Interview with Bertrand Chavarria-Aldrete
When did you start playing the guitar and why? What did you study and what is your musical background?
I started quite late indeed. I was 14 years old; that’s when my uncle (who was a guitar child prodigy and one of the few active students of Andrés Segovia at the Berkeley Masterclass in 1964 -he was 16 years old-) suddenly died at the age of 44. My father, also a guitarist in his free time, started to learn as an hommage to his brother the Chaconne by J.S. Bach the same night we came after the burial; hearing and seeing my father play this piece with all the history behind it, made me feel for the first time how music could be so “real” and “true”, that without any musical nor guitar formation I secretly started to copy my father’s finger playing while he was reading the Chaconne; I finally learned the first page after some weeks, and one night when he came from work I played him the first page (Schott – Segovia Edition); full of mistakes of course, but I managed to play a small guitar (3/4) that my father bought me when I was 7 years old and never played until those sad and strange days.
After that I was amazingly lucky, I went to Facultad de Música de la UANL to study with Gregorio Rangel who was the teacher of my father and close friend of my uncle, and to Escuela Superior de Música (with Andrés Liceaga and Pedro Salcedo), both in Monterrey, Mexico. In this last one I got expelled from both teachers (who are now my friends) in the first year since I wanted to learn the big sonatas played by Segovia, not the Brouwer studies or the Pujol book of technique. Finally I went to study in private with Martin Madrigal, who was very patient with me and really made me conscious of sound quality, who along Edgar Cortés, (personal and close friend of Andrés Segovia) are very important for me.
In the summer of 1999, Judicaël Perroy (who is some kind of a brother to me) brought me to Paris (with only 6 years of guitar in my fingers) to study with him and Raymond Gratien; I had also chamber music classes with flutist Patrick Gallois, plus composition and musical analysis with Jose Luis Campana. At the end of that first year in Europe I met Zoran Dukic, and went to study with him at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague in the Netherlands, so I spent 4 years with him to get the bachelor and master degree, while studying composition and living in Paris at the same time.
Nowadays I took studies again; I’m finishing this year a master degree in plastic arts at the University of Porto.
What were and are your main musical influences?
Of course my father and Andrés Segovia; in the family we felt so close to him that it was impossible to not be hearing since I was born his repertoire played by my father or in his recordings daily. My uncle was also an influence and a huge pressure at the same time (we have only one recording of him when he was 14 years old playing the complete Sonata III by Ponce, last mouvement of Omaggio a Boccherini by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Preludio, Fandanguillo and Arada by Torroba, Fandanguillo by Turina and Étude 1 by Villa-Lobos, it’s quite amazing.), since I started so late -the same age that my uncle had in this recording!- and always felt like I was running slower and behind him for many years.
In the musical field I was always very close to Vivaldi’s music (more than Bach), Beethoven, Schubert and Debussy were also and are very important for me. Nowadays I have felt very close to the music of Brian Ferneyhough, Helmut Lachenmann, Gérard Grisey, Gérard Pesson, Rebecca Saunders, Ramon Lazkano and Jose Luis Torá.
Someone that has been extremely important for me in music and life is Alberto Hortigüela; as a kind of complete human being, a real artist in all his ways and indeed the most cultivated and intelligent living person I’ve ever met.
But above all, Mozart, a composer that I study always very closely.
I saw you play a lot of contemporary composers’ music, why this choise ?
Edgar Cortés, who had a huge musical library, died also during those first years; I inherited his music and guitars, that along with my father’s and uncle’s musical library I suddenly found myself with an amazing catalogue of music at a very young age; this was very important for me and made me feel quite secure, and in a way familiar to the musical languages offered by the guitar. Curiosity led me to search the orchestral and chamber music of composers that I liked that wrote for guitar; the music of Takemitsu is a good example, it was music that I already knew from Ran by Kurosawa (so everything started to make sense!), and of course from there I got in contact with a complete new universe of music (Stockhausen, Ligeti, Messiaen, Boulez) outside the Segovia-Bream-Brouwer repertoire.
