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April 2000: Voyages - from the liner notes to Ricardo's new CD,  a conversation with Heitor Villa-Lobos Website webmaster Dean Frey.

September 1999: Bach-Talk -  Ricardo talks with webmaster Dean Frey about Bach and Villa-Lobos, and lots of other things!

In June 1996, Ricardo was interviewed by Kate Remington of Vermont Public Radio - they discuss the music of Camargo Guarnieri.



VoyagesVoyages CD cover

On March 15, 2000, interviewer Dean Frey spoke with Ricardo Peres about the works of this recording.

DF: Ricardo, I will start with a quote from Egberto Gismonti:  "I am not afraid of mixing things."   The music I have heard you play draws together many, many musical and cultural influences - Bach, Villa-Lobos, Brahms, Ginastera, tango, jazz, the music of the Amazon rainforest. You are not afraid of mixing things either....

RP: Let me put it this way: I do not fear taking into consideration the immense legacy of cultures, history and creative development we have had in the last few centuries. If you are performing and writing music in the year 2000, you have to understand and digest at least 300 years of styles and practices that, like it or not, shaped the musical perception and taste of today. Not doing so would be like denying our own identity as musical beings. On the other hand, doing so will inevitably lead to a certain level of mixing. I do not, however, believe in mixing for mixing sake. You need discernment when doing it.

DF: Tell us about your Gismonti transcriptions.

RP:  I think the Gismonti arrangements included in this album came out very well. Egberto himself listened to them, and really liked them, too. But the truth is, it is the listener who will decide whether or not these arrangements are good ones, not me. What I can say is that arranging this music gave me the chance of residing inside the composer's mind for a while.  That was a unique and rewarding experience.

DF: Your last CD included transcriptions of Bach pieces.  This process placed you in a kind of relationship with Bach, obviously, but also with the great Bach transcribers of the last few centuries: composers like Busoni and pianists such as Dame Myra Hess.  The word "transcription" isn't rich enough to include everything that's involved in this process, I would imagine... 

RP: Let me say first that, in general terms, I see two distinct trends, or schools. First there is the one which deems Bach, Beethoven and the boys as being God-like creatures, and their music as being sacrosanct scriptures. In other words, "don't touch the score". Then there is the second school that looks at music as merely one more creative expression, along with engineering or economics, capable of sublime attainment, certainly, but still human and imperfect. I belong to the second school, and therefore I engage in a cognitive, direct and hands-on attitude when I am working. I simply detest over-reverence.
So I enjoy the involvement with music in all levels, including the transcriptions and arrangements of those musical works that I like, be it a Bach chorale or a Piazzolla tango. It has to do with a "hands-on" attitude that I think is so important and which makes of Busoni a great role model.  Busoni understood that in order to keep music in good health you must update it with new energy regularly so that new generations of listeners will continue to enjoy it. I hold Busoni very highly because he was such a knowledgeable guy, had an open, visionary mind and knew how to combine that with his exquisite performance abilities.

This process of "transferring" music deserves much more attention than we could possibly give within the frame of a conversation. It has so many implications! One of the beauties of "keeping the music and changing the medium" (i.e.: transcribing music) is that you can clearly witness the strength and vitality of the great music, precisely because it survives this process so well.   The same happens with great ideas of universal value. For instance, Shakespeare and Plato were translated to an infinite number of  languages and their ideas come across as strong as ever. Insofar as the language allows enough range for expression, this process will be successful. 

Some musicians say that music is a language, where the term "language" is used to imply "idiom". Thus the common-place statement that "music is the universal language", as opposed to other languages that are understood only within certain regions or countries (i.e.: Spanish, German, etc.), and therefore are not universal. In that sense, I do not think music is a language at all. I feel that music corresponds to the idea and it is the instrument, not the music, that functions as the language. After all, both language and instrument are means at the service of something else. We translate great literature to share great ideas with people who are more familiar with other languages. The same happens with music. I have yet to hear Bach "translated" to the Berimbau, but I bet some pieces would work out very well. 

Scarface poster DF: Last night I watched the great 1932 film by Howard Hawks, "Scarface", about the prohibition-era gangster and the legends that grow up around outlaws.  It reminded me about your Lampião piece,  based on the story of a real but legendary outlaw from northeastern Brazil: Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, known as Lampião. I gather, though, that there was a political dimension to Lampião's cangaço movement that was missing from the North American scene: are we talking about something more like Ché Guevara than Billy the Kid or Al Capone?

RP:  Perhaps all three plus the legendary Robin Hood as well. I think Lampião occupies a structural place in the process of understanding class conflicts in Brazil. Apropos, things have not changed much in the Brazilian northeast since the days of Lampião, deplorably.  In essence, Lampião was a terribly intelligent fellow who led the cangaço movement to its peak and was a real headache to the Brazilian authorities for years. He out-maneuvered army battalions and Government-hired mercenaries to the point of national embarrassment, to become a legend to the people. The police finally killed him in July 1938, only a few days after his 41st birthday, in a sneak attack in the state of Sergipe, northeast Brazil, where he was hiding.

