Sérgio Assad on Piazzolla, the Beatles, Ginastera, Transcriptions, and more

Assad on Arranging Classical Guitar
BY BLAIR JACKSON, WITH MARC TEICHOLZ | From the Spring 2018 Issue of Classical Guitar

The instant we conceived of a Special Focus section on “Arranging and Transcribing for Guitar,” it was clear that Sérgio Assad would have to be part of it. After all, even though we published an interview with him just a few issues ago, that was solely about composing. He has been important and esteemed as an arranger as well, helping bring so many wonderful pieces, spanning centuries from the Baroque to modern pop, into the guitar repertoire. Much of that work was for the duo he has played in with his brother Odair for the past five decades, but he also arranges for solo guitar and for configurations with other instruments. We have Assad to thank for the first guitar version of Piazzolla’s now-ubiquitous Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, for fresh takes on the Beatles via Miloš Karadaglic’s Blackbird album, for the forthcoming Pablo Villegas-Placido Domingo album, for the revelatory versions of piano pieces by Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth on the latest album by Marc Teicholz, and for so many other pieces in every style imaginable.

In fact, it was San Francisco Conservatory of Music teacher Teicholz’s 2017 all-Nazareth album, Celestial—and hearing the guitarist play numerous versions of Assad’s compositions over the last couple of years—that led me to ask Marc to be part of this interview about Sérgio’s arranging work. It’s fair to say that few know the depth of Assad’s work the way Marc does. The two became quite close during the period Assad taught at SFCM, and they have remained close—when Sérgio came out to the SF Bay Area from Chicago in November 2017 to lead a workshop (and to attend a lecture by his internationally known astrophysicist wife, Angela Olinto, at the University of California at Berkeley), he stayed with Marc in his home. And it was there that the three of us convened late one afternoon, as the sun was setting across San Francisco Bay, for a freewheeling conversation about arranging.  BJ

SERGIO ASSAD: Well, the first thing to do is define what “arranging” is. Because sometimes people confuse what is arranging and what is transcribing. What would I call what I did with the Nazareth? Arranging? I think it’s more an attempt to transcribe what he actually wrote, because I didn’t change his harmony and I mostly copied his notes. In places where the [piano] texture was much thicker for an instrument with limitations like the guitar, I actually had to remove a lot of notes. So you have to choose the notes you want to keep there to keep the integrity of the chord, and the harmony. I probably changed keys here and there too, because the guitar is good in certain keys where you have open strings. So I wouldn’t call that “arranging” exactly, though you are required to pay attention to certain details. You have to choose the right notes; sometimes you even have to change the written notes a little bit in order to fit under the fingers.

My approach, whether it’s transcribing or arranging or writing music, is to make it as comfortable for the player as I can. If you have to struggle and stretch too hard, it becomes too complicated and it’s not good for the instrument. Yet there are some composers for guitar who don’t go through that, and they’ve got all these impossible things for the left hand, but the music is good and we don’t want to change their notes. It can be frustrating to play, however.

CLASSICAL GUITAR: With something like the Nazareth are you working exclusively from original scores, or do you listen to recordings, too?

ASSAD: Just from scores.

MARC TEICHOLZ: But with the Piazzolla Seasons, weren’t you working from recordings?

ASSAD: Yes. That was a different approach altogether. Nowadays, you can usually find the original notes in published scores. I think those were published by Berben; there were several publishing companies. But when I think back in time, like in the ’70s, when I started working with the music of Piazzolla, there were no scores. He was still with his quintet and most of the manuscripts were not published. So the only way of approaching that music was like what they do in the jazz world—copying the solos [from records], listening to the harmonies and all that; you really have to do it by ear. So that’s what I did. But translating his quintet to two guitars, or one guitar, was very difficult. It’s not exactly getting all the notes that are there and translating them to the instrument; it’s understanding the harmony he’s applying and making that sound guitar-like. It’s a little like re-composing what he did into the guitar vocabulary. Trying to not go fancy and not do things that are impossible for the instrument. Piazzolla’s music was so thick in terms of texture, with a lot of polyphony going on, that some things were impossible to translate. So you make choices. That’s what an arranger does.

