Interview with Claudio Calmens
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #300, 17 February 2001. Kalvos & Damian on the road in Hanover NH in a noisy cafeteria. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:23:45–1:30:45]. Calmens spoke in Spanish during the interview, with guest Larry Polansky as translator.
Claudio Calmens (Buenos Aires, 1962) is a tertiary-level teacher of guitar after graduation from the Gilardo Gilardi Provincial Conservatory and is also an attorney at law with a degree from the National University at La Plata. He works full time on the creation, teaching, and performance of music. At the moment he is concentrating on the performance of contemporary repertory on the classical, electric and midi guitars. In this role as an interpreter of vanguard works, he frequently includes pieces within the musical-theatre idiom or performs as part of chamber groups in several countries. Since 1992 he has studied contemporary compositional techniques with the aid of electronic media. In February and March 2006, Claudio visited Canada, exchanging activities with artists in Toronto, Montréal and Quebec.
Larry Polansky is a composer, theorist, performer, teacher, writer, editor and publisher. He is the Strauss Professor of Music at Dartmouth College, where he also teaches in the graduate program in electroacoustic music. He is the co-founder and co-director of Frog Peak Music (A Composers’ Collective), the founding editor of the Leonardo Music Journal, and works actively with other musical journal and institutions.
[Kalvos] We’re on the road in — not south of border — we’re on the road east of the border in Hanover, New Hampshire.
[Larry Polansky] An equally foreign place.
[K] Because we have just heard a most wonderful concert of music by our guest today on Kalvos & Damian, Claudio Calmens. Welcome to Kalvos & Damian.
[Claudio Calmens] Many thanks, gracias.
[Damian] He said “gracias.” We have a translator, here.
[K] Our translator and composer is Larry Polansky, who’s been with us many times, and we rarely have the opportunity to interview him directly. His responsibility is always as “facilitator,” and I don’t know why that is.
[LP] I’ve never translated before, this is a first for me. Especially since I don’t speak the language, it’s going to be unusual, yeah.
[D] Yes. Just use the gestures. The hand gestures will work fine.
[K] So Claudio, welcome to Kalvos & Damian. We’re going to read a little bit about your biography here, that you’re a professor of guitar in La Plata, in Argentina. And you’re a performer of contemporary music, as well as classical guitar?
[CC] The last 10 years I’ve only been playing contemporary music.
[K] Can you tell us about the new music scene in Argentina?
[CC] The music scene has basically the same problems as the socio-economic situation in Argentina, and the big sociological difficulties. That affects the interpretation, the composition, it reflects all parts of the new music scene. There’s very little help from the government. There’s many composers, and some are well known, but the majority are not, and they keep working, they keep composing.
[K] And do you perform regularly, monthly, more frequently than that? I know you’re on tour in the United States now, this is your first time here. Do you tour regularly in Argentina?
[CC] I try to maintain a rhythm of about two concerts a month.
[LP] Phew, that’s a lot.
[K] All new material?
[CC] Yeah, and I get a lot of help from my work, that they let me go. Because I work full-time, so I’m always zipping off to one place or another. This is the first time I’ve been able to go for this long, and hope things will be okay when I get back.
[D] Do you teach where Alberto Ginastera taught?
[CC] He was the first director of the Gilardo Gilardi conservatory after the Second World War. Ginastera was the professor of my composition professor, whose name is [Enrique] Gerardi, and Ginastera was a big help to his students, and was always helping them get scholarships so they could travel abroad, but now those opportunities have really dried up. It’s very hard to do. But you all know Fumarola and Ricardo Dal Farra, there are a few composers, but… [I’ve worked closely with] Ricardo Dal Farra. He has a radio show, and you guys know, Ricardo does more or less a similar kind of thing, he plays a lot of pieces. Also, the Fondo Nacional de las Artes has released a 30-CD set of the history of 20th century Argentinian music, from the beginning of the 20th century to the end. There are two [computer music] pieces of mine in this collection, and Ricardo’s, Ginastera’s…
[K] Let’s talk about this concert, because we’re going to play this as part of the radio show. We’ll start with the Leo Brouwer piece. How did you make the choice to play that piece?
[CC] I’ve been playing that piece for many years, and it’s a really great piece to start a concert with, because it produces the climate of birth. It starts from a kind of nothingness, and uses this idea of the eternal circle.
[K] Let’s hear it. La Espiral Eterna, this is music by Leo Brouwer.
We listen to La Espiral Eterna by Leo Brouwer, performed by Claudio Calmens [0:32:50–0:40:55].
