With his intuitive approach to improvisation and exploration of timbres, Berlin-based Portuguese cellist, improviser and composer Guilherme Rodrigues is using both classical and extensive playing techniques. His first duo recording with trombonist Sebi Tramontana, entitled Han Jiae, is one of the rare albums that are released outside of his family-run homelabel Creative Sources. Rodrigues talks about his collaborative work with Tramontana, the title of the recording, his formative years as an improvising musician, moving to Berlin, and about his activity on the Berlin and Lisbon improvised music ‘landscapes’. Interview.
– You have released recordings with dozens of musicians in the last twenty years or so, but Han Jiae is your first album with Italian trombonist Sebi Tramontana. How did that collaboration come about? Have you had a common music history with him in any context in the past, or was it a first time meeting?
Guilherme Rodrigues: “Ever since I was a kid, I have listened to the music of Sebi because of my father, Ernesto. The first time I saw him live on stage was in 2003 at the Kaleidophon Ulrichsberg Festival in Austria where I also played. I have always looked forward, one day, to playing and sharing the stage with him. Two years ago, I played in Munich and Sebi Tramontana came to see my concert. We talked about playing together in the future and we have kept in contact since then. In this year’s February, he told me that he would come to Berlin and that he would have one day available for us to play together as a duo and that is how and when Han Jiae happened – recorded at my apartment, after a magnificent Korean lunch. Besides being an exceptional musician, he has a very cheerful and special charisma and personality. It was undoubtedly one of my childhood dreams come true.”
– After playing with more than many musicians and now with Sebi Tramontana, did this collaboration give you any special experience that you had never sensed before?
Guilherme Rodrigues: “It was a very special one. Sebi is certainly one of the most intuitive musicians I have ever met and played with, and you cannot buy or practice that kind of natural-born gift. It is definitely embedded in himself, and that is what I felt about him at the very first moment.”
– Some claim the trombone is basically the loudest acoustic instrument. Regarding pairing up instruments, is a trombone-cello duo an easy one, or does it have certain problematic aspects thinking of volume, range and timbre?
Guilherme Rodrigues: “Although the trombone is more voluminous than the cello, this is a question that has a lot to do with the personality of the individual of whom you play with. Sebi, attributed to his ability to listen, understanding of complicity and enriched experience, has fitted like a glove to the volume of the cello. It made my work much easier, no doubt about it.”
– Han Jiae is a peculiar and unusual album title. What does it refer to, and does this have any direct input into the duo’s music?
Guilherme Rodrigues: “On the day of the apartment recording, Sebi came earlier for lunch and met my partner at our place. It was a very pleasant afternoon with such a delicious and healthy noodle soup she made for us. Naturally, the good energy that we charged with was transmuted into the music what you can now hear on the album. We thought that it would be good to honour her by naming the album after her. So Han Jiae is actually the name of my partner.”
– You started to play the cello at a very early age. You started practicing when you were 7 years old, the first recording with your involvement came out when you were only 13. When I started to follow your music with the album entitled Kreis you were 16, and during and around your highschool years you have already played and recorded with Michael Thieke, Christine Abdelnour, Angharad Davies, Jean-Luc Guionnet and Martin Küchen among many, I mean really many others. How do you remember this incredibly active period?
Guilherme Rodrigues: “Along with my curiosity and enthusiasm to explore, it was certainly my father’s goodwill that included me in his various projects. I am and will always be grateful to him for believing in me. I remember back then it was always ‘a party’. My parents were always open-minded, socially active and magnificent cooks. The ritual of these party nights was that musicians who visited us, came over for dinner, would play music or record an album. With some of these musicians, relationships have been evolved not only simply in music, but also in friendship based on mutual respect. These were undoubtedly golden years in my adolescence that ameliorated me immensely.”
– You moved to Berlin in 2016, you left the Portuguese scene behind, and since then you have been active as composer and improviser on the Berlin scene. Was it a certain getaway, or how would you describe the motivations behind your relocation?
Guilherme Rodrigues: “Well, to be honest, and given my zodiac sign, which is Taurus, I am quite a persistent guy. On the other hand, ever since I was a child, my father said to me: Guilherme, go to Berlin. For various reasons. Most of my adolescence years were spent in Lisbon with a girlfriend. At 24, after the end of a three-year relationship, the day has finally arrived. I flew to Berlin and decided to try my luck in there. Today, after five years, I recognize that it was the best decision I have ever made in my life. It is a city where art is very much present every single day. I got to develop on many levels and gained my own place and independence.”
– You have worked and have been working on both the Lisbon and Berlin scene, and I am wondering how do you see the improvised music ‘landscape’ here and there? Are there aspects that you feel are particular to these countries, and are there any features which you regard as particular weaknesses or strengths in Lisbon and Berlin?
Guilherme Rodrigues: “In Lisbon, one of my great traumas was not being able to have a friend who would enjoy dissonant music as I do. I remember that at many of my concerts at small venues, if we had ten people attending the event, it was already considered a ‘good one’. In Portugal, the scene has evolved a lot in the last five years or so: today we have many musicians, and more and more of them are interested in improvised music, although most of them have other main jobs to earn money. The economic situation has never been satisfying in Portugal. On the other hand, in Berlin, where a lot of things are going on, I can devote a little more to the refinement of my art. There is more time and space to think, work, in order to make new projects. And so, it makes sense that here things ‘sound better’. But there will be always exceptions to the rule, and each case is a case.”
– In the end, let us get back to the new recording with Sebi Tramontana: do you sense a wish to carry on this duo project with live performances or even with a sequel album?
Guilherme Rodrigues: “Absolutely. On both musical and human level, I believe, we work very well together, so it is definitely my wish to play with Sebi even in broader places such as in Ljubljana in the next years to come.”