Interview with Arturo Tallini by Andrea Aguzzi (October 2009)

The first question is almost trivial and obvious: How did your love and interest for the guitar start?

In an almost trivial and obvious way: when I was 11 years old a friend of mine, a neighbor, got a guitar as a gift, but he wasn’t interested, instead I was rather intrigued when he showed it to me and so I asked him to borrow it. The first song I found by ear (on the first rope, and only on that …) was Blu, Blu, L’amore e’ blu, an italian pop song (by the way, BLUE is the title of what I consider my most important record, courses and turning of life …): obviously my first love was not for the classical guitar, I even suspected the existence, but for the rhythm one, well for pop music. I understood soon enough that … at the parties and with friends, the thing worked, and so I went ahead preparing a repertoire of pop music that, jokes aside, I liked playing very much.

You are rightly considered one of the italian guitarists most directed towards the contemporary music, when did you begin to devote yourself to this new repertoire? What kind of difficulties did you encounter?

My first significant and professional approach was in 1984: for a RCA recording dedicated to new music; Guido Podestà, the artistic director of this series, asked to me and Vincenzo Di Benedetto, we played togheter as the Duo Chitarristico Romano, to record a very difficult piece by Irma Ravinale, called Jointly, one by Mauro Cardi, called Texture and Interludi Dialoganti by Flavio Scogna. For his piece, Scogna asked to play in the final the E on the sixth string and to immediately lowering it of one tone: I did not want that the effect of Glissando was discontinuous (as inevitably happens if it changes the string with the left hand) . So I caught a string winder and I fixed it with the plasticine (we called it ‘Pongo’ in Italy): this allowed me a very natural, continuous and nice Glissando, I still remember his astonished face When he asked to me: “all this for my piece?” I like to tell this story to make better understand why I approach to contemporary music: the taste for the game, the exploration, the expansion of instrumental possibilities, the challenge that every new music bring us … Difficulties? Certainly the fact that a lot of contemporary music requires to find new gestures and solutions, new and very often unexpected ideas, that no one teaches in the Conservatory. The extreme case, up to now and for me was Ko-Tha by Giacinto Scelsi with the guitar resting horizontally and dozens and dozens of new gestures to be invented to make the score: for example the guitar is used as a tool to to be stroke with nails, to be knocked on the bridge, the tailpiece, picking all the strings at the same time: a trip to another planet where the usual references become unnecessary and guitarist is forced to build a new relationship with the instrument.

It seems to me that there is a small music scene about classical guitarists dedicated to an innovative and contemporary repertoire, as well as you come to my mind the names of Marco Cappelli, David Tanenbaum, David Starobin, Elena Casoli, Emanuele Forni, Marc Ribot who played John Zorn music … shall I speak about a music scene? Are you in contact between each other or operate independently? Are there other guitarists you know and that you can suggest us that they move on these musical routes?

The interest in contemporary music is actually very enlarged … but I disagree about the question: why people who play contemporary music should not move independently? And why speak about a ‘scene’? I like the example of Pollini, who always plays from Boulez, Stockhausen to Beethoven or Chopin: I don’t think that there is a sect that takes care of strange things: there are guitarists who, unlike others, are involved in this particular repertoire. We could instead talk about why are so few those who face this repertoire, I think it is inevitable to think about Segovia: we know what he did not love contemporary music and he prefered a repertoire that, even if from the twentieth century, was based on the harmonic structures and thought of classical music, I should point out that he, talking about the music they did not like talked about nubarrones de la impotencia creativa, according to him, the real music, or the Segovia’s repertoire, would have emerged after those nubarrones went away …

So I wonder: what would be today the guitar history if Segovia had requested music to Schoenberg to Stravinsky, to Ligety or to others who have also made the music history of the ‘900? The conservative modernism of Turina, Ponce, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, gave us some well-made and sometimes beautiful pages, but they have left the guitar a little close to the borders of that world in which music is invented non not re-proposed. Later, many of those who were formed in direct contact with Segovia made their own the ideas of the great Spanish and they formed their students too, the result is that today there is a sector, I may say the bigger one, of guitarists who do not like the contemporary repertoire just because they never wanted to get closet to it seriously. Other guitarists that deal with contemporary art: well, certainly Magnus Anderson, Arnaud Dumond, and, of course, Eugenio Becherucci, who played everything was possible ….