[K] This is a concert that was performed at Dartmouth College on February 14 of 2001.
The Howard Skempton piece sounds very easy, when you hear it. Why is this piece hard? We’re going to hear Larry’s introduction first, and then we’ll hear the piece itself.
[CC] The original on piano, according to a pianist I asked, is not hard at all. The reason it’s difficult is that in the arrangement, it tries to use many resources of the guitar, including a lot of natural or artificial harmonics. There are also a lot of techniques derived from electric guitar playing, like right tapping harmonics, to get a certain kind of different sound from the classical guitar. It sounds kind of fluid, but in fact it took me a year to learn to play it, and it’s a minute and a half piece.
[LP] May I add, no one else, as far as I know, can play it.
[K] And this was your arrangement, so why don’t you speak just briefly about it.
[LP] I arranged it as a kind of a lark. It’s in a C open tuning, and what really interested me was that the Skempton pieces are so simple to play, but they’re actually very difficult æsthetically, and very difficult to play because they’re so simple. So it seemed really interesting to make an arrangement that would take that further, and also to arrange it exactly, it doesn’t compress. It’s an orchestration that doesn’t change a note, so that’s why the whole guitar is retuned and all those harmonics are used, which I found kind of interesting.
[K] There was a great deal of motion on the fingerboard, as the various harmonics and natural notes were produced.
[LP] That’s right. It’s insanely difficult, and I can’t play it, I’m not a classical guitarist.
[CC] Yes, it took a year or two to learn.
[LP] But it’s sort of fun to try things like that, where you’re really pushing the limits of the instrument, and not in an obvious way. It doesn’t announce itself that way.
We listen to Song 2 by Howard Skempton, arranged for classical guitar from a piano version by Larry Polansky, performed by Claudio Calmens [0:44:40–0:46:15].
[K] And now Larry Polansky’s II-V-I for electric guitar. The title suggests to me a chord progression, but…
[LP] It is.
[K] …first of all, what did you write, and how did you play this amazing piece?
[D] It was originally written, you say, for one guitar?
[LP] It has two versions, one for one guitar, one for two guitars, the same score. What it is, it’s just a tuning, of three tunings, three harmonic series, on the II chord, on a V chord, and on a I chord. And with very simple instructions as to what kinds of things you’re supposed to do, the rhythmic patterns, and then you re-tune, throughout the piece, to these three places. The two guitar version has 12 different notes, all tuned to the harmonic series, but not in equal temperament. The one guitar version is just a kind of a reduction to the most essential versions, but Claudio does that with voice and all kinds of other stuff.
[CC] It looked really hard when I first saw it, because you’re constantly re-tuning and lose your point of reference if you’re not very careful. It’s really hard to do it precisely while you’re doing other spontaneous kinds of improvisations. After a lot of work with looking at an electronic tuner and looking at the correspondances between the tunings of the different stages, I feel like I’m sort of finished. I can do it, but it took a long time to figure out how to get confident with it.
[K] Have you played this with anyone else other than Larry?
[CC] In these recordings, which I could give you, I’ve played it with myself as the second part.
[LP] And I should say that I played it with a couple of other people, and it was premiered with Nick Didkovsky in New York.
We listen to II-V-I by Larry Polansky, performed by Claudio Calmens and Larry Polansky [0:50:27–0:59:12].
[D] I keep waiting for Larry to write a dumb piece, and he doesn’t do it yet! I’m getting sick! Every piece is brilliant! This was just a great piece.
[LP] Oh, you’re too kind.
[K] [Laughter] We’re trying to find a reason to diss one of your pieces, but we can’t do it yet.
[LP] I really enjoy the piece, because it’s one of those examples of getting rid of anything that’s not essential. We played it other night, and I’ll just say someone else had a very nice analogy, which is that it’s like the timpanist. Like when the timpanist is tuning in an orchestra, I think all composers want to hear that more than what they’re playing, it’s much more interesting, and that’s what this is, it’s just the timpanist.
[CC] It was one of the first pieces that Larry sent me. I was really surprised, it was completely different from any other piece I’d ever seen, and it was absolutely brilliant. It was a completely different conception of using the instrument that I’d not seen before.
[D] How did you two get to know one another?
[LP] About five years ago there was a festival called the Experimenta Festival in Buenos Aires, organized by Claudio Koremblit, and I did a concert there with Chris Mann, a rock concert, a local rock band, and we met. As a kind of encore to the whole concert, which was one long piece with Chris and this rock band on computer, I did 34 Chords as a kind of a coda. He especially liked this piece, which was for guitar solo and after a while, he wrote to me and I sent him a copy of the score.
