Interview with Agustin Castilla-Avila
When did you start playing the guitar and why? What did you study and what is your musical background?
I remember in one vacation that my uncle left his guitar on the bed. I went to it when I was around ten. I secretly played it; I was so fascinated playing open strings on the instrument. My parents offered my siblings and me the opportunity to study music at the Conservatorio in Jerez. I was so happy to choose the guitar.
What were and are your main musical influences?
I´m sure that Flamenco Music has a strong but indirect influence in my music. I have seen “primitiveness” in my music in many occasions. I could even be catalogued as a folk composer sometimes. Pulse is very often a strong element; most of the ideas I write come to my head while I´m moving. Of course all the guitar literature I went through when I was a guitarist left a strong mark on me; especially in my beginnings as a composer.
Why did you choose to become a composer?
I moved to London in 1998 to study under Carlos Bonell with a scholarship from La Caixa and The British Council. During my interviews to apply for it, I showed some little compositions that I wrote when I was very young. They valued them more than I would have expected and probably, to be thankful to their support, I decided to find time to compose regularly while studying in London. It happened that I loved it very much. The feeling I had while attending a concert of my friend Alberto Cuellar at the Instituto Cervantes in London in 1999 had nothing to do with all the guitar playing I did until then; so I continued more and more motivated. I tried to attend lectures, conferences and any kind of activities involving composers living in London or visiting the city. I continued writing as a hobby during my guitar studies in London and Salzburg and some musicians would play the pieces. It was at Arizona State University when I really wanted to go a little further with composition. I was very happy playing guitar and assisting Frank Koonce but I also wanted to become a composer. It became really a very difficult decision. The Filipino guitarist Angelito Agcaoili was my neighbor and a very good friend of mine in Arizona. He could see my struggle and helped me open my eyes. So I came back to Europe looking for a composer to study with. Another friend of mine, the Italian composer Simone Fontanelli (with whom I took a few lessons), suggested me to go to university for these studies. Probably I would have not thought of this idea myself. So I went back to Salzburg to study with Adriana Hölszky, whom I admired very much.
How did start the ideas for you CDs « Aufs Paradies » and « Nostalgia »? They are two different kinds of works…
Yes, they represent the two periods I had as a composer. “Nostalgia” has to do with my beginnings as a composer (with more Spanish influences) and “Aufs Paradies” represents the language I am starting to build, especially on the guitar.
I saw you have a group of affectionate musicians that play your passages, how does your music methodology is influenced by the community of people (musicians or not) you work with? Do you change your approach in relation to what you directly or indirectly receive from them?
I am continuously learning from these musicians and their approach to my music. These musicians are responsible for most of the compositions I have written, for which I am very thankful. Through their perspectives, I can get to know myself better. When I came to Salzburg I met a fantastic guitarist, whom I call my “right hand” 😀 , Yvonne Zehner. We have continuously worked together for thirteen years together. She is very involved with my music and she is responsible for the creation of more than 15 pieces; including solo, chamber music or the music theater play “Strings” (premiered in Hallein, Austria in 2006). Both CDs “Nostalgia” and “Aufs Paradies” were actually her projects.
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.?
I have seen “primitiveness” in my music in many occasions. I could even be catalogued as a folk composer sometings. Improvisation has surprisingly taking a big role in my music in the last two years, as I started to improvise and experiment with E-Guitars. Maybe the music of this period has become more organic and fluent through improvisation; it is possibly closer to Flamenco in terms of the function. This can be seen in the recent pieces “E-Spiritual” for Joseph Mirandilla, in “Something to do with a Hug” for Pétur Jónasson or especially in my latest chamber “Die Lutherin”.
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises...
Although improvisation has become a useful tool sometimes in the compositional process of my last works, the thinking processes have also grown stronger. It is very difficult for me to give a definition for “Error”. Before creating I try to analyze any existing structures and ask myself if these existing are the only acceptable ones for me as an artist. An error can be any type of bad decisions. But I hope I can take enough so-called “bad decisions”; to lead exactly to new developments and unexpected surprises…
What are your essential five discs, always to have with you .. the classic five records for the desert island ..?
That would be a very, very difficult decision. If I were to take only five, I would be missing so many CDs while on a desert island. At least three had to be opera, including Purcell, Mozart and Puccini (could I leave Haendel?!). I wouldn´t be able not to take Bach with me. I cannot decide a fifth CD as it reflects all the great music that I would have to leave.
Who would you like to play and who would you like to play? What music do you usually listen to?
I really have to be in the mood to listen to music, sometimes I´m very much in my own music that when I make a break I prefer to go to the woods and listen to nature (birds, water, wind, etc.). When I travel I listen more to music, any kind. Like when I go running (except running in the woods), especially music transmitting lots of energy. In any case, I prefer live music although in a concert hall I cannot stop analyzing everything that my perception receives.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
I´m at the Visby International Center for Composers in Sweden writing the chamber opera “Die Lutherin” after Katharina von Bora for Gertraud Steinkogler-Wurzinger. It will hopefully be finished in the next days. Then I will try to finish “Suite of Movements” for solo cello for David Eggert. I´m also about to finish a new guitar quartet, “A Song of Puerto Princesa” for Manila Guitar Quartet to be premiered at the end of August at the Manila Guitar Fest.
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?
Honestly, I know that many people disagree with me but I have said many times that I don´t believe in talent, at least as a kind of something given to somebody by a divinity. I really believe that we are all the same. Vision has to do with watching, with perception and with the way you can organize in your head what you perceive. To synthesize it. This has to do with fantasy. For me fantasy is the difference between animals and humans beings. Fantasy is one of the biggest gifts that nature has given us. We should not forget this; “Fantasy is a reality”.