Sérgio Assad Interview

01.01.10
Sérgio and Odair Assad
Acoustic Guitar

By Doug Young

Once in a great while, talent and determination converge with the right circumstances to produce unique and extraordinary musicians who advance the state of the art. The duo of Sérgio and Odair Assad is an outstanding example. The two brothers began to play guitar almost simultaneously as children, developing a rare rapport as they learned the folk music of their native Brazil from their father before moving on to study classical music under the tutelage of former Andrés Segovia disciple Monina Tavora. Now in their fifth decade of performing as a duo, the brothers think and play almost as a single performer, while continuing to expand the definition of classical guitar, both stylistically and technically.

Although initially schooled in the Segovia tradition, the Assads’ repertoire crosses all boundaries, from transcriptions of Bach and Scarlatti to interpretations of folk music of many cultures, jazz, and Latin music. Though he began his career as a performer, Sérgio has emerged as a prolific composer and arranger, an interest he developed early on. In addition to expanding the repertoire for two guitars, he also writes and arranges for a wide range of artists and ensembles, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Cuban jazz saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, symphonic orchestras, and even ballets. The brothers’ awe-inspiring technique and dazzling performances have also inspired compositions written specifically for them by classical guitarist Roland Dyens, minimalist composer Terry Riley, and the late tango master Astor Piazzolla.

A quick look at a few of the Assads’ recent projects helps convey the depth and diversity of their music: they collaborated on a collection of Gypsy folk tunes with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, performed Sérgio’s arrangement of the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and were included on the soundtrack of the movie Duplicity, which starred Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. The Assads’ latest recording, Jardim Abandonado, features the Latin Grammy–winning “Tahhiyya Li Ossoulina,” penned by Sérgio as an homage to his Lebanese ancestry, along with arrangements of Jobim and Debussy and a stunning 15-minute arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for two guitars.

Sérgio has also been an active educator, teaching in Brazil and giving master classes all over the world. His solo guitar composition “Aquarelle” was the required contemporary work for the 2002 Guitar Foundation of America Competition, and he also composed the set piece for the 2008 GFA competition. Sérgio also composed a new piece, “The Old Palm Tree,” for Acoustic Guitar. He is currently a member of the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

I recently spoke to Sérgio about his background, arranging and composing for guitar, and his thoughts on teaching.

How did your family produce so many successful musicians—you and your brother, your sister Badi, and now your daughter, Clarice, as well?
ASSAD It all started with my father and my mother. They weren’t professional musicians; it was their hobby. My father was very keen on the mandolin and taught himself by ear. He built this huge repertoire. He was moving quite a lot, and he would find others to play with in each place we would go. And if he didn’t find anyone, he would teach them.

So your introduction to music was about playing with others?
ASSAD The notion of being together and playing was there from the beginning. When I was about eight years old, I wanted to play the guitar. But my father didn’t believe a child could play. Finally, when I was about 12, I got someone to teach me a few chords. It was easy to move from one chord to another. My father was impressed, and we started to play together. The next day, my brother Odair got jealous. I handed the guitar to him, and actually it was easier for him. We had one guitar in the house, but that same day my father bought a second one. My father used to go out quite a lot, to play with his friends, but from that day on, he would stay at home, and he taught us all the repertoire that he could.

He taught you the tunes he knew on mandolin?
ASSAD Basically the harmony. He knew the harmony by ear. That’s the way it is easiest to learn—use your ears. I believe it’s the best way to approach music. You can learn to name things later, but the sense of harmony, especially, is best achieved if you do it by ear. People often go to the conservatories to learn harmony. They know it on paper, but if you ask them to accompany a tune, they cannot.

You were learning Brazilian folk tunes?
ASSAD Mainly, it was the Brazilian choro repertoire. The choro groups were usually built with a mandolin or flute as the main soloists and a couple of guitars. Often one of them would be a seven-string guitar. And they each had their own roles. [With the accompaniment], there are set chord passages, but the good guitarists would improvise.

How did that prepare you for playing classical music later?
ASSAD It prepares you to understand harmony very well. So when we started learning, it was “Oh, that’s the name of that!”

How did you move from playing choro to studying classical guitar?
ASSAD Our father saw that we had a chance to become professional musicians. He had some friends who played the classical guitar within the Latin American tradition; the repertoire is mostly the music of Barrios, who influenced many people. My father had met at least one of his students and was very impressed with the beauty of the classical guitar. He said, “This is so great, you guys should do this.” The problem was to find a teacher. We started to learn to read music, but in a very unusual way. He would bring recordings—not records, we couldn’t get them. He had a tape recorder, and he would record his friends and find the score. We would try to connect the [written] music with what we heard.

Someone from Rio de Janeiro recommended Monina Tavora, who had been a coach of another pair of brothers, a classical guitar duo in the ’70s. She was brilliant, a student of Segovia. She knew all the tradition, and she was very strict. She convinced my father to move to Rio. That was a big change, because what we knew was folk music. We got there and she said, “You must throw this out.” Which was not good! [Laughs.] We didn’t do it, actually, but we had to hide it from her.

