Entrevista a João Pedro Oliveira / Interview with João Pedro Oliveira
My interests in artistic areas became clear from early on. I studied architecture at the same time as music, and was also quite interested in painting, somewhat less in literature. But the figurative arts – painting, sculpture, architecture, or even more volatile arts, such as music and in some cases poetry – were my interests while I was young. Later, as I matured, not only through my musical and architectural studies, little by little I centred myself more in music. However, I still hesitated quite some time between performance – I was a professional organist for some years – and composition. During this phase, I managed to balance things more or less, but as time went on one has to make choices, and composition is the one that will follow me to the end of my life.
I don’t think that I had many models. I had the opportunity to study with many composers – which for me was extremely positive – but more than the model as such, my idea was: “How can I attain a unique personality in composition?” So, we’re talking about music that has a métier and that is personal at the same time. The models, the composers who are models, end up being somewhat “models on the shelf”, in the sense that you go there to find information, as though they were books, but then one has to process it and find a solution for our own problems.
My time in the United States had two very positive aspects that in a way helped me to make the decision to compose. On the one hand, I had the chance to consider theoretical subjects related to composition, analysis and theory of music. I took a very intensive course, especially in theory, which gave me a certain background for the application of some of these ideas in composition. On the other hand, I was able to practice, in that I worked with musicians. So I was able to hear what I did – which, at the time I was in the United States, between 1985 and 1990, was practically impossible in Portugal. There were not many contemporary music groups, there were few festivals, not much publicity, and for a young composer, the most important thing was to get his music performed, so that he could hear and learn from what he was doing. This was the big thing in the United States: many of the theoretical concepts that I had learned, whether in Portugal or there, I was able to make practical use of them, to see the result and think about it in a more pragmatic, much more musical way. It was almost like being a musical craftsman; I would ask myself: “Does this work or not?” These were the two things that were most important for me.
The fact of having been an organist gave me a great advantage, in a sense, in terms of performance. It afforded a certain sensibility to problems that very often are more difficult to solve when one does not have this experience. I mean certain kinds of musical gesture, certain kinds of rhythms, certain kinds of phrases, that very often are formed by means of our understanding of what is the natural human process of performance, and, in this sense, obviously, the fact of being an organist helped. In addition, I was also able to work with timbre, to change a sound – working with it almost from its component parts and its partials. This was very interesting later on in my work with electroacoustic music.
The compositional process
My current compositional process, whether for instrumental music or electroacoustic music, is really a process of experimentation. There’s an initial material that is then developed, but which is constantly in dialogue, that evaluates itself, and which can even contradict itself – and from the result of this contradiction a new solution may arise. It’s a bit like the process of continuous analysis and synthesis. It happens in the same way as when one begins an electroacoustic work, creating the first sound, a second, a third and then one combines them into a phrase or a texture, carrying onto the fourth sound, the fifth, and so on. With the passing of time, after two or three weeks of working on that section, one is already evaluating it. One decides that perhaps the proportions are not correct, or that the original idea is not working out as had been foreseen, or that a particular section will have to be shortened or lengthened, or that there’s a particular place where there is not enough tension and so one has to add more sound – or vice-versa, sound must be taken away to diminish the tension because there’s too much. So it’s a kind of constant dialectical work, which is similar to what happens in writing for instruments. I begin a work and at the same time evaluate what I’m writing. I write a page or two of a score, I know which is the harmonic material that will define the work, I see that there are two or three possibilities but I don’t create a system... or rather, I have an overall idea, I work on it and evaluate it. And while evaluating it, I ask myself if it works. It if worked, I go on to a new stage; if it didn’t, I remodel it and reformulate it. This is really the process I used in Integrais, but with more freedom. I would mix two intervals, change them in different ways, and from that build the architecture of a work. I still do the same, but now I don’t build the architecture so pre-compositionally as I did in the past; I let the architecture build itself, and generate itself.
The creative act and transcendence
It’s something inexplicable. I’ve used a phrase in some writings, but I don’t mind using it here again. There’s a moment of creation, which happens within the person, when we are thinking of a particular work and suddenly an image comes to us – and this image may be a musical gesture or a sound that sculpts the work, or even the architecture of the work. So, we can say that there is something that arises really from nothing. Now, somebody who is not spiritual will probably say that this is the result of more or less knowledge of two thousand years of the history of music, or daily influences, or what there is in a certain number of neurons in the brain that came together to make an unexpected connection and produced this image as a result. This is what somebody who didn’t believe in spirituality would say. As I believe in it, I think it goes rather beyond that, that there’s something divine which is given to us, a small flame, and that artists are happy, they’re blessed, when from time to time they receive this little flame of the divine.
Periods and stages
The path was not a straight one. For one thing, for many years I separate instrumental music and electroacoustic music. Between 1985, when I was most productive, and 1998, I wrote either purely instrumental music or purely electroacoustic music. There are two or three works that are exceptions during a period of almost fifteen years...
