Interview with Chiara Asquini by Andrea Aguzzi (October 2009)

The first question is always the classic one: how does it start your love and interest for guitar and what instruments do you play or have you played?

Thanks to my mother! When I was 7 years she asked me repeatedly if I wanted to play guitar or piano. My mother has never studied music, but has a fine artistic sensibility. I chose the guitar… it fascinated me a lot and so I began at eight years old. I remember then with an infinite tenderness, a concert that Elena Papandreou played in Gorizia, it was the 17th January 1997 I was eleven years old and that evening I told my mother, sitting next to me “I want to be a great concertist”. I was enchanted: Elena was wonderful and so her music and poetry … so intense to hurt me. There was the fate between us: I was the child that brought her flowers on stage …
I still play the guitar that luthier Luciano Lovadina built for me in 1999: Italian spruce, pitch 65, bands in Brazilian rosewood. 10 years of marriage, but is an amazing instrument, rich in color, with a “personality”, an elegance and at the same time an intrinsic strength that I have rarely seen in other guitars.
I should have soon another instrument that I expect incredible, of course, without abandoning my Lovadina: a guitar made by luthier Livio Lorenzatti. Table in spruce, pitch 65, bands in rosewood. I had the opportunity recently to test his instruments: he is a young luthier, but who builds small jewelry managing to combine power and direction to a sound “that has a history” and that is never empty.
I remain ever mindful for new guitars… I visit exhibitions, if I may I try other guitars. A relationship with an instrument for me is a very special thing: when I have a guitar between my legs, I embrace and I play it I have to feel myself “at home”… which is not only a good mix of factors like timbre, aesthetic, but a technical… physical sensation that I can not ignore. There is no perfect guitar, but there is a perfect guitar for me.

What was your musical training, with which teachers have you studied and what impression they left in your music?

I had the luck to study with many teachers, to attend several master classes, so I have a very well mixed training, but those Masters from whom I learned more and who have left their imprint in my way of playing and in my way to live music and life are essentially three. I graduated in the Conservatory of Trieste with Master Pierluigi Corona in 2005, in whose class I have also achieved a degree of second level a couple of weeks ago. In parallel with the Conservatory, I studied with Lena Kokkaliari and Oscar Ghiglia, at Accademia Chigiana in Siena and other masterclass. Thanks a million goes then to Roland Dyens, who was the first teacher to believe in myself and in my ability when I was still only a child and to Eduardo Fernandez, with whom I have not studied long as with other teachers, but … but Fernandez is essentially a person, before a Master, who even talking to me after competitions or other occasions deeply influenced me … always giving basic advices.
I can say that I learned from Pierluigi Corona “how to play the guitar”… I have learned much of what I know, from first note to the most challenging tracks. He gave me enthusiasm, energy. Corona is a person and a musician deeply sunny, generous with the music and the audience during the concerts. He showed, with his example, what does “professionalism” means starting from the scratch… arrive (on time) and always be well prepared for tests, study, learn, read a lot. These are great lessons.
Lena Kokkaliari is the “goddess of Socratic maieutic” and of problem solving, I may add! She teached me to not ever (ever!) turn my head on the other side but facing a problem, but especially to crawl, grinding, understand and solve it … whether it is a purely technical problem, or of course a musical “problem”. She teached me always to find my way into the music I play and then listen to what great musicians have done before me … you may discover surprising things sometimes! She is a person who has always believed in me and that gave me and gives me great strength, always. Ah yes, I almost forgot…. Lena taught me to smile always… if you do a competition and get the second place (or fourth… or do not arrive at all) you continue to smile, even in the case of blatant injustice. Smile as if you had got the first prize, with this smile, which is never a forced or by circumstance smile, but a smile that should start from your heart, she gave me a great teaching… be happy with myself, in peace with my music, aware of what is good and what is still not right. Often when you are young, if a competition goes wrong, the world collapses. We should always remember that “if you win you don’t play better than before and if you “loose” you don’t play worse than before”. It ‘s a lesson of life, before music!
With this “baggage” then I reached Oscar Ghiglia, a Master who has given me so much. Oscar taught me many things, but maybe two basic teachings: “the limits are only in our minds” and always look for the connection that exists between the notes, the thin thread that binds them, even at great distance. Oscar taught me the love for detail (not that others have not done it!), to enter deeply into the score, understand the secrets … he taught me also that these secrets can be view in different ways, obtaining for the same song several plausible interpretations and essentially all valid.

