Here are two wonderful interviews prefacing our concert together at the Doctorow Center in Hunter, NY in the Catskills.
Great job, Vicki!
(mp3 of my live performance of Pablo’s Milonga del adios at the bottom of the page)
I recently was lucky enough to interview a boundlessly musical man with a debonair disposition which was evident even over the telephone. While some of our conversation got lost in translation we still covered what is always important; the music, past present and future. Pablo Ziegler and Christopher O’Riley (Click here for COR’s interview to catch up!) will be performing a duo piano performance Two to Tango at the Doctorow Center for the Arts on August 31st at 8 pm. This promises to be a performance not to be missed. Tickets are available for purchase over the phone at 518.263.2063 or through our website at http://www.catskillmtn.org/events/performances/2014-08-31-los-tangueros-a-792.html Enjoy the interview and get to know Pablo!
V: For your performance Two to Tango, can you speak to the new tango you and Chris O’Riley will be playing?
P: Yes, I was playing with Chris some years ago. The program (Two to Tango) I did for a CD I was recording many years ago for Sony Classical with many acts. It included 12 of Piazzolla compositions and 2 that I rearranged for two pianos. But now we mostly have a lot of two-piano tunes of my own, my compositions and some Piazzolla tunes. And, maybe some traditional too. It’s crossover music between the tango, classical style music and jazz. I cross over music.
V: You see the dark side and the romantically tragic within tango. Would you consider yourself to be a true romantic?
P: Yes, I hope so. (laughs)
V: You have led a very disciplined lifestyle to get to where you are today. Beginning to play piano at the age of 3 is quite impressive. Your mom didn’t allow your friends to come over and play because you were practicing. You won a grammy because of this discipline, congratulations by the way, a little late I know. Are you still as disciplined in your practice to this day?
P: I have to practice, yes of course. I have a discipline of a composer and the discipline of a piano player. As a composer we have to try to compose and be in contact with the composition everyday. As a piano player, we have to spend at least 3 hours a day to practice piano and practice the programs. I will always be practicing on many different programs because the duo pianos is one of my programs. But, I have different programs with my orchestra, twin quartet, and my classical tango quartet. Each of my programs are really different. I have to think to keep those programs in my mind and in my fingers too, no?
V: What was your first moving live musical experience?
P: It was at the age of 15 years old because I started to play with one of the famous jazz bands in Buenos Aires. It was enjoyably. I can remember that very well, it was one of the first.
V: Astor Piazzolla was given death threats because of Argentinians not agreeing with his version of their traditional music, the tango. Growing up in Argentina, when do you remember the Argentinians coming around to being more accepting of the new tango?
P: It was hard at the time, I still have a lot of discussions with my friends about the music. The traditional tango listeners or dancers were accusing Piazzolla of destroying the tango but he really moved the traditional tango music from the dancing floor to the concert stage. It’s like, I don’t know, maybe Gershwin doing classical music with jazz. Piazzolla really created a new music from mixing tango music with classical and jazz.
V: Do you think that New Tango can keep evolving without sounding like a completely new musical genre?
P: New tango sounds really new. I remember the first time that I heard Piazzolla’s music on some radio program. I was driving and I was listening to this sound, it sounded like such strange music. The sound was beautiful music! I said, “What is this?!” And the radio said, “Oh, this is Astor Piazzolla.” It was really, really different for my ears, no? At that time, being a young guy, a teenager, I didn’t like the traditional tango. That was music for old people. Old tango dancers, old people. And when I heard Piazzolla’s music, he really, really changed my mind about Buenos Aires music. He was playing the music that reflected the new Buenos Aires, not the old tango side.
V: That’s pretty amazing that you ended up actually playing with the composer of this strange beautiful music that you heard on the radio.
P: I couldn’t have even imagined it at the time. At the age of 30 something I started playing with him. It was really surprising. It wasn’t in my dreams to play with him. I was playing with my own group, jazz music or I was working as a studio musician on a lot of different kind of music. At that time I was a very good music leader, and that was very good if you work as a studio musician. You have the ability to have a very good first music lecture. Really, when Piazzolla called I said, “What?!Yeah!” Our first meeting I told him, “Listen, I am not a tango player.” He said, “No, no, no, I am calling you because I have a very good reference of you with playing jazz and classical music…. but you know the tango?” “Yes, of course I know the tango,” I said. I had been playing some traditional tango for my friends and at that time and I was learning one of the piano cadenzas that Piazzolla was using for his composition. When I met him I played the cardenza for him and he was very happy. He gave me a bunch of music to practice in 20 days and after that we had our first rehearsal with a last quintet. That is the short version of my meeting with Piazzolla.
