South Miami, FLA
Friday, Feb. 21, 2014
Like many of the great classical guitarists that I have had the good fortune to encounter, Alvaro Pierri is an unassuming character. A mop of graying hair caps his friendly, inviting face, with lively eyes behind small glasses. His speech is slow, but deliberate, with a contemplative rhythm punctuated by the occasional quick joke or passionate outburst. He also seems to be a veritable well of patience. Despite what I can only describe as an engrossing and masterful performance, his visit to Miami was accompanied by a string of minor disasters worthy of a sitcom.
Due to a scheduling snafu, the UM marching band needed to return their instruments to storage in the middle of his evening masterclass, which was being held in the same hall that housed their empty cases. He managed to keep us feeling light hearted as the Sousaphones ambled through the room, and continued on teaching while they packed up. Then, of course, there was the fire alarm.
Those of us in attendance didn’t have to evacuate (thankfully it was a false alarm, and not actually ringing in the room we were in), but we did get the pleasure of listening to it for what seemed like the rest of our lives. While he could have easily bid us an eager good night, he instead stuck around well past our scheduled time and talked shop with the nerdiest of us about everything from Baroque ornaments (he has a massive fold out chart), to which microphones he likes to use for amplification.
The very next day, I arrived at Maestro Pierri’s hotel for our interview only to find that the power was out. On the entire block. The desk rang his room, but he had gone down the street to get lunch because neither the hotel nor any of the nearby businesses could prepare food. And so, that is how I came to interview one of the great classical artists of our age, a man who has collaborated with legends such as Astor Piazzolla, Leo Brouwer, Terry Riley, and many others too numerous to list here… at the Denny’s in South Miami.
Amid the clinking of dishes, soft muzak, and the post-lunch chatter of the kitchen staff, we enjoyed a couple of bowls of ice cream and tried to have something that might pass for a deep conversation.
Daniel Shearouse: During your masterclass, I noticed that you ask a lot of questions of the students. Is that a part of your teaching style or is it particular to the masterclass setting?
Alvaro Pierri: Well, particularly in a masterclass I do believe that asking the students first, after they play, their opinion, it allows me to know how the student works, how they think. Therefore I’m more able to help. I mean, it could happen, and it happens, that the student is not very informative!
But, it’s interesting and also I think it’s important to give importance to the student to make him feel more comfortable and more active. Not just sitting there and playing and suffering and thinking, “Okay, this guy is going to come to me with so many corrections!” I think it’s important to point out the good things that the student does so that he has, from the very beginning, a kind or portrait of what we are going to work on. So, with the time I think that this is a helpful thing.
DS: What about when you’re teaching at the university? Do you relate to them much differently? What are your goals there?
AP: No, the relationship with a student that I’m going to see often starts, nevertheless, the same way; which is, I think, an important thing. And, with time, the character is not going to change. What will change is the plan that we have together and which plans I am encouraging the student to look for. It’s very important that the student has ambition, and has a vision for his ambition. I mean, I’m teaching because I love to learn! That’s the most important thing.
And also, because I’m trying to share not only their experience, but their experience with mine also. I mean, each person is so different. Of course, in a university we have very specific goals, and these goals need to be clear; not only the first time we meet and talk about a plan for the semester, for the year, for the whole studies, but also the other plan. How the student conceives his own role, his own evolution, his own place in this moment and how he perceives the evolution that he had before and what he would like to have, etc.
So, in all senses, this is a major point that needs to be on the table all the time. So, on one side to think in the timeless learning, and the other side to think in specific goals and specific dates. So, it’s kind of a contradiction, but it’s complimentary. A timeless feeling for learning is very important. Sometimes it’s much faster than when you say, ‘I have to learn his for tomorrow! I have to learn this for next week!’ I know this for myself and from talking with many colleagues of guitar and other instruments.
I mean, I’m teaching because I love to learn!
That’s the most important thing.
DS: I always tell my students, ‘slow is fast’.