How did stat your interest about the contemporary repertoire, and what are the stylistic currents in which you recognize yourself most?

I am curious by nature, but the input came from a course in semiotics of contemporary music that has “triggered” in me much more than a mere curiosity. However I liked contemporary music before, I was attracted by it and perhaps I was attracted by the fact that it was a totally new world to discover. It was my personal “crazy flight”… a world of opportunity, to put color on a canvas, an universe of pure energy, of images (sometimes sunny, others time anguish, always fascinating). Understand some things, learn a way of approach to the score, know certain figures, graphic notation and also learn a brief history about what was the evolution of contemporary music has certainly permitted me to appreciate all the details that I struggle to understand a moment before. They attracted me, but I don’t fully understand them. It has been important listening to certain music, with the score in my hands, after having learned a few things: I remember very well the first time I heard Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima… there was so much suffering, anguish, devastation in those notes, that was so incredible what it was written, and so devastating the impact of sound that I thought that I had absolutely studying this repertoire, that I had to understand it. It was so easy to be so devastated by this music… how many extraordinary, exciting, intellectually fascinating music I was loosing?
To answer the second part of the question: I don’t think that there are stylistic patterns that I recognize more. There are composers that I like more than others and about these composers there are some musics that I feel more “mine” then others, but this also happens for the rest of my guitar repertoire. I love madly M.M. Ponce (and not all his music, anyway), but not the Segovia’s repertoire in general. I adore J.S. Bach, but not the baroque music in general. I love Fausto Romitelli, but not all the spectral music… the minimalist current generally is similar to me… it is complicated! In the end, beyond the personal preferences, which vary greatly not only from person to person, but also constantly changing in me and I’m constantly changing, the thing that I find important is to remain “open”, to not have prejudice towards a composer or a repertoire. Never prevent ourselves to discover new colors, never seen before…
Berio in his essay “A remembrance to the future,” wrote: “.. A pianist who is a specialist about classical and romantic repertoire, and plays Beethoven and Chopin without knowing the music of the twentieth century, it is also off as a pianist who is specialist about contemporary music and plays with hands and mind that have never been crossed in depth by Beethoven and Chopin. ” You play both traditional classical and contemporary repertoire … do you recognize yourlsef in these words?
Very much! I think there is something very true in what Berio wrote. Personally I avoid everything that is “closed mind”, a rejection at priori of a particular historical period and related works… I find it greatly limiting to refer only to one part of the repertoire without knowing, possibly deeply, the other parts. It’s normal that perhaps a musician chooses the repertoire that most belong to him, that physically and intellectually passionate him, but a guitarist who plays Takemitsu, without any knowledge of Giuliani, Sor, Regondi… playing Britten, Kurtag, Scelsi, Berio without ever having studied a suite of Bach (and vice versa, of course)… is that a musician? How much dry, without direction or retrospective is his music? I love Bach and Giuliani and I love very much Scelsi and Martin! And I don’t find any contradictions in this, indeed…
I think is regrettable then when the choice of specialization in a particular repertoire is made in order to hide personal shortcomings and deficiencies in all the rest!
I often listen to guitarists, rarely musicians, who defend the contemporary repertoire (which, moreover, defends himself as its best without any help…) rising themselves over an alleged “mass”… but if you asked them to play what they themselves call as “a simple and trivial fourth-fifth-first” they are no longer able to articulate their fingers. Yet without Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann… we would never had Ligeti, Scelsi, Kurtag, Feldman… etc… how can you ignore it?!
A few years ago talking about the art of rubato I heard saying “find at least five different ways to steal each step where you want to do it… then you can say you made a choice”. Those words said at that time illumineted the sky and I changed them in “only when you find different ways to do the same thing you can say you made a choice”… if you play without this step, what is real and musically depth in what you do? Translated: If you do not know (at least in part, and as much as possible) the composers, unless you know the repertoire of your instrument, which choice is it?
It’s a no-choice… as a rule, the refuge in what there is no “fear”, and where is easier. A significant intellectual laziness, don’t you think?

