Conceived and edited by João Kouyoumdjian
In an exclusive interview for Movimento Violão, one of the foremost guitar virtuosos of our age - the Peruvian Jorge Caballero - share his thoughts on technique, repertoire, music education, Brazil, future projects and more. You don’t want to miss!
1) As published in an article you have written for Soundboard magazine, you have a special concern with sound projection. At one point you stated: "projection is the only indispensable requisite for a performing musician". Can you explain in details why this concern is so intense in your playing and in your teachings?
When I was asked to write the article for Soundboard, I chose the topic of projection because I considered it to be an unusual topic of much higher artistic value than, say, right hand relaxation. But to the point, projection is of artistic value as a principle because, by necessity, it regulates our musical and technical choices and aids our maturity as performers. Projection emanates from the notion that no thought can have an impact on society unless others can hear it or read it. As the medium for performers is sound traveling through space, projection is the umbrella term that measures our ability to communicate music to an audience.
2) You chose to perform a very unusual repertoire when you started performing Yamashita's arrangements of orchestral works. What are the challenges and rewards of such endeavor? What have you gained from the experience of performing those works that you can apply on traditional repertoire?
A short answer will be long in this case. At the risk of understating the difficulties in Yamashita’s arrangements, I don’t think their technical challenges are much different from other pieces in the standard repertoire. Ponce’s Variations on ‘La Folía,’ for example, are a monumental work that, if played well, requires as much work as Dvorak’s New World Symphony. As a matter of fact, I could argue that Ponce’s Variations are more difficult based on the complexity of its language.
One of the challenges of playing Yamashita’s arrangements is to make all technical procedures become ‘invisible’ to an audience. At first glance, Yamashita’s arrangements can easily be misunderstood as an exercise in athletic pointlessness with an instrument, a circus act. This is of course justifiable: the radical variance in medium (solo guitar instead of orchestra) challenges the listener’s bias in no small way, often making it impossible to hear Yamashita’s arrangements from a musical perspective. Our ears then fail to listen intuitively, and instead will focus on two logical questions. The first is what’s gained or lost from the “original.” The second, often the case of guitarists, is the types of techniques employed. Either of these options is an unmusical point of departure for listening.
A second challenge is that Yamashita’s arrangements require higher degrees of coordination within technical sets. An example would be the ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens’. The last phrase before the recapitulation calls for an ‘E’ low bass harmonic, which is answered by an artificial harmonic on location XXXVI of the first string. At the same time the principal melody is played on the 2nd string, and there is an ancillary melody that alternates between 3rd, 4th and 5th strings. With the exception of the high artificial harmonic, all of the aforementioned elements aren’t uncommon in guitar literature, but it is the juxtaposition of them that create complications.
The rewards are in direct correlation to the challenges, and the better solutions I find and keep finding in my study of these pieces, the better I become as a musician and an artist. As a person, I believe that it is an imperative of man to strive for excellence. I have always loved the challenges that the classical guitar and its repertoire put in front of me, and these pieces are no different.
3) It is known that even though you are pushing guitar technique and repertoire to another level with extended techniques and performing orchestral works on the guitar, you have a great admiration for guitarists of the past, notably Andres Segovia. What is the most valuable lesson that you think past masters still teach guitarists of today?
Regardless of our generation, we are the product (and here I’m using that word in its mathematical meaning) of all of the great minds that have influenced our thought. As guitarists, the greatest legacy that we have is that of the past masters. Segovia is, to my mind, the most interesting guitarist of the past to study. His choices in fingerings, though sometimes questionable with regards to right hand mechanics, are nevertheless always functional, color consistent (if executed accurately, which isn’t easy) and never without artistic intent. A fact often overlooked by aspiring guitarists is that Segovia’s choices were made with a large concert hall in mind, which is not usually our concern unless we were playing for more than 300 people without amplification. Even so, I find that Segovia’s choices, those contained in his editions as well as his intangible choices in tempi and rhythm, are always effective regardless of performance context.
