Guillermo Gregorio: Otra Music

an interview with Jason Weiss


Guillermo Gregorio                                                                                                 © 2019 Alfredo Trombetta


Guillermo Gregorio (Buenos Aires, 1941) holds a unique position in modern music. An Argentine who came to the US in the late 1980s, he developed an early interest in both jazz and contemporary classical music, while his studies in architecture and design led to years of teaching in Buenos Aires and Chicago. Though composers like Anton Webern and Lennie Tristano have been cited as influences, he has explained that his music is most directly affected by the visual arts, specifically the constructivists. Already in Buenos Aires he had explored the convergence of music with art, by way of happenings and other performances in public spaces, as part of the collective Movimiento Música Más that he co-founded in 1969 with fellow musician-composers Norberto Chavarri and Roque De Pedro. Several of their pieces, along with some of his tape experiments and free improvisations (on clarinet and alto saxophone) from the early to mid-1960s, have been preserved on CD, Otra Música (2000). In the late 1980s, he began a long-term affiliation with Hat Hut Records, first as a member of Franz Koglmann’s group, later through other projects (a Ran Blake date; a composition commissioned by the Makrokosmos Quartet; his own group playing the music of Anthony Braxton; and as part of an ensemble playing Cornelius Cardew’s radical pieces Treatise and Material, produced and conducted by Art Lange). Starting in 1996, Hat Hut released half a dozen Gregorio records under his own name, notably Degrees of Iconicity (2000) and Faktura (2002). In the two decades since, he has released nearly a dozen small group recordings on various labels, and in October 2018 was invited to play at Edgefest, in Ann Arbor, MI, in a trio with his longtime collaborators Fred Lonberg-Holm and Carrie Biolo. This interview took place on December 18, 2018, at his home in the Inwood district, at the northernmost tip of Manhattan.

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Jason Weiss: Was there some early inspiration for you to follow a path in music?

Guillermo Gregorio: Not at all. I listened to the things that my family listened to, mostly certain kinds of Argentine folklore. I liked Atahualpa Yupanqui. Later, I understood what the lyrics meant, ideologically, and I admired him from different points of view. The classical music that was typical in the forties was nineteenth-century Romantic music, that’s what I heard.

JW: When did you start to play?

GG: I started playing when I was fourteen years old, with small groups. We were fans of New Orleans jazz. I played clarinet then, but later I changed to tenor sax, and then later to alto. I kept playing the clarinet a little, but I went into it intensely about twenty-five years ago. I had the two instruments, with alto, and at a certain moment I dropped the saxophone. For me, the clarinet is more open than the saxophone, which was getting a little asphyxiating – millions of saxophone players, many of them terrific. The clarinet is totally another story.

JW: And from early on, you also had a strong interest in art?

GG: When I was eighteen years old, I started at the school of architecture and there I widened my scope. I was crazy about twentieth-century art, especially painting. I thought architecture was probably the closest thing that could provide a professional activity and at the same time keep the artistic thing. That was the idea. At that moment, the music didn’t absorb me a hundred percent, it was balanced with art. Some periods I was more into artistic activity and design, other periods more into the music, but it was always parallel and developed in a way that they helped each other.

JW: Even after you came to the United States?

GG: Until 2015, I was teaching at Columbia College – history of architecture, history of twentieth century art. But at the Art Institute of Chicago, I also taught two classes: one was “Notation for Performance,” where I could apply the two things working with sound students; and the other was “Improvisation.” So, it was a balance, I was interested in the interaction of sound and visual perception.

JW: That interdisciplinary perspective can already be seen in Movimiento Música Más, the collective you helped form in Buenos Aires in 1969.

GG: I had been thinking about it for a while, things related to more than music, happenings and so on. Apparently, Chavarri and De Pedro were already talking about that. So, we went to an avant-garde concert one night (of Larry Austin, on September 24, 1969) at the Instituto Di Tella, and when we went to the café after, that was the founding of Música Más. They had university careers, they were composers.

JW: Did the political context of the time, with the Onganía dictatorship that began in 1966, animate the collective in their pieces?

