Cristián Alvear is a guitarist and performing musician who has been highly active in the field of contemporary music over the last few years. He has worked closely with Taku Sugimoto, Seijiro Murayama, and members of the Wandelweiser group. In addition to his busy touring and recording schedule, he organizes the Relincha music festival in Valdivia, Chile, and conducts workshops in the Los Lagos region. Last year I asked him if he would be interested in recording something for Pilgrim Talk — a small record label I run. The result was a new composition for guitar titled Pieza Para Guitarra Afinada. I was immediately impressed with Alvear’s recordings of this piece, and I wanted to know more about it. The following conversation took place via Messenger in April 2018.
NH: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about Pieza Para Guitarra Afinada. Could you give a little background on this piece? What was the impetus behind it?
CA: I was commissioned to do a piece for Museo Reina Sofia in Spain last year. For that occasion, I made a small piece loosely based on Satie’s Vexations. Later, you proposed to have it extended, but then another piece was made based on the first, or rather taking parts from it…
What made you interested in Vexations?
The scope of the piece, and the idea of having it repeated so many times that, even though it’s the same melody, it changes. It becomes a sort of force — something that has a life of its own.
You mean the perception of the piece changes due to the repetitions? It’s only about a half sheet of music…
Yes, repetition does that. It’s a field for something else to emerge — a field that makes possible the emergence of the person doing the repetitions. Over time it becomes obvious that you’re not doing exactly the same thing. It’s impossible to really repeat.
It’s also a piece with an almost mythical reputation. Did you initially plan to do the 840 repetitions?
I thought of it, but no, I just planned to get tired… I wanted to allow the imperfections to arise from the music, to make it a living thing. That’s why I did not, for instance, record a small fragment and put it on loop.
It seems to demand a physical, human performance.
It does, but it’s like every other piece of written music, each with its own level of physical difficulties, each allowing something to happen, but in this case trying to repeat something and not necessarily achieving that.
It’s like putting a system in motion…
Yes. This was also influenced by the work I did with Sarah Hennies and Seijiro Murayama.
In a way, it’s helpful to have Satie saying “repeat 840 times” because you have a clear stopping point.
Exactly. Here, I change when I feel it or when I get tired or distracted. That’s why I wanted to record it in one take.
Let’s talk about that change. Over time the piece stopped being Vexations and now it’s something else entirely.
That seems like an unusual situation. What do you think happened to cause that?
The situation (you asking, me wanting to do it) demanded something else. It did not feel okay to just expand the piece from Reina Sofia. That was the base, but I kept exploring, allowing the previous bits to reach other bits, because there’s a core to it which is the tuning.
Were you conscious that you were writing a new piece? Some of the early demos you sent really sound like Vexations.
Sort of conscious. When it felt like I did not need to explore anymore I realized it was something else.
Something more concrete had emerged? Is that fair to say?
Yes, another piece. It was as concrete as a piece can be, which is not something entirely clear.
Well, once you’ve recorded it, it’s set in stone. I guess that’s another topic…
Yes. Cage used to say that recordings are more like photographs. They depict a moment — an exact moment. I’m sure that if I record this again in a few years it will change. Or if I give the score to someone else, it will change as well; other decisions will be made, other choices, other timbres, etc.
So something new had emerged from this preexisting piece.
You also recorded several versions with different numbers of repetitions. Was that something you would decide in advance or was it more intuitive?
In this case, knowing the total length gave me a sense of how long I should be playing, but the distribution within that length of time is intuitive.
You were thinking of the format restrictions, and working within that?
Yes, otherwise it might have had a different overall length…
Do format restrictions annoy you?
No. I guess that comes from my classical formation.
What do you mean?
Well, you are sort of trained for recital length, half a program length, and you choose pieces according to that.
So you’re used to it.
Yes, that and other formats like period repertoire, Baroque concerts, contemporary music concerts, etc. It’s basically what you’re doing when considering a given format — you choose, you measure… I wonder how long I would be able to play this piece without having a length guideline.
That’s what I was wondering, there’s this question of duration.
Pieza Para Guitarra Afinada is a relatively long piece, especially for a solo instrument. Would it be accurate to say that you favor long duration works?
At this point I would rather play long pieces.
I think especially in the context of classical guitar, these long durations are practically unheard of. A typical concert piece is usually, what, maybe 3-10 minutes?
Yes, a 20-minute solo piece tends to be considered a long piece.
You’ve also recorded music by members of the Wandelweiser group.
Many of those pieces are long.
Very long. A while ago I recorded another version of Antoine [Beuger]’s preludes for a CD. The previous recording was 70 minutes long. The new recording is over two hours… I just checked, it’s 2 hours 43 seconds.
Do you seek out long duration works?
At this point, yes.
What’s the appeal for you? Is it a test of endurance?
I like what happens with such long situations, and I am also enjoying testing my habits towards what I do. If I wanted to test my endurance I could try running a marathon or play a Bach fugue 100 times. Now that I think of it, it might be fun play, say, the 997 fugue a hundred times…
New album idea…
Does your background in classical music affect your approach towards less traditional forms of music? Do you feel like certain habits are ingrained through the classical music curriculum?
Yes, absolutely. It’s part of what I am as a musician. Especially when I prepare a piece; you have strategies to overcome technical difficulties, you learn to develop methods for each piece. I think it can be summarized by saying that I try to put to good use all that I’ve learned over the years.
Does it ever feel like a barrier? I know a lot of self-taught musicians like to disparage academia. There seems to be this perception that academia is stuffy and conservative.
It can be a barrier if you’re not constantly revisiting and reassessing what you’ve learned as far as habits and strategies. That’s why I like playing new pieces, it allows me to rethink what I do.
I think even in the context of “new music” your repertoire is pretty extreme. You also commission new works from electronic musicians and other people who might not normally be writing for guitar. Are you seeking an “outsider” perspective on guitar music?
Yes, because I don’t feel that I am only a guitarist. I love to think that my practice goes beyond the instrument I play.
Is Pieza Para Guitarra Afinada your first original composition?
It is. It may make reference to Vexations, but now I think of Vexations as the previous state of Pieza Para…
I think it’s absolutely a new piece. Any plans for future compositions?
I’ve been developing a something that’s tentatively titled “7 Fragmentos Para Guitarra Afinada,” but it still needs work. I’m playing a 25-minute version of Pieza Para Guitarra Afinada in Paris.
Fantastic. Always looking forward to your new works. Good luck on the upcoming tour.