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A Conversation with Composer Alejandro Rutty


Composer Alejandro Rutty, originally from Buenos Aires, has been active in the USA for quite some time now, most recently as a professor of composition at the School of Music of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His newest CD, The Conscious Sleepwalker, was released on Navona Records in March 2012.
We spoke on May 16, 2012 at the composer’s residence in Greensboro, North Carolina.

©Alejandro Rutty

Tom Moore: Let’s start with the concerto for saxophone quartet and orchestra, from your new CD, which is called A Future of Tango, a reference to the History of Tango, by Piazzolla. How did this piece come to be? Was it a commission by the quartet?
Alejandro Rutty: It was a commission by the 4mil Saxophone Quartet, in Argentina. The quartet suggested some sort of “Histoire de Tango”, and of course I did not want to compete with or write another “Histoire de Tango”, but I saw there was an opportunity to write a future of tango. The idea was that the openness of the future would allow me to make a lot of explorations that I wouldn’t be able to do if I were writing about the past.

TM: Or even about the present….
AR: Correct. I put the timeline fairly far in the future, so that no one will come back and tell me that what I predicted isn’t true. I set up three movements – 2045, 2098, 2145 – and then went off to read about the future. I read all the Kurzweil and Michio Kaku that I could get – before I started composing I read quite a lot, and I realized that there is a relatively solid science of predicting the future by looking at current research, asking “what are you researching about right now?” Typically that research will produce something in twenty or thirty years, that will produce applications in forty years, so there is a range of things that are really possible because they are already being researched. I took some of those – brain downloads, theatrical holograms, and a Mars colony – and tried to imagine a scenario in these possible futures in which tango would emerge, in some way, in some cross-cultural mix, so there is, for example, Arabic percussion, mixed with other seemingly unrelated stylistic elements. That gave me a good way to kick in all the images that I could get. The Cuarteto de saxofones 4mil of Buenos Aires, which is very active in the Latin American classical saxophone scene, presented it in Brazil, first in Tatui, and then in Porto Alegre.

TM: Not only do you have a saxophone quartet that you work with in Buenos Aires, but another here in the United States. Will the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet be performing this?
AR: They really want to play it – we just have to convince a conductor to pick up the piece. In fact I have a saxophone quartet itching to play this piece on every continent. They just need a conductor with an orchestra.

TM: To continue with the theme of tango, it’s interesting to think of tango as the eternal expression of Buenos Aires. What, for you, is the core of tango?
AR: To understand tango, you should think about jazz – tango developed around the same time, and its evolution was somewhat parallel. Jazz, for example, can be thought as a series of patterns, constructions, and ways of playing, and not all of them have to be present. The definition of it is so loose that it can go one place or another. The same thing is true for tango – it is basically a way of playing where you can choose from a large number of patterns, phrasings etc. You can have the basic construction of older tangos, or not – as long as some of those elements are present, some tango-ness is there…it is still tango. I can see tango being transformed in so many ways that there is no end to it, just like we can’t predict an end to jazz.

TM: It seems to me, as an outsider, and someone who has never been to Buenos Aires, it seems like part of what makes tango is the Italian music that has the improvisatory and free tradition that goes with the performance of opera. Would you say that this is an element?
AR: It sounds like that, but it probably is not. What you see is that in tango orchestras the arrangements are written. It is different from most harmony-based popular musics, in which once you set up the groove, there is always space for people to improvise on top. In tango orchestras and small ensembles, the music is based on voice-leading, organized arrangement – there isn’t that much space for outright improvisation. And yet the way those arrangements are written is not the way that they are played. There is an alteration from what the page says – it’s a mixture of oral tradition with written-out music. Tango arrangements are organized grammatically, not by setting up a groove, but by setting up “every four measures this happens, but then it changes to this other thing, and the next time the phrase appears, it’s legato….” It’s a construction where there are a number of rhetorical devices, organized in some order, and they will all know what those rhetorical devices are. All they need to know is in which order they are. Learning the devices is what makes the musicians learn the tango style. It all sounds as if they are improvising, but most likely they are not.

