GUITARRA Magazine: We have the pleasure to have with us the great maestro Sergio Assad in this exclusive interview for GUITARRA Magazine. Welcome Maestro.
Sergio Assad: (Maestro Assad waves at microphone smiling!).
GM: We have asked our readers to share with us some questions that they would like to ask you. One of the topics that came up concerns the arrangement and transcription of music. How do you approach the arrangement or transcription of a piece?
SA: Well, I think the first thing is that I have to be in love with the piece. Then, I will do anything to arrange that piece and make it fit the guitar. And I think by being a guitarist I know the repertoire, so I sort of know that the result of that piece is going to suit the instrument and have a guitar taste.
GM: Have you experienced trying to arrange a piece that you later found out didn't work on the guitar and had to forget about the whole thing?
SA: Yes, very few times.
GM: What kind of pieces?
SA: I tried some Soler Sonatas that I thought would work wonderfully and they didn't, or they turned out to be extremely difficult. But you know, I did quiet challenging pieces like the Ginastera Sonata N.1 for piano and the result was magnificent. It is in a record called Saga dos Migrantes and is released by Nonesuch.
GM: Do you have any recommendations for young people who might be working in the field of arranging and transcribing music, about how to choose a piece and to use certain methods for translating the music in a better way?
SA: Well, there are two different things; to transcribe a piece is to change it from one instrument to another. Just to put all the notes from that instrument into a new one. That is not that difficult to do. With computers you can do that easily, in fact. But the thing is, when you have to change slightly the texts you have to still convince people that you where playing the original notes. That's the challenge. But then if you are a guitarist who knows well your instrument and knows what the guitar is capable of, it is sort of transforming things from one language to your language; the guitar language. It works pretty well. I don't think there is any secret about it, its a matter of will, patience, and taste.
GM: Lets talk about your music. How do you portray Brazilian folklore in your music?
SA: There is what we call Brazilian folkloric music, which has its strength, but is not what I call the traditional Brazilian music, which is something different. This is, I think, the sort of mistake made by many people when they tend to think of music that comes from a country as folk music, but it is not true. We grew up in Rio but we were born in Sao Paulo. In these two lands is found a type of music called Choro, a type of traditional Brazilian music. But it is not folk music, it is just traditional music, and I think, pretty much, based on that style.
GM: So, you find traditional elements in your compositions?
SA: Definitely, it is very Brazilian oriented with the rhythms, with the harmony. But, there is something to tell here, the development of music in Latin American countries is all supposed to be about the same. The colonizers were more or less the same (well, except in Brazil they were maybe the Portuguese), but we had the same kind of elements. We had African elements as all the other countries had too. But I don't know for which reason Brazilian harmony just took off more than other countries. You see, the most charming thing about Brazilian music is the harmony.
GM: And the rhythm?
SA: Well, I don't know. We have many types of Brazilian rhythms that you characterize as Brazilian rhythms but they are based on African elements, as all other Latin cultures do too. You know, where they had the black influence. And even if you go to Uruguay and Argentina, you have the same kind of music based on... this Cuban rhythm... which is three, three and two... I forgot the name. They made the Danson out of it. The style is called Habaneras also, made out of this rhythm.
GM: What are the traditional Brazilian instruments for playing harmony?
SA: The guitar. Lets say that until the end of the nineteenth century society was divided in a very different way. You had the high society with the imperial courts and the instrument for them was the piano not the guitar. The guitar was the "cheap" instrument played by the people. So we had so many pianos in cities like Sao Paulo or Rio that Rio was named the "City of Pianos", because each home had a piano. So you can't say: "right, that is a country for the guitar." It eventually became a country for the guitar, but it wasn't until the end of the nineteenth century. So, the guitar was brought by the lower class society and actually they created what we know as Brazilian music.
GM: I am trying to follow the development of harmony in Brazilian music...
SA: Lets gather. I think, when the style called Choro was introduced it had already lots of harmonic modulations in it. So the music of Ernesto Nazareth, and all those people who were doing the first prototypes of Choro, had already reached a sort of modulation in their music. The chords got enriched later, under the influence of jazz. When we reach the 50's and the early 60's then it got even more complex and richer. In the style of playing Choro, which is instrumental music, one of the challenges was to create pieces that the other musicians couldn't play along with at first hearing. Music was an activity to have fun, so people would gather and play music just for fun. And one of the most charming things was that someone would create a Choro and everyone else would have to follow on the spot. Since they had this game of creating things that people couldn't follow at first hearing they created tricky modulations.