The piece I wrote is a depiction of the region, circumstances and folklore that produced Lampião and the cangaço movement. That is why I use the rhythm of "baião" and its variations to tell the story. I also use very colorful harmonies to evoke the region's vastness and stillness, known as the "sertão".
In any event, the main theme is believed to be Lampião's "chant of war".  This theme is transformed and modulated throughout the work to convey the many facets and psychological states involved in the fascinating history of the cangaço movement.
Lampião and his friend Maria Bonita:
Brazil's Bonnie & Clyde
picture from the 
Breve Histórico do Cangaço site.
Lampiao and Maria Bonita
DF: The outlaw is at the centre of the tangos as well. The tango comes originally from the culture of urban gangsters in Argentina.  Do your tangos relate to the Lampião piece, or have they gone through too many romantic re-workings over the years?

RP:   The authentic tangos in this album were composed by Piazzolla. I did, however, take a great deal of liberty while arranging them, by adding my own approach and improvisations, but they are essentially Piazzolla and those listeners familiar with his music will easily recognize that. I utilized as many pianistic resources as possible in these four arrangements, and there you have a link with my "Lampião".

In the case of my two "Voyages", the relationship with "Lampião" acquires a musical dimension as well, because I wrote all three pieces during the same period. However, the "Voyages" are freer expressions since I was not committed to any particular story while writing them, as I was while writing "Lampião".

In the "Voyages" you will probably sense the presence of tango, although you will also sense new age, minimalism, jazz and downright pop. These were not conscious choices at all. It just happens that I have been ingesting so many kinds of music for years, and mixing becomes inevitable.  When I was working on these pieces, I realized that the only possible titles would have to be something like "Voyages", exactly because they took me to a number of different spots on the musical road.

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DF: Ricardo, on your new CD you're playing Brahms, Beethoven & Bach: different repertoire from the Latin American music of your first two CDs.  Tell us about this switch...

RP: That is a very complex issue for me. Let me start by saying that perhaps "switch" is not the most appropriate term to use in this case, Dean. I say this because like virtually all concert artists my training was completely classical. I played Beethoven in my professional debut in 1982. Also, my very first record, a LP cut in Brazil in 1984, had compositions of Schumann, Schubert and Beethoven. 

See, if you are a pianist you have to come to grips with the simple fact that the piano legacy is European, or "classical" if you prefer. It is my belief that without understanding and performing that repertoire one cannot possibly understand the instrument itself because one will not have come into contact with the very foundation of piano music writing.

I have always been very aware of the South American piano repertoire during my formative years, but the bulk of that repertoire was written during the 20th century. By the time I felt comfortable exploring our century's music I became involved with much of Villa-Lobos, Ginastera, Guarnieri and also the popular forms of music which were consolidated in this century like the Tango, the Samba, the Choro, the Milonga and so on. I discovered some fabulous materials there and used in performances and recordings. There are, of course, lots of wonderful 20th century music which are not from South America like Bartok, Stravinsky, music from Bebop, Funk and so on. But perhaps due to my cultural background I chose to focus on the South American production. 

Last year came an opportunity to record the "three Bs" and I loved doing that again. But my next project is about "World Music"... I guess I feel very comfortable with all types of instrumental music. I think that the music experience is interdependent. For  example, the more you know Brahms, the better you understand what is going on nowadays and vice-versa.

DF:   Let's talk about J.S. Bach and Heitor Villa-Lobos.  There's been a lot of talk about the link between Bach and Villa-Lobos - much of it from VL himself.  What, in your opinion, is the real significance of Bach to the music - and especially the piano music - of VL?
RP:   I do not think Villa-Lobos could have become the great composer we know if he had not come across the music of J.S. Bach. This is true to all the music Villa produced, not only his piano material. Bach's influences are so many and so profound, it is hard to specify. 

But I can tell you that Bach's attitude towards folklore played a key role in Villa's perception of what music is, or ought to be. Villa was a teenager when he first heard Bach and that was like a revelation for him. He heard something magical, something that moved and breathed like a living creature, like a human being. Bach understood the richness of folklore and that is probably where Bach's universality comes from, since we all have the folk element in us. I think this was the aspect that most fascinated Villa-Lobos.

