One afternoon in late November, 2019, Argentinian cellist, composer and producer SEBASTIAN PLANO woke from a short nap in his Berlin apartment. Switching his phone on, he was overwhelmed by a tsunami of texts, and his inbox, too, was swamped with emails. Scrolling through them, he discovered each offered congratulations, but the reason remained a mystery. Finally, he stumbled on the first message, which explained the tributes: his most recent album, Verve, had been nominated for a Grammy.
If Plano was stunned when he grasped the announcement’s significance, another surprise awaited him. “I was grateful and flattered,” he grins, before adding, “but I definitely don’t make New Age music!” In fairness, one of his work’s many strengths is that it’s unusually hard to categorise, and those voting must simply have felt compelled, one way or another, to recognise Verve’s considerable merits. But whatever their reasoning, if his third album was indeed exceptional – a filigree of gently stroked strings, rippling piano lines and eloquent electronica, it exists in its own dimension, its melancholy swathed in hope – SAVE ME NOT, his fourth album, shifts things to a whole new level. Recorded at nights in his Berlin studio, it finds him going to unprecedented, even greater extremes to satisfy his urge to express himself through the creation of ensemble music alone. “’I wanted,” he says, “to see how far I could go.”
Bending – and often rejecting – in seductively enigmatic style the principles with which the classically trained musician was raised, SAVE ME NOT pursues Plano’s pioneering, ethereal aesthetic with even more confidence, operating in a dream-world all its own, answerable only to his instincts. The results are elegant, vivid and sometimes even spiritual, with the Argentinian playing every note, layering each musical phrase one at a time. “This wasn’t a matter of control,” he clarifies, “but of being able to express what I want to the fullest extent. The whole album is just me: it’s about narrowing down the instruments to the minimum, and how much I can push myself to create an authentic, unique sonic world.”
In practise, this means arrangements have been distilled to just cello, piano and voice. “They’re sometimes processed electronically,” he elaborates, “but there’s no electronic instruments here, and I tend to be willing to use my voice only when the cello or piano cannot go further expressively.” Nonetheless, other inventive details are occasionally present, each a part of the act of making music: the striking of his cello’s body, his feet stamping the floor, even the squeak of his studio chair. Only one loop appears on the record starting the spectral title track. “It was recorded in 2012 in San Francisco,” Plano recalls, “and there was something about this piano loop that hypnotised me. It never left my mind, so I always knew it was eventually going to be part of something.” In fact, this brief phrase turned out to be the starting point for SAVE ME NOT, simultaneously linking the new record to what he’s written before. If it appears to flout self-imposed rules, though, these – for free-spirited Plano, anyway, whose musical roots were frustratingly conventional – were made to be broken. Born in Rosario, Argentina, in 1985, he was raised by parents who perform in the city’s symphony orchestra, and having first played cello at the age of seven, he began writing his own music four years later. After turning 13, he spent two years taking eight-hour round trips to Buenos Aires for hour-long lessons with the country’s finest teacher, yet, despite subsequent, full scholarships from some of the world’s most prestigious institutes, he found himself increasingly dissatisfied. “Our day to day life is ruled by reality,” he says, “and I found myself fitting but not belonging in mine.”
Plano began to focus more and more on his own music, and soon discovered an increasingly irresistible thrill. In addition, the further he strayed from the scholarly doctrines instilled in him, the more euphoric he felt. “As we grow up,” he says, “we spend our lives having to blend in, so, as our personalities develop, it’s inevitable we start cultivating our own reality. But for me this grew until it made me realise I didn’t belong in the world of interpretations, playing Beethoven’s – or anyone else’s – music.”
Plano’s philosophy, he says, is encapsulated by Argentinean folk musician Atahualpa Yupanqui’s words to the song ‘Los Ejes De Mi Carreta’:
“Because I don’t grease my axles
they call me abandoned.
If I like how they sound
Why would I want them greased?
It’s too boring
To follow and follow the trail
Too long the road
With nothing to entertain me.”
“Many of us nurture our own space,” he continues, “where we can be the essence of ourselves, and creative people arguably take this further, constructing a reality where their imagination can flow, free of awareness. In my case, writing music has, over time, turned into a need: it would be impossible for me to cope with life without being able to express myself through sounds. When there are no boundaries, and you’re just creating music, that’s the best. You’re somewhere else. If I could, I would remain there. So this album is an introspective journey, a quest where I converse with myself away from all consciousness.”
SAVE ME NOT’s title is a reference to this mythical zone, and it’s one, Plano maintains, where life is infinitely more bearable. Forced to make a choice between this and the everyday, he says he’d resist any attempt at rescue. “I remember when I was recording ‘Soul II (Elan)’,” he enthuses, “and it came together with just one take from beginning to end. As it finished, there was this moment where it just knocked me over. That moment of ecstasy, that’s what it’s about: it’s inside and outside me. Every piece has at some point sent me into these mental ecstasies, and the record’s a statement about – and a celebration of – that place.”
SAVE ME NOT is not only a fearless, unapologetic tribute to a realm in which Plano feels most uninhibited. It’s also an open invitation to enter it, and an exhortation to create one’s own. His most personal collection yet, it’s driven by the need to express himself with as much purity as he can. “I came from conservatories,” he reminds us, “playing chamber music, orchestra music, all the time, for probably more than 15 years. Now I can bring all of that knowledge into my music, and I can do it alone: I’m the string quartet, I’m the orchestra, I conduct the piece. I don’t like to depend on anyone, and SAVE ME NOT best defines who I am: as a musician, as a creative spirit, and as a person. I just want to be free. As free as possible…”
The fragile, magical SAVE ME NOT reflects that, with the 3-part ’Souls Suite’’ contrasting but always graceful sections intended as a three-part story – he calls it “a personal depiction of a soul” – while the elegiac ‘Never Learned’, which bounces between hope and an inevitable acceptance of our limitations, reflects extensively on “the human character and our failure to learn from our mistakes.” For ‘Agos’, furthermore, he set himself a challenge – “I wanted a choir, so that’s what I made” – while the serene closer, ‘Liv’, reverses the opening ‘Agos’, bringing the album full circle without ever leaving Plano’s precious space. As for the title track, which sounds like it exists underwater but belongs in heaven – a singular world indeed – it was provoked by his conviction that his adopted reality is a place in which, finally, he belongs. Immersed in that inner space from the start, the piece surfaces briefly, towards its end, into reality, only to dive back moments later into the world from which it emerged. It’s the perfect metaphor for the album’s fundamental theme.
SAVE ME NOT, Plano concludes, and frankly, who wouldn’t agree with him…?