Entrevista a Vítor Rua / Interview with Vítor Rua
The Guitar, Music Schools and an Experiment
When I was eight years old, I really wanted to play guitar. At that time, my parents gave me an acoustic guitar – with six nylon strings. My elder brother used to listen to good rock music: the Pink Floyd of the time, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and others. This was great for me, because basically this was the sound I wanted to reproduce. I’m absolutely sure that when they gave me the acoustic guitar, on the very same day I must have said that this wasn’t the instrument I needed. So I must have persisted with my parents, who saw a dedication in me, and I was lucky that they gave me an electric guitar and, a year later, my first synthesizer, which had to be sent from France.
I began to work straightaway on what I wanted, on rock music – with the electric guitar. This was very useful to me, not only during this first phase, but also throughout the 1980s. I was able to spend hours and hours, days and days, in the best studios in Portugal. It was fantastic for me, becoming familiar with mixing desks, sound processors, amplification, the manipulation of tapes – coming to know the room and the actual studio as a tool with which to work. I’ve always had great curiosity and had the possibility, by means of this experience with rock, to become easily and quickly involved with cables, microphones, guitars, amplifiers and effect processors. This turned out to be quite useful to me in my later work as a composer and improviser, using as I did these processors and amplifiers.
In parallel, I was having classical guitar classes. Until I met my teacher, José Pina, from the Duarte Costa School, I tended to begin studying for a year, and then give up. Sometimes I would go to only one class, and give up straight away, even if I’d paid for the whole term – then I’d specialize in playing snooker, because I had to use up the class time. I soon realized that, at the time, the conservatories and musi schools were places where people who liked music stopped liking it. This was what happened to me, I don’t know if it happens to others. Fortunately things changed, and some amazing things appeared, such as what they do at the University of Aveiro, in the Universidade Nova or at the Escola Superior de Música in Lisbon.
I was once invited to fo to the Escola Superior de Música – I’d never been inside the building – because there was to be a concert with works by Virgílio Melo, Pinho Vargas and one or mine, played by Manuel Jreónimo, in the Clarinet Department. Actually, he liked the piece very much and even asked me to write a piece for his quartet. The rehearsal was in the Salão Nobre. I remember that I stayed out of the way, because they had invited me to be present as a composer. The musicians who were going to play were not even pupils at the school, it was already a professional group.
I remember a funny situation. When they booked the rehearsal – for 5 o’clock, or something – the people there checked and said “How can that be? There’s a lecture at 6 o’clock!” I didn’t know who said this, but afterwards I discovered that it was the director of the school. I think she said something like “Go on then, but don’t make any mess. Leave the chairs as you found them”. The following day, when the concert began, somebody on the floor above was practising piano, which made me think that the most important thing was not to make a mess in the room and to leave the chairs in the right place. But there, in front of the pupils, the performers and composers, we had to put up with that! They could at least have invited the person who was practising to come to the concert! But this journey through the teaching profession is not to be taken as a general criticism, because there are marvellous teachers and places to learn music in Portugal. That’s why, as I was saying, I think I was very lucky in being able to choose at a particular time my own route.
Music Teaching and its problems
I was very lucky in finding a teacher at the Duarte Costa School who finally motivated people, as was my case. José Pina motivated me to be there; he was the person with whom I spent most time learning. The few years I spend with him were enjoyable. He motivated me to listen to music, to look at scores, whereas normally I would go to one class and give up immediately.
On the other hand, teaching is orientated – or was for a long time – towards performers, until the disciplines of composition and musicology came about, for example, at the University of Évora of the University of Aveiro. Now one can go somewhere and find a good teacher, as happens at the Escola Superior de Música, at the Universidade Nova, or in Aveiro. I think it’s excellent that there are classes or workshops, for example, with João Pedro Oliveira or with Isabel Soveral. But in general, teaching is designed to produce teachers – and it’s good being a teacher if you’re a good one. I know that at the University of Aveiro, and at other schools, one can study jazz, improvised music and electronic music – there are universities with even now have electronic music studios. Until very recently this was not the case.