At the same time I started to compose my own music, and even got a commission by the culture department in my city (Monterrey, Mexico) for an opera-danse-performance when I was 16 years old for flute, guitar, harp, percussions, aztec poetry and danse; unluckily (or luckily I may say, since now that I see those almost 70 minutes of chamber music, I prefer to keep it there; in the shelves…) this project never came to life due to some serious disagreements with the choreographer.
When I came to Paris my idea was to pursue composition and went to study with José Luis Campana who is a composer and artistic director of Ensemble Arcema in Paris; at that time my approach of playing “contemporary” music on the guitar was limited to the typical repertoire like Henze, Takemitsu, Britten, Brouwer. So Campana encouraged me to play with his ensemble (it was a huge pressure for me, I was very young and inexperienced) performing with real contemporary music specialists, with electronics, doing world premieres and working directly with composers; so since I was 21 years old until now I have been commissioning pieces for solo, or chamber music with guitar for my group SMASH ensemble in Spain; but also playing a lot of “classical” music, which is my DNA.
In a less pragmatic view, I guess that -in some- contemporary music pieces or composers, is were I find more philosophical and aesthetic elements that make part of my own life experience, so finally a music that is naturally closer and where I feel I can evolve along easier during life; I guess this is my main reason.
Can you tell us more about your project to create and archive of XX and XXI century Spanish guitars music? Is your last record «carpere fide(s) » the first step of this project ? What will be the second record ?
The idea is to make an archive of several volumes of spanish contemporary music for guitar, it’s a beginning for me to introduce this music and start a guitar/musical research. I felt the need since I always felt that no one has tried to gather all the composers of all aesthetics and make a compilation of this music being completely impersonal; becoming a craftsman of this music, a kind of “musical” device, an apparatus.
The title of this “archive” comes from latin; language and translation giving many possibilities of interpretation offers a polysemic character: carpere means plucking strings, breaking, strucking and fide faith, belief, but fides (with an “s”) gut strings. The idea is to create an archive that establishes all the spanish geographical, aesthetical and linguistic diversity, not only by plucking the strings, but by breaking the superficial beliefs and segregations, an apparatus of the XX and XXIst century of spanish guitar music.
Also, this project is a call for spanish composers to write new works for guitar, so probably this project will be a life project; my idea is for the guitar to become an archipelago for the composers, a ground in which they can develop new ideas (like crops and experiments) in this topography called “guitar”, and all be connected with this rich ground -also an apparatus- inside the apparatus.
For the second volume we’ll have music by Felix Ibarrondo, Jose Pablo Polo, Juan Manuel Artero, José Manuel López López, César Camarero and Cristóbal Halffter, at the moment I’m still searching funding for the second recording, but most of the pieces are already in the fingers; so that’s a good beginning.
How do you express your “musical form” both under execution that improvisation? How did your instruments changed the way you play and think about music?
With these kind of questions is when you finally realize what did your mentors had to do with your actual being. I’ve always tried to keep as an ideal the voice conduction of Judicaël Perroy and the sound of Zoran Dukic, being both for me quintessential each time I work my instrument; of course I cannot nor want to emulate them, but in the praxis this becomes a very healthy paradigm, this two mentors keep colliding/adapting with my own experience and physical nature in order to keep building my way, “my form”.
I had many guitars in my life and of course all of them have changed my way of playing, I still play with many different guitars, and it’s something that I find very healthy. This constant change of instruments forces you to build and shape very precise musical ideas and then adapt them into these different bodies (the instrument as a corpus), and this process of adapting your musical ideas into different corpus helps you build and “stretch” new possibilities into your previous ideas and in some cases keep them into your discourse, which is constantly evolving and in process: toujours inachevé, is a motto that keeps me musically healthy.
