Combination Platter

In 1963, in his native Buenos Aires, Guillermo Gregorio performed an original composition entitled “On the Piano, In the Piano, Around the Piano.” He and a partner clomped back and forth around the instrument to follow the score, striking the keys, scraping the internal strings, even thwacking the wooden body. Playing a recording of that performance for me in his geometrically immaculate Pilsen apartment 36 years later, Gregorio traces the sounds in the air with his hands, not as if he were conducting the music but as if he were painting or imagining the contours of a sculpture. “When I imagine music, I imagine it visually,” he explains.

As a teenager Gregorio had a vague interest in design and machines that would later develop into a love of constructivist art, but the Chicago-style jazz of Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, Max Kaminsky, and Pee Wee Russell held greater sway. He picked up the clarinet at 13, found classmates to jam with, and a few years later, after becoming enamored with the cerebralism and emotional restraint of proto-cool-jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, took up the alto sax as well. At the time, record companies like Pacific Jazz frequently used modern art on album covers, and before long Gregorio was making connections on his own, reading books on art, architecture, and design while exploring contemporary art music–Webern, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, electronic music, musique concrete.

When it came time to attend college, he had to choose between his loves, and pragmatically he picked architecture as his career. “Because I didn’t have to depend on musical activity to make money, I felt like I could play whatever I wanted,” he says. “Theoretically it meant that I could not make experimental or creative architecture, but statistically there are less opportunities to produce it anyway, because of the amount of capital it requires. You can play music at home with some friends and it doesn’t cost anything.” But throughout his education at Buenos Aires University–he graduated in 1966–he spent his spare time attempting to reconcile his various interests, which by then also included Ornette Coleman’s free jazz.

Most of Gregorio’s performances in that decade were unrepentantly experimental, and his jazz vocabulary gathered dust. He engaged in collective improvisation a la AMM using graphic scores–notations involving shapes, colors, and other visual stimuli that are often works of art in themselves. Once he and three other musicians camped out on the four corners of an intersection and played music according to codes that corresponded to the speed, color, and movements of passing vehicles. And in the late 60s, caught up in the playful spirit of the Fluxus movement, he developed a piece called “Musica Concreta,” which cast a blueprint for a table as the score, carpenters as performers, and their tools as instruments. It worked both as an homage to musique concrete, in which naturally occurring sounds and noises are manipulated to make music, and as a metaphor for altering reality–transforming planks of wood into a table.

These days most of Gregorio’s music isn’t quite as conceptual, but it’s still heavily intertwined with the visual: for two pieces on his Degrees of Iconicity, a recording due next month on the Swiss Hat Now label, he developed graphic scores inspired by the work of Bauhaus designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy–himself an advocate of artistic cross training.

Gregorio’s interest in jazz, and particularly in Tristano, resurfaced in the early 80s, when he formed a group called Buenos Aires Trans-Bop. According to Gregorio the band attracted a respectable following, but he broke it up in 1985 when his wife, Silvia Dapia, a comparative literature professor, took a job in Austria. “It wasn’t difficult to leave,” he says, alluding to Argentina’s political and economic difficulties of the early 80s. In Vienna he found a kindred spirit in flugelhornist Franz Koglmann, and except for a year Gregorio spent consulting on a group of apartment buildings in Los Angeles–an assignment he took advantage of to study with Tristano disciple Warne Marsh–the two worked closely together throughout his time there.

Gregorio had played on three of Koglmann’s albums for Hat Art (another branch of the family of labels that includes Hat Now), but in 1991, just as he was preparing a group of his own, Tal Cual, to document some of his compositions, Dapia was offered a job at Purdue. So he followed her to Michigan City, Indiana, and began looking for American musicians who could accurately render his work. He finally found them in the summer of 1994, which he spent in New Haven, Connecticut, while Dapia taught a course at Yale. A year after that, he recorded his first album as a leader, Approximately, with a band that included Boston-based pianist Pandelis Karayorgis and violinist Mat Maneri. Not surprisingly, the album reimagines Tristano’s restrained sound in the context of open structures and harmonic freedom.

Gregorio and Dapia moved into Chicago in November 1996 in part because Gregorio had developed ties with local musicians like bass clarinetist Gene Coleman, vibist Carrie Biolo, and jack-of-all-trades Jim O’Rourke–all of whom appeared on his next recording, Ellipsis. It’s a radical departure from his jazz phase: in place of Approximately’s elegant lines are figures that swoop, shatter, loop, ricochet, and dissolve. On his 1999 album, Red Cube(d) (which reunited him with Karayorgis and Maneri), he takes a swing at a number of swing-era standards, but his interpretations are hardly standard: for instance, he cut the score for the Fletcher Henderson tune “Red Dust” into vertical strips and reassembled them to create new phrases.

Right now Gregorio is most enthusiastic about the forthcoming Degrees of Iconicity, which he believes draws the clearest connections yet among his interests. “The personalities that impacted me the most were artists who faced many aspects of artistic production at the same time–[constructivist Aleksandr] Rodchenko, Moholy-Nagy, Max Bill, the Fluxus activity,” he says. “What interested me in constructivism, concrete art, and later Fluxus and conceptual art, was the possibility of interaction.” On Tuesday at HotHouse he’ll perform pieces from the album, as well as newer ones based on work by Rodchenko, with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm (who’s in his regular trio, along with Biolo) and pianist Jim Baker.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.