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Sérgio Assad

April 20, 2009

Life is full for guitarist and composer Sérgio Assad. The Brazilian performs with his brother, Odair, in arguably the best guitar duo on the planet, tours for other ensemble projects, and teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Last November he won the 2008 Latin Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition for a piece he composed titled Tahhiyya Li Ossoulina, from The Assad Brothers’ album Jardim Abandonado. There’s an urgency to all the activity, the kind that comes from an artist in full swing.

Sérgio Assad discussed composing, family, and Piazzolla during a recent conversation in his San Francisco office. The Assad Brothers will close this season’s Dynamite Guitars series at Herbst Theatre on April 26 at 7 p.m.

How do you split your time between all your musical activities?

My brother and I are always touring. Our trio with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg has kept us very busy, too. We play Gypsy music from all over the world. Right now, Clarice and I are composing music for another tour in 2010 called Back to Our Roots. It’s an ensemble of musicians with Lebanese ancestry, like my brother and me, with Christiane Karam setting words to the music and singing and (percussionist) Jamey Haddad. And I teach here at the Conservatory. My wife and I have a home in Chicago, and we bought an apartment in San Francisco last year. She’s an astrophysicist, and works in Chicago. But she has a very flexible schedule and can arrange to work where I’m playing. It works out.

Is it difficult composing with so much travel?

Coming to the San Francisco Conservatory this year was supposed to limit my travel, but that hasn’t happened yet. I’m composing on airplanes, and wherever. You need to be disciplined and write every day. You need to make the time, because it doesn’t happen by magic. If I don’t do it now at this point of my life, I will never do it. There isn’t that much time left. Over the years I’ve written a good amount, but there is so much more I want to do.

The Assad musical dynasty keeps growing: YouTube streams your 84-year-old father playing mandolin with musicians a quarter his age — The Assad Brothers; your sister, Badi, is ranked by Guitar Player magazine among the 100 greatest players. And your daughter, Clarice, is a brilliant young composer, vocalist, and pianist. How does this happen?

My father is incredible. He loves music so much, and he gave it to us all. When Odair and I were young he moved the family from outside São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro so we could study with Monina Tavora, a student of Andrés Segovia. He’s so happy when he’s playing music. By the time Badi was 14 you could see that she could play. I used to write letters to her for her lessons. I was in Europe and this was before Skype or iChat. So this is how she learned. When Clarice was very young she had a vein for improvisation. I would play the guitar, and she sang over the top and followed the chord changes. She was composing by 6, and now she’s the featured composer for The New Century Chamber Orchestra here in San Francisco, with jazz and classical albums of her own. I’m very proud of her.

How long were you playing guitar before you began arranging and composing?

From the beginning when my brother and I found music we liked, I would create the part for the second guitar. When I began playing, there were no lessons. We would learn things from other people when they came around to the neighborhood. And we listened. We couldn’t read music, but we understood how the musical pieces fit, and we could copy very well.

The Assad Brothers’ repertoire includes so many pieces composed expressly for you by Terry Riley, Radamés Gnattali, Marlos Nobre, Nikita Koshkin, Roland Dyens, Jorge Morel, Edino Krieger, and Francisco Mignone. How did it happen that you and Odair became so closely associated with Ástor Piazzolla?

I discovered Piazzolla’s music in the 1970s and really loved it. It was new and it had every element of good music to me. But there were no scores, so I began arranging his music myself for my brother and I to play. I listened to the records over and over again. Then we were in Paris in 1983, and we first saw Piazzolla perform live. After the concert we went to a party for him at a restaurant, and we played some of our arrangements of his music. He was so excited that night, clapping his hands and laughing. He told us that he would write a piece for us. A couple of months later he gave us Tango Suite — he literally went home and wrote it for us! We learned the piece quickly and played it first in Liege, Belgium, in January of 1994, with Piazzolla in the audience. By April 1994 we got a contract with Nonesuch because Bob Hurwitz (the label’s head) heard Tango Suite. It was the Piazzolla Effect. We got to collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma because he heard Tango Suite. We owe a great deal to the Piazzolla Effect.

When are you happiest playing?

I always love playing with my brother. We’ve been doing it for so long and it's very special. But I would say that I am happiest playing with my family — my father, mother, brother, sister, and my children. We have so much fun.

Brian Gleeson is a communications consultant living in the Bay Area. Previously, he was a writer and producer of Rabbit Ears Radio, which was distributed nationwide by Public Radio International.