In the non-musical ground I must say that my incursion into plastic arts has made a real change in the way I feel my playing and music in general; I sense the interpretation of music more directly attached to my body than before. Creating with my hands other kind of art than music, has detached my physical fixation of sound, and at the same time reinforced it in a way that now music feels more natural, because I’m “only” working with the sound; sounds silly, but each time we play a single note, it could be overcharged with useless information that makes an unhealthy approach to the instrument; working my hands and with other instruments to craft plastic art and seeing the simple logic of the praxis has made me a better artist and consequently a better musician.
What does mean improvisation in your music research? Can we go back to talking about improvisation in a repertoire so encoded as the classic or you’re forced to leave and turn to other repertoires, jazz, contemporary, etc.?
As I said before Mozart was above all my most important musical influence; and in a way because of this: improvisation. My approach to improvisation is not to be shared in public while I search; my improvisation is a brain and musical work for my own in order to “stretch” my ideas, and Mozart is simply the best at it, you can see it in all his music; the way he writes is simply so natural that you can feel the flow of a musical idea evolving in real time. In Beethoven (although he was the “champion” of improvisation in Viena) you understand the time that the ideas had been “improvised” in Beethoven’s head -or handbook- and we see those crafted final ideas in the score; I admire so much Mozart, but feel closer to Beethoven’s way of working.
A good example would be that last year at the University of Porto in my plastic art class, we had to make a group project; after months of endless discussions and having agreed on nothing, I proposed a project that had a quick and general agreement, it was for my colleagues to “compose” each one a score in a A3 music page a “piece” that I would have 24 hours to work on (I had 16 scores) and played them all the next day; all the scores where graphic scores made by plastic artists. So the work I did was a mixture of taking out ideas of the score through image/music coherent patterns that I would find (I used electric guitar pedals and analogic spacialisation), that in a way emerged from improvisation in order to -as I said before- “stretch” those ideas. Finally it was a real pleasure since I was forced into working at a very intense rhythm in order to “compose/execute” those musical-plastic ideas into classical guitar pieces.
If you listen to a different interpretation of a piece you already played and you want to perform do you take care of this listening or do you prefer to proceed in complete independence?
From my point of view it would be impossible to try to imitate or emulate someone else’s performance; I believe that experience added to genetics and geography play a very important role in our own behavior and consequently our senses, so yes, I enjoy hearing other performances, but I consider them unique.
Nevertheless, each time I hear an interpretation, my attention goes to the way that person is achieving his own musical ideas -if there are- of a text I know or wish to know, and here is where I concentrate my listening; in the way that each and one of us physically find the ways to build our own musical ideas over the body of the guitar, the praxis. So it does not mean I will apply those ideas; I simply keep in storage the “tools” they use to build their own musical ideas, and adapt them to the general approach of my own personal praxis if needed.
I sometimes feel that in our time the history of the music flow with no particular interest in its chronological course, in our disco-music library before and after, the past and the future become interchangeable elements, could this be a risk for an interpreter and a composer of a uniform vision?
I don’t see history as a catalogue of events (“pile of debris” as Walter Benjamin said) that we glance like the “Angelus Novus” by Paul Klee pushed towards the future; Internet has not only broken the frontiers of communication, time and space; but also, and now very clearly, the frontiers of history.
Nowadays with our own telephone we have direct access to high definition images of the caves of Chauvet; a video of Marcel Proust attending a wedding; the manuscripts of Sade; Buñuel’s “Un chien andalou”; or even see what your president had for breakfast this morning on twitter. We are living in a very interesting era of easy access to an amazing quantity of knowledge (first time in humankind), it’s beautiful but also a very dangerous; since this “easy“ access devaluates it’s content, and music, keeping the same format since the XIXth century, has been one of it’s first victims.
I guess that we have to profit of this chaotic time-space-history era to learn more and feel our past and current surroundings in order to build a better present. Also, we have to think that we are generations that are currently too aware of the historical feeling; and since we live inside this conglomeration of information and history, we are without doubt producing a different kind of historical pattern(s) -not yet known or clear for us- parallel (or opposite) from the classical one, in which everyone is so desperate to leave it’s mark or signature on.
