INTERVIEW WITH JOACHIM VILLWOCK, FOR „GITARRE AKTUELL“ (Germany)
J.V.: Dear Eduardo, many thanks for the extraordinary concert we experienced today. Four Suites by Bach (BWV 995, 996, 997 und 1006a) in the same concert. The impression of the whole was overwhelming. Why did you choose this demanding program?
E.F.: Thank you. It was really a request from the organizers – it is a series of early music, and the program needed some unity, so this was an obvious choice. I have done the four Suites as a single program several times; first time was in Montevideo in the Bach year of 1985, and then in Mexico, the USA and Germany – and also recorded them twice, for Decca in 1987 and for Oehms Classics in 2000.
J.V.: What was your impression of the concert?
E.F.: I was quite happy with it. German audiences are always wonderful, attentive, concentrated and appreciative. There was a lot of concentration in the church, and I feel that what I wanted to do arrived to the destination. This is always a good feeling!
J.V.: You are considered one of the Bach specialists among guitarists, and have also published musicological works about Bach. What do you find particularly fascinating about this composer?
E.F.: So many things. First, and this is not very original, the greatness of the music. It is so perfect formally, and so full of expression! You can feel this intuitively, and I think everybody does, but if you are a professional musician, your duty is to go deeper and analyze how it works. Second, even if you manage to eventually understand why it is so perfect, there is always something more to discover. Every time I take up the Suites I find something I had not noticed before, either some formal detail, or some quotation of a chorale, or a symbol, or some rhythmic feature of a dance; this happened also in the occasion of this concert. You see, Bach’s music has so many dimensions. There is, to start with, the rhetorical one: how he organizes phrases to convey meaning, sometimes using the musical rhetorical figures of his time, but most of the time just by the disposition of the phrases; music becomes speech, and a very eloquent one. There is the symbolic dimension, achieved by using iconic motives – which also generate meaning - and chorale quotations: most of the time, this is not visible at first sight, but nevertheless it is extraordinarily important. There is also what is usually thought of as the structural dimension, the counterpoint, the macro-organization of the work, the harmonic plan. And lastly, there are the dance forms, with a specific Affekt for each genre. The rhetorical dimension is maybe the most immediate one, and maybe the one that hits the listener first: but the symbols, once you start noticing and understanding them, are what gives the right intonation to the music, and they help you phrase it more logically and expressively. The symbols and quotations are really omnipresent, in all of his music, not only in the Chaconne! I tried to write about this in my book [Essays on J.S.Bach’s lute works, ART Ediciones, Montevideo, 2003]. Summing up all this, Bach’s works give a feeling of the sacred, or, I would dare say, almost a direct experience of the sacred seen through his genius, that is really unique in the history of music. And he conveys all this with a directness and formal mastery that leaves you breathless. It is music that should be played on one’s knees.
J.V.: Do you, as a South American, have a particular way of entrance to the German composers? You speak, along many other languages, also German. Is being busy with Bach also being busy with German culture in general?
E.F.: Auf Deutsch bin ich zwar noch nicht so flüssig, aber immer fleissig! (In German I am not yet so fluent, but always diligent!) It is really the only language I chose to learn as an adult; the others I learned as a child, or got to know through travels. I still need practice, though – I can understand much more than I can speak. As for being from South America, well – I don’t remember a time where I did not hear classical music. I grew up surrounded with a very European culture. I was also of course aware of other musical languages that were around, tango, folklore… you could say I grew up musically bilingual, in this sense. For instance, my father is a collector of tango recordings, so this was around, but I cannot say I was very interested in this until decades later. But anybody who buys me for a folklorist would have to return me to the dealer! I think that if you care about the music you play, and I do, then you need to inmerse yourself as much as possible on the culture that produced it; music has always to do with context, like all art does. In this sense, of course the answer to your question is emphatically “yes”. Of course there is this German side to Bach. His music is really universal, and at the same time there is in it this thirst of the absolute, this search for Vollkommenheit, which I find very German: I see this expressed in his determination to have every note count, for instance – there is no “filling” in his music, everything speaks and says something meaningful (as he said once, to the greater glory of God). And it would be foolish not to relate this to the wonderful German musical tradition. But, the Bach phenomenon is also something very specific of his place and time, and of his individual genius; just think of his family tradition. Seeing the German side certainly helps. But, for example, Haydn or Schubert (two other composers that I really love, too), are also very Germanic, as I see it, and their world is completely different from Bach’s. Coming from outside a tradition has, sometimes, some advantages. You don’t take things for granted – you learn, you question.
J.V.: What did Abel Carlevaro mean for you?
