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Meet a Musician: Alejandro Rutty is a Greensboro conductor, composer and musician

Meet a Musician: Alejandro Rutty is a Greensboro conductor, composer and musician

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Alejandro Rutty is putting together an album of bass music — solo pieces, as well as duets with bassists from around the country.

In recent years, he’s also played the instrument for his wife Lorena Guillén’s self-named Tango Ensemble.

In a way, it’s like reconnecting with a first love.

Rutty, who teaches music composition at UNCG, made his career as a composer and conductor in North and South America, but he started off as a bass player.

“I have switched to a six-string bass, which has opened up completely new possibilities,” he said. “It’s a bass that I ordered from Keith Roscoe, who’s a famous bass maker that lives here in Greensboro. I had a friend in California who told me, ‘Hey, you live in Greensboro, that’s where Keith Roscoe is.’ And he made this bass that I love dearly.”

During an interview recently, he spoke about finding inspiration in a wide variety of genres, exploring North Carolina’s Jewish history in a project called “Down Home: The Cantata,” and his encounter with an artist in Rio de Janeiro.

How did you get interested in music?

I was born in Buenos Aires in Argentina. I started as a bass player, in middle school, then switched to piano, then decided to go for composition and conducting in college. I moved to the States for grad school, and I worked as a conductor for a number of years. So, it was a bit of an arc. I started in bass, then piano, conducting, then went back to composition, then rediscovered the piano, working as a sideman and an accompanist, and then the last few years, have come back to the bass, which is what I’m focused on right now.

Who are some of your inspirations?

From the classical side, there’s Stravinsky, Debussy and Messiaen that I find impossible to resist.

For my jazz-oriented side, there’s a number of world music jazzers like Tigran Hamasyan from Armenia or Egberto Gismonti from Brazil or Japanese pianist Hiromi (Uehara). They have fresh, incredibly interesting takes.

But, you name the genre, and I probably have some favorite composers. But the wider our musical tastes are, the wider our imaginations are when we start creating music. So you might find me listening to classic rock or lo-fi hip-hop.

How would you describe your music?

I have very, very wide interests, and I can play in rock bands, I can play tango, I can play Schubert and Mozart. My music somehow makes some sort of combination of everything that I am interested in musically. That’s what gives it its originality. The mix of what I am interested in, with the mix of what my skills are, that produces a weird thing that is both familiar and surprising, and to describe it, I’d say there’s a lot of South American music tropes, elements mixed with a way of thinking that’s not quite traditional.

I used to like to compose music in which two or even three impossible styles got mixed up, like for example, medieval music, Middle Eastern rhythms and Argentine Tango. You put that together in one piece, and it’s mind-bending. But the music also sounds organic.

What’s your creative process like?

One of the things that I have noted is that writing the music down seems to limit the creative act. So, what I try to do is work the music by imagining it and playing it, and writing things to remember, but not as a composition per se, and only once the music is fully formed and all the details are there and I know what the music is supposed to sound and feel like, only then do I go about transcribing it.

What do you enjoy most about collaborating with your wife?

It’s great. We trust each other musically speaking. If I come up with a crazy idea for an arrangement, she might look at me like, “What are you doing?” But, then she’ll be like, “I got it.”

Also, I know what I can do to support her musicianship. For many years, I was a pianist in her ensemble, but then switched to bass. And as a pianist, sometimes I would go on improvisational detours and she would know when to come back after I changed keys. Some other singer might freak out. But with her, I feel understood.

How did “Down Home: The Cantata” come together?

My wife conducts the Triangle Jewish Chorale in Durham. They were interested in having a piece of music for a project documenting Jewish life in North Carolina, and there were a lot of oral records, tapes and cassettes, some of which were pretty old, with people talking about their experiences. The choir was interested in commissioning a piece about that. I have worked on projects where I integrate oral history and music.

This was really one of the most interesting projects I’ve done as a composer, because I got to learn a lot that I didn’t know about before. And you hear the voices of people telling their stories, which is important. The Triangle Jewish Chorale performed it a number of times around North Carolina, and it’s even been performed in Argentina.

If you could open a show for any artist, who would it be and why?

There’s a long list, like the jazz artists I mentioned before. But from popular culture, I wouldn’t mind opening for Peter Gabriel. Because that would bring me back to when I was 11, when I discovered him.

What’s your favorite song to perform?

I typically play my own music and my own arrangements, and everything I write I love. That sounds bad, but there’s nothing I like more than playing my own music, and I love them all. They’re all my children.

What’s the weirdest or funniest thing that has happened during one of your performances?

I was conducting an orchestra in Rio de Janeiro, and at the end of the concert, a member of the audience comes up to me and gives me a caricature of me conducting, and that was really, really nice.

There was also a symphony that played a piece of mine about what happens underwater, as a metaphor for life. At the end of the concert, an audience member told me in some detail about his experience when his boat capsized. He spent some time underwater thinking that that was it. And the piece resonated with him. I was moved. And that’s one of the things that I really, really like about this profession, which is we sometimes reach people in ways we don’t think about.

What’s next for you?

Things slowed down with COVID quite a bit. But, I’m going to Louisiana for the premiere of one of my pieces in June. I have at least one or two performances with the Lorena Guillén Ensemble. I’m also trying to book a tour or performances with some of the bass music that I’m recording.

Also, there’s two albums I’m working on, I need to put together a number of pieces and record them and have them mixed. I think it’s going to be pretty hectic. But, after the past year with COVID, I’m all for it.

— As told to Robert C. Lopez, roberto.lopez79@gmail.com

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“We are thrilled to be among the first arts organizations in our community to return to live and in-person concerts and educational programs this summer,” said Chris Williams, executive director of Greensboro-based Eastern Music Festival.

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