Entrevista a António Pinho Vargas / Interview with António Pinho Vargas
In your book, you isolate a turning point in the mid-1990s. Would you say something about that, and perhaps choose a piece which illustrates that turning point?
From that point of view, the most important piece for me, and which marks the turning point in my working methods, is the string quartet Monodia – Quasi un Requiem. These things are not decided by decree, they happen. I wanted to write a string quartet, and I wanted it to be about death. It’s almost as though I had said that I wanted to write a Requiem, and needed therefore an orchestra, a choir, a liturgical text in Latin... No, but it’s almost a Requiem. In this case, tradition provides some elements – here are things, there are ideas which are already established traditionally. Everyone knows what a Requiem is. There’s Mozart’s, and thousands of others: there’s Brahms’s, Verdi’s, and so on. But I didn’t want to write a Requiem of that kind. And so I had a string quartet, and I wanted to write a piece about death. Before beginning to compose, I wrote a good deal about sound and its disappearance, a kind of maximum expressiveness with minimal elements. I wrote a kind of novel in words about what I wanted to do in the piece – this had to do with the idea. And so, before beginning, I wrote several pages to guide myself. The link came about in terms of the actual musical material. I began, and straightaway decided some things. I was going to write a very simple melody, almost as though it were a vocal piece, but then I realized that it wasn’t one voice, but two. From this nucleus – which was a very slow melody of three or four notes, with a lot of space between each note – the act of trying to continue was a moment of enormous, paradoxical happiness. Because I was writing a piece about death, and, at the same time, writing a work which, a posteriori, was for me a birth, in which I became able to work spontaneously with very simple material. The piece composed itself, and think that, while composing, the next step would appear. In this case, I really didn’t have need of much pre-compositional work. In fact, there was none, neither in terms of rhythms, nor of notes or their associations. At each moment, and once one page was finished, a brief analysis of what was there allowed me to write the second and the third, and then an analysis of what had gone before initiated a narrative which it was relatively easy for me to continue. I realized that my way of working was indeed spontaneous, and for the first time I managed to be spontaneous in these two ways, maintaining a hold on the idea of the piece and writing music which self-reproduced. It was a kind of completely unfettered continuation, with a relatively distant control over the form of the piece...
It’s a piece which reproduces itself but which, at the same time, doesn’t go back to that idea of organic development. There’s a movement, an initial impulse, but it doesn’t have much to do with this kind of narrative description, does it?
That’s right. I have considerable doubts about that ideology, which I can describe as an ideology of organicity. I think there are wonderful pieces that have been written, and serve as models, such as the Art of Fugue or the Musical Offering, but I prefer the St Matthew Passion – which is not a piece around which one may build an organicist theory, because it does not have a single nucleus as do the others. However, I’d say that it’s a work of genius comparable to the other two.
So here the narrative is mine, private. There is no development of the material in the traditional meaning of the time, and, moreover, the piece is quite static. One could say that its continuation is its reappearance – but it is no longer the same, because something else has appeared – and it’s in that sense of going on, but not developing in the way which is still traditional, say, in Schoenberg. It was a very important piece.
I think what people think is important. Have there been responses to this particular piece?
The piece was premièred by a German group, Musikfabrik, in the Teatro Rivoli. They were taking part in a festival, the “Jornadas de Arte Contemporânea” (Days of Contemporary Art), and I attended the rehearsal. The musicians had studied the work very well, and I was immediately at ease with it – I had only a couple of small things to say. In the concert, something extraordinary happened. The programme had an error, and had arrived late – so half the audience in the hall didn’t know which piece was being played, because in the programme that was going round there was the name of a Japanese composer. Some friends of mine, who were in the hall, saw that there was a première of a Japanese composer, and found this strange. Someone who knew my work very well as a jazz musician said to me afterwards that he knew the piece was mine as soon as it had begun. But, sometimes, there are very small things like that, somebody is able to recognize immediately my signature in a piece, somebody who in principle had no reason to recognize it as such... And, subsequently, the piece was played by various string quartets and has even been recorded. The string quartet from Vienna, the Artis, when they played it, studied it in Vienna in 1998 – five years after the première, therefore. I went to hear them perform at seven o’clock in the evening, and I have to say that it was absolutely fantastic – no further comment. The first violinist said to me “It’s a fantastic piece”. Afterwards, in conversation with the second violinist about their attitudes, he said, “We had done a lot of 20th century music – we tried to play it like normal music!”. That is to say, they played Beethoven, Schubert, etc. – it’s a real Viennese group – and they said “we play a lot of classical music from this period, and also Viennese music from the beginning of the century – Schoenberg, Berg, of course, Webern”. But suddenly they jump to the 1908s and 1990s and say that, whatever the piece that’s put in front of them, “they try to play it like normal music”. So they’re not specialists in contemporary music, which is something of a dangerous idea. I’d say that, technically, a specialist in contemporary music is a person who sometimes no longer knows how to do a crescendo or a legato, because he’s specialized in excessive gestures, which properly belong to other kinds of music. And then these musicians from the Viennese tradition appear, play my piece – which they hadn’t known before – and tell me “It’s a great piece”. I’m very happy, of course, and this has happened several times.
