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

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KV: You have spent many years working as a professor of music in Barcelona.  What kinds of courses do you teach?  How do you approach educating students about improvisation and new creative music?  How do you deal with the challenge of finding new and different ways to to inspire your pupils to, in essence, “teach themselves”?

AF: I teach “Improvisation” both at the Jazz Department and at the Contemporary Music Department [of the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya (ESMUC), in Barcelona].

Because the vocabulary used, the tradition, the techniques and the goals are different, there are different results from the students. I’m looking for spontaneity in my students, basically. No clichés or “licks,” but some kind of personal investigation and expression. It’s not easy to find this because they think that they have to sound like someone else, they don’t even think that they can have a voice of their own. What I try to do is to throw away or erase what they already know and start anew, like from the beginning. I don’t always succeed, they have strong resistance to this approach.

KV: I associate you with the new cutting edge of musician, at the forefront of a contemporary player that has exceptional technical skills but who can apply them to the highest level of improvising, and who avoid a “stiff and academic” approach to creative ideas; the trumpeters Nate Wooley and Peter Evans come to mind as examples of musicians from a younger generation who represent this new type of player in the United States.  Do you see more evidence of this exciting combination of skill sets in some of your students and, if so, why do you think this development is happening in contemporary music?

AF: In short- the world has become smaller. When I was talking about time and I pointed to some rhythm traditions around the world that you can learn from, I wasn’t only meaning the specific, varied and sophisticated examples of those rhythmic patterns. I was also meaning that listening, learning and playing them may help you find a better understanding of rhythm in music in general. The many facets that rhythm can adopt are all facets of the same phenomena: how do humans deal with time in music, and how, through understanding these different conceptions, do we get to a broader concept of time (not only musical time) and to the way sound can change our perception of time, becoming less rigid and more liquid. Clocks (Newtonian time) are only one way of thinking about it, but there are many other ways of envisioning time, and every music culture in the world has approached this issue in a slightly different way. This also applies to tuning, melody, harmony, timbre, form, process, development, etc. In general, you go from the particular to the general, from the example to the concept.

And I think this is what is happening with this new generation of musicians you’ve mentioned- they can switch from one musical genre (let’s say jazz) to another one (contemporary, electronica, etc.), and doing so they are unconsciously merging different approaches in their mind. And when they [perform] you can hear this fusion of musical concepts in their playing. This fact is greatly interesting and points to a music that hs never done before, a global music without stylistic restrictions. Real fusion only takes place in the mind and soul of the musician (I’m thinking of Ellington & Ravel / Joe Maneri & Turkish music / Coltrane & Indian Music).

But there is also a practical reason: they need to work! And if you are only good in one kind of music it will be more difficult for you to get concerts than if you are good in many different styles. Times have changed.

I think more and more students will learn from any musician, any tradition, and that’s good. When a jazz drummer student asks me, “Do you think it’s a good idea for me to play Steve Reich’s, “Drumming,” with this contemporary music ensemble?” I say, “Yes! Go for it! And enjoy it, you’re lucky!” At ESMUC there is a course on Carnatic music addressed to contemporary performers to help them to better understand and play the intricate and complex rhythms of new compositions. Anything that can help you to become a better musician is good for you, whatever it is.

And I really think that music is only “one.” You can learn from anybody, you just have to be open. If you think of rubato singing you can draw a line to link Carlos Gardel, Édith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and so many others, and learn from all of them, understanding the nuances and differences of their singing related to rubato, how they still swing in rubato. And this is only a minor issue in music, the rubato. But in some cultures rubato IS crucial. Your music is good or bad depending on your rubato, you know? Rubato can make a whole difference.

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