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Egberto Gismonti interview, April, 1996 (for ECM Records catalogue)


by Josef Woodard


            Over the last quarter century, the music of Egberto Gismonti has brought us, with its unique cultural baggage, an uncommon breadth. He draws on resources at once ďprimitiveĒ and ďsophisticated,Ē bringing those modes into question and shoring up issues cultural priorities and biases. Most importantly, his music is not so much a cause for dogmatic argument or stylistic iconoclasm as it is a sensuous and probing organism, a body of work that continues to grow and change.

            At root and under foot, of course, is his homeland of Brazil. As legend--and fact--would have it, Gismontiís deep appreciation of his heritage came as a result of his leaving. A pianist by training, Gismonti studied with the famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and it was at her urging to return home and investigate his own turf that Gismontiís explorations began in earnest. He delved deep in the resident culture of choros, the samba school, and spent time with the Xingu Indians in the rainforest, all the while fashioning a distinctive voice as a guitarist.

            Such dualities fueling Gismontiís music are very much accounted for on Zig Zag, his 14th project for ECM and, by his reporting, the 53rd album heís made over the 25 years since the Boulanger incident. Raw-edged passages--full of Gismontiís percussive flourish and extended guitar technique--and lyrical writing coexist happily. Impressionistic textures and improvisational  sections merge with intricately-detailed parts, with cascading two-guitar parts navigated by Gismonti and longtime collaborator Nando Carneiro. Most of all, the line between folklore, classical heritage, hints of jazz, and nameless modes of invention is beautifully smudged. This is, unmistakably and irreducibly, Egberto Gismonti music.

            The son of a Lebanese father and a Sicilian mother, Gismonti was born in 1947 in the small Brazilian town of Carmo (Carmo is the name of the label he has run for a decade). He studied piano from the age of five, in addition to flute and clarient, and casually picked up guitar as a teenager. These were the seeds. After his soujourn to Paris, he burrowed into the culture of Brazil and played with various musicians, including Airto Moreira and Flora Purim.  

            Gismontiís long and fruitful association with ECM began in 1976, when he recorded the acclaimed Danca Dos Cabecas, with fellow Brazilian, percussionist Nana Vasconcelos--a connection recemented with 1985ís Duas Vozes. Subsequent projects brought Gismonti into collaborations with Jan Garbarek, Colin Wolcott, Ralph Towner, and Charlie Haden, with whom he recorded the disarming, deceptive simple Folk Songs. In 1981, he released Sanfona, with his group Academia de Dancas, and a solo album: portraits of the artist from two separate angles. In the Ď90s, Gismontiís Infancia and Musica de Sobrevivencia documented the evolution of his group, which, on Zig Zag, is pared down to a trio, with Carneiro and bassist Zeca Assumpcao and Gismonti on 10 and 14-string guitars and piano.

            Throughout his musical life, Gismontiís work has proven to far-reaching and visceral, both an indigenous product of Brazil and a universal statement. His work is a living mosaic of twentieth century impulses, understandable in all languages.  

            On Zig Zag, as with most of your albums, there is a cohesive, suite-like quality to them. Do you design them with that in mind, as a conceptual whole as opposed to just a collection of songs?

            Iím trying to have a Brazilian cultural history for each one. Iím very involved with Brazilian stories. With each album, Iím using to work or design or write a sort of Brazilian way. Iíll give you an example: on Danca Dos Cabecas, itís about two guys together, walking through the Amazon jungle. Sometimes itís very humid, sometimes very dry, sometimes full of animals and sometimes full of silence.

            Another album, the Solo album, is like a Brazilian newspaper--all the things that are happening in Brazil day by day. Iím talking about the Brazilian contradictions. We have news like ďnew tribes discovered in the Amazon jungle.Ē On the other side of the newspaper, there might be a story on problems with nuclear power. Thereís a big contradiction.

            All the albums have their own Brazilian stories. The cover on Zig Zag looks like two women, these old people who have no place to live, no house. They exist. There are two women dressed very nice, full of color. Thereís a big river we have called Igua Su (?). Zig Zag means whatís happening to this water.

            If you look at something, you can see. Letís talk about one glass of water. You can think, ďok, Iím thirsty, I want to drink this glass of water.Ē Or you can think that this water comes from this river and think about whatís happening with this river. What kind of tree or fish is involved with that river? ďZig ZagĒ for us means that weíre not sure for nothing. Weíre not responsible for nothing. Iím talking about the Brazilian culture.