Stockhausen used to say something funny. He was against the conservatory system, which almost always separated Stravinsky from everything that came afterwards. He was asked what his idea would be then, and he said something like “during the first years, one should listen to a lot of music, and then at a later stage analyse it and comment on it. Later, the most important thing would be to dance, people ought to dance. Even young people who dance at night discotheques should have classes in dance from all over the world.” And he was asked again: “But what about the history of music – notation?” and he said that for that there were already many books and CDs, and anyone who wanted to could study this in the last year. In any case, it’s rare that one can discuss new musical notations. The performers who come out of these schools, from the Conservatory, are not normally prepared for even the slightest sign of methods and new techniques for their instrument. Very often, composers have to discover this from foreign books, or by experimenting with other musicians. But this business of teaching would be something else...
Distancing from Rock
I wanted an electric guitar, to work with processors and so on. If at that time there had been what’s happening now in schools, with electronics, computers, perhaps I’d have been differently motivated. By this I mean that, initially, there was contact with rock, at the same time as various stops and starts in my classical guitar classes. Then there was a rock group that I had, better known, and with which I was able to record. This was GNR (Grupo Novo Rock), which I founded with Alexandre Soares and Tóli César Machado. I worked in this group between 1980 and 1983. In 1982 I met Jorge Lima Barreto, with whom I formed, in the same year, Telectu. And what happened?
Jorge Lima Barreto led me to a world of music which had been for me limited to rock and little else. Suddenly, I began to hear ethnic music, jazz, electronic music, concrete music, acousmatic music. In ten minutes I could be with the Eskimos and then straight afterwards with North-American jazz. When this happened, it was very important to me. It opened doors for me, onto a completely new world, and I saw straight away that it was this that interested me.
The beginning of Telectu and first experiments in composition
With Telectu, in the first phase – between 1985 and 1985 – we approached, in a sense, repetitive minimal music. Minimal in that it used at times simple instruments, phrases or modules. And repetitive, because repetition was used in these same compositions, which were written in unconventional score formats – on pictographic things, or even as text. Very often, as they used effects processors, they also had photographs of the instruments and indications, graphic or symbolic, of the sounds we used for each instrument, but afterwards, in a phase lasting from 1985 to 1987, we dedicated ourselves almost completely to improvisation, total improvisation, musicians we’d invite, or who invited us to play with them. That was important, not only for the work as an improviser, either my own or with Telectu, but also later on for my compositional work, because many of the musicians and improvisers with whom I was playing and coming to know in Telectu were at the same time improvisers and performers of contemporary music. For example, the trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini played two or three concerts with us before asking me to write a piece for him, which was A Sindrome de Babel, in 2001, for solo trombone. But before, I had the opportunity to know him and play with him as a musician – of hearing his sound, his techniques and the method he used as an improviser. After getting to know his sound world, it became easier to write. Or rather, it wasn’t so much writing for trombone, but writing for Giancarlo Schiaffini, and this is very important in almost the pieces I’ve written until now. In another situation, with the pianist John Tilbury, I remember sending him three or four pieces for piano. When I sent them, I did so wondering if he would be available to play them. I sent him the score, and he not only immediately agreed to record and perform the works, but I ended up writing a work specifically for him, and I became a friend and collaborator of his. Daniel Kientzy, the French saxophonist, was, of everyone, the person with whom we have moost concerts of improvised music, and was also, not by chance, the person who commissioned most works from me. In November a disc of his will come out containing only my pieces for saxophone, at the same time as the Paris Festival of Contemporary Music. On one of the days a piece of mine for two contrabass saxophones will be performed by Kientzy, Recette Pour Faire une Souris, and then one for double bass and contrabass saxophone, Bar Mitzvah à Trois, in which the bassist also uses his voice
In some sense, I feel that there exists a connection, quite a big one, or at least an interaction between the two things, a kind of ping-pong between improvisation and composition. I think improvisation is useful to me in composition. Most of my compositions for piano or double bass have their origin in improvisations, even on the actual instrument – and so I’ve even got a ‘cello, a viola, a violin, a flute, a clarinet, a saxophone, a piano, etc. I don’t play these instruments, but I like to have them, whenever possible, nearby...
For example, I can only play in the loser octave of the flute, but I take care to buy books, in addition to orchestration manuals, that discuss advanced techniques or different methods, for the flute and also for other instruments. Sometimes I can make use of these techniques, as I did, for example, with the multiphonic whistle, with multiple sounds, or the jet whistle, that glissando whistle sound.
Can sound effects be starting points for composition?
