Tom Moore Interviews Alejandro Rutty

His trajectory has taken him from Buenos Aires
through Illinois, New Mexico and Buffalo, by way of rock, jazz and tango. We
spoke on Oct. 12, 2007 at Duke University.

TM: Tell me about your family. Were your grandparents, parents, cousins,
musical? What was the musical environment like?

AR: In my immediate family there were no musicians that I had interactions
with. My father is a physician. I have an uncle who played violin in his
youth, but that was not something I actually witnessed. My father studied
piano like many children. My grandparents played as amateurs, and my
great-grandparents were musical connoisseurs. Music is something that belongs
to the family as European immigrants – something that was present, but which
got lost in the day-to-day of South American life. Depending on whom you ask,
one branch of the family came from Switzerland to the jungle, and it is from
that province that my father came to Buenos Aires.

TM: Which province?

AR: Chaco, northeast, very hot.

TM: Buenos Aires is one of the great world cities of immigrants. The
Italian immigration to Buenos Aires is famous, the Jewish immigration as
well. Where did your family come from in Europe?

AR: Both sides have a mix – one side is half-Spanish, half-Italian, the
other is half-Spanish, half-Swiss. In Italy, from the south, and in Spain,
Catalonia and Galicia. A pretty standard mix – anyone you meet on the street
has a mix that is similar to that. I know very few people whose families have
been in Buenos Aires for more than three generations.

TM: You grew up in Buenos Aires. What was the cultural situation in Buenos
Aires in the seventies? What was present in your life in terms of music?

AR: The soundscape of Buenos Aires, as I perceived it as a child, was one
on the one hand, classical music – I remember being taken to the symphony a
few times, to the opera – very traditional, Teatro Colon – and on the other
hand, the music of the old – the black and white TV, performers with toupees,
and flowers in their lapels, tango, something very old-fashioned and kitsch,
a decadent tango. And also folk music, a sort of countryside music, guys in
ponchos, singing in three-voice harmony with their guitars.

TM: In the USA you had a pseudo-folk music in NYC associated with
socialism. Was there a political character to this folk music?

AR: This was after the beginning of the dictatorship in 1976, so there is
nothing leftist that can be out in the open. These were traditional folk
artists singing about the moon, and the town that they left — pretty boring
for me as a 10 year-old. Once you get to the eighties, that is when you get
nationalistic folk with political messages, something that was a lot more
alive, and interesting for someone who is young. The other thing was
international rock music, which is what I listened to the most, except for a
few classical pieces – Beethoven, the Nutcracker. My first LPs were Pink
Floyd, Yes, all of that – British progressive rock.

TM: Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

AR: And other things that were even more obscure – Van de Graaf Generator,

TM: All those groups that are now completely out of fashion.

AR: Though now they are seen less negatively than they were a few years
ago. That’s what really got me – that you could make music with electric
guitars that was not “sha-la-la”.

TM: Very complicated.

