Emilio Guim "Music and interdisciplinarity"
Emilio Guim (1981*) is an Ecuadorian composer based in Lucerne, Switzerland. After living in the United States and Canada and evolving in the world of jazz and free improvisation, he completed a master's degree in Art and Performance at the Hochschule Lucerne.
Influenced by the interdisciplinary work of composers such as Bernhard Lang, Michael Beil or Stefan Prins, Emilio is a composer, guitarist and performer as well as artistic director of the ensemble Nomads. His music has been performed by the ensemble Recherche, EW-4, duo Klexs and will be soon played by the Collegium Novum Zürich. Emilio also teaches at the Hochschule Lucerne where we met and developed a friendship and artistic collaboration over the years.
Many of your pieces are full of technological tools like VCRs, VHS, FM radio players. This presence is not episodic, it testifies to an era, that of the 80s and 90s in which you grew up.
When I’m watching other pieces from different composers especially in transdisciplinary pieces, I like having some orientations in music history: where they belong to, the context in which the piece is set. This is how I connect with the composer. If I see a piece with an analog synthesizer, before I even start to hear the piece, this will bring me back to an era, depending on the machine but probably in the 70’s 80’s. But considering how it is used, it will give another context. This second aspect is the most important: if it has a synthesizer with an oboe, baritone sax and viola, that already puts me in a different context. With a different instrumentation, it is therefore included in a different style from that to which it first refers. And this can open up many horizons that would not have been possible thirty years ago.
If I get my hands on a VHS, it immediately brings me back to how I used this machine thirty years ago. But how can I use it now to make it contextual ? It's a mix between taking what was used before and putting it in a context of "what can I do with this in 2022, with current technology". And it’s not about being nostalgic, I don’t feel any nostalgia when I see those machines. It brings up memories. I know them very well, I know how they should feel, how they should sound and I’m trying to mix them with the sounds that I discovered recently over the past few years to see what I can come up with. In this way of trying to compose something that I haven’t heard before.
The way you have used these objects is indeed part of a will to include them in today's sound world and not as a kind of nostalgic testimony or a search for the vintage effect.
That is true, partially. The other part is that computers drive me crazy everyday and when I have to start a new piece, I think about how to get around this difficulty and avoid some suffering later. And always the answer is having a resolution which is not linked completely on digital means. If a VHS breaks I can easily get another one and I know how it will behave. If I develop a MAX Patch computer, it might not work on another computer with very similar specifications… It’s also part of going around the technology that is at our times. They can do certains things and they can do very bad other things. I prefer to work with analog devices that I know the result that I’m getting.
We also find this era in the pop references you quote or use. I'm thinking of a quote from Queen - Bohemian Rhapsody in your piece Miraging (2016) or Sylvester Stallone's action movies that are played via VHS tapes in Wired (2020).
These are two very different contexts. In Miraging, that was such a short quote which was a joke: the way we arranged two faces really reminded me of the Bohemian Rhapsody.
For Wired, because I was using those VHS machines, I remembered what I was recording with it and it was mostly action films from the 80’s. I didn’t want to use current films because of the VHS machines which belong more to that era. Because Wired was supposed to be played with a lot of trees around (sadly it didn’t work that way at the end), I decided to use certain action movies which were filmed in the forest. But now that you mentioned it, I don’t choose to insert quotations from the 80’s and the 90’s. I don’t do it consciously, maybe they just sneak in. But I cannot avoid that I was growing up in that era…
You are first of all a guitarist, how do you see this instrument in the field of contemporary music ?
Electric guitar belongs to the pop/rock/jazz/funk/fusion, anything who comes after the 50’s. It doesn’t belong natively to contemporary music and I found it very interesting that a lot of classic guitar players are switching to electric guitar. I found it as a misconception because the electric guitar belongs itself to different traditions; and I think that is important to understand that first. If you want to play electric guitar, it should be done the right way, which is learning how to play properly the way it was developed as an instrument. This is pretty much as if you want to play violin only for contemporary music. You are not gonna go just with extended techniques, you should also play the traditional way, which is what the violin should be doing in the first place.
What was the music you played first?
In Ecuador, I only learned to play rock and whatever was being played on the radio. Then the natural thing to do for a rock player is to learn jazz. When I moved to the US and discovered jazz, I was already twenty when I heard Miles Davis for the first time. I’ve started to learn the instruments more seriously or in a more academic way: reading, playing different styles. And later when I moved to Canada, I did my Bachelor in Jazz Performance. I was already twenty eight. That led me to free improvisation. From there, moving to contemporary music was quite natural. When I arrived in Europe, I just started learning about this whole world of new music that I didn’t know before. I realized the cultural distance that separates these two continents.. It’s insane to think that the year before moving to Switzerland, being very active in the academia world, I never heard most of the big names of the new music world. In the US, people like Steve Reich are still considered as « contemporary music ». It’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that but that was at least forty years old. The move was for me quite natural, even if I was struggling to understand why people wrote this down instead of improvising it.
And what about the composition ?
