BY THÉRÈSE WASSILY SABA / FROM THE MAY 2012 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
In 2010, Odair Assad made his first solo recording El Caminante, which has been released on GHA Records. Performing as a soloist has been a remarkable experience for Odair, having had an internationally acclaimed career as duo with his brother, composer and guitarist Sérgio Assad. I met up with Odair after his first solo recitals at the Cordoba International Guitar Festival, and interviewed him after a concert of the Assad Brothers at the Koblenz International Guitar Festival, where he also played a few solo pieces. We spoke again more recently to catch up with the latest news about his performing as a soloist and about some of the wonderful new repertoire that has been written for him.
Thérèse Wassily Saba: I was so pleased to hear the première and deuxième of Brouwer’s Sonata del caminante, as you played it twice at your recital in Córdoba, but hearing it again in your recital in Koblenz. One can really hear the understanding between Leo Brouwer and yourself in his composing and your playing. It is clear that Brouwer under- stands you and loves you, and that you love the piece. It is “you.”
Odair Assad: I have to say that although we haven’t met each other so much through the years, whenever I see Leo, it is always a very intense experience and, indeed, full of love and music. As I was reading the sonata, the music was natural for me to go through. This made me realize that Leo knows me really well. I decided to change the program and play it as the first piece—then I realized that he wasn’t there! He came for the second half, so then I had to play it again.
Thérèse: Well, it was perfect for me because I like to hear new pieces a few times.
Odair: For me it was very good also because I played it better the second time. What is good about this piece is that he has thought about me and the way I play—I always need to change things; if I repeat the way I play things, I feel that it is not right. Take my word for it, on the CD you will hear something very different from what you heard in concert. Brouwer’s style of writing allows me the flexibility I need. I use all the elements, such as changing the tempo and changing the dynamics; this gives you a new range of emotions, and also by using accelerando and rubato, I keep making these alterations in performance, which keep me feeling fresh and new on stage. When these things work well, I feel great, and then the possibility opens for me to be more than just a person playing the guitar. Do you know what I mean? At home I work on the technique, but when I am on stage, I want to follow the energy that develops in that moment. Otherwise I get frustrated, but I am not a jazz musician; this totally has nothing to do with improvisation, but you do choose things like this. It is like a wave.
Thérèse: This Sonata seems so personally related to you. He starts off in a busy Brazilian way, but then there are the awful moments when the music comes to a total stand still and I almost felt anxious about which direction he would go next.
Odair: Leo Brouwer is a master of that, of doing also the gentle and then the aggressive immediately after. But the runs, which he invented for us, people can say they are similar to his other pieces—they are similar but not the same. He always finds a new way to do it; that’s what I think is amazing. The moment in the music where he places his ideas is also special; it’s just perfect.
Thérèse: You know you are listening to Brouwer but it’s never a cliché.
Odair: It’s not a cliché at all. He uses things to remind you that it is his music. The fourth movement really doesn’t sound like anything that I have heard by Brouwer before. The swing that he drives it with is from Brazil—a baião. This kind of music should be in 2/4 time, but he wrote it in 4/4 time, so it drives very differently but it reminds you of the original style. Of course he did this on purpose. He didn’t want to write a baião! He’s a Cuban; he’s not Brazilian. He puts the flavor in; 4/4 and 2/4 time are pretty similar but it doesn’t feel similar at all. It gives a very special taste to this movement called Toccata nordestina.
Thérèse: In this Sonata del caminante I feel there are some moments where he is just expressing anger.
Odair: Right, sometimes I do feel angry too! Leo Brouwer wrote this piece in a theatrical way; it’s impressive. It is as if you are going to the opera and you hear someone singing.
I remember that several years ago, like many guitarists of my generation—Roberto Aussel, Costas Cotsiolis, Eduardo Isaac, Alvaro Pierri, Eduardo Fernández—I would be excited every time Leo Brouwer was writing a new piece. I remember that when El Decameron Negro was published, everyone was crazy about it and everyone wanted to play it. Now, the music is already there, and young guitarists think of his pieces as if they are of Villa- Lobos’ or Barrios’ works. Do they realize that the composer is alive and keeps evolving and writing—this incredible Sonata del caminante for instance? Leo told me that it was important for him to feel that someone could drive his ideas; he also said that it was easy to write the sonata; that it took him no time at all.
Thérèse: Everything looks so easy when you are playing. Nothing is technically difficult for you, is it?
Odair: I work hard!
Thérèse: When I was watching you play on stage, there was one piece in particular where you were just moving constantly and rhythmically as you played; the movement was so regular it was as if you were sitting on a train and playing.
Odair: I feel the music in my body. I have changed the position that I play in.
Thérèse: I noticed that you have the guitar on your right leg, like a flamenco player almost.
Odair: No, it’s a little different.
Thérèse: Why did you change?