Recently you have performed in concert one of the most famous John Cage’s piece 4’33”, how the public has reacted, and why the choice of this music?

The composition of Cage has been for me an exciting discovery: silence, associated with the image of the musitian on stage can be devastating and shocking and this is what has been told to me by many of the public. The silence is not ‘just the absence of sound because in this case it is expected that the musician play (among other things, I start every movement with a … silent … attack), and that sound that never comes not only speaks about the silence filled by the sound environment, but also by a sort of presence-absence, of an unfulfilled promise, of a power that never become act, like those nightmares where you dream to talk about but … the voice never comes out ….

Why this choice? Because I felt it was good that a piece of this type with a so dramatically value and with such a symbolic power was included in the guitar repertoire. I also believe that it’s important that guitarists discover what contents our instrument can be the bearer: the Guitar Festivals often show us how much easier is to play pieces of big instrumental cunning but poor music content, which makes mind sleeping … it is clear that there is a time for the pieces for the public and a time for the Britten’s Nocturnal, but perhaps a little more quality is better …. I have played this piece in September 2008 in Alessandria during the Guitar Congress just before the two Canzoni Lidie by Nuccio D’Angelo: there, where the public was not inclined to adventures, I must say that the reactions were much higher then my expectations. In fact I believe that we artists should have, at least once in our lifetime, the courage to play disruptive things, and on the other hand that the public tend to be conservative, only if the motivations that it receives are of poor interest: how else to explain that 40 years ago, the RAI offered every Friday great theatre, by Eduardo De Filippo and Pirandello, and the public at the time, less mischievous than today, didn’t desdain it at all?

Is it possible to think about at 4’33 ‘as a piece based on indeterminate improvisation or a piece of aleatoric music?

As I mentioned before, I think 4’33” is a brilliant representation first, I think it’s clear, however, that the randomness exists, as far as there are unpredictable sounds of the environment, the reactions of the public, external noise etc., while I believe that improvisation is absent from this piece.

In your website ( you have permitted the download of a mp3 with one of the most famous music by Bruno Maderna: Serenata per un Satellite. Why did you decide to transpose this so evocative and not so popular piece for guitar?

In the last two years of my life it happened something so the need to improvise ‘rose’ by itself and had as a risult the encounter with the fantastic jazz singer Marilena Paradisi: that’s where my relationship with improvisation (not jazz improvvisation, I want to mention it) started. And immediately I wanted to try it alone, in solo: that execution goes back to a concert in Milan, at the Scuola Civica in April 2007. Why the decision to play it? The answer is always the same: I like to play pieces that give me the opportunity to reinvent my being as a musician and lead me to broaden my horizons.
This piece, written in 1969 on a large sheet with several pentagrams placed in non-horizontal position and not in order, is a game of combinations that leaves to the interpreter free possibilities making it one of the most famous aleatoric music. What choices did you decide to be able to play this piece? Did you consider the musical path chosen by Claudio Ambrosiani in his transcript of 1985? I think the idea of playing combinations, and therefore chances, is a little far from the idea of Maderna: I think he was not interested about the mathematical game or the chance, but the the evocative power of the score, from a part, and the ability of interpreter on the other: in fact in the score there are many signs that have no musical meaning, scribbles, stains …. To me in the score, he tells us about all possible worlds: it is the interpreter who populated them with the characters, ghosts, evocations, colors …. I heard the Ambrosini’s version which I like very much, as well as several others. The choice I made was to disassemble, alter, destructured the proposal phrases, working them in many different ways: so I turned the score in a sort of “toy room” to be played freely in front of the public building the piece at the moment. I think it is the only way to resolve the aporia written as a footnote to the score “Improvvisando, insomma ma! Con le note scritte”.

Still in your website you have made available the mp3 of Electric Counterpoint by Steve Reich, a piece written for electric guitar in 1984 for electric guitars and performed by Pat Metheny and that has become one of the pieces of reference in contemporary repertoire. I know it is definitely a difficult and complicated piece, based on a overlapping counterpoint between nine electric guitars and basses. It seems to me that your interpretation made with an acoustic guitar features a leaner and less reverberant sound than the original and the David Tanenbaum versions, do you wants to tell us about your experience with this piece? Do you play it live?

