03 Oct 2008

Tom Moore Interviews Alejandro Rutty

Composer Alejandro Rutty is newly-arrived in North Carolina, where he teaches at UNC Greensboro.

His trajectory has taken him from Buenos Aires through Illinois, New Mexico and Buffalo, by way of rock, jazz and tango. We spoke on Oct. 12, 2007 at Duke University.

TM: Tell me about your family. Were your grandparents, parents, cousins, musical? What was the musical environment like?

AR: In my immediate family there were no musicians that I had interactions with. My father is a physician. I have an uncle who played violin in his youth, but that was not something I actually witnessed. My father studied piano like many children. My grandparents played as amateurs, and my great-grandparents were musical connoisseurs. Music is something that belongs to the family as European immigrants - something that was present, but which got lost in the day-to-day of South American life. Depending on whom you ask, one branch of the family came from Switzerland to the jungle, and it is from that province that my father came to Buenos Aires.

TM: Which province?

AR: Chaco, northeast, very hot.

TM: Buenos Aires is one of the great world cities of immigrants. The Italian immigration to Buenos Aires is famous, the Jewish immigration as well. Where did your family come from in Europe?

AR: Both sides have a mix - one side is half-Spanish, half-Italian, the other is half-Spanish, half-Swiss. In Italy, from the south, and in Spain, Catalonia and Galicia. A pretty standard mix - anyone you meet on the street has a mix that is similar to that. I know very few people whose families have been in Buenos Aires for more than three generations.

TM: You grew up in Buenos Aires. What was the cultural situation in Buenos Aires in the seventies? What was present in your life in terms of music?

AR: The soundscape of Buenos Aires, as I perceived it as a child, was one on the one hand, classical music - I remember being taken to the symphony a few times, to the opera - very traditional, Teatro Colon - and on the other hand, the music of the old - the black and white TV, performers with toupees, and flowers in their lapels, tango, something very old-fashioned and kitsch, a decadent tango. And also folk music, a sort of countryside music, guys in ponchos, singing in three-voice harmony with their guitars.

TM: In the USA you had a pseudo-folk music in NYC associated with socialism. Was there a political character to this folk music?

AR: This was after the beginning of the dictatorship in 1976, so there is nothing leftist that can be out in the open. These were traditional folk artists singing about the moon, and the town that they left --- pretty boring for me as a 10 year-old. Once you get to the eighties, that is when you get nationalistic folk with political messages, something that was a lot more alive, and interesting for someone who is young. The other thing was international rock music, which is what I listened to the most, except for a few classical pieces - Beethoven, the Nutcracker. My first LPs were Pink Floyd, Yes, all of that - British progressive rock.

TM: Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

AR: And other things that were even more obscure - Van de Graaf Generator, Gong.

TM: All those groups that are now completely out of fashion.

AR: Though now they are seen less negatively than they were a few years ago. That's what really got me - that you could make music with electric guitars that was not "sha-la-la".

TM: Very complicated.

AR: And very pretentious. Some of them were pretty accomplished. I remember trying to figure out some of the counterpoint in Gentle Giant, and thinking "those guys went to school. They really know how to write music, or they wouldn't be able to do this." Once in a while I hear one of those tapes and I realize why I liked it, that Peter Gabriel was an interesting artist. There was something in it. It completely captivated me - that was what drew me into music. In the eighties, you had the end of the dictatorship, I became a teenager, lots of music that was prohibited before comes in, and for a variety of reasons there was a boom in Argentine rock, which was boosted by the war with England for the Falkland Islands. Suddenly the military thought "what are we doing? All the music on the radio is in English. We need music in Spanish." So they had to start supporting Argentine rock, which had been underground, and it started to be mainstream and to get top-notch production. I had a trio with a guy who played piano and a guy who played saxophone, and I played electric bass. The weird thing is that before I knew how to write music I was interested in composing. I distinctly remember being in the shower when I was thirteen, and having in my head this extremely elaborate composition, and thinking "This is great! This is really good music!" (which at that moment took the shape of some kind of progressive rock). Everything was clear in my head. And I realized that I had no chance at all to write it down or to play it or to transmit it to anybody, and so the music went down the drain along with the water. I wanted to invent - it wasn't that I had a musical talent or practice, and out of need to invent grew the necessity of writing - I really wanted to compose, in the same way that I would write stories, or invent (unsuccessfully) machinery, such as a music stand that turns the pages with a foot switch, and doesn't make noise…. As I started studying, modern jazz came along - Chick Corea, Weather Report - The first piece which really made me a fan - in the classical repertoire - was Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, which was the eye-opener. In Buenos Aires in the sixties there had been the Instituto Di Tella. They were some sort of IRCAM, and they had Rockefeller funds. Everybody who was anybody came through - Nono, Xenakis, Copland. From everywhere in Latin America they would go to study at the Di Tella. Everything that was out there was at the Di Tella. Later it was closed partly because the funding stopped, and partly because of opposition from the military. In the eighties, after the dictatorship, twenty years later, there were people who had been part of the Di Tella when they were young, and who were now heads of some of the competing camps in the Argentinean new music scene.

