Solo Acoustic Guitarist | African and Contemporary | Composer and Performer

Egberto Gismonti

Egberto Gismonti by Marco Aurelia Olympio
from the liner notes of The Sound of Water by Derek Gripper

A growing collection of Gismonti Scores here.

Egberto Gismonti A Proposal: Egberto Gismonti is the Villa Lobos of Our Time 

Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos created a style of guitar music that revolutionised the language of classical guitar. He did this by exploiting the individual characteristics of the guitar in ways that had not been done before. His guitar music expresses the unique harmonic and melodic characteristics of the six-string guitar. Villa Lobos’ guitar music has been played by all classical guitarists from Andres Segovia and Julian Bream, to modern classical guitarists from Brazil and the rest of the world. Egberto Gismonti cites Heitor Villa Lobos as one of his primary influences, and in many respects Gismonti’s works for solo acoustic guitar are an extension of Villa Lobos’ musical language. Gismonti’s work incorporates the same Brazilian folk influence and guitaristic devices as Villa Lobos, but he adds to this the language of avant garde classical music, minimalism, contemporary jazz, rock, and the guitaristic pyrotechnics of Django Reinhrardt and Jimmy Hendrix. But there is one rather glaring disparity between the guitar compositions of these two great Brazilian composers: while Villa Lobos’ guitar music has been played by most of the prominent classical guitarists of the twentieth century, Egberto Gismonti’s solo guitar music has, to my knowledge, not been recorded by any contemporary classical guitarist. Those classical guitar recordings of Gismonti’s music that do exist are all six-string guitar arrangements of Gismonti’s piano repertoire. I will explore some possible reasons for this below, as well as giving an outline of my project to transcribe Egberto Gismonti’s solo guitar works for the six-string guitar (his works are all played on eight-string or ten-string guitars).

Egberto Gismonti’s Guitar Works and Classical Guitar

For me it is very strange that the classical guitar world has completely ignored the guitar works of Egberto Gismonti. Look for recordings by classical guitarists, either for solo guitar or for duo, and you are unlikely to find any versions of his solo guitar works. None. This is amazing because he has written and recorded a huge amount of guitar music. I will count and make a list someday, but there is a lot of music. Easily as many works as Heitor Villa Lobos penned for the guitar. And his work is one of the cornerstones of the guitar’s repertoire. Classical guitarists, for reasons known only to themselves, have, instead, gravitated towards Egberto Gismonti’s piano works. Agua & Vinho, Sete Aneis, Frevo…perhaps because Egberto’s piano playing is more classical than his guitar playing which is, one feels, not universally liked in the guitar community. But has anybody heard Villa Lobos play guitar? Andres Segovia did and he thought Villa Lobos played the guitar like a wild animal. Put Villa Lobos forward fifty years or so, and Segovia may have heard his compositions on recording rather than been introduced to them from the manuscript scores. In the 1930’s the printed score was still a primary means of disseminating music. By 1960 the recording had taken over. The score became a much smaller part of the musician’s musical reality.

Re-Imagining Villa Lobos from the Point of View of Gismonti

As a result a musician like Gismonti, who has recorded, if I am not mistaken, something like sixty albums, has very few published scores in circulation. So our only way of coming to his guitar music is through recordings like Solo and Danca dos Escravos. And while these performances are entirely to my own taste, I am aware that they are not to everyone’s. Let us say that his playing is rather untamed. Yes, perhaps he does play like a wild animal, like his musical father before him. This thought makes me wish I’d heard Villa Lobos play his own music, and it makes me want to re imagine the  works of Villa Lobos from point of view of Egberto Gismonti. Perhaps we have listened to Villa Lobos through the ears of Andres Segovia and the classical guitar for too long. It would surely be interesting to recapture that wild animal of a guitarist, and set it upon the Preludes and Etudes of Heitor Villa Lobos. Who knows what magic may ensue? Compare this footage of Segovia playing Villa Lobos’ Prelude No. 1

…with Gismonti’s peformance of Dança das Cabeças with Nana Vasconcelos below, and you start to get an idea where this may be heading:


Discovering Gismonti’s Music

Gismonti is one of those musicians that is at one and the same time a shining light in the music of one particular country, and the music of a totally original human being who defies nationalistic categorisation. In many respects his music is quintessentially Brazilian, but at the same time it reaches so much further than the music of one nation or history possibly could. For a long time he was simply an inspiration to my own musical journey. But it never occurred to me to play his actual compositions. He just showed me what music could be. And for a long time this was enough.

Transcribing and Arranging Gismonti

The first piece I played by Gismonti was the guitar composition 2 Violões (Vermelho) or Two Guitars (Red) from his ECM recording Danca dos Escravos. I worked this out standing next to a small portable stereo, getting the very vaguest notion of what the basic elements of the piece were, and translating it as simply as possible to my guitar. I ended up composing my own version of this piece as a kind of musical conversation between Egberto and myself. I recorded this conversation twice, solo in Kai Kai (2009) and with Udai Mazumdar on tabla in Rising (2010). Later I found a huge database of Egberto’s piano scores published by Editions Gismonti, and as the liner notes to a piano album called Alma. From these scores and from recordings I made a transcription of Sete Anéis, or Seven Rings, which slowly grew into an almost complete interpretation of the original recording on the ECM album Infancia. This I first performed and recorded with a trio made up of myself and two classical Indian musicians, Udai Mazumdar on tabla and Piu Nandi on vocals and harmonium. This became one of our favourite works on a tour in Switzerland. We recorded the version in Germany. When I returned home I completed the transcription and recorded it in The Sound of Water. From then on the floodgates opened and many new Gismonti transcriptions came in just a few weeks. Soon after I went to record the kora transcriptions and ended by recording these new solo guitar Gismonti transcriptions alongside some interpretations of four of my own works which had only been recorded collaborations before. The album tat resulted was the album called The Sound of Water and the Malian project had to wait for a future recording. Since this recording I have made a few more transcriptions of Gimsonti’s music, including the epic Selva Amazonia from Solo, and I am considering launching into a full-scale project to transcribe his complete works for solo guitar. An impossible task perhaps, but a nice idea!