GG: I’m not sure now, but probably indirectly the always-present idea of repression awoke our desire, in a certain way, to put things out that we had been thinking about. The original idea was to create another dimension, musically speaking, because we reacted also against what we called mainstream avant-garde. There were terrific musicians in Argentina, terrific composers, but following the different currents in Germany, France, and the States. My impression was it had to be already approved by something that happened in Wuppertal, or New York.

I never include in this the great master of modern music in Argentina, Juan Carlos Paz (1897-1972). He was totally outside the mainstream. Even when he embraced European or American modernities, he was very different. And when he used the 12-tone idea coming from Schoenberg, he made it really very personal. Later, he broke with that and went into more open music, and finally he was making graphic scores that were very impressive. I was lucky, I have copies. He was a founder of Grupo Renovación early on, and that was the main outlet for his music. There were concerts in Buenos Aires, but it was a very special audience, relatively small compared with the audience of so-called classical music. At that moment, there were very creative musicians, for example Mauricio Kagel. He was imaginative, inventive, an incredibly powerful musician, even in the formal classical way. But he left very early.

JW: Kagel went off to Germany in the 1950s. Were you hearing any of Kagel’s music in the ‘60s?

GG: Well, he was a member of that group of Juan Carlos Paz, they played Kagel pieces several times. And I probably heard his music in other circles too, on the radio, but it was very limited.

JW: With Música Más, how were the ideas generated for public performances and happenings?

GG: We supported each other, whether it was Chavarri or De Pedro who had an idea and composed something, or I did. Also, the three of us accepted works proposed by other members who came later. It was very open, the ideas were in part individual and converging in something that could be considered a group activity.

JW: In those years, they had teaching jobs, but what were you up to?

GG: At the beginning, I was finishing my architecture degree, and then I started working in some studios, in architecture and design.

JW: When did you leave Música Más?

GG: In 1972. I dedicated myself more intensely to design and architectural work or listening to a lot of music beyond the avant-garde. I left simply because I was feeling there were other things and that was not my principal interest anymore.

JW: Were you ever tempted to have a mainstream jazz group?

GG: No. During my life as an “avant-gardist” – a term I hate – I was always re-listening or discovering things from the past and trying to redefine them in a different context. If I tell you I’ve been listening again to the New Orleans clarinet players, whom I have always loved, anyone could tell me, “You went back,” and I will say emphatically: I never go back. For me, listening today to the great clarinet players from New Orleans long ago, I find different things and I take from there different things. Every time I go to the history I re-discover something, I see the thing with a different perception. What I elaborate based on that is very different from other things I made in the past. That happened to me with the other music also. One great figure who motivated my interest was Earle Brown. Another whom I feel very close to was Xenakis. So, I keep listening to that. The first time I listened to modern music was in about 1957 – the Viennese school, Edgar Varèse, musique concrète.

JW: In 1966, the American soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy made a famous visit to Buenos Aires, where he got stuck with his quartet for nine months. Did you see him play there?

GG: I saw the group more than once. My friends and I enjoyed it a lot. We were perfectly conscious that he was an important element in the musical activity of that moment. I had already listened to Ornette Coleman in 1962, and even free jazz. And I had heard some of Lacy’s records: Gil Evans & Ten; the record with Charles Davis on Candid (The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy). I was lucky to have a friend who imported boxes of thirty records from the States, so I could listen to his collection.

The concerts I attended, the venue was packed. But proportionally it was probably a very small audience. We knew in a general sense what we were going to listen to. What happened is that I had never heard Steve Lacy playing in such a decidedly free fashion, and that made an impression.

JW: In the 1970s and ‘80s, during the dictatorship, did you withdraw from music?

GG: It was so depressing, all that time. I kept listening, and I was playing. It was like a reviewing, something coming from jazz, more specifically cool. There were isolated concerts. Later, I began introducing free elements. I did a free interpretation of one of Tristano’s pieces, and I wrote the program notes of that concert, right when the dictatorship collapsed. So, there was a more optimistic atmosphere – the concerts we did after the dictatorship were pretty successful. In Buenos Aires, there was a real separation between the, let’s call them, professional mainstream jazz musicians, most of them were bebop followers or, later, Coltrane; always the last trend. I didn’t have anything to do with them.