I really conceived the two worlds as separate, electroacoustic and instrumental. In one or two cases I said: “I’ll join them because it seems an interesting thing to do”. But there are exceptions, where I really tried to bring together the two worlds, more or less successfully, and with more or less satisfactory results for my objectives. The great change happened in 1998, when I wrote Le Voyage des Sons. It was when I wrote the part called “Alap-jor-jhala-gat”, which is for violin, viola and relatively simply electronics, and which I don’t even consider an important piece within my output. However, it was then that I discovered that certain relationships were possible. I discovered that if I managed to make an instrument work with electroacoustics in a certain way, I could obtain results that I found interesting and which were original. I mean original in the sense that they are personal solutions to a certain problem – therefore, what I did between 1998 and 2004 was to try, in a way, to perfect these results, so that they became more refined and I could find particular solutions. It was during this period of six years that there was this great fusion between electroacoustics and instrumental music. On the one hand, instrumental music came closer to electroacoustics by means of more contemporary, less traditional ways of playing, and the electroacoustics moved towards instrumental music, aiming at electroacoustic gestures that sound human. It’s not a case of imitating an instrument, obviously, but of imitating gesture characteristics that an instrument may make. In this sense, the electroacoustics come near to instrumental gestures and the instruments to the electroacoustics. In 2004 I brought this phase to an end, rather as one can say of certain painters: Picasso had a rose period, then a blue period, etc. I also feel now, looking back, that I passed through a phase.
I think there’s a language that is very defined and very common. Obviously, this can bring a problem, that of self-repetition. Now I’m in a period when I’ve said to myself: “I’m going to close this period and go on to something new.” But I don’t know what exactly. So I’m in a kind of resting phase.
Notes on the act of composing
Obviously, the level of freedom and the level of limitation depends greatly on the work, on what one obtains from the initial material, but in a certain way the process is always the same. For example, Labirinto, for string quartet, is the piece that until now took me the most time to write, practically nine months – working for an average of six hours a day. It was a piece that had six or seven different beginnings. I began to work on the piece, and then arrived at a point at which I evaluated what I’d done and said: “This beginning won’t do! It doesn’t give me the proportions I need, or the level of tension I need.” I wrote a second beginning and the same thing happened, the third, a fourth – until I arrived at the opening that became the definitive one, I went through seven phases, perhaps the most extreme example of this process.
Out of curiosity, I’d like to make the point that this is something Beethoven used to do as well. There are sketches, for example, in the case of the Third Symphony, in which for the first movement there are sketches of the last ten bars, which were written before the beginning of the piece. So it’s really that process of evaluation: you don’t like it, you write it again, you cross it out and cut it. Beethoven did this a lot, and there are other historical examples.
I think that a composer should be extremely happy if he manages at least once in his life, or separately and distant in time, to write works that truly excite the audience. It’s not easy to write a work that, when you’re listening to it and even when it’s your own, you feel in the air something that’s happening in the audience. There may be complete silence, there may not be a single gesture from the audience, but there’s something sometimes that you feel, and for some reason that work gets through, and transmits excitement to the audience.
I have three or four works that I think achieved this empathy. One is A Cidade Eterna, in which I think, every time it was played well, you can feel that something is transmitted. At least, whenever I’ve been present – the piece has been performed several times when I’ve not been present – you felt something special in the public. Another is Visão, for soprano, orchestra and electronics, and I can’t forget how happy I was with the result. There’s another example, Labirinto, where, for different reasons from those in Visão – which is a very spiritual work, and obviously this spirituality is transmitted in some way – also frequently produces this result. Labirinto is more of a composed work, more a work of compositional métier. The last one I wrote, Shîyr, I think is also part of this line, though we’re still close to the première, which was less than a year ago, and so I don’t have that more distant vision. However, it seems probable that it will be a work of that kind.
Shîyr, Visão and electroacoustic writing
This is a work in which the integration between tape and orchestra is total. Well, it happens also in Visão, but there the tape is more a kind of amplification of the orchestral timbre, there’s not exactly a dialogue between the tape and the orchestra – the tape superimposes itself on the orchestra and transforms the timbre. And this is substantially different from what I did from 1998 onwards, in which the tape is almost like a second instrument. In the case of the orchestra, the same thing happens, the tape is a kind of second orchestra, since it projects the sound of the orchestra and responds to it as though it were a new instrument.
My first electroacoustic experiments were made when I was still quite young, when I didn’t even write instrumental music. I used to play with synthesizers, which were quite rare at the time, and every time it was possible to get hold of one, even if it took me a bit of time, I would make use of it to experiment. There were also other experiments that I used to make with the turntable, how to make it work backwards, or speed up, or slow down. This was a kind of embryo of what would later become my interest in electroacoustic music.
The computer is indispensable in pure electroacoustic music. Obviously, one can make a programme and the programme can generate a piece in half an hour, in one day or in however much time, but then it’s always the composer’s ear that determines what happens. In the case of music for instruments and tape, it’s also very important, not so much in the integration of tape and instrument, because there the computer doesn’t actually help – in fact, it can be counterproductive, since the sound the computer synthesizes of an instrument, or a sampled sound, do not have the same characteristics or the same presence as a sound played live by an instrument, and being transmitted through loudspeakers alters it even more. Therefore, the computer may sometimes create false appearances, and something that seems to be working may in reality not work. In works for instrument and tape, the computer helps in the matter of gesture and musical phrase much more than in timbre integration. You can arrive at a better understanding of the spaces of the work then by simply listening to the tape part. In this, the computer helps greatly in understanding the work’s respiration. In instrumental music it’s not important to have a computer, because the same process of evaluation is done through mental reading, the internal reading of a score.
