In the world of contemporary Argentine music, composer and pianist Carlos Aguirre is a giant. With roots in jazz, classical, and, perhaps most importantly, the folk music of Latin America, Aguirre is not only a renowned performer, but also a preservationist and advocate for the music of his home continent. "It's been a while now that I've been thinking of Latin America as one big country," he says. "I'm feeling the need to erase a lot of these borders."
This is due, in part, to the area in which he grew up. He's a native of Argentina's Littoral region, a river-rich area in the Northeastern part of the country with a strong folkloric musical tradition, as well as shared borders with Paraguay and Uruguay. Aguirre maintains strong roots in the Littoral's culture and landscape, roots that were cultivated during his childhood spent riding horses and playing along the water or in the countryside with his friends.
When he was indoors, music was often present — Aguirre's parents were music lovers, and he had an uncle who was passionate about folklore and gaucho poetry. He and his family had friends who were musicologists as well, so Aguirre also gained an appreciation for Argentina's long musical history.
He began studying classical piano at age five and continued his formal training through the School of Music in Paraná, Argentina, and the Music Institute in Santa Fe, picking up the guitar and studying composition along the way. After graduating, he embarked on his professional piano career, playing with famous guitarists like Luis Salinas, Quique Sinesi, and Lucho Gonzalez, and forming a quartet, the Carlos Aguirre Cuarteto. He also worked as an arranger for prominent singers from not only Argentina, but Peru and Chile as well.
Aguirre recorded his first album, Crema in 2000, followed by Rojo in 2005. Then in 2006, he released his first solo piano album, Caminos, a selection of original works that cemented Aguirre's place in the contemporary Argentine musical canon. The compositions are lively yet uncluttered, with a pristine performance quality that betrays his background in classical music. They draw strongly on the rhythms of the Littoral, as well as various other Latin American countries, though some, like "Romanza," sound like a stripped-down Chopin étude.
In the years since releasing Caminos, he's performed more often as a soloist — his solo shows usually feature Aguirre singing and playing his own compositions for both piano and guitar, as he'll do at Spoleto.
There are other aspects to Aguirre's musical contributions, however. He's also started a record label, Shagrada Megra, and a music publishing company, both of which were born of his belief in the importance of his country's native music and his mission to preserve it. "I've been traveling for a long time throughout my country and Latin America, and I met all these musicians," he says. "It seemed really sad to me that their work wasn't being published or publicized."
The companies focus on publishing works of musical significance, rather than ones that will be commercially successful. "We put out things like catalog works — works that are not going to have a huge quantity of sales, but have some kind of archival quality," Aguirre says. "We also do rescue recordings, recordings of musicians who have since passed away. This was the case with an Uruguayan composer. We were able to record the last of his works before he died."
As far as his own musical projects, Aguirre is currently concerned with a repertoire he's been developing for the past several years, one that's focused specifically on Littoral, or coastal, folk music. "I'm thinking not only of the Argentine side, but the whole region, which includes parts of Paraguay, Uruguay, the south of Brazil. It's a cultural-geographical region, not an individual country." He's been traveling throughout this region, as well as other parts of the South American coast, learning and collecting music by the composers who have left their mark on the countries' "water music." This includes composers like Chacho Müller, known as the creator of the Littoral music genre, Anibal Sampayo, and Alfredo Zitarrosa, as well as lesser-known musicians whom Aguirre comes across in his travels. His Spoleto concert, which is also his U.S. debut, will feature pieces from this repertoire as well as his own compositions and improvisations.
While working on this coastal music project, he's begun exploring a distinctly Argentine idea: how to interpret and develop the relationship between a solo performer and his or her instrument. "There's a tradition in Argentina of thinking about an arrangement for solo instrument and voice in which the instrument is equally a protagonist with the performer. The instrument isn't just playing chords and accompanying," Aguirre says. "It's a tradition that in Argentina is more closely linked with the guitar. It doesn't happen much with the piano, and I see this as a challenge — to conceive of an arrangement where the piano has a role as a protagonist."
To non-musicians, that may seem a very subtle difference. But Michael Grofsorean, Spoleto's Jazz Director, offers some elaboration — although he mentions that he hasn't spoken to Aguirre specifically about this. "I think he is making a distinction: [There's] writing a song and using an instrument (guitar, piano) to accompany the lyric, versus a more integrated approach, where the instruments and his voice are used to realize compositional ideas. In other words, he's thinking like a composer, and his orchestra is what he can create by himself, with piano, guitar, percussion, voice."
So Aguirre is pushing himself creatively, not just as a musician and performer, but as a composer, and in a very unique way. That, Grofsorean thinks, is what makes Aguirre great. "I think he is a very important artist, because he offers himself as an example of what is possible in music if a person devotes him or herself wholly to the act of genuine musical expression," he says. "We all know that if you don't expect great things from yourself, chances are that great things will not issue forth. He expects great things from himself — a good fortune for the rest of us." v