JW: Were you teaching during the years of the dictatorship?

GG: I was teaching at the University of Buenos Aires and the University of La Plata. I was very concerned with my classes and trying to keep the job at the university – because you didn’t need to get involved in something, they found your name, you were out. So, I decided to get into my classes, and to do deal with the students in a very difficult moment. I always tried to support them and be on their side. But of course I was listening, and trying to play a little. I remember I was in that chaos – the inferno that was Argentina in that moment – concerned about clarinets, about getting a new clarinet, which was very difficult.

JW: When you finally managed to emigrate in 1985, where did you go first?

GG: We landed in Vienna, and then one night at three in the morning the telephone rang: some friends in Los Angeles said an architect friend had a studio and would I like to go work there? At the end of that year, I went to Los Angeles to see what would happen (where he also studied briefly with Warne Marsh). But I couldn’t stay very long, so my experience was to see how that kind of thing works in a context I didn’t know. In Vienna, I was surprised, we went to a concert in a sophisticated place, and they were playing a kind of crazy free jazz. We commented, “Is that still going on here?” It seemed an anachronism. Slowly, I understood, and by chance I was put in contact with Franz Koglmann, so I started with him. One day, I was recording with Koglmann, and Werner Uehlinger (founder of the Swiss record label Hat Hut and its affiliates) came and said, “You play free cool.” I was like, What? Oh, yes! So, in Vienna, in some way the two parts of me got together that had been neglected in other contexts.

JW: Didn’t you go to Vienna because your wife, literature scholar and professor Sylvia Dapía, was doing scholarly research?

GG: Yes, it was a very tenuous possibility. Really, I didn’t think we were going to stay out of Argentina. It was more a kind of “Let’s see what happens.” I was in Vienna for about a year, then LA on my own for less than a year, and then I went back to join her again in Germany, in Cologne. I was invited to play in festivals and tour, with Franz Koglmann, Klaus Koch, and others. Those musicians were like my second foundation.

JW: After your move to Chicago in 1991, how did you get to know the music community there?

GG: It happened as a result of how things developed. In 1988, I participated in a festival organized by Wiener Musik Galerie in Vienna (“Cool Noir – In memoriam Chet Baker”). I played with the Franz Koglmann orchestra, where there were incredible musicians, beginning with Ran Blake. That was a total opening and revelation. I had already toured with Koglmann, the trio with Klaus Koch, but that was something, where my name was under Jimmy Giuffre, for example, alphabetical. And there were other names too: Bill Dixon, Anthony Braxton, as well as Europeans. I remember I talked a lot with Braxton one day there, and I went to all the concerts – Marianne Schroeder, the piano player, was fantastic – it was great meeting all those guys. And I met the only person that I knew from Chicago, later my great friend, Art Lange.

JW: Until you started teaching there in 1998, you were mainly doing music in Chicago?

GG: Yes, there were many venues, and there was a real interest in the music that made up the parts of my musical personality, which included my European experience. That music had a great reception there, in the area between free jazz and twentieth-century music. When we played at The Empty Bottle, for example, it was packed.

JW: So, you had an ongoing relationship with Werner at Hat Hut Records?

GG: That was the situation. Werner was always interested to do totally new things based on historical movements or musicians; or cultural currents, writers, painters. That coincided with my idea. One day, Werner called me: “I discovered a CD with unreleased versions of Red Norvo pieces. You have to do something with that.” I listened to Red Norvo when I was sixteen years old, it was terrific. But I wondered: what do I have to do with that? Then I thought, It’s a CD, I will do it. He sent me the record, it was swing, with a theme attributed to Fletcher Henderson, “Red Dust.” It caught my attention, so I called the most appropriate people I knew, Pandelis Karayorgis and Mat Maneri, and we produced Red Cube(d) (1999), which is supposedly about Red Norvo.

JW: When you did the record of Braxton’s music for Hat Art (Anthony Braxton, Compositions No. 10 & No. 16 (+101), 1998), how did that come about?