The performance on my web site is live, on Myspace it was played during the same concert in Milan and with a classical guitar concert. My impression about that piece is about an hypnotic and shapeless magma where the soloist comes in and out continuously, I find it a beautiful piece that is not affected by a common defect in minimalist repertoire, the falling in the same inexorable mechanism that soaks the same artistic idea that generated it.

I have to confess that I approached your music after seeing your Ko-tha by Giacinto Scelsi video on youtube, piece you recorded in your beautiful album “Blu”, Scelsi was a famous composer for his sense of transcendence and spirituality that emerges from his works, how have you decided to record this piece where the guitar is transformed into a percussion instrument? Is it possibile to find parallels with the traditional music for Japanese koto?

I can not talk about this repertoire, because I do not know, but let me quote the opinion that my colleague and dear friend Giuseppe Pepicelli said at the end of that performance: “beautiful, at one point I felt a change in the state of consciousness” . Here, I believe that Scelsi pursues this kind of situation, in all his music. He considered himself like a bridge between the East and West and spent hours to improvise. His ‘poetic of a single sound’, as he defined it, is the most powerful it can be conceived in musical terms: the sound seen a prism continually changing, with 1000 faces and an enormous development potential. Scelsi always said that his music had to be improvised: an apparent contradiction, similar to Maderna, but I think that what he asked for us was to keep alive the characteristic of birth, emergence, that all executive and composition acts always bring with them. The other thing that he asked us is to face the execution as an act of mystical prayer, this is not for me, since I do not feel any need for transcendence in my life, what he called transcendent and what it’s become for me is to make, through this incredible music, a journey inside myself, to transform that power into every acts, this is, in my opinion, the true meaning of transcendence.

A final observation about the fact that someone said (only in Italy, however) that Scelsi was not the author of his music, I am referring to the many who, over the years have stated that the music of Scelsi had been written by them … this misunderstanding stems from the substantial distance from the traditional way of conceiving the writing of music that Scelsi had: he improvised on a small keyboard, recording, and then had a number of employees (many of whom I met in person) who transcribed his improvisations, and he watched in a maniacal way this work of transcription. So we have this legend that others have written his music, but then I have the following question: if the music Scelsi is actually from other composers, where is their music? And why a composer should decide to work for another composer, allowing him to take his music and through this, allowing him to become a celebrity since the 80s? The SIAE exists for this!

Starting from your discography we can imagine your availability for musical collaborations and special projects, I was particularly struck by your collaborations with a jazz singers like Ada Montellanico, for the beautiful album “Zorongo” Homage to Garcia Lorca, and Marilena Paradisi, with whom you have started the project “Intuendo”. How these collaborations were born? What you feel to play alongside with jazz singers? Do you think to produce a cd with Marilena Paradisi?

The two projects are very different; Zorongo was born from the need to rewrite the popular songs of Garcia-Lorca that in the guitar transcription circulate almost always in easier editions that reduce the accompaniment for guitar to simple chords, while the harmonization of the Spanish poet is much more interesting; I choose to work with of Ada Montellanico, because I liked the idea of using a not classical voice, not weighed down from opera’s studies and had a new, fresh color for this kind of repertoire: I believe that the intention has been made in a nice way.

The project with Marilena, Intuendo, is entirely different, because it is based on improvisation, not jazz or necessarily atonal improvvisation: initially what we did was to dig inside our musical imagination, with its colors, styles, genres, to process it, evoke it, ch’ange it and, basically, go beyond it: so it happened to play a thing that remembered a blues or samba, or a piece of Petrassi, but in truth it wasn’t this or that, but it was only a reminder of those colors. Now our project has changed a lot: there’s no more the idea of the model but pure and simple creation of new worlds od sound that simply start by listening to what is happening here and now. In May 2008 at La Sapienza University of Rome, we made a very interesting experiment: improvise on paintings by contemporary artists that we had never seen before … a real plunge into ourselves and into the music … without a security net! Yes, there is the idea of recording a cd, and I think it will be done by December.

Always talking about your collaborations since 2000 you play in duo with Eugenio Becherucci. There is a video on you tube playing together: do you want to tell us about this collaboration and describe what you played in this video?