AP: Yeah, exactly! Exactly. Absolutely. The kids are fantastic! All of them are very different but it doesn’t matter. All of them analyze what is happening much more at this age. When they come to the university, they are normally eighteen years old so, let’s say, much more of the teenager crisis is hopefully gone! And, if they are at university, it is because they are looking for something.
DS: You say that you like to teach because you love to learn; do you ever feel like you learn much from audiences?
AP: I learn from everything. I mean, audiences are reflective of what you are doing.When we are on stage we are playing with the audience. We are all playing together. I have the fingers on the strings but we are all playing together. I love it. I try my best and I’m going there to do whatever I can do.
DS: You have a number of press quotes on your website and, in comparison to other artists of your level, they seem to focus on your musicianship rather than your technical prowess which, in my opinion, is a higher compliment. What is different about your approach that draws critics’ attention to your artistry rather than your technique?
AP: This is nice of you. I remember when I did my debut in New York, one of the critics said, “He makes his point quietly but significantly.” And I thought, why quietly? I mean, I was playing very virtuosic pieces and I was really preparing these pieces at the maximum of speed and the maximum of technical display. But, I was really happy then because one has to have the best technique possible, but this technique is nothing if it doesn’t become music.
So, when I read so many beautiful things in books, like the books by Harnancourt that we were discussing yesterday or the book on music interpretation by Heinrick Schenker, you know the guy from the analysis? I would never have imagined to find this book. And then suddenly I see it in a bookstore and, just from the name and the title together, I was compelled to buy this book immediately. And then I started reading it and it’s very good.
But, there are many others, no? And besides beautiful poetry and some incredible books, I remember a couple of people telling me when I was a teenager about René Descartes and methodic doubt. And, this was a very good tool for me. And it is always. I mean, with the methodic doubt you can say in a very simple way, “Okay, I am satisfied with something I am doing but, in a constructive way, how could this be better?” And then this makes the whole experience of making music a very rich experience because all the discipline to put your body and your system and your ideas and the ideas of the composer and the historical frame…everything that could be involved in the interpretation. And the feelings! We are all similar but we are all different. So, all this together makes a concert worth experiencing.
DS: You’ve done a lot of collaborations with very well known composers. Do you prefer to do collaborations or solo work?
AP: I have a great love for both, but the love is not equal. Playing with other people is fantastic and playing solo…we are in any case not playing solo. We are playing with the composer, we are playing with the audience. I really love to play, solo or with other people.
DS: You’ve had a few competitions wins. How do you feel about the development of the competitions over the years? Do you think that they’ve been very helpful to the culture of the guitar? How do you feel about their progress?
AP: Well, everything could be positive and everything could be not so positive. It depends how the person is going to use it. I think the development of the competition has been kind of parallel to the development of the people who love the guitar who are willing to do things. They want to be recognized and win prizes to help make a living and play concerts. To sell themselves in the good sense. Of course this was my intention also when I was doing the competitions, but I do think that when a guitarist or a pianist or any other instrumentalist starts making lots and lots of competitions… it’s maybe not the best way. At least because eventually the first prize in one competition is going to be a little bit damaged when in some other competition he gets fourth prize, for example. (laughter)
DS: You’ve mentioned your aunt frequently as being a great teacher and mentor. Could you explain the role her influence has played on your development as a professional?
AP: Well, she has been a fantastic mentor since I was a very little boy, when I was playing piano also with my mother. Maybe my mother was too gentle and she was not too strong with me, but my aunt she was putting me on the guitar. But, I was playing the piano with the same joy I was having with the guitar when I was four, five, six, seven years old. Then at ten, I stopped playing piano. Then my sister and I moved to my aunt’s house because my parents were divorced. It was my parents family house, so everybody was living together in this big house. And this carried the influence of living in a house where the thing was happening all the time.