GG: Art suggested it, because he was in touch with Braxton and Braxton gave him the compositions. Art had an idea to arrange the pieces for the group, which was my group that was on my record Ellipsis (1997) from the same time. Braxton wrote part of the liner notes.

JW: What sparked the development of your Madí pieces?

GG: The rediscovery of the Argentine avant-garde, with the Madí movement, was a product of nostalgia when I was living in Chicago. I was absolutely enthusiastic when I was eighteen years old, and later, about the Russian Constructivists, and Moholy-Nagy, and Max Bill, and El Lissitzky. I like constructivist design and architecture, and things related to that. The constructivists from 1910, or 1920, were thinking of an art that doesn’t represent anything but is an object in the real social space. So, walking in Chicago – I remember the street exactly – I thought about all that again, and from that I jumped into Madí. I had never paid much attention to Madí, for me the Concrete movement was the important thing. This was in 1998. I saw the objects that Madí proposed, which were the coplanar, objects that interact with real space and are not representative. I understood what the Madí artists in 1946 wanted to do, to eliminate any hint of representational space, making a real object. Okay, I started making certain compositions [with graphic scores] and I saw they looked vaguely like a coplanar. What had to do with the coplanar were the lines of silence, which were the liaisons between the parts and keeping those parts fixed there. The silence is the empty space. So, from there come the Madí pieces. I’m not interested in that anymore, but it was important at a certain moment. When I recorded Degrees of Iconicity (2000), I didn’t incorporate pieces based on a conceptual or concrete structure similar to the Madí pieces but I was mentioning that. For example, “degrees of iconicity” came from an article by Tomás Maldonado, the Concrete artist who was one of the directors of the School of Ulm, “Apuntes sobre la iconicidad” (Sketches on Iconicity). He analyzes when a figure becomes defined as an entity itself to the extent that it provokes an impression in the viewer of the real object. So, I had that idea in mind. In the following Hat Art record, Faktura (2002) – as the title indicates, I was more centered in Russian Constructivism, but doing that, I saw the idea of the Madí; the Argentinian Madí of 1946 was very similar to Russian Constructivism in 1922 or ‘23 – I had the opportunity to make a piece dedicated to a virtuoso clarinet player, friend of mine, François Houle. I made a piece based on the relationships of the designs of Max Bill, his Fifteen Variations on a Single Theme (1938). I wrote with the geometrical, even tautological relationships of the fifteen figures. Very difficult – two weeks later, he had recorded the piece. It was all notated. In Faktura, the second movement of the “Rodchenko Suite” is a Madí piece [and there are two others on the record]. In Coplanar (2005), for New World Records, I based the whole record on coplanar. It was dedicated to Juan Alberto Molenberg, who invented the coplanar, he was a Concrete artist. For that reason, the first coplanar designed by Molenberg [in 1946] was on the cover.

JW: Has the element of nostalgia played much of a role in your work or your life?

GG: I would say no. But it depends what subjects you want to touch there. Obviously, I have nostalgia for experiences I had in Argentina – understanding, from nostalgia, something that for you was good and you cannot have it anymore. I remember when I discovered, for example, painters like Tomás Maldonado, Alfredo Hlito, others, who shocked me. That is the nostalgia of the discovery. I feel nostalgia for the moment I discovered in Buenos Aires, because it was physically there, Mies van der Rohe pieces. Many of those discoveries, that passion one feels when one discovers something, happened in Buenos Aires. But, nostalgia of tango? No. Maté? No. Nostalgia I have probably in my stomach – empanada, sandwich de miga, or veal milanesa.

JW: Though you’ve continued to compose in the decade and a half since your Madí and coplanar pieces, your most recent records are all improvised music. Why is that?

GG: That is according to the circumstances. There is no money to make a record with musicians where we have to rehearse, such a possibility doesn’t exist. Nothing against improvisation, which I love, but one of the important reasons why improvisation is so extensive today is because there is no economical possibility to rehearse, to make a project. Werner Uehlinger supported by the Swiss bank, that doesn’t exist anymore. So, what can you do? Improvise. The definition of composition is very tenuous, very subtle, because composition is not necessarily something written.

© 2019 Jason Weiss. A shorter version of this interview appeared in Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas 98 (Spring 2019).

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