TM: What does tango express about the soul of the porteño? If you ask someone from Rio how they are, the answer will be “beautiful…everything is wonderful…”, or even in the United States the response will be similar, even if their dog was run over…..Is this true in Buenos Aires?
AR: In Buenos Aires, whenever there is an opportunity to complain, you use it.

TM: Do you connect that with the tango?
AR: It has been done…and I could see how the myth of the identity could be construed as the permanent dramatic struggle of the individual against an “impossible and cruel” environment. The literature explores that aspect, and it could possibly be true, although I think that the issue is more complex and nuanced than that. I am less interested in the literary aspects of tango – what attracted me was that it has the sound of a very cool way of music-making, a way that takes you away from the written music, even though it is written music.

TM: To move on from tango a little bit let’s talk about your work from 2009 for wind ensemble, Las Vegas Raga Machine. In listening to this with Deborah, it strikes me that you have almost an Ivesian esthetic, with an incredible variety of styles and references, and unlike a piece where the listener might be convinced that everything grows from a tiny motive of three notes, that doesn’t seem to be the case in this piece. It’s more like a novela, with all of life, creating an expressive whole from all sorts of different materials.
AR: ….yet, in that piece, I was writing the second version of the Conscious Sleepwalker Loops, with different music, in which the piece works this way: there is a song at its core, a song that I have composed and recorded. I would take the recording, and chop it up into little pieces, and apply all sorts of electronic procedures to it, and then go about orchestrating that electronic music as acoustic music. In that piece, curiously enough, everything comes out of that recording, and from the electronic manipulations of that very same recording. Everything is stretching, or shifting, or reversing of the material from that same song. The idea, as in Conscious Sleepwalker Loops, is that the first minute and a half would be extremely fragmented in every conceivable way, and then only towards the middle of the piece do you get the original song. I liked that trajectory – starting as a confusing, very roller-coastery experience, but at some point we find out who the killer is. It’s weird how it can initially be perceived as an expanding totality, because it is kind of the opposite. What I think is important is that it follows one of the things that I do, which is imitate with real life acoustic instruments what electronic music often does.

TM: Please talk about the genesis of this piece.
AR: It was part of a course called “First Nights”. One of my colleagues wanted to commission a piece to include in a class where they would analyze the first performances of Monteverdi, Rite of Spring…

TM:Who was teaching that?
AR: Aaron Allen, at UNCG.
…so in the end John Locke and his terrific UNCG Wind Ensemble agreed to premiere the piece. It’s very unlike most wind ensemble music. The piece is very difficult, almost scary, but since then a few conductors have managed to perform it with very satisfying results. I think it may have a future.

TM: Wind ensemble music seems to a very particular subworld – if people write for wind ensemble they may not write for anything else – a little like church music.
AR: That is changing. What you see in the writing of works within the last twenty years is a new generation of conductors that is interested opening up stylistically, and a new generation of composers have been delivering extremely well-written pieces that go a little bit outside the tradition (which is still there).

TM: The impression that one gets in listening to the opening of the piece that it is orchestral in the best sense. Did you have a sense of what works for different portions of the ensemble, different sections? Things you could do, and things you couldn’t?
AR: I did a revision after hearing the first performance, since some things weren’t as successful as I wanted them to be. It’s complicated, because sometimes it depends on the balance of the particular group – how many clarinets they put on a particular part, how many flutes, etc. etc. I find it a lot harder to write effectively for wind ensemble than for orchestra. After the revision I was satisfied with the piece, but in a way, if writing a string quartet is like driving a sports car, writing for wind ensemble is like driving a semi.

TM: An incredible amount of power and weight that’s available….
AR: … but you can’t do donuts.