AR: And very pretentious. Some of them were pretty accomplished. I
remember trying to figure out some of the counterpoint in Gentle Giant, and
thinking “those guys went to school. They really know how to write music, or
they wouldn’t be able to do this.” Once in a while I hear one of those tapes
and I realize why I liked it, that Peter Gabriel was an interesting artist.
There was something in it. It completely captivated me – that was what drew
me into music. In the eighties, you had the end of the dictatorship, I became
a teenager, lots of music that was prohibited before comes in, and for a
variety of reasons there was a boom in Argentine rock, which was boosted by
the war with England for the Falkland Islands. Suddenly the military thought
“what are we doing? All the music on the radio is in English. We need music
in Spanish.” So they had to start supporting Argentine rock, which had been
underground, and it started to be mainstream and to get top-notch production.
I had a trio with a guy who played piano and a guy who played saxophone, and
I played electric bass. The weird thing is that before I knew how to write
music I was interested in composing. I distinctly remember being in the
shower when I was thirteen, and having in my head this extremely elaborate
composition, and thinking “This is great! This is really good music!” (which
at that moment took the shape of some kind of progressive rock). Everything
was clear in my head. And I realized that I had no chance at all to write it
down or to play it or to transmit it to anybody, and so the music went down
the drain along with the water. I wanted to invent – it wasn’t that I had a
musical talent or practice, and out of need to invent grew the necessity of
writing – I really wanted to compose, in the same way that I would write
stories, or invent (unsuccessfully) machinery, such as a music stand that
turns the pages with a foot switch, and doesn’t make noise…. As I
started studying, modern jazz came along – Chick Corea, Weather Report – The
first piece which really made me a fan – in the classical repertoire – was
Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, which was the eye-opener. In Buenos Aires in the
sixties there had been the Instituto Di Tella. They were some sort of IRCAM,
and they had Rockefeller funds. Everybody who was anybody came through –
Nono, Xenakis, Copland. From everywhere in Latin America they would go to
study at the Di Tella. Everything that was out there was at the Di Tella.
Later it was closed partly because the funding stopped, and partly because of
opposition from the military. In the eighties, after the dictatorship, twenty
years later, there were people who had been part of the Di Tella when they
were young, and who were now heads of some of the competing camps in the
Argentinean new music scene.

TM: These camps were divided by esthetic questions? Were they affiliated
with institutions in Buenos Aires?

AR: Curiously enough, I don’t think that they were not associated with the
main institutions. The Teatro ColÛn was a conservative institution with no
new music going on. There was one guy who was a serialist, who had a position
at a research center, but he had not come from there but from the Di Tella.
He kept the equipment that used to be at their electronic studios. There were
two other independent figures, each with their area of influence and their
followers. If you studied composition, in addition to your work at the
university, you had to belong to one of these camps.

TM: You studied at the Catholic University.

AR: The music school there was founded by Ginastera.

TM: This is the Pontifical University.

AR: Yes. The music school was small, and not a performance school. All we
had was composition, conducting, and musicology. They set the bar very high
to get into the school. Imagine something in the US that would start with
your junior year in college, and end at your masters. To enter you needed to
have solid counterpoint, prepare a piano program. On top of your secondary
school you had to study music for two or three years. There were people who
went to the conservatory and then moved over to the university. At the time I
was there the dean was a composer, CaamaÒo, solid, but very traditional.
Later I came to suspect that the school had partly used the program of the
Schola Cantorum in Paris. I had ten semesters of composition, eight semesters
of orchestration, ten of music history, Gregorian chant, and then conducting.
Up through the sixth semester of composition we were only allowed to write
for piano. If you weren’t a pianist, at the very least you needed to know how
to write for the instrument. It was very obsessive. We were only allowed to
write some sort of Mendelssohn/Schumann/Brahms….and then in the last
two years of the program you could do your own thing. Most composers who
wanted to be part of the avant-garde had to study with one of the new-music
composers outside. If you stayed with the conservative curriculum, when you
graduated you had no idea what to write. I belonged to the “club” of Gerardo
Gandini, an extremely good pianist, very good composer, very intuitive, very

TM: Was he a serialist?

AR: There was a time when he was Crumb-like, a time when he was
post-modern, referring to earlier styles – he wrote pieces based on
Schumann’s piano works, re-ornamentations of Frescobaldi….all sorts of
things. He, among the three independent figures, was the one who had some
media presence and savvy, would organize concert series where an orchestra
would only play 20th-century music. That was where I first got to hear the
big pieces of the 20th-century repertoire.

TM: Where did they take place?

AR: At a big theater – he had substantial sponsorship. On the other hand,
he also had a small basement theater where he did chamber music by young
composers – he was a great help. The group of young composers which he led
would have its pieces performed by his friends, who were really good players.
People would come to listen to new music, and the music by these young
composers. It felt like being part of something, belonging, as opposed to the
situation in the States, where most new music seems to be inside campuses and
outside society. New music in Buenos Aires was in theaters – small theaters,
big theaters, places where the general public was present.