Sometimes they are actually the basis, they are the material of the work itself. Before beginning a piece, I used to be very meticulous; I thought about the instruments and the techniques I’d use, the series, the notes, the scales, the chords, I thought about everything. Now almost everything comes from my contact with the instrument, or from improvisations. I may take a day, two days, or even a fortnight, and then suddenly there appears sound material, effects, which I afterwards develop.
Rationality in Composition
In composition, one has always to know when the work is finished, or when one can still correct something, even when composing in real time. We could say that in improvisation, I consider that the best thing that comes from composition is the rationality of a person improvising as much as possible in real time as though he were composing. On the other hand, in composition, all these intuitive, spontaneous liberties, and things that arise from contact with the instruments, were very useful to me in my work as a composer. When I pick up an instrument, I do so always as a childe who does not know how to play. This can be useful for me, because I discover important material.
The fascination of staves
When I travel, I like to buy manuscript paper. In every country to which I travel, I try to discover which is the best place to buy it, and I always bring back a great deal of it. I have a friend who binds everything sumptuously for me. I like to be careful about this, because I write with a pencil, when I use an eraser it doesn’t erase, and so I try to use the best paper. When I choose it, sometimes I am already thinking which instruments it will suit best – orchestra, string quartet, trio, or solo. Sometimes it’s the actual manuscript paper that gives me the instrumentation I’ll use.
Evolution of Compositional Methods
As I began to write for people I knew, as was the case with John Tilbury, Daniel Kientzy, Peter Bowman and Kathryn Bennets, I began by writing solos. I wrote two or three pieces for orchestra, but it was because I had to write them. I wanted to see what would happen when I wrote for orchestra.
Thus I began to write, for example, a piece for piano, then another for solo clarinet, and another for solo flute. At that time I thought that I could already write for a trio of piano, clarinet and flute. Then I could write a string quartet, and another piece for flute. And then I felt confident enough to write for flute and string quartet. I made conquests in this way... First the solos, then the duets, the trios, the quartets. Until, at last, I had the opportunity and the honour to write for OrchestrUtopica. It was great, because I could finally put into practice a theory that, up to that point, had not yet been developed, which was to imagine a situation. So this work was important because it was the concretization of something I’d been trying to achieve musically for ten years. I thought I could use a sound, or a group of sounds, modules of sounds, or sound events of instruments, musical or otherwise, for themselves, whether are beautiful, lovely, pleasant – for example, a harp arpeggio, the scraping of a metal object such as a gong, or else a flätterzunge, a fluttertongue.
Now let’s imagine that I wanted to composed something and decided to begin it with a stroke on a metal gong. Its reverberation would give rise to a low note in the flute and there would finally be a harp arpeggio. I imagined these three situations – the separate sounds, if they are beautiful, may be the beginning of a composition that might interest me. But if instead of the gong stroke I begin with the harp arpeggio, and then do a flätterzunge on the flute and afterwards the gong stroke, in principle I can begin another composition. And then I can also think in terms of the vertical and the horizontal – perhaps if we hear three sounds simultaneously one may obtain interesting results. For that reason, I began to work basically with a computer, because I could do these mixtures by track, and experiment. As a rule, I though that thinks worked well when there was a greater degree of abstraction. I don’t usually work with scales, or specific modes – I deal with low, medium and high notes, but without worrying much about it. Sometimes people ask me “Which scale did you use?” – and I have no idea whether I used or didn’t use a scale, because I used low notes or high notes as I found them necessary, which doesn’t mean that it must always be like that. But, in this piece, I could finally bring this idea to fruition. It’s not a collage – I didn’t take a flute solo, a clarinet solo, a trombone solo, a piano solo and put them all side by side. No, it was rather more than that. It was having this experience of being able to write solos for flute, trombone, trumpet and clarinet and suddenly making them abstract. Really, it was like writing a piece for orchestra – in this case for piano and orchestra – in which the piano was the piece’s backbone, sometimes there are coincidences, and some parts end up being more vertical, and more important. But, what happens more often are simply horizontal lines of independent things, which I join together in one, though with a slight difference – and it’s for that reason that I say that it’s not really collage, because that would be precisely taking hold of these pieces and putting them together. It wasn’t the case here, because even if I’d wanted to that, it would have been extremely difficult. I can write for various instruments at different speeds, I can write notes, scales, modes or whatever, different when I write for other instruments, in which I can use other methods and techniques. I usually alter the speed or the tempo from bar to bar, but the piano is the instrument that has standardized, so to speak, all the other instruments that appear.