Originally from Buenos Aires where he trained and performed as a jazz singer, voice coach and vocal improviser, Guillermo Rozenthuler has lived in London since the early 2000s. He teaches Circlesinging and vocal improvisation workshops in the UK and across Europe, as well as performing his own gigs and with Argentine Tango orchestras, such as the London Tango Orchestra and Sexteto Cristal. He works in a diverse range of community settings, including with the elderly, refugees and people with disabilities. He spoke to Rosa Sawer about the upside of teaching online during Covid, his belief in the creativity of humans and his hopes for showcasing ground-breaking collaborative vocal improvisation in concert…
“Everybody has the right to make music. Everybody has an innate musicality,” believes this unique musician, who has turned this philosophy into his life’s work.
Fascinated by tribal music around the world and how groups of people can make music in ways that include each person, he says: “I was always interested in community music and how different civilisations come together in sound and music.” Without knowing it already existed, he began using Circlesinging practices, a term coined by the innovative singer Bobby McFerrin of whom Guillermo is a self-confessed disciple. Circlesinging is a form of spontaneous choral music where someone creates parts for a group of singers and then each person sustains their part while listening to the others. When the vocalist discovered Circlesinging as an artform, he found his own tribe in the process.
His refusal to dwell on the negatives of the overwhelming shadow of Covid-19 and his ability to concentrate on the opportunities, he says, is down to his friends and other meaningful connections.
So, in a new reality where meeting in person has become so restricted and collaboration has had to transform, how has he managed to keep up these connections and remain so positive?
Well he did face a “crisis of being” – a questioning of self – to begin with when all the gigs, workshops and community work suddenly stopped. And then, slowly but surely, ideas started to emerge out of the dark: community work found a new place online, Zoom calls with care homes he works with allowed him to perform virtually – now without the time-consuming daily commute – and one-to-one teaching sessions could also resume. Rather than succumbing to the constrictions of the global situation, the singer and educator expanded his range of work.
“I think both the student and I have to sharpen our antennae [when online] and you learn to distinguish sounds and organise your body differently… [we are] learning a lot about what’s possible… ways to feel and collaborate with each other online. It is possible.” Breath is not only essential for life, but also for sustaining musical performance. Acutely aware of this, Guillermo incorporates breath work into his teaching to help students open up and relax. One student explains: “We’re taught to concentrate on the physicality of singing – breathing, relaxation and making vocal sounds – and not get distracted by externalities such as sheet music. We’ve learnt to blend our voices across all our different ranges into a beautiful whole – and experience the joy of collective music-making.” As the innovative teacher shares: “Breathing is relationship, when you breathe you are relating to everything that you are not. Breathing is an expression of how we live in the world and how we connect to ourselves and to each other.”
Although online teaching can be a viable way of working, Guillermo appreciates it can’t fully replace a face-to-face experience. “One person that I had met online for three months came for a socially distanced lesson in person and she said ‘oh my, this is it… I’m getting the whole picture’ and I responded: ‘we wouldn’t be where we are now if we hadn’t had those three months online.’”
Of course, as for everyone, there were setbacks. All of the gigs and concerts he was set to perform have either been cancelled or postponed, but thankfully technology has helped with this as well. “I have done a couple of online concerts, which is not the same as having a real-life audience but what’s magical is having 50 people from across the world in the same virtual ‘room’ listening to you, so there is a plus to it.” Not everything has been online though, with vocal improvisation workshops for advanced singers continuing in a socially distanced space as well as small group singing sessions in the park. One workshop participant said: “Guillermo enables musicians with highly diverse vocal abilities to mix their voices in an enjoyable way.”
It is impossible to dispirit his positivity and it’s easy to see why so many people are drawn to him not only as a teacher, but as a kind soul. One friend describes him as having a “naturally intuitive way of seeing into the predicament of a student’s problem” and he certainly has an enviable way of looking at the problem of the pandemic too.
For the first time, this inspirational artist is working towards performing live with a small group of vocal improvisers, each responsible for their own role without a central leader. Creating in-the-moment music for every audience and bringing the immediacy and spontaneity of collaborative vocal improvisation to the stage.
Speaking with him, it is hard not to feel more upbeat. His intertwined passions of human connection and music spark positivity and creativity, especially in tough times: “A musical experience – and every artistic experience – keeps the social tissue connected in some invisible way.” On that note, he shared his outrage at recent statements by the chancellor: “We musicians, and everyone in the arts world, are hard-working people and what we offer to society is essential for its health and wellbeing. I find his comments insulting and refute the way this government is devaluing us and our contribution.”
Hear the Argentinian artist on two upcoming collaborative albums, one with London Tango Orchestra and the other with German orchestra, Sexteto Cristal, due out within the next 6 months. And watch this space for Anthropos: Songs of Humanity, his soon-to-come vocal improvisation ensemble performance piece.
He is also performing an online concert with the Global Music Foundation on 30 October at 8pm UK time. Tickets can be found here the week before.