TM: Part of a continuum with modern dance, theater…

AR: There was a sense of being part of the larger scheme of things.

TM: Let’s rewind the tape a little. You have mentioned art-rock,
international rock, Argentinean rock – what was the presence of jazz in
Buenos Aires?

AR: What I remember is what everyone was listening to at the time. You had
to have your Return to Forever LPs, Paco de Lucia, John McLaughlin, Chick
Corea – that was the thing to be listening to. A few years later Pat Metheny
was the biggest jazz figure in Argentina It was a shock when I came here and
found Pat Metheny LPs in a record store for thirty cents each. I realized
that the reality was different.

TM: How did you move from the trio with which you were playing to studying
at the Pontifical University?

AR: That trio led to a fully-equipped rock band playing very pretentious
instrumental music, which then broke up, and we became avant-garde
performers. I had switched from bass to piano, and when I was leaving
high-school, career choices needed to be made. I don’t know how explicit it
was, but there was a sense of my family saying, if you are going to be a
musician, be a serious musician – don’t just have long hair and play acoustic
guitar. I didn’t feel it as an imposition – coming from a middle-class
family, it seemed appropriate to me, to have your credentials in order. It
also seemed very exciting. The possibility of a career as a composer was very
attractive. I was already obsessed, like a typical seventeen-year old, with
which pieces were more musically advanced than others.

TM: Who were the prominent figures in composition from the world scene in
Argentina at the time?

AR: Each teacher would have a favorite, but there were no figures that
were directly influential. The composition teacher at the university was a
big fan of Bartok – he had premiered Bartok’s music in Argentina in the
forties. He tolerated Messiaen – nothing beyond that. The serialist was stuck
on hyper-analyzing Webern’s op. 27, and the other guy was into Italian
composers, having himself studied with Dallapicola.

TM: Where did you go from study at the Catholic University?

AR: Halfway through I decided that only composing was leaving me unhappy,
because of the nature of the program. There was composition, history,
harmony, counterpoint, but where was the music-making? There were no
ensembles to play with. I was starting to worry about how to make a living.
On top of my composing, I started doing choral and orchestral conducting,
learning music from a different perspective, which was very, very helpful.
Suddenly I could make music with others. Conducting helps a lot if you want
to be dating. It was a change from walking in a crouch, with long hair, long
beard, glasses, to hanging out with musicians, and going for drinks after the
rehearsals. I started making my living primarily by conducting choirs, and I
also had a semi-professional orchestra, which gave me some more visibility.
The choir scene is different there – it is not church-oriented, but
socially-oriented. There are singing groups, and they often need conductors.
Sometimes they become big organizations.

TM: Are there corporate choirs there?

AR: There are a few. Banks often have choirs. I was a student of someone
who had one of the best choirs in the country, and also conducted the
National Bank choir. A large bank, and they only had to pay one part-time
salary to a conductor, and all their employees would go and sing on Thursday
nights. Great for morale, great for PR, and gives a musician a job. And then
there are groups where everyone chips in ten bucks, and it is enough to get a
conductor. I did a lot of that.

TM: Did that come from German culture with the Singverein?

