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Interview with Colin Cooper April 1996




COLIN COOPER: In a previous interview you talked about your life and career and your attitudes to music. It would be interesting to know more about the music of Argentina. We know Ginastera and Guastavino, whose music you play, but who else is there?

MARIA ISABEL SIEWERS: Well, you know that Ginastera wrote only the Sonata for the guitar. I don't think people know that Guastavino has written three sonatas, also Jeromita Linares, a piece for string quartet and guitar (which may also be played with string orchestra).

Some time ago he told me that he was thinking of writing a guitar concerto. He didn't seem very sure about it, but I hope it becomes a reality.

There are some younger composers, but not so many who use elements of Argentine music. Many young composers look to Europe. They want to make universal music - as, for example, Gerardo Gandini, who is one of the main composers in Argentina today. He's between 40 and 50 and married to Irma Costanzo (the well-known Argentine guitarist). He has composed a piece for guitar and orchestra, six Tientos for solo guitar, and pieces for flute and guitar. But, as I say, his music has nothing to do with our national school; there are no elements of folklore, as there are in Guastavino's music.

Angel Lasala is another composer who has written many pieces for the guitar, although they are not much known. Lasala and Guastavino were both born in 1914; Ginastera two years later. Like Guastavino, he has written a lot, not only for the guitar but also for choirs, voice and piano, and for violin and cello. Lasala has also composed a ballet, and done pieces for piano and for voice. And he has written six preludes for guitar, Preludios Americanos. And a series of homages, one of them a homage to another Argentine composer, Jose Luis Gianneo. He has also written pieces for two guitars. I think he has done a good job. There is also a concerto for two guitars and orchestra, which was played in Paris by the Martinez-Zarate Duo. So he has made a great contribution.

Lasala doesn't write in the same way as Guastavino, but he also uses Latin American elements. I think his approach is a very nice one. He doesn't play the instrument, but he knows what he can get from it.

One thing to note is that perhaps we make a greater difference between, on the one hand, the classical guitar and classical compositions, and on the other the sort of pieces that, say, Fald could have written. Falu is another of our composers, of course; his works have a strong folkloric influence (many of the pieces he wrote even

"All musicians look to Europe"

keep the form of Argentine dances), and I could say perhaps that Guastavino's work is more or less in the middle - between what Falu writes and what is strictly classical.

Falu has written a lot for the guitar, and plays his own pieces. Astor Piazzolla has composed five pieces for the guitar. His is also a sort of music that develops from popular sources: the tango and the milonga. The tango (completely different from the Spanish tango) was the characteristic dance of the `town' of Buenos Aires. Maximo Pujol is a young guitarist and composer. Some of his music (sometimes reminiscent of Piazzolla because of its tango flavour) will be edited by Universal in England very soon, as part of a Latin-American series that John Duarte is putting together. The Canciones sin Palabras (songs without words) by the conductor and composer Juan Carlos Zorzi will also be published it that series. He conceived them for two guitars or violin and guitar. Universal will publish my revision of the version for two guitars. Zorzi has also composed o concerto for guitar and orchestra. In its second move ment he uses a caja (a kind of drum used by the Indian in the north-west of Argentina), with the flute playing like the quena (a very simple flute also used in tha region). The last movement is strongly reminiscent o the malambo. Another composer, Robert Caamano, i! at present director of the Music College of the Catholic University, and is an important composer. He has written a concerto for amplified guitar and orchestra. Of course, there are many younger composers. Jorge Tsilicas, for example. Then there is Jorge Labrouve, and of course Jose Luis Campana (composer of Nexus '84, played by Maria Isabel at her Wigmore Hall concert).

You said that the younger composers were looking towards Europe to some extent. Why is that, when your own roots are so powerful?

I think it's partly because there is a kind of interest among classical guitarists in having the guitar completely accepted like every other instrument. And sometimes in our country we try to avoid the popular repertoire, or anything which could be taken as popular music in that sense.

"I don't run away when I hear Stockhausen"

Then sometimes there are those pieces which are half way - for example, Cardoso's pieces. Perhaps I wouldn't play them in Argentina; they are very nice and very good, but we have lots of folklore, and lots of folkloric guitarists who play such pieces. Of course, some of them don't do it very seriously; they don't go to the sources, as Cardoso has done, but there is a lot of that kind of music.

