Monday, December 29, 2014

"I Don't Have Paper - I have a Heart Instead"

Theo van de Graaff and Oscar Alemán, Dec. 1979
35 years ago, December 1979, one of the initial contributors to Hans Koert's El Redescubrimiento de Oscar Alemán/The Rediscovery of Oscar Alemán project , Theo van de Graaff, visited Alemán in his apartment in Buenos Aires and had the opportunity to interview the Master, shoot some photos of Oscar's notebooks and also to listen to some of the music that Oscar had taped on his reel-to-reel recorder. Theo had brought a cassette recorder with him and was allowed to copy some of Alemán's recorded material from his reel tape collection including home-recordings, radio airshots and live-performance, and the cassette recorder was also used during a conversation where Alemán demonstrated some of his musical ideas and talked about his innate musical skills. Luckily, Hans Koert and I were kindly allowed to have a copy of Theo's recorded material to have it registered in the Oscar Alemán discography, you can find a list of the music here , and the taped interview with Alemán is listed here. 
Some time ago I went back and listened to the taped interview with Alemán and decided to have it translated into English from the original in Spanish, as the interview adds interesting information to our knowledge of Oscar's attitude to music. With the kind help and assistance of Luis 'Tito' Liber the interview has now been transcribed, and below I'll publish part of this transcript both in English and Spanish.
During the first part of the taped conversation Alemán demonstrates some of his ideas on chords, harmony and tempo, playing examples on his guitar and using the tune 'Como te llamas' to illustrate. He points out that he does not read or write music: 
"... The fact is that it reaches me here (he beats his chest). It wouldn`t have to reach me, but it does! Though I am the author... I can`t hear another person singing this. No. Because, if I don`t write it nobody can sing it. If I write the music, another person can play it, but no-one plays it because I can`t write."
(in Spanish: "Es que a mí me llega aquí (se golpea el pecho). ¡A mí! Yo soy el autor... No debería llegarme, pero me llega. Yo no puedo escuchar a otra persona cantar eso. No. Porque si yo no lo escribo nadie lo puede cantar. Si yo lo escribo, otra persona lo puede tocar, si yo escribo la música. Nadie la toca porque yo no la escribo.")
Oscar has complained all his life for not knowing musical notation. The only thing the listener can do is to memorize, to keep the tune in his ear, because the author cannot write it on a score. However, having seen the notebooks of Oscar`s pupils, it is obvious that Alemán knew how to write chords, what he didn`t know was to write notes on a music sheet.

A little later in the conversation Oscar recalls his meeting with the French musicologist Julien Falk (1902-1987) in the 1930s. He was a professor of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, and the author of many works on musical theory and technique. It is known that two members of Alemán`s orchestra, who were pupils of Falk, arranged a meeting between Oscar and the musicologist.
" ... A great French musician, doctor in music -- considered by all the critics and European masters and musicians --, once told me: "You are a doctor in music too, because you know about melody, harmony and counterpoint." (-) And the doctor wants to listen to me. But I don`t want to do that. I am afraid because he knows so much. I went to his house during a month and a half, because everybody had told me: "Let`s go!", and I had said: "No, I am shit compared to him." He told me: "I must know you", because a man like Oscar Alemán, who doesn`t know music, he can`t know so much... he cannot know harmony. How can a man that hasn`t studied music know melody so well, sing, dance, jump, do anything, and also sing so well with such a feeling? Piano, guitar, harmony, these are more than singing with only one note. So, he wants to hear me. And I play this (he plays a chord of a song). He has a very good ear, he knew a lot of music. And I played this (he marks the beat with the foot and plays a slow melody note by note). He said: "What is it? Now I am going to put the harmonies. I think that, of all the music I know, I cannot recognize what you are playing. And I cannot put harmonies on that music." But I did. (He plays the same melodic line harmonized with chords)
(in Spanish: " ... Un músico grande, francés, doctor en música él, me dijo -- todos los críticos, todos los músicos, grandes maestros europeos, lo consideraron a él --: "Usted es doctor en música, porque sabe melodía, armonía y contrapunto." (-) Doctor en música, toda Europa lo dijo. Y él me escucha. Él quiere escucharme. Yo tengo miedo, no quiero porque él sabe mucho. Un mes y medio fui para eso a casa de él. Todo el mundo me decía: "Vamos!", Yo decía: "No, soy una mierda al lado de él." "Tenía que conocerte." Porque él dice que un hombre que no sabe música, como Oscar Alemán, no puede saber tanto... saber armonía. ¡Cómo un hombre que no sabe música puede saber melodía muy bien, cantar, bailar, saltar, hacer cualquier cosa! Y cantar muy bien, con sentimiento, todo. El piano, la guitarra, armonía, es otra cosa que cantar con una sola nota. Entonces, él quiere escucharme. Y yo le hago esto (toca un acorde). Él tiene mucho oído, sabe mucho de música. Y yo le hago (marca el compás con el pie y toca una melodía pausadamente nota por nota). "¿Qué es eso? Ahora yo voy a poner la armonía. Yo estoy pensando, que de toda la música que yo conozco, yo no sé lo que usted está tocando. No puedo poner armonía en esa música." Y yo la puse".- Toca la misma línea melódica armonizada con acordes)