AR: I have no idea where it comes from, what the roots are. This is how
the choral scene works in most of Latin America. It was really refreshing.
Just as the string orchestra let me get to know all of the Italian repertoire
for strings – Geminiani, Corelli, Torelli – this was a way for me to enter
into the choral repertory. And there the choral people really preferred
unaccompanied choir music. Outside of the big pieces with orchestra, a
capella is the real singing, and piano is evil. It was good for me to get
excited about finding repertoire, which was difficult, given the state of the
libraries. I remember going to a library looking for 16th-century canzonets,
maybe Vecchi, and the librarian said, “there are some boxes over there. You
can check them out. We used to have a card catalog, but it’s gone.” Things
may have changed a bit, but that was my experience at the time. I would
conduct, and once in a while would have one of my compositions performed.
This was already 1991, 1992. We had hyper-inflation beginning in 1989, things
were tough, and people were looking for a way out. My composing/conducting
career was stagnant, so I thought it would be a good idea to study, find out
what was going on elsewhere. Whatever the first opportunity with a fellowship
would be, I would check it out. This was pre-internet. A lot of mail to
places that I didn’t know that much about. I looked for places in Italy,
Spain and the USA. I got admitted to programs in Fiesole and Barcelona, but
couldn’t secure funding. The first thing that came through was a masters in
composition at Illinois State. I knew that the university in Illinois had a
good reputation, but I didn’t know that there was more than one. I arrived,
and for a variety of reasons, I moved to New Mexico, where I had a good
opportunity as graduate assistant of the conductor. I had a great time, lots
of podium time. I love Albuquerque – every time I can I go back. At New
Mexico I made some good friends in the theater department among the faculty.
They always needed live music for the shows, and I was the only one willing
to write music on the spot, with one day’s notice, and put together a band.
It was very good experience, very enlightening – all the curse words I know
in English I learned at the basement of the theater department. It was a lot
more colorful than at the music department. It was here that they told me to
write an opera that they would somehow manage to produce. It was my sense
that whenever I was conducting I was thinking about composing, and whenever I
was composing I was thinking about conducting. I did a little bit of both.
The next step was my doctorate in Buffalo. An Argentine composer, Erik OÒa,
was there, and highly recommended the program. It was the moment in which my
adult compositional language began to be formed, rather than some sort of
student mix, thanks to the sharp mind of David Felder.

TM: You have mentioned a variety of very disparate influences. Does your
language bring these together? How would you identify the elements in the

AR: One of the things that happened is that what had been the music of
grandparents began to be rediscovered. In the 70’s singers had been singing
the tangos from the 1930’s and 1940s, but with less style – cheap crooning, a
Barbara Streisand kind of tango, but worse – the type of thing that I just
don’t like at all – old ladies’ music. But then you have the music of
Piazzolla, who made his career through escaping the traditional tango,
becoming a sort of jazz musician around the world at jazz festivals. He comes
back, becomes a sort of classical composer because he writes for strings.
Conservatory students in Argentina get to play Piazzolla because “it’s cool
tango, it’s not this old thing with the vibrato”, and partly because of these
young players tango begins to reappear. People listened to Piazzolla, and
then to tango standards, and they began to realize that the traditional
repertoire is even more interesting than Piazzolla, a lot richer. Piazzolla
effectively simplified the complexities of traditional tango into some things
that are very identifiable, and could be played by anybody, whereas the
traditional tango is so rhythmically subtle and nuanced and complex, rich and
interesting, that you cannot play it if you don’t know it. You have to be
part of the tradition – someone has to tell you how to play it. The scores
are just quarter notes and eighth notes – but it floats. You count one, two,
three, four and you don’t know where you are, because the bass player is
never playing quite there. It’s very difficult, and very interesting. This
re-discovery of traditional tango was happening in Argentina while I was
gone. In the States – my wife is a good singer, and it’s an expatriate thing
– we started doing some small tango shows, which grew into large tango shows,
and we brought bandoneÛn players from New York, from Miami. We did a show in
Buffalo where the symphony plays, in the ballroom for 800 people, and then we
played in Pittsburgh for 3000 people at a festival. Suddenly we were playing
tango. I had the good fortune of meeting Pablo Asl·n, who is a tango bass
player, who lives in New York, and was my neighbor in Argentina, though we
didn’t meet back then, he is the person who knows the most about tango in the
States, and who knows who is where and who does what. He knows everybody.
When Yo-Yo Ma did the world tango tour, he went with him. He is from my
generation, so he is musically bilingual. I started learning from him, but
also from the older bandoneÛn players. One of them didn’t read very well, but
he was phenomenal. You would tell him the song, tell him the key, and he had
everything by memory. You started to figure out how do you do an ending, what
type of pattern do you play, what do you do in the right hand, what do you do
in the left hand. This started growing on a separate track. At some point in
Buffalo I realized that I didn’t like where my music was going. I wanted to
start from scratch. I said “the next piece I will write will be just a
melodic line.” I had been just piling elements on top of elements, and
everything was so complex, with different layers. No more layers, no more
anything. I just need to write a line – no harmony, no counterpoint, just a
line. And this line would have to be so good that it would be enough, and I
would build from there. At that point I was listening to a lot of French
baroque music – Charpentier, Rameau – and I liked the way that they did
ornamentation. I was also listening to Arabic music from North Africa, and I
liked the ornamentation there as well. And I was listening to tango. Somehow
I started doing music that would be just melody, but rich with a tremendous
amount of ornamentation. Tango-style, but also French baroque, and
Middle-Eastern with bends….I liked that. And I thought “what do I do
with this music?” Because it can’t be just melody, and I didn’t want to do
counterpoint. I realized that in many of my previous pieces I had been doing
music based on mechanical processes. What if, in order to create the larger
acoustical space that I need, I can process this melody with a reverb, not
with a real reverb, but with a reverb that I write into the score? That was
the beginning of how I started to create a melodic style that I felt was
mine. I started playing with other effects. What if I use a phaser here? A
little chorus? If I try to detune this one? There’s a quartet, Artificial
Resonances, which I wrote, in which each of the three movements has a
different process, different specific things from a machine that would
produce what I was writing. Of course, once I get started writing, I don’t
care about how realistic the reflection of the process is, I care that it
gets me to write something that sounds interesting. David Stock, in
Pittsburgh, saw a tango show that I did, and saw me a few months earlier at
an SCI conference, with a string quartet that I had, and asked for a piece
for tango quartet and large instrumental ensemble, since some of his students
had a tango quartet. So I wrote Tango Loops. He wanted a tango concerto
grosso, but I couldn’t figure it out, so I tried to do this: I composed tango
pieces as if they were old tangos, and then mixed them up with the orchestra
as if I were a DJ who was trying to make some loops out of those pieces. In
the lobby, during the intermission, the tango group would be