So, my aunt was having a lot of students the whole week. I was hearing these people coming, of all ages of all levels having their lessons, practicing and discussing. And, I saw my aunt preparing them for concerts and, you know, all of what this means and my aunt on the phone getting them concerts! Also, my aunt herself rehearsing with a quartet she had, very systematically and hearing the comments. I was learning every day, the whole day. And, she was a very strong personality also for general culture, which is so important. So, she was always talking about things and her husband also. He was a sound engineer so…
DS: You hit the jackpot!
AP: Yeah! Absolutely. I was learning so much. So much. I liked also rock music and jazz and whatever music, really. And he was all the time with lots of different kinds of music in the studio. So, when I was ten years old, he was bringing me every Sunday, in the morning…he was also a director of a very big radio station, and on Sunday mornings they had pop culture for rock concerts. So, I was introduced to this world. I was mostly used to the classical and folkloric world, but I was introduced really easily to this world. And then, the guys were almost adopting me and I was playing the electric guitar with the rockers that were twenty or twenty-five years old. Of course, I knew how to play guitar a lot because I was already good and this gave me some possibilities. So, very often, I was backstage with an electric guitar, also playing the tunes with the guys. Kind of a phantom back guitar. And this was great! I learned so much. Yeah, it was a very good experience. A very healthy experience.
Since then, I’ve been always enjoying all kinds of music every day, which helps a lot for whatever you’re going to do, I think. At least it helped me a lot. And, my aunt was always appreciative. For example, in the beginning, she didn’t like the Beatles! But, after, she liked them. At the beginning, she didn’t like Leo Brouwer at all, but I was liking it and starting to do it. Then, she ended up liking it…and, a lot! She brought me for the first time to a concert where somebody was playing Leo Brouwer’s music for the first time and it was the first time I was hearing Elogio de la Danza. It was a french guy that was coming to play and it was quite interesting. No wait, in fact it was an uruguayan guy who was living in France.
DS: You seem to be very comfortable with improvisation. Do you think that had its genesis at that moment when you were playing lots of different kinds of music?
AP: Absolutely. I was in India a couple of years ago for a concert that was supposed to be for friendship and understanding between occident and orient. So, I was supposed to play with Ravi Shankar but he couldn’t. So, they got the next god of indian music, Amjad Ali Khan, who plays the Sarod. Marvelous guy. So, I tried to educate myself. I mean, I always tried to know about ragas and indian classical music, but of course I arrived there and had never really played it. I heard and enjoyed it, but never really played. And then, after having a fantastic dinner with him and his wife and the producers, he invited me to go to the basement and we were trying what he called the “songs”. He gave me a series of themes and he called every theme a “song” and were going through. And the concert was the next day and after twenty minutes I was just doing it with him and I remember thinking, “What am I doing? I must be horrible! But, I need to do it as sincerely as I can.”
And it was very interesting because on the next day he was happy and said, “You know, you learn very fast. We are enjoying this.” And, I thought he was just gentle, you know! So, we were supposed to trade sets and play together at the end and also with a percussionist. When we arrived to the set together, it was supposed to last about half an hour and it lasted almost one hour. And it was filmed and I didn’t want to see the film after because I was afraid of learning that I didn’t like what I was doing. But, then, I looked at it because I was curious and, in fact, it was not bad at all! He would start something and then I would propose something. You know, just playing. No stopping.
And, the audience was full of indian people, with of course a few others. It was in New Delhi. I thought that they were really very gentle, but I looked at the film and realized that people were really very in! Not necessarily a musical audience, but nevertheless everybody was in. Then two days later was a concert in Mumbai, and it was even better! I just didn’t want to stop playing!
And, John McLaughlin was there just before to receive a prize from Amjad. He couldn’t stay for the concert but he heard I did things. A long time ago I was playing in Germany with his bassist, I forget his name but he was a guy from Sweden that lives in New York…Jonas Hellborg! He played with me and Tracy Silverman the violinist. At this time he was the first violin of the Turtle Island String Quartet. A very nice experience. Yeah, improvising is…remixing.