TM: In Brazil, and it might even be the case in the USA, the quality of technique from the winds is what you might expect anywhere in the world, and the strings are not quite up to that level, so if you are writing for the orchestra, you will get best results if you have an excellent core for the wind choir, so that the results from the strings are less critical.
AR: I have heard a lot of great string sections from Latin American orchestras. I don’t know – many things can play into what you experienced, including how much rehearsal you have. Most programs will consist perhaps a Tchaikovsky or a Brahms symphony, a piano concerto, and then your piece, so you will get a half-hour or forty-five minutes of rehearsal, and those same players would be able to really nail the piece if they had more rehearsal time. Lately the writing that I have seen from American composers is technically excellent, and the playing of American orchestras is amazingly good. What I am trying to shake out is the big old tradition regarding how complexity applies to large ensembles. In chamber settings you can get away with a big deal of complexity, with many voices being played at the same time, but with orchestra the good orchestral composers resist the temptation to put too much into it, because it just becomes a little bit unintelligible. Unsuccessful orchestral pieces may have that sin of doing too many things at the same time.

TM: Please say a little about Simultaneous Worlds, which is for a “classically” new-music ensemble, in that both flute and percussion are strongly identified with contemporary music.
AR: It was written for the group Due East – percussionist Greg Beyer and flutist Erin Lesser. They recorded the piece for Albany Records in 2009. Both are terrific performers, and Greg Beyer is also a well-known berimbau specialist, knowledgeable in Brazilian percussion and Brazilian rhythms, and so the last movement works very nicely for him. The first piece is a song processed by looping in the most unnatural ways possible, imitating the things that machines would do, and making it sound odd – it took a lot of work. One of the things that I like to do is to imitate poorly adjusted loops, in which it appears that you are looping something electronically, but the loop is not clean, so that the beginning of the new loop is oddly put together with the previous one. That required a degree of detail in the writing that really makes me proud. The last movement is a sort of batucada – Brazilian percussion – all in the marimba and the flute.
Other people have been playing that piece, but I am still waiting for it to become standard rep.


©Alejandro Rutty

TM: Can you reveal the secret of the identity of the song?
AR: I composed it. All of the songs ‘processed’ in my pieces I composed.

TM: Was this song written specifically to be transformed in this piece?
AR: Yes, but it could probably stand by itself as a song.

TM: Will your listeners ever hear this individual song?
AR: That’s what I did in Tango Loops 1 and Tango Loops 2, which are two different attempts at the same procedure. I composed some songs in traditional tango style, and then I proceeded to loop them, shift them, all of the things that electronic manipulation can do, but through orchestration. Then I composed the hyperlinks, and those hyperlinks are basically the material, the tango songs, that I used to produce Tango Loops 1 and Tango Loops 2.

TM: This piece doesn’t have a hyperlink yet.
AR: I haven’t sat down to write it. And I probably won’t use that name anymore, since I have been accused of confusing titling, and making it hard to figure out which piece is which.

TM: Having discussed the character of the pre-existing material with my wife I am interested to hear how you would describe its affect.
AR: I think there’s a bit of Urban folk – what we call in Buenos Aires proyección folclórica, which is basically the set-up of a rock band, with some traditional instruments added, and some traditional rhythms, but played without the traditional boundaries of folklore.

TM: It actually sounds quite romantic.
AR: That goes back to nineteen-seventies Latin American protest song.

TM: Let’s talk about City of Webs, which is a piece that I have had the pleasure of hearing twice live. The core of the work is a poem that both easy to perceive, and not. In listening to the poem one realizes that there is a serious amount of repetition taking place, but in a way that makes it difficult to grasp the structure, which I suppose is something that it has common with some of your other works.
AR: For me it is a totally different beast. I had a group called Lake Affect, which made music based on readings of poems by the poets themselves. We worked with Mike Basinsky, the author of City of Webs, and we did an excerpt from City of Webs, and I always felt that there was more left to do with that poem. For about ten years I had in the back of my mind to write a version of City of Webs with sound added.