You both studied with Tavora, but on solo repertoire?
ASSAD No, she thought we should play duets. She determined that from the beginning. My brother was an amazing player; he was always faster than I was. So I started arranging our material from the beginning. We always shared the same teachers, but I didn’t want to play exactly what my brother played. I thought it was stupid to compete. I wanted to play together, because we were used to playing with my father. So to play together, I would come up with a second part.

How do you arrange for two guitars?
ASSAD Most of the repertoire for classical guitar comes from piano scores or harpsichord. The guitar has a more limited range, so sometimes you have to change keys, or change note direction. This is transcribing, it’s fairly easy to do.

Arranging is something else. There are two ways of doing it. One, when you get something that is impossible to play on your instrument, but you want to play it so badly that you come up with harmonic solutions that may be close to the original. A cross between arranging and transcribing is when you just give the idea of the piece. For instance, I arranged [Gershwin’s] Rhapsody in Blue for two guitars. It’s impossible to play the notes exactly, but you can arrange it in a way that the listener has the feeling that you did play all the notes.

Arranging is when you put in something of your own. It’s like arranging a pop tune: you come up with an introduction, change the harmony, that kind of thing. But sometimes you get stuck. If you have notes in the ninth position, and you need a note on the first fret, the arrangement is lost if you cannot play that note. With a duo, you can see if it’s possible to play it on the other guitar, or sometimes you have to change the tuning.

You use alternate tunings?
ASSAD I use a lot of different tunings. I use one that is like a cello, the sixth string is dropped to C and the fifth to G. Sometimes I raise the fourth string to E. I also use Eb on the sixth string and Ab on the fifth string, which gives you the tonic and the fifth in Ab.

Do you compose on the guitar?
ASSAD I used to do that, but nowadays, I write straight on Sibelius and then check if it’s playable. It’s easier to arrange it later. To use a notation program like Sibelius or Finale doesn’t help you write a piece—it doesn’t compose for you—but it helps because you can hear it back.

How did you start working with Yo-Yo Ma?
ASSAD The collaboration with Yo-Yo started many years ago. [Odair and I] had a connection with [tango musician] Astor Piazzolla because we met Piazzolla in the ’80s. We played some arrangements of his tunes for him, and he said, “I should write something special for two guitars.” He wrote a piece called Tango Suite. This piece was a hit; it went beyond the classical guitar world and was played by other people. Al Di Meola recorded it. When Yo-Yo was making his Soul of the Tango, his producer called. They wanted that piece, so I wrote a cello part. We met Yo-Yo in the studio; we never saw him before. It’s an extremely difficult piece to play, but we played it a couple of times, and that was it! I wrote another piece for his last album, Songs of Joy and Peace. It’s a great collaboration. He’s a great person and fantastic musician.

Lately, you’ve been exploring some Middle-Eastern influences?
ASSAD I don’t know what inspired me to write the first piece, probably nostalgia. We were not educated in a Lebanese tradition; I think it was lost in the first generation. My grandfather was from Lebanon, but my father doesn’t speak any Arabic. But I wrote a piece, “Tahhiyya Li Ossoulina,” dedicated to our ancestors, and that piece got a [Latin] Grammy for [Best Contemporary Classical] composition. That inspired us to get involved in a project that we’re going to play next year, with my daughter Clarice and Jamey Haddad, a wonderful percussionist, and a wonderful Lebanese singer, Christiane Karam, who lives in Boston.

How do you collaborate with people across these long distances?
ASSAD It’s not complicated. Here [in San Francisco], I’m a little isolated, but I’m never alone. With Skype, I can connect with my friends and family. We can’t play together, but I can show them things. The exchange of ideas is possible. I can record and send MP3s easily. I can arrange what people have sent me. It’s a great new world. If someone had told me ten years ago I’d be doing this, I wouldn’t have believed them.

In contrast, you and your brother worked out things face to face?
ASSAD Yes, we managed to achieve an understanding that is rare. It takes a lot of years. We’d play ten hours a day. We’d play and play and play, until you understand the rubato of the other person—and not just understand, but react accordingly. You create all this freedom on the spot because you know the person very well.

Would you improvise together?
ASSAD We never really specialized in improvising. We can improvise, but we almost always work from a score. The feeling and the flow is improvised. It varies from hall to hall, because we play with the acoustics of the hall. Some places, you can space the phrasing much more. You know how much you can let the piece breathe. But you need the people; when you try the hall empty, it is different. There’s a connection with the audience. You know when you’re communicating and they’re receiving. You can feel it. When that is happening, it is magical, for both the players and the audience.

You are currently teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Is teaching a new experience for you?
ASSAD Back in Brazil, I was mainly surviving as a teacher; there were not many occasions to perform, up to the beginning of the ’80s. Then we left for Europe and our [performing] career really started. Occasionally we would teach master classes, but mostly I didn’t teach. There’s a great ambience at the Conservatory; they have great teachers.