TM: These camps were divided by esthetic questions? Were they affiliated with institutions in Buenos Aires?

AR: Curiously enough, I don't think that they were not associated with the main institutions. The Teatro Colón was a conservative institution with no new music going on. There was one guy who was a serialist, who had a position at a research center, but he had not come from there but from the Di Tella. He kept the equipment that used to be at their electronic studios. There were two other independent figures, each with their area of influence and their followers. If you studied composition, in addition to your work at the university, you had to belong to one of these camps.

TM: You studied at the Catholic University.

AR: The music school there was founded by Ginastera.

TM: This is the Pontifical University.

AR: Yes. The music school was small, and not a performance school. All we had was composition, conducting, and musicology. They set the bar very high to get into the school. Imagine something in the US that would start with your junior year in college, and end at your masters. To enter you needed to have solid counterpoint, prepare a piano program. On top of your secondary school you had to study music for two or three years. There were people who went to the conservatory and then moved over to the university. At the time I was there the dean was a composer, Caamaño, solid, but very traditional. Later I came to suspect that the school had partly used the program of the Schola Cantorum in Paris. I had ten semesters of composition, eight semesters of orchestration, ten of music history, Gregorian chant, and then conducting. Up through the sixth semester of composition we were only allowed to write for piano. If you weren't a pianist, at the very least you needed to know how to write for the instrument. It was very obsessive. We were only allowed to write some sort of Mendelssohn/Schumann/Brahms….and then in the last two years of the program you could do your own thing. Most composers who wanted to be part of the avant-garde had to study with one of the new-music composers outside. If you stayed with the conservative curriculum, when you graduated you had no idea what to write. I belonged to the "club" of Gerardo Gandini, an extremely good pianist, very good composer, very intuitive, very imaginative.

TM: Was he a serialist?

AR: There was a time when he was Crumb-like, a time when he was post-modern, referring to earlier styles - he wrote pieces based on Schumann's piano works, re-ornamentations of Frescobaldi….all sorts of things. He, among the three independent figures, was the one who had some media presence and savvy, would organize concert series where an orchestra would only play 20th-century music. That was where I first got to hear the big pieces of the 20th-century repertoire.

TM: Where did they take place?

AR: At a big theater - he had substantial sponsorship. On the other hand, he also had a small basement theater where he did chamber music by young composers - he was a great help. The group of young composers which he led would have its pieces performed by his friends, who were really good players. People would come to listen to new music, and the music by these young composers. It felt like being part of something, belonging, as opposed to the situation in the States, where most new music seems to be inside campuses and outside society. New music in Buenos Aires was in theaters - small theaters, big theaters, places where the general public was present.

TM: Part of a continuum with modern dance, theater…

AR: There was a sense of being part of the larger scheme of things.

TM: Let's rewind the tape a little. You have mentioned art-rock, international rock, Argentinean rock - what was the presence of jazz in Buenos Aires?

AR: What I remember is what everyone was listening to at the time. You had to have your Return to Forever LPs, Paco de Lucia, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea - that was the thing to be listening to. A few years later Pat Metheny was the biggest jazz figure in Argentina It was a shock when I came here and found Pat Metheny LPs in a record store for thirty cents each. I realized that the reality was different.

TM: How did you move from the trio with which you were playing to studying at the Pontifical University?

AR: That trio led to a fully-equipped rock band playing very pretentious instrumental music, which then broke up, and we became avant-garde performers. I had switched from bass to piano, and when I was leaving high-school, career choices needed to be made. I don't know how explicit it was, but there was a sense of my family saying, if you are going to be a musician, be a serious musician - don't just have long hair and play acoustic guitar. I didn't feel it as an imposition - coming from a middle-class family, it seemed appropriate to me, to have your credentials in order. It also seemed very exciting. The possibility of a career as a composer was very attractive. I was already obsessed, like a typical seventeen-year old, with which pieces were more musically advanced than others.

