Interview with Pedro de Alcantara
Pedro is an Alexander teacher, musician, and author of "Indirect Procedures, a Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique," "Skill for Life," and "Befiddled," a children's novel to be published in 2005.
Hehas recently released his first CD, called Old New Worlds: 20th -Century Music for Cello and Piano. I asked Pedro to talk to us a little about the role of the Alexander Technique in the process of preparing, recording, and launching the CD.
You quit performing onstage six years ago. What role did the Alexander Technique play in that decision?
From the very first the cello has been a place where I meditate about my identity. One of the many reasons I took up the cello to begin with – aged 12, very late for someone who'd eventually want to become a concert artist – was simply to be different from my peers, thereby affirming my individuality. On account of that, there have been many times when I quit performing – times when I had important questions about myself. Not coincidentally, the first time I “gave up the cello,” as it were, was during my second year at university, when I started taking Alexander lessons. I didn't realize it then, but the Technique made me see myself anew and I wasn't too happy with what I saw: a fairly revolting end-gainer! Hence the identity crisis and the urge to distance myself from the instrument.
The pull of the cello was too strong, though, so I went back to pursuing my cello studies. Yet questions remained. As long as the cello was a means for me to learn about myself, I was happy working with it; whenever it became an end in itself, I'd run into frustration, give awkward performances, get upset at what I perceived as the imbecility of my colleagues and the unpleasantness of the music profession, and so on. The second time I gave up the cello was when I moved from London to Paris. I left my first marriage behind then, and I must have felt the need to shed my skin altogether. I stopped performing for three years.
However frustrating performance can be, it always holds the potential to make you surpass yourself. There have been a few times when, in public, I played infinitely better than in the privacy of the practice room. I remember a recital in London, during my Alexander training, where my pianist José Feghali (who subsequently won the Van Cliburn competition in the US) and I were in perfect synch and we “improvised” a marvelous reading of the Chopin sonata. It's an incredible high, and once you taste it you'll crave it forever. So I went back to the stage and played a few recitals and chamber music programs with Olivier Benoît, a fine French pianist. One of the problems of our partnership was that Olivier was very much like me when it came to the stage. We had an almost telepathic agreement in matters of musical structure and harmony – that was good, of course – but an equally strong agreement in matters of stage psychology. We both liked and feared the stage in equal doses, and that wasn't good! After a while I took another sabbatical that lasted a couple of years.
My last bout of performances came six years ago, when I gave a handful of recitals with Debby Growald, a Brazilian pianist who had been my partner when we both were adolescents in the 70s. Again, the performing was inseparable from a meditation on my identity – I was reliving my past and re-scripting it. These recitals came shortly after the publication of Indirect Procedures, and I had a wonderful epiphany then. I understood that the cello was a secondary part of my identity. I was a writer first, and a musician second; and a musician first, and a cellist second. What I mean is that the cellist eats and drinks cello – he studies the repertoire, he collects cello records, he obsesses about the solo suites by J. S. Bach – while the musician eats and drinks music – he studies the entire range of the musical repertoire, he thinks more about the language of music than the mechanics of the instrument, he is in awe of Bach and Beethoven and Brahms much more than he's in awe of Yo-Yo Ma and Mistislav Rostropovich.
The publication of Indirect Procedures totally changed my career. I was suddenly deluged with invitations to travel, teach master classes, and coach singers and players of every last instrument. In terms of my cello performances, it did two things to me: I started satisfying my thirst for music through coaching very talented musicians, and my thirst for adrenaline through giving master classes and public workshops. It made perfect sense to stop playing the cello in public altogether. At any rate, it was not possible for me to write, teach, travel, study, and perform all at the same time, and giving up performing was the easiest, most organic thing to do.
How did the CD come about?
I learn an awful lot about music through coaching. Many of my students are first-rate performers, and almost every week and every day I'm presented (in both senses of the word) with great music beautifully played and sung. The vicarious pleasure that I took in my students' music-making became ever deeper, and I started having the old urge to make music again. But I didn't want to go down the trodden path. I didn't quite know what to do, until one of my students – a free-jazz saxophonist with a few dozen records to his credit – suggested that I cut a CD. I can't tell you why I didn't have that idea for myself – I was probably stuck in my habits and couldn't imagine the way forwards. I jumped at the concept and started planning the CD at once.
What is the difference between doing a CD and performing?