E.F.: Very simple: everything I learned about the guitar I learned from him, really. He was an example, in the sense that he was a philosopher of the instrument. He loved the guitar like nobody else I have ever met, and he was not content with just discovering things, he wanted to know why they worked – he had a very inquiring mind. I have never encountered a guitarist who was in such unity with his instrument, and since he had worked very hard at this, he knew how this could be achieved and was able to teach it. We had completely different personalities and interests, and he was great enough to teach, help and encourage me without ever imposing his style of playing on me. I think that some people who studied with him often thought that if you used his technique, then you must play exactly like him. I don’t think he would have wished this – of course you learn what you can from your teacher, and always, copying is the first step. But you should keep growing. One other thing that should be mentioned is that his published didactic works (with the possible exception of the Escuela de la Guitarra, and even there, I am not so sure) do not give an idea of what he really did when teaching. He was never systematic or dogmatic, he cared first about the student and then about the system, he accepted and welcomed questioning, and he had the most sensitive ear I have ever encountered – an unequalled ability to savor a sound, and produce it in his playing. He was a really great teacher, and to give you an idea, I should write a book about him!
J.V.: You are also active as a teacher and among other things you wrote a book about technique. Could you tell us what matters most for you in this line?
E.F: I love to teach, among other reasons, because you never know what is going to happen during a lesson. You have your ideas of course, the student has hers or his, you think you have some knowledge and the students have questions and problems to solve, which may or may not be about what you think you know…and it is an adventure every time. Every lesson should ideally bring some new discovery, you should be able to learn some new truth you can use, be it about the piece you are learning, about your mechanism, your way of practicing, your way of listening to what you do, or more generally in your playing. My book on technique [Mechanism, Technique, Learning, Chanterelle/Mel Bay] is not a method, but an attempt to describe, and demonstrate, a way of understanding the instrument. For me, technique is a means that you use for music-making. A very important one, surely, but you cannot acquire the means in a void. Even when you are just starting, music should be the first priority. From the very beginning you should be able to put immediately into practice, for musical purposes, whatever you learn. This is why I am against blind repetition of exercises as a means to develop technical competence. Guitar playing is not an Olympic sport, where you have to be faster or louder – I think we do not need “training” in the same way an athlete does need it. If it was so easy, nowadays we would have hundreds of great guitarists! I think learning the guitar is not really a physical process: it is really a process of mental training that has physical aspects, but the teacher should try to put the student in control of his physical actions from the very start and make him or her the co-teacher and co-discoverer. What I did, first in teaching and then in the book, and this is something I think was original, was to be extremely radical in this view, and take it to the ultimate logical consequences. And, most of the time, it works.
J.V.: What impression do you have of the guitar scene? Are there changes, new directions? How is it with the acceptance of the guitar worldwide?
E.F.: First, I don’t know the German scene so well, so what I am going to say might not apply. I am going to exaggerate to make my thinking more clear, so you can take what I say as a provocation intended to generate some reaction. It might be a caricature, but see if you recognize the subject…In general, I see a comparative refusal of guitarists to come to terms with music, and a parallel refusal of the musical scene to come to terms with the guitar. Let me explain: many guitarists (fortunately not all) are completely blind to whatever happens outside the so-called “guitar scene” which as I understand it would comprise guitar festivals, competitions, guitar concerts, guitar magazines. This would apply, alarmingly, not only to contemporary music but to ALL of the history of music. So, you may hear people playing Giuliani and wonder how it is possible that Giuliani was ever taken seriously by Beethoven. Of course this is not Giuliani’s fault. The same happens with Sor, and with all that period. Or you can hear guitarists play Bach in a way that would not be recognizable as Bach to any informed musician – and they get applause from this “guitar scene”, nobody seems to have objections. I have no idea why this happens, or why guitarists seem to be so taken with pseudo-compositions that are just notated improvisations with little compositional substance, or why it should be such a merit to program some pop or folk music in every program. Please, I am no snob, everything has its place and I am a Beatles’fan, I like other things besides Bach! I am just saying that I think the emphasis is wrong: we risk to lose the few serious listeners we have and end up playing only for colleagues. The serious music scene, in its turn, (maybe in revenge) refuses to admit that the guitar is a serious instrument. Or at least, after Segovia and Yepes died and Bream retired, it seems not to know that there might just be some serious concert artists with something to say, some musicians that just happen to play the guitar. There are a few exceptions, but they are exceptions. You might think that Segovia did not live at all; there are all these works dedicated to him, but, as for his impact upon the music world, which seemed so overwhelming at the time, nowadays (unfortunately) it seems he might just as well have been a fictional character. The music world seems to think the guitar died with him. So we end up with a “guitar world” practically unconnected to the rest of the music world, a bit like the relationship of science-fiction to general literature. Having said this, there ARE serious artists playing the guitar, the technical level has gone up incredibly in the last decades, there are more guitar festivals and big competitions than ever and every week a new one seems to appear, guitar is taught academically at a high level everywhere, there are always serious students of the instrument. We could say, we exist, so who cares - there is a guitar world, it functions, it gives us work, who cares if music series mostly choose to ignore the guitar. So, take your pick. Is the glass half-full or half empty? Or is it just that we have a marketing problem? I really don’t know!