I don't think it's altogether right that composers don't look at all the material that's there. I don't think they've worked on all that material yet. There are a lot of things there that they could use - not necessarily in a classical way, but simply to show that they are not lost to the world.

When people speak of Latin American music, they sometimes think that Brazilian and Argentine music are very much the same. Perhaps that's our fault, because we don't work our material enough. We have Spanish influences, but we don't have jazz or Afro music influences, except perhaps in the Rio de la Plata - and that's only a small part. We have much more Spanish influence. The Indian influence is important in the north of our country, and quite different from the Brazilian one. I think if we had shown this to the world you would recognise it. But we haven't shown it enough.

What many people in England admire most of all is the powerful and basic sense of rhythm behind the music. Perhaps it's something we haven't got.

I don't know. When I try to play Dowland's galliards, I would like to have the English rhythm!

That's a very good answer - but it's a different kind of rhythm, isn't it?

It's a difficult question. Perhaps it is a powerful kind of rhythm, as you say. It's certainly a very strong element in our music.

Dowland wrote largely in a dance tradition. Later we developed more of a vocal tradition. The English people forgot how to dance; they lost that rhythmic connection. We are still nearer to the dance. For example, playing the Guastavino sonata, and working with him, I noticed in the second sonata that the first movement could be a zamba - a slow dance - and you really notice its rhythms. By the way, our zamba is completely different from the Brazilian samba. It is danced by pairs who gently move handkerchiefs accompanying the steps. And in the last movement of the Ginastera sonata there is a very powerful dance, the malambo, a kind of zapateado and a very nice dance. So yes, of course, in much of our music there are still these dances.

For example, in Lasala's Nortena, one of the Preludios Americanos I play on the record, you can feel a baguala, which is a song of the Indians of the north. I wonder if Campana's music shows something of the same sort, internally. I've mentioned the voice in Nexus '84 as part of the colour. Campana told me that he felt compelled to use it because the voice had always been prominent in our folklore, and always with the guitar. In every house in Argentina, you will find someone who can sing a song with a guitar - or if not songs, what we call the paya­dores, persons who recite improvised poems and accompany themselves on the guitar. So the voice was always associated with the instrument, and that kind of influence is present in Nexus '84.

Tell me about John Duarte's Sonatina del Sur. How did this come into existence?

In fact, it is a birthday present from my mother. I suggested to Jack that I didn't want too modern a piece. I played All in a Row two or three years ago, but I already had some very modern pieces in my repertoire, like Nexus '84, and I didn't really want another of that kind. So I asked him for something like his Sonatinette op. 35, perhaps, or even like the English Suite.

He sent me the Sonatina del Sur. I didn't ask him to do anything on South American Music. That was his idea. I really like it a lot. He had named the third movement in a way I didn't think appropriate, so he wrote to me and said `Well, if you don't want to call it that, then I will call it Isabel!' So I had to accept that. I love the piece. I played it for the first time in Innsbruck in January 1985. I had an idea that the reaction would be good; it turned out to be even better than I expected.

The second movement, Cancion de curia, is a lullaby, entirely in natural harmonics. When I play pieces like this - like, for example, Bach's Sarabande from the 3rd Lute Suite, so simple! - I find those simple elements with which good composers are able to do beautiful things.

It has a strong South American flavour about it ... Perhaps not completely. The first movement has a lot of syncopation, so there's a strong, rhythmical Latin American element. The second movement is this lullaby,

"I notice the value of my country's music when I come to Europe"

without anything specially Latin American about it, I would say. But when I was playing it, I was thinking of our Cruz del Sur - the Southern Cross constellation we can see in the night sky in South America but which you can't see here.

The third movement is very simple, and again has Latin American rhythms - I would say more Brazilian than Argentinian. The last movement is a kaleidoscopic movement with strong rhythms again, and this reminds me a bit more of our folklore, with its percussion effects, especially on the strings, which are so common in our folkloric music.