V: In my interview with Christopher O’Riley last week, he spoke of stories you told him of you and Astor Piazzolla going shark fishing and living a great life. Can you tell me what your favorite past time with Astor was?
P: At that time I was the youngest member of the quintet. We started at first a really good musical relationship and after that a really good friendship. I remember after concerts, walking with Astor, looking for restaurants, especially in Paris. That was our headquarter in Europe in the 1980’s. I remember looking for parties, looking for restaurants, and reading menus. We had a lot of dinners together, enjoying food and music and enjoying all the history. Piazzolla told me about his life. He told me of studying with Nadia Boulanger and he told me of the hard time he had when he decided in 1970 to move from Buenos Aires to Europe. It was an incredible relationship, much more beside the music. Our relationship with the music was fantastic. If you go to one of our videos, the video from the Montreal Jazz Festival, you can hear the way we play we play together, our relation. It was very much like a family relationship and you can hear that in the way we play music. For me its very evident. To have a great experience, go to the Montreal Jazz Festival .
Check out how young and handsome Pablo is in this video from the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1984
V: Christopher O’Riley describes you as the sweetest man, is this true?
P: Oh really, the sweetest man?
V: And from what I can tell, I agree with Chris so far. How would you describe him?
P: Chris is a very sweet, really sweet man. He’s a great musician, a great piano player . Our relationship is beyond the music at the moment. I was playing with him about 8 years ago or something like that and we were playing a concert together. That’s when our relationship was developing through the music and after concerts, dinners. Sometimes I’d be rehearsing at the house he had in LA, in North Hollywood. A wonderful house. We’d be cooking together, rehearsing together and we developed an incredible relationship beyond the music. He’s a lovely guy, a great musician and a lovely guy.
V: So what you’re saying is that it takes two sweet men to tango?
P: I don’t know if I am sweet. (laughs)
V: You can play the tango Pablo, the new tango, but can you dance the tango?
P: I can dance.
V: You can dance?
P: I was dancing when I was young, because the tango music was part of the music we would dance during the time at all of our teenage parties. We were also dancing to American music like Ray Miller, those guys, and tango music. In 1960, rock and roll music appeared and we changed. We were dancing the tango music with really simple steps. Now, those tango dancers have very complicated choreography. I always say when I play tango, I always try to dance with my instrument and with my musicians. That is one of the ways to have a very good tango group.
V: You feel the music as you you play it.
P: Right, we had to feel the music to advance. Not only tango music, I can play that way to all kinds of music.
V: Who are your favorite Argentine composers?
P: Piazzolla. of course. Piazolla started as a professional classical composer and finally he mixed tango and jazz. He grew up in NY and had a lot of jazz influence. His family was moving from NY to Buenos Aries both when he was a kid and a teenager. He came back to Buenos Aries and started playing jazz music. And, Alberto Ginastera, you know him?
V: No, I do not, but I will look him up so that I do know him!
..And I did! Here’s a portrait of the famous composer himself, Alberto Ginastera
P: Oh, Alberto Ginastera is one of our big composers. He’s a classical composer with an argentine folk music reference. We can say that Piazzolla was also a classical composer with an Argentine tango reference, which is very different. The tango was born in the Buenos Aires city. The folk music started in the rest of the Argentine republic. He was composing very good Argentinian music with this type of folk reference. Also, Carlos Guastavino. Great composer, great classical musician.
V: Have you visited Catskill Mountains before?
P: Yes, I remember, we had been there playing in a jazz club. This is our first time with the two-piano program. I know that area is very beautiful.
V: Anything else you’d like to add Pablo?
P: I hope that everyone will enjoy our new program!
Acclaimed for his engaging and deeply committed performances, the pianist Christopher O’Riley is known to millions as the host of NPR’s From the Top. Now in his fifteenth year on air, O’Riley introduces the next generation of classical-music stars to almost a million listeners each week. He performs around the world and has garnered widespread praise for his untiring efforts to reach new audiences. Continue to read short bio at http://christopheroriley.com/about/
V: First of all I’d like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule with hosting NPR’s weekly From the Top program, doing performances and of course fulfilling your creative musical and literary passions daily. I want to briefly introduce myself, and not to fall into the self fulfilling prophecy, but this is more or less my first rodeo and definitely not yours on the interviewing end. I am finding a balance with boundaries and anything you deem irrelevant for disclosure, you can just say next. I’m not planning on getting too personal but I truly believe by painting an overall portrait of you, the artist, we will be left with a derivative to become acquainted with your music as well. So alas, lets dive in. As host of NPR’s program From the Top, how is it inspirational working with young musical savants?
