Transcendental Evening with the Art Ensemble of Chicago

@ Café OTO in London, UK.

by Ginastera Sianturi

On Monday the 16th of October, a rather breezy autumn night in east London, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) transforms Café OTO into a spiritual space, where the world’s sounds meet and gather under one roof. After its successful debut back in February 2017, Café OTO decided to bring the legendary free jazz ensemble back to perform for a 3-night (sold out) residency. Both the young, and those who have been their audience for the last five decade are simply encapsulated and drawn by the ensemble’s virtuosity, improvisational skills, boldness, as well as their rich palettes of colours and textures that still reverberate and resonate to this day.

The ensemble’s multidimensional concept of music, that comes from all walks of life, draws people’s attention for sure. The repetitive layers of music produce natural effects that can put people into a state of ‘trance’, by exploring and experimenting with the conscious and the unconscious state of one’s soul. Hugh Ragin, the man who is in charge of the woodwind section, said that performing in their prime (in 60’s and 70’s) was essentially no different from performing at Cafe OTO 50 years later. He furthered saying that although the setting is different, one thing stays the same, and that is about feeling renewed every time he performs.

Art Ensemble of Chicago – Fly with Honey Bee (Music provided by Vox de Cultura)

The transcendent experience may not be fully integrated into one’s body that has a close and skeptical mind towards the uncharted territory of the human spirits. Many Classical musicians, for instance, struggle to digest AEC music because what they do somewhat against the principles and traditions of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. A prominent psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung states that consciousness naturally resists anything unconscious and unknown. He also explains in his masterwork “Man and his Symbols” that anthropologists have pointed out that there is a deep and a superstitious fear of novelty among primitive people known as misoneism.

He also argued,” The primitives manifest all the reactions of the wild animal against untoward events, but “civilized” man reacts to new ideas in much the same way, erecting psychological barriers to protect himself from the shock of facing something new. This can easily be observed in any individual’s reaction to his own dreams when obliged to admit a surprising thought. Many pioneers in philosophy, science, and even literature have been victims of the innate conservatism of their contemporaries.”

From the Classical music context, this type of “jazz impromptus” can be difficult to digest and to some extend it can be quite disturbing, leaving the audience with an uncomfortable feeling afterward. Knowledge that has been taught at Conservatoires provides a very limited view of the world because it explains music only from a Western Classical perspective.

Music is a “language”, and therefore, Classical music is just one of the musical languages of the world. Knowing and believing in only one musical language hinder us from having a broader musical horizon, and in a wider spectrum hamper us to gain a better cross-cultural understanding and respect. It is hard for anyone to disagree with Ludwig Wittgenstein who said,” The limit of my language is the limit of my world.” A person’s ability to articulate and express what she or he feels and has in mind is determined by the amount of knowledge and resources of the language(s) that she or he speaks. So if we only “speak” one language of music, then we can be sure that musical traditions in the world will not flourish because each remains within its own compartment. Human expressions will dwindle, and even worse, the musical world will be divisive since pigeonholed knowledge tend to bore views and minds that trivialize others’. Variety of issues happening today already indicate the probability of a more divisive future.

Being divisive is not the only problem we are facing; one’s domination over others is just as onerous. Still in the language domain, English for example, is the most dominating international language in the world. According to Research Trends, 80% of the world’s scientific knowledge is written in English. In many non-English speaking countries, perhaps out of inferiority, English has been embraced as the more important, if not the first, language, leaving national language behind; on the other hand, the people of the native English speakers feel that there is no need to learn other languages since everyone in the world already learn or speak English. So neither domination nor divisiveness will ever give us cross learning atmosphere and attitude. Doing music this way is just the same as beautifying a corpse, in other words, embellishing a subject that will soon be decaying.

In the monotheistic religious tradition, God Almighty gave its prophets miracles, which resonate to the conditions in which they live at a time (e.g.: Moses with the ability to turn his staff into serpent, and Jesus with the miracle to awaken the dead). In Islam, the Muslims believe that the eloquence of the Quran as the greatest miracle of Islam.

In his book “The Heart of Islam”, Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains, “…and since poetic eloquence was the most prized of all virtues for pre-Islamic Arabs, God revealed through the Prophet by far the most eloquent of all Arabic works, the Quran.” He then continues: “Its eloquence not only moved the heart and soul of those Arabs of the seventh century who first heard it, but also moves to tears Muslim believers throughout the world today, even those whose mother tongue is not Arabic, although Arabic is the language of daily prayers for all Muslims, Arab and non-Arab alike. The grace, or barakah (corresponding both etymologically and in meaning to the Hebrew barak), of the text transcends its mental message and moves souls towards God in much the same way that hearing Gregorian Chant in Latin would for centuries in the West deeply affect even those who did not understand the Latin words. Of course, the same can be said for the Latin Mass itself, whose beautiful liturgy was of the deepest significance for some fifteen hundred years even for those Catholics who did not know Latin.”

Invoking Jung, Wittgenstein and Nasr in this writing is to argue that the whole live experience is essential in this context. The sound of AEC moves not only the heart and soul of Jazz enthusiasts but also any other music fans who are interested in sounds’ exploration and improvisation. In order to fully experience and to feel what the music is all about, one must go and watch the AEC live. Such experience can neither be replaced by YouTube nor Spotify, regardless how the two have dramatically changed our perceptions of music in the 21st century. Internet and social media have given us inter-connectivity, but ironically eroded the necessity and values of the real or physical human interaction.

The music kicked off at approximately 8:30 pm; it began with a short moment of silence with all musicians stood and faced to the left of the stage. This could be a ritual and long tradition/gesture of AEC that adds a ‘sacred element’ on to the set. The drone-like sound of woodwind and saxophone immersed gradually to warm up the audience that evoked the function of an overture in a Classical orchestra or Alap in North Indian music as a form of melodic improvisation that precedes Ragas. This introduction produced calm and peaceful effects, serving as a prerequisite language for the audience to absorb the overwhelming, bold, and psychedelic sounds of the AEC that encapsulated the rest of the evening.

AEC is not just about the brilliance and virtuosity in music composing and performing. The evolving composition of its members clearly represents their comprehension on the importance of inter-generational transmission. The line up for this London concert consists of the two founding members, Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye, then the second formation generation, Hugh Ragin and Junius Paul, and the most recent generation, Mazz Swift, Tomeka Reid, and Silvia Bolognesi. It’s amazing how all of them conceptually, musically and technically fit perfectly in the ensemble. The brilliant and brave playing of Mazz Swift (violinist), and Tomeka Reid (cellist), combined with their positive energy, certainly added freshness and oddity of sounds that depict the sound of today’s living in natural acoustics.

When asked about how more divisive the world today, and the fact that we’re still actually struggling with the same issues that his generation fought for during the Counter Culture Movement in the 60s, Hugh Ragin pointed out that there will always be obstacles that we have to face, no matter when and where. By highlighting the significant role of Duke Ellington in the past, he also urged musicians (and other artists) to get together and bring people together so that we can rise above the impediments.

All cultural manifestations, including music, are contextual. Any music serves its own purposes and ideals according to the contexts in which the music was created at the time. Music is a powerful intermediary that addresses current issues that are relevant to and experienced directly by the musicians and societies they live in. In their early years, AEC challenged the issues by going beyond technique, tonality, and even the existing forms. In this London performance, the whole musical set was thoughtfully constructed and spiritually implemented as it managed to reach and communicate with the deeper souls and spirits of the audience. The set resembles a spiritual journey, a “religious” experience that employs Jazz as a vehicle to express feelings and emotions to the fullest extend by using a vast collection of sounds and musical traditions from around the world. AEC had successfully transformed the evening into a transcendental experience.


Ginastera Sianturi: How do you feel playing now compared to, say, back then in the 70s? Feel any difference with the atmosphere, audience, the vibe and so on?

Hugh Ragin: It’s fresh all the time… I feel renewed every time I play…ha ha ha

I feel energized after the gig myself. It’s been a long day at work, but after listening to your music, I’m up at another level.

Oh that’s beautiful man. That’s the beauty of music, you listen to it, feel refreshed, released…and renewed. I think music does that to me when I practice, when I play. It’s a continuous process, you know.

What do you think of the young musicians today? Especially in the jazz scene…

I think a lot of them learning their history, and keep playing music, and that’s what’s important. I’ve heard a lot of great composers, arrangers, and having seen this, I think the future looks very bright.

Good! It’s great to hear that, because a lot of us didn’t live in the past, but most of the music we create today is still the music of the past.

Yes, but luckily the past was so well documented; with the YouTube, and all that stuff, you can dig down really deep and find out what’s going on. To have young people and listener like you are encouraging; your presence and our sharing are vitamins for the soul, you know.

Let’s talk about the world today a little bit. Compared to the divisive world of the 1960s, it seems like the today’s world is even more divisive, and in a negative way because people are eradicating the values that the 60s generation stood for. We’re still struggling with the same issues, but doing it in reverse, don’t you agree?

Yeaah, but there’s always been that way, you know. It’s nothing new. It seems like these are always gonna be overbearing obstacles, no matter what. This is what music is all about, a way of getting out of the depression smoothly.

Music is a powerful bridge for that, isn’t it?

Powerful man! I was just reading about how Duke Ellington was really linking a lot of people back in the day when he was playing, you know. He was really a catalyst for social justice, by doing what he does with the music.

As a young musician, I feel that we’re losing context today. How do we gain that again back to, you know, where people play music within context, and respond to actual issues that are happening?

Have you seen this exhibition? There’s an exhibition here at the museum; It’s about soul music and art, I forgot the name of it. It’s a great exhibition to check out the history, and an idea of getting the artists back together. Getting people of different disciplines together again; dancers, painters, artists, literary people, musicians, talking and having conversation, just like what we’re doing now, engaging. I think if we ever get closer to that, that’s gonna help bring us back, and that’s gonna be huge. People like you, and me, we have to be on a mission as motivational speakers, get the people involved in this. That’s really our job, that’s the lane we drive in…ha ha ha.

I agree, 100%! The young needs a lot of advise from the past, it’s something we never experience. So, thank you very much for your time, it’s been a great chat!.


Antigoni Goni, The Volterra Guitar Project, and Beyond

by Ginastera ‘Boo-Boo’ Sianturi

Classical music enthusiasts from across the world probably recognize her as one of the best guitarists of our time. But more than that, this 43 years old Greek-born artist – who now lives in Belgium – is also known as the Founder and Artistic Director of the infamous Volterra Guitar Project. She is Antigoni Goni.

Her encounter with the guitar began in her early childhood, and it was perhaps some kind of a destiny. “For as long as I can remember, the guitar was present in my life: resting in a corner, ready to be picked up and come to life in the hands of my father and their friends accompanying the songs of Mikis Theodorakis and the other composers that marked the 70s in Greece,” she described. At the age of 17, after several months split up with the guitar and went ‘literally mad’ because of it, Goni convinced herself that music was her life. By the start of the 1980, she had her first formal trainings at the National Conservatory of Athens (GREECE) with Evangelos Assimakopoulos. In 1991, she completed her diploma at the Royal Academy of music in London (UK) under the guidance of John Mills and Julian Bream (in master class setting), then earned her Master degree at The Juilliard School in NYC (USA) with Sharon Isbin by the year 1994.

Antigoni Goni is a recipient of many prestigious awards and prizes, and some of them are: the Laureate and Special Prize in the Havana International Guitar Competition for the Best interpretation of Latin American Music (for the interpretation of “Sueño en la floresta” by Augustin Barrios Mangore) in 1988; the 1st Prize in Julian Bream Prize, London, UK, in 1991; First Prize at the Young Artists International, NYC, in 1992; 1st Prize in the Guitar Foundation of America Competition in 1995, and also the Associate of the Royal Academy of Music in London (ARAM) in 1996.

Antigoni Goni
Antigoni Goni – Madrigal – Barrios Mangoré (Music provided by Vox de Cultura); Source: Discogs (Right), Amazon (left)

Throughout her musical career, Antigoni Goni had performed in dozens of major events. Some of the most memorable ones are: her performance at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Acropolis, Athens, GREECE; Debuts at the Carnegie Hall, NYC, USA, the Wigmore Hall, London, UK, also at the Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of London, UK; the Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, RUSSIA; the Royal Brussels Conservatory, Belgium; her first Japan concert Tour, and many more. She has also recorded—both solo and collaborative—works from some of the world’s greatest composers such as Augustin Barrios, Leo Brouwer, and John Duarte; the recordings are released on NAXOS, KOCH International Classics and Willow Shades Classics.

Augustin Barrios (left), source:; Leo Brouwer (center), source:; John Duarte (right), source:

Being a successful guitarist with such resume is one thing, but her passion in music education for the young—both academic and non-academic—is another thing. She has been deeply involved in music education for nearly 20 years, and holding many positions in various institutions. From Teaching Assistant in Aspen Music Festival (1993), Founder and Head of the guitar department at the Juilliard Pre-College (1995-2004), Guitar Professor at Koninklijk Conservatorium van Brussels, Belgium Division (2004 to present), to the Founder and Artistic Director of Volterra Project Summer Guitar Institute (2006 to Present). With all that, Antigoni Goni seems to fit what most envision about the true artist. Timothy Walker, one of the guitar greats and a retired guitar teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, in the interview with Listen to the World said something like this:”Professionals are those who are amateur at hearts.” In this case, we hope Antigoni Goni will stay amateur at her heart.

Thanks to our UK’s representative, Ginastera ‘Boo-Boo’ Sianturi, for making this interview possible. The interview gives the feeling as if she is taking us with her on the ride to her journey, mind and heart. What a ride!

LTTW: You initiated the Volterra Guitar Project in 2006, and you have directed the program so that it has received attention from guitarists around the world. What is the concept and the mission behind the Project? What the Project has achieved so far, and what is yet to be reached?

Volterra Guitar Institute Project

AG: When I conceived The Volterra Project, Summer Guitar Institute my intention was not to create another traditional summer school, but to put together an experiment in international classical guitar teaching. As a matter of fact, the idea at the base of the Volterra Project matured very slowly, since my students years, out of the consideration that training in music skills is not sufficient by itself to equip young musicians with the necessary tools to be able to tackle the “nasty and ruthless outer world”. Artistic excellence is essential, but by itself is not sufficient. A young guitarist, besides the long hours of rehearsal on the instrument, needs a basic understanding of other fundamental components of her life as a musician, such as how to take care of her body in synergy with the instrument, and how to deal with the managerial aspects of the career. Students need a school able to form not only highly skilled guitarists, but also mature musicians, able to face by themselves the needs of an international career.

Worldwide, of course there are many summer schools of excellence. However, none among them integrates the dimension of guitar teaching with other elements, nowadays essential to the artistic and professional growth of a young guitarist. In my professional career as a teacher and international performer, I always considered this extremely concerning: too often wonderfully skilled and talented young guitarists are left alone and unprepared to compete in the professional arena.

This is why today the Volterra Project is an innovative experiment in classical guitar training offering a 360- degree formative course with highest level guitar master classes, music physiology training, and arts business management seminars taught by experienced, internationally-renowned professionals. Its mission is to help young guitarists develop well-rounded and non-competitive approaches to performing, to foster a new generation of accomplished young guitarists who are prepared for the multiple aspects of performing careers, including artistic achievement, physical health, and sound business management, and to bring the guitar outside traditional performance venues into places of community access.

Also, The Volterra Project was conceived as innovative not only in its didactic offerings, but also in its form and context. The ten-day workshop will be held in a beautiful agriturismo, a rustic complex in Volterra, Tuscany (Italy), where students and teachers will live together in a relaxed, non-competitive environment, inspiring mutual exchange and personal growth The Volterra Project replaces the competitive culture of the conservatory with a more nurturing environment, conducive to a real exchange of knowledge and experience.

In the past six editions, The Volterra Project generated great enthusiasm and attracted participants from the entire world, including Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Iran, Italy, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria, South Africa, Switzerland, Hungary, and over a dozen of U.S. States.

Finally, “What yet has to be reached”, you ask? The idea of “project” in the Volterra Project summarizes the concept: at the very base of the workshop is an effort to find answers to an ongoing challenge, Every edition of the “Volterra project” tackles different nuances of all the three dimensions which constitute the pillars of our educational structure: guitar masterclasses, business seminars, and music physiology.

Volterra Guitar Institute Project

You have been involved in music education for quite some time; how do you evaluate the on-going music education, particularly Classical music, so far? What issues that need to be addressed in the future?

In essence, there are many similarities between the previous generation of guitar students and the present one. Like when I was a student (and even before that, I have been told), young students today are going for a super competitive, narcissist, and arrogant technique display. Musicality and artistry always came at their (usually much slower) pace. However, I am under the impression that there is at least one difference: in the last years, the degree of sophistication and research for a cultural improvement has seriously weakened. The effort, the strife to achieve superior levels of artistic sophistication has been substituted by an increased tension to obtaining short term result (in a way, a sort of instant gratification).

My idea, which I infused in the Volterra project, is that instead we need artists with a more rounded completeness; we need a music formation nurturing artistic, spiritual, and emotional growth in addition to the technical skills’ one, resulting into the development of a personality that comes closer to the Renaissance man model. Otherwise we will witness the multiplication of monodimensional jongleurs, while true artists will become specie of the past.

There has been a growing belief and practice that musician is merely a profession to make a living in which music is treated more as just a “vehicle” to generate income; is this the way a musician should take today and in the future?

This is a concept that I never understood and never agreed with. Actually, I am not even sure that the issue could be generalized. However, for those who share this way of thinking I could reply that If you want to make money and if money is your goal then to be a Musician may not be the good choice.

John Wunsch, a former guitar teacher at the Interlochen Arts Academy, stated that it is unfair to measure the success of an artist or musician by the level of fame and fortune that she or he gains. The majority of the workforce in other fields ranging from architecture, banking, law and so on is neither famous nor rich, just like in the music sector, and yet they are regarded as “successful” by the society. Do you agree with his statement? How should we cope with this matter? And who should be in the forefront to tackle this issue? Musicians, educational institutions, media?

I think that success is a very elusive and extremely dangerous issue to tackle all together. Success is ephemeral, extremely subjective and dependant on so many parameters and variables that at the end cannot be really measured nor defined. Unfortunately, our society is a society that loves quantity of production, standardization, objective measurability, and big numbers. Quality, soul, individual happiness, personal enrichment, social contribution, are words and notions that today seem to mean very little. If there is anything similar to personal success, I think it should be measured only in front of the mirror, not listening to the market popularity lists, or counting the number of lines on a bio. Of course educational institutions and media are in the forefront in defining the cultural values, but their evolution and change can only be tackled in its complexity.

People say that we now live in a digital world, and yet Classical music (in this case is Classical guitar) is more of an acoustic world; should this “contrast” be a problem or compliment?

I don’t believe in the necessity of absolute polarizations. Black and white, man and woman, left and right, bad and good… of course, the archetypes are there, but real life is another thing. The contrast you speak of is neither a problem, nor a compliment. The existence of these two worlds, so different, sometime counterpoised, is a one of the elements that define their identity.

Digitalization, combined with the idea that anyone has the right to do any art work (and everyone is basically an artist), has made individuals with inadequate training and knowledge can produce a “likable” music. Does this make the titleship of musician no longer relevant and important?

“Titleships” and labels. Here’s another thing I do not believe to or, if you prefer, I totally distrust. Being an artist is not a “titleship” you acquire and is not something that anyone can take away from you. A real artist is not threatened by the existence of millions of other so-called “artists”. I don’t feel that the effortless easiness with which we can easily produce “stuff” today threatens in any way real art. On the contrary, this helps good, genuine, inspired, magnificent artistic manifestations. It would be like saying that the mere existence of McDonald’s would threat a five star Michelin guide restaurant. These are two entirely different things. The question would, instead be another one: why masses of teenagers are opting to consume cheap food and cheap music instead of turning to quality one. The answer, I am afraid, would pertain to a much larger domain that the one set by this interview.

You have dedicated your life to Classical music; do you appreciate music of other genre or nations? Any of these music carry any influence on you and/or your music?

I entered the classical guitar world through the popular music of my native Greece. I found my place in the classical guitar exactly because it is a world that encompasses the music of all nations and has drawn inspiration from all other genres. For me classical guitar is the most alive, fresh and contemporary of all the classical instruments exactly because of that. I don’t define myself as a classical guitarist but more as an artist and a musician.

What drew you to Classical music? And why the guitar?

I was introduced to classical music by my grandfather who every Sunday painted in his studio blasting Mozart and Beethoven over his turntable. However I was drawn to classical music by the guitar itself, her beautiful sound, her humanity, her ability for harmony and bel canto, her subtle colors and passionate character. Yes, after all It was guitar that lead me to classical music.

You are regarded as one of the best Classical guitarists in the world; what does it take to be a true musician?

C’mon! It would be like asking, “What does it take to be a true human being?” I think the ingredients are the same: self-awareness, lots of work, constant presence, sincerity, balance between intellect and emotions, constant re birth and re definition, curiosity, vulnerability, respect (self respect, respect for the things you do, for others…).

Many consider that 20th century music up to the late 70’s, particularly Classical and its “branches”, is more explorative compare to the period afterward; how do you comment on such comparison?

Art is a mirror of life. Compared to the present, the 20th century, up to the late 70s, was a very different time. It is only natural that this would be reflected on the music and in the arts in general.

At the time, the serious music on one side and pop music on the other were inter-connected, they seemed to stimulate each other. Rock music then came up with the “progressive” and “psychedelic” led by ,among others, Yes, King Crimson, and Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd respectively, while musicians from Serious music like John Williams entered the Pop segment with his group called Sky, and Stomu Yamash’ta with GO. Today, we hardly see this kind of inter-action, why, do you think?

This is a rare interaction indeed because it requires both technical skill, vision, mind openness, courage, curiosity, intuition, genius …. Am I repeating myself? Yes: it requires true artists to do this. And true artists can flourish and find stimuli and creative power only in very particular conditions and moments.

How do you foresee Classical music, let’s say in the next 20 years?

I can hardly foresee my day tomorrow “LAUGHS”, how could I foresee the next 20 years?? I will only say that I trust life and the driving creative force in the human race. I trust we will see magnificent things and my only wish is to be still part of it.

Any words for

My most sincere congratulations for such inspiring and passionate work.

Thank you very much for your kind acceptance upon this interview, and more importantly, thank you for your contribution to music. We’re sure that this interview will inspire many.                        

Timothy Walker, Strings of Life

by Ginastera Sianturi and Johnathan Wiseman

Timothy Walker, born 1943 at Durban, South Africa, is a world renowned guitar player, composer, and a master-class teacher as well. Being raised in the midst of a musical family -his father played violin and his mother played piano-, he began playing the guitar at the age of 12 and continued to gain knowledge and experiences from guitar masters like Narciso Yepes, Ida Presti, and John Williams.

Narciso Yepes, Ida Presti, John Williams
Narciso Yepes, Ida Presti, John Williams

Timothy Walker has long been settled in London and was the guitarist with the London Sinfonietta and has played with the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Royal Opera Covent Garden along many other orchestras. He has also worked with great conductors like Pierre Boulez, Hans Werner Henze and Walter Susskind.

London Sinfonietta,London Symphony Orchestra, The BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
(from left to right) London Sinfonietta,London Symphony Orchestra, The BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

In addition to his solo career, Tim Walker is recognized as one of the foremost guitarists in the world of chamber music, and has encouraged composers to use the instrument more in ensemble works. He has played groups such as the Melos Ensemble, Ensemble Musique Vivants, the Nash Ensemble, the Lindsay Quartet and many other leading ensembles. He has performed in duo with John Williams, as well as with some of the world’s finest singers and instrumentalists including Robert Tear, Philip Langridge and Sarah Walker.

Now with over 30 recordings of guitar works made on his name, while also serving as a professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and still continuing to play and perform all over the world, he surely does have some stories to tell. And thanks to our UK’s representatives Ginastera Sianturi and Jonathan, we are very grateful he was willing to share them with us.

Listen to the World: You were born at Durban, South Africa, a region long considered to be among the birth place of African music. What kind of music are you familiar with from the region? Does it have an influence on your musical genre?

Durban, South Africa
Durban, South Africa

Timothy Walker: From South Africa? Phew… really, I don’t know the names, if you had to give them names but like, township, kwella music..?

I remember as a kid hearing a lot of Black African musicians—well, they weren’t really professional musicians, but they would walk to work just strumming a guitar, you know and they had to go miles to get from where they were living to work [to arrive at the place where they work, red.], and they would just strum and sing as they walk the road. And it made, sort of, the journey much easier I guess. Now I don’t know if that has any particular sort of name…

And then you’d also have some groups, some of them playing on street corners, with string and base, you know, just one string and a broom handle, a box, a pennywhistle, other instruments, and someone playing a guitar. I don’t know if that has any particular of name to it, we just call it… folk music. 

Does it have any influence in your musical journey in your early years?

Oh very much so. Quite a few pieces that I’ve played or I’ve composed… I think anybody who’s heard any of this African music of the type that I’ve been talking about will recognize immediately the kind of rhythm, strumming… and usually very simple melodically, but very lovely, beautiful.

Living in the middle of a community rich with wind and percussion musical instruments in your early age, can you share your tale how you chose guitar to be your “partner for life?”

I come from a very musical family; my father played violin, and my mother played the piano. So I was listening to music every day of my life since I can remember, I would listen to Mozart, and Bach, and Beethoven… There was always something in the backdrop. My father was a music critic; he was a general arts critic for a newspaper, for a daily newspaper in Johannesburg. So he would have to review concerts, records, and he would have to make very good writing. But I was more interested in “cowboy music” (sic.), stuff like… I heard Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel,” and I decided then I had to play the guitar. With “Heartbreak Hotel” (laugh).

So, my father got me a guitar, and I strummed a couple of cords, my mother told me I played good music; and then I heard, um… My father, one of the records he had to review for the newspaper was (Andres) Segovia, and I heard these two Handel minuets and I couldn’t believe my ears, so I went from playing “Heartbreak Hotel” to trying to play Handel minuets… That’s how I got into playing music. It was Elvis Presley but, music was always there…

Classical music from its beginning has a deep relationship with the sciences, specifically with astronomy, geometry, mathematics, and architecture. In your opinion, how was the interrelation between these disciplines established?

I’m not sure quite how that relates to me, except, I remember at school I once got 108% for Maths and uh, I figured that one out ­– well, I did [answer] more questions than I actually needed to in the paper. So I kind of liked… adding things together. And the next year I got 8% in mathematics, because the teacher didn’t like me and I didn’t like the teacher.

So I guess I like… I’ve done a lot of modern music where you have to do a lot of ‘calculus,’ so if you’re talking to me personally I like mathematics as a sort of thing. I think mathematics is wonderful, I’ve even watched programs about Einstein’s theory of relativity without understanding at all what’s going on, but I still find it fascinating.

You have experience in performing as a soloist, as well as playing in an orchestra-scale ensemble. Can you describe what meaning and function of each these two experience types for you?

What, playing solo as being different to playing with an orchestra, or just as a person?

Yes as a soloist, and on the other side as an ensemble.

Well the thing is playing with an ensemble, ideally, you are listening to the others [playing] and they should be listening to you. Which is much more—if you like—how we are as people in society, relating to each other ideally as we listen and hear what other people have to say and hopefully they do the same for us. So I think that’s, that’s why we always encourage to do them [playing in an ensemble, red.], and you hear a lot of people saying it is the most, it can be the most satisfying form of music making, because you bounce it off each other. Even if you learn a piece, learn all the notes, and you’ve got yourself a plan of how to do things, of course the weather can make a difference, all sorts of circumstances so you don’t always play it the same, which you don’t as a soloist anyway, either. But it means that when you’re with somebody else, you know you have to play along with them or against them. While when you’re on your own, you can always do what you like and hope that the audience likes what you do, of course, but it doesn’t require the same discipline. I never think it’s quite as rewarding actually in the long run. It’s great indeed, you know, the places, and you get the applause and it’s all for you; but as an all-around experience I think it’s nice if you can do things with other people.

So would you agree that people have very become preoccupied with their solo careers? Because there are, um, far too many excellent, gifted young players around anyway and not all of them can make it, so perhaps it’s either an alternate way of looking at things, while there’s more possibility of a career with an ensemble?

Oh absolutely! For sure, when I started, it was quite long ago now, there were really not that many guitarists, solo guitarists travelling the world; not many. So if you worked hard, obviously, and if you have any talent, there was actually a sort of chance to actually join that group of people travelling the world.

The problem with the guitar is that the solo repertoire is very limited compared to, say, the piano or the violin. And so everyone is playing the same repertoire, or very often if people are playing a different repertoire, the music isn’t of such a high quality, you know and it doesn’t have the audience either. So, now it’s much more difficult than when I started to make it in a solo career. When I started, that’s what I wanted to do, was to be a soloist like Andres Segovia, and Julian Bream, and my teacher the great Narcisso Yepes; but then I kind of fell into playing ensemble music, and I hadn’t realized that, ‘gee, you know I really like doing this’, but today rather than fall into playing ensemble music, it’s something and that’s why at the Royal Academy where you are now, is emphasized quite strongly, and I think absolutely rightly, is that one should learn to play with other people, singers, other… duets and bigger groups.