It seems that while Argentine composers are looking towards Europe, some of our own composers occasion­ally look towards South America.

Not only composers, but all musicians look to Europe, because we find there a musical tradition which we really admire. Also it's perhaps easier for a composer to work there. It's not at all easy to be a composer in Argentina.

Jose Luis Campana, for example, went to Paris with a scholarship and is now living there. It's possible for him to work throughout the year with a professional group. These musicians are paid so that composers may use them, so that they can hear their music. You write a piece, and you can take it to, say, a violinist and say `Look, I would like you to try this so that I can see if its sounds right or not'. In Argentina such possibilities of performance do not exist. If you are a very well-known composer, perhaps once a year an orchestra may play a piece of yours. But you must run after the musicians and ask them to play your pieces, and these musicians are also trying to earn their living with music and so have very little time. And, you know, it's a big responsibility to perform a piece for the first time. Because it's new and more difficult to read and to understand, and because they have too little time, the performance is not at all good when it happens. It's very frustrating.

Then they come on scholarships to study in Europe - because of the traditions and the conditions. Most of them remain here. We have to build our musical careers. It's more or less the same with musicians in general.

I hope they have some influence on our European composers. This kind of interaction must be a good thing for music.

It's interesting. I like modern music a lot, and I'm not at all - well, I don't run away when I hear Stockhausen!

"It's not easy to find repertoire that is unknown and quite good"

I must tell you the truth, which is that I really notice the value of my country's music when I come here. And I'm very glad to have noticed it, and now I tell it to my students and everyone I know in Argentina.

I like to have a kind of adventure when I learn a piece. To find something new. To make a discovery. Of course, you may discover many things by yourself and have your own interpretation of pieces that have already been performed, but learning a piece that hasn't been played before is especially interesting. That's why I like to play pieces that haven't been played very much before. But it's not easy to find repertoire that is unknown and quite good.

What do English guitarists have to do in order to play Argentinian music well? Have they got all the equipment? I think they have absolutely everything they need. It's a kind of sensibility. Giving masterclasses, I sometimes notice that they are possibly too worried about the pieces being Latin American. Some people think they should play this rubato, rubatissimo, three times rubato! They lose their rhythm, playing in that way. They should not be so worried. I would say: why not just play the piece? There are not so many human differences. Of course, if someone gives me Japanese music, I might not know exactly what to do with it, but our own musical system has developed from the European system, so it's not so different. It's a good thing to listen to folkloric music and popular music, if the music they're going to play has some elements of that in it, but I think they can do it perfectly well.

In the previous interview you said at one point `It is important to get a good legato on the guitar'. Does that mean you feel the guitar to be essentially a melodic instrument rather than a harmonic one?

Perhaps I was speaking about phrasing. I don't think it has anything to do with my legato!

When I was just beginning at the conservatory, a teacher told me - he was a very good music history teacher - that every guitarist or pianist should learn to

"One shouldn't forget how to play slowly"

sing or to play a flute or something like that, to have an idea of articulation and breathing. And that's very important.

But about that melodic thing. I've been listening to John Williams's Bach recording - the new one, of the Violin Concerto in A. And it just has the melody. Of course, there is the implied harmony in Bach ...

For me, it's difficult to accept transcriptions - very difficult to forget, for example, the violin in that concerto. But I do accept it, and I enjoy it a lot, because he does wonderful things with it. And then you begin to wonder, why shouldn't I, a guitarist, play that piece? Which of course is a change of mind! But when you listen to such a thing, you must be open in your mind to what you are hearing. Also, if you think so much in the melodic line, you must give much more attention to the sound. It's so much more difficult to play simple notes and reach full intensity and colour.

But when a guitarist phrases as a singer phrases, everybody enjoys it, because they recognise something that is very old and part of our common musical culture. Breathing is a natural thing. Yet it doesn't have to be like that; the guitar doesn't have to breathe, it can keep on playing.

Perhaps the person who is playing doesn't feel it so much. I feel that when one plays, it's very much a giving of something to others. It's also like being a teacher. You must help people to understand. Some teachers don't give people time to understand, there is not enough clarity. I think this thing about breathing makes things much clearer.