Odair: I had always played with a footstool in concerts, but I started feeling tiredness in my back after a concert, which I didn’t feel at home. Then I realized that it was the footstool; at home I sit back in a good chair.
Thérèse: Does the guitar slide around?
Odair: No, I put a little cloth there to keep it still.
Thérèse: Is the neck a little high?
Odair: Yes and sometimes you have to hold it with your left hand.
Thérèse: Does that make your hand tired?
Odair: Not yet, but my back is really happy and I can move easily. Moving helps to keep the blood circulating.
Thérèse: You said after concert that you were sweating all over but that your hands were cold.
Odair: It was nerves.
Thérèse: It’s hard to believe that you could be nervous.
Odair: But I hide it; it’s a personal thing: I’m always afraid to not be the best that I can be. That’s always a challenge and it will never change. I am telling you the truth: I am trying to play my total best all the time. If it doesn’t work, then it’s not working on that day.
Thérèse: I suppose if you stop aiming to play the best, then it would be boring to listen to?
Odair: Yes, it would be boring to listen to anyone who has stopped trying their best. When I am teaching young people and I mention something to do with the technique, they say to me: “Why should I change my technique?” Have you seen the tennis players? They have to change their technical moves always, otherwise they’ve had it. In any sport you look at, those guys at the top, if they don’t work really hard, then they’ll be out of the game very quickly. It’s hard to stay at that level but it’s necessary.
Thérèse: Let’s talk about Egberto Gismonti.
Odair: He’s a genius.
Thérèse: Was the Memória e fado on this recording originally written for the guitar?
Odair: No, this piece is a re-composition. He left all the notes in without removing anything and I had a hard time to work out the fingering—making the melody sing was really a difficult job. Egberto said to me: “Odair, I didn’t touch the guitar to put the fingering in.” He wrote Memória e fado in the 1970s, when he was about 25 years old. This is one of the pieces that he wrote which at that time made me such a fan of his. In the original recording, Gismonti was singing; the piece has words. I was surprised and happy that he chose that piece and he gave it to me.
Thérèse: Was that because he knew you were playing solo?
Odair: Yes, I went to his apartment in Rio and he said he’d see what he could do. He sent me the score the way it is. As a guitarist he is so inventive! He invented this 14-string guitar and he also plays a unique ten-string guitar.
Thérèse: Yes, with very experimental tunings.
Odair: He is very smart because when you hear Gismonti, you don’t understand how he achieves it, but it’s because of the tuning of this guitar. The tenth and the eighth strings are basses while the ninth and seventh are trebles! He has an incredible technique and he goes fast. He is also an amazing pianist at a really high level; he is one of the few people that I know who can do separate rhythms with each hand simultaneously. This is really a nightmare for pianists, but he can do it.
He has something else that I also value in musicians—that it doesn’t matter whether they play fast or slow, they make you go somewhere during the interpretation. What he wrote when he was sending me Memória e fado is also very nice, he said: “I am not a composer; I point to the notes and the performer is the interpreter who brings them to life.”
Thérèse: His compositions are incredible, for example Agua e vinho; it seems to be so simple but it is so…
Odair: …It touches something. It goes to another world. Then there is another thing: the music itself has this power, but you have to know what you’re doing in order to touch the power. This is something, which I don’t feel the new generation of guitarists really understands. What they do technically is so amazing and they play so cleanly; you go to so many festivals and you see them all playing at the same level. Maybe it’s because of these fast things happening, they miss the musical interpretation.
Thérèse: Do you think it is because of their lack of life experience?
Odair: No, I don’t think they are trying. I feel that this is really a problem.
Thérèse: Is it too easy?
Odair: It’s not because it’s easy, because it’s never easy. But it is easier than it was before, because they begin with much better teaching and they know where to go for the references. In our time there was Segovia and Bream; if you compare the technique, it was a totally different story. Now they all play fast and with a beautiful sound. The sound was something that was the greatest challenge for classical guitarists; to have a beautiful sound, but it’s not a separate item. It’s not the goal, it’s just there to help the music and this can be tricky. If
Odair: If you play everything with beauty, then you miss the music; you just pass alongside it. Music sometimes needs ugly sounds, it needs to be aggressive and it needs other colors. The range of colors are especially good on the guitar because with the change in colors you can make the dynamic range much bigger.
Thérèse: What about Rosa by Pixinguinha ?
Odair: Pixinguinha is a nickname given to Alfredo da Vianna by his grandmother when he was a kid, and it remained with him forever. Pixinguinha’s music came just before the bossa nova scene started; in the chôro style he is the master. It’s funny to see that Roland Dyens, who is not Brazilian, is the only guitarist who made an entire album dedicated to this composer! I asked Roland for some of his arrangements, and he was such a gentleman, he actually sent me three pieces, before recording them himself. I decided to do just one—Rosa—and I dedicated it to my mother; she is the “rose” of the family. The piece itself is so beautiful and the arrangement is great.
