Interview with Elena Càsoli (September 2009)


How did the love of Elena Càsoli for the guitar start?

Perhaps as happened to many others, it was the chance that permit me to meet with the guitar, through my elementary school teacher. It was a lucky occasion, and maybe not so common in the 60’s as it could be today, thanks to her I started playing when I was seven years. Less random was the encounter with the music, thanks to the cultural passions of my father. In our house there were many old vinyl records that we listened to the evening, many books, and when I was old enough to attend a concert hall or theatre, I found myself to go in those places in many of our evenings. So the guitar and music soon became a natural and constant presence in my life.

“I play an instrument which today is enjoying one of the happiest periods in its long history. Its structure and sound have evolved and kept pace with changes in attitudes to music, culmination in a range of forms and expressions in the twentieth century unheard of since the renaissance and the baroque eras.” I admit that I was very touched by this declaration of intents: I often read about guitarists complaining about the “poverty” of the guitar repertoire, in comparison with the reportoire of other instruments like the violin and the piano. It seems to me that you reverse this issue …. emphasizing the “contemporary” of the guitar …

I don’t think that my vision is overly optimistic, but a real one, confirmed by the huge amount of beautiful music for guitar written and published. Without any criticism, I shall say that I am truly amazed when I read or hear of guitarists who complain about a lack of repertoire. In my study I have accumulated scores of new pieces and not, that I happily receive by composers and publishers, but unfortunately I don’t have enough time to play and prepare for concerts, because I study every year a large number of other new pieces. It’s a mine of music for which I ask help to my students in Bern, so they shall read and play in their concerts.

In the booklet that accompanies Changes Chances, you make several references to “New Music”, especially referring to Terry Riley. The same Riley in some of his records speak about “New Music”, but I could not understand what really is, a new kind of music? A different attitude?

I think I could say that with this definition of New Music I join the international community of musicians, musicologists, critics and the public that recognizes it such as all the music that is written with an intention of research and artistic creation. The results could be more or less experimental, depending from the path of each composer, but the attitude is common. In particular, in this definition we recognize composers that have links and derivations with the poetic and cultural history of European classical music, of course this definition is imperfect and limited, considering the vastness and variety of music research at the international level. It’s a world of pure creation, fascinating and multifaceted, in which composers invent, develop, transform the field of music with an attitude of profound freedom and independence. Their thoughts will materialize on paper or in the tracks of a computer in total independence from any unbridled rule or influence, which does not arise from their inspiration.

One thing that always amazed me is your versatility with which you approach easely different types of guitars from classical to acoustic, from arciliuto to electric guitar with the aim to be as much as possible to the service at the composer … how can you manage this “park” of guitars? What are the difficulties encountered from one instrument to another?

Sometimes I also wonder how composers think that I can be so much flexible and they write me in the score to pass from arciliuto to the electric guitar in the space of a few seconds! You can imagine how much time is necessary, before this kind of concert, only to change the strings to three or four instruments. But that is, and in the years following the demands of composers and my curiosity, the classic guitar has joined two decades ago a Blade Electric Blue guitar with various effects, then it came a splendid acoustic Taylor one for a work of John Adams, the 1846th Panormo guitar, an elegant lady on which i play Takemitsu and Paganini, and the Arciliuto. Some years ago I studied the Chinese pipa for two works by Philip Glass at the Piccolo Teatro Regio in Turin with Sentieri Selvaggi and I recorded for a Stradivarius Y Despues by Bruno Maderna a 10 ropes classic guitar made by Carlo Raspagli. The differences are considerable, both technically and timbre. I try to “feel” the instrument under my fingers, to grasp as much as the possible its vibrant nature, its physicality, acoustic or electric that is, and then work on them until I feel in confidence, to find the “sound “.

I must confess that I’m very intrigued about your Panormo guitar that you have played in Chances for Changes for the tracks of Riley. I remember an interview with Uto Ughi where he spoke about his Stradivari considering himself like the last “guardian” of the instrument beyond the time and the simple concept of bare property, would you please tell us something about this guitar? His story, how it came into your hands …

Meeting such a guitar has been such a lucky experience. Lucio Antonio Carbone, a maker of great experience working in his laboratory in Milan, has found this Panormo during a trip to England. As always not all the Panormo guitars yet in circulation are the same and equal value, even for the damage of time. I have tried it before restoration, and I have heard that it had that sound and particular sustain. Despite of the years, it was a very lively instrument, with a warm voice, ready to vibrate just calling. During the restoration, with the replacement of chains and other operations, it has been reported to an ideal balance and it was in England, in Manchester and Liverpool, which this guitar came back again playing for the first time in public in my hands.

