18 snapshots on Abel Carlevaro
(text written as an obit for the German magazine "Gitarre und Laute")
Photo by Alfonso de Béjar
1. Carlevaro is playing his “Preludios Americanos” on TV. I am about ten years old, and I have never seen anything remotely like this, although my father has taken me to several guitar concerts, including Segovia. I just cannot believe what I see and hear. There is no sense of effort whatsoever – the music just flows. Not only there are no indications that the player is concerned about anything, but the fingers seem to have their own eyes, doing their job unerringly and accurately – player and guitar are integrated seamlessly, like some mythical beast, half player and half guitar. Sometimes, the flow is so natural that it seems it is the guitar itself that is doing the playing, and the player is just watching the process – or is he there at all? But the music that comes out is incredibly colourful – and the range of dynamics goes far beyond my wildest imagination. I have started studying guitar, and at this age I have no notion ever to become a professional player, but I know right away that this is something unique. Much later, I will discover that this is what people usually call “mastery”.
2. My first lesson with Abel, first day of Carnival, 1972 – the city is empty. I get to his apartment, and he asks me to sit down and play. I do my best with a movement of Santórsola’s 2nd sonata. Carlevaro has even lent me his Hauser for this, which in comparison to what I was playing feels like driving a Formula 1 after being chained to a tractor for years. I am so thrilled by this feeling that I forget my nerves. When I finish, I look at Abel. His face has an expression that I will come to know quite well, a mix of smile, worry and compassion. He says “Weeeeelll...have you ever thought on how to sit down?” I look at him unbelievingly. After all, who needs to think in order to sit down?. Abel says, “Well, don’t worry” I have some questions about a difficult passage, and the answer is again “Weeell...” followed by “maybe we need to work a little on your left hand. But don’t worry, you are very gifted”. Despite the unmistakable kindness of the somewhat nasal voice, it’s clear that something is seriously wrong here. I can almost see, behind his eyes, the diagnosis process going on – after all, his father was a famous doctor, I remember. He thinks a little more, and says “Weeell... and your right hand, it’s very good, very flexible, but there are some things we need to change there too – it’s not working really properly”. It doesn’t take too much for me to deduce that, then, EVERYTHING is wrong! I shrink to bacterial size just as I hear “But don’t worry! You are very gifted”. I have finally found a teacher. 3. Just a few weeks after that first lesson, the whole process of changing my technique gets under way, I start feeling more and more disoriented. I thought I could play the guitar more or less well, but I am realizing, week after week, just how little I know. Santórsola, with whom I am also studying (and who is not a guitarist), is worried because I can’t even play the works I used to play. I have become a complete beginner. But somehow, I feel very safe. One of the things that intrigues me, though, is how every time Abel picks up the guitar to demonstrate something, the instrument seems to sound so much louder. Finally, one day I get enough courage to ask outright about this – we are working on Villa-Lobos Etude Nº 4, just for therapy, because I need to get my repeated chords functioning. He says, “Weell – it’s a question of how you use your arm – and you have to listen to the result. The right hand begins here!” (and he taps his shoulder). I don’t get it inmediately, but after a few tries, I begin to feel my right arm as never before; I get a feeling of control there that I did not have before, and the chords start sounding incredibly loud – at the same time Abel’s face illuminates itself, I can see he’s really happy about this. We work for the whole hour on this etude, really just the first few measures over and over, until I gradually get some control over this action. I go home flabbergasted and elated. And, as Abel says, “it all depends on listening”. I had never really thought about listening in this way before. Of course I could distinguish between loud and soft, but there are so many variations, so many actions, I can’t wait to try them out at home.