As I studied the poem, I realized how deep and how spectacular the poem was from the point of view of his performance, but also because of the universe that he creates. After you understand and inhabit that universe, it is all you need. All poetry and life fits there. Of course, the poem is the performance, not the written text, and every time he performs City of Webs it is somehow different. I was obsessed about “how can I improve this poem?” (which lasts 40 minutes, more or less). After many attempts, I realized that all I had to do was let City of Webs –be- City of Webs, and provide an orchestration, as if the poem as he reads it were a songwriter with a guitar, and I was George Martin, and end up adding an enhanced sound-world. The poem is somewhat circular, or spiral, so I didn’t have to do anything with the structure – I just followed his reading. I was interested in creating a different way of music-making. The score follows Basinski’s voice and suggests ways to play along – perhaps a bit like the way in which tango players read the score, but play different rhythms than those written. We played that piece quite a bit, and we took it on tour with the UNCG Contemporary Chamber Players. It is a piece that would grow with every performance, because essentially you are creating a language to be able to accompany what the poet is doing.

TM: One possibility that could be a future for the piece would be to transcribe the tape part for a live performer. Do you see that as a possibility for this?
AR: It’s impossible, and that’s why there is a tape part. One of the things that comes with speech is that the rhythms are unnotatable. The rhythm of someone speaking naturally, and in long stretches, is totally unnotatable, with constant changes of tempo, especially this big performance of over twenty minutes – it is impossible to follow, in real life, with real notation, and a real metronome marking. The only way to follow the voice is by ear, adjusting to the tape part. Otherwise, there is no way to line up. Everything that required heavy synchronization was pre-recorded, and mixed with the voice – therefore, works, and that way the instrumental parts, that are played live, are humanly possible. Otherwise I can’t see how anyone could perform it.

TM: To move from one stage piece to another, let’s talk about the children’s opera, The Fight to Be Favorite.
As I was listening to this, I thought about something that Stephen Drury once said, many years ago, which was that he would raise his children in an environment where they would never hear tonal music, so that their expectations for music would not be distorted by this. Your piece for children is probably your most conservative in terms of style and vocabulary. What was your target audience for the piece?
AR: Nine-year-olds. This piece was composed for UNCG Opera and Greensboro Opera. They have a project where children submit ideas for a libretto, and then David Holley, (the director) creates a libretto and asks a composer to supply the music. The opera is performed for 6000 school children from Guilford County. I have been at educational concerts many times, and it is clear that at such occasions the function of the music is different, and the first duty of the composer is to prevent the teachers from dying because the children are bored, running around. I quickly realized, through knowing how it feels to be in an audience with thousands of children, that my responsibility is to make sure that the children are fully engaged and that they are paying attention, that the play is fast-paced, that the children can sing, whistle, and that they get involved. Any attempt to move the musical style in the direction of my own specific way of writing electronics with acoustic instruments has to be put aside, and I have to deliver what is expected of the composer, basically a piece that keeps the children engaged, happy, and which is esthetically attractive and challenging in different ways.

TM: That being said, there were only a couple of arias where you seemed to be referencing other styles.
AR: All of them reference other styles or insane hybrids. The first one [a hamster] is a mixture of Gilbert and Sullivan with Nino Rota and reggae. The second aria [a cat] is Brahms with Pergolesi and Bill Evans, and the third aria [a parrot] is funk with Donizetti. I find those kind of exchanges quite attractive.

TM: And the lizard?
AR: The lizard is my favorite. I can’t say where that’s coming from.
In writing opera, the first thing is that I have to forget what I normally do with instrumental and symphonic music, because it is just not going to work in a dramatic work. Some languages that work well in instrumental writing don’t succeed when translated into opera. Opera is a different beast, and plays by different rules.

TM: The exception, perhaps, being Mozart.
AR: His music would already fit into the operatic tradition without changing what it was.

TM: Whereas Beethoven is far from opera, which is why his opera doesn’t work so well.
AR: In the recent past, the minimalists had a style that was more compatible with something operatic, but that’s far from something that would work with children. I decided to write something exciting, energetic and entertaining, and I had a blast doing it.