TM: Who were the prominent figures in composition from the world scene in Argentina at the time?

AR: Each teacher would have a favorite, but there were no figures that were directly influential. The composition teacher at the university was a big fan of Bartok - he had premiered Bartok's music in Argentina in the forties. He tolerated Messiaen - nothing beyond that. The serialist was stuck on hyper-analyzing Webern's op. 27, and the other guy was into Italian composers, having himself studied with Dallapicola.

TM: Where did you go from study at the Catholic University?

AR: Halfway through I decided that only composing was leaving me unhappy, because of the nature of the program. There was composition, history, harmony, counterpoint, but where was the music-making? There were no ensembles to play with. I was starting to worry about how to make a living. On top of my composing, I started doing choral and orchestral conducting, learning music from a different perspective, which was very, very helpful. Suddenly I could make music with others. Conducting helps a lot if you want to be dating. It was a change from walking in a crouch, with long hair, long beard, glasses, to hanging out with musicians, and going for drinks after the rehearsals. I started making my living primarily by conducting choirs, and I also had a semi-professional orchestra, which gave me some more visibility. The choir scene is different there - it is not church-oriented, but socially-oriented. There are singing groups, and they often need conductors. Sometimes they become big organizations.

TM: Are there corporate choirs there?

AR: There are a few. Banks often have choirs. I was a student of someone who had one of the best choirs in the country, and also conducted the National Bank choir. A large bank, and they only had to pay one part-time salary to a conductor, and all their employees would go and sing on Thursday nights. Great for morale, great for PR, and gives a musician a job. And then there are groups where everyone chips in ten bucks, and it is enough to get a conductor. I did a lot of that.

TM: Did that come from German culture with the Singverein?

AR: I have no idea where it comes from, what the roots are. This is how the choral scene works in most of Latin America. It was really refreshing. Just as the string orchestra let me get to know all of the Italian repertoire for strings - Geminiani, Corelli, Torelli - this was a way for me to enter into the choral repertory. And there the choral people really preferred unaccompanied choir music. Outside of the big pieces with orchestra, a capella is the real singing, and piano is evil. It was good for me to get excited about finding repertoire, which was difficult, given the state of the libraries. I remember going to a library looking for 16th-century canzonets, maybe Vecchi, and the librarian said, "there are some boxes over there. You can check them out. We used to have a card catalog, but it's gone." Things may have changed a bit, but that was my experience at the time. I would conduct, and once in a while would have one of my compositions performed. This was already 1991, 1992. We had hyper-inflation beginning in 1989, things were tough, and people were looking for a way out. My composing/conducting career was stagnant, so I thought it would be a good idea to study, find out what was going on elsewhere. Whatever the first opportunity with a fellowship would be, I would check it out. This was pre-internet. A lot of mail to places that I didn't know that much about. I looked for places in Italy, Spain and the USA. I got admitted to programs in Fiesole and Barcelona, but couldn't secure funding. The first thing that came through was a masters in composition at Illinois State. I knew that the university in Illinois had a good reputation, but I didn't know that there was more than one. I arrived, and for a variety of reasons, I moved to New Mexico, where I had a good opportunity as graduate assistant of the conductor. I had a great time, lots of podium time. I love Albuquerque - every time I can I go back. At New Mexico I made some good friends in the theater department among the faculty. They always needed live music for the shows, and I was the only one willing to write music on the spot, with one day's notice, and put together a band. It was very good experience, very enlightening - all the curse words I know in English I learned at the basement of the theater department. It was a lot more colorful than at the music department. It was here that they told me to write an opera that they would somehow manage to produce. It was my sense that whenever I was conducting I was thinking about composing, and whenever I was composing I was thinking about conducting. I did a little bit of both. The next step was my doctorate in Buffalo. An Argentine composer, Erik Oña, was there, and highly recommended the program. It was the moment in which my adult compositional language began to be formed, rather than some sort of student mix, thanks to the sharp mind of David Felder.

TM: You have mentioned a variety of very disparate influences. Does your language bring these together? How would you identify the elements in the mix?