4. One of the first things we do is work with Abel’s Cuadernos. Before finishing with the scales Abel has me working on my right hand. During one whole week I work nonstop, ten hours a day, on the exercises of Cuaderno Nº 2, to the point that I have nightmares with dimished seventh chords. It works – I have never been so fluent before. I try to remember how it was before, and it is like a door has closed behind me; I just cannot do it. Abel explains: “When you learn something new, it becomes part of your set of reflexes, so you cannot go back. This is why you have to be careful about what you learn! It is much more difficult to change a bad habit than it is to learn a new one”. We go on with Cuaderno Nº 3. Abel is not a fanatic of his method, and sometimes he makes me skip exercises, when he feels it’s not necessary to play them all, but nevertheless I do most of them. He explains everything thoroughly, every element of technique, every movement. With him, guitar technique becomes an absorbing intellectual discipline, and he has everything figured out. His pedagogical creativity seems unlimited – he makes up exercises on the spot to illustrate a point, and even invents exercises on exercises. Besides the technical element, most of the exercises have a musical point too. Abel does not at first give the impression of being a playful person, but there is no mistaking the light in his eyes when he improvises some mini-etude on some technical point. I have the impression that he could write many hundreds of these etudes if he wanted.
5. In July 1972, I go to the international guitar seminar in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where Abel will be teaching and playing. It’s a big event – teachers and students from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, lectures, concerts, competitions, classes. Abel’s class is fascinating; not only because of his deep knowledge of technique, and the ability to instantly diagnose and solve any problems, but also because of his musical views. One afternoon, a student plays the Minuet from Sor’s 2nd sonata. In the Trio, Abel points out that this is literally a trio, such as we can find in Haydn’s symphonies: “Imagine two horns in the bass, and an oboe playing the top voice! And the horns are playing the main part”. He demonstrates this, and we all can indeed hear the different colours. Of course he does not stop there – after a thorough explanation of how we can get these colours, the student finally achieves this orchestration. Everybody is thrilled.
6. Back in Montevideo, Abel shows me one of his new works. It happens because the manuscript is open in his music stand (a big affair, heavy and ornamented, in dark wood – he always used it to demonstrate how fixation is a natural attitude of the wrist when lifting something weighty). It’s Etude Nº 2, of the series he wrote in homage to Villa-Lobos. I try it out inmediately, and as it uses many of the elements we had been working on for the last few months, I can make some sense out of it quite quickly. Abel points out the “milonga” rythm, and he humorously corrects my tendency to take it too fast: “This milonga is the country type. Country people have no hurry” He also recalls how he got the idea to use the thumb with fixation: “It all came from watching the paisanos play – they got such incredible volume and good sound. I watched and watched until I understood how it worked”. Abel is not a snob, and he is always open to new ideas. When we get to the middle section, he tries his best to make me get the rubato right. The way he plays it, the section has a very expressive declamato character, and I am struck by the finesse of his timing. “When you have a melodic jump such as this, don’t go through it like a tourist! You need some time on the first note, so that the jump can be savoured.” Also his use of vibrato is very unusual and sparing – it’s not just used to generally enliven the tone, but to bring out the structurally important notes. The phrases acquire depth and richness of structure. Finally I get more or less what he wants, and as I am about to leave, to my utter astonishment he dedicates the etude to me and gives me the manuscript. I am speechless, for a change.
7. After we finish with the technical work, Abel wants me to try out some of Sor’s etudes, to get myself used to apply the elements I have learned. We take first the Etude Op.35 Nº 13, in C major. This etude seems so easy that I secretly doubt there is anything to apply – what problem is there to solve? But, of course, I am very wrong. The first thing that Abel points out is that there are really three parts in the piece: the melody, the bass and a sort of continuo in between. He wants me to differentiate the three parts by using dynamics. I find that I can play the parts by themselves at the required level without problems, but it takes an effort to play them simultaneously. Abel says, without knowing that this is exactly what I always wanted to do since I picked up a guitar: “It’s like being a conductor – you have to control the balance of the different instruments. Just because the bass is louder, it doesn’t mean that you have to play the middle voice louder too.” He got this idea, he tells me, from a Gieseking masterclass he attended in Paris. Gieseking showed the students how to bring out a single note in a chord. Abel wants me to do the same, and I try. And he is right, it is a lot like conducting – if I lose concentration, the fingers go back to play by themselves, but if I keep in my mind the result I want, it seems to just happen. I never imagined there was so much music in this little etude. I am also beginning to suspect, after my first year with Abel, that he can find music in anything.