TM: It had a very engaging libretto.
AR: We worked a lot on it. Working with David Holley was terrific; there was a good deal of back and forth, I had written opera in the past, (I am a big fan, especially Italian opera). I know the repertoire, it’s something that I want to do more of, and something that I enjoy enormously.

TM: How about a few words about Black Box Bossa?
AR: Black Box Bossa is a piece I like very much. I composed a bossa nova, which is actually nice – it may end up being a hyperlink at some point, because it is really lovely – if it had lyrics, I could see it being sung. The mechanical procedure in the piece is that the bossa nova becomes the sample for granular synthesis. Granular samplers work by loading a sound sample, which the sampler reads. It chops up the sample into multiple little grains – that is how you can transpose things without changing tempo. You can reduce the window – how much of the sample is read – you can change how many grains you put into the window, and you can change how big the grains are – whether they are longer grains or smaller, grainy grains. I said to myself “what a granular sampler does to a sample, I will do to that bossa”, and that’s what I do. On top of that, there are a few noises here and there that are “system noise” that I create – as if it were the refrigerator in the background, or something like that.

It’s a Pierrot piece – flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano – and I am very satisfied with the elegance and the detail in the writing.

TM: Let’s conclude by talking about the Conscious Sleepwalker Loops, the title piece for the new CD, with very striking photographs of both you and the performers.
AR: Thanks, the CD sounds amazingly good. There’s a song, which I composed in my youth, which translates roughly as “sleepwalking consciousness”, hence the title. The piece The Conscious Sleepwalker Loops is an orchestral piece that was commissioned by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and the MATA Festival and was premiered by BMOP in Boston and New York. Since then it has been played a few times. Essentially, it is the first piece where I developed clearly the structure that I used later for “Las Vegas Raga Machine”, which is that everything comes from the song, and we only get to hear the song by about two-thirds of the way through the piece. Before that we start with a series of fragments – confusing fragments at blazing speed – we are trying to figure out what is happening – it’s disjunct – and gradually we are led toward the song. It is also probably the first orchestral piece where I feel that I had real control of the writing in a very deep way. Everyone who has heard the piece live had kind words about how good the orchestration is. I listened to it, and said “Wow – who wrote this?”….

TM: Presumably you also knew that the BMOP would devote the amount of time necessary.
AR: Yes. They were very good. They gave me plenty of rehearsal and I knew that they were top-notch, so I put all the meat on the grill there. I remember spending many, many months writing that piece with a lot of dedication and happiness. That being said, the piece is one bit harder than perhaps it should be for every other orchestra to be able to play it without sweating, but all the orchestras that have played did manage to deliver good performances.

TM: One final question, looking to the future: do you have a symphony in your catalog? Do you see yourself having one? Does the name make any difference for you?
AR: No. I don’t think that nowadays we are set to listen, that we have the two hours, or the hour and a half, or the hour to sit to listen to one long piece of music. I don’t think that it is a good idea to rest on the symbols of the past. We are already dealing with a tradition of music-making, we are already dealing with institutions of the past. If we also use symbols of the past, it is harder to be who we are, now. The symphony orchestra is a key instrument in classical music. They are the ones who have the machine, who have the money, who have a public that is attending regularly. They have something that is very important, and that most chamber environments don’t have. Sooner or later, they will need music that is engaging, but also fresh, and attractive in modern ways. When that realization becomes mainstream, when they get to that place, then the music of all of us who are writing in really interesting and attractive ways should fall into place. Gradually, symphony orchestras will have to lighten up on the nineteenth-century repertoire, and see what is out there that can rejuvenate their base, without alienating it. So I don’t see how writing a symphony by that name would bring the relevance to the newness that a symphony orchestra should offer. I am writing a couple of long pieces, though – a piano concerto which probably will not be named piano concerto, and a larger piece for choir and instruments, so there are two pieces with seemingly traditional concepts for me in the months ahead.

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