[K] Let’s play that one next, and then we’ll get back to the Egberto Gismonti with some of the others in a little bit. Larry Polansky’s 34 Chords, which is sort of an arrangement of [Morton Feldman’s] Christian Wolff in Cambridge.
[LP] Yeah, sort of.
[K] Sort of. But it’s enough of an arrangement that we could tell, because we know that piece very well. Especially at the end. We knew instantly, because that has such a character to it.
We listen to Christian Wolff in Cambridge by Morton Feldman, followed by 34 Chords: Christian Wolff in Hanover and Royalton by Morton Feldman/Larry Polansky, performed by Claudio Calmens [1:03:35–1:10:40].
[K] There you go, the two pieces next to each other. They are beautifully co-ordinated, and beautifully played, I have to say.
[LP] What recording did we just hear?
[K] The famous LP recording of the original, the Alvin Lucier recording. Beautiful, beautiful piece of music, in both situations. Let’s go to the Egberto Gismonti piece. It is totally different from what you’d expect from a classical guitar piece, as well as totally different from what you’d think about a rock and roll piece. [Laughter]
[CC] Yes. It’s an old piece for me, from around 1970, but it was a very advanced work for the time it was written. One of the things about it is that you have to play very, very fast, and the left-hand positions are extremely wide and open, so you have to have huge stretches. There’s a thing in the work, where you’re looking for sympathetic notes, which are very difficult to hear if you don’t know they’re there. One string will sound and it will make another string sound. It’s notated in the work, but they’re so soft.
[K] It’s very much a piece of its time as well.
[CC] For sure.
We listen to Central Guitar by Egberto Gismonti, performed by Claudio Calmens [1:13:20–1:18:45].
[K] The transition between this and the next piece is astounding, because we move from this kind of 70s avant-garde, almost, to the… I’m not sure if Warren [Burt: see interview in this issue of eContact!] uses algorithmic ways of composition here, but it seems like he does.
[LP] He does.
[K] And they’re such miniatures, they’re so incredibly difficult-sounding. Tell us about your experience with this.
[CC] The original idea is that they’re gestures, every separated melody is a single gesture. You play this melody at a given pulse, and then you wait some number of pulses in that tempo before continuing to the next gesture, because the next gesture is in a different pulse. So you could wait four, eight, or five, but they just have to be in the previous pulse time, and then on the next one, you change immediately to a new pulse. It’s a piece that sounds very strange, because you have to go from one pulse to another, but you have a very short time to wait in the old pulse, but change in your mind to the new pulse and play something totally different. It required a lot of training to be able to do that.
[K] When you were introducing the piece, you talked about making a choice at the beginning of each performance. What choice is made at the time?
[CC] There’s the possibility of choosing between six different scales, preludes. You could choose between 24-tone equal, 36-tone equal, 48-tone equal, 60-tone equal or 72-tone equal, or any combination of the above.
[K] But other than the tuning, the piece is the same?
[CC] Yeah, but you also throw a capo on whenever you want to change the base key. It’s completely variable, except that he has these names for the movements, and the second movement is labeled “romantic.”
[K] And all of this explanation, all of these complexities and so much practice, for these lovely miniatures, which they really are.
We listen to Fast Random Walk Around a Microtonal Fingerboard by Warren Burt, performed by Claudio Calmens [1:23:30–1:28:20].
[K] We got one more left, and this last piece kind of brings together some of our favourite people all in one place. Nick Didkovsky, the composer of I Kick My Hand, and Larry Polansky, a composer and performer, and Claudio Calmens. This is an amazing piece. Tell us how you put it together, from both your perspectives.
[CC] We really didn’t have very long at all, we had less than two weeks to practice together. It’s sort of like magic that we were able to do it, I think. We had very, very little time. The difficulty is that I took the solo piece, which you guys probably know pretty well, and I dissected it into two parts, which makes it really hard, because you’re trying to be one guitar. The solo piece was pretty hard too, but it’s a different kind of difficulty, to play it as one guitar when there’s two people. It’s a like a reaction time experiment. And, it’s very fast.
[K] [Laughter] Let’s hear this piece, but first we want to thank Larry Polansky for joining us here.
[CC] Many thanks!
[K] And thanks to Claudio Calmens, our guest today on Kalvos & Damian.
We listen to I Kick My Hand by Nick Didkovsky, arranged by Larry Polansky, performed by Claudio Calmens [1:30:45–1:33:55].