I was very impressed by the disc devoted to the music by Henze, the result of your collaboration with Jürgen Ruck, a collaboration that continues from 1990. Would you please tell us something about and maybe tell us any new musical development about?

Over the years I have had the great fortune of playing with many musicians of great value. I met Jürgen at Ferienkursen für Neue Musik in Darmstadt in 1988, I had met him before during the experience of the summer masterclass of Oscar Ghiglia, and there we discovered a common passion for New Music. So we starter with the idea to create a duo dedicated mainly to this repertoire, commissioning and running premiered works by composers with whom we were in contact. We then also found alongside playing contemporary works which included two guitars in their orchestral, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Deutsche Symphonie Orchester. We had great experiences with great conductors such as * Heinz Holliger, Kent Nagano and Claudio Abbado, who along with concerts in duo have helped to make our partnership deeper and lasting. Playing together is a great pleasure, even if some works we have commissioned have give us a tough test for the commitment and the difficulty, like the pieces of Klaus Ospald and Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf. One of the most significant periods of our work together was the realization of Memorias de El Cimarron and some arias from opera The English Cat that became Minette for two guitars, as an invitation and a collaboration between Hans Werner Henze. The result was a CD that has won in Berlin, the Echo Klassik Preis 2000, and numerous concerts in which these new works for two guitars were heard, and now are in the repertoire of other guitar duos. We already have dates for 2009 and even though the distance between Milan and Monaco does not facilitate the meetings, the commonality of purpose and direction always keep us in close contact.

Cage, Carter, Riley, Reich …. What would be the next composer who crosses your path on music? Maybe … Zappa?

As you know I love Frank Zappa’s music a lot and I played pieces from The Yellow Shark with the Ensemble Modern and the Divertimento Ensemble. I remember Zappa live in Frankfurt, during rehearsals with the Ensemble Modern while the various tracks of The Yellow Shark were taking shape, it was a great thrill to be there just to attend that event! After his death, I attended some evening dedicated to him, with works written for my electric guitar in his honour, like Early Reflection by Giorgio Magnanensi, an Italian composer active for many years on the music scene of Vancouver. I don’t know if there will be the possibility to do more about Zappa … but there are other interesting American composers, some of them seem to follow the direction he has drawn. Sidney Corbett, who lives in Germany, Scott Johnson, whom we have played the world premiere Americans, a very interesting work, where the electric guitar has a very important role, with Sentieri Selvaggi last year, Tim Brady, a Canadian composer , an excellent electric guitar player himself, which I would like to suggest listening Playing Guitar: Symphony No. 1. And then let me remind Eve Beglarian and David Lang, that my students and former students at the University of Bern have already played in their diplomas and that I hope soon to play in concert. I think I would like to play Guitar Phase by Steve Reich and continue my work about Cage. Like John Cage suggested in his writings, lI keep my mind in alert, or at least I try to do it!

It seems that there is around the world a small musical scene of classical guitarists dedicated to an innovative and contemporary repertoire, people like you and for example Marco Cappelli and David Tanenbaum, David Starobin, Marc Ribot who played The book of Head by John Zorn … shall we speak about a specific musical scene? Are there other guitarists you know and that you may suggest us that they “move on these musical routes”?

I think we can speak about a genuine community of guitarists of the international level that are interested in playing and encouraging a new repertoire for this instrument in its various forms. A repertoire that belongs to a great flow of music research, which we define as we say before “New Music”, which keeps in close contact the guitar with the rest of an active and important musical world. We work al lot, devoting countless hours to new scores for solo instrument or incorporated into ensembles, we keep in touch by email, we sends new cds between us to spread the knowledge of these pieces just written, there is very little competition and lots of understanding and cooperation. The names you mentioned are certainly part of this community and I think I can add, asking pardon for those who I may forget or whom I don’t know yet, Geoffrey Morris in Australia, Norio Sato in Japan, Jürgen Ruck and Seth Josel in Germany, Pablo Gomez in Mexico City, Pablo Marquez in France and Magnus Andersson in Sweden.