I don’t use samples. From time to time a timbre can be very difficult to emulate or reproduce, and if I want a sound very close to the instrumental sound, then I might find a sample and use it, but it’s very rare. Most of the sounds I use are synthesized.
What I look for is a kind of dissolution of the boundaries. Through people who speak to me after concerts and comment on my pieces, I came to the conclusion that the illusion that one creates of not knowing if it’s an instrument or electronics, that there’s a grey area there and it’s not clear what it is, which is extremely appealing for listeners to music. It’s like saying: “Am I hearing an instrument playing? It sounds like an instrument but it isn’t. Or is it electroacoustics but instrumental in gesture?” So there’s a kind of intermediate zone that interests me very much, and which I’ve explored.
The problem of communication
Here we have the old problem of the ivory tower, of the composer who hides in his tower and says: “I do this, and anyone who doesn’t want to hear it, don’t listen, and that’s all I have to say!” I think we must be a bit more communicatively than this... My idea is to write music that is personal and contemporary – and here I obviously use the word in an unusual way. So, music that has a métier and in some way communicates with whomever is listening, but that is not necessarily a music so hermetic that it only communicates with those who are the experts of contemporary music – I hope that I can also communicate with those who go to concerts of classical music and who don’t know or listen to contemporary music. My great desire is that even such a person, at the end of the performance, can say something like: “Perhaps I don’t even understand the language, and it’s a bit outside my usual range of music, but for some reason I think it makes sense, communicates and provokes emotions in me.” This is, then, my great objective, and I have had some very good experiences in this regard. I think I write music that’s not intended for a specialist audience but that, in some way, and without losing my identity as a composer and without losing my contemporary edge – without taking refuge in easy tonal or post-modern tonal solutions, it’s music that transmits some emotion to the listener.
Now it obviously depends on who’s listening, since people are much more affected by the proportions of a work, by the architecture, the form in which it is constructed, or then they may be more affected by the impetus or by the way in which the work breathes. Others, meanwhile, feel attracted by timbre, by the sound colours, by the proliferation of gestures. There are thousands of ways of transmitting this emotion and each person who hears the work hears it in a different way, according to his experience, his musical past, his knowledge or even his state of mind.
Music and identity
The question of language and the question of our perspective on the past end up at the same point. I think it’s really the question of the identity of the composer. Any language may be used in order to compose, be it tonal, modal or serial. Neither does the question reside in what we use, but the way in which we use it. If you look at the case of Benjamin Britten, for example, he’s a composer who used tonality but who used it in a personal way, recognizable as being his own, even using a language that had been used for more than two hundred years. The same thing can happen with another kind of language. I mean, I’m not so bothered by the question of the language that’s used, but rather for what purpose that language will serve. If a composer writes in the style of Mozart, it probably won’t be very interesting in terms of projecting his own musical identity, because writing in the style of Mozart does not bring any affirmation of the person as composer. So it’s the old question of the copy, of which Walter Benjamin spoke so much – the copy loses the aura, and the more copies you make, the less aura they have... the original is always best! That magic that we can’t explain but is real exists for some reason. So if there’s a composer who uses tonality and does it in a personal way that makes him different from all the others, then he has managed, in a way, to find his identity as a composer. The problem is that, in the question of post-modernism, this point of view seems to have got lost, and there does not seem to be any concern with the composer’s identity; this has been replaced by the production of material for consumption. And I react against this more in the question of post-modernism, not so much because of the language that people use, but rather because of the way in which they use it.
Music and spirituality
For me, this is a very difficult matter to put into words. It’s something that’s very personal, perhaps the most personal of all. It’s so far beyond what it’s possible to say that I always have great difficulty in discussing it...
If we put it in very pragmatic and practical terms, we can say that I am a religious person, who believes in certain dogmas and have a certain spiritual life, which I try to transmit, in some way, through music. In the same way as when I hear Bach’s Mass in B Minor, I feel within me an emotion that, in a way, transports me and takes me somewhat out of this world – so there’s a kind of very mystical moment, which has some strength – I try to do the same with my music in relation to other people, especially with music of religious character. I can’t give you any reason, but there are cases when people say: “It’s music that has spirituality, a music that transmits spiritual feelings”.
One of the most beautiful texts ever, which Messiaen himself used, moreover, is the descent of the New Jerusalem to Earth, in which there is the description of the New Jerusalem with the colours and the stones employed, and each door has a particular colour and a particular stone – it’s a description of an extraordinary beauty. So, on the one hand there’s the text itself with this transcendental character, which makes it beautiful, and then there’s the aspect of the message, which is also extremely important. There are spiritual meanings for each of the verses, each of the phrases and each of the words.