Apr 05 2009

Alexandre Eisenberg: An Interview

An Interview with Alexandre Eisenberg


Alexandre Eisenberg

Composer Alexandre Eisenberg is a native of Rio de Janeiro, and studied composition there and in the United States at Indiana University. His works have been featured at the biannual festivals of contemporary music in Rio de Janeiro, and performed throughout Brazil, the US, Italy, Spain, France, Germany and China. He is presently professor of music at the Federal University of Santa Maria (Rio Grande do Sul). We talked via Google Talk in March and April of 2009.

Music at Home

TM: I always find it interesting and illuminating to explore the influences of family and friends during childhood. Please tell me about the musical environment in your family. Where were your parents from?

AE: Both my parents were born in Rio. And all my grandparents were European. So I am second generation Brazilian.

TM: Is your family Jewish?

AE: Yes.

TM: On all sides, I imagine.

AE: Yes, on all sides.

TM: Was there someone in the family who was a professional musician?

AE: My maternal grandmother always referred to a “cousin” called Boris, who was a nice pianist. But that’s all. My paternal grandfather was a cantor for a while in Buenos Aires, before he came to Brazil.

TM: When did your grandparents come to Brazil, and from where?

AE: My maternal grandmother came earlier than most European Jews. She came around 1910. All the others in the early 1930s. My maternal grandmother was British, of Russian ancestors. Her husband, my maternal grandfather was from the Ukraine, my paternal grandmother was born in Vienna, but raised in Warsaw. And my paternal grandfather was from Plonsk, Poland.

TM: That covers the map! Did they all come to Rio?

AE: Yes. The partial exception was my paternal grandfather, who first came to Buenos Aires, Argentina, but then on to Rio, where he stayed for life.

TM: Were they active musically as amateurs?

AE: Not quite. But my British grandmother was a music lover. She knew all great ballets, famous Viennese and other waltzes, etc. Mainly, they were always worried about my choice of music as a profession!

TM: Music is always a difficult choice when there are more lucrative alternatives.

AE: Multiply that by 20 when living in Brazil.

TM: Your parents grew up in Rio. What neighborhood did they live in?

AE: My father was raised in Tijuca until my grandparents moved to Copacabana, when he was already a young adult. As a child, my mother lived in Laranjeiras, then as a teenager in Ipanema.

TM: Comfortably middle-class then, although their parents had immigrated.

AE: Not exactly. My father’s family was middle-to-low middle class, and my mother’s family was low middle class – remember that Ipanema at that time was nothing. The expensive neighborhoods were Flamengo, Botafogo and a bit later Copacabana.


Physics or Music?

TM: How did you get involved in music? Through school? Private lessons? Was there influence from music at the synagogue?

AE: I had music classes in school, from age 5. I studied in an Irish-Brazilian school named St Patrick’s, in Leblon, where I spent my childhood years. Then I was interested in pop music and asked my parents to get me a guitar.

TM: Leblon must have been a nice neighborhood to grow up in.

AE: My father had serious financial problems during my childhood, so we lived with my maternal grandparents, who were completely non-religious. It’s interesting, because my grandfather bought an apartment in Leblon when Leblon was nothing, even less than Ipanema. Only low middle class people at that time would buy apartments “so far from downtown.” Today it is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Rio!! Yes, it was nice to live so close to the beach.

TM: Tell me about your guitar/pop years. Did you do classical music at the same time?

AE: No. That’s interesting. Music was not my main ‘occupation’ as a child. I was much more interested in science. Usually, before classes started every year, I already knew the contents of the science textbooks by heart.

TM: That sounds familiar. I think my parents were shocked when I decided to do music. But there seems to be a frequent correlation between math and composition.

AE: Mine were not because my turnaround took place at about age 15, that is, about three years before the ‘vestibular’ [Brazilian college entrance examinations]. And even then I almost did physics instead of music!!

TM: Did you study guitar with someone?

AE: Yes, I first studied with a guy named Orlando, a typical pop guitar teacher who would come to our place once a week for little money. I learned some then fashionable songs, etc. Later, I studied with Luis, whose family name I never knew. He was more sophisticated and taught me bossa nova and other nice Brazilian music. And finally, around age 12, I took my first classical lessons with Carlos Alberto de Carvalho. When I realized how difficult it was, plus that I’d have to practice, which was not part of my musical vocabulary by then, I gave up.

AE: At the same time, I had recorder lessons in school from age 10. I got pretty good at it…

TM: Was the teacher a specialist in the instrument?