C: They play at a very high level, classical music is part of their life, but only one part of their life. A savant would be someone who is obsessive, compulsive. There have be inherited instances of autistic kids who are brilliant musicians. These kids are very well adjusted, wonderfully socialized young people. They also happen to play music at a very high level. This goes a long way towards reaching out to an audience that’s not necessarily initiated into classical music or might be intimidated by it. So when they hear these kids, they hear their personal stories and they hear the kinds of things the kids are into; laser tag or doing a project, getting into biology and deciding whether to become a scientist or a pianist. These are all things that hit compassionate buttons in the audience. They allow the audience to say, “I’m going to give it a chance because this kid seems really nice, I’m going to listen to what they have to play.” That goes a long way towards not only bringing new audiences to classical music but also it’s rightful acknowledgement of the accomplishment to the very high level of excellence achieved by these kids. This is just one part of their very full lives. So, that’s very inspiring to me to have these kids who are clearly expert, performing at a very high level classical music wise but also with their grades and their sense of community. It really goes a long way towards establishing that classical music is something that will be going on for a very long time. These are a very fertile, enthusiastic and passionate generation of musicians. Or, the musicians who become audience members when they move onto other parts of their lives. So these are kids that classical music is not going to lose anyone from.
V: That’s really interesting to me. I find that taking time and dedication to become a professional or very talented musician, you are more inclined to be introverted. So it’s really intriguing to me that these children are open, kids being kids that are just brilliant. I can imagine how that is inspiring.
C: It’s interesting that you bring that up, the introversion or at least being interested in something that not a lot of other kids are interested in. We often times have stories on the shows where we’ll interview kids who are on the same swim team as our young pianist. They’ll say, “Oh, they (the pianist) couldn’t make this last meet because they had a competition to go to and I’ve never heard them play before, but that’s really cool and I’m interested in that!” But there’s a lot of interaction in terms of their own community. We also have a lot of kids who are parts of orchestra and choruses. Sometimes those are really their familial community. A lot of kids come from homeless situations and so their chorus is not about necessarily being the greatest opera singer in the world but its about pulling together much like the high school football team. You really build a sense of character, citizenship and community with those kind of experiences. The music is really uplifting, immediate and communal. There are lots of musical experiences our kids have that, I think, are potentially universal and are able to be appreciated on an universal level.
V: You grew up with music and from what I can tell you do not seem introverted at all.
C: I think I was. We didn’t have From the Top when I was growing up. I moved around a fair amount and I think during the first year of high school in Pittsburg, I didn’t really talk that much. I was really quite introverted. You find your community, you find your way.
V: Do you know your Myers Briggs personality type?
C: No idea, is that the introverted/extrovert?…I think I’m supposed to be extrovert, sort of leadership that kind of thing.
V: That would be part my guess…Have to been to the beautiful Catskill Mountains before?
C: I’ve driven through. I used to live in NYC so I’ve been through but never stayed so I am looking forward to it.
V: Good, there’s this mysterious magnetic energy in the mountains that hopefully you’ll enjoy.
C: Did you grow up there?
V: Yes, I did. I grew up here and then left for ten years, and now I’ve found myself back. For your performance on Sunday, August 31st at the Doctorow Center for the Arts you are performing a piano duo with Pablo Zeigler entitled Two to Tango. How did you and Pablo collaborate?