DF:  Bach, for me, is the composer of the millenium, and maybe for the next millenium.  I've been listening to some of VL's Bach transcriptions for various instrumental combinations including cello orchestra.  It's not just the Bachianas Brasileiras, either - Bach is everywhere in this music.  But besides Bach, there are of course many other pianistic influences on VL: Debussy comes to mind.  What did VL pick up in Paris in the 20s that might have changed how he wrote for the piano?
RP:  First, I would prefer not to separate Villa's piano music from the rest of his music. In the case of Chopin, Liszt or Rachmaninoff I can see how such distiction would make sense. But Villa was not a pianist, really. In fact, his piano writing is not that effective if seen from the instrumental stand point. And I openly admit that I change things around his piano scores more often than not to make the music project better.
DF:  You're not alone there.  Carl St. Clair admits to some cleaning up of the scores during his preparation for the monumental Integral Symphonies project.  He says the scores are in terrible shape.  VL was a really busy guy...
RP: So, in general terms of musical influence I think he was inspired by a few, but not many, contemporary musical minds. Possibly the textures developed by Debussy and Stravinsky. But if we are talking about meaningful influences I think there is not much else.
DF:  What are VL's masterworks for piano?  What works would you like to play on the concert stage or CD?
RP: In terms of piano music I think his Choro No. 5, the "Alma Brasileira", is a masterpiece, and I think his Bachianas No. 4, with its four movements, is also a great work. Then you have good pieces here and there, but I would not qualify them as masterworks.
DF:   What about the works for piano and orchestra?  The five piano concertos aren't programmed very often - though there is an excellent recording available of all the concertos (with Christina Ortiz).  These works - like most of the ones VL wrote in the 50's - are controversial.  Do you think they deserve a place in the repertoire?  And what about works like Choros #11?
RP:  Perhaps a couple of the concerti deserve more attention, maybe the 5th, maybe the 3rd...but if I had to promote a lesser known Villa-Lobos work I would chose the Choros No.10 (orchestra, mixed choir, percussion ensemble).  I frankly do not think that his piano and orchestra works are the best he wrote.
DF:  I remember you telling me once that you felt Choros no. 10 was VL's greatest work.  It's quite controversial - hearing it in a certain mood it can sound quite Hollywood-Cannibal Island-ish.... 
RP:  It is always difficult to say which one is "the best", or "the greatest".  But I feel that Choros No.10 represents Villa-Lobos musical mind better than any other of his works. His universality, his warmth, his irreverence, his love for the folk and for nature, the Dionysian drive of the Samba and Bach are all present in this work. So you have a sample of the guy's soul in 10 minutes of sounds. Pretty incredible attainment.
DF: I've just had the chance to hear the Choros no. 8 for two pianos and orchestra (on a Delos CD with Eleazar de Carvalho conducting the Paraiba Symphony Orchestra), and it has some interesting sounds...
RP:  It most certainly does. But like I said before, I think he wrote better things...
DF:   There are so many other areas that we can explore - like the importance of the music of VL to the popular music of Brazil.....
RP:  If you talking about importance in a fundamental sense, then it would be the other way around, namely, it was the popular music of Brazil, the folkore of Brazil that had a huge importance on Villa's music. I am most certain he would agree wiht that himself. 

His contribution, in my view, was that he collected, compiled, researched and built on centuries of meaningful music material that had been completely disregarded till he came around. He had the courage and the genius to, like Bach, connect and understand his own folk.

After Villa-Lobos you had a clear understanding of the richness and variety of Brazilian music. His pioneering work encouraged and facilitated the music production that would come later, till this very day.

DF:  Yes, that's quite clear.  The street music of Villa-Lobos's youth and the Portuguese and Amerindian tunes he collected in his Brazilian travels - these were obviously a big influence...  I was thinking, though, about the central importance of Villa-Lobos to people like Jobim, Gisberti, Ney Matogrosso and also people like Marco Guimaraes of Uakti.  This is a different way of looking at the "classical" music of the past.  You don't hear Bruce Springsteen or James Brown or Waylon Jennings talking about how important Aaron Copland or even George Gershwin were to their musical development.  Don't get me wrong - I'm sure Bruce & James & Waylon are thoughtful guys and were influenced by various composers (James Brown owes a lot - don't you think? - to Stravinsky?) but there's no direct lines from one classical composer to a whole nation of "popular"  artists.
RP:  Things happened differently in North America. While in Brazil Villa-Lobos was positioned to "engineer" a way to bring together a number of folkloric musical rivers into an organized pool, in the USA these rivers found their own way into the pool. People who today drink from the pool in Brazil have no choice but to acknowledge the crucial role played by Villa-Lobos. He brought together the Afro, the peasant and the Amerindian elements and gave them a shape that permited regular white people to accept it. After Villa, Brazilian music was prepared to receive new inovations and further its development and that's why our pop music continues to be so diverse and interesting today, through people like Jobim, Veloso, Gilberto Gil, etc.

In my view, the biggest force behind 20th musical development in the US was Jazz with its many facets and stages, but you have others as well. In any event, I cannot say that there was one particular individual or group that is responsible for that process in the case of the US. 

