In Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Aleph,” the narrator walks with a pompous poet down the Calle Bernardo de Irigoyen, in Buenos Aires. Later, he follows the man, whose wife he has fallen in love with, down to his basement, and experiences a single point in which all the mysteries of the “inconceivable universe” are perceptible. On a scalding day in December, I met the Argentine composer Oscar Edelstein at a café near the opera house in Buenos Aires, the Teatro Colón: not far from the reference points of Borges’s story. Our conversation started with the city and its writers. We drank cortados, Edelstein smoked his pipe, and buses whipped around the corner as we turned to music. Deborah Claire Procter, a Welsh artist who works with Edelstein, provided occasional translation and clarification as we talked.

VAN: Are you from Buenos Aires?

Oscar Edelstein: I’m from the province of Entre Ríos, which means “between rivers.” I was born in La Paz, which is a tiny town there. Then my parents went to Paraná, the regional capital. La Paz had a lot of crazy people, and painters. But in Paraná they had more mediocre people who were civil servants. There, I learned how to fight; when I was young, in the provinces, you had to.

And it was incredibly difficult to get books there. To get a book of Cage’s, I had to travel to Buenos Aires for five days in a ship, because we didn’t have a canal at that time. It was so isolated. But it’s where I met Juanele [Juan Laurentino] Ortiz.

Who was Juanele Ortiz?

He was a writer who lived very close to my house. He was incredibly famous, but we didn’t know anything about him then: we just knew he was an old man who read poems and talked with the other children in town and I about politics. Juanele’s house was like Borges’s aleph, where you could find everything in one point.

And why was he important for you?

Because I got to know a person who wrote and was a poet. You know, he was the kind of person who could have a personal interview with Chairman Mao—invited by Chairman Mao. All the people in Argentina visited him: Che Guevara, Mercedes Sosa, they were all in the house. And we accepted this naturally. We didn’t have any idea of what was happening there, in the beginning. Then, when I traveled to Europe, I saw a conference about Juanele. When I returned, I began to have the dimension of this man. The beginning was in Juanele’s house. He gave me my first piece of Stockhausen.

Photo Walter Sangroni /AFS
Photo Walter Sangroni /AFS

What was it like discovering experimental music in Argentina as a young person?

I remember a professor, when I was about six, she said, “Well, you have the notes, C and D. And you have C# in the middle.” And I asked, “What do you have in the middle of C and C#?” And she looked at me and said, “What kind of question is that? It’s nothing.”

So I asked my father. It became an obsession. My father said, “It’s a complicated thing, but I’m going to explain it.” And he explained about Pythagoras and all the scales. He was an engineer, so he knew. I also asked Juanele. Juanele didn’t have all the answers to the questions, but he had a lot of books and information. I also had an anarchist uncle—he was incredible—and his advice was always, “Well, you need to put a little bomb in the car of this professor. Don’t hurt anybody,” because they didn’t do anything violent to a person, but to the object. “You can destroy the car!” And my mother said, “Why are you saying this kind of things to the boy?!”

I listened to BBC concerts with my Motorola. I had to go to the park at night to listen. And they played contemporary music too. But: you had noise, all the time, because the reception wasn’t good. So I wasn’t sure whether what I was hearing was the music or the noise. And that was a kind of truth.

Do you have perfect pitch?

Yes. But I’ve worked hard to move outside that. It’s not good for composition. Because it’s basically just a very vivid memory of your first sound, and as a professor of mine told me, unfortunately, “Memory is not good for a composer. Imagination is.”

It is good for when the musicians play something that is not in the score. I have one friend here who, before a premiere, put 20 mistakes in the score, in a big cluster. And then when they got to that section, he said, “No, no! The trumpet is playing a C.” “Well, that’s what I have.” “No, it’s a D.” And I know a lot of conductors who do the same thing. It’s to get superiority over your orchestra.

Have you ever done that?

No, never. Because I like the mistakes. If they make a mistake, and it’s obvious, I say it to the conductor after. But I have another style. I believe that they’re doing their best.

What does rehearsal look like with a composer who likes the mistakes?

Well, with my Ensamble Nacional del Sur, I work a lot with rhythmic options—more like schemes—that they can read through by sight, and then we can get the precision through the rehearsals. That’s always a lot of work. Complexity takes precision, but there are different ways to get it. One way is how you write. Another way is to put the music in the bodies of the instrumentalists, so that they feel it and do it naturally.

Does the process change when you’re working with other groups?