J.V.: You direct the international guitar festival in Erlbach. In Summer 2010 it will happen for the ninth time. What were your impressions, as you directed in 2002 the festival for the first time under the shadow of the sudden death of Abel Carlevaro?
E.F.: I really am only Kursleiter (director of the course) – the Vogtlaender Gitarre-Verein is in charge of everything else. It is a beautiful region, with a long tradition of instrument-making, but probably German readers already know about this…Well, the first time it was not easy – I was coming to a structure already cristallized, and it was a big responsibility to follow Carlevaro’s work. There was a lot of expectation, in the sense that some people expected me to be a clone of Carlevaro and talk only about “Carlevaro-Technik”, whatever that might be. This, I could not do, of course: I do think that Carlevaro’s contribution is priceless, but I am not Carlevaro and cannot possibly pretend to be! So, I had to be what I am; what else could I be? At first I felt a little like a Protestant Pope, but gradually, I think, things have adjusted: I recognize myself in the Festival now, and have a great time every year I am there. It is still the only place in Europe where you can learn about Carlevaro’s ideas from people who worked with him, which is really a unique opportunity. But I think it has become also something more than just that.
J.V.: How do you appraise the status of the festival now? Have the aims changed since you took over in 2002? What is special in this festival?
E.F.: I could not estimate the value of the festival, this would be for others to say. I think the goals have not really changed, only expanded. About the course, we hit upon a structure that works like this: in the mornings I do a collective class, in the form usually of lectures (but very informal). In 2007 the subject was Bach’s Suite BWV 995, in 2008 and 2009 different aspects of XIXth century guitar composers and historic performance practices, I think next year we will go back to Bach, almost surely the Suite BWV 996. For me, preparing this is a lot of work, it involves a lot of preparation, but is worth it. I learn usually a lot, and I hope the participants do too, and in the end it is great fun. After this, we divide and work in groups, according to subjects – one or two groups would be about Carlevaro’s ideas on technique (in a very practical, hands-on approach), there might be an improvisation group, or another group preparing some ensemble piece of South American music, or Alexander technique (we found there are many things in common with Carlevaro’s ideas there). A team of assistants is in charge of this part of the course. In the afternoons, I teach a normal masterclass for whoever wants to play. There are also two or three concerts during the week, some years one of them I do myself. The nice thing is that the whole event is meant for the students to actually learn something they did not know before. This might sound obvious but is not really so frequent, I find. We don’t expect all the participants to be at a performing level – there are always also teachers and students of very diverse level, age and experience. There is a total absence of competition, and I certainly intend to have it go on in this way. It seems to work – people keep returning year after year, we have had participants from as far as Australia, Japan, Brazil, so we must be doing something right.
J.V.: If I counted right, in the meantime you have published more than 20 CDs. You are also active as a composer. Why haven’t you yet published your own works?
E.F.: Good question! Some of my works for guitar or guitars have actually been published: Tres Fáciles by Ricordi (Argentine), A Meditation on “Sakura” by Gendai (Japan) and Consecuencias by ART Ediciones (Montevideo). But I take it that you refer to recordings? Actually last year a CD of Uruguayan contemporary works for guitar and orchestra appeared, in which I play with the Montevideo Philharmonic; there is one work of mine, Perspectivas for guitar and strings – but this is not available in Germany. One small piece for duo (Astor visits Heitor) I recorded with Shin-Ichi Fukuda, and you can even see it in YouTube. I have occasionally played some solo piece in concerts, mostly Consecuencias, but it is true that I have not recorded my pieces commercially. One big reason is that recording labels are usually not very keen on recording contemporary works, and that is already a limitation. When I have had the chance to record new music, I have given priority to contemporary works that I feel should really be known, and whose creators do not play the guitar (like Tosar, or Ana Torres, for instance). Another reason is that I have not really written so much for solo guitar, because, as any serious composer will tell you, it is not an easy instrument to write for, and still less if you play it, at least if you do not want to fall into clichés. Also, I am practicing, studying new works, writing articles, analyzing – and the day has only 24 hours! In the last few years I have had very little time to compose, I have been too busy with Bach, and other things too, like performance practices of the early XIXth century and the repertory of that time. Lastly, and maybe the most important reason, is that maybe I just do not have enough energy to pursue an intense performing career, which keeps me travelling almost constantly at times, and at the same time find the time and the quiet to compose, and then still do all the promotion work you need to do to get your pieces performed. I see myself at least partly as a composer (whether I am a good one, is a different story), but I am not a guitarist-composer in the usual sense, that is, one who is known for performing his own pieces. I try to keep things separate.