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Camargo Guarnieri

On June 24, 1996, pianist Ricardo Peres was a guest on Kate Remington's program on Vermont Public Radio. The topic was Camargo Guarnieri. Peres played a number of Guarnieri's Ponteios - his very short, usually folkloric piano pieces that each make a musical point. In their discussion of Guarnieri's music,  Remington and Peres explored the relationship between the composer, whether Guarnieri or Villa Lobos or Bartok, and the music of the  people. As Remington states "These pieces are really interesting, because they preserve the integrity of the folk music, rather than trying to create something naive and simplistic." Peres agrees, saying that Guarnieri preserves the music's integrity to the extent that he interjects his personal, subjective input, what Peres calls "subjective nationalism," which he contrasts with Villa Lobos' more "objective nationalism." I think that these comments are relevant to the violin sonatas, perhaps even more relevant than to the often more folkloric Ponteios.

KR:Tell us a little bit about the composer whose works you're going to share with us this afternoon. 

RP:Camargo Guarnieri was born in 1907, died in 1994. Actually, his complete name is M. Camargo Guarnieri. He was always referred to as Guarnieri, which is one of the last names - Camargo is also a last name, not a first name. It was only very recently that we came to know what the "M." stood for - it stood for Mozart! He of course tried to hide that.... The point is that if you end up to be a composer, with the name of Mozart - that is a position that I wouldn't want to be in. "Horowitz Ricardo Peres." 

KR:A big name to live up to... 

RP: A little too big.... So he was born in 1907. His tradition is the best example of musical syncretism in Latin America - the combination of European traditional ways of writing music and utilizing musical mechanisms, marvellously combined with the roots of Brazilian folklore - the popular music of the day. And also with his own very subjective, very unique, very personal perception of that musical material that he was dealing with. It's the main aspect that separates him from Villa Lobos...

KR: What sort of popularity did he have in Brazil? Was he a nationally known composer? 

RP: That's an interesting question. I met Guarnieri in 1988 - he was already 81 then. Everybody knew Camargo Guarnieri, but he wasn't a popular composer, like, say, Tom Jobim, or Egberto Gismonti, people who dealt in a more accessible format of music writing. He was writing ideas, such as the one we just heard [a Ponteio]. It's beautiful music, but it's probably never going to be widely spread. Still, maybe it will; that's why I'm here on this program today - to make it more widely known. So he didn't have that kind of popularity, but he was widely known and respected by everybody - Jobim himself was in constant touch with Guarnieri, for, you know, just chatting, and getting ideas...

KR: It must have been wonderful for you to meet him... 

RP: Wonderful, but also very instructive. What happened, was - I was 21 years old, and I was already living in the States, and I had just started playing concerts and so on, and he was Camargo Guarnieri, the greatest living Brazilian composer. My piano teacher knew him well, and he took me there, to his home. So I was very shyly trying to get an insight here or there, and all the guy could talk about was ... everything except for music! His favourite topic in the world was women! 

KR: [laughs]

RP: He loved women... I tried getting him to talk about music - he would say "oh, yes, I wrote that composition, and there was this beautiful women, she had beautiful black hair..." - totally digressing. A half an hour talking about women - he would start talking about books, poetry, all about this wonderful creature called woman. Incredible - he kept going on and on - I tried to get the conversation back to music, but finally I gave up. At one point he started talking about how he had met many famous pianists of the past - he was very good friends with Alfred Cortot, the French-Swiss pianist - (he died in 1962, Cortot - very big in his day - I've always had great admiration for Cortot) - he said, "I used to go to all his concerts, and one day, I played for him, one of my pieces, to show him..." And Cortot asked Guarnieri, "how do you get this soft, delicate touch?" And Guarnieri said, "My technique is this - I think I'm caressing this beautiful girl!" The man was just... and that was when he was 81! 

KR: Ricardo, I'm curious how you came across this pieces. 

RP: My piano teacher was his student, and in Brazil his music is big, it was always there.

[Ricardo emphasizes in the VPR interview how central colour is to Guarnieri - "He uses alot of chromaticism, it's true. But chromaticism only in the sense that it is a function of colour. And he uses colour in a structural way. You can identify consistent patterns of colour that he uses in consistent ways in the music - the emotional level that he's dealing with. The chromatic intervals are a function of colour, in a consistent way."]
RP:Everytime I play this music, I think of someone - you know who would play this music really well, especially the colours - someone like Bill Evans, the jazz player. I'm a fan of Bill Evans, I listen to him all the time - his voicing is incredible, you know. This is the kind of music that he would do great, because he really thrived on colour. 

Bill Evans picture from the Bill Evans Memorial Library

Bill Evans:
a picture from the Bill Evans Memorial Library website.

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