It’s just that those that are older, they’ve had more time to have their work recognized. I’m playing with a lot of people that are not so famous, and I’m sure they will be.
DS: You told a story in another interview about Paco de Lucia in a recording studio once. He had heard that you were there and was sort of embarrassed about his sound because you were to perfect!
AP: Yes! The flamenco guys they always think that the classical players are so clean, you know?
DS: Right, and also you’ve spoken about how Carlevaro was a very quiet individual. I was wondering if you have any feelings about the role of humility in performance art. It seems to me that a lot of the best musicians that I encounter are very humble and there doesn’t seem to be much arrogance in the truly great players.
AP: I think being humble is the only way to learn. To learn, and to have a good perspective on things.
DS: This may just be because I’m still fairly young, so correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like a lot of the people that you’ve encountered, especially earlier in your career and some of your contemporaries, are now considered essentially legendary, almost mythical, figures. People like Leo Brouwer, Carlevaro, and Piazzolla. There seems to be a concentration towards the middle and second half of the twentieth century that are now held in such high regard.
Do you feel that there was anything different about the way that they developed as musicians? Was it a special time, or a chance conglomeration, or is it an illusion brought on by distance? Were they any different than the musicians today?
AP: Sincerely, the only difference between them and the people today was the moment they were born and the things that they did. The other difference is that the new are new and the old are old! It’s just that those that are older, they’ve had more time to have their work recognized. I’m playing with a lot of people that are not so famous, and I’m sure they will be.
DS: Or maybe today there are simply more people and it is a little harder to find the gems in the crowd.
AP: Also, yes. This is also the fault, let’s say, of those people! We all know that in the second half of the twentieth century the guitar had an enormous development. I would say from the 70s on. I mean Manuel Barrueco, David Russell, me, the Assads, we are all born more or less at the same time, right? Between 1952 and 1954! (laughter) Maybe it was a coincidence, but it was also a coincidence to receive the same stimulus.
DS: You mentioned in the masterclass that you have more than twenty guitars but you’re always playing the same one. Is that out of a kind of laziness because you’re already using that one or do you have a particular fondness for that particular instrument?
AP: Well, there are several factors. One, I don’t think it’s laziness because we are all kind of genetically programmed to find better. At least me. I’m always trying to find better. By the way, often when Friederich had a better guitar he used to call me, “Bring your other guitar, I think I have something better!” And sometimes it was really difficult to tell if it was really better. But, after lots of consideration, only a couple of times did I say that I would keep the old one. Unfortunately, I was not intelligent enough to keep them all. (laughter) If I had kept them all, I would have seven now. But, I’m not a guy that makes a collection. I mean I have a lot of guitars now…(laughter)
DS: I was about to say…
AP: I mean, I have a lot now, and I feel almost guilty because it’s not my ambition to have a collection. Not at all. In fact, I’m worried sometimes because I’m thinking that somebody else could be playing these guitars, and what is the sense of a guitar being in a case not sounding? Whatever.
DS: Well, if you ever want to get rid of one…
AP: (laughter) But, I really love them. Most of the guitars I have, I have because I love them. And, sometimes I play concerts on them, or part of a concert on a different guitar. But, with the Friederich, I have a particular relationship. I started playing them after playing Fleta. Fortunately, since I was a boy, at my house there were fantastic guitars. I just love the Friederich, they fit me very well.
DS: It seems well worn!
AP: Well, I have two now. I have this one that you saw yesterday, which is about ten years old. It’s from September 2004. No, it’s from July. I imported it in September. Of course it looks like it is ninety-five years old, the guitar. I just use it!
The other is a spruce guitar from 1998 that is so marvelous. This summer, I played a concert with the both of them, passing one to the other, and it was so beautiful. And, it’s such a good exercise, to pass from spruce to cedar and adapt. This I owe also to my aunt, because when I was a boy in the house there were so many different guitars. In the living room, on the sofas, there were always three or four guitars…completely different. Not even in their own case. They stayed on the sofa. There were so many. Not bad. I have also old guitars… nineteenth century. I have Stauffer and many others. And I have a beautiful lute!