Let’s talk about marketing. How much do you think it’s important for a modern musician? I mean: how much is crucial to be good promoters of themselves and their works in music today?

Allow me to quote Elena Càsoli (which in turn quotes the great Maestro Ruggero Chiesa), during a masterclass in Venice said: “guitarists should not remain isolated”. It’s something that goes beyond the simple idea of marketing in his strict sense: now there are YouTube, Myspace, Facebook… etc…. these are very powerful instruments of communication, that I believe are essential to know how to use. It’s important that the musicians are not isolated, that they realize that there are other people who study, seek, work and often project ambitious things… wonderful things! And the desire to do more growns up! There are collaborations with composers, who were born thanks to the fact that people had heard some of my tracks and had come to know my specific interests. Without this now there will not be new musics, I would have done less concerts, I would have had less chance of expression.
As regards the marketing in the strict sense, maybe it is not “crucial” to be good promoters of ourselves on line… but it is fundamental to the spirit with which we deal with adventures of life… not the “ability to sell ourselves” which is really an horrible expression, but the ability to be right in place… with a professionalism, with the will to do, to express and to live… that’s all! You can be the best musician in the world between the four walls of your room, but “if a tree falls in a deserted forest, with no one to feel the drop, the tree has never fallen?” …

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.?.?

“Improvvisation is not improvised” so, at the moment, improvisation has not space in my research, but I hope that begins to have one, and powerful, quickly. I think there is a lot of improvisation in the classical repertoire without having to leave the “classic”. There are musics who have an improvvisation in their DNA and other who are genuine written improvisations.
Just think to a milestone as Serenata per un satellite by Maderna, where lies the concept of “field”, area of opportunity. The music is written… but you must improvvise. There are significant parameters defined by the concertist or the director at the time. (at the bottom of the score, Maderna wrote “to improvise, but with the written notes”) When you think about the Passion selon Sade of Bussotti, a Volo solo by Cardew (for a” virtuous for any instrument “), a Transition II by Kagel or Graph Pieces by Feldman, works in which the capacity for improvisation of the interpreter is used and “prescribed in the score”… and these are “classic” works!… ok… contemporary-classical, but it is a distinction that I don’t do…

Listening to your music, I noticed the quiet serenity with which you approach your instrument regardless of repertoire, from whom you are playing, the composer, the instrument that you use always showing full control both technical and emotional, how much important is to work on technique to achieve this level of “security”?
You flatter me… working on technique is essential in the sense that the safety of your fingers gives freedom to your art, musical and artistic thought. It’s fundamental for me, in an absolute sense, to study slowly, very slowly… indeed a kind of musical tai-chi, to take awareness of each movement of my body and my fingers. That said, my personal “control” is technical, but not emotional. Having the security that my fingers will do what I want they do, it makes during a performance at a concert or a recording I can devote myself to try to be energy and… just energy. It’s a kind of freedom, a flight in the air that otherwise we can not afford but I prefer to be, receive and give energy while I play rather than be “perfect”, but cold. And then died.
Then there is to say that, thanks to this type of work, I always get very quiet, with no anxiety or tension at concerts: I’m simply concentrated. I am surprised every time too!