CG: Why is it that Piazzolla became so popular with guitarists and arrangers? Aside from the appealing and somewhat exotic nature of the music, is there something specific to, say, the way the bandoneón creates a melody that makes it more easily translatable to guitar than some other instruments?

ASSAD: I don’t think so. If you think about music in Latin America, there is quite a range. There are classical-labeled composers like Ginastera or Villa-Lobos, composers like Jobim that are really traditional Brazilian music, and then you have someone like Piazzolla who sits right in the middle. He’s not a composer like Jobim, but he’s also not like Ginastera. His music has more elements to it than just a single beautiful melody, which is what Jobim is all about—a beautiful melody with a nice harmony under it. It can give room for a nice arrangement, but it doesn’t have the kind of solid architecture behind it. Piazzolla used simple forms, but the writing was more classical; it had several layers and everything was notated and written down—although he left room for improvisation as well.

One of our favorite young guitarists, Stephanie Jones, plays Sérgio’s arrangement of Piazzolla’s “Invierno Porteño” from the Four Seasons:

TEICHOLZ: Sérgio probably wouldn’t mention this himself, because he’s so humble, but when Piazzolla heard Sérgio and Odair play, he loved it so much he wrote the Tango Suite for them. It became an important piece in the guitar world, and helped make the popularity of Piazzolla take off. 

ASSAD: What happened was, I started working on his music in the ’70s. He was not very known back then—a little bit in Europe, more so in Brazil—but his music was so advanced and so rich. Perhaps the echo of his music in Brazil would be stronger back in the ’70s than it would be nowadays.

We received the score for the Tango Suite in 1983 or ’84, but we had been playing Piazzolla’s music since ’78 or ’79. We first met him in Paris [where Piazzolla lived for many years], and we played some of the arrangements I’d made of his music for him. I used diminished chords that created this descending arpeggio-like thing, and he went nuts over that. I think he heard something there that surprised him and he liked it. Then, when we got the Tango Suite, that [musical figure] was in there! The end of the first movement is exactly what I did. But there was really nothing to change in his music—everything was written there for two guitars and he did a wonderful job.

CG: On your early albums you were doing a lot of Scarlatti and Couperin and composers like that. Do you consider that transcribing?

ASSAD: Yes, that’s transcribing. Take the notes and adapt them to your instrument; but it’s the actual notes that the composer wrote. You don’t add anything. Arranging is you get somebody’s song, or music, and you make it your own—like you might come up with a different introduction, you might change the harmonies; you create embellishments that are guitar-like.

There are some well-known pieces, like the Beatles for instance, where I don’t dare to move them around too much; I don’t like to twist them. So when I was doing the arrangements for Miloš, we went back and forth many times about what to do, but I didn’t want to change things too much because I liked the music the way it was. He wanted me to try different things—and I did.

I did another album with him [Latino Gold, 2013] where I really went out of my way to arrange things for real—like I took Mas que nada and did some interesting things with that; and other songs, too. He and I both liked it very much and it was successful, so he said “Let’s do the Beatles.”  But I said from the beginning, “I’m not going to change much.” And he said, “OK, but you can have some freedom.” For some songs, I accepted that, but so many of them are so ingrained. But things changed a bit when they started adding things, like [singers] Tori Amos and Gregory Porter, and the bass [Chris Hill] and Anoushka Shankar [on sitar]. So some of that was not followed so closely to the Beatles.

CG: Would you say playing in the duo with your brother for so many years has affected the way you hear arrangements, in the sense that you’re always hearing that second part—what your brother plays—when you write for the duo?

ASSAD: Yes. I always work with the two guitars in perspective, but I always try to not play one line against the second line, because I always heard two lines in a single guitar. So even playing with just two instruments, I always had about four lines going on, so the polyphonic thing inside has always been very thick in our arrangements and the things I write for two guitars. I worked for so many years with just the two guitars that I thought it was impossible to add another instrument. But beginning in the ’90s, we started working more with other people—like violin and clarinet—so it got wider, and then I started writing more for chamber groups, and that made my imagination even better, because you have to think more lines.