My Approach to Transcribing the Works of Egberto Gismonti

Like all of my guitar works, transcription or composition, my primary aim is to make the guitar resonate in interesting ways. So I always find the easiest way to play a musical idea, even if this means that I need to radically change the original. I am aware that we are still under the sway of the authority of the composer, but I have done what i can to liberate myself from what can be a bit of a tyranny of the composer, and submit myself instead to the limits imposed by six strings and my own technical abilities. Sometimes this makes magical things happen.

Egberto Gismonti’s Guitars

Some of his early work is on the six-string guitar, but by the time he met Nana Vasconcelos and really began to create this avant Brazilian music that we know as the music of Egberto Gismonti, he was already adding strings to the conventional guitar, and in configurations which were not common. The primary innovation seems to have been the addition of one or two high strings to the bass side of the instrument. This made it possible for rhythmic drones to be played as low bass notes or as high notes, all by the thumb, leaving the fingers free to play the harmonic or melodic movements. Salvador if a great example of this, played on Solo with an eight-string guitar with treble g string tuned up to A sitting below the usual bass E string. Then another bass string, tuned to low A below this. This configuration was later extended on the ten-string guitar to include a treble g string below the lower bass A and a lower bass string below that (tuned mostly to F or G). The strings are tuned something like this for may of his later ten-string guitar compositions (and arrangements of earlier works): GgAaEADgbe (where bold is low bass string, upper case is normal bass string and lower case is normal treble string)

Egberto Gismonti plays the 10 string guitar

Perhaps this unconventional stringing configuration has been one of the obstacles to playing Gismonti’s music on the classical guitar. Who has a spare eight-string or ten-string lying around which can be strung for the music of just one composer? The solution to the problem lies in translating the resources of Gismonti’s ten-string onto the six string guitar.



Visiting Hauser III and playing his Ten-String Gismonti Style

I had a spare week after the Swiss tour with Udai and Piu so I went to visit the maker of my guitar, Hermann Hauser III. I had decided that I needed to get a ten-string, and I knew I would not be able to play anything but a guitar by one of the Hausers. Hermann was kind enough to string his own beautiful ten-string in the above Gismonti configuration, and allow me some hours in his workshop experimenting for the first time with Gismonti’s tuning. It was quite a way to experiment: with a guitar by one of the world’s greatest luthiers, in his very workshop, under the eyes of the great luthier himself. Hauser humorously suggested that it may be more cost effective to hire another six-string player just to play the higher rhythmic parts played by Gismonti on the high strings on the bass side. I saw his point: there had to be a simpler solution.

Transcribing Salvador

When I returned home I returned to Salvador, a solo guitar piece from an album which stands for me, more than any other, as a quintessential Gismonti utterance. The ostinato changes between a high A (which would be played by that g string tuned one tone higher, and placed on the bass side of the guitar) and a bass A below the normal E string. So with a bit of fancy finger work I discovered that one could just throw that A around the guitar as one needed it, playing it sometimes on the bass A string, sometimes on the g string, and sometimes on the D string. I found that wherever I needed to be on the fretboard for the melody I could find an A somewhere – no problem. And no need for ten strings. Here is the recording of Salvador from The Sound of Water:

Of course this changed the sonic nature of the work in small ways. But this is my primary goal anyway: to create new works out of old ones. And it showed the way towards creating a six-string repertoire out of Gismonti’s eight and ten-string guitar works, work which is, I feel, long overdue. The list is getting longer all the time, but for now I have transcribed the following guitar works using a range of different tunings: Selva Amazonia Two Guitars Salvador Danca das Cabecas Carmem Lundu Bianca Alongside a few piano works: Sete Aneis Ano Zero (see the complete list as it evolves here) I have also made a transcription of Trenzinho do Caipiro, which Gismonti adapted from Heitor Villa Lobos’ orchestral work. One can’t help but hope that the classical guitar world will come to the party. Hear my recording of Gismonti’s works here.

Brazil is an African Colony?

I recently made my ninth guitar transcription of a work by Egberto Gismonti. This piece is called Lundú, so I did some research and found that this was a Brazilian dance that has originated as far South of Africa as Angola. This dance had travelled to Brazil and become its first national dance, later morphing into the Choro and Samba. It hadn’t come home as clearly to me before that Brazil is an African colony and so much of its music is African. Perhaps this is because so much Brazilian classical guitar music draws more on the European inspired musical traditions of Brazil, as well as European art music in general, and not as much directly from African music, as Gismonti either directly or indirectly does. Whatever the reason, Gismonti’s music is, for me, a remarkable exploration of the music of Africa, the diaspora, and the acoustic guitar itself.