DS: You seem quite knowledgeable about equipment and electronics and I understand that you perform electronic music often. Is that something that you do whenever you can? It seems like there’s a lot less of it and that the audience for it is much smaller.
AP: Sincerely, I did a lot and now I do much less. I think everybody is doing less. My nephew is studying now in Vienna for sound engineering, what they call there a “Tonmeister”…
(For our less teutonic readers, this is pronounced tone-meister. Literally “sound master”.)
DS: I like that title better!
AP: Me, I find it a little pretentious! (laughter) Tonmeister. But there are few programs in the world like this. They are great. I know the people that are teaching there. People from Deutsche Grammophone, Sony, you name it. He was accepted also for composition a couple of years ago. He plays in five or six different bands with completely different music and he makes arrangements and plays several instruments. We’ve been talking a lot about electronics and mixes and things. I think that the passion for electronics and experimenting in the 70s was different than it is now.
For example, in the university, the guy that is my neighbor is one of the most active composers for video games. I sat with him some years ago and he was showing me the sound design programs he was using for this thing. Most interesting. In fact, it’s the same thing, with more tools. The tools are more efficient. But, from the aesthetical point of view, it’s also something that evolved, I think, in a good sense. Because, in the beginning we were fascinated with what the tool could do, then the tool became an instrument. And the goal is to make music and not just to play with a tool. This always tired me a little bit. That the concerts were mostly, “Ah, look what I can do with the synthesizer!” Why not, but…this is already gone, in my opinion. There are a lot more people now using it.
There was a guy, Robert Godin. He makes and designs lots of guitars and has factories. The guy is very clever. And when he put out this midi guitar with nylon strings, he was looking for me and he heard that I play this music and he just gave me one. And, I adore it. In fact, I have two now. I have two of those and I have Fenders and other things. It’s just sound…and sound is wonderful.
DS: It would be nice if more classical guitarists would experiment with it. There is a whole other universe where people are doing this, but with classical guitar there is a niche that isn’t being exploited and that audiences aren’t hearing. They are used to the older repertoire and often aren’t aware that there are these things that you can do with the instrument with amplification and pedals and live electronics…
AP: You touch a very good point there because I’ve played traditional things and with live electronics…
At this point our waitress brings the check which, despite being our guest, Alvaro graciously insists on paying.
AP: I think the mixture is kind of dangerous for the traditional audience, or for both because everyone comes to the concert expecting something. Me, I sometimes had problems to separate the things. And, I think in some places you can just do it and some places not. I don’t know. It’s a good question. I’m always wondering. I don’t like to have preconceptions about something working or not working. I think this is dangerous…
I don’t know if I’ve answered all your questions…
DS: What’s your favorite dessert?
AP: Favorite dessert? (laughter) Wow, what a question! Tartufo Nero, which is an ice cream.
(long pause) Good question. There are so many, so good.
DS: I prefer creme brulee, myself.
AP: Really? There was a time when I was exaggerated over creme brulee and now I just try to make variations, like with the music! I was going to Cataluña every summer, like twenty-one years in a row, and staying there two or three weeks. Every day, creme brulee, creme brulee. Of course in Cataluña it’s the national dessert. Crema Catalana! It’s simply creme brulee. I kept going to Barcelona three or four times a year. I love this world where Sor, and Llobet, and Tárrega and all these people were. It’s a particular micro-world. And they have fantastic chocolate! Spanish chocolate is unbelievable.
They have this kind of chocolate where you put the spoon in and the spoon stays. a cup of spanish chocolate is more or less cream. And they eat this with a pastry, melindros. It really great. Especially in winter.
DS: I wouldn’t know, we don’t have that here!
While Alvaro has a wealth of knowledge on many subjects, at this point our conversation steered its way back to the mundane. Which cities are better for your guitar, humidity-wise?
Just a couple of guys sitting in a Denny’s, talking about the weather.