What musical background do your students have?
ASSAD Most of the students’ first experience with the guitar was through rock ’n’ roll, but then they discovered the classical guitar. The thing with the classical guitar is that when you hear a good player, it is fascinating, because it is one of the most beautiful-sounding instruments. So they just go, “Ah, I have to do that,” because they already play guitar, but they didn’t know the guitar could sound that beautiful.

Do you encourage students to pursue the traditional repertoire?
ASSAD I tell my students to leave room for their imaginations. If they want to play traditional repertoire, well, it has been done already, and there are many people doing it. If they want to have a voice, they’ll have to try something else.

How much choice of repertoire do students have at the Conservatory?
ASSAD There is some flexibility. If they are working on their undergraduate degree, they have to go through certain requirements. If they are working on a master’s degree, the requirements are less, and the final year, they can do whatever they want. Right now I have a student who wants to play her own music, so she is writing everything.

How do you guide someone in composition?
ASSAD I don’t think you can teach composition. You can teach the tools, but you can’t control how someone is going to create something inside their head. There’s no formula, you can’t say, “Do this, and you’ll compose well.” If there were, there would be more great music out there. Everything that we have done musically is related to what we have heard in our life. But sometimes, someone comes along and theirs is out of the blue. Those are the most creative composers. It doesn’t often happen like that; people are out there trying, but it is not simple.

Is there some quality that makes a great composer?
ASSAD I think there are two different worlds. My teacher in Brazil used to say, “A composer is a composer, a songwriter is a songwriter.” You don’t need to be a good melody writer, for example, to be a good composer. You can learn the tools, and know so much about colors and orchestration that you can compose pieces that are quite strong without having a talent for melody writing. And there are many examples of great songwriters who didn’t know much about music.

But it’s not black and white. There are grays in between. My strong side is as a songwriter, because it is what I did as a child, and what I love to do. I have a good sense of melody. No matter what, the first thing that comes to mind is, “Is it a good melody?” And then I use the elements I know to embellish that. You can create wonderful music with no melody at all, but I would not write something without a melody.

Do you keep a regimen? Do you write every day?
ASSAD No, because I have been so busy with arranging and playing with other people. To compose and live as a writer is a full dedication; you have to face it as a career. I think my daughter will do well; she’s committed to that.

I like to write things down, even if I can’t work on them for a while. When I’m sitting playing guitar, sometimes ideas come. I improvise quite a lot. I’m not thinking about anything, just playing music, and some ideas come, “Oh, this is good.” So I’ll write it down, and one day I can use it.

How do you approach composing for someone else?
ASSAD It depends. If I know the person, I know what would be good for them. But pretty much what I use is the collection of ideas I’ve collected over the years. I go to my little pile and go, “Maybe this.” It may be just a few measures, or even just a rhythm.

Is there a process for developing those?
ASSAD Each time, I try to be as creative as I can. Recently I was trying to combine some pieces. You can combine two things easily, but I like the challenge of combining more. In the “Interchange” concerto that I wrote for the LA Guitar Quartet, the idea was four pieces, one for each player, because there are four individuals with individual tastes. One is more classical and he’s Jewish. One likes flamenco, Gypsy music. One is folk, with some South American influences. And the other likes jazz and can improvise quite well. So I created a Jewish renaissance piece, a Gypsy flamenco piece, a Brazilian piece, and then a jazzy ballad. They are four different tunes, but they combine in the end.

What do you think of the state of classical guitar today?
ASSAD Classical guitar is at a point that it has never been before. Not in the sense of popularity; that was bigger in the ’60s and ’70s. But these days there are guitar festivals all over the world, and there are many guitarists, more than ever. And the level is truly amazing. Back when I was a teenager, you could count on one hand the good guitarists. Now they are countless. And what is strange, is they are younger and younger! You see people under 18 today playing extremely well. That was impossible 20 years ago. Also, the guitar itself is still developing. There are more guitar makers, and they are trying to make a better instrument. It’s still evolving. There are better guitars than ever.

Are people continuing to compose for the guitar?
ASSAD There are a lot of composers, a lot of young players. The challenge is getting the young composers interested in the instrument, because they normally grow apart. They have an interest in the beginning, but then as soon as they get in the real world, they want to write for string quartet, for the orchestra, because of what their future is. But there is a future in writing for guitar as well. We have to keep these young talents interested in guitar. They are going to do that by having friends who are guitar players when they study together in the conservatory. Here at the San Francisco Conservatory, we have a link between the voice and guitar department. We want to try to do that with the composition department as well.

What advice do you have for aspiring students?
ASSAD I see all these students committed to learning an instrument well and to having a career [as a performer]. It is a dream, because there is no space for all of them. I think there is less today than ten years ago. But there is more room for teachers, and there will always be the good ones. If they want to try, I think it’s good. We tried. We succeeded. It’s nice to dream—you have to try to reach your goals.