Even with contemporary music there are moments of tension and moments when you relax. One must feel that. But sometimes one is anxious. There are many musicians who play very fast - indeed, it's important to

"I enjoy giving a concert, but I don't think I've ever enjoyed a competition"

have this mechanical facility - but one shouldn't forget how to play slowly when necessary.

You won the second prize in the 1974 Paris competition. Since then you've had a career as a performer. Do you owe a lot to that? Many people who win competitions are never heard of again.

Well, first of all, it wasn't the first prize. There were two second prizes, with Kari Aikas, who is a Finn, and I don't think I've heard of him since. But one doesn't hear from everyone who plays. Perhaps he's playing a lot. But in fact the competition didn't help me all that much . . . yet. I met Jack Duarte there, and I also met Enrique Franco, who was a director of Spanish radio and invited me to record for them. Since then I've been recording there every year, when I come to Europe. But after­wards - well, by that time I had a baby, and then I had another baby. I came to Europe again in 1975, but I think a mother sometimes loses a little interest in other things when she has little children. I think it is quite normal!

In 1978 1 began to come to Europe again, to some extent through the Argentine embassies. I also played for the Jeunesse Musicale in Austria, the Musikalische Jugend, who have a very nice series in Vienna. It all began again, so perhaps the competition did help me - at least to show people I was there! But it's not that I was offered a lot of concerts.

I phoned Robert Vidal, who said he would have to convince the radio people that they should have concerts by the second prize winners also. There are many competitions, and it's interesting to see that some who won first prize are not heard of afterwards, and some people who don't get high prizes can still make careers for themselves.

There are so many things. Some people are very good at competitions. Some are very nervous. For me, it's horrible. In general I enjoy giving a concert, but I don't think I've ever enjoyed a competition.

Does anybody?

Well, enjoy -I don't know if they enjoy it, but they don't feel this kind of nervousness.

There are so many other things that make a career for someone. The capacity to give concerts, preparing the pieces, the help that you can sometimes get from particular countries. A competition may be a beginning, but it doesn't make you certain of anything.

In some countries there are better opportunities - in Belgium, for example, the Reine Elizabeth competition for violin and piano organises a series of concerts not only for last year's winners but the winners of many years before. And sometimes Vidal invites past prize­winners to give recitals.

But perhaps the problem goes a little deeper. A guitar competition is of course a musical competition - but we are always among guitarists, and that is perhaps one of the things that worries me most. It's wonderful that there

"We have to be good guitarists, but we also need to assert ourselves in the musical scene as a whole"

are so many guitar societies, but I think it's also important for the guitar to be a musical instrument and to play more with orchestras and other ensembles. In England there are many concerts with orchestras, but in other countries there are not so many possibilities, especially if you are not a name that will attract a lot of people.

In Argentina it's quite normal for an orchestra to have a guitar concerto during the year. You have five or six orchestras, so five or six guitarists will have an opportun­ity of playing once or twice a year. But I don't feel it is so in other countries. For example, in Austria, which I visited recently, there are great orchestras, but they never have a guitarist - unless it's Bream or perhaps Yepes, because of the name.

I would like the big audiences, the normal audiences, to look on us not as strange, exotic people but as musicians. Why should the guitar be exotic?

We guitarists have a double responsibility. We have to be good guitarists, but we also need to assert ourselves in the musical scene as a whole. Playing with groups, playing chamber music, contemporary music - it's another audience. That's the best way of doing good for the instrument, I think.

When I left my own country, I expected to find that other countries were not so conservative - but I think they still are.

"When I left my own country, I expected to find that other countries were not so conservative - but I think they still are"

I like ensemble a lot, though last year I haven't done much of it. I usually play duos, also trios and with singers and the flute. I have the feeling that in Argentina now every musician would like to play with a guitarist. The best musicians!

What is particularly beautiful is to play with an orchestra. Some concertos are not very well known, the Villa-Lobos for example. I enjoy playing it very much, if the orchestra plays it well. It's not easy. Generally you are asked to play the Aranjuez, but that's another problem. You have to convince the conductor that other concertos might also be nice, so that you can come and play those as well.