On my solo album, I dedicated the Chôro da saudade by Barrios to my father because it was one of the first pieces that I played when I was very young. This piece is also famous because in one part there is a left-hand stretch, and I couldn’t do it. I was nine or ten years old. My hands were much smaller, but I found a way to do it.
Of course, I wanted to play as well some music by my brother on my first solo recording. When Sérgio was still a teenager, he was already composing songs for school music festivals. His writing developed from that time and is very Brazilian-oriented with strong melodies and sophisticated harmonies.
Thérèse: Composing is a very natural activity for Sérgio. He probably can’t stop himself from doing it; it would be like asking him not to breathe.
Odair: I think composing is a totally different gift. People ask me why I don’t compose, but I didn’t have that impulse—maybe because Sérgio was so good that I didn’t make any effort to compose. It didn’t come naturally to me as it did with him. And he was always providing the music. I think that all those great creators were already great when they were young. They had brilliant ideas from a very young age. Then they learned how to structure them but they already had the beauty and the genius when they were young.
Thérèse: And Sérgio’s Brevidades were written for you?
Odair: Yes, they are totally new. He had those ideas and when I said to Sérgio that I was preparing a solo recording and that I wanted something from him, he said, “Of course!” He has a lot of ideas; I am always surprised to see how many he has. He gave me six Brevidades but I saw that he had hundreds there. “Wow!” I thought. He was asking me, “Do you like this one? Do you like that?” So he put it together. Sérgio is really great; he is always the one who chooses the program. He is so good at it that I very rarely interfere.
Thérèse: Is one of the Brevidades called “Guinga” after the guitarist?
No, this is “Ginga”; it is a way to move, to walk with a swing in your step. It’s a kind of a dance; it can be a way to play football as well. We had a very famous player called Garrincha; he played with Pele. He created this word. The music is very rhythmically based, which is really an Assad favorite thing to do. The rhythm is extremely important.
I would like to say something about the reason why I am playing solo: It was a part of me but I had
never played solo. Maybe when I was a kid, but it was not the same as playing professionally. When I started playing professionally, it was in the duo, with my brother. So it is something that I worried about leaving for too long; I thought if I got too old to try, then I would never do it. So it was better for me to do it now; it was something I wanted to experience. The sonata that I received from Leo Brouwer helped a lot to make that decision.
Thérèse: The strange thing is that you and Sérgio are such superstars in the music world that one cannot imagine that you could be stressed about playing solo!
Odair: But it’s totally different work. I think maybe people who play chamber music would know this; it depends. We are well-known as two players who play as one and we have no plans to stop doing that. The only thing is that I will now also do the solo performances because Sérgio really has a lot of work doing his compositions and when he needs a period for that, I can play solo. So there’s a balance. He really wants to compose much more than what he is doing and he is doing better.
What I want to say is that this thing which we achieved playing as a duo, to be totally free to phrase the music, has taken us many years; you can see that I can phrase one line as I want and Sérgio follows me wherever I may go in that moment. Likewise, when Sérgio runs with the melody, he can expect that I will follow and support him. So the freedom that I have there is something that I miss when I play solo.
Thérèse: But you would expect to be freer?
Odair: Yes, I thought I would be freer, but it doesn’t happen because of the complexity of two or three voices together.
Thérèse: So you have to be both people at once?
Odair: Exactly. I am trying to do some things but it is really hard. On the other hand, I am so used to listening to two things that when I play solo, I try to do this also. But I cannot be as free because it is impossible to do it: You have one finger that has to hold the other voice and so it’s impossible. I tried to figure out how it might be possible. This is my new challenge, to sound like one being two now.
Thérèse: You have another première on your recording: Red Fantasy by Kevin Callahan.
Odair: Kevin is a fantastic guitarist. He started out playing rock and roll; later he started playing jazz and classical guitar. He is a very big talent but he never made a career out of it. I’ve known him for more than 20 years now; he lives in Seattle. He introduced us to computers; beside teaching and playing guitar, he does software development. He is very smart. Our friendship kept building and then he started composing. He wrote a trio for former students of Fá’s and mine in Belgium, the Alki Guitar Trio. We were so pleased that I asked him to write me a solo piece. This is one of the pieces on the recording where I really participated in its composition—not by adding notes, just giving feedback and advice. We worked via Skype. The Red Fantasy is about red wine because we are fans of red wine. So Kevin moves from a Tempranillo, to a Syrah, then a Malbec … I can tell you, it works! Kevin definitely could write several red fantasies!
Recently he wrote another piece—Old Friend—which evokes my father, who passed away in May 2011. First, we hear the bells tolling and the word spreading among our relatives, our friends. The piece scurries. Then there are passages of non-acceptance, fighting the sad truth that my father is gone forever and I will never speak to him again. Profound sadness. Old Friend has a way of simultaneously expressing my deep loss alongside the happiness and joy of remembering life with my father. It is both saudade and hopeful, a bitter-sweet acceptance of life and death.