What are your essential five discs, always to have with you .. the classic five records for the desert island ..?
I’ve always seen this question with other people and made a very fast answer; now that it’s my turn, I have to say that it has taken a long time to answer.
– Maria Joao Pires playing Mozart
– The 21 Nocturnes by Frédéric Chopin by Claudio Arrau
– Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli plays Debussy
– Demon Days by Gorillaz
– And any recording of my father practising any piece. He used to record himself while practising and we hear him playing along with birds and a fountain that he installed; it’s very important for me.
Who would you like to play and who would you like to play? What music do you usually listen to?
My father died last year, and while searching through his things I saw that he always wanted to make a recording with me playing duos; we never even tried to play together, he probably mentioned it a long time ago, but never again; now I say I would really love to play with him.
There are six composers which I would really like to see them compose a guitar solo:
José Luis Torá
I usually listen to many kinds of music, could be Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Al Jarreau, Guadalupe Trigo, Tigres del Norte, Aphex Twin, Metallica (the first four albums) Gorillaz, and lately I became a huge fan of Connan Mockasin.
For classical and contemporary since some years ago, I only like to hear with a score (when I’m at home); so it’s really a very concentrated hearing, so I don’t usually listen when I’m cooking, taking a shower or with people on the house; it’s more like an intense and personal pleasure that it would be impossible to have with other music.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
Concerts of course and new repertoire; no world premieres at the moment, but yes, new pieces in my fingers.
My new and personal project I’m working on, is on the idea of a new interpretation in music; which is what I call an extended interpretation (pulsaçoes dilatadas is the name given to the project) a research as an artist/interpreter/device, an apparatus of an extended plastic gesture that emerges from the music I play, and how that plastic gesture -and all the information within- in it’s own space, influences as an osmosis between both elements: the music “interpretation” -in the entire sense of the word- and the whole acting as a more precise, but wider, singular and unique support for the music I interpret/perform. I have already built some of these plastic gestures/sculptures (unexpected stammerings, …pas digun ne vedeva sa cara (uma vontade de foder), tientos topográficos :: tacto temperado) with the music I play (Ezkil by Ramon Lazkano, Breviario de espejismos by Elena Mendoza and Tiento I transcription of Antonio de Cabezón by Alberto Hortigüela), pieces that are in carpere fide(s) album, so it’s a new kind of theory of poiesis/praxis in music/art in space.
The next big project I have is the script writing, scenario construction (new musical instruments and sound topographies) and composition of a “tableau vivant” based on “The ship of fools” by Hieronymus Bosch. This project was saved by the coordinator and costume designer Svenja Reinebeck who presented it to Teatro de Rivoli in Porto, got accepted and it will be premiered the 29th September of 2017.
Last question: a few years ago, during an interview with Bill Milkowski for his book “Rockers, Jazzbos and Visionaries” Carlos Santana said, “Some people have talent, some people have vision. And vision is more important then talent, obviously.” I think you have a great talent, but … what is your vision?
I think that Iconoclasm and a less -or none- historical feeling are the keys to open new horizons, we have to be ready to create new ways of expression, new beliefs, we even see that the daily basis entertainment material (like commercial cinema), is based on remakes, prequels, sequels, but no original contents; and for that we need to break those patterns and take creativity risks.
In music, musicians are trying to make a living in an activity that has not changed since the rise of it in the XIXth century and has kept exactly the same format, focusing only on developing and evolving only with sound in front of an audience; colliding against history, a history -as we said before- to which we have acces any time and day in our own pockets, leaving beside other forms of expression/creativity.
Quoting the original Ghost in the shell: “It’s simple: overspecialize, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.” My vision is that us musicians we have to become artists, evolve and produce “irreproducible” material, to become new iconoclastic artistic singularities in order to really open new horizons and possibilities in art and finally in life.