In the video we play a music composed by Eugenio based on a text by Jacopone da Todi in which we use the voice, percussive sounds on the guitar, and there is a kind of dialogue between two identities, two thoughts: on one side there is the desire of life and on the other one, the fear of death constantly evoked by one of two characters and so close to the Catholic Christian vision of the world: we are nothing because we are mortal and all our life is nothing if compared to the size of the universe. By the way, is a respectable point of view but I do not agree at all. From the musical point of view, however, the song is very interesting because, as often happens in Becherucci’s music, there is an intelligent and economical use of musical materials that carry within them modalism, popular culture, a certain randomness, always with a sense of synthesis that I find admirable in his music.

About the duo, Suoni Inauditi, was born from a fascination endured by both for the piece Salut für Caudwell by Helmut Lachenmann, one of the greatest living German composers. It ‘an incredible, a monumental piece (among other things it takes about 30′ …), and the two guitarists are called to a real tour de force exploration on guitar, which is used almost for 90% in unusual places (the sounds come, for example almost always in the zone between 19 ° fret and the bridge, with a bottle neck), with a complex research on harmonics. The 5’-6 ‘ section is very spectacular, the two musicians rhythmically declaim a text in English (taken from one written by C. Caudwell, English and Marxist poet), with effects of syllabic fragmentation of the words and destruction verbal. Around this initial work, the duo has worked inside the contemporary repertoire for 2 guitars, in the last 2 years, however, we also played more traditional programs, my transcription of the Italian Concerto by J. S. Bach, the Sonatina Canonica by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and others.

You have played and recorded discs with two trios, the Trio Concentus which you recorded the CD dedicated to the music of Ravel and Mussorgsky and the Trio Chitarristico di Roma with whom you recorded the CD “Recital” and “Rara”, why the choice of the trio, a little unusual for the classical guitar and will you play together again?

The years of the two trios are long gone … they have been two different experience: the Trio Chitarristico di Roma always worked around an idea of research, a specific project, an artistic idea that later became record, concert; the Trio Concentus has always worked around the idea of overcoming the concept of the trio of guitars: the work done on the overtures of Rossini, or Mussorgsky and Ravel had always the basic idea to exceed the limits of this ensemble: not by chance we used 4 guitars and not three, and I continually passed from one normal guitar to another one tuned a fifth under, then there was I may say an obsessive job on colors, , on the recreation of orchestral musical masses. So it was a continue work on orchestration and concertation. Then, for various vicissitudes Trio Concentus (which came after Guitar Trio di Roma) has ceased its activities.

I know that you have made some recordings for a new radio Rai programm, what is this? Would you talk about classical guitar? When will it start?

Actually I have several times taken part in radio broadcasts: I would like to quote the one about Turina, which I did at Vatican Radio on the occasion of the centenary of his birth, the one about Castelnuovo-Tedesco, on the occasion for my CD on musics by the Florence’s composer, and then of course the cycle of eight programs, always on Vatican radio, entitled La Chitarra, strumento dell’Umano Sentire. It was a very beautiful experience, where I among others interviewed Oscar Ghiglia, Rolf Lieslevand, talked about the guitar, presented several in world premiere, …. Regarding the last thing, it was a my proposal to RAI for a series of broadcasts having as a center the fable of Love and Psyche, in which the guitar is represented by Psyche, always in relation with the unknown, I mean every time with a different instrument; in fact, the pilot episode, as it is called, is focused on a song, written for the occasion, by Matteo D’Amico for Flute and Guitar, which I played with Manuel Zurria. Now we would see what RAI decide: maybe this idea will work or not, I’m waiting, anyway I enjoy the satisfaction of this new radio experience.

What does improvisation mean for your music research? Do you think it’s possibile to talk about improvisation for classical music or we have to turn to other repertories like jazz, contemporary music, etc.? Or maybe as part of contemporary music is preferable to talk about random improvisation?

I start from the last question: when we talk about artistic improvisation that merges from listening to himself and what happens aroun, we can never speak about randomness: the real hazard is linked to chance, a dice rolled on the table, a car passing in the street, a leaf falling from a tree in a particular time and not in another … I was thinking about Spiral by K. Stockhausen in which the interpreter speaks, improvising, with one short wave radio that transmits random and unexpected sounds, and this is the random thing, but then there is the human reaction thta respond with listening to what happens, and here then chance stops and the “music instinct” , let’s call it this way, starts so to a certain sound we will react with a certain musical gesture. It must be said that, obviously, if the receiver gets the same sound again, the human reaction would be different from time to time …

Improvisation for me has a big meaning, it’s game, exploration, sound, hands … all elements that working on a continuous feedback create new unique worlds of sounds. I shall say that it’s a response to human distress against the fear of death, the finiteness of the things that we often try to appease with works that’ will remain for ever ‘: the refusal to stop an artistic act so you can then repeat any time you want, its’ the extreme assertion of a creativity that has no fear of ending up as soon as it arises. On the other hand, the improvisational aspect, although crystallized, is always present in scores, it’s recovered during the excution: how is possible to think about the Adagio of Aranjuez without feeling it like an improvisation?