The musicians thought that, as a band director/leader, Alemán had to know harmony and counterpoint (to deal with polyphony). But, if he had confessed that he had never studied music... how could he know that? That`s why his musicians began to question his indications... until the moment Oscar was legitimated by doctor Falk.
"... This man, he says: "I don`t have a hat, but if I had one, I would take it off and make a bow. Because they call me doctor in music... You write these notes (he plays the same melodic line), but nobody thinks about the harmonies that can fit there. If you give it to ten different persons, good musicians and arrangers, no one of them would put the harmonies you have put." That way, he demonstrated to me that I knew something. It happened forty years ago. These (the story and the song) are forty years old, 1939!! He made me realize that I am not a donkey, that I know many things. And when the musicians of my orchestra knew that doctor Falk had said that Oscar Alemán was an intuitive, but he knew so much and must be respected, they changed. When I said A, it was A. It hadn`t happened before, ..., I said F... and nobody listened to me because, it`s clear, F doesn`t fit with A. The pianist knew a lot of music, harmony and everything..., the trumpeter had also studied when he was a child..., but after the master had said that about me... when I said: F... F everybody! And the orchestra sounded nice with what I had inside here (he touches his head). I had the harmonies inside here! They, instead, had the harmony learned in their studies, the harmony of those who they admired from the books they had studied. I don`t have paper... I have a heart instead."
(in Spanish: "... Este hombre dice: "Yo no tengo sombrero. Si lo tuviera me lo saco. Porque a mí me dicen doctor en música... Usted escribe estas notas (toca la línea melódica anterior), y nadie piensa en las armonías que pueden ir ahí. Usted se lo da a diez personas diferentes, músicos buenos, arregladores, y nadie pone las armonías que usted puso." Entonces, él me hizo creer que yo sabía algo. En esa época, hace cuarenta años. Esto (la historia y la canción) tiene cuarenta años, 1939!! El me hizo pensar que entonces yo no soy un burro, sé algunas cosas. Y los músicos de mi orquesta, -- cuando supieron que el doctor Falk había dicho que Oscar Alemán era un intuitivo, pero que sabía mucho, y que había que respetarlo mucho --, mi orquesta cambió. Yo decía A y era A. Yo decía Fa... Antes no, ¿eh?..., nadie te escucha porque, claro, Fa no va con el La. El pianista sabía mucha música, armonía y todo, el trompetista también había estudiado de chico..., pero cuando el maestro dijo eso... ¡Fa! Y Fa todo el mundo. Y la orquesta salía linda con lo que yo tenía acá (se toca la cabeza). ¡Yo tenía la armonía acá adentro! Y ellos tenían la armonía de estudio. De mucho estudiar, tenían la armonía de lo que admiraban. Y yo no tengo papel... Yo tengo corazón.")

Many critics have noticed that Alemán had his best in the harmonization, something very difficult to master for any interpreter. Oscar had considered that it was an innate sense that became part of what he called "musicality". Of course knowledge of theory and musical notation would have been very useful to him, but without that innate "musicality" it would be fruitless. It is something very different to the technical mastering of the instrument: the idea of how to play a piece and the possibility of doing it. Without the previous idea... there is nothing, only a proper score reader. Any music including good jazz can be played without scores. 
Thanks to Luis 'Tito' Liber for providing the transcript, translation and the added explanatory information, and of course thanks to Theo van de Graaff for preserving the conversation with Oscar on tape.