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Producing The World
A series of interviews with influential recording producers

 

photo: Francis Vernhet
Christina Roden talks with Tomas Gubitsch
The Multi-Faceted Musician/Producer Discusses An Immigrant's Life In Music

 

Tomas Gubitsch is the global village personified, a polyglot international fusion on two legs. His career since achieving fame as a youthful rock star in Buenos Aires reads like an adventure serial, full of unexpected journeys, encounters of various kinds, close calls and radical changes.

Now based in Paris, he is a blazingly intelligent, charming man, full of wit and insight. His recent collaboration with Hughes de Courson, "Songs Of Innocence," has finally brought his work to the attention of American critics and music lovers. He is the doting father of three small sons, a fearless musical alchemist and a fascinating raconteur.


CR - What was your childhood like? How were you first attracted to music? Were your parents supportive or against your pursuing music as a profession?

cd cover Tomas Gubitsch - I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. My parents, who came from Central Europe, were definitely supportive. They even came to my "debut," a concert playing with one of the most important local rock bands, "Invisible.," It was rather impressive to play for the first time, at the age of 17, for 15,000 persons in a concert hall!

When did you decide to make music your career?

When I was about 12 years old.

Why? How did this evolve? Was there a major turning point in your early training?

I had to make a choice between being a soccer-player, a rabbi or a musician, and it seemed clear that girls were more attracted by the last option! Seriously, I went to the Colón Theatre in Buenos Aires to hear (Igor Stravinsky's) "The Rite of Spring" when I was about 10 years old. I thought it sounded even better than Pink Floyd's "Atom Heart Mother," and somehow the choice (if there was one) was made. I began playing in professional recording sessions at the age of 13, and everything seemed to direct me "naturally" into a "musical life.,"

When and why did you move to France?

I moved to France in the beginning of 1977, planning to end up in England or the United States. I was in tour with Astor Piazzolla. At this time, Argentina was ruled by the military and I was looking for artistic and personal freedom.

How old were you when you worked with Piazzolla? What was it like to work with him? How has it influenced your later work?

I got involved in "new" tango at the age of 16 when I met Rodolfo Mederos, who was another great bandoneon player. So, I was influenced by Piazzolla's work before actually playing with him. I was 19 years old when Astor asked me to join him on his European tour. It was like a jazz musician being called by Miles Davis! Two years before, when I joined the rock band "Invisible," I had told them that if Piazzolla asked me to play with him, I would quit the band. We all laughed about it, and I remember the singer saying "of course, if John Lennon called, I'd quit the band too!" I was very disappointed in Astor himself. We were political enemies, I cannot really say that our relationship was wonderful. But his music remains an outstanding event in the history of tango. By opening tango's frontiers to "classical" influences, Piazzolla added a rich new element. I have always thought that if an urban style of music gets too fixed, it simply dies!

How did you meet Hughes de Courson? When did you decide to work together and how do your methods differ?

cd cover I met Hughes in the late 80's. He was a successful producer of music for (radio & TV) commercials. We shared the same sense of distance and humor concerning this activity. Our first job together was a commercial for some "parfum français deluxe.," I had to re-arrange the entire 2nd movement of Mozart's A Major piano concerto, make it fit in 30 seconds, and then conduct the orchestra. The most difficult part was to seem serious when people from the ad agency came by the studio! Meanwhile, Hughes was finishing his very interesting "Spondo" album. I said to him, "look, we have a whole orchestra already paid for by the "parfum français de luxe" people. Why don't I ask them to come over in 2 hours and record some music for 'Spondo?'" The orchestra thought it was a splendid idea and we had a lot of fun!

Both you and Hughes de Courson work interchangeably with classical and world music - how and when did you become aware of each of these styles and when did it occur to you to mix them?

Being born in Argentina from a Jewish, central-European family, travelling a lot and then living in Paris for 20 years, I don't feel that I'm "mixing" anything. Rather, that I am making my "natural" music, which happens to be a little bit from everywhere. The Beatles wrote about "Nowhere Man.," I must be the "everywhere-guy"!