I wonder if you could speak of your larger pieces, those which, I suppose, are important for a composer... The operas, for example.
Well, shortly after Monodia, which was written in 1993 and premièred in 1994, i knew that I would have an opera to write, which was Édipo, and I had a commission which I myself proposed should be a song cycle for voice and piano, the António Ramos Rosa songs. I chose the poetry myself from the book A Intacta Ferida, and it was my first experience with text, because I knew that I would later work on an opera – with text, of course, the libretto. I therefore decided to write this piece in order to work with a pre-existing text, since I would have the great challenge of the operas afterwards. And, in addition, as it was voice and piano, it could perhaps be in some fashion open a way back to that gestuality of mine, which belongs to me. After Monodia, I think this piece – the song cycle – is also very important. It ended up being twenty-five minutes long –there are nine songs, so each one lasts about three minutes.
The piece which was absolutely fundamental for me was Os Dias Levantados. It has an exceptional libretto, literarily speaking, by Manuel Gusmão. It’s a libretto which also creates some problems in operatic terms, because, by being an exceptional piece of literature, is perhaps not so adaptable from an operatic point of view in the 19th century sense – of history, of the great death on the stage, and so on. And, at the same time, it is a libretto which led the German stage director Lukas Hemleb to comment: “Well, you’ll have to write Parsifal!”. It was so big! I had relatively little time to write the piece, and it was in effect for two years work morning, afternoon and night non-stop, because the deadline was peculiarly restricted – it had to be on that day, 25th April 1998 – and the piece had to be ready. It’s a situation that many composers are familiar with on a daily basis, but I’d never experienced a situation of such an extreme need to work with so many difficulties at the same time. The fact of having the text in front of one... It’s diverse, it’s plural, and has several literary registers. For example, at a certain moment, in order to represent the happiness of the people after 25th April 1974, there’s a text by Fernão Lopes, from the 14th century. At other moments, there are bits of texts by Sá de Miranda. Shortly afterwards there are other registers, of everyday language, such as “Have you got your watch there? Lend it to me, because I’ve lost mine.” There are even parts with extremely sophisticated metaphors, literarily speaking – in other words, the exact opposite. There’s symbology such as “the Venetian doll with the towelling dress lies broken.” It’s something which, even when they read it, people don’t understand the exact sense. And so I had a libretto that was a huge challenge; I had lived the experience which it was necessary to transpose to the stage, and, now, five years after the première, I’m working on mixing the recording, so I’ve been in close contact with the piece. At the time I thought “Well, nobody’s going to learn anything about the 25th April from this piece”... In part because journalists sometimes came and asked “But isn’t there going to be a role for April, which is so important?”, and I would say “No, no, there’s no role for April”. This is important, because we were looking at it from a realist point of view. On the other hand, people from the world of avant-garde arts and music would find some of my music in the piece completely impure, because it sounded like popular music. One can say that it’s the same question viewed from two different points of view.
What’s funny is that now, five years later, I think that the story does recount the 25th April, perhaps in more depth than other things dealing with the theme that have been done up to now. I mean, there are a number of novels by António Lobo Antunes that bring one very close to it, but I find it curious the way time exercises its power, and, in this case, it seems to me that time has given to that piece a relationship to the events which I could not have attempted to transmit. That wasn’t the idea, it was more to capture the basic forces of the moment. That’s my opinion – perhaps, in two years’ time, I’ll have another.