8. Abel decides it is time for me to learn a concerto, and he suggests Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Nº 1. I know Segovia’s recording, where there are many differences with the printed score, many of which Abel supports, and I bring out the question of changes; when is it permissible to change what the composer has written? Abel says: “Castelnuovo-Tedesco didn’t know the guitar at all, and he counted on Segovia to revise it – he wrote this as for a keyboard. We do him no favor if we play literally what he wrote. All these chords in closed positions are natural in the piano, but are unconfortable in the guitar, and most important, they don’t sound well! It’s not enough to write ff to make them work...” I try his suggestions, and much as I have resisted some changes he wanted to introduce in other works (Sor’s for instance) in this case it works without a doubt. Abel’s conception is so detailed that it seems there is not one note he hasn’t thought about for weeks – he knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. I am beginning to learn from him what it means to interpret a work as opposed to merely playing the notes. When he demonstrates a passage, and he does it very often, every note comes out every time with the precise colour and dynamics he wants. “It’s like an actor learning his part – you have to learn not only the words, but the gestures, the movements, the emotions. This way, everything is always there”.
9. Every time Abel wants to demonstrate something, he always prefaces with “You know, I haven’t played this in ten years, I’m not really in shape at all” prior to playing it with his customary unerring mastery. He does not say it in concerts, but one has the impression that he would like to say it. It’s true that he has not gone out on tour for about 20 years, but he plays comparatively often in Montevideo – there cannot be any doubt that he is in shape.Then, why these warnings? Has he really not played this in ten years? By now we have worked on dozens of pieces, and it just cannot be that he has not played some of them recently. Is it vanity, covering himself in case he makes a mistake? But he never does. Has he forgotten that he knows this piece? Impossible. Does he think he must be infallible? Of course not. Then what? I think it is a mixture of humility in face of the work, or maybe in face of the whole phenomenon that music is, reverence before the mystery of music, a mystery one must enter with one’s head bowed, and this phrase is equivalent to a bowing - and also maybe just good manners, as if admitting that he can play it perfectly may sound too much like bragging – nothing is so alien to Abel as bragging.
10. Abel never imposes his works on his students, but I just like the Preludios Americanos too much. Eventually he agrees, after the usual protocolary resistance, and we begin with Campo. I like not only the melody of the work, but the whole atmosphere, so reminiscent of the Uruguayan countryside with its gently rolling green hills. Soon I learn that it’s not only atmosphere; I am amazed to learn that the middle section is meant as a zamba – just like him, to use such a known rythm, and stylize it to the point that it sounds like Ravel. But the whole piece becomes illuminated; every indication seems to have been thought out so carefully that there is no other possibility. I also notice that Abel conceives dynamics in absolute terms, writing mf where other composer might write ff – when I ask him about this, he says “Weeell, the guitar has a limited range, you know. I cannot write forte because it just doesn’t sound forte”. But the way he plays it, the range seems to be more like Mahler’s orchestra. He devises an exercise to help me master the final arpeggio, and seems to have as much fun doing this as he had writing the work, if not more. In Evocación he tells me that the middle section came to him when camping near Merín Lagoon, in the southeast of Uruguay, listening to the birds. Abel loves nature deeply – probably that is why he envisaged studying agronomics in his youth. He also loves folklore (he just made a recording of folk works under a pseudonym, Vicente Vallejo). He tells me that in Scherzino, the middle section is based on a song by the folk singer Arturo de Nava, recorded somewhere in the 1910s.
