Sérgio Assad Continues to be One of the Guitar’s Most Interesting and Challenging Composers
Photo by Leonardo Beraldo
From the Summer 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY GIACOMO FIORE
As half of the celebrated Assad Duo with his younger brother Odair, and as one of the most prolific and recognized living composers for the guitar, Sérgio Assad needs little introduction. The Duo’s collaborations include such diverse artists as Yo-Yo Ma, Paquito D’Rivera, and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and composers ranging from Radamés Gnattalli and Astor Piazzolla to Roland Dyens. Sérgio’s abilities as an arranger and his syncretic compositional style, which blends contrapuntal techniques with Brazilian colors and rhythms, have garnered much critical and public applause. He has taught at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels, Roosevelt University in Chicago, and, from 2008 to 2016, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In our interview, we explored themes related to composition, including Sergio’s history and methods, and his outlook on the contemporary scene.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: You started composing for the guitar early in your life. What prompted you? What was your compositional method at the time?
SÉRGIO ASSAD: I started writing songs when I was 13 years old. I had been playing the guitar for one year or so when the music teacher at my school launched a music competition for the students. I didn’t know that I would be able to compose a tune, but with the excitement that the competition provoked I gave it a try with a friend of mine, who wrote the lyrics for my song, and we ended up winning the competition that year! Writing melodies is the perfect beginning for those who want to start composing.
CG: Tell us about your composition teachers—especially Esther Scliar, who I am not familiar with.
ASSAD: I entered the National School of Music in Rio de Janeiro when I was 19 years old. Originally, my goal was to study conducting, although what I really dreamed about was to compose. I knew that it would be very difficult to survive as a composer and therefore I chose to do something else that could actually lead to a job later. Esther Scliar was not associated with any music school at the time and had primarily private students. She had the reputation of being the Brazilian Nadia Boulanger [the famous French composer, conductor, and teacher who taught everyone from Aaron Copland to Astor Piazzolla to Phillip Glass], and like Boulanger she wanted to hear what you were capable of doing musically before she would accept you as a student. Esther showed me the many ways to elaborate melody and rhythm, but unfortunately, she passed away prematurely only a year after I began studying with her. I can’t actually affirm that she was a great composer herself, but she had such a passion for her teaching, and her knowledge was so keen, that she would inspire you to try your best.
CG: Has your approach to composition changed much through the years? What is your method today?
ASSAD: My first phase of writing songs, that began when I was 13, lasted only six or seven years. When I entered the music school in Rio, I had to hide that type of music, because in that academic environment the 12-tone system was very much in vogue, and if you were not attempting to write music following that system, you would not be considered a serious musician. When I got back to writing music nearly ten years later, I started again from what I knew best—that is, writing songs. My first pieces for two guitars were rooted in Brazilian popular music: my favorite composers were Milton Nascimento, Egberto Gismonti, and Tom Jobim. However, around that time I also became interested in the music of Stravinsky, Debussy, and Ravel. In addition, I was also listening to progressive rock—things like John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra—and to music from around the world, like the French composer Michel Colombier and the great Astor Piazzolla. So you could say my influences were very eclectic.
In 1986, I wrote Aquarelle, my first solo-guitar piece, using techniques that I learned with Esther Scliar. It became very well-known and it is still played by many guitarists around the world. The work is in three movements, with the outer movements based upon a three-note music cell, yet I think I was successful in blending the technical, academic writing with references of Brazilian traditional music.
I still use that basic sort of idea as a blueprint for the music I create today. So, my general process has stayed quite the same, although my use of harmony got more complex. For many years, I wrote by hand, but my handwriting is a bit unclear and therefore I prefer to use the computer now.
CG: What about your day-to-day approach? Do you write every day?
ASSAD: There are periods in my life when I am very open to create and try to do it every day. It isn’t simple, because the duo with my brother Odair keeps us very busy, and there are always arrangements that I must work on. For the past several years, I was also teaching at the SFCM, which took a lot of time. I left the Conservatory this year, and hopefully will have more time to write.