I have been composing since I started playing. Writing for films, for TV, radio… In fact all my jazz writings were experimental and not very traditional. Even in free improvisation I was still writing structures. I worked with dancers, visual artists. That was not far from what I’m doing now: the practices are the same, it’s only a different language.
Improvisation is undoubtedly a writing principle that can be found in several of your pieces. The use of rhythmic and melodic motives which are repeated while developing...
This is also the way I understand music. I think somehow improvisation in academia was a bit overseen. If you look at the classic masters, they were great improvisers too. A lot of their pieces came out mostly from improvisation. For most of my work, when I have an idea or an experiment, I improvise a lot with it until I find something that I feel is worth polishing and reducing it to something that can be set on paper. I use a lot of improvisation as a tool as an experiment phase. Some years ago, I used it as a performance medium and now it’s less and less because I feel less fulfilled through it. But it’s extremely reliable to explore the material to find new things to surprise yourself.
You were talking earlier about your questioning of the relevance of notation versus improvisation. How did you resolve this question ?
That was my first thought when I arrived in Europe but my gaze quickly evolved as soon as I understood what was the reason behind it. And mainly it was my fault: my ears were not tuned to the differences. I could hear a piece and think « I can improvise the same ». But if I hear the piece again then I will start to understand what the composer was doing. I could see that it’s a bigger organization, bigger meaning and direction. Even a great improviser can also build an arc through an improvisation. I consider a good improvisation when the musician is surprised as much as the audience. In the case of composition, you are writing something you can only surprise yourself one time. But it will surprise the audience when they hear it. In composition you have the possibility to freeze the time and ask yourself what will be the best solution to develop this surprise whereas an improviser has to make a decision which is immediate and might not be the best he could have taken.
One of the most common criticisms you hear after a contemporary music concert is « why didn't you just improvise ? »…
If you see a masterpiece of composition, I don’t think any improvisers would dare to say (no matter how good this improviser is) « I could improvise something like this ». On the other hand, if a composer listened to a masterpiece of improvisation, he might say « I don’t know if I can compose something like this, I would have done differently ». It’s just two different media, it is not worth to compare them.
You evolve in the field of what we call « new music ». But I will add in your case a sub-category named « interdisciplinary practices » by the fact that you work as much with music as with other mediums such as visuals, scenography, dance...
I always played with interdisciplinarity even before I knew what that word was. When I was younger, I was immersed in experiences that went far beyond just the concert. Rock concerts for example, where there were lights, fireworks and so on. When I had the chance to experiment with that I jumped into it. That was why I came to study in Lucerne. I had an ensemble of three improvisers and dancers and that was a very fun and edifying discovery period… I understood that it was possible to make a link between sound and a completely different discipline, in this case music and dance, and the outcome will be so special and hybrid that if you only hear the music part it will not make any sense. Obviously if you only see the dance part it might also not make sense. These two together make a completely different entity. When I started to write « contemporary music » I felt out of balance when I had to write only for instruments, I almost never do that, at least I try to not use only traditional instruments. I don’t think I have much to say by writing such a piece. I feel more comfortable the way I do. And by « comfortable » I don’t want to say that I feel comfortable with the result. Sometimes it’s extremely uncomfortable adding electronics or a theatrical act or a new instrument.
The concept of experience is also very present in your work. As an audience, we attend not only a sound experience, but more generally a sensory experience in the way you have combined video projection with lights and lasers and even smoke machines !
I was once in a seminar with Stefan Prins (Belgian composer born in 1979) and one of these topics came consistently. I found out at that time that it was important for me to have the experience above everything. Whoever is sitting in the audience, seeing a piece of mine, what is the experience that this person will take. Even if I cannot calculate how much the person will experience, at least I want her to take something. A visual element or something that sparks in that person. Eyes, ears, make her imagination work. I don’t really care what the medium will be, this can be with music, dance, poetry, words or visuals. I just try to find what would that be if I would have been sitting there, what I would like to see. I use those mediums because I can express myself easily. It’s still a struggle sometimes but those are mediums that I understand better…
I would like to talk to you about the way you treat the visual aspect. Very often we find this « analog glitch » that we used to get on VHS tapes, very often it meant a bad condition of the VHS.
In the sound world, in music production for the rock side my ears are always drowned how he uses types of distortion, to create this kind of glitches, rhythmically or on the instruments and I think the way I use « glitch » on a visual on analog resonate very well with this idea of analog distortion. In the medium of static, glitches in the VHS tape playback. I think it’s part of my language. I cannot imagine using visuals without this thing. It is part of the visual itself, it cannot be completely clean, it will be sterile and will appear as a fake world. I want to use this mistake to create my visual vocabulary. I feel comfortable with them. I actually like them. How they look, how they feel…
Another important feature is the figure of the avatar. On the video projection appears the same characters that are on the stage.
Except in Wired, that’s absolutely true, avatars are almost in all of my pieces. The answer to your question is more relying to the use of visuals inside the piece. For people like Michael Beil (German composer born in 1963), it is impossible that you would see a piece of him without using this kind of avatar. It’s part of his own language. And when I started to do visuals in contemporary music, he was one of the composers I’ve studied the most.