4) Most critics would agree that behind your extraordinary technical powers, there is a complete musician, in the sense that you are capable of balancing compositional devices (harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, etc) with expressivity (phrasing, nuances of sonority, dynamics, etc). As you are a proof of how all this balance can result in such amazing performances, what would you say is the importance of investing time and energy in theory studies and having training in counterpoint, ear training, etc? Do you think this "musical wisdom" comes more from an accumulation of schooling or rather from the "real world" practical experience?
I’ll begin by saying that there is a difference between being an instrumentalist, a musician, a performer and an artist. You could be a great guitarist and an awful musician at the same time. The reverse could also be true. You could also be a great musician but a stale performer, a great performer but a bad instrumentalist, a great artist but not a great performer, etc. The different things we study have different objectives as well. Developing instrumental technique will make you a better instrumentalist, but not much more than that (though I admit that this is a delicate subject). Studying music and its subjects (counterpoint, harmony, history, analysis, ear training) should make you a good musician. Being a good performer requires study of body movements. I believe it is impossible to become an artist unless you already are one, and no amount of study will produce that. But I also think that all we learn and study allow us to see first causes in artistic creation more easily, and are therefore useful to the degree that our minds can establish connections between the things we study.
5) You were the youngest artist and the only guitarist to win one of the most prestigious classical music competitions in the world, the Naumburg Competition and probably has a successful history of participating of many others. As a serious competitor, what is your general advice to young guitarists about competition preparation? And are they the most important key to a successful career?
I may or may not be the most qualified person to answer this. In a 22-year period I have participated in a total of 9 competitions. I was disqualified in one, won first prize 3 times, second prize 4 times and third prize once. Competitions are by no means the most important key to a successful career, especially given the ratio of competitions to market demand of guitar concerts. It does help presenters make more educated choices when planning their concert season. But ultimately, it is wide public opinion the one that builds a performers’ career.
The simplest advice I can give anyone regarding competitions is to not think of them as an objective or a source of validation for their talent. Given the subjectivity of judging criteria, which is as varied as there are competitions in the world, one can’t believe himself a good guitarist on account of winning competitions. The opposite is also true. The most important quality we must pursue is our own standard of excellence. If our standard is high enough, all other artistic pursuits fall into place. In a practical sense, however, it is also necessary to participate in competitions to assess the set of skills required to do well in them, but that is a much longer subject.
6) As an acclaimed international concert guitarist and a native from Peru, you probably intensively toured in South America. What do you like about performing in Brazil and South America in general? What do you think it's attractive about it, that makes performers eager to come back?
I haven’t played in South America extensively, but I have played in Brazil 3 times in the past 2 years, and I have 2 more appearances this year if all goes well. I particularly like playing in Brazil over other South American countries. Brazilian popular music features a degree of rhythmic and harmonic complexity that has enabled Brazilians to listen to Western Classical music more sensitively than other cultures, including my own. Add to that the vibrancy of their people, and you have a wonderful experience as an artist.
7) What are your future projects? Are you planning to release any new recording in the near future?
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is at the moment on rotation in my programs. I am also working on arranging some pieces by Albéniz, and I just finished Bach’s Flute Partita BWV 1013. I continue to revise my arrangement of Alban Berg’s Sonata Op. 1, which is always my favorite project. Aside from that, I’ll be working with the Miró String Quartet this summer in Texas, and we have additional projects that would involve commissioning new works for string quartet and guitar. I recently recorded a piece called “Alba” by the American composer Mark N. Grant, which should be released by Albany Records in May of this year. I’m also planning on publishing my arrangements beginning this year. There are always recording projects floating around, but I am not fond of recorded sound, so I always delay those projects. Live music is such a profound experience that recordings sound like caricatures.
8) What do you think about Movimento Violão?
Any organization whose goal is to make classical music available to the public acts with heroic altruism. Movimento Violão belongs to that rare category of organizations, whose efforts to ennoble mankind through music deserve my highest praise, as well as my deepest gratitude.