The fact of the text being in itself diverse and plural made my piece more eclectic. And also the pressure of time... I couldn’t refuse anything; every idea that came into my head was good. And so I accepted everything but for two or three things, when I said “no, this is no good”. With regard to the parts that didn’t satisfy me at the première, I revised the work and changed two sections. And so at the moment I’m really quite happy, I must confess. And I may say that I realized, through my own experience, that that business that was taught in our history of music classes – that at the time of the loss of tonality and before the invention of dodecaphony, Schoenberg used text in order to organize form. I realized this in my work with music using a pre-existing text – in other words, whether in the songs or in the operas, the text organized the form for me, but it didn’t organize the music. I have to do the music. But the fact of having to say “from here to here is Scene I”, organized the form, whether I wish it to or not. In that sense, since we are symmetrically in a position – at least I think of it this way – in which we no longer have tonality, just as with Schoenberg, but we also do not have that limited vision of what contemporary music is – in which, in principle, a set of answers was given at the beginning, and also a set of exclusions was included in those answers. You couldn’t use a perfect chord because it was historically dated, you couldn’t use pulsating rhythms because it was Stravinsky, you couldn’t use a number of things. It was, therefore, a kind of music that imposed itself by means of negation – by the number of exclusions it imposed – that by the actual affirmation of a language. Moreover, I think that, if there’s anything that defines the 20th century, it’s the attempt to reply to the end of tonality. For example, Britten gives one reply, which is to use a more or less undisciplined tonality, Shostakovich does the same, and then there are others who refuse, and invent alternative systems – and these alternative systems reveal their limitations ten or fifteen years later...
That also leads us to at least two points that arise; namely, the concept of form, tonality being, essentially, the organizer of the form itself, and also something that I think Os Dias Levantados brought out very clearly, which is the relationship of composers of the 21st century with what you and others call “sound objects” – and up to what point this relationship is an attempt to solve certain problems.
I’d like to discuss these points in this way: for me, composing is being part of a process, to express it in Heideggerian terms. I am within a process of whose end I am ignorant. And here I must say that I hear people speaking very infrequently of luck, as far as their artistic activity is concerned. I think luck is an essential element in artistic activity... A composer needs luck, assuming he has talent or quality. However, there are pieces which are better than others. That’s true of all composers, even Bach – you need luck...
Luck, and perhaps, using it unabashedly!
Yes, indeed. But at that time, say from 1993 onwards, I realized that I would have to have my own criteria. The point at which I create boundaries between “this I can do, this I can’t do”. I can’t take them as being universal and say: “my boundary is here, and it must be the boundary for everybody else”. From that point of view, I think that there should be a connection between the relationships between different objects whose existence I, at a given moment, accept. So, I am within a process. During that process, I make particular associations that at a given time may pass, when I say “ok, I’ll use this perfect chord here”, or, “this music comes in here” – and I can relate this to some music from the past. Being within this process is very different from starting out again with decisions already taken, such as “my music is going to be polystylistic”. It has nothing to do with it, because I’m within the process, and there may appear a sudden and almost inexplicable change of register – and I think “Ah, this is like an 18th century recitative.” Because I’m within this process, and an idea appears, and I accept it as possible. But to have a polystylistic attitude, like Alfred Schnittke, who made it into a theory, or Sofia Gubdaidulina – whose work I admire greatly – does not mean that all works must be thus.
And so, having arrived at this point in the description of what I was doing, I can say that the difference between this and what was happening before is that I couldn’t, in accordance with that ideology, accept certain objects. I had to distance myself from them absolutely, because they had negative stylistic connotations with the music of the past, and thereby weakened the work by their mere presence. Nevertheless, I refuse this ban, and accept the object – but I accept it with its negative stylistic connotations. I do this in accordance with my criteria; that is, when at a given moment such associations of the process within which I am appear, and a particular musical idea appears with these connotations, at each moment and in each piece, I have to decide yes or no, if it goes there or somewhere else, if I have to look for another way.
And I do emphasize that, being within a process, I’m not in a position in which I accept everything – I accept what I want to accept. This decision is what has become mine, whereas, in the past, the decision was not mine. I had to adjust myself to a particular place, or a particular analysis of the question of what was the current state of musical language.
