A Conversation with Roberto McCausland Dieppa

Colombian pianist/composer Roberto McCausland Dieppa plays the classics—he’s toured extensively, to critical acclaim—but also loves jazz, popular, and folk music (especially the Colombian variety). He founded the Santa Fe Orchestra to play Colombian and Caribbean music in a fusion style combining Latin/Caribbean/jazz/classical influences, including percussion, and has written and performed many arrangements of South American songs.

His Variaciones sobre un tema de Fruko (Variations on a Theme by Fruko), for string quartet, bass, oboe, full Latin percussion, and piano is, to quote his web site, “an original composition …[that] merges salsa, jazz and classical in a passionate, virtuosic yet perfectly balanced format building on the natural structure of the genre in dance movements).” He’s received many prestigious awards, among them The Pro-Arte Prize given by the Ministry of Culture of Hungary “for his performance and dissemination of the music of Ferenc Liszt and Béla Bartók.” I should also mention his United Nations appearance (with moderator Henry Kissinger) in March 2006, celebrating Hungary’s 50 years of independence since the 1956 revolution.

Anyone interested in seeing/hearing him play alone and with his group can find numerous clips on YouTube, some taken from a series of six DVDs produced by the Universidad del Norte, Colombia, which also produced a documentary about his musical upbringing (there’s a link to a clip from this at: robertomccauslanddieppa.com/?section=bio on “Drawing music lovers” in the Timeline section of the site).

Dieppa has also written a book for young people, Beethoven for Kids, which is best appreciated in conjunction with his CD of the same name, as well as his other similarly themed CD, Beethoven for Kids and Teens.

Besides overflowing with creative ideas, he’s a conversationalist whose individual turn of phrase and joie de vivre probably owe something to his Caribbean heritage. Speaking with him, I found his warm voice and relaxed manner the perfect complement to his Latin charm.

…his own ‘inspirations’ … combine Lisztian virtuosity and chromaticism with a Latin American sensibility in arrangementes… Besame Mucho and Jobim’s Insensatez… International Piano Magazine, Wulf, July 2015

What was your early life like, musically speaking?

Remembering, I can say that music, art, and literature were always part of our home’s ambiance … and that’s not to deny the artistic milieu of the times … it was the importance of sound as an expressive, sensuous and sensual, non-verbal language that took hold of me.

My siblings started music lessons, and I must have been around four or five years old at the time. It seemed to have been difficult for them to perform their music assignments: I would help them by playing the tunes on the guitar or would go to their lessons, absorb them, and complete their assignments, all by ear. Life then was (and still is, today) mostly a social and family interactive learning communal experience, where all would know for good or worse what was going on or what activities people were engaged in.

In the wider world, success and failure took place in front of an audience. There was a communal aspect to Caribbean culture—a Montessori-type, mas o menos, environment. Eventually my siblings all quit music and my parents did not acquiesce to my request for lessons, mostly because they didn’t approve of my artistic inclination. To them, the eldest son should do anything but be in the arts. Unforgiven, I am still doing what I was meant to do; that is my feeling.

Eventually my mother couldn’t refuse me, but she decided that rather than have me study with a stranger, she would teach me herself. This suited me, as well: I would reinterpret and reinvent her teaching in my own way and I humorously challenged her character and process: It was fun! As an avid British and American literature fan, I’d say that learning from my Mom was like taking piano lessons from Julia Child.

My grandfather lived by music. Every waking hour away from work he had the music going! As a Euro-Latin gentleman, and as for many during his time—[Brazilian landscape architect] Roberto Burle-Marx and his family come to mind when I think of his generation—Beethoven was his guy. There was not one recording of Otto Klemperer we did not listen to analytically; every recording of Wilhelm Kempff’s beautiful piano tone, with his sense of phrasing, involved us so much that we would try to emulate it on a late 19th-century Steinway B. It was all a passionate obsession about music and Beethoven, and how much of a good time we had…

Do you play anything besides piano?