My process of writing has been the same for years. I sit down with the guitar and improvise. When all of a sudden there is something happening in there that I think will stand out, I write it down. Sometimes these ideas are very short and simple, like fragments, but I still write them down and keep them in an “ideas” folder on my computer. Then, when I need an idea for a new piece, I will see what’s in the ideas folder. Once I’ve chosen something from the folder, however, I don’t use the guitar anymore. I will write directly in the notation software and use the tools that the programs offer as they fit my goals. Usually I write polyphonically, and the result is physically difficult to play. To make it easier I go over various sections of the piece and fix them as if I was arranging existing music to fit on the instrument.
CG: Your music often travels quite far harmonically within a given piece. How do you reconcile your harmonic scope with the guitar’s inherent “bias” toward certain tonalities?
Assad: If you check my compositions closely, you will see that I follow that inherent bias toward those keys that use open strings. I think the use of open strings in guitar music is necessary since it helps so many factors in the playing. With open strings you get a fuller sound, you can use them to facilitate changing positions, they allow you to play very legato, they allow for easily played minor seconds, clusters, and many other techniques that contribute to the beauty of its sound. Sometimes I will move away from the tonalities with open strings in a piece, but I usually go back to them as quickly as possible. Furthermore, I try to avoid writing music with big stretches or left-hand positions that are unnatural. The complexity in my music comes from the fact that I use multiple ideas simultaneously, because that is the way I grew up listening to guitars. It is always a “two-guitar sound” in my ears, and even unconsciously, I try to achieve the same result in a single guitar.
CG: Tell us about your current compositional projects.
ASSAD: I finished several works recently. My latest composition was just premiered in March in Aschaffenburg, Germany. It was a 20-minutes-long piece for choir and guitar quartet, called Yesterday’s Tomorrow. It uses poems in six different languages by authors like Liliana Bellemo in Italian, Emily Dickinson in English, Decio Pignatari in Portuguese, Federico Garcia Lorca in Spanish, Edouard Sciortino in French, and F. W. Krummacher in German. I also wrote the set- iece for the 2017 edition of the Ville d’Antony guitar competition in France, and a work for two guitars called One Week in Rio in seven short movements that I wrote for the Woch/Guzik guitar duo from Poland. Currently, I’m also working on a guitar sextet for a group in Switzerland, and a new “portrait” for my ongoing series. This one will be David’s Portrait, a solo work dedicated to David Russell.
CG: How about a project or idea that you have not quite gotten around to yet?
ASSAD: At some point this year I will begin to write a concerto for cello and orchestra for my friend Yo-Yo Ma. We have collaborated for some 20 years now, and he has been asking me to write him a concerto for a while. I think I didn’t feel ready to do it, but now, with more free time, I will certainly start soon.
CG: What are five modern and contemporary guitar pieces that you think should be played more?
Assad: There are many interesting works written for the classical guitar. Most of them come from composers who happen to know the guitar very well. I don’t think it’s necessary to be a guitarist to write well for the instrument, but often, knowing the possibilities of the instrument will make it sound fuller and richer. Three of the pieces I’d choose have been written by guitarists–composers:
Ronaldo Miranda: Appassionata; Jacques Hétu: Guitar Suite Op. 41; Carlos Rivera: Whirler of the Dance; Stepan Rak: Voices de Profundis; Kevin Callahan: The Possessed.
CG: Beyond the confines of the guitar, who are some contemporary composers whose work you find compelling?
ASSAD: Esa-Pekka Salonen, for his remarkable knowledge of orchestration, and the clarity of his ideas. Zad Moultaka for his imagination in blending Arabic music with Western modern compositional styles. Tan Dun for doing the same with Chinese music. John Adams for making contemporary American music accessible to classical audiences.
And finally, my daughter Clarice Assad, for her ability to do anything she wants in music.