11. It takes us about a month to decide on the right fingerings for J.S.Bach’s Allegro, because we spend so much time looking for the right musical ideas, and by now I have become almost as obsessive as he is. But it is worth it – I learn still more about articulation, dampers, and most of all, how fingerings can only be decided when the musical idea is clear. It’s really a very long conversation – Abel is extraordinarily open to ideas, in fact, seems always to be pushing me to come out with still more ways of seeing a certain passage, and sometimes we end up with five different, and incompatible fingerings. My score is covered with numbers in different colors. He doesn’t mind: “When you play, all this work will be heard, all these possibilities that you will discard will be there nevertheless. Of course we can talk for years and still not get close to do everything that is possible to do in this work”. I have the feeling that something is waiting for me in this work, lurking, but it’s not until many years later that it will become apparent. I take the chance to ask Abel why he chose such a slow tempo for his recording of this work. He smiles and says: “Because I can”. Of course, we both know he is quoting the famous answer by Segovia to an amateur who asked him why he played Mendelssohn’s Canzonetta so fast.
12. Abel’s elder brother, Agustín, is a phenomenally gifted amateur and an incredible tango player. With him, I was in first-name terms after five minutes. This is my third year of study with Abel, we probably have had hundreds of hours of conversation about everything, and I still do not dare to call him Abel, and probably never will. He is always “Maestro”. It’s not so much that Abel keeps distance, it’s just that he really is far away. Now he has finished his sonata, “Cronomías”, and of course I want to work on it with him, from the manuscript (Abel’s writing is very legible). I love the second movement, and can’t resist asking him if it has something to do with Ruben Darío’s famous poem, “Nocturno” – “the closing of a door, the resonance of a car / distant, a vague echo, a slight / noise....” He says, “No, but the feeling is the same”. He explains to me the scale of tempi of the first movement, and the explanation is fine, but it is the demonstration which is superb. He manages the rubato with such finesse that the changes of tempi seem obvious. The music flows, wave after wave. After the class is over, Abel tells me that he has been in the International Latin-American Contemporary Music Courses, which had their first edition in Uruguay last month. Among others, Luigi Nono was there. Abel is determined to try his hand at this “new music” style, which is new to him. Cronomías uses a dodecaphonic series. He is as ebullient as an adolescent when he recounts the ideas and experiences he absorbed. He was there as a teacher, but I doubt that many students learnt more than he did.
13. Now we are working on more demanding works, and I bring him Walton’s Bagatelles, which are just out. Abel has not heard of them yet. I have been working on one particular passage of the first Bagatelle, which involves distensions and contractions. It took me four days to get it right, and I suceeded only by breaking it up until I could practice it as a graded exercise. Abel has done this occassionally when we face something apparently intractable. He calls it “applied technique”. I am very proud of the work I have done, and before playing it I try to out-Abel Abel, explaining how clever I was to discover a way of studying this passage. Abel listens without a word, picks up the guitar, plays the passage impeccably and on tempo, and says: ”Yes, you’re right, it can be done like you say”. I am so astonished by his playing that I almost don’t register the words – of course this will come later. It seems I will never stop learning from this man.
14. This (1975) is a year of big changes. Abel is travelling again to Europe after almost 25 years, to Arles, and this is presumably going to be only the beginning. I am very happy for him, but I can’t help feeling that he probably won’t be so available in the future. I am preparing for the finals of the Radio France competition, but I also want to work with Abel my favourite work, Britten’s “Nocturnal”. In the third variation, there is a short passage where Britten asks for a ppp, where the fragments of the theme appear simultaneously with their inversions. Abel is mesmerized by this, which is not surprising, since I realize the atmosphere is very similar to that of the second movement of his “Cronomías”. He plays again and again the four measures, trying different attacks. After a while, the bass sounds almost incorporeal, like a distant rumble, and the top part becomes a dialogue of two distant ship’s sirens in the night. He says “Yes, this is the way it should be...try these attacks”. I can do it after many more tries, but how is it possible to get this effect when you play the whole work in concert? “Listen, listen closely when you play” says Abel. “And don’t worry, it won’t go away”.