TM: those tangos.

AR: That started this latest phase, in which I include tango as part of
the mix, and now it’s not only reverb, I am working on looping, not looping
melodies, but complex sound events. When you loop something that you take out
of a CD, you have the melody, the accompaniment, the pspspsps – you have
everything. I am trying to see how I can put that together with actual
instrumental groups. Now I am trying to see how I can get out of tango. I am
trying a couple of things. There’s one piece now that has a Balkan
style-Gypsy wedding sound, as seen by a tango player. I did a piece after I
came back from studying batucada, a piece for flute and cello, which is
basically an imitation of a batucada, a weird notion for those

TM: We are all over the map here. What impelled you to look at batucada?
This is something that seems completely separate both from American
experience and Argentinean music.

AR: In Argentina we have this fascination, this love/hate relationship
with Brazil. When I was teaching at Hartwick College, you could propose
courses which were three-week long study-abroad trips. As a way to escape
from the winter of upstate New York, I thought “where could we go?” Argentina
would be too boring. How about Brazil? It’s a nice place to go. I had friends
there who could help me out. We took a group of students to see how Carnaval
gets prepared. We went in January, before it starts, but when you already
have the Escolas doing the technical rehearsals. I knew a percussionist at
UFF who knows everything about….

TM: Did you look at a particular school?

AR: We went to rehearsals at Mangueira, and were supposed to go to
Viradouro, but couldn’t make it. We went to this guy’s studio, and lined up
as if were were an escola, he taught us all the patterns….. Then we
went to Salvador, where a good friend plays with Olodum. He helped set up the
same type of thing there. We would get together in Pelourinho, and start to
play, with the tourists taking pictures of us, as if we were locals, which we
clearly weren’t. It was completely attractive. There’s nothing like it. Those
patterns are so interesting.