I mean for example when I, the first time I ever did something with a conductor I got sent this music and a friend of mine, an Australian we used to play duets, we got sent this music to play in a film, it was called ‘The Conductor.’ And we got the music, and it was really pretty easy for us to play, and a lot of rests also because there was some other people coming in. So anyways we arrived for the recording of this music for this film, ‘The Conductor,’ we were late which is, professionally, not the way to start off , ‘Be there on time!’, and we got to the recording studio and there was this orchestra of a hundred people, so suddenly we felt a little bit twitchy. And we sat down, and the conductor went up beat, down beat, and we played down there, and then the orchestra came in, played there. The conductor then said, ‘Stop, stop, stop!’ since we were a bit too soon. We had never worked with a conductor before. Now, this is a horrible experience for me. I will never, ever forget it, okay, but if I had come in to a place like the Academy I wouldn’t have had that experience because I would’ve learned what to do.

So, you know, this is what you guys, here, could learn, and also working with other people, what to do, rather than finding yourself in a professional situation and making an idiot of yourselves, you know. I don’t know if that answers your question, maybe not, but anyways, it’s something.

You have also collaborated with various world-class musicians and composers in the past. Can you tell us about one or two in which you gained great experiences from?

I will always remember working with Pierre Boulez; he was an, amazing musician, conductor, and composer. It was at the BBC Orchestra, a huge orchestra, and he was, at one moment, he wanted just to rehearse the strings, double basses. There were eight, or more, double basses, and each one was playing a different line, we weren’t playing together; this was very, very modern music everybody played their own thing. And so they played this section, and when he said, ‘Oh excuse me, double bass number eight, you played that ‘D’ in bar so-and-so at the wrong octave.’ And the double-bass player looks at his part and that part, and said, ‘Oh sorry Mr. Boulez.’ We were playing the correct note, it was a ‘D’ and I really remember the note it was a ‘D,’ but he was playing it at the wrong octave. And this man could hear, even with all this jungle of notes, and he could hear it was the wrong pitch, even with all that….

Pierre Boulez
Pierre Boulez

So here it is when you work with somebody like that who knows, who really knows what’s going on, it’s fantastic. And yeah, some musicians are like that. And while others, are quite different.

Also, you have created and played various musical compositions from all over the world starting from folk, classical, even to complex modern compositions. Is there something you seek to achieve from these experiences? And how does the public respond to it?

What, playing folk inspired music?

Yes, I mean from different genres, from folk, classical, until the complex modern compositions today.

The only thing I would want to achieve is to… convey to people the pleasure and enjoyment I have received from listening and working at the music. It doesn’t really matter to me if it’s… twelve-tone music or simple folk music …

Sometimes as a professional musician you get asked to play something, and you get the music and you learn it and you play it, and you might not really like it at all, it doesn’t mean anything or doesn’t speak to you personally. But as a professional, you still have to do as good a job of trying to understand what it is the composer is trying to do, and sometimes you do understand but it still doesn’t move you or do anything. But you still have to do a good job….

So there are a lot of pieces that I have played, that I would never, ever choose to play but I get paid to do it so I do it as a professional; you have to make a living.

But that’s one thing actually, I suppose, with playing solos, is that you get to choose the program that you want to play, you know. So it has happened sometimes, you get a job or a condition that you play at least by some, or whatever, but usually you would… choose the pieces that you want to play. And, it might depend… the program one chooses might depend on where, what type of audience that you’re playing for, or you just do, play what you… enjoy playing. And, I suppose if you have a broad range of interests that means that the repertoire you choose will be pretty broad as well.

Well, moving on to a different area: In the context of music industry—

I HATE that expression by the way. Music industry, errghh… I know I, hey I understand that’s what it’s called but, I really don’t like…

…(laugh) what have you seen in the last decades of music business? Are there any changes? And does it have an impact on the classical music “genre”?

Well I think, you know with all the modern technologies these days, with the, going from um…. When I started playing it was just records and of course vinyl and, um CDs and now you can get things off of websites and stuffs like that, people can download – it makes it difficult to make a professional livelihood if you make a CD and somebody could put it on Youtube or whatever it is, and then download it or whatever the expression is, I’m afraid I’m not too supple on those type of things, so they don’t go out and buy your CD, so that, can make a big impact on one’s livelihood.

My son is not in classical music but he does electronic… Unfortunately his type of music is being completely killed by modern technology because, he can’t make any money from people buying these things because people would get it for nothing from, you know, downloading so yes, I’m afraid it’s made a big impact. That’s that but people still like seeing it happening in front of them in the flesh, so…

The live experience, yes.

Yes, there’s still that. And of course as a professional musician there are still other things, one could teach, compose, arrange, there are lots of things that one could do. But on the playing side, making CDs is – one needs to do stuffs like that to get known, but as far as making a living out of it, I don’t think it’s like it used to be.

On the other side, in the musical education sector, in that context has there been changes too? What problems are being faced? And how do you personally face them?

Well I think that, certainly, again just from the guitar point of view, because there are more and more good players and, not everybody actually have the ego, or the ambition, or whatever, to follow that through to, you know become a big time soloist or whatever; it doesn’t mean that there are more and more people who actually teach, who are of a good, or very good, standard. And that obviously has a big effect.

Because you know, a kid could come along and be pretty talented, but for one thing they could be put off doing it at all if they have a lousy teacher; that’s one thing; or, they could have this very dedicated teacher.