Outside classical and classical guitar music, do you listen other music genres?

Almost exclusively jazz: Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Coltrane, but I also listen with pleasure to Area, Weather Reaport, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Paolo Conte and finally, Guccini, De Andrè. I listen to few discs of classical guitar …

What do you think about the discographic market crisis, with the transition to digital downloading in mp3 and all this new scenario?

I believe that the mp3 thing is one of the many changes that our society presents: the other day there was the long playing record, then there was the cd and now mp3 and tomorrow we do not know: it’s neccessary for the world of professional music, to catch the news, understand where we are going and be ready to go there, changing habits and attitudes.

Please tell us five essential records, to have always with you .. the classic five discs for the desert island …

1. The Passione Secondo Matteo by J. S. Bach played by Klemperer, and I know that it’s very romantic and not philological at all, but I like the sense of grandeur at times a little dark that it can give
2. The disc of Boulez playing orchestral masterpieces by Debussy, Ravel and Bartok
3. Performances of Chopin made by Pollini
4. The fourth symphony of Brahms conducted by Kleiber
5. The quattro pezzi per orchestra ciascuno su una nota sola and i Canti del Capricorno per voce sola by G. Scelsi

What are your five favorite scores?

1. Chaconne by Bach (both the original score and the one made by Busoni)
2. The bagatelle by Walton
3. The Nocturnal by Britten
4. The Serenade for a satellite by Maderna
5. A book of blank pentagrams to write my musical ideas and to record the most successful improvisations …

The Blog has recently opened a new section dedicated to young graduates, what kind of advice would you like to give to those who, after years of study, decided to start a career as a musician?

• Studying a lot, not just the guitar • Listen to a lot of music, not only for guitar • Attending many instrumentalists non-guitarists
• Never go to a competition thinking that taking parti s the important thing: no, the important thing is to win, and if you don’t win it’s important to understand what we could do better and be able to recognize if there was someone more talented then us
• Learning from the start not to consider gold what the teacher says: even the best of all can say things don’t correspond to us and that are however the expression of his vision, his history, his way of thinking and never an absolute truth
• Learning to conceive music as a possibility that you realize every day, adding a small new discovery every time you play it.

With who would you like to play?

Not in order of preference …: Rolf Lieslevand, Paolo Conte, Edin Karamazov, Placido Domingo, Wayne Shorter, and then with all those artists that when they play thay make you feel a presence, an identity, that make you realize that all their life is there, it’s happening in that moment.

Your next projects?

A discographic project about the Chaconne by Bach and improvisation with pieces of Maderna, Pisati, Brouwer. I am convinced that the Chaccone has a strong link with improvisation and may therefore be a valid connection within a range of improvisational proposals.This project has also involved the composer Maurizio Pisati, whom I respect very much for his sense of musical gesture and great constructive intelligence: his music is the music at all times, no gesture is never abstract. We are working on a project that will present the Bach’s Chaconne as a world reference … I think it will be something original and intriguing.
The development of Intuendo, which is growing a lot and I am sure that will explode due to the continuing research by Marilena Paradisi and me in the field of improvisation.
New pieces written for me: Guido Boselli has already written for me treperuno a piece that, at my request, uses not only the guitar but the guitar player, making it a resounding thing using many of the sound resources at its disposal, and then the piece of Pisati.
And other concerts in England, Spain, Norway, Italy …
The new edition of Fundamentals of Guitar, written with Fernando Lepri 20 years ago that it’s going to be republished again by Rugginenti.
We are changing several things, adding some experience of not traditional music (I mean, contemporary music), and, of course, and making a new modern graphics than the one of 20 years ago, that was written without a computer but with a heroic typewriter with a rotating head, it sounds a little tender today…
Continue the work just started in the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, creating a class in which music, an awareness of musical gesture and listening are the key to work.
Nowadays…. going smoking a narghile on my hammock!