TM: Tell me how that is being reflected in your next pieces.

AR: What I am doing, and which I did in Tango Loops II, is that I went
back and rescued some of the music which I had forgotten. I had the rock
band, then a duo, then another rock band, and even living in the States every
time I went back home I would compose tunes with friends. I wrote tons of
music for theater, songs….I didn’t want to have all that material just
lost. I write them into the pieces I am putting together.

TM: Music that you wrote for your rock band in 1991…

AR: …ended up in Tango Loops II.

TM: Do you have an archive of scores? Or are they recordings?

AR: Recordings. So I have to listen to them, and write them down in the
new, sophisticated way. The esthetic problem that I am dealing with now is
that I created this Rutty-style melody, and my version of processing those
melodies, but I want to make sure that there is something visceral in it. I
sometimes fear that all this compositional pyrotechnia might prevent
something that is emotionally direct from entering.

TM: Too much cerebration.

AR: Too much playfulness. I want to make sure that the other element is
also there. I think that rescuing these things which were completely direct
and unpremeditated in the way that they were composed, in the way they were
used – a song that you wrote to play in nightclubs – brings something to the
table. And it is way to repossess things that otherwise were lost. What else
am I going to do with these songs?

TM: The quality of nationality, of brasilidade is always present in
Brazilian music making, which is not true for music in the USA. Is this
question of nationality present on a conscious level for you?

AR: This is not the case in Argentina. Brazilian identity is very strong.
It never faded. They went from samba to MPB, and it was always mainstream. In
Argentina in the eighties rock bands were more international. I don’t have
this built-in need to be national in any way. As an expatriate, those things
sometimes are played out a bit differently. I don’t see the need to make
musical statements about nationality. The ornamentation thing that came from
improvisational tango – it’s natural, but if you aren’t from there you
wouldn’t have figured it out. Now that I am doing tango pieces, it helps that
people have an image of it, but that is not the essence of my music. It is
like a found object. It just happens to be an object that I know from the
inside. Recovering the old music helps to make sure that whatever music I
write now is more representative of the whole thing; it’s the whole me that
gets poured into the next piece, not just “now I am writing dodecaphonic duos
for contrabassoon and piccolo”. The orchestral piece I am writing now –
anything that I like in music somehow gets to be in the same piece. That is
what I am looking at – making sure that the music is not compartmentalized.
It can be a good piece, a bad piece, people can like it or not, but it has to
be me.

TM: What’s the next big project that you are working on?

AR: Two things. One is an orchestral piece commissioned by the MATA
festival in Boston, which Boston Modern Orchestra will play in March, and in
April in New York. It’s a piece which includes some old tunes of mine, and
all sorts of weird things – loops of flamenco, tango ….I don’t know
what the final piece will be like, but I am very happy with how it’s shaping

The other thing is a piece I have been trying to write for ten years, and
I just failed in my fourth attempt. When I was in Buffalo, I had a musical
group dealing with live poets as performers, music based not on the text of
the poem, but on how it was spoken. This brought us into contact with the
avant-garde poetry scene in Buffalo, which is very strong. Michael Basinski
wrote a poem called City of Webs, which is thirty-nine minutes long. Two
pages, but he takes thirty-nine minutes. Mind-bending, phenomenal – it
changed how I see text, poetry, everything. At first I tried to do a piece
for choir and recording of his voice – without him doing it there is no point
– and I failed. Then I tried to do an instrumental piece, and failed. At the
new music festival at UNC Greensboro, I was going to present the new version,
but I failed. I am pretty sure that I will finish it up as recorded
instrumental music plus Basinski, as opposed to electronics. It is tape, but
with actual performers. That is the next big thing for me, because it is a
large piece. I trimmed the poem to twenty-two minutes, but most of the meat
is there.

image_description=Alejandro Rutty (Photo by Betsy Busch)
product_title=An Interview with Alejandro Rutty
product_by=Above: Alejandro Rutty (Photo by Betsy Busch)