J.V.: How is your relationship to contemporary music? Which composers would you like to emphasize here?
E.F.: It is one of great openness and curiosity. There are so many good composers… I already mentioned Tosar, who I think was a really great composer, maybe some day more people will know about him. I am very proud that he decided to write a solo guitar piece for me. In Latin America there are composers also like Diego Legrand (Uruguay) and Celso Garrido-Lecca (Peru) who have written wonderful guitar concerti. Brouwer, all the readers will know about…I am a declared fan of György Kurtag, for instance, since I heard the Kafka-Fragmente many years ago, and of Helmut Lachenmann and Nikolaus A.Huber ever since I had the opportunity to listen to their music and be a student at seminars with them. For years I listened to Ligeti nonstop, and the music of Bernd Alois Zimmermann fascinates me. Some works of Xenakis, Berio, Nono and Stockhausen I love, and also the music of Takemitsu and Hosokawa. I have a great respect for Steve Reich and John Adams…I must be forgetting a lot of names here, and I am not really up to date with younger composers. I do try to keep track of things, but there are just too many things happening.
J.V.: Eduardo, you have a very distinguished concert life. Unfortunately you can be heard in Germany relatively rarely. Can German listeners hope to hear you here more often? hören?
E.F.: For me it is always a great pleasure to be in Germany and to play for German audiences. Let’s hope it happens more often.
J.V.: Apart from the modern classical guitar, you also play a historical instrument from the XIXth century. Where are the differences with the modern instrument? And do you play this guitar also in concerts?
E.F.: The differences have to do with the construction (there is no reinforcement of the top, for instance) and the tension of the strings. This requires a different action of the right hand, using shorter nails, and most of all changing your conception of what the instrument can do. Depending on the instrument and on the player, it could have less volume than the modern one. Generally speaking, it sings wonderfully, much better than the modern guitar; it is very sensitive to articulation, subtle inflections of dynamics and differences of texture, and it is very intimate. The difference between it and the modern guitar is very much like the difference from a modern grand piano and an early XIXth-century fortepiano. I play it occasionally in concerts, when organizers request it and the logistics of bringing a second instrument are possible. To play both guitars in the same concert is a bit difficult, because if you have a more or less historicist approach, as I do, the physical feeling is completely different. I have tried it only once, in a duo concert in Tokyo with Shin-Ichi Fukuda; it was possible, but not easy. It is an instrument I love, and the repertory of its time is ideally suited for it. Playing it has helped me to rethink my ideas about this period, too, and led me to studying performance practices of the time. It was a revelation, let me tell you!
J.V.: About the guitar, which sound settings connect you with it?
E.F.: I would say, the guitar can do more or less what you want, except being extremely loud, or presenting heavy textures for an extended time – but even here, a work like Berio’s Sequenza XI would be an exception. The problem is to find the right way to persuade it to present the ideas in a natural way, to write in such a way that it does not sound forced. I find that the best guitar music is one that is relatively sparse, but one in which every note counts. And the guitar has a wonderful ability to mimic other musical media – orchestra, accompanied singing. Even opera! Just think of Giuliani’s Rossiniane, for instance, or Legnani’s Caprices. Richness of colour is something I would certainly associate with it, and the ability to inflect a phrase with dynamics and colours – it can be very close to the singing voice.
J.V. : You have also played with big orchestras. Can the guitar make it through in this context, or do you use amplification?
E.S.: With orchestra you just need amplification. Otherwise everybody is uncomfortable – the conductor, who is playing in the dark, the musicians who cannot hear the soloist, the soloist which is trying not to force the tone and still be heard. If you want to play "Aranjuez" without amplification, then you need a lot of rehearsal time until everybody is playing softly enough. It is possible, I have done it a couple of times, but in normal conditions, you just do not have this rehearsal time.
J.V.: Describe for us your most memorable concert.
E.S.: I always hope it will be the next one!