Professionally I had a lovely fellow, but he wasn’t a great player by any means; unfortunately he got me started. But then I went to somebody else who was really… quite talented at teaching. Because if I had carried on with the first guy, I know that I was getting into lots and lots of habits which would have taken a lot of work to get out of. You know we all can get into good habits as much as we can get into bad habits, but if you get into a lot of bad habits early on, which can become quite difficult to get out of, it could be very discouraging, disheartening depending on one’s character, whatever…

But these days there are more and more, good and very good players around who obviously perform which wasn’t actually the case.

And this one is particularly my question um, we’ve almost got to the end of the interview; I’m looking at the other side of the world, particularly in Indonesia and surrounding areas. Every parent with a musical child is faced with a dilemma whether to apply pressure, or stories … seeing the willingness of the child to work, or whether to let things take their course with the possibility of equally dire results. And how was persuasion applied in your case?

Yes, that’s a very tricky one because I mean for example I was very lucky. As I said before my father played the violin. And, well I guess, I think I was about five when I said, ‘I want a violin.’ So my dad brought home a small instrument, shortly afterwards I put it under my chin, and I went scrape, scrape with the violin, with the bow. And it was the most diabolical noise, I couldn’t believe what was coming out when I did this. I was always listening to Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz, great names of violin, you see, who made rather sweet and wonderful sounds. My father wasn’t a great violinist but, let’s say he could, he made—he had professional music in the dance fair, but he was more interested in classical music—but even though he didn’t make sound like Fritz Kreisler, not by a long run, but he sounded okay. So anyway when I went scrape, scrape it was the most diabolical noise so I said no, I don’t want to play this. Now I was very lucky because he said, “Okay, no problem.” He took the violin, fine. And later on I said, ‘I want to play the guitar.’ Now he could have said, ‘oh, well but you said you like the violin.’ But so okay he got me a guitar and I took to it, okay.

While… I always remember teaching, when I was about 16, teaching… I had these two girls, sisters, came to me for lessons, and I would teach them, and… one week after the next they, they hadn’t made any kind of improvement at all. Now I wasn’t doing this to make a lot of money, I was doing it for purpose… and it was extremely boring for me, I keep on having to repeat myself. And so I said, ‘Sorry girls, I don’t want to teach you anymore,’ and they both, both started crying. I don’t know what to do… And then the parents came to see me and it turned out the parents, they had come to South Africa they were… he was from Ireland, and she was from Yugoslavia or something like that, and neither the parents had any background… when they came back to South Africa—they had successful business, they had a restaurant—and I was taken to see them, to talk about their children, these two girls. And then it turned out the girls, because the parents didn’t have any idea what was going on, their children were going to school, they had ballet lessons, piano lessons, percussion lessons, violin lessons… something else, and guitar. So no wonder—I mean, these poor girls were so overloaded with… the parents are probably trying to give them stuffs which any… most parents would want to do for their child, right, but they were just overloaded which meant that—maybe these girls would’ve loved to play the guitar, may have loved to play the piano, they may have loved to do ballet, all these kinds of stuff, but then… they didn’t have the chance, to find out about any of it. So they were crying to me and I was still going to teach them I wasn’t going to, you know… and, and put that kind of pressure on them. So, yeah finally um, some parents… but perhaps the best will in the world to uh,… give, or make their children—for whatever reason—would do these things, and it’s not a good idea at all… but, but what can you do you can’t choose your parents… I was lucky. I know some other people like these two girls…

I’m sorry, I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, it’s a very difficult one because parents so very often do these things with the best of intentions, but they, sometimes would do something stupid with the very best of intentions, while doing it for the wrong reasons. If they really loved their kids, then you know, they will make all these things available that they are able to, and encourage that talent, and… see what happens.

If we should invite you to share your knowledge and do a performance maybe, in Indonesia, would you be willing?

Of course, I would love to. 

Yes so, do you have any words for Listen To The World, and the younger generation?

Do what you love to do.

And if playing music is what you love to do, do it. It’s not easy, but hey, doing anything that is interesting is never easy, you know but um… I think, that’s it.

If you love doing it, I mean you can do it without becoming a professional that’s, that’s one thing too, which is great, you know. I think, ideally, the best professionals are still amateurs at heart. Amateur, from the Latin, ‘lover’; you do it because you love it; so you need to keep that.

That’s why, when you say ‘Industry’, I come to think of this smoke, pouring out into the atmosphere, you know, and making more problems that you don’t really need, and stuffs like that. That’s why I don’t like that (laugh), I don’t see playing a lot of notes as an ‘industry,’ I hear–but I understand perfectly the term, but it’s a terrible… but… that’s all that I would say.

If you love doing it, you’ve got to find out and, if you are able to do what you love to do and make a living from it… and if you can’t make a living from it, I hope that, you know, one could still, find something else that you enjoy doing, and that’s very important, very important to do what you love to do, and be able to do that thing… but if you can’t make a profession out of it, then carry on, and… enjoy doing it.

(AA / FZ / SGS)