What was it like working with untrained (musically speaking) child musicians during "Songs Of Innocence"?

cd cover Great experience! I would say that when you are conducting "professional" musicians, you try to "make them sound" as if it was you yourself who were playing. While when working with children (or untrained people) the goal is to "make" them sound like themselves. Which means, to make them feel confident and "in the mood" for making "emotional" music.

How did you approach the naive/innocent viewpoints and sounds of the children as compared the more worldly adult professional musicians? Did the children end up having more of an influence on the adults, or was it the other way around?

We never thought this record as being "for children.," It's simply music, our music, sung by children because they were the best possible singers for these musical pieces.

Did your relationships with your own children help you?

Of course!

Let's talk about some of your earlier work. You sent me a rather charming and very original CD of you playing what could be called Latin jazz, if only it were that simple to describe...

"Contra vientos..." seems rather old and "too normal" to me now. I don't play guitar anymore and I've got a little bit tired of that kind of "virtuoso" playing.

However, "Sans Cesse" is one of the most amazing pieces I've heard in a very long time. It's somewhere between modern classical, jazz and a Broadway musical, but more than all of these. I've never heard anything quite like it!

"Sans Cesse" was something else. About 4 years ago, I worked for 9 months with 50 unemployed persons (from 18 to 50 years old, women and men) in the city of Le Mans. They came from different cultures, from northern Africa to the Pacific islands - French people too, of course. Their professional situations were extremely dissimilar too. Some of them were intermittent drug dealers and some (a few) were highly qualified graduates from university backgrounds. The only thing they shared at the beginning of our adventure was the fact of never having done any "artistic" activity.

We worked hard on theatre, video, photo, writing, dance and music workshops, believing that the higher the artistic quality of our goal (10 public "concerts") would be, the deeper our "social" work would be. Since I planned to add a chamber orchestra and 4 great popular musicians, my personal objective was that the public shouldn't be able to distinguish who was"professional" and who was not. And so it was....

I still remember the incredible total silence during the performance and the endless standing ovations afterward. Some people told me that I left too much applause on the CD. The day we recorded, the applause went on for 17 minutes and 45 seconds. I faded it out after only a few minutes. I regret it now.

How did you go about incorporating the various ethnic backgrounds of the performers into the piece?

I felt somewhat like a tailor, trying to imagine the best looking musical clothes for each person. When an Algerian woman sang a sad melody I had written, she didn't sound like a French woman singing the very same notes. Each voice is "conditioned" by its culture. My conclusion was that we don't make the same noise when we suffer! I did not try to include "ethnic" elements exactly, but rather to compose for each particular personality.

Would you like to do more "musical social work"?

I'm looking forward to doing this kind of experience again in 2001, in Paris this time. I think that regardless of the "social" result - 43 of those persons have found a regular job since then - the real "political" act was to prove to everyone (professionals, "amateurs," art critics, public, local politicians, etc.) that the right to exercise the practice of art belongs naturally to everybody.

At the beginning, I thought that it would be too hard for a "classical" musician like me to deal with the technical limitations of our crew. Surprisingly enough, I've discovered that I "found myself" while working for them.

Are there any other projects you've done that were also this important to you?

The next one!

What about more "commercial" projects? How do you approach these as compared to "Songs Of Innocence," or "Sans Cesse"?

It is not always easy. I try to do the "commercial" projects as seriously and as well as possible. I deeply and sincerely respect every single person who buys a record, but I find that record companies don't always think this way. In any case, even with "simple music," I refuse to consider music an industry.

What's next for you now?

I'm finishing production on a CD for a French (she's from Belgium, actually) singer, Maurane. You've probably never heard about her, but she's pretty well known and quite good for a singer of "variété" (French chanson and pop), as they say here. At the same time, I'm composing a Concerto For Four Double Basses And Orchestra. It's hard contemporary music, but I'm planning to re-work it on my Macintosh beforehand. It's rather exciting!

 

A selected discography of the work of Tomas Gubitsch
An interview with Hughes de Courson

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