The very first piece where I started to use visuals (called Zum Wohl) were entirely made of cut offs of movies when people were speaking numbers. The piece worked from a dramaturgy point of view but there was something very unsatisfactory for me. I could not make a connection between what I was seeing on stage and on the projection. For me that link was really important. If I’m gonna use visuals and fall into the category of interdisciplinary practices, I don’t want to fall into this category of pieces where visuals work as a background. I felt that it was easier to create a link when the performers on stage were also on the video. That brought me to a new problem, which Michael Beil brought up to me: your pieces are impossible to play with other ensembles because they are part of produced videos. This has slowed down my curve regarding collaboration with other ensembles. If another ensemble is interested in playing my music, then I have to produce a new video. I have been asked many times for Miraging which is funny for me as I remembered how the video was produced: with very cheap cameras, filmed in a basement. I had no idea how to deal with lights, me and my friend and pianist Talvi Hunt spent a full day setting up the lights. After facing this problem, I thought that it would be also practical to compose a piece which doesn’t require a video production. That was the idea of composing Wired and A word of Mouth composed for Ensemble Recherche. But with both pieces I still think that they didn’t connect well. In the case of the piece with Ensemble Recherche, I threw the visuals away from the piece and made a completely new audio piece. In the case of Wired I want to re-work it in different circumstances, still using this tape/VHS world. I’m still experimenting with them. Probably, it’s possible but I haven’t found the way yet.
This use of the figure of the avatar creates a relationship between the person on stage and on the video. And from my point of view, a narrative relationship but which in your work is never completely defined.
I don’t think I tried to hide it, I actually like to explore a narrative but it’s never linear, it’s much like a dream time, very subconscious, like the way the brain works. I don’t like this kind of pieces, where they explain to you step by step and adopt a very clear storytelling point of view. In the case of avatars, it’s interesting that you say you found this connection and that he helped you to follow the piece, but I never thought it would help, I found it a great challenge to mix what is on the screen and what is on stage. Once again I care about the experience I give: like it or hate it (!), that’s up to you. I tried to give everyone the possibility of receiving an emotion without considering which kind of person is in the audience, musically educated or not. I think that the use of visuals can help to focus on something other than sound.
What is the main parameter to have in mind when you start a composition which involves music and visuals ?
In my opinion, sound and visuals have to be developed at the same time otherwise the relationship doesn’t work. It’s always a huge struggle when somebody works interdisciplinarity: how do you make it feel organic and how can they be related to each other ? Beyond that, something that I learned by producing music in a studio for a completely other purpose is: creating the mood of the piece. Where is the music taking you ? That is the main thing that I have in my head when I’m sitting at my office. Sometimes I get lost in the harmonic or rhythmic material, and it’s always a good trick to go back, take a distance and say « my goal was getting to this vibe, how do I get back there ». Then it is sometimes painful to erase everything that you did in one day because of realizing you go away from your initial idea. For example: for the last part of my piece Liquid mountain, it took me three or four days to write that section and I ruined it, it was a disaster. The music just didn’t fit at all with the visuals. But there was one bar, who captured my attention. I threw three or four pages of music and just stayed with that bar and this is almost the only thing you hear during the last five minutes of the piece. This specific bar captured the mood, that’s all I needed.
Liquid Mountain for two performers, keyboard and electric guitar is your most ambitious piece in terms of length (almost forty five minutes) and set-up (live lights, three video projections, and a stage layout divided into two parts)
This was indeed the longest piece I wrote. This was a commission from Fracanaum (led by Jeanne Laroutourou and Kevin Juillerat), and I had this idea to write this piece for a very long time for Talvi and myself. That was the perfect chance. The premiere happened a few days before the first lockdown. The composition process represented a huge effort and I don’t count the hours I invested in this piece, but I learned a lot from it. I decided to not write forty five minutes of an electric guitar and synthesizer duo but give the piece some variations. In the second half of the piece, we leave the stage and sit at a table where two TVs are placed. I had decided to explore the possibilities of manipulating these videos in real time and to treat the video as musical material. The idea of this change of position in the middle of the room happened as an accident. One day when we were running out of ideas and energy during rehearsals, Talvi and I sat down at our table and drank a coffee and started randomly knocking around. I turned on the camera and we started improvising with a whole set of tuning forks, coffee cups. This footage became the final material.
A word about the title? A very mysterious title...
The title came up pretty quickly during our first exchanges with Talvi. We were walking around Lucerne with a bottle of wine, something we've always done, and exchanging ideas about what we could offer. It was a summer day, I had taken my camera with the idea of recording our exchanges but after viewing everything was nonsense. But the landscape filmed, the angle was interesting. The mountains we had in front of us were reflected in the water of the lake and created an inverted mountain. That's how the title Liquid Mountain came about. The use of hourglasses, the coins on the eyes like in funeral rites come from the dream world and a liquid mountain could only seem real in this psychic world.