Agustí Fernandez, A Portrait In Words For An Artist Of Sounds: a discussion with Ken Vandermark

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KV: You mention not being concerned about your influences, that they are a part of you and you accept them, perhaps internalizing them organically. You also mention the enormous range of music you have interest in. Could you go into a bit more detail about who has inspired you, from whatever genre of music, and why?Which aspects of their work impacted you and what you “borrowed” for your own musical reasons and pursuits?

AF: Well, we can go a little bit more in detail into this, it’s very easy. I’ve found inspiration in many different kinds of music because, as I said, I can learn from all of them.

If you like the rhythmic side of music then you should listen to the jazz masters (Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Ed Blackwell, etc.), but also African Music (the pygmies from central Africa, the west coast drums, Burundi, Cameroon, Senegal, etc.), Indian music (Ravi Shankar, Ustad Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain, etc.) and the Latin version (Cuban rhythms, Portorican salsa, New York salsa, etc.). The tango masters (Horacio Salgán, Anibal Troilo, Astor Piazzolla, etc.) have a very elegant rhythmic aspect where you can draw some lessons, and you can also learn about how to play rubato from the tango singers. And don’t forget Steve Reich, for the rhythmic aspect. Generally speaking, any music tradition that has to do with dancing is a good source rhythmically. Every tradition understands swing in a different way, but there is swing (or a variation of the concept of swing) in all of them!

If you are more inclined to the harmonic content in music then listen to the European masters, the Western tradition. There are gems everywhere. For the melodic content you can look everywhere, all music traditions have a strong melodic component. If you like micro tuning, exploring the non tempered scales, listen to Asian traditions, fantastic singers and players.

I’m a huge fan of Ustad Bismillah Khan, the shinai player. For many people he is the Indian equivalent of John Coltrane. He is just amazing.

And of course, structure is everywhere, from Bach to Stockhausen, but you can also find very sophisticated structures in most traditional musics.

Personally, I was shocked (in a good way) when I heard Cecil Taylor. Without knowing him, I was playing piano clusters as well, but I didn’t knew he was the master of this technique. A cluster is a compressing of the harmonic content. And a way to the “sound” world, out of the “note” world. 100 years ago there were already clusters in Stravinsky, Leo Ornstein, Henry Cowell. And later on in Penderecki, Ligeti et alt. But the way Cecil Taylor uses clusters on the piano was new to me and when I heard him it was like a revelation- “Yes, that’s it, I’m not the only one who plays like this.” Cecil Taylor’s clusters are an extension or development of Dave Brubeck’s harmonic concepts and polytonal chords, as I see it. Very 50s.

From Xenakis I admired the quality of the sound of his music, the raw basic sound, like in nature. These were sounds that I never heard before. I was familiar with the serial and post-serial music of the 60s and 70s, but they were very classical buy online united states somehow. I mean, it’s all about the series and the counterpoint, no? Very close to Bach’s vision of music. But nothing really new, only the detail of the series, or short melodic motives. But Xenakis was completely different, he was thinking, and producing, mass sounds and effects, no single lines but hundreds of lines, stochastic music, blocs, masses, surfaces of sound. Nothing to do with the series. And one thing that I really liked was that there was no sentimentality in his music. Listening to him was like listening to the rain, or the wind or to an earthquake. No sentiment, only sounds developing and transforming into other sounds. Very mind-clearing, back to the primal forces on earth.

I can go on forever with many, many musicians who influenced me but I like to point two more, both pianists:

Paul Bley. Surprised? I love Paul Bley’s music, all of it. He is the original genius of the jazz piano tradition, in my opinion. Anything that anybody does or have done in contemporary jazz piano, Bley did it before, and much better. He is underrated, clearly. A true genius.

Horacio Salgán. The classical and best tango pianist ever. He must be 98 years old now. The way he plays the piano is exactly the same way Ellington played. Both have an orchestral vision of the instrument. Not a lines player but an arranger on the keyboard. And his technique and swing is unmatchable. I was very fortunate to see him live at Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires, in 2000. He was playing with guitarist Ubaldo de Lío, an extraordinary duet.

And last, but not least, Evan Parker. Evan for me is THE maestro. Everything he does is the right thing to do, always. Always “there,” always incommensurable, always at his very best. For me, music (as I understand it) and Evan Parker are equivalent words. I’ve been very fortunate to meet him, play with him, to have shared so many things with him: friendship, ideas, travels, etc. My life would have been very different without Evan. My life changed that night in Mulhouse when I met him. Both musically and personally. That night, when I was coming off the stage, passing through his dressing room, he, Daunik, and McPhee were clapping for me and my performance, and I innocently asked him, “What are you going to play?”  Evan showed me the soprano he was holding with his right hand and said, “The saxophone.” That’s it. I’ll play the saxophone. No compositions, no bla bla ba, no bullshit. The saxophone.

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