Yes. It’s a different kind of compromise with the instrumentalists. I’ve done seminars in Europe, and I’ve had fantastic musicians. They can get you results quicker on a technical level. But I respect Argentine musicians greatly, because they have a lot of imagination.

I’ve seen the problems that they have in Europe. They have very good interpretations, but they can be unwelcoming in the imagination. Instrumentalists and composers there take models. They imitate.

I remember I had a one-on-one meeting with a student at a UK conservatory, and I said, “How could you write this? This is John Cage.” Nobody had told him. And the composer said afterwards, “You were fantastic to me. You opened a big window in my life. Here, nobody says anything, because they are scared. And you told me the truth, you gave me a huge impulse.” Here, the problem is technical. But there, sometimes, the imagination and the aesthetic gets stationary. They follow a style that’s OK. They accept commissions to write eight minute or three minute pieces.

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Are you saying you don’t accept commissions if the length is predetermined?

Never. I am completely radical in that. This is hard, I cannot know in advance. If they give me a limit, I begin to think, “I don’t want to do this.”

After having agreed on the fee, will you ever write a piece of, say, two minute duration?

No, because I have morals. It’s always possible that I make more, but not less. It’s not because I want to make a one-minute piece. It’s because I don’t want to be in a prison of eight minutes.

What if the right length of a piece, aesthetically, is two minutes?

Sometimes a piece needs to be two minutes. If this happens to me, I’ll make 10 two-minute pieces. I love Webern. But when I get a commission, I’m not going to do this. From more than 25 years, I haven’t had a concert with another composer, [because my works are] one hour, two hours, sometimes three hours.

I like to have a good relationship with the audience. I don’t make music for them, I never think about the audience [when I’m writing], but I have a popular spirit. I desire popularity. So, I do tricks and things in concerts that the people like.

Photo Max Edelstein
Photo Max Edelstein

Do you get the popularity that you look for?

I think so. You don’t get many contemporary composers who can sell tickets here, and my groups sell a lot of tickets. This is popularity in one sense of the term. It’s not massive. When I was young, in the ‘70s, we said, Popularity is what makes the people better. There’s a difference between being popular and being massively well-known. There’s music that has a huge audience but isn’t popular, because it doesn’t speak to people’s imagination.

Well, a lot of minimalists.  

Don’t let me stop you from saying Philip Glass if that’s what your thinking.

No, no [laughs]. Look: when I speak about a composer, a musician, it’s because I have something good to say. When I don’t have anything good to say I prefer to speak in general. It’s easy to attack Philip Glass. I don’t think he’s a big problem. He’s a model. But you have a lot of followers of this kind of music who are much worse.

But that’s true of followers of more academic composers like Ferneyhough or Lachenmann as well, that the models are much worse than the originals.

Of course. That’s always a problem when you copy someone else. But in the case of the minimalists, they are trying to get a kind of popularity that does make the thing a little dirtier. When you follow Ferneyhough, well, you are going to be alone with your music. This is something you can be proud of, in one sense. The other is more superficial, it’s more market-based. Both are mistakes, but one is a more authentic mistake. The other is trying to get more money or more popularity.  

In the U.S. right now, artists are grappling with the political implications of their work with what feels like a new vigor. Has your work ever been affected by Argentine politics?

Yes. This government, for example, is making a big cultural change. The last government created two new public cultural channels on TV [Televisión Pública Argentina/Canal 7 and Canal Encuentro—Ed.], which were incredibly good, and they’re being replaced with game shows. I know how to go with the flow; instead of doing interviews with the major newspapers, I’ve been talking to independent street journals. Sometimes they ask completely innocent questions that can move you. So when things are bad politically, when the government becomes more right or conservative, I begin to go to the private, simple places. So I play in bars, instead of in the Teatro Colón.

I really don’t want to work with this government. At one point, they called me and said they’d like to have me for a project. They need the “opposition” to show they’re a democracy and that they call everybody, but I know what they’re doing.

So what did you say when they called?

“Fuck you!”

In those exact words?

Yes. I’m not so polite, sorry. Remember that I am a boxer. I said, “Fuck you. How can you be working for this stupid government that puts the mothers out onto the street?” We need to be strong and open up other opportunities. When I do that, it gives young people that feeling, about the government, of: “We don’t need you.” I know that for a lot of serious music, you need the support of the state, but when it’s already attacking science, technology, research, universities, culture—what are you going to discuss with them? You have to create another point of reference. You have to fight them in this way. ¶

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… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...