15. Abel has me practicing continuous rasgueados for the opening tremolandi of Jana Obrovska’s “Hommage à Bela Bartók”, which I must prepare for the finals of the Radio France competition. It’s a complex work, there is not much time, and we go at it ferociously. I just can’t get it right – Abel tries everything, explaining the movement, making me do it in the air, slowly, quickly, changing hand position, with two fingers, with three fingers, splitting the movement, trying it continuously – nothing works. He says “You know, don’t worry. Sometimes one gets blocked. I know what to do! Try it with a pencil”. This works like magic! I do continuous rasgueados on a pencil for ten minutes, until my nails hurt – then I try it on one string, then two. It works! Abel says, “Look, Eduardo, sometimes you are too serious. If something doesn’t work seriously, play with it!”.
16. It’s again February but now it is 1976. I am about to re-start with Abel after some months’s pause – he has been travelling, I was away for the competitions, then the Southern hemisphere summer came. Abel has divorced and moved. He teaches now in a studio he has rented. I come up the stairs and hear him practice. Maybe Abel is stil thinking about the continuous rasgueados, or maybe it’s only chance. He is improvising on continuous rasgueados! The harmony changes very slowly and irregularly, the effect is incredibly beautiful – sometimes full chords (but they seem to have more than six notes?), sometimes the texture gets thinner, until only one note is sounding, sometimes the top one, sometimes the bass, sometimes (almost impossibly) the middle ones; then more voices appear, like a choir – the chords get louder, fade away, they change like clouds. I stay there transfixed, not daring to break the spell. When finally, after at least ten minutes of this, he stops. I press the bell. I ask him if he is going to use this in some new work. He says “No, sometimes I do this only to warm up – it’s good exercise”. I can’t believe this, and of course Abel reads my mind. “Well, it’s not so interesting after all...no counterpoint, no themes, just atmospheres”. I am surprised that he would consider something so beautiful to be only a warm-up exercise. But I don’t insist.
17. In October 1976 I finished my lessons with Abel. I saw him many times in the 25 following years – in concerts, in competition juries, socially. In spite of living in the same sector of Montevideo, we were both travelling quite often, and it just was not possible to meet frequently. I remember a long talk at Schiphol airport one time we happened to be in the same plane to Europe, waiting there for connections. When the City of Montevideo decided to do a guitar festival in 1996, I was named artistic director of it. My first thought was to have Abel open the festival –he gave a perfect recital, with his own works. On the 2nd Festival, 1998, again Abel opened the festival, playing his Fantasy with the Montevideo Philharmonic – again, just perfect. He also presided the jury on the Abel Carlevaro International Guitar Competition, after I had almost to fight with him to make him accept that the competition should be named after him. Last year (2000), on the 3rd edition of the Montevideo Festival, he gave a stunning recital, one of the best I ever heard him play. It was impossible to accept the fact that this man was more than 80 years old (nobody knew exactly how much more, since he was not divulging it- and who dared ask?). For once, he talked to the audience explaining -what else? - that “he wasn’t in very good shape because he could not practice as usual”. But this time his old line was justified - his wife was ill and at the hospital. He played better than ever. I thought, this is not possible, the man is immortal.
18. I am in Tokio, it’s 8:15 pm, 17 July 2001. The phone rings, and as I pick it up, an unknown voice greets me in Uruguayan-accented Spanish. I instantly fear bad news. A radio producer is calling to give me the news that Abel died in Berlin. They want some comment, but they are gracious enough to call again in twenty minutes. During this twenty minutes I have some time to review all I learned from him, and to become aware, again, of just how much I owe Abel. Also, I feel sad, because I never got to be in first-name, informal, terms with him. He was just too far away for me. Finally, I become convinced that Abel may have passed away – but he cannot really dissapear. He gave us all too much to ever die.