I learned guitar, bass guitar, assorted percussion instruments, and studied violin seriously. I love the sound of a great violin and violinist. Heifitz’s Bach Chaconne entered my soul the moment I heard it the first time. Ravel’s Tzigane and the Brahms Violin Concerto touch every cell of my nervous system.

Still, for me, few are the truly great violinists who have mastered the delivery of the soul of the instrument in convergence with the communication of the story. A violin, like a lead trumpet and great rock guitarists, speaks stories in sound and every nuance, tickle, finger touch, belly ache, toe tingling, heartfelt human emotion is contained in that little box. I took the violin to get to know her, like a man needs to know his woman to make her his own.

How were you introduced to jazz? Popular music? Rock? My father was a Modernist, super jazz aficionado. Satchmo (as he told me Louis Armstrong was nicknamed), Benny Goodman, Erroll Garner, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald, were treated with the same reverence with which the French speak of Ravel, Debussy, and de la Croix, perhaps even Monet and Matisse. I loved Art Tatum. Dad would teach me about how jazz had evolved, bout saxophonists Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. As an architect, he had studied and lived in New York where Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier had been the diet of the time, and I am sure he spent his free time in jazz halls or perhaps even bars; although he would not dare admit it, he knew too much about it. Even the Beatles were part of his collection. Not side-tracking his passion for modern art, he was a serious listener, maybe even too serious!

But above all, as Caribbeans we were aware from our earliest years of the sensuousness of life, and this found an echo in our love of jazz. I felt Miles [Davis] must have been a great lover; he must have been able to make a woman come alive and feel every possible emotion through his touch and whisper—that is what I sense from his slow ballad playing—that is great stuff….

Then there were Santana, Jimi Hendrix (though I didn’t hear him when he was alive), Cream, Deep Purple, and much later, Van Halen. Their music became the rhythms of our belly souls, at least for me. It was part of our household, mostly because the older siblings would bring the music home. Rock was in my blood. I even had a 20-piece band with which I played Latin-rock, jazz, and a little, little bit of classical, and experimented seriously with my first compositions. Needless to say, salsa and Caribbean sounds never stop sounding in Barranquilla. People often ask me how come I know so many tunes and styles, having lived mostly abroad. Music never stops and it is integrated in our daily customs and rituals—there is a sound, a “clave” [a rhythm] for every occasion.

…Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin’… Preludes Book I pleasent sense of Poise… International Piano, Wulf, June 2015

But once I heard the Liszt Sonata and all of its mysterious Phrygian and gypsy sounds (and the Mahler Eighth reassured me, with its mixture of classical and folk elements), I knew I had to be there doing it and be part of the expression. Hence, it created my artistic mission….

When did you begin to compose?

As a kid, becoming familiar with learning tunes and sounds, sounds played and sounds heard started to synchronize. Concurrently, little ideas would emanate from others, consequently relating sounds with moods, occasions, and images. I would add on to some, improvise parts for others (cute incidental music for home plays), and started composing for community and school occasions. Then ideas started to crystallize: a fusing of folk, classical, and popular idioms, and then paraphrases and re-compositions of materials flowed. Eventually, I came up with the idea of framing rock and Latin sounds and rhythms in a symphonic architectural sequence. It was fun and seemed to work well; there was an audience for this. Soon thereafter I left for a more formal pursuit of ideas and training….

So you were initially self-taught?

Self- and community-taught. For me, absorbing music meant learning to rely totally on the auditory process, rather than visual stimuli translated into sound. Of course one has to read the score, but learning from sound itself is where it is at. There is a special color, touch, and feeling Rachmaninoff emits in his recordings when I hear his playing—the notes C, C#, A♭­, A, have to me a distinctive sound that belongs to him and only to him. Michelangeli has that individual, yet fittingly special way of approaching E♭­, of course subject to the message of the music….

