up as a young boy in a suburb of St. Louis taught me to listen deeply. I recall so vividly the thunderstorms rolling through those midwestern nights, and how I would often fight off sleep just to lay there in the dark and experience the crackles and booms. Perhaps moving to California in my youth where thunderstorms are the exception, not the norm, led to my passion and discovery of things like field recording, sound art, electronic and experimental music -- and composers like Bruno Ruviaro.
Ruviaro was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and currently lives and teaches in the Bay Area. His first lessons in music began at the age of 13. Now 38, he recalls wanting to play the piano at an early age.
"I remember there was one distant relative that had a piano," he says. "You know, the furniture piano nobody played? We would only go to his house occasionally and I was always fascinated by that thing in the living room. And for some reason they never really invited me to sit down and make some noise or whatever. Once I was able to say, 'Can I touch it?' And then they opened it. There was something about the smell, the looks, the whole thing. And I went over to it and I remember the first thing I figured out how to play was because I had seen an episode of Woody Woodpecker. It was like a wild west cartoon. There was a bank robber trying to escape by hiding inside a piano in the saloon. The bank robber from inside the piano says to Woody, 'You don't tell anyone or else!' And then with the end of the gun he plays..." [Ruviaro walks over to a piano sitting beside me and plays the notes from his childhood memory. He comes to learn it was Chopin's "Funeral March."]
Despite his inclination to play the piano, Ruviaro's first two years of music lessons were on the organ. "The methods they used at the time for organ contained a mix of classical and popular music. It was a little unusual," he said. "In the same book you would have some arrangements of Beethoven pieces and then some arrangements of Beetles pieces. It was a really crazy mix. And because it was organ, they didn't make piano-like arrangements, they made arrangements where you had the melody, and then the chords on the left hand. Pretty much how a guitar player would read music. So from the beginning I actually learned how to read chords like a popular musician would learn. I think that stayed with me. That was a very valuable thing. When I moved to piano there was no turning back."
After finishing his Undergrad studies in Brazil, Ruviaro worked for two years with a theater company in São Paulo. "It was a really amazing experience," he said. "I was just making the music for their plays. I would not only compose the music, but I was also there every night. It was mostly pre-recorded, someone else could do it, but I wanted to be there because it was so much mixing and sound balancing and hitting the right cue at the right time. So I was in a way playing the music, not like a pianist, but delivering the music together with the play."
Ruviaro moved to the U.S. to continue his studies in electronic music in 2002. From 2002–2004 he worked toward a master of arts in electroacoustic music at Dartmouth. After Dartmouth, Ruviaro headed west. From 2004–2010 he attended Stanford University where he continued to study electronic music in parallel with acoustic music composition. He earned his doctorate from Stanford in 2010 and then taught at the renowned Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) for two years.
He accepted a teaching position at Santa Clara University in 2012, where Ruviaro now heads up the electronic music department. "One of the things I liked when I came to visit for the interview was that this department was already very much in syntony with new music, experimental music and trying to be innovative or find interesting ways to teach music -- even at a more basic level," he said.
SCU already had the New Music Festival happening every so many years, but they didn't have much in the way of electronic music. Ruviaro was hired to implement an electronic music program. One of the first things he launched was Santa Clara University's Laptop Orchestra, affectionately known as SCLOrk. Ruviaro describes it as the main project; now, the music department has three or four electronic classes built into its program.
Staying true to his experience at Dartmouth and Stanford, where students are given freedom to direct their course of study within an incredible support system, Ruviaro tells me, "You never know what people are going to come up with as long as you give them the tools, some basic knowledge to get started and the ability to learn more independently."
Of course, we live in a world where attention spans are short-lived, and popular culture tends to rule the day. I ask Ruviaro how he approaches the challenge of creating in this environment.
"The thing that I do is often not based on a strict beat -- it just requires a different kind of listening,” shares Ruviaro. “I always try to ask people in a concert to just have your ears open for different states of mind and different types of listening. Don't frustrate yourselves trying to find a melody or a harmony. Just listen to the sounds and enjoy the flow, the sequences, the other kinds of harmonies that may show up. In that sense, it may be a little more demanding."
But with greater demands often comes greater rewards.
A selection of Bruno Ruviaro's scores, recordings, and texts can be found at www.brunoruviaro.com.