Popstar and recorder
"It is possible to become a pop star playing traditional music on the bagpipes and recorder." This is how The Los Angeles Times outlined the exciting career of Carlos Núñez.
Carlos Núñez was born 30 years ago in the Atlantic region of Galicia in north-western Spain. At an early age he started to make music. Discovered as a virtuoso bagpipe player by the legendary Irish folk band "The Chieftains," he toured as a member of the band through Europe, Japan, Australia, and the United States and recorded three CDs with them, also meeting and performing with other famous musical artists on stage. His own awarded-winning CD projects combine different musical styles and explore new musical directions from folk to pop-rock, all linked to Celtic music.
Besides the bagpipes, Carlos frequently uses all kinds of fipple flutes, and, most notably, he introduced the recorder into the world of popular music in the unique performance style of a celebrated artist. Today he is touring with his band abroad and working on a new album.
In his interview from 2004 with Nik Tarasov, he discussed his passion for the recorder for the first time with a reporter.
Windkanal: What is your first musical remembrance?
Carlos Núñez: It is said that I sung in my cradle. But I believe I just cried with style. Well, I personally recall looking at an album of old photos of my family, especially one picture, which shows a man with an instrument in his hands. My father explained that this was my great father, who was a musician conducting a little brass band, but at the same time he had cows. This mixture of two jobs was quite usual at that time in rural Galicia. When his cows were in the mountains, he used to playing music while sitting under a tree. When he was thirty years old, he went to Brazil for performing, but suddenly disappeared and never came back. This impressed me very much when I was small.
I also remember the melodies of the church bells from my home town, Vigo, as a big impression. In Galicia, like in all Celtic countries, we used to say that everything is connected. So, since you are a child you believe that life is like an opera between many things like music, images, ethnography, food. This is also pictured in our legends. Music is an important part of this great traditional opera play manifested in the Galician country.
So, the bells do not just simply mark the time, but there is a melodic tradition of performing on bells, like on a carillon?
And not just even melodies! Later I discovered special bell-rhythms, old true rhythms of dancing, like an Irish jig. These are used as signals saying "the party is starting", or so. There are also codes in the bells, for example, you realize when someone has died. When I was small, I just adsorbed these sounds subconsciously. But when I first touched a musical instrument, it was these codes, signals, rhythms and melodies that came out. So I played that all on a little recorder. I not imitated the music from the radio but the sounds of my Celtic environment.
How did you come across the recorder? Is it a common instrument in Galicia?
In a special was I must say yes. Now, in every school children learn the recorder basics. Today there is also a renewed tradition of the so called native "pito", a folk recorder but with the fingerings of bagpipes. This instrument starts with a semitone, means do sharp, and the tonic is on the second of the lowest fingers. There also is a thumbhole. But I began with the recorder when I was eight. With ten I took up the bagpipes, the gaita, the most traditional instrument in Galicia. Yearslater, when I was 16 years old, I discovered that many boys now start with the traditional pito to continue later with the pipes.
Why didn’t you start with the pito, which seems to be much more connected to the traditional music of Galicia?
I did not have this instrument when I was small. I started at school with a true German plastic recorder, which fascinated me through and through. This new alien object in my world smelled kind of strangely, and I dreamt away and imagined how Germany must possibly be. I learned very fast, and my teacher suggested buying a wooden flute, again from Germany - that was psychologically a big step. The sent of the wooden instrument pushed me the more. At that time, information from Germany was quite difficult to get, but for my imagination they have been very important.
I then had a recorder teacher and we played a lot of traditional Galician music on our instruments, but also a lot of medieval music, like the Cantigas de Santa Maria. First by ear and in the second year from written notation.
So you didn't put the recorder away for the gaita!
I continued instinctively. But indeed, at that time started for me a permanent question between two different musical worlds. The gaita came for me in a time of cultural explosion: it was the end of the Franco regime and the beginning of democracy. The gaita, formerly prohibited under Franco as a traditional instrument from the revolting provinces, like the Basque, Galicia or Catalonia, touched in me the Aristotelian side, while to the recorder I discovered more Platonic love. But the recorder was also something to defend. When I entered the Conservatory with ten, a woman asked me, why I want go on with the recorder as the obviously most "easy" instrument. I was shocked, and insisted, as I was sure, that my instrument was a "real" one, absolutely equal to the piano or the flute. I was sure I
was right, it was "my instrument", and that's all. But I was only allowed to learn gaita at the Conservatory and had to continue the recorder on my own through ordering baroque music scores from Germany, which have been hard to get at that time. So I also played medieval music from Spain, like the Martin Codex, Cantigas de Amigo and de Alfonso X, and so on.
Wasn't it hard to learn to play the recorder without a real teacher?
Sure. Especially as I was becoming quite well known and popular on the gaita and nobody cared for my secret side, the recorder.
A very important moment was a weekly radio series called "La Flauta de Picco." Here the recorder teacher Alvaro Marias from Madrid presented music performed in such an expressive manner by Frans Brueggen. I suddenly understood that there is a whole world waiting for me with the recorder. For more, I went with 16 to the Conservatory of Madrid. As I was still in school, that meant traveling eight times a month by train. Each time it takes you 9 hours to go there. I took the night train and slept all through the night. Now I had a real recorder teacher named Mariano Martin. And he taught me not only to be a musician, but also to be an artist. Means not only playing perfectly in the English or French style on the recorder but also to emotionalize and to communicate with the people. He had respect for me also being a bagpiper and for my way of playing the recorder with the
fingers of a piper.
How do the pipes train the fingers to play in a special way?