            This is such a mixed country--there are Europeans, Africans, and Brazilian Indians. Weíre so mixed, weíre allowed to have all these contradictory stories. There are a lot of people in these cities who are talking about the latest computer technology. 100 meters from these people there live the people who have a salary of 150 dollars a month.

            This is very bad from one point of view, but on the other hand, we know how to live with all these contradictions. It becomes very powerful for us. We know how to survive with all these kinds of things--inflation or difficulties or contradictions. But itís a country full of stories and arts, including music. What Iím doing is presenting a very small part of my country, talking about all these stories.

            Does the title also have a musical reference, regarding your tendency to combine and oscillate--zig zag--between different cultural points of view?

            This is the most Brazilian album Iíve done in my life. But it is very open in terms of culture. There is a lot of European influence, Brazilian influence, and Xingu influence, at the same time. Thatís difficult, to draw all these cultures together.

            With the piece ďForrobodo,Ē from the new album, you blend Romantic piano music with more discernibly Brazilian sonorities. Was that the graft you were after?

            ďForrobodoĒ is synonymous with confusion. Forro(Ď) is a music from the northeastern Brazil. In the Ď40s, during the Second World War, the North Americans came to Brazil, military people. We mix language. Forro means to party, to dance. All these Romantic sides that you mention makes for part of our music.

            On ďCarta de Amor,Ē you adopt a muted, or prepared, guitar sound, emulating percussion instruments. Approaching the guitar as a percussive tool is nothing new for you, is it?

            That sound youíre talking about is a sort of samba school playing. Instead of using percussion instruments like tambourine, we use guitars and bass. And we put credit cards through the strings and play. I made this decision in the studio. In the studio, the sound was so good and clean in terms of microphones and recording, we decided to do a more percussive piece.

            We tried different kinds of paper or newspaper, but in the end, the plastic sounds very good. Because I have 10 strings I had to use two credit cards through my guitar.

            ďUm AnjoĒ is a piano-based piece in the lyrical ballad tradition. Was there a context or backdrop to that piece?

            I have two kids, 13 and 14 years old now. In the last few years, they have started piano and guitar training. Iím used to hearing my daughter playing piano far away from my studio. This piece is a reflection of hearing her playing, or anyone, playing far away--a nice, easy piece. ďUm AnjoĒ means itís someone playing far way, but that gives you a good feeling.

            You might have this idea: when you are in the country, you are far away from another house, but there is someone playing a nice, easy piece on the piano. The sound mixes with the wind, mixing all the good feelings.

            There is an impressionistic and almost tone-poetry aspect to your music, a sense of creating imagery beyond just the language of the music. Do you aspire to that practice, of evoking things larger than notes?    

            I realized that through having movie directors invite me to write music for movies. Iíve done 25 movie scores, and 13 dance scores. All these directors and choreographers say the same thing, that my music gives them so many impressions and images.

            In 1970, you headed off to Paris. Was the idea then to become better grounded in European classical tradition?

            No. I was invited by a French actress who decided to sing, named Marie LaForeg. She had done a lot of movies with all these French actors like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon. She invited me to write the arrangements. I accepted the invitation. Instead of working with her and being a tourist, I studied musical analysis with Nadia Boulanger and dodecophonic music with Jean Barraque. He was someone who dedicated 25 years of his life to following Anton Webern. I did that for a year and a half, in 1970 and 1971. In July of Ď71, I went back to Brazil.

            And it was Boulanger who advise you to return home and rediscover your own culture?

            Yes. One day, she said, Ďok, Mr. Gismonti, thatís the last day of studies for you, because you have to go back home and discover that you have a big fountain of inspiration in your place.Ē I said ďwhat are you talking about, Madame?Ē She said ďlet me say one thing--you are a medium European composer and a very bad Brazilian one.Ē

            In 1970, I was 20 years old and it was very heavy to hear that from Nadia Boulanger. She said ďgo back to your place and pay attention to Samba School and pay attention to berimbau music and Forro music.Ē She also said ďyou Brazilians are allowed to be crazy. Mr. Gismonti, fifty years ago, there was crazed French guy who sat down by a very small river and, after one month of looking at this river, he said `La Mer.í This guy was Claude Debussy. He looked at this small river and said `La Mer.í It doesnít matter what you can see. The most important thing is what you can feel.Ē

            She said ďyou guys from the third world, especially from Brazil, are irresponsible. You can be completely crazed. Donít become a medium European composer. Can you mention one good European composer today? I hope you agree with me, that thereís not a good European composer today. There are factions, if youíre talking about Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono, Italian guys. But, in general, the composers in the Ď60s or Ď70s, if youíre talking about Stockhausen or even John Cage, all these guys were very intellectual. But they were so far away from a basic art, to say something rather than to think about something.