C: Forty years ago I came to know the music of Astor Piazzolla. Pablo was Astor’s pianist in his new tango quintet for about 30 years. I remember very specifically, a friends of mine who had been a clarinetist with the Sao Paulo Brazil Orchestra came back from his travels and played on this rickety cassette machine for me this music that I’ve never heard before. I instantly became a huge fan of Astor Piazzolla his revolution of the tango. So, I knew the music very, very well. I actually saw Piazzolla perform when I lived in NYC at the Beacon Theater and it was amazing. It was a mostly Argentinian crowd and he would play just two notes and people would erupt like they would for the Rolling Stones playing Gimme Shelter. And of course, the musicianship is again on very high virtuosic level. I remember a big fan of John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which is a similarly hyper virtuosic, hyper passionate type of music although that was sort of rock-jazz fusion. The Argentine tango in the hands of Piazzolla is really a different thing entirely and something that no one else has matched, except for Pablo. As it happens I was working on a project with a producer, one who had actually been working on a record of two piano tango arrangements by Pablo recorded by Emanuel Ax. It was a successful record so they wanted to tour that project, but Manny was busy enough being Manny so he asked me. And I just jumped because I’ve loved his music for so long. So Pablo and I met in the Steinway Basement in NY to rehearse and potentially get a tour together. This is probably 8 or 10 years ago when we first worked together. I loved the music, the arrangements were amazing. But what’s even more important that there are elements in the Argentine tango, the Piazzolla type tango, that are very close to American jazz. So there’s a lot of that kind of syncopation, and not improvisation so much, but there is sort of a gap risen and resurrect in music. Now with American jazz, I did play jazz for many years, we have more cerebral, more cleverness. Pablo pointed out to me first and foremost that tango is a dance and comes from the ground up. And, from a very firm ground. So he was amazingly astute, helpful and a great mentor in really getting me into the true style according to to Piazzolla and according to Pablo Ziegler, who is now the greatest living tango master. So I’ve enjoyed playing with Pablo over the years. I’ve got to say playing with two pianists, sometimes there’s good chemistry, sometimes they’re trying to outdo each other. With Pablo, I think it’s mostly such a matter of trust and the amazing capacity that anything that he does I will react to and anything I do, he will react to. We have a fantastic time playing together. We hadn’t played together in four or five years and then we got together in June to start rehearsing for this tour. Pablo was very concerned that we had enough days to rehearse together but as soon as we sat down to play, we were really on the same page. It’s a very important partnership for me. I love the music, I love the tango that we play by Piazzolla. I love even more the tango that Pablo has written. We’ll each be taking a solo turn and both of my solo turns will be Tango Milongas of Pablo’s, one fast and one slow. They are both beautiful pieces. The music is very high level, the music making is high level. He’s just the sweetest man.
V: It sounds like you both have a great musical conversation on stage. In a 1989 interview done by Gonzalo Saavedra, Astor Piazzolla says “But my music is sad, because tango is sad. Tango is sad, dramatic, but not pessimistic. Pessimistic were the old, absurd tango lyrics.” Do you agree with this?
C: It’s more specifically about heartbreak than anything in jazz. There’s much more of a personal tragic feeling about the tango. He’s right to point out the difference between lyrics of old tangos and new tangos, nuevo tangos, because if you listen to tango as a continuum in time there were tangos in the 20’s that were much more light hearted. It becomes in Piazzolla’s hands a much more tragic, much sadder music. There’s a lot of people in Argentina that didn’t care for what Piazzolla was doing to the point where they felt that their national music was being turned into a travesty. He had death threats. There was a very good reason for him to go to Europe and the United States where he was embraced wholeheartedly. This was the national music of Argentina and it has a very long tradition. Like American jazz, it’s different. It’s not always staying the same thing. It’s a much more romantically tragic music, that of Piazzolla.
V: It seems to me that you have this lure and attraction to dark artists, and with Two to Tango, this performance aligns with this attraction. You are known for your unspeakably brilliant piano renditions of Radiohead, among several other artists such as Elliot Smith and Nick Drake. I’ll be honest here, I love Radiohead and I frequent them often when choosing what to listen to when, but only when I’m in a strong headspace. More often than not I cry when I listen because of the darkness and reality I find myself encompassed within. So when I heard that you composed Radiohead songs on the piano, I was immediately curious. The experience I had could be explained by saying that you take the mundane and dark of each song and shed light onto the underlying beauty. It is truly remarkable. Can you explain your lure and attraction to these dark artists?