To pass on to something which both has to do and at the same time does not have to do with this, at the beginning, you spoke about the importance of jazz, the relevance of the performer’s gesture. Could you talk a little about this? – Not the importance of gesture, but the importance that the performer’s body has. It’s something rarely spoken about, but I imagine that, with the performance experience that you have, it must be important. Musicians are quite afraid to talk about the body. I was thinking of your instrumental pieces, such as the one you wrote for Miguel Henriques.
I was going to speak precisely about that piece. Miguel Henriques was my colleague at the Music School, and we’ve been friends for almost thirty years. Sometime he’d play for me, other time I’d play for him – we helped each other during the course of the years. Even when he was in Moscow and the United States, when he came back on holiday we’d meet and would sometimes spend an entire afternoon playing. I think that the most wonderful moment, speaking as a composer, once the piece is finished and you know it’s going to be performed, is the moment of contact with the musicians who are going to play it. I love rehearsing pieces, especially when there’s no hurry, when there’s not that institutional attitude (it’s eight o’clock – rehearsal’s over” – something which happens at times before the point at which the rehearsal should be considered finished. So I like to work with musicians, and the pieces are written to be played by musicians. When, at the beginning of our conversation, I spoke of that excess of confidence in the score and the need to come back to talking, it’s because I gradually realized the pleasure of talking to musicians again. I take almost as paradigmatic that story told by a great Hungarian singer who does many pieces by Kurtág, in which she says that she was once dressed and ready to go on stage and sing, and he appeared behind her saying “listen, just here, if you could sing piano instead of mezzo-piano...”. I know that one can’t do this, but what I like is to think that, at the moment when I’m about to play and I’m about to deliver the score to the musician, the piece is not yet finished – it remains essentially open to the suggestions he might make. It’s a general sketch, made basically of the most important things, but which is able to receive suggestions. I mean suggestions of tempo, or “look, let’s try this solo” – as in the case of percussion instruments, the musicians with whom I most like to talk, and they also like to talk with composers. This is because they say “Ah, if I play this sound here, and that sound there” – and it seems that we’re all involved in something which is in the end the creation of a piece, which becomes both mine and theirs. When they accept that the work is like that, that it needs their contribution, and naturally the contribution of their bodies... Because it’s with the body that one makes music; it’s a physical activity, involving playing one’s instrument. At these times, I feel at home, in that I feel that I can once again talk to musicians about the music that will come into existence – and that has, therefore, ceased to have that almost hierarchical relationship in which the composer is a relatively sinister personage, there at the end of the room holding a paper and with a menacing air; and the musicians are trembling because they aren’t able to play that extraordinary number of ‘tuplets, the need for which they don’t understand. I don’t want that paradigm in my life.
There are composer who say: “Well, when I draw the double bar-line, that’s it...”
It’s done, it must be done exactly as it’s written... Yes... That’s interesting, because very often there’s also a barrier there, and it is I who build it. And, above all in questions of tempo, for example – which is, in principle, the most flexible thing in the world – because otherwise, there would not be versions of Beethoven’s Symphonies which last one or two or four minutes longer than others. So tempo, in principle, is where music happens, and, by its nature, is not rigid, not chronological, not mechanical like a clock. Sometimes, nevertheless, small differences of tempo can destroy a passage and its efficacy. When I have arguments with musicians, it’s usually over questions of tempo. I say “no, here you haven’t understood it quite, because if it’s a bit quicker, it is no longer what it is; you have to do it again.” When this is with two or three musicians, this kind of conversation is very rewarding. When it’s with a hundred people, it has to be with the conductor, and it becomes a kind of giant snowball, almost unstoppable sometimes, and then in the concert you hear it played too fast and you can’t do anything. That’s when I miss being on stage as a performing musician – because then I know that it is enough to play one or two notes a little bit before the tempo, and that small gesture can in the end make the tempo right again. That fact that I know this, as a performing musician, in some sense gives to the musicians what I know to be its importance. The great advantage, for example, of that cycle of concerts at Culturgest for me was to give me the opportunity to hear pieces twice. Because sometimes people, and in Portugal this was normal for many years, thought of the work and the première as one and the same thing. The work and the first performance were seen as a single entity. This is false. When there are two performances, one understands immediately that the piece and the first performance are not one and the same thing, and for that reason a review of a first performance should always be relative, because one does not yet know what that piece may give on a second or third performance.