            People like Anton Webern or Jean Barraque, who spent a lot of time with him, taught me a lot. But, by studying Brazilian music, I tried to find a music that was much more natural  than this kind of intellectual stuff. All this kind of basic interpretation of feelings come from inside, not from outside or from scores in front of you.

            Nadia Boulanger was very powerful to me, because she encouraged me to come back to my country and walk through the Brazilian roots. I came back and stayed at this place with the Xingu Indians in the Amazon jungle. I used to drive a lot through the country in Brazil, which was really important. It changed my life a lot.

            So you headed off on a process of self-discovery. One could examine your history and listen to the music you make, and draw  logical connections between the different ingredients. To what extent do you see your music that way, as a crystallization of your experiences?

            I donít know. Itís easy to talk now, after doing 52 albums, to do any kind of analysis. Iím not afraid of mixing things. Another thing about our culture--we are really open to any kind of culture. All the European cultures and other cultures are a part of our own culture. Weíre able to draw attention to or use any kind of culture. I am really free to write music--thatís the reason Iíve made 52 albums in 24 years. Iím not so responsible. Iím not making an ouevre--Iím not responsible for it.

            Always, there are traditions that are producing my music. Thatís it--going into the studio and performing with the trio or orchestra or whatever. I finished my first symphonic album for ECM four months ago. It will be released this summer. Iím sure that this album will be appreciated by all those people who like my music.

            Itís difficult to talk about it. Iím in process. Iím not sure about the music Iím doing. I have less doubts than I had 25 years ago, of course, but Iím not 100 % sure. Not yet.

            Youíve been with ECM for two decades now. When you made your first album for them, Dancas dos Cabecas, did you have the sense that this would be the first step of a long evolutionary process?

            No. I didnít. When I decided to use the cover for that first album, it was very unusual for that time. Normally, they used images of the Black Forest, ambience and floes and all this kind of stuff. When Manfred asked me ďwhy this kind of cover?Ē I remember I told him ďlook, the first approach for almost everyone outside of Brazil, when talking about Brazil, they think of poor people. Thatís why there is an old shirt on the cover, with a full red color around it. The first impression is of poor people, but inside of these poor people, there is a new culture.Ē

            He understood that we had to have a Brazilian feeling on the cover. Fortunately, Manfred is not like a conventional album producer. He is really involved with music and new cultures. This was incredibly important to me, to have met someone in Germany who has his own good label, because I knew ECM before I started with it. I was really impressed when Manfred said ďI have no idea about your country. I know about your music, and because of that, Iíve invited you to do some things. Talking about your country, I want to know about a new culture, because we need new information to survive.Ē

            Thatís very heavy, to hear a producer talking about your culture. Thatís incredibly strong. This was 20 years ago, and we still have the same relationship today. Itís amazing, doing albums for ECM and sending all the texts and layouts from Brazilian artists. The photographs are done by Brazilians.

            Referring back to when you returned to Brazil in 1971, was it at that point that you seriously took up the guitar?

            Not really. I started with the guitar in Ď68. As you know, guitar is the most popular instrument in Brazil. Everyone plays guitar. Because I was an adolescent, 16 or 17 years old, it was difficult for me to go to the parties with my piano. The reason for taking up the guitar was to learn how to play a portable instrument. Before guitar, I started on flute and then clarinet. It was difficult, because with popular Brazilian music, you sing and play at the same time, and it was difficult to do that with flute and clarinet.

            I made the decision to play the guitar just to satisfy myself and to be able to go to parties to play music. 

            Youíre a unique player, in terms of guitar orthodoxy. Did you being experimenting, veering away from tradition, right away?

            The thing is, where I was living at this time was a city 300 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro called Friburgo, based on the German city of Freiburg. They had a lot of people playing guitar, but no teacher. At the same time,  I had already had good training on piano. I had played classical piano for nine years. I did transcriptions of piano music for guitar.