TEICHOLZ: How do you choose the repertoire you arrange?


ASSAD: It’s just music I like. I don’t have any rules.

TEICHOLZ: Is there music you like that you think just won’t work for guitar?

ASSAD: For sure, there is music that doesn’t work. In fact, I’ve worked on things I knew from the beginning probably wouldn’t  work . . . and they didn’t! [laughs] I think the best way is to select pieces you want to play, select pieces you like. Because if you like what you’re doing, you have a fair chance of convincing other people that what you’re doing is good.

TEICHOLZ: But if some piece is incredibly slow, with lots of sustains, it’s going to be less likely that you can arrange it, right? Are some pieces more friendly for the guitar?

ASSAD: It depends on how slow it is. If you take something like the Pavane for a Dead Princess [Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte], that’s a very slow piece. If you have that piece played by a reed instrument—the flute has the sustain it needs—it’s going to be beautiful, and it’s beautiful on the piano. [For guitar] there has to be a different way of delivering it. When the notes are really, really long it doesn’t work. I think of the distance between two notes in order to make it legato, but if the distance is too long . . . The guitar does have a little sustain.

TEICHOLZ: When you hear an arrangement or transcription you must think on some level, “Oh, that’s a good one” or “That doesn’t work so well.”

ASSAD: Well, a lot of people think arrangement is just taking the melody of the song and playing the harmony behind it. But I think you have to do something—embellish, add something of your own. That’s why Roland Dyens was so great, because he would transform any piece into his own. He’s what I would call a really good arranger. But arranging guitar at that level is very rare.

CG: When you arrange a well-known piece, do your ideas about it change over time as you hear it played? Would it ever occur to you to go back to the Piazzolla Four Seasons because you have a new idea about how you might do something differently?

ASSAD: You can always do it differently. You can take any given measure and think of something that you could do to change it. But in an example like the Piazzolla, which a lot of people play, they get used to playing that set of notes and they don’t want you to change anything. They like it the way it is. It’s like a frozen thing—it has to have those notes.

But music is a living thing; it shouldn’t be frozen. Alas, we just play the traditional repertoire that we know already; those are the notes the composer wrote. And we don’t want to change them. We fear changing them. We hear any note that’s not there and it’s like “Ohh, Oooh!” [laughs]

TEICHOLZ: Remember when people would argue about whether it was a good idea to arrange Pictures at an Exhibition? Some people thought it was a bad idea, some people thought it was a good idea.

ASSAD: I think people were bothered by the arrangement of those large pieces, like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: “How do you dare reduce a piece like that to a single guitar?” But people forget that piece was written for piano. [Ravel’s popular 1922 orchestral version has somewhat eclipsed the piano original.] You take the [Kazuihito] Yamashita guitar version compared to the piano version and you wouldn’t say that’s worse. The energy he plays with makes it as good as the piano version in my opinion.

There are people there who say we should be writing new pieces for guitar instead of transcribing all these crazy pieces that maybe don’t sound as good on guitar. But some of them do, of course. I like the attempts of creating something that if it’s not guitaristic to start maybe it can still become part of the repertoire. It’s been a tradition in the guitar world since the 19th century. With Albéniz, of course, and others.

CG: Do you ever see pieces you think you might be interested in arranging but then realize, “This has already been done really well by whomever, so why bother?”

ASSAD: I used to try to do my own arrangements all the time because I wanted to make something that was really us [Sérgio and Odair]. It’s not that I refused to play other people’s arrangements—we played a lot of arrangements made by Pujol and others.

But people do that all the time—they take a Bach piece that’s been done ten times and they make the eleventh! They change a couple of notes and say “arranged by”! [laughs] It’s hard to find material you can actually do a successful arrangement of. I’m talking about piano music that’s straight classical repertoire.

TEICHOLZ: What made you think of doing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue? I think that was a surprising choice.

ASSAD: It’s a piece I loved so much! I made that arrangement back in the ’80s.

TEICHOLZ: I can’t imagine listening to the original and thinking, “Yeah, that will work for two guitars!”

CG: Well, there was also a piano version Gershwin did immediately after the orchestral one.