AR: One of the things that happened is that what had been the music of grandparents began to be rediscovered. In the 70's singers had been singing the tangos from the 1930's and 1940s, but with less style - cheap crooning, a Barbara Streisand kind of tango, but worse - the type of thing that I just don't like at all - old ladies' music. But then you have the music of Piazzolla, who made his career through escaping the traditional tango, becoming a sort of jazz musician around the world at jazz festivals. He comes back, becomes a sort of classical composer because he writes for strings. Conservatory students in Argentina get to play Piazzolla because "it's cool tango, it's not this old thing with the vibrato", and partly because of these young players tango begins to reappear. People listened to Piazzolla, and then to tango standards, and they began to realize that the traditional repertoire is even more interesting than Piazzolla, a lot richer. Piazzolla effectively simplified the complexities of traditional tango into some things that are very identifiable, and could be played by anybody, whereas the traditional tango is so rhythmically subtle and nuanced and complex, rich and interesting, that you cannot play it if you don't know it. You have to be part of the tradition - someone has to tell you how to play it. The scores are just quarter notes and eighth notes - but it floats. You count one, two, three, four and you don't know where you are, because the bass player is never playing quite there. It's very difficult, and very interesting. This re-discovery of traditional tango was happening in Argentina while I was gone. In the States - my wife is a good singer, and it's an expatriate thing - we started doing some small tango shows, which grew into large tango shows, and we brought bandoneón players from New York, from Miami. We did a show in Buffalo where the symphony plays, in the ballroom for 800 people, and then we played in Pittsburgh for 3000 people at a festival. Suddenly we were playing tango. I had the good fortune of meeting Pablo Aslán, who is a tango bass player, who lives in New York, and was my neighbor in Argentina, though we didn't meet back then, he is the person who knows the most about tango in the States, and who knows who is where and who does what. He knows everybody. When Yo-Yo Ma did the world tango tour, he went with him. He is from my generation, so he is musically bilingual. I started learning from him, but also from the older bandoneón players. One of them didn't read very well, but he was phenomenal. You would tell him the song, tell him the key, and he had everything by memory. You started to figure out how do you do an ending, what type of pattern do you play, what do you do in the right hand, what do you do in the left hand. This started growing on a separate track. At some point in Buffalo I realized that I didn't like where my music was going. I wanted to start from scratch. I said "the next piece I will write will be just a melodic line." I had been just piling elements on top of elements, and everything was so complex, with different layers. No more layers, no more anything. I just need to write a line - no harmony, no counterpoint, just a line. And this line would have to be so good that it would be enough, and I would build from there. At that point I was listening to a lot of French baroque music - Charpentier, Rameau - and I liked the way that they did ornamentation. I was also listening to Arabic music from North Africa, and I liked the ornamentation there as well. And I was listening to tango. Somehow I started doing music that would be just melody, but rich with a tremendous amount of ornamentation. Tango-style, but also French baroque, and Middle-Eastern with bends….I liked that. And I thought "what do I do with this music?" Because it can't be just melody, and I didn't want to do counterpoint. I realized that in many of my previous pieces I had been doing music based on mechanical processes. What if, in order to create the larger acoustical space that I need, I can process this melody with a reverb, not with a real reverb, but with a reverb that I write into the score? That was the beginning of how I started to create a melodic style that I felt was mine. I started playing with other effects. What if I use a phaser here? A little chorus? If I try to detune this one? There's a quartet, Artificial Resonances, which I wrote, in which each of the three movements has a different process, different specific things from a machine that would produce what I was writing. Of course, once I get started writing, I don't care about how realistic the reflection of the process is, I care that it gets me to write something that sounds interesting. David Stock, in Pittsburgh, saw a tango show that I did, and saw me a few months earlier at an SCI conference, with a string quartet that I had, and asked for a piece for tango quartet and large instrumental ensemble, since some of his students had a tango quartet. So I wrote Tango Loops. He wanted a tango concerto grosso, but I couldn't figure it out, so I tried to do this: I composed tango pieces as if they were old tangos, and then mixed them up with the orchestra as if I were a DJ who was trying to make some loops out of those pieces. In the lobby, during the intermission, the tango group would be playing…

TM: those tangos.

AR: That started this latest phase, in which I include tango as part of the mix, and now it's not only reverb, I am working on looping, not looping melodies, but complex sound events. When you loop something that you take out of a CD, you have the melody, the accompaniment, the pspspsps - you have everything. I am trying to see how I can put that together with actual instrumental groups. Now I am trying to see how I can get out of tango. I am trying a couple of things. There's one piece now that has a Balkan style-Gypsy wedding sound, as seen by a tango player. I did a piece after I came back from studying batucada, a piece for flute and cello, which is basically an imitation of a batucada, a weird notion for those instruments.

TM: We are all over the map here. What impelled you to look at batucada? This is something that seems completely separate both from American experience and Argentinean music.

AR: In Argentina we have this fascination, this love/hate relationship with Brazil. When I was teaching at Hartwick College, you could propose courses which were three-week long study-abroad trips. As a way to escape from the winter of upstate New York, I thought "where could we go?" Argentina would be too boring. How about Brazil? It's a nice place to go. I had friends there who could help me out. We took a group of students to see how Carnaval gets prepared. We went in January, before it starts, but when you already have the Escolas doing the technical rehearsals. I knew a percussionist at UFF who knows everything about….

TM: Did you look at a particular school?

AR: We went to rehearsals at Mangueira, and were supposed to go to Viradouro, but couldn't make it. We went to this guy's studio, and lined up as if were were an escola, he taught us all the patterns….. Then we went to Salvador, where a good friend plays with Olodum. He helped set up the same type of thing there. We would get together in Pelourinho, and start to play, with the tourists taking pictures of us, as if we were locals, which we clearly weren't. It was completely attractive. There's nothing like it. Those patterns are so interesting.

TM: Tell me how that is being reflected in your next pieces.

AR: What I am doing, and which I did in Tango Loops II, is that I went back and rescued some of the music which I had forgotten. I had the rock band, then a duo, then another rock band, and even living in the States every time I went back home I would compose tunes with friends. I wrote tons of music for theater, songs….I didn't want to have all that material just lost. I write them into the pieces I am putting together.

TM: Music that you wrote for your rock band in 1991…

AR: …ended up in Tango Loops II.

TM: Do you have an archive of scores? Or are they recordings?

AR: Recordings. So I have to listen to them, and write them down in the new, sophisticated way. The esthetic problem that I am dealing with now is that I created this Rutty-style melody, and my version of processing those melodies, but I want to make sure that there is something visceral in it. I sometimes fear that all this compositional pyrotechnia might prevent something that is emotionally direct from entering.

TM: Too much cerebration.

AR: Too much playfulness. I want to make sure that the other element is also there. I think that rescuing these things which were completely direct and unpremeditated in the way that they were composed, in the way they were used - a song that you wrote to play in nightclubs - brings something to the table. And it is way to repossess things that otherwise were lost. What else am I going to do with these songs?

TM: The quality of nationality, of brasilidade is always present in Brazilian music making, which is not true for music in the USA. Is this question of nationality present on a conscious level for you?

AR: This is not the case in Argentina. Brazilian identity is very strong. It never faded. They went from samba to MPB, and it was always mainstream. In Argentina in the eighties rock bands were more international. I don't have this built-in need to be national in any way. As an expatriate, those things sometimes are played out a bit differently. I don't see the need to make musical statements about nationality. The ornamentation thing that came from improvisational tango - it's natural, but if you aren't from there you wouldn't have figured it out. Now that I am doing tango pieces, it helps that people have an image of it, but that is not the essence of my music. It is like a found object. It just happens to be an object that I know from the inside. Recovering the old music helps to make sure that whatever music I write now is more representative of the whole thing; it's the whole me that gets poured into the next piece, not just "now I am writing dodecaphonic duos for contrabassoon and piccolo". The orchestral piece I am writing now - anything that I like in music somehow gets to be in the same piece. That is what I am looking at - making sure that the music is not compartmentalized. It can be a good piece, a bad piece, people can like it or not, but it has to be me.

TM: What's the next big project that you are working on?

AR: Two things. One is an orchestral piece commissioned by the MATA festival in Boston, which Boston Modern Orchestra will play in March, and in April in New York. It's a piece which includes some old tunes of mine, and all sorts of weird things - loops of flamenco, tango ….I don't know what the final piece will be like, but I am very happy with how it's shaping up.

The other thing is a piece I have been trying to write for ten years, and I just failed in my fourth attempt. When I was in Buffalo, I had a musical group dealing with live poets as performers, music based not on the text of the poem, but on how it was spoken. This brought us into contact with the avant-garde poetry scene in Buffalo, which is very strong. Michael Basinski wrote a poem called City of Webs, which is thirty-nine minutes long. Two pages, but he takes thirty-nine minutes. Mind-bending, phenomenal - it changed how I see text, poetry, everything. At first I tried to do a piece for choir and recording of his voice - without him doing it there is no point - and I failed. Then I tried to do an instrumental piece, and failed. At the new music festival at UNC Greensboro, I was going to present the new version, but I failed. I am pretty sure that I will finish it up as recorded instrumental music plus Basinski, as opposed to electronics. It is tape, but with actual performers. That is the next big thing for me, because it is a large piece. I trimmed the poem to twenty-two minutes, but most of the meat is there.