            And because I was far away from classical guitar teaching, I didnít know about the classical, six-string instruments. The first guitar I had had seven strings, which was very useful for the Brazilian music called Choro. Thatís the instrument that plays all the bass lines. After six months or a year of doing transcriptions from piano, I realized that I was missing a lot of notes on the low and high registers. Because of that, someone gave me the idea of adding one more string, so that I had an eight-string.

            I never played like a traditional classical guitarist. Iím not a guitar player, first off, where the left hand just pushes one string and the right plays the same string. Because of the piano training, I was used to using two hands independently. I can do one thing with the left and something else with the right one. On the piano, itís easily to play separate things--say, playing 2/4 and 3/4 with different hands. I use that on the guitar, to play lines with the left one and other notes or lines with the right one. Thatís because I had no teacher for guitar.

            What effect did jazz have on you? Can we use that term in connection to your music, generally?

            Listen, the biggest experience I had with jazz music was in 1975, during the time I spent in Los Angeles, to write Airto Moreira and Flora Purimís album. Because of them, I met Herbie Hancock, who invited me to practice in his studio, in a garage. We used to play a lot with Herbie, almost four or five days a week. He was very interested in Brazilian music and in electronic stuff. It was 1975.

            One day, Herbie was playing electric piano, Wayne Shorter was playing saxophones, and a bass player named John Williams, someone else playing drums, and I played acoustic piano. After one hour of playing, in my mind, we stopped and they said ďyou Brazilian guys play samba very good, even through the jazz music.Ē But I am not able to play jazz. And they are not able to play our music, with our accents, neither. I had an experience with John McLaughlin, an incredible musician, who has done three or four pieces of mine, full of accents.

            I should say that jazz is very important for one kind of Brazilian music, bossa nova. If youíre thinking about how much bossa nova is used for North American musicians, there is a big connection in terms of chord changes, harmonies and this kind of stuff. But basically, thereís no connection if you think about the fact that jazz is in 4 and Brazilian music is in two.

            Of course, musicians like music, and because there are a lot of jazz musicians who I like a lot, they have been at my home personally, or on albums or videos--I like good music. But Iím not able to play any kind of jazz. I do it for fun, yes, play a little jazz with my kids or with other musicians, but not to represent myself.

            One obvious musical link with your work is the music of Villa Lobos, both in terms of folkloric interests and new variations on what it means to be guitaristic.  Did his music steer you along?

            There is a big connection, because I am very involved with all the Brazilian possibilities. I am doing it the same way as Villa Lobos and all the Brazilian composers. In Brazil, they use to call me for any kind of party where Villa Lobos was recieving some kind of homage. Almost all the things that have happened in Brazil, they mention Villa Lobos. In the last interview of Tom Jobim in Brazil, he mentioned my name as one who continues the work of Villa Lobos. Thatís good, but I donít think about those things.

            I am really interested in Brazil. Iím working to survive, myself, and consequentially, give some new possibilities to different people. Today, itís easy for me to talk about these kinds of feelings, because almost all the critics are liking my music. The last time I played at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, a reviewer wrote that I had my soul full of rights to do any kind of thing. That gives to the people the possibility to be a little bit irresponsible--in a good way.

            Iím not responsible for nothing. All the nuclear tests done by France, that doesnít matter for me in terms of the music. I can do nothing about that. But I can give to the French people who are angry with that a one-hour concert with fun music and fun soul and fun culture. Itís difficult to talk about that, even in Portuguese.

            Is it important to spend a lot of time in Brazil, to connect with the feeling and the cultural soil there?

            I need to stay here, because of my friends, because of all the contradictions. It gives me a lot of power to continue. Itís difficult to me, as a Brazilian living in the country, having all my life established for the next 25 years. I remember when I went to Japan, I met someone with an important position in the film industry. We had a lot of sake together, and this person said ďI know what will happen with my life for the next 25 years. In 25 years, I will be the president of the company. But Iím not happy because of that. Iím want to take my bag and take any freeway all over the world.Ē

            To be 100% sure means to die. I read philosophers, especially the French guys or the Eastern guys like Gurdjieff. After all these years, I realize that we have a lot of possibilities in Brazil through this irresponsibility we are talking about. Iím  not talking about simple things like respecting laws or people--which is basic to living. But you have to be responsible at the moment for being creative.

            Iím not talking only about music, Iím talking about life. You must be creative. You must be excited about something, not doing the same thing everyday. That makes no sense. Weíre allowed to do that.


Copyright 1996, Josef Woodard