You have published on the blog the nice “Frank Martin – Ethik/Etica” dedicated to the importance of ethics for this composer, how do you think his personal vision of ethics is reflected in his music? Why this interest for Frank Martin?

 first answer to the second part of your question. The interest about Frank Martin was born in 2003-2004, when I chose the “contemporary” piece to be submitted to my diploma and the choice fell on Quatre Pieces Breves. His compositions are always filled with so incredible energy that I don’t think we can stay out. It’s something that strikes you inside, something exciting, powerful and cathartic. I remember that Yehudi Menuhin, the violinist who I personally favor, said that when he played Polyptyque felt the same responsibility and the same exaltation as when he played the Bach’s Chaconne. You see, the Quatre Pieces breves require the same absolute dedication that we give to a suite of Bach and, at least to me, they give the same exaltation, the same sense of “purification”. From here, then started the search, reading his biography (in German), listening to his other works. I am always happy when I go to hear a concert and there is someone who performs a composition of Frank Martin.
To answer your first question, I would like to offer a “path” through a universally known picture: The Scream by Munch. Each of us has in mind that picture, everyone has his personal feelings in front of his view and everyone may like it or not … but I think we can universally say that is a picture that expresses despair, loneliness, anxiety, black chasms. Personally I find it devastating, yet it is my favorite picture and I challenge anyone to say that it is not a work of art. Now let’s stay for a moment with this picture in mind and with the feeling that it evokes while we remember what Martin wrote about ethics: “…Even when there is something bad art should be for itself so beautiful that ugliness is completely changed. The beauty is therefore in itself a force that frees our spirit…”
Notice anything? Yes! This is a picture that certainly speaks of something “bad”: being invisible in society, the profound loneliness of the soul, the cry of anguish and despair. But art, as Munch has “expressed” all of this, is so beautiful that even this state of “ugliness” is changed. The beauty of this picture takes us inside of it, makes us see the depths of despair, but at the same time permit us to exit… changed. Free.
Now, before you ask me “what’s the matter?”, we return to Martin for a moment… narrows the field to only Quatre Pieces breves that we all know… I find the whole work is a continuous succession of moments of anxiety, sometimes thin and almost elusive, sometimes illusory, others decidedly oppressive alternate to moments of purification, liberation and peace… in particular I remember that I always thought that the third movement could be the musical representation of the Shout of Munch… it is tense, loud, pathologically distressing, an expressionist cry of loneliness (or at least, I see it this way), while the fourth, Comme une Gigue, recalls a ghost waltz, the hammering of the boots of the soldiers going to war, the searches of the SS… and finally the liberation. The Ethics of Martin seems so obvious to me here. A small journey in the Underworld and back. A journey of a beauty so extraordinary that the “ugliness” intrinsic is completely sublimated and we can see that our spirit is freed of the burdens… “e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle”.
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?

Presented this way, it seems a small sect of followers devoted to strange music practice! Instead I think we are just musicians that are primarily interested about contemporary music (with all that implies), as there are musicians who are involved in Baroque music, or practice on original instruments, or Renaissance music… maybe sometimes only makes more “effect” to say “that this one had played in a concert Kurtag and Scelsi” rather than reporting on a concert of romantic guitar. But if you think about the first concerts on the vintage guitar made a particular effect… is only a matter of time.
You know… thinking about that over the years there are more and more musicians who are close to the contemporary repertoire, the difference compared to some times ago it seems to me more than anything else the attention we give to this. Now there are more articles, more contacts… more initiatives (open to all), more concerts, most composers who take “courage” and throw themselves in the composition for guitar… there are blogs that deal only about contemporary music, there are more courses of this kind and this is good. There was a “scene” also before, it was only less visible, less “glossy” in a certain way.
Other names? I think about Emanuele Forni. He is simply great!

You have your own video channel on youtube with different videos with you playing in different situations, sometimes in music-theatre any way quiet different from the usual classic video of the classic guitarist. Why these choices and do you think that just like it’s happening in other musical genres, classical music shall find innovative use for video-multimedia, as well as with the trilogy “quatsi” by Godfrey Reggio for the music of Philip Glass?

I answer you with a question: “why not?” The recordings appeared on YT (and affecting Synthesis, the duo founded with the pianist Paolo Troian) don’t have anything innovative, if not the fact that they concern a type of ensemble that you rarely hear. The Qatsi Trilogy was on the other hand absolutely innovative and revolutionary. And my answer is still “why not?”… I do not find absolutely nothing wrong with the fact that the classical / classical-contemporary music is used in a new, innovative, and why not revolutionary way in multimedia. It’s no longer a taboo and I’m happy that there are many people involved in this, composers who are confronted from the beginning with this… why not?

I know that you have passed the examination for admission to the Kunste der Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Bern why the choice to attend this school and what do you expected from it?

I expect to collaborate with musicians of experience and talent, to have contact with these people and to create partnerships, projects… a future… I expect to run from morning to evening and perhaps even during the night because 24 hours are never enough, but it is something that I find absolutely inspiring! I expect also to find a musical environment (and I stress, music is not purely guitar) where not only I “can” express myself at my best, but where they “ask” to me my best. To answer to the first part of your question… I was taught that if I need to fish, it’s better going fishing in the great sea. From the moment I wanted to study and learn contemporary music, the choice fell immediately on a teacher (Elena Càsoli) incredibly involved about this for a long time and a school (the HKB) that gives me real opportunity to have international contacts, a school where playing certain music in the repertoire is not considered “sacrilege”, a school that offers certain opportunities for its students (obviously committed to maximum). I can only say that I was there in May 11 and I felt like Alice in Wonderland… I can not wait to return!

I have, sometimes, the feeling that in our times music’s history flows without a particular interest in its chronological course, in our discoteque before and after, past and future become interchangeable elements, shall this be a risk of a uniform vision for an interpreter and a composer? The rick of a musical “globalization”?
It doesn’t seem negative to me the fact itself that past and future become interchangeable items, but… often this lack of precisely boundaries and listening without watertight compartments permit the birth of new great ideas and beautiful and unusual combinations. Sometimes we realize common elements, the red threads that run between an era and another, between one music and another… and these are wonderful discoveries.
It scares me a little the uniform vision you have prophesied. Do not have a sense of the chronological course, the development of a writing, not knowing what comes before and after thing, in a uncritical way… “ignorant” way, in the sense that it’s just.not understood… yes this is negative, in the sense that ignorance is negative in general. In particular, this type of “globalization” doesn’t permit to see the links mentioned earlier, to create links, because you don’t even known the difference. One thing is to know and choose to listen without brakes, without limits, without prejudice… another, and it’s very different, is not know and believe that everything is equal.

Luciano Berio writes “the preservation of the past has a negative sense, as it becomes a way of forgetting music. The listener will get an illusion of continuity that allows you to select what seems to confirm that same continuity and censor everything that seems disturbino”, What role can take music and contemporary composers in this context?
The sense of “noise” often stems from ignorance and the fact that we are often less willing to “make an effort”… we want everything immediately and easily. I do not know exactly what role might be the composers in this sense, but I think that the interpreters, who are the bridge between the composer and the public, may have a key role.
Let me explain. I have heard concerts of contemporary music that had a deadly boring even for me and this boredom was completely independent from the program that was executed, but I can feel it… a person who goes to hear a concert of its kind and has not the means to consider where the work comes and where the artist puts your hands (and heart, I hope) is immediately raised to think that that type of music is bad, to take refuge in things best known, perhaps the easiest to listen and immediate to receive.
Similarly, I heard concerts of contemporary music that, while presenting works “objectively” not so easy listing, they were absolutely captivating, energetic, cathartic… concerts were something that gave an energy, create a contact with the public. Yet there was no merit for the works (I remember, in particular, two concerts with the effects on my perception diametrically opposed and where had been played almost the same works)… the interpreter, who has always played an important role, perhaps assumes in contemporary music a decisive role. It’s important that he knows how to get inside the music, that can find a meaning and leave its mark, that can convey all this to the public, whether formed by professionals or not.
Let’s dispel the myth that contemporary music is made just for people who “know”…
I am aware that my words are strong, but… This is an outrageous lie! A way to hide failings, weaknesses, lack of personality or incapacity to transmit energy. TOO CONVENIENT! It’s too easy… and is a shame if they not only think this, but preach this as the Word!
If with this kind of repertoire you are not able to transmit something… maybe it’s the case that you change repertoire! At least by the time we’ll get the effect that people, the “people” will not associate the term “contemporary music” to the synonym “boring”.
Every song, every repertoire needs his interpreter. The right interpreter at the right time (and with the right music) I shall say. Maybe the contemporary music needs this more than others. (the same thing is true, often, for the baroque music for example …)
What do you think about the discographic market crisis, with the transition to digital downloading in mp3 and all this new scenario?