You have devoted your talent and your guitars to the contemporary repertoire and composers, what is your relationship with the classical tradition? Do you ever play any music of the nineteenth century or the Renaissance repertoire?
Certainly, I have studied this repertoire and it continues to be owned by myself deeply. I play it in concerts, I have recorded it, I follow the students who study it and I love it very much. I don’t think this is a contradiction, but I share my time and my energies between the classical and the contemporary repertoire, even if the last one because his characteristic of “work in progress” in collaboration with other musicians occupies an important part of my time. I think that it’s important to study a particular repertoire or composer, as much as it’s important for every musician to develop an elastic and flexible way of thinking, that shall permit him, to be able to move, I will not say through different styles – an ability that only few artists may have – but through different authors of the same style, enriching their own interpretative perspective and keeping the highest artistic quality.

You have found LArecords, an independent label dedicated to meetings and special productions between music and literature, would you like to tell us about this project and its achievements?

LArecords is a project founded with Maurizio Pisati, it’s been created to carry out special recording projects dedicated to the encounter between literature and music, projects that could not find space in the catalogues of other labels. LA is the A note, that in the Inno di San Giovanni by Guido D’Arezzo is remembered as “Labii reatum”, the lip’s fault. We have designed this fault as “the pleasure of telling.” In this way we recorded our first cd Taxi! with music by Maurizio Pisati and text by Roberto Sanesi, poet and translator of Milton, Blake and Shakespeare, whose voice has become part of music, a document that acquires special importance now that he is no longer among us. Shin-on is a meeting between a Japanese painter and four composers,two Japanese and two Italians. ” This music was born around his works made of tissue paper and rust, nursery rhymes that echo Japanese teapot sounds, between puffs of flutes and guitars. The Copiafavole was the challenge of transforming into music the sounds and rhythms of machines, photocopiers, telling nine stories very different, making a live performance at the Piccolo Teatro Regio in Turin in 2002. We have now ready the master for a cd dedicated to Villa-Lobos and Brasil, with a brasilian party with short stories, poems, lullaby, the music of Villa-Lobos, and finally even his own voice that tells us that “The heart is the metronome of life”!

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?

As I often say, it’s following the composers, their creations, that I find myself in those situations where several kind of arts meet. I like these situation very much, they make me very curious about, though I not deny the appeal for the “purity” of the classical concert. The real difficulty is to create a real and deep interaction between the different languages used and not just pull over on the same stage musicians and artists from various sources using different media. I believe that fusions among the media are a necessary condition so that in the show shall happen something special for the artists and for the public, but this requires time, effort and a strong inspiration.

In addition to your significant live activity, you are “Gitarre Professorin” at the Hochschule der Künste Bern, How can you mix these two activities? Sometimes I have the impression of a dichotomy between the two “careers”: a musician busy with his concert activity shall be a good teacher …

For me these are two different but interactive expressions of my being a musician. I think that my live activity is a stimulus and not a barrier to the guitarists who work with me in Bern, as well as the energy of my students is for me as nourishment to play better in concert. In Berne I have the Guitar class by I teach also Interpretation of Contemporary Music, in addition to groups of chamber music and special projects in collaboration with the departments of Electronics, Theater, VideoLab. This allows guitarists to meet and work alongside other musicians, actors, composers and learn through this contact to live music not as a reason for isolation, but as a means of communication with other artists and the public. What I am saying may seem obvious to those who do not attend the world of classical guitar, but has a foundation, because in the guitar world, unfortunately, the isolation sometimes has stopped very promising talents who, not nourished by the continuous dialogue with other musicians, have ended up not believing in what they’re doing. The first one who warned me about this danger was Ruggero Chiesa, who had repeatedly witnessed with sadness to this strange form of “aging” as he called it, that get the classical guitarist. I try to help everyone to discover his own direction, to understand the reason of this strong destre to be become a musician and how it can be achieved through the choice of repertoire and contacts with the world of music. When a student is clearly manifested in its motivation he show a boost and an extraordinary energy, he acquires the ability to study long hours to give a concrete shape to his own personal aspirations.

Outside contemporary and classical music do you listens to any other music genres?

I Listen to everything from jazz, that I like very much, to many dorderline music expressions, like blues, ethnic music, disks that arrive at home bought by friends moving around the world, from Japan to Chile. In this period I’m listening *, in particular, Chet Baker and Bill Evans and Sigur Ros. I often listen to Astor Piazzolla to better understand his so particular phrasing, and I play with chamber groups in Bern. I really like the traditional Indian music and Federico Sanesi, a tabla percussionist expert with whom we recently played at the Comunale di Bologna, sometimes he helps me to understand the extraordinary artists of that world. Right now I’m listening to the latest cd from Paul Beier dedicated to Francesco da Milano and Perino Fiorentino, which Paul gave me just this morning while we were talking about our recent concerts.

Thank you very much!