ASSAD: Yes, I based it on the piano version.

TEICHOLZ: Sérgio also did an incredible arrangement of the Ginastera Piano Sonata.

ASSAD: I think that’s my favorite arrangement that I’ve done. Because if you compare the piano version with the guitar version, they’re quite different. The piano is more powerful, because you can’t beat the punch of the piano. So I had to come up with ideas to make the guitar a little stronger. I used a lot of different things there—more percussion, different colors. It became more of an orchestration of that piece.

I didn’t know the Ginastera Sonata until I heard it in a concert in Italy. A pianist played that piece and I was mesmerized by it. After the concert, it was the only thing I could think about. I thought, “I have to arrange that piece. If I have to change all the notes I’m still going to try.” But then there are all these other things that get in the way. The texture is different. But I managed to bring things into the guitar world. For instance, in the second movement, the prestissimo, he plays here [left hand and right hand far apart on the keyboard], really distant, so what did I do? I figured out a way to bring it to the middle of the guitar. But you create something different, because it’s a guitar sound. It doesn’t sound that close to the piano.

I also had to do a little bit of scordatura, because it has been my dream to play a seven-string guitar to make the task a little easier, but I never learned and it seemed very hard to jump from six to seven [strings]. So I had to do all the scordatura, like getting down to B, which is a tricky thing to do because the string starts to be too loose, and to do that in a concert is risky.

Listen to Sérgio and Odair Assad play the first movement of Ginastera’s Sonata No. 1 (for piano):

TEICHOLZ: Something I like about Sérgio’s arrangements are his introductions—you hear the introduction and you don’t know what the piece is going to be. Then, once the tune starts, you realize, “Oh, he used a voice in the introduction and that relates to what you’re hearing now,” but you don’t recognize the connection until after the fact.

ASSAD: To me, that’s part of arranging. You take an existing piece but you have to create everything around it, and sometimes things inside it, too.

TEICHOLZ: It’s interesting to have the responsibility for retaining a certain fidelity to the original, to not lose the thread of what it actually is, and also put your personality and your stamp on it.

ASSAD: It depends on the style. In Brazil, this arranging thing is very common in the sense that there’s a long tradition of getting things from the past and changing them. In the popular world that’s what it is. Nobody is going to record a piece the way it was in the ’30s or ’40s. They will do it anew. And that’s common here [in the USA], too; I know that.

CG: Marc, what do you hear in Sérgio’s arrangements that you think is particularly interesting? Is there some quality you hear going through his arrangements? I guess they’re all different, depending on the style.

TEICHOLZ: When Roland did his arrangements, his stamp was really strong. All his clever little tricks came out on just about everything he did. I think Sérgio is more transparent than that. I think he steps back a little bit more. But the thing I hear that goes through all his arrangements is a sense of how the guitar should sound. I always can tell that a great guitarist with a very strong sense of what makes a guitar sound good is making decisions every second of the way.

Just this afternoon, he was helping me do an arrangement of a Haydn string quartet for two guitars, and just every little thing he suggested—“No, this chord doesn’t sound quite right; what if we voiced it this way?”— was valuable. He’s just such an expert on making the music speak well for the instrument. And if you compare it to other arrangers, many of them are a little more awkward, a little less natural, the sounds don’t resonate quite as freely; they’re just not as guitar-friendly. And, of course, he also knows how it feels physically to play it.

ASSAD: Thank you, Marc. It’s what I try to do. With some pieces it’s easier than with others, of course.

CG: It feels as though a lot of guitarists are diving into Ravel and Debussy these days with interesting results.

ASSAD: To do the Impressionists well, you really need more than one guitar. But even if you do have two it might not be enough. It depends on the repertoire. The problem is, on piano with the pedal open you have this fantastic sound—how can you do that with a guitar? Still you can do fabulous things, it might just have a different color than the original. If you know how to use open strings of the instrument, that will help. I’m always for people trying new things, even things that maybe you think won’t work. If it doesn’t work, you move on to something that will. But how will you know if you don’t try? 

Sérgio and Odair perform Piazzolla’s Tango Suite, which was written for them: