Interview: Washington Plada
The following is an interview I conducted with Washington Plada back in August. The transcript has been edited for clarity, but since English is Washington's second language, I decided to keep his idiosyncratic grammar to better preserve the flow of his speaking and thoughts. As usual, if you are interested in financially supporting these interviews, you can follow me at my Patreon, linked below.
Adam Eason: Okay, it should be going. All right. So this is Washington Plada. He's a composer, also a guitarist from Uruguay and he's joining us for an interview today. So thanks for coming in.
Washington Plada: Thanks for inviting me.
Adam Eason: Yeah, so I think to kick off with how many people have you met so far in Oregon who know where Uruguay is?
Washington Plada: Very few to be honest. And well, that's been a constant throughout the states. I think it's such a small country that it makes sense that not a lot of people know it. It's only three and a half million people. What are the chances that you meet somebody from Uruguay in the States? Small.
Adam Eason: Yeah. Yeah pretty tight.
Washington Plada: A lot of people know us because of soccer. So soccer fans tend to know where it is and know the famous soccer players from there. Lately a few years ago the country was in the news, too, because of the Progressive President. It was maybe five six years ago when this president that was very progressive passed a lot of laws, like they legalize weed. They legalized abortion and gay marriage the same day. So that was kind of a big deal and it's always interesting when somebody asks me where I'm from and to listen, let them know and kind of spread my spread my heritage a little bit.
Adam Eason: Yeah. So what's the musical education like in the country? How did you start with music?
Washington Plada: It's not as widespread as it is in the States. I find it fascinating that here it's how, since a very young age they're for the most part introduced to music through Elementary School. I didn't have any classes of elementary school, in elementary school. I mean music classes. So I had something in... what is it? Like last year of middle school. We have only one class. That was all we had through middle school and high school as a music class. They told us about some composers and that was it. Yeah, no real music playing. No instrument playing or any of that.
Adam Eason: I got you. Yeah, it's music appreciation kind of thing.
Washington Plada: Yeah. Music appreciation. And then some of my friends played and I picked up a guitar and that's how I started rock and roll, had my own like cover band and then grunge, and my own grunge songs. Oh, yeah, so I play bass for that band. I'm not... I started with guitar and I'll call myself more a guitar player, but I always end up playing bass because now I want to. We always need a bass player and its like, "Ok, I'll do it."
Adam Eason: What's the music scene like there? I mean if you're doing like a rock band grunge band kind of stuff.
Washington Plada: There's a lot. People play like, we all, I would say like 99% of the people, but everybody plays. Some more, some less but like there's always a guitar there and everywhere you go, to a party, you go to wherever your friends and there's somebody that plays and... music is... it's a very important part of our culture and yeah. I was always interested in classical music. I will go to every concert I could even though I lived in a very small city. Around like 30,000 people. So we didn't have many chances but I took all the chances I could but I didn't take the chance to study. Just any music more formal education in... When I was older after High School and I started, I went to a different city just for some days just to take classes in violin. I took violin classes for over a year and then I came to the States, so I couldn't continue. Yeah. Easier for me to continue my education here and started from the ground up going to Community College getting my... all the music theory and all this stuff. So that's how.
Adam Eason: Okay. So what what brought you to the states in the first place? Was it for music education or were there other reasons?
Washington Plada: No. No, it was love.
Adam Eason: Okay!
Washington Plada: Yeah it was... I was in Argentina. I was just doing some backpacking and I met some girl and we kind of hit it off, fell in love and spend some time there, travelling together. Well after, she was from here. So after a while we were like, well this internet thing is not working we'll move in together. And I decided to come to the States.
Adam Eason: All right, and that was to Oregon?
Washington Plada: No, it was to California, was in Santa Cruz. It's a small town like south from San Francisco?
Adam Eason: Okay. Yeah.
Washington Plada: It's a beautiful beach town, beautiful.
Adam Eason: Yeah, how long ago was that? Like, how old were you?
Washington Plada: It was 11 years ago? 2009.
Adam Eason: Okay. Gotcha. And then you stayed in Santa Cruz for a while and you're just kind of hanging around like working there.
Washington Plada: Yeah, I lived there. Primarily there, then a couple years in the Bay Area, San Francisco. 2017 I moved to Oregon. I came to Western Oregon University to finish my bachelor's degree. Now at the moment, I'm living in Eugene, Oregon.
Adam Eason: Okay. Yeah.
Washington Plada: I just finished my first year of the master program in composition here at the University of Oregon.
Adam Eason: Okay, cool. So where did you go before Western Oregon University? You were studying down in California at the time.
Washington Plada: Yeah, down in Santa Cruz I did a Community College. That's called Cabrillo, Cabrillo Community College. So I did my first two years there and then I transferred to Western Oregon and I finish those the remainder 2 years to get my bachelor's there.
Adam Eason: Yeah, and that was for music as well?
Washington Plada: Yeah, that was for music composition. Yes, it was a cool program, gaining knowledge not only to classical composition but also to film music and jazz arranging. Very good program, it was very interesting.
Adam Eason: Who was your teacher there in, California?
Washington Plada: We had many teachers. What happens is when you go to a community college in California for the first few years, even if you go, you don't have private lessons. So I didn't have any composition lessons until I came to Oregon. So the first two years mainly was music theory and like, aural skills and music history. Yeah, nothing nothing... Nothing in composition.
Adam Eason: Okay, was it kind of strange? Making the musical shift, I mean, because if you're playing in garage bands and pick up rock and roll bands and kind of things like that, I imagine most of that's by ear. And then going to something where it's all notated and then having to think maybe more abstractly rather than more aurally... was that kind of a difficult shift for you, or did you just kind of... sink into it?
Washington Plada: Um, it was... it wasn't difficult. It was different. It was very different. But I think the training that I got from playing in rock bands actually helped a lot, because it's... I think it's a really good complement to what you see, mixing the oral tradition with or the listening tradition with the visual. I think it's more, it's more powerful and in my case it kind of like complemented each other. I didn't say that "Oh, wow. This is two separate things that they don't really like connect." I think they connect really well and even though like this, at least the little that I was studying, there was no room for playing by ear. It still helped. Yeah, but I didn't know anything when I started. So what can you imagine one little first year of violin? Like I knew the duration of the notes and not much more. Yeah, the interesting thing was that the little bit I studied, I studied in Spanish. So I had to learn all the names for the note durations for everything. I think that's that was the most difficult part.
Adam Eason: That was the hardest part, the language part?
Washington Plada: The language. Yes. It's the new language. Yeah, but I caught up very fast. Yeah, it's fascinating, I mean, when you're studying something that you love, I think it's even if it's a little bit complex, you're excited to do it.
Adam Eason: Yeah. Sure.
Washington Plada: Yeah it was, it was a good... It was a good challenge.
Adam Eason: Cool. And then you came up to Western Oregon University and you started studying... I'm sorry, I forget the professor's name that I met.
Washington Plada: I studied with mainly with Kevin Walczyk. He's a very well-known name in the band world. He's one of the... one of the top composers for the band world today in the in the US.
Adam Eason: Okay. What drew you up to Western Oregon University. Was it him or another connection maybe?
Washington Plada: Yeah, I... before I start, a friend came to me and said go to him. I really like the program because first it was a small school and, honestly, coming from a community college I was a little bit afraid to... a little bit afraid to land in a big school and fall through the cracks and not find my way. I was kind of used to a community college like when you have small community, everybody knows each other. The professors know the students it's kind of like it was an environment that I felt safe. This school I thought that would provide me that, that was one of the reasons but the other one was I'm very interested in different aspects of music. So this school program, I mean, like I said before like with the classical instruction plus the film plus jazz arranging and then they have Latin ensembles to play. It fulfilled a lot of... a lot of my interests. I thought it was... I visited other schools and they didn't really caught my attention like this one did and I can say that was a very... I made the right decision because I'm really happy about the education I got and all the things that were offered to me.
Adam Eason: Yeah, it sounds like it was all kind of right up your alley.
Washington Plada: Yeah, I loved it. It was great. I learned a lot. A bunch of really cool and dedicated amazing professors and also students that we keep in touch today. I know that I'm going to have some players for life if I need like finding some players to collaborate, and that's great.
Adam Eason: Yeah for sure. So what kind of compositions did you start writing at Western Oregon University? How did you begin with your private lessons?
Washington Plada: So the first thing I brought to a lesson was some compositions that I had done on my own with guitar. But they weren't... they weren't notated. I had some software on my computer and I was like, plug my guitar in and started playing and get some rhythm going and then come and do the lead or some melody with another guitar. So that's what I... what I did was to, I transcribe that to a notation software. And what I did was instead of the lead guitar with the melody, I decided (audio glitch) instead. And with the help of the professor, I reworked it from there, from a more classical standpoint. So my first composition was this short piece for guitar and flute.
Adam Eason: Okay. Yeah and were these still kind of... I'm trying to figure out how to segue into this because I know I asked for a commission from you while you were still at Western Oregon University and you wrote some cello and piano pieces that were based on kind of Uruguayan I guess... traditional musics? Like tangos and milongas and things like that. Were your first compositions sort of slanting in that direction already or were they just sort of naturally coming from that source?
Washington Plada: Yeah, so a big inspiration of my music. My idea when composing is to fuse traditional western music that we call classic, classical music with world music, the music from different parts of the world and... One of the music that I know the most is the music from my own country, the music, the most popular music there, it's tango that we share with Argentina, milongas and candombes. Candombe is the only one that is only from Uruguay.
So a lot of my inspiration even unconsciously sometimes just slips in my music because these are... this is my musical heritage. So it's hard to know (glitch) that the music doesn't get involved when I'm writing. But I also do like the composition that you commission for me because the theme was Latin American Music, the concert you were putting on, I drew more influences using some of the rhythms and from those styles that I just mentioned in and using like, the rhythm or some kind of aspect in building, building upon those or as a source of inspiration for each of the pieces.
Adam Eason: Okay.
Washington Plada: That's kind of what I want to do with my music. It's so all the music kind of has some kind of World Music association, even if it is from the music or from the feelings or from the thoughts or bring some kind of mundane aspect if you can say that.
Adam Eason: Sure that makes sense. I'm kind of curious because I know that my piano partner and I, Dianne, had a little bit... it took a little while to kind of click into especially the condombe rhythms. I'm curious if you have found it difficult translating some of the stuff that happens naturally by ears. Sometimes there's a lot of details that get lost when you try to write it down. So I'm curious how you approach that problem, especially because if you try to hyper notate everything like some of Bartok's pieces, he tried to get every little nuance in there and it just looks kind of crazy. So I'm curious how you approach that issue.
Washington Plada: Well, I... this is, this very... it's a very new process for me to kinda like translate things from one culture to the other, and mixing cultures so I learned a couple things through the process and even like working with your piece and with a previous piece that I also drew something from condombes. Condombes... It's a... It's an Afro rhythm. So it started as a dance and music that was playing with these three distinct drums. So they can become very complex rhythms that interlock when the three drums are played. So if you played one drum by itself, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but what you put the three together, the rhythms compliment each other. When they are not playing all together (glitch).
For example, the chico that's being played is the first beat so the downbeat so it's like (demonstrates rhythm). So if you play by yourself, it doesn't make sense. But if you're playing with the other ones, for example, the bigger drum that place the down beats with the boom boom and when you play them together its (demonstrates rhythm).
And what I tried to translate some of those rhythms to different instruments like piano, it can be really complicated to play because as Westerners with downbeats, for example, and that's something that is very, very strong in the western culture. And if you're not that familiar with us, you tend to kind of always want to give like a nod to the downbeat. So for example, if I give you the chico drum that doesn't have the down beat, I had experienced this before and when I had written some music kind of condombe using that rhythm, that people tend to grab the first note and give it to the downbeat it can be... the ensemble can be a little bit not on the same page. Yeah, so I've learned that things are very difficult to translate literally or there are ways to get the same effect but you can avoid the confusing notation or the confusing rhythms. It's a very fascinating experience how you sometimes you had to rework things. Of course, you don't think about this until it happens, right? Because it's like well... and then you realize that it's much more than just notation.
You can have the best, the best player playing that and it's not that they cannot play, they can, but there's much more to they don't know, a certain feeling, there's the knowledge behind this, the culture that all that makes the music's not just notes on the staff. And a good player, this much more that you need sometimes to express what you really want to tell through their music and I think people that are trained in different traditions might, like... It might not come naturally for them. So I think you... you for example, you're a composer, too, so as a composer we have to build a bridge between what do you want to say and who's going to say it and make the link as a smooth as you can so the performer can catch without a lot of information or detail. Without writing an essay about what you want them to come to play. I think that's what we're doing, this show is when the players can play what's behind your mind without have to have a meeting for two hours telling them what you want, right?
Adam Eason: Yeah, for sure. So kind of taking a little bit of a sidetrack. You also have some compositions that you sent to me that are sort of like meditation-centric sort of relaxation musics. And you said you've written them with like yoga or like massage or just kind of different things along those lines and it looks like you have those tracks up on Spotify. So what kind of drew you in that direction? And when did that happen? Like was this while you're at school before you're in school for anything?
Washington Plada: This is a very, at least to me, is a very interesting story. So this is that's how my... How can I say this? My approaching music started predominant time in my life? So I was a professional cyclist back in Uruguay, and when I was 18 years old, I had an accident when I broke a couple vertebraes on my body and I have difficult to walk and I had like a two-year-long recovery with doctors, chiropractors a lot of stuff. Before that I had a contract to come and race for a professional team in Kansas in the US. And I didn't do that of course because I just couldn't come when they wanted me to come. So I couldn't do much during those two years, were a little bit, like, me in bed, me walking a little bit in the house. This was mainly when I need to do something else than cycling and I couldn't do much with my life.
So that's kind of when I found music, I found playing music for myself was a little bit of relief for my life, kind of a little bit mentally like, just to put my... my energy on something else and at the same time I started, I grab the guitar for the first time and that's what my first approach to music was like... Music made me feel better. It made me, kind of, give me a purpose. And at the same time when I was listening or practicing the guitar, laying down in bed or sitting down... my pain would go away. Maybe it wasn't... it wasn't really away. But my mind wasn't focusing on that, right? So that was the first time I realized the power of music and how music can be more than entertainment. It could take your pain away, either really physically or just distracting your mind.
But I didn't have any knowledge more than my own experience so that led me to start playing the guitar and then all the rock bands and whatever I told you they playing festivals and stuff like that, but I always been interested in how music can affect your... your mind, your body and so when I came to the states, when I was living in San Francisco, I found this kind of more internet University that taught a year-long certificate that's called Sound, Voice, and Music Healing. It's a one-year certificate and through CIIS is that it's a university in San Francisco. And there the education that we got it was... it went from very new age all like "woo, woo" to like scientific and everything in between, you know. We got new age people. We got monks. We got scientist, we got all kind of musicians. So we were exposed to many different modalities and different approaches, which was great, you know, because you pick or they're like, oh go deeper in the one that you really liked or wanted
So during the time I was having a lot of problems sleeping, and we had to get a final project going to graduate from the class for the certificate. My idea was to do something with music that I could play or something. So I started to compose music to try to help me sleep. I would go to a computer, write music and then at night go and try with myself. Yeah, it was like, "Oh, these are distracting, I don't like that. Those bells they're too loud." Okay, and go the next day. I adjust it, remove instrument, play another instruments and I came up with a set of seven songs that I presented as a CD together with no intention of anything else, just, that was something for me, to help me. And then after a while I was like, "Well, why not share it with the world?" So I decided to press like a hundred CDs and it turned out that a lot of people liked it and they went from New Age studios on the east coast in Buenos Aires, for example to yoga teachers and practitioners and massage therapists and like, at the time, I put in some promotion, put it on CD Baby and people were writing emails from different parts of the world saying, "Hey! Like, I like what you're doing."
So yeah, that's always been a big part of my big interest in music so it kind of goes parallel with my more academic music composing. I hadn't done anything yet applying all my new knowledge or my academic knowledge, though. Those songs are pre-music education. Yeah, it doesn't mean that it's not good because it's a different approach. So I'm gonna write piano, it's not like I write a thousand notes like in one second because that's not what it's about. It's more about an experience and I did trying it on myself with the the goal of relaxation and yeah. Yeah, I'm very interested right now I'm researching. I want to write an article... no, more than an article, it's a paper. How music can be used for... to help with stress and anxiety.
Adam Eason: Yeah. A music therapy sort of thing.
Washington Plada: Yeah. I kind of really like, (unclear) being made and for many years and I'm, I want to back all that up with science and experiments. I found a lot of experiments done by universities on how music can help with postoperatory like pain, for many different reasons, so I kind of wanna (unclear) a little bit like everything I do and bring some research behind it maybe. I'm thinking that might become a book in the future and also bring my composition expertise and me, with all the all the science behind it. Maybe bring my composition expertise and to guide other people that want to make music with that purpose.
Adam Eason: I see.
Washington Plada: Kind of tie it all together. Okay, that's kind of like still an idea that maybe... it's kind of a strong idea. So I don't know when that might happen, but I'm in the research phase right now. We're collecting papers, reading and just starting from from (glitch).
Adam Eason: Nice, so currently though you're at University of Oregon and for your master's program and are you studying with David Crumb?
Washington Plada: I am, yeah, I'm studying with David Crumb. And also with Robert Kyr.
Adam Eason: Okay, both.
Washington Plada: Yeah with both. Yes, so when you start this program you have to have a year with each. Okay, and then at the end of your two years you pick... you pick one or kind of like, it defaults to the professor that has more more expertise in the area that you want to develop your thesis or your your big project. So yeah. Already it's been a fantastic experience. They are both like great composers and great educators. They both have tremendous experience, great composers it's been, like, wonderful.
Adam Eason: Yeah. I know that David crumb is George Crumb's son. George Crumb, the kind of Avant-garde composer, and I haven't heard a lot of Robert Kyr's music but you and I met at the Oregon Bach Festival Composer Symposium, and he had I think one or two samples of his music played there and he seemed a little bit more... I guess romantic kind of feeling? How would you describe the differences between their styles and have you been gravitating more towards one or you trying to tie them together?
Washington Plada: Actually their styles are very different. So their approach to composition is... I would say that in some level is very opposite, but not... It's not this is better than the other, but they're just different and they are both really good. So what I notice from the classes is that Robert Kyr focuses a lot on the emotions, what's the story behind what you want to write, how you can project all those feelings and emotions to the piece and maybe that ties a lot to what you're saying about the Romanticism in this case. I think that's what a lot of like romantic music comes from is all of... all these big emotions. And experience with Crumb is more focused on like the purpose of each note. There in a more like... How can I describe it? It's more... it's not so much all these stories more about like well, that's these notes go together here, is more like...
Adam Eason: Like how its constructed I guess?
Washington Plada: Yeah. I don't want to call it intellectual, but it's more... The approach is it's more about what's the purpose of each note there? How do I tie together how this relates to that, it's more about like the music and not so much like bringing this story into it. So I'm fascinated by both worlds and trying to put those two together, because I think if I can do that, that would be amazing. For me, I'm not saying that I'm going to be the best composer. I'm saying that I love both approach in there. So like but the good thing is that they both have very different approaches, but both of their music is amazing. There's no one way of doing things but I want to bring the best of those worlds and like have a purpose behind each note I put on my paper that is deliberately put there for a reason. And that note can bring the best emotional effect that I can bring. So I think that's if I can convey that I'll be happy.
Adam Eason: Yeah, I saw you posted... I think it was the Delgani String Quartet? Is that right? You wrote something for for them. Can you tell me what can you tell us a little bit about that work? Kind of what brought it about and... yeah.
Washington Plada: So through the University, through this program that I'm currently doing, they bring us amazing artists to work with. I really like that. So the Delgani String Quartet started working with us, so we had the possibility to write for them and we started writing the pieces and then came for... they work with us throughout the whole process. So since the inception of the song until the performance, we wrote elements like a little bit more than sketches, like an advanced sketch lets say, and then they came and they played it. We told them about the story of the our piece and what we're going to convey: what, why, where everything else, all the details. And then they played what we had so far. There was like between 20 and 40 measures for the first time we got together. And they gave us feedback about this work that doesn't work. Or you can do these to translate better your ideas.
It was like an amazing experience. They are great people, amazing musicians and they're like wonderful to work with. It was really cool. So it was a group setting, they came, everybody presented their piece. And it's really nice not only to hear your piece, but you hear your classmate pieces because you're learning from that, too. What they're saying may apply to other pieces if it does not apply to this one. I'm sure you'd apply it to your next one that you are writing. So then they came a couple more times. One time they came at the 50% of the piece, and they came at the... a few weeks before the concert. So we had to have the piece completed and they went through to make last minor details and and then we have rehearsal with them.
And the piece was performed. All that process was very eye-opening and wonderful to work with. As a composer, you don't have all the time, that input. So you, your commission, or you're writing something on your own and you don't have all the players there. Like, the feedback like from the cello players and viola, from the violins, they're each giving you specific things about how their instrument work, how you can notate it better, how you can make it sound better. That's amazing because it's bulletproof then, your piece. At the end of that process you have something of really good quality that, you know, that can be played. Yeah, of course, then we have different categories of players but that's a whole different story.
Adam Eason: What's the story? What's the story behind the piece?
Washington Plada: The Spanish title translates to "Never Again." This... that phrase was used during the dictatorship in South America in the 70s until early 80s. Mostly all Latin America went through a dictatorship and they were very sad and scary times. Lots of people disappear, a lot of torture, lot of no good things happen and the militaries were in charge and everything that they didn't like, it was severely punished. Even just for having, like books that they didn't like at home, you know? They would come and it was very sad and "Nunca Más" is started as a saying like, never again, never again.
We don't want that again. Last year, 2019, a lot of riots and protests against the government were happening in many countries in South America, in (Chile), in Colombia, in Bolivia. And there was this collective fear because all that was done with the military that were going to streets, and again we were seeing in Chile many people disappear. A lot of people got killed and seriously injured like with because the militaries were like shooting them on the streets. Like, Big Brother's here. It was very sad and happened in many countries.
And there was this Collective fear of the 70s again. Yeah, and people were really afraid that they were going to take over the government and there's a lot of people that are alive right now they're in the 60s that they went through like, their mom, their dad, their cousins, disappear then themselves. Like I had friends, my parents friends. They were tortured, some of them disappeared. So that fear is still very strong. So I titled that piece "Nunca Más" because it was hard for me to see all this happening in my, like, only happening in my country but happening in other countries that I had, like, a very strong connection to so what's my way of letting participating in saying "No" say "Nunca Más" to that from being in the states. I cannot fly there and go to fight because that's not possible for me right now. So my fight is through music and through music can be heard. To a lot of people, and it's my way of like contributing to Chili's fight. So that's what the piece talks about.
So the piece in the first, in the beginning of the piece is very chaotic and it kind of wants to translate a little bit what's going on in the street. Is this fight, is this bombs, is this fighting between people, police like, trying to survive yelling and screaming for your rights? And that's what the piece tells about. The middle of the piece, it changes completely the mood goes to, like, very quiet and almost delicate sound. What I wanted to translate there it was what's going on in the... in the mind, it the heart of some person that is looking. They're kind of like, aside from all the chaos, but it's looking at everything how you see how everything gets destroyed, how your family, your friends get beat up, they die, and it's a reflection of like what's going on, you know, yeah. By the end of the piece, the chaos comes back and is the guy is like kind of wakes up is like whoa, like I need to like, you know, the realities here around me again, you know, he wakes up from the dream state, let's say. And the piece finishes in this fury. Really fast and and loud and the piece ends as the quartet playing as loud as they can on their instrument. Just like, that's kind of an end to that fight, but the same time the moment is the fight itself. Yeah.
Adam Eason: Okay, that's
Washington Plada: That's a really strong piece.
Adam Eason: It's pretty heavy.
Washington Plada: Yeah, I'm really happy how it turned out.
Adam Eason: I was very struck by its expressivity when I watched the video of it.
Washington Plada: Yeah people seem to like it a lot, I'm very happy with it. It was not an easy piece, it was challenging and the performers, the Delgani String Quartet, did such an outstanding job, they can take whatever you throw at them. They get it. They play every single note how it needed to be, it was like perfect. I couldn't ask for more.
Adam Eason: Yeah, they they definitely killed it at the performance. It was pretty awesome. Okay. Well, we're being up at the end of time, actually. It's always a little surprising how fast these hours can go. So I guess I'll just end with if you were to name a musician or a composer that like you think basically every Uruguayan would know. Like, maybe they don't like them, but they just know them. Who do you think that composer or musician would be?
Washington Plada: Does it have to be from my country, or...?
Adam Eason: I mean just like just as a general like oh, yeah, everybody's heard of this person.
Washington Plada: Wow. I didn't see that coming. That's a good question, it makes me... I don't know, it's not easy, but... Wow. Well, I would say definitely Carlos Gardel.
Adam Eason: Gardel. Okay. Yeah.
Washington Plada: Yeah, he's a tango singer. Everybody knows him. That's kind of an icon of Uruguay, Argentina, South America. When you talk about tango, it's hard to not talk about him because he, in the singing tango, he is... He's the best. Yeah, even though he died like a long time ago, even if you asked to young people, they would know who he is.
Adam Eason: Yeah, he did a Por Una Cabeza, right?
Washington Plada: Yeah. And many many more. Yeah. Yeah. Well known all over the world, known in Uruguay, but a lot of people know him. If you know tango, you probably think about two and I think those two are probably Gardel in the singing style and Piazzolla in the instrumental tango, those are kind of like... Of course, there are more in the instrumental tango, but if you set up a he's probably one of the most well-known. Yeah, so he brings kind of like more classical.
Adam Eason: Right, right. Also jazz and stuff.
Washington Plada: Jazz and stuff. So I think it covers more ground. The other people that play tango that they are great orchestras, that's only like in that style.
Adam Eason: Gotcha. Cool. All right. Well, I guess that's that's all for today. Thanks for joining us. It's been a really good talk with you.
Washington Plada: Yeah, thank you for inviting me in, this is great. And I love talking about, like, mostly about my heritage and my country, it's nice to like, be are an ambassador. Yeah. Be a humble ambassador for my country and my music. Thank you. It's a pleasure. And let's see if we can collaborate soon enough.
Adam Eason: Yeah, of course! Yeah, do something together.
Washington Plada: I know that I have to say that I love the collaboration we did together. That concert is still going to happen? Like when the Latin American concert. Are you still thinking about it? When all this clears up?
Adam Eason: Yeah, it's a little bit hard to say. We did most of the program that we wanted to do. So it ended up being like 75% We had like the Piazzola, your pieces, Ginastera, a little bit of Ponce, but we didn't quite have enough time at that... Like this was early/late December and we were going to do a couple more pieces and then covid hit so we had to kind of shelve some things but we got most of the programming we wanted.
Washington Plada: Well, maybe if you do another one maybe I'll come up with something new for that.
Adam Eason: Yeah that we are. All right.
Washington Plada: And thank you.
Adam Eason: Thank you.
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Interviews with Artists: Lisa Neher
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Yesterday, I had a great time listening to and playing at a festival commemorating the cello teacher Lev Aronson. Here is a picture of me being awesome:
Yeah, look at that hottie. I'd totally jump his bones. Wait. No. Ew.
The event, as far as I could tell, was hugely successful. Despite the country music you hear at their page, the All Good Cafe was absolutely packed with customers. So everybody knows, yesterday's performance was part of a larger festival given in honor of Lev Aronson, a week long cello fest which will be recurring every year. I think that's pretty amazing, really.
All of the cellists were amazing. It was great hearing so many talented players all in one spot. There was, however, something which niggled at my brain while I was listening. It wasn't until I played near the end that I figured out what was bothering me: I was the only one who played any new music. Granted, it was mine, but still. We heard Vivaldi, Handel, Popper, Lee, Cassadó... But nothing from the 21st century.
So! I will rant a bit about that! What's going on, here? It's a problem I know I've touched on, before. The reasons why new classical music doesn't get performed regularly are multifaceted and complicated. I'll talk today about my experience in college, and maybe some people out there will recognize that experience and set about changing it in what ways they can.
The Great Gulf
In music school, there were two groups of people. Performers. And composers. Performers didn't compose. Composers didn't perform. There were also subtle undertones of "Four legs good, two legs bad" syndrome. People on both sides had a slight tendency to look down their noses across the aisle. It's like... When you're at a wedding. And the wife's side of the family doesn't entirely approve of the husband, and the husband's side of the family really isn't all to sure about it either, but it's a wedding so they're forced to more or less put up with each other... It was like that. And I know, from playing in the orchestra, that when student orchestration readings came up, there was often a slight tension in the air, as if some number of the musicians felt rather put upon.
I can only speculate as to how things got this way. Surely the fact that the two sides have become so distinct from each other is part of the problem. Composers, of course, play an instrument. But in my time, I never really saw too many composers compose for themselves, or groups they had created. And performers almost 100% never wrote any music. Most of that has to do with perceived ability, I imagine. Our current school system goes to great lengths to try and stamp out creativity where it can, and it leaves a lot of wounded souls in its wake. "I can't compose" is a phrase I heard not entirely infrequently.
Part of me is tempted to say "You mean, 'you won't compose.'" But... That is somewhat inaccurate and certainly callous. Mental blocks, as I wrote about yesterday, can be incredibly powerful, and it is foolish to imagine that something that is "all in your head" shouldn't have an impact in the physical world. Placebos, for example. Well, it's even more pronounced when it comes to creative endeavors. So there's that.
But there's also something else. There's very little music theory in high school programs, and none in middle school. Insofar as some amount of music theory is helpful for composing, it's perhaps also true the "I can't compose" line comes as much from ignorance as it does from self esteem. So there's that as well.
Building Jeff Bridges
The simplest way to start is to simply connect. Shake hands, make friends, grab a beer. Think back in the past how many pieces were written with specific performers in mind. Benjamin Britten for Peter Pears. Mozart for Anton Stadler. Haydn for Esterhazy. Brahms and Joachim. Etc. Etc. Etc. The list goes on and on. Collaborate. All the great composers of the past did, so should you.
Also, composers: Write for yourself. There is no easier way to get immediate feedback about what works and what doesn't than if you write something you can play, and go out and play it. The best part about it is, you don't have to pay for rehearsals. And performers: well... Try and break out of your shells a little bit. Write a short song. Or something in simple binary. Or a fugue or something. Whatever you want. It doesn't matter if you never perform it. Just getting into the composing mind set will help you understand music in ways you never get when you are just studying it for performance, or for theory. It's amazing how it clarifies things.
Recommendations of the Day
Today, I want to highlight a couple of the collaborations I noted above. In particular, Brahms' Violin Concerto and Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. Brahms wrote the violin concerto for Joseph Joachim, a great violinist from the 19th century, and the Serenade was written for Peter Pears, an absolutely phenomenal tenor. Both are somewhat long. If you're strapped for time, the Dirge from the Serenade will knock you flat, and the last movement of the Violin Concerto will pick you up again.
Benjamin Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, op.31
Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto, op. 77
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I'm getting a piece performed, yaaay! It's called Tango Notturno. Here are my liner notes:
Since I'm not a famous composer (or, at least, as famous as a composer can be these days), I have not often been asked “Why did you write such and such?” I have, however, been asked the question enough times to know that the correct answer is not “Because I felt like it.” Never mind that that's the real reason behind me writing anything. There is a palpable disappointment in the eyes of those who receive that answer. Also, they never really believe me.
I suspect the answer people are looking for is more along the lines of “Because writing music is the Meaning of Life!” or “Because writing music is a one lane highway directly to the very face of GAAAAWD.” I suppose those could actually be the answers to “Why did I write such and such,” but if they are, then the Meaning of Life and the Face of GAAAAAAAWD are curiously mundane. Truly, I wake up one day, think to myself “Hey, that melody is kind of neat,” and then I write it down.
But, as I mentioned, that's not really the correct answer. So I'm going to pretend like my answer to the question “Why did you do what humans often do?” is not “Because that's what humans do,” and give you the real truth of why I wrote the Tango Notturno. It goes like this. I was walking along one day when I was approached by The Terrifying Technicolor Turtle. For those who don't know (I don't know how you can't, but people also don't think that writing music is something that people just do without good reason, so I suppose anything is possible), The Terrifying Technicolor Turtle is about 40 feet tall and speaks Pig Latin. For the sake of clarity, I will translate what it said to me.
“WHAT WOULD YOU DO FOR A KLONDIKE BAR?!?!?!”
To which I replied, “Holy shit, a giant talking turtle!”
The Terrifying Technicolor Turtle reiterated its question.
To which I replied, this time, “I don't know. Write a song I guess?”
“THEN YOU WILL WRITE FOR ME A TANGO!”
“Ok, sure, but why a tango?”
“BECAUSE ALLITERATION IS SERIOUS BUSINESS.”
“... but these words don't alliterate in Pig Latin.”
“DO YOU WANT A KLONDIKE BAR OR NOT?”
So I wrote a tango for a Klondike bar. It was the best Klondike bar ever.
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Writing the tango was not without its problems, however, and all those problems were named Astor Piazzolla. Quick history lesson. Piazzolla did to the tango what Beethoven did to the Symphony: explode the form to previously inconceivable heights, and, in the process, ruin the form for everybody who wanted to compose in that form forever after them. Not that that is the fault of Piazzolla or Beethoven, so much as it's the fault of their raving, frothy fans.
It goes like this. Somebody writes a tango (symphony). You want to be hip and cool so you write it like Piazzolla (Beethoven). The frothy fans get all frothy and say you're just being a copy cat, your piece is unoriginal, it sounds just like Piazzolla (Beethoven). So then you try again. You write something that sounds as far from Piazzolla (Beethoven) as possible. The frothy fans get all frothier, and tell you your tango (symphony) isn't a tango (symphony) at all because it doesn't sound like Piazzolla (Beethoven). It's round about this time that you, soaked to the shins with froth, stab your accuser in the stomach with a rabies shot, because people don't just froth like that unless they've been bitten by a rabid animal in the past 48 hours. You're doing them a favor either way.
I'm not sure if I successfully skirted the line between writing something that is clearly a tango without sounding overly like Piazzolla or not. To be sure, there are a number of similarities, but, to paraphrase Brahms, even a comatose pigeon would be able to hear that. There's the sustained melody line, the crashing piano bass line, the tango rhythms, etc. etc. But my sense of harmonic progression is certainly different, as is the approach to form, and the piece lacks a bandoneon part. Among other things, I suppose. It doesn't much matter, because Tango Notturno kicks butt, so it doesn't need me to write an apologetic for it. Either you like the tango or you don't, and if you don't you're outnumbered. The rest is for musicologists to figure out, bless their hearts.
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