GM: Lets move on a little bit. Still talking about your music, are you working on any new compositions for guitar or other instruments?
SA: We have been playing with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg since 1997. I think, because she moved to Nonesuch Records, which is a label that we record for, a producer from Nonesuch had the idea of bringing the three of us together. We made an album and since then this corporation kept going, we had many concerts and then I can't remember who brought the idea that it would be nice if someone wrote a concerto written for us... and it happens that I write some music! Actually the whole thing was commissioned before I even had the time to write, so we had it scheduled to be played in January 2003. And I had very little time to write it. But I wrote the whole thing in a month, in the month of June it was finished. So I have someone preparing the copies with the parts right now. The premier is on the 19th of January in Minneapolis.
The concerto is written in five movements and it's called Origenes. I based the first two movements in Italian dances because Nadja is Italian, and the other two movements are Brazilian dances...because we are from Brazil! And the last, the fifth movement is just a cross between those two things.
GM: How do you work the two guitars and the violin in terms of texture?
SA: You know? I am so familiar with writing for violin and guitars because I have been doing this since 1996. First, I wrote a whole album for us to play, so I did some arrangements. But then I started to do arrangements of various things; from Charles Chaplin to Bach. The problem that exists with violin and guitar is the volume balance... (Well, with two guitars is better) I could say "Ok, you have to be careful on certain spots because the violin is going to dominate." Which is true, but it depends on the player, it depends on how you set up the way of playing. We have cooperated with Nadja for five or six years now, and she has this big, big sound. But she can drop it; she can play really, very pianissimo and we also sort of had to gain some volume. But we do amplify when we play with her.
GM: Does she amplify, too?
SA: She does because it sounds weird if you have two instruments amplified and one un-amplified. She is less amplified than we are, but she is still amplified a little bit to add that roundness to the sound.
GM: We want to ask you about the album you recorded with another great artist; Yo-yo Ma. What kind of experience was it for you to play with him?
SA: He is a very nice person; he is an incredible human being so it is very easy to work in that basis when you feel pleasure of being with that person. No doubt that he is an incredible musician and he plays his instrument very well... and it gives more pleasure because you can share good moments... This is what life is about. Certainly, you can learn many things, but... what I really want to say is something about the music world and the guitar world. Guitarists are known for being not very good musicians. This is a general idea with which I don't agree at all. So I think right now we have incredible musicians that happen to play the guitar but they are not recognized as great musicians as these other people are, you know, violinists and cellists. Which is a pity. We should work in the direction of trying to convince people that the guitar is a good instrument and that we have great artists playing it.
GM: Sometimes I have the impression that, us, guitarists, are actually doing the job of several musicians. That is why, in a way, playing the guitar is complicated. We can't do things the way other musicians can, for instance, playing as legato as a violinist or a flutist, or as loud as a pianist. But in a way we are doing the job of a violinist, a flutist, and a pianist all together.
SA: Well, the guitar is a challenging instrument in the sense that there is not one technique, there are many techniques and you have to find your own. The things that would suit a person won't necessarily suit you. But [the guitar] is still growing because there is not anything really fixed. There is enough room to make the guitar grow even more. The guitars also are getting better; guitar makers are making better guitars. There is a revolution in the guitar, more than any other instrument. Other instruments are fixed, but not the guitar. Each decade we have better players, better guitars, we need maybe better strings. I think we need better strings. We may get excellent results with hybrid things, like, people are now putting graphite in their guitars and this is giving a boost to the sound. So this is going to change slightly the sound of the guitar. But if you see or compare the guitar that is being played nowadays to the guitar that was played in the 50s the sound has changed so much already. So I think it is going to still change.
GM: You say that so many things are changing for the guitar, what about the guitar's audience. Do you think that people are going more and more to guitar venues?
SA: I don't think so. I think there was a bloom in the guitar in the 60s, and maybe a little bit in the 70s, so concerts where crowded. Now, concerts have their audience, it's not a huge one but it exists. So you can build up festivals and you are going to attract some people. It is not like a rock and roll concert but you are going to attract some people, and this is sort of average everywhere. This is enough to support many guitarists making careers; to support many guitar makers building guitars.
GM: Brazilian guitarist Alieksey Vianna just recorded an album with your solo guitar works. We understand you were involved in the production of this record. How do you feel with Maestro Vianna's performance and the overall work he is doing.
SA: Let me talk about our relationship first. I think it was 1996 or 1997; I was in Brazil, Belo Horizonte, where Alieksey is from, actually. He came to talk to me after the concert and he asked if he could play one of my pieces. "Ok, come to the hotel tomorrow and play for me." It was in the morning, so we had one of those parties, you know? The next day I was feeling miserable but I woke up and went to listen to Alieksey play. Well, he was struggling with the piece but he was a nice boy so I said just to encourage him: "OK, go on". And we met again a few years later and he had improved as a guitarist. Then he started to speak about recording these pieces of mine. I had, over the years, written stuff for myself, not for me to play but rather because I have the necessity of writing music. This is a must for me. It is not necessarily that I write it down to put it out there for people to play it. The proof is that I have written this Fantasia Carioca, that he is recording. I wrote it in 1994 and just kept it in the closet. So when he came with the idea of doing a whole album with this music he really fought for it. He went to talk to Dean Kamei from GSP he did the whole thing. He organized the recording, got the producer, got everything. And he had a couple of pieces that he played, but then he asked me if I could provide some arrangement that I had, of other peoples music. Then I remember that I had all these things kept in the closet so I said: "Why don't you play the whole thing, then?" I think, it was a challenging thing that he decided to do. It was incredible. What I gave him was the whole set of pieces written for solo guitar. I think it was last year, can't remember exactly when it was. But he had some time to prepare and we decided that he would come here to play for me by December. In December he came here, he played the whole thing, and he wanted to record straight away so I said: "No way." So we went over the pieces, we worked for a couple of days, maybe three days. So I said: "Now you go work on this and come back again". He did the recording in...I think it was June. I went to San Francisco to make sure that... right. So we got a very good sound. He was playing really very well. We got it right. The recording was very nice.
GM: Do you have any idea when this recording will be available?
SA: I have no idea. Next year at certain point it will be released.
GM: Is it the first recording of your compositions alone?
GM: We would like to congratulate you about the nomination for a Latin Grammy on your album Sergio and Odair Assad Play Piazzolla. We found out through some friends that you were nominated, and then we looked up the website and you were there, its wonderful. Could you tell us something else about this nomination? Is it the first time you are nominated to a Latin Grammy?
GM: How do you feel about it?
SA: Well...nothing really particularly special.
GM: You think this is going to be good for the guitar world in general?
SA: Maybe a Latin Grammy is important but it is not as important as a Grammy itself. You know, other guitarists won the Grammy, like Sharon Isbin won a Grammy, last year actually. I don't think it made any difference for the guitar; it made a difference for her, maybe.
GM: You don't think it is a way to enlarge our audience, to get the guitar out to a larger number of people?
SA: No, I don't think so.
SA: We are talking about the change in the guitar. Now, it is becoming more difficult to define who is the classical guitarist. Lots of people are named classical guitarists but they are playing traditional music, which has been, historically, what the guitar is. In the past you would have a guy like Segovia playing Spanish music, most of the time. Across the ocean, in the Latin countries, you would have all those people playing music rooted on traditional stuff, like Abel Fluery, Barrios, and many other people. I don't know anyone from Colombia but probably there is a known guitarists that composed and... Give me a name.
GM: Gentil Montana is probably the one. He still lives. He writes traditional music for guitar at a very high level.
SA: But you see, for instance, when I was studying the guitar I was instructed how the classical guitar was. You wouldn't study a great composer. You would get what the literature for the guitar was; Barrios...When I was 12 years old and picked up the guitar for the first time the repertoire I new for the classical guitar was Barrios, Lauro, Abel Fluery, and Juan Rodriguez. You see, there were names from outside of Brazil also and they would reach us. So there was a sort of net already that existed. There were fewer people playing the guitar, there were fewer societies, but they sort of communicated with each other. We have the same nowadays, except it is larger. We have more people playing the guitar; we have more people going to guitar concerts as well if you compare it to the 30's or the 40's. I have good hope that we will do better and better, except that the guitar historically has been an instrument to play traditional music. So I don't know if we can make it really like a concert instrument the way the others are. We try but maybe it is not possible...who knows?
GM: We appreciate your time. Our audience is going to appreciate this interview very much. We want to thank you very much.
SA: (Maestro Assad waves good bye at the microphone!).