In this video, Cervo demonstrates how he improvises at the piano to explore musical ideas.
Aleph Cervo ’14 is trying to get out of a rut. And the strategy he’s using to break out of his routine and forgo his standard go-to solutions is to compose a 10- to 15-minute quintet for two violins, viola, cello and piano.
“When I’m composing I get stuck into patterns or repetitions,” Cervo said. “I build on a chunk of music that repeats and add layers. Now I’m trying to create a narrative that gets away from that — a musical story. It has its ups and downs, its climaxes and its resolutions.”
Cervo, a rising junior who’s majoring in music at Bowdoin, grew up in Laguna Beach, Calif., but was born in Brazil and lived there until he was five. Both his parents are Brazilian; his father, a composer and university professor, still lives there, in Porto Alegre. His mother, in California, is a classical pianist. So it’s not too surprising to learn that, being surrounded by music, Cervo began composing when he was about five or six years old. He still has those early compositions, too, because his father wrote them all down.
This summer, Cervo has a Langbein fellowship from Bowdoin to devote himself to creating a piano quintet — his most ambitious musical project yet — under the guidance of his advisor, Associate Professor of Music Vineet Shende. “Rarely during the school year do you get a block of time to dedicate to composing,” Cervo said.
Cervo’s quintet will be performed this fall by professional musicians. During the quiet days of summer, Cervo is spending hours at the piano, playing chords, experimenting with sounds. When he hears something he likes, he transcribes it, and begins to fill in the parts for other instruments. “I always start with musical ideas on the piano, until I come up with a melodic theme or a harmonic progression,” he said. “When you have a starting idea, you can figure out where it goes. You can build in either direction. It doesn’t have to be the start of the piece.”
When asked to characterize the quintet, Cervo was hesitant to slip his creation into a genre. “Nowadays, it’s very difficult to categorize music,” he said.
While Cervo loves “70s prog” — the progressive rock of the 1970s, which includes bands like Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer — his inspirations for composing range from French composer Maurice Ravel to film scores, particularly for Pixar animations. “They have incredible soundtracks and really enhance the films,” he said. “It’s a different compositional style, a different process, because when you’re composing in the concert tradition, you’re starting from your imagination.” But with films, you have narrative points to use as guides. “I may want to go into film scoring in the future,” he added.
Spending days at a piano in one of the practice rooms of Studzinski Recital Hall, below Kanbar Auditorium, and surrounded by sheet music filled in with his small, neat, penciled notes, Cervo is moving quickly now on his quintet. “It’s exponential,” he said, about his pace. “It started off slowly and is getting faster and faster. The brain is like a muscle. If you exercise the compositional part of your brain — wherever that is — every day you get better at it.”
The Edward E. Langbein Summer Fellowship is awarded annually to an undergraduate or recent graduate to enable the recipient to participate in summer research or advanced study related to his or her major field or life work. The competitive fellowship is just one among many that Bowdoin College offers to qualified students to support summertime research, projects or internships.