I do not think it is a bad thing, indeed. Of course with the move to mp3, with the easiness with which you can find almost any song, I see often a sort of “superficial” listening… almost as if the fact that it is readily available and that the cost of production is so low justify a superficial and uncritical listen of the work. I hear “ah yes, I have that song… recording by XY and HG recording and registering by WE”… I ask to that person if he has noticed the differences between different interpretations or if he focused on the value of individual performances, it seems to ask too much. Yet it should not be. Like internet and many other things, we should know how to use them with “intelligence” and do not relate (even unconsciously) the economic value of a Cd to the value of the interpretation. Ergo, if used intelligently and not solely consumeristic, voracious, almost eaten like a plate of macaroni… the digital era… is something absolutely wonderful and that can open a world of boundless possibilities. Basically, you just have to know how to listen to…

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

Five are really very few to choose from, but roughly…
1. Favorite Rachmaninov, Vladimir Ashkenazy…
2. I can’t absolutely miss the St Matthew Passion by Bach… I have always with me the version conducted by Karajan, maybe not so philological, but incredibly intense.
3. Queen, Greatist Hits 1 and 2: the voice of Freddy Mercury is wonderful and their songs have an energy powerful, always a tension that remains underground even when you feel deeply.
4. Studies and Preludes by Chopin played by Pollini
5. a CD with the Kronos Quartet who plays Black Angels by G. Crumb and K. Penderecki who direct Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima

What are your five favorite scores?

Music really necessary for me doesn’t need any score, because I keep it in the heart…
rather the five indispensable books! I am a great reader and “voracious”… even if choose only five for me is really difficult…
1. Illusions by R. Bach: illuminating to read… …the incredible power of our mind. I have always remembered a phrase that Oscar Ghiglia said to me one day a lesson “the limits are only in our minds”. It ‘very true.
2. Zen and the art of archery by E. Herrigel: “…the right spiritual attitude of the artist when the preparations and work, the craft and art, the material and the spiritual, the subjective and the object pierced the seamless into one another” …I think it is a book illuminating for a musician, an artist…
3. Canone Inverso by P. Maurensig …a devastating force…
4. Atonement by I. McEwan …shows the psychology of the human soul with a very clear writing…
5. The Poems of Nazim Hikmet and Salvatore Quasimodo

Whith who would you like to play? What kind of music do you listen to usually?

We can resurrect J. S. Bach?! (and Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninov?) I have wanted to work with Fausto Romitelli, which was an absolute genius… and now it’s impossible… but in the drawer of my dreams there are so many, I would be directed by Pierre Boulez, I would love to play with David Harrington and the Kronos Quartet and I want to play works by Solbiati, Pisati, Reich, Scelsi, Kurtag… Kagel died last year and it was a dream working with him… and yet, Lachenmann and Crumb… there are really many!
Music I listen to? Good question! I usually listen to… music! Generally, classical (from the Renaissance-baroque to contemporary), often Queen, Muse… sometimes… most Indian music rarely jazz and blues …

Your next projects?

At the moment I have just given the final test of the interpretive Biennio at the Conservatory of Trieste and I am satisfied, but I never stops and I have already started to study new scores: the five Impromptus by Bennett and Fantasia Elegiaca by Sor… continuing with the Variazioni sulla Follia by Ponce that I just played on my thesis and it’s a track that is never “exhausted”, absolutely never. And then I’m looking for home in Bern and that is a full-time job!

Any good advices to give?

No recommendations no… I’m not in a position to give and I do not like it, but I have a prayer for the young generation, young musicians of my age or younger: “you have always the strength and tenacity to continue to believe and fight for your dreams”.

Thank you very much!