It means, for a piper, everything goes through the fingers. The tone repetition, the ornamentation (like French-like battements), the vibrato. There is no articulation possible with the tongue - you have to cut notes with the fingers. On the other hand, like the transverse flute player Wilbert Hazelzet said, a lot from Baroque French music comes from the old French musette tradition.
That brings good old Jacques Hotteterre le Romain to my mind, who played the baroque pipe-like musette, flute and recorder and wrote his famous instructive treatise on how to play French music.
This relaxed me much, because it is clearing from the impression that traditional bagpipe music and traditional recorder music were two different worlds. One could suppose that in Baroque time the musette (or pipe) playing technique inspired the new French performing stile on the flute or recorder,
like flattements, grace notes. There has been a fusion between folk and artificial music.
So you decided to play the recorder more like a pipe?
I played a lot in legato, but also in combination with the different period articulation techniques of the tongue. The result was a special expressive sound. And there is another aspect: the pipes are a very loud instrument, not so the recorder. But you can make it loud easily with a microphone. I was always used to do that, because I play in my childhood in a didactic group which traveled around to introduce people to traditional music. In Celtic music it is very normal to use a mike. The first time I played the recorder in public with a mike - I was maybe 12 years old - that gave us all the positive impression that it is a huge instrument. After some time, I learned have to make expression with the mike and to use it even like an instrument. My later masters continued to support me with that idea. Look at the Chieftains: Mat Molloy, who plays the Irish flute in that famous band, has a perfect sound through his mike, which makes him able to perform with the loud pipes. I stand very close to the mike; sometimes I use the big Neumann mike - the same tool that Elvis Presley was using. Recorder works always with the microphone. With the pipes it is much more complicated to get out a good amplified sound.
But formerly in traditional Irish music there was no place for the recorder. Everybody would take up the whistle instead. Was it you who introduced the recorder into that music with a new sound that combined techniques from classical and traditional elements?
I play whistle as well. But I love the recorder far too much, and I never could say bye-bye to it. It is my personal instrument. So I tried to build the recorder into Celtic music, and I clearly realized that this was a new effort. I realized that recorders have other possibilities that Irish flutes do not have. First it was all intuition: within the concerts, I change all the time between different instruments. From a big wooden whistle to a tenor recorder, from an ocarina to a soprano recorder, and so on.
To play an Irish reel is easier with the open fingering on a tin whistle, because on the recorder you would have some finger positions that are not so fast. It is simply easier and faster to play the typical grace notes on a whistle. For example, for Galician music recorder is much better: there you have a mixture of Celtic music with a Latin sense of melody.
And then, the whistle is very much explored by very good musicians. With the recorder, you have a corner of your own, you feel absolutely free. Breton and Scottish music on the recorder works fantastic. It is also very fine in Flamenco and when you play Tango on it.
So you left your former "baroque musical world" and took the recorder in the world of the pipers and traditional Celtic music.
I once learned consciously the way to play the explored Baroque music on the recorder. I also learned how to do the grace notes traditionally on the gaita, but the thing that makes the music today is the fusion.
What is it, besides playing on the recorder with the fingers of a piper?
I do it like this, but I also mix in all different things from the classical recorder world. Like, in old Italian music it is very normal to play double-tonguing. But it is not in traditional Ireland. It is sensational when you speed up Irish triplets by tonguing like on the recorder. "de-ge-de, de-ge-de." Then you can use secondary positions in the fingering permitting you make new combinations with grace notes on the recorder. On the whistle there is just one fingering: you may play half close a hole but you would use fork fingerings on the recorder. The best ground scale on the gaita in Galician music is B natural. If you want to follow that on the recorder you can simply take up a recorder in C pitched in 415.
What was your strongest motivation to forge a new way with the recorder?
I did not want to imitate musical styles of a past culture anymore. In Galicia, the folk music is a part of our lives, is much closer and so much more authentic. The feeling in traditional music is so strong.
I guess in Central Europe the rediscovered Early Music has become a part of people's lives. You recognize special titles, you can hear it daily in the radio. It is quite normal to play Telemann or Mozart at home today.
In all countries with an important history of classical music traditional music nearly disappeared! The opposite: countries without a strong classical music culture have an important sense for folk music, like Ireland or Spain. If it happens to a country that its opera of previous traditional elements disappear, this hole is filled by false folklore and their organized codification. Previous modal systems, different tunings and rhythmical codes mostly loose their identity in folkloric simplification.
I think where I live traditional music is closer to people than classical music, although everyone remembers classical music from the school.
So, for us the recorder is often regarded as a simple instrument for musical beginners. You were discovered and introduced to the folk music scene by the Chieftains as a gaita player. How did people find it when you also took up the recorder in your music concerts?
Very simple: it always happens to me that people were saying "we love that instrument!" I believe everyone has a part in his heart for the recorder. It is maybe the most universal instrument. Everyone knows it on this planet. It has a common language. Everyone tries at least once in his life to play on
it. When people hear it again in an energetic concert, they always remember something from their childhood. Recorder is a very personal, intimate instrument. Mat Molloy and Paddy Maloney - both big Irish whistle players - were amazed by the instrument. When I went with the Chieftains to Cuba to
meet Ry Cooder (before he did the Buena Vista Social Club-Project), what did I play: the recorder! I even played Tango in Argentina, and people like it so much. I performed on the recorder with some well-known Rock 'n Roll musicians, like Sinéad O'Connor, Roger Daltrey from The Who, Bob Dylan in
America, and many more. With a microphone, the recorder's pure voice sounds fantastic and becomes a powerful instrument!
But sometimes you say, unlike the gaita, the recorder is a Platonic instrument.
The pipes have always the drone. Means, it has contact to the earth ground. All that is musically happening is in the relation of the earth.
With the recorder you can fly like a bird. You can play the same music, but the feeling is turning into flying.