There are many differences. The most obvious, though in my view not the most important, is that with a CD you're free to re-record at will and edit every last missed note out of your playing. This holds the potential of freeing the creative process – you can take lots of risks without worrying about the result. That is, you center yourself on the means and forget about the ends. Needless to say, the reverse of the medal is that without the public to spur you on, you might not surpass yourself as you would in performance, given the right conditions. Each situation has its merits and demerits!
Producing a CD is not unlike putting a book together, chapter by chapter, even paragraph by paragraph. You can do it over a long period of time, as I did with the CD – I ended up re-recording parts of it, and the recording sessions were 16 months apart. You have time to let ideas mature and change. For instance, after the first session I realized that one of the pieces on the program – a three-movement sonata by Camargo Guarnieri, a Brazilian composer – wasn't a sufficiently strong composition to be in the exalted company of Claude Debussy and Samuel Barber. I decided to keep one of its movements and substitute two short pieces (by different composers) for the weaker movements.
Like a book, a CD is an actual object that requires designing and manufacturing. This gives the recording artist the scope to create a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” a complete work of art including cover art, program notes, and so on. The musician and the writer in me coalesced in this project, and I wrote a long essay about my program and posted it on my website.
The CD, unlike the performance, transcends time. A performance might live in the minds and ears of listeners, transformed (diluted or enhanced, but definitely transformed) by perception and memory. A CD endures, in itself wholly unchanged. Which is more true to the artist, to the composer, to the listener, to its time? This is a question that we can't answer unequivocally. But it's fun thinking about it!
What insights did you have?
It's been a rich experience, and I feel I'll continue to learn from it for years to come. While practicing the cello in preparation for the recording I thought through some aspects of my playing, and I came to understand – with a mixture of shock and elation – that I had long misused my shoulders and arms at the cello. I made some changes to my use that suddenly gave me a different sound – silvery and focused – and much more dexterity than I had habitually.
I had to face the conflict between perception and reality every time I listened to a take in the recording sessions. Sometimes I'd be amazed at how good something sounded, and sometimes… well, good manners prevent me from finishing this thought!
I had to plan my cello practice over weeks and months, as I was preparing the CD at the same time I kept my busy teaching and traveling schedules. I love the long-range commitment to a project with all that it entails, including an aesthetic vision and an endless series of practical decisions. It takes a lot of discipline, and there's a unique joy in pulling it off.
I learned a great deal about collaboration. The CD involved my pianist, Fabio Gardenal , who lives in NY; my old friend and rehearsal pianist in Paris, Debby Growald; my recording engineer, Marc Seiffge ; a friend of Fabio's who put us up in Germany, called Roberto Domingos, and who provided us with a connection to Seiffge; my graphic designer, Giuseppe Casciani (who also helped me create my web site); and more people still, including the manufacturers of the actual object in the US and my friends who're helping me distribute it.
Every step along the way there were myriad potential ways of end-gaining, and I think I've become a little wiser over the nearly three years that the CD took from the initial creative impulse to its delivery to my trembling hands.
Last but not least, I've taken my cello playing to a totally new level!
You returned to the stage with two performances in New York this summer. Tell me about that.
When I gave up performing six years ago, I really thought that I had reached my permanent retirement as a performer, and I was very happy about it. I didn't seek out the performances in NY – they came about as the side-effect of my teaching chamber music at a three-week-long seminar for string players at New York University. The seminar faculty gave two chamber-music performances. In the first one I played the first cello in Johannes Brahms's Sextet in Bb, op. 18; in the second one I performed Beethoven's magnificent Trio in Bb, op. 97 (called “The Archduke”) for piano, violin, and cello. I must say I was quite apprehensive about coming out of retirement. I think performing in concerts 150 times a year (as do many professionals) is in many ways easier than playing once in six years! But both performances went very well, in particular the “Archduke." Neil Weintrob (the violinist in the trio) and I spoke the same instrumental and musical language and we were able to think and move as one. That concert was the highlight of my summer – even though it was also the summer of my wedding! And what was wonderful about it wasn't my playing well; it was my being inside a masterpiece by a great composer, a piece I've loved for thirty years, ever since I discovered it through the recording of the Istomin-Stern-Rose Trio. For me it was one of those holy occasions where there's a communion between the player and the composer, the player and his colleagues, the player and his public.
What does the future hold?
Only Allah knows!
Pedro de Alcantara's new CD, Old New Worlds: 20 th -Century Music for Cello and Piano, is available from CDBaby.com and Amazon.com. CDBaby.com and Amazon.com .