Unfortunately, the theorists and the traditionalists may be killing classical music with their overly analytical approach. To them, all that matters are just mental organizational processes, not music or artistry. So when I went to formal music school I was shocked at the reliance on tradition. Supposedly we would learn the authentic Lisztian tradition because whoever we learned from was per se a student of a student of a student of Lammond, who was a student of the man himself. I think Liszt and his friends would have laughed at this idea.

Or consider the so-called Viennese tradition, which offers a lot of staleness on its own if not infused with the proper emotional elements of the culture. Of course this is much easier to write about it than to make it work. Or consider trying to codify sonata form—unimaginable! It’s all empty intellectual theorizing. After all, how many Beethoven sonatas or Mozart piano concerti are exactly the same architecturally? None.

To repeat, I had come from a primarily auditory environment to the academic intellectual study of music and performance, and it was hellish for me. It seemed to me that many instructors, professors, and teachers were relying heavily on past knowledge, and few were in real time.

However, I did have a couple of, so to speak, “great” teachers. One championed the Liszt Sonata and the Mephisto Waltz: As I was studying with him, it was an experience, I learned a huge amount. I came to the other teacher when he was older, in his 70s, and with him there was real artistic insight: He embodied pure excellence in teaching. In general, my relationships with teachers were tumultuous; I wanted to learn, but not merely through repetition of “traditions,” as if we were parrots paraphrasing techniques. But persistence pays, and in the end I got out of them a huge amount of greatness.

Would you say that your experience accurately reflects your country’s academic approach?

Yes. Even today, it is a carbon copy of Europe, yet we are not completely European: We owe a fair bit to African and Mediterranean music, as well. We have to find a way to combine our own ways with North American teaching and European tradition. There’s much to learn and there’s so much innate, intuitive talent. There are very few places where I have ever been or lived where music and sound are so ingrained in daily life. I think there may even be a political element in that music represents freedom from the constraints of inherited colonial social mores. Speaking of the totality of Columbian music, I am confident that recognition will come.

Not only do you perform and compose, you also conduct. Did you start to do so out of necessity, like Stravinsky in his early years?

Yes. At this point, the idiom is still young and unchartered. When I score a work with 11 to 15 percussion instruments, carefully choreographed and intended to be performed simultaneously, I still find conductors who say it cannot be….My personality is such that I naturally like to lead, and more important, to communicate emotional expression. For a passionate storyteller, there is nothing like an orchestral ensemble. Besides playing with my own group, I’m starting to work a bit with some young ensembles in order to spread the joy: We are also forming one dedicated to this type of sound.

How has your music been received in Columbia and elsewhere around the world?

We are just starting to spread the word. I am happy that the classical public, as well as the general audience, enjoys the crossover and fusion elements, so there seems to be a genuine interest.

Another way in which you try to “spread the word” is with your Beethoven for Kidsseries.

This is in my heart, mind, and soul, to bring what I think is great music and a character building process to kids. Beethoven worked diligently; it was not easy for him—and it is not easy for any one.

About your new CD: If I may play devil’s advocate for a moment, Autumn Passion contains four well-known Beethoven sonatas, performed live. Why should anyone buy it when this music has been done so many times before? What do you feel you bring to it?

If I love to perform these sonatas, then I think the public will love these performances as well. It is not about playing them better or creating the ultimate recording or concert—it is about the utter joy, verve, and passion in performance. It’s as if you had a Cabernet (vino) and said to yourself, “Why should I try and enjoy another one if I have already tasted it once, and it was good?” You would be missing the joy, life, passion, and fulfillment of another wonderful and beautiful wine.

Although you and I haven’t met in person, I’m impressed with your self-confidence, even as I enjoy your light-hearted sense of humor—I love the picture of you wearing those fluorescent yellow glasses.

Life is good; what is there not to be joyful about? A little bit of humor and fun never interferes in the seriousness of the pursuit of excellence. Besides, no one owns the rights to how Beethoven should be performed.

This article originally appeared in Issue 38:3 (Jan/Feb 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.