C: It’s funny, because the darkness, I guess of what most attracts me to certain music are really purely musical things. One is harmony, there is always a chord that gets under your skin. And that’s the kind of harmonic language that people like. Radiohead, composers like Levell and modern rock have a real corner on the market, its not your bread and butter harmony. It’s really got some sensuality to it. The other thing that I like is a sense of conversation within a musical texture like you find in a Bach fugue where you have four voices going at it in a sort of conversation or conflict. With Radiohead, even though not all five of them can read music theres always a sense that every member of the band is contributing a very specific idea and that makes a thread or weave musically, which personally makes it more fun to deal with on the piano then say Metallica which is sort of this dealing with monolithic chords and thats about it. There’s much more sense of texture and very specific texture to each song. That makes each song so attractive to play. Likewise with Nick Drake, the texture there is a very idiosyncratic way of playing the guitar, tuning the guitar. Just transcribing the finger patterns and putting them on the piano gets me inside the gloves of his hands and that gives me a texture that is mine messing around with the keyboard. It’s very specific to his musicianship. Elliot was a supreme songwriter at the best sense of harmony and a very rich vocabulary of harmony. But also he was self produced, so there’s an enormous amount of layer in his recordings and also different choices made when he was performing songs in solo versions. So again the layering, the texture the cataphonic layer of different voices makes it really cool to work on. I’m Irish, so there is an attraction to darker literature. music, film, all that.
V: Do you find your older audiences becoming intrigued or turned off when you toss in a Radiohead song into your programs? How do they react? You bridge the musical genre gap between younger generations to older, but I’m not sure how we can bridge the gap the other way.
C: I think its possible, it depends on the context. If I’m doing an all Radiohead program, you’re not going to get the blue hair lady to show up at all. If I’m playing Chopin Concerto with an orchestra and then do a Radiohead song as an encore, people are asking for an encore because they want to hear you play some more. If you explain to them that’s what this is, then there is a captive audience. When a friend of mine runs into a little old lady after she is getting into the elevator after she’s coming to greet me backstage and she hears the woman humming Airbag, you know you’ve made that good sort of contact there. It really depends on the context. I think a lot more audiences are ready to experience something that the performer enjoys and loves. If you make a point of saying this is really important music to me and in many situations I prefer playing this sort of music to other music than there’s more of an aptitude on the part of the audience for new things and things that they might potentially enjoy. My pleasure in bringing new things to audiences has always been a palpable thing part of my music life. I think the presenting organizations can sometimes be a little bit stuck in the mud so if you play Radiohead you can’t play anything else. I think there’s a little bit of stiffness there, but I think that audiences in general, and younger audiences as well, are much more laterally arranged in terms of their interests. Younger audiences are not waiting for their favorite bands next record. They are laterally going between genres and bands. All of those algorithms, with Spotify and Pandora, there’s a lot more exploration going on than blind loyalty. I think that’s part of the pop contemporary mentality and not part of the classical mentality, which is more a museum type thing.
V: Books are little keys into a person’s soul, what are your three favorite books?
C: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Haruki Murakami, gosh I can’t think of one, I’ve read them all… Kafka On Shore. I read an enormous amount. Lucius Shepard who just died was a scifi and fantasy and fantasy writer and his first novel, Green Eyes is probably the best book about the undead that exists, its really quite extraordinary.
V: Piazzolla also said, in this same aforementioned interview, “The music is more than a woman, because you can divorce a woman, but not music. Once you marry her, she is your foreverlasting love, and you go to the grave with her.” When had it become apparent that music was your path?
C: It was a little bit more pragmatic for me. That’s such a beautiful quote. I’m just remembering Piazzolla, and I never met Piazzolla. Pablo, of course, told me stories of going to seaside type resorts. He and Piazzolla would have a cabana on the beach and would go out fishing for sharks and come home and cook them. These people lived fully. My mother taught me how to read before I got into Kindergarten. When I was in the kindergarten my teacher said, “He knows how to read already, he’s going to get bored and get into trouble. We don’t want any trouble makers.” So it was French lessons or piano lessons for 15 bucks a week. My mom chose piano lessons. I remember my first piano lesson and it was just something that made sense and so I just pursued it in various directions and that’s all I’ve done ever since.
V: In lieu of the recent tragedy of Robin Williams suicide, What is your favorite Robin Williams movie?
C: Probably Good Will Hunting, I have a little bit more at stake there because I love Gus Van Sant, the director, but also Elliott Smith contributed a song to that soundtrack. So that was probably the Robin Williams movie that has resonated with me the most. I’ve been watching a lot of them in the last couple days.
V: Well, thank you. I look forward to meeting you and I can’t wait for you to experience the magnetism in the mountains.
C: Yes, me too.
Interview done by Vicki Thompson on August 14, 2014
Purchase tickets for Two to Tango now by clicking Here or going to http://www.catskillmtn.org/events/calendar.html?date=2014-08-31#event-792