AE: Well, not exactly. She was a music educator, who taught us the basics of music theory, plus score reading and recorder playing.

TM: I was wondering what sort of popular music was the sound track for adolescent life in your circle?

AE: That’s a good point. It depends on when during my adolescence. In fact my discovery of concert music was the biggest revolution in my teenage years. It transformed my life entirely. I spent almost all my teenage years listening to and playing only so-called “classical music.”

TM: I take it that concert music was not something that had been present in the household?

AE: You are right. My parents never listened to it. In fact my grandmother had sort of inherited classical music LPs, but as I child we couldn’t listen to them because we didn’t have any equipment at home. It was expensive.

TM: Was there one piece that changed your direction, which really made a difference?

AE: Well, not one particular piece, but the works I had access to by Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. These were the ones I knew best at the time.

TM: What was it that made you choose music over physics?

AE: I had a very painful and difficult nervous breakdown at age 16-17. I had the intuition that if I studied physics at any depth, I might go insane. So I chose music.

TM: That sounds like a sensible choice.

AE: Maybe…


Flute Education

Transverse Flute

TM: Tell me how you got started on the flute.
AE: Of course a lot of things I didn’t tell you. I used to read a lot since age 5 through all my teenage years to this day… Not music literature, but mostly science, social science, some philosophy… I got started with the transverse flute at age 15, because I started realizing how limited the recorder was to play some of the scores I looked at in the music stores. Especially the issue of range. I was amazed by the possibility of a flute with a range larger than that of the recorder. Then I took a class with Edmund Haas in one of those ‘cursos de férias’ [summer classes] in the Teresópolis PROARTE. He taught the flute, but agreed to receive a couple of cruzeiros for teaching me recorder lessons, except he wouldn’t talk about recorder technique, but rather the interpretation of the transverse flute repertoire I was playing on the recorder! I was 13 then, I guess. He was kind of amazed I could play that stuff on the recorder.

TM: What recorder were you playing at the time? Was there an ensemble you played with?

AE: No, no ensemble. I had no musical friends at all. And I wasn’t enrolled at PROARTE. My uncle had a summer house in Teresópolis, so I just rode my bicycle there and took my classes! I was playing soprano recorder. I had never seen any other recorder at that point yet! I got my alto, tenor and sopranino recorders only two or three years later.

TM: Was Haas your first teacher? Did you have a regular teacher in Rio?

AE: No, those were my only meetings with Haas. Never more met him since then… And I had no recorder teacher in Rio. At age 15, I started studying the flute with Carlinhos, at the Escola de Música Villa-Lobos. Carlos Alberto Rodrigues, the OSB piccolo player from time immemorial!! Very good player. I had an Armstrong 104 flute!

TM: What music did you work on with him?

AE: In the beginning, mostly Baroque, but also some classical, plus the stuff in the Taffanel & Gaubert method.

TM: Strictly classical? No choro?

AE: Strictly classical. Carlinhos recommended that I take the PROARTE summer courses in Rio, which I did for the three or four years of my late adolescence. There we played some choro in flute ensembles, but still very little.

TM: You went to university in Rio?

Celso WoltzenlogelAE: Yes. Right after the time at the Villa-Lobos School. I first studied with Celso Woltzenlogel, then Lenir Siqueira, then finally with Eduardo Monteiro.

TM: Please say a little about each. Celso is well-known as a teacher and pedagogue because of his flute method. I know of Lenir since he was one of Laura Rónai’s teachers, and I understand he is also a composer.

AE: Right. Lenir is also a composer. But he wouldn’t demand much from me in his flute lessons. Celso did demand, but he was my first teacher at UFRJ, when I was not yet mature enough to practice as needed. At that time I needed a shake, a teacher who would tell me right on my face that my good sightreading and fingering agility alone would lead me nowhere as a professional flutist. Eduardo was the guy. And now, three years later, I was minimally open to hear the truth. Eduardo was blunt, which is precisely what I needed, even if it hurt me in the beginning. He would show me why my sonority was weak and poor, and then how to produce a full, beautiful sound. Under his orientation I completely changed my technique. It was hard, but very much worth it. And he was very generous. When I told him I wanted to audition for an OSB position, he knew I was not yet prepared, but realizing how enthusiastic I was, he gave me extra lessons at his place for free. But he was not yet a professor at UFRJ, so I studied with him privately. Then I left for Israel and when I came back three years later, Celso had retired and he won the ‘concurso público’ to take Celso’s previous position. Then I resumed my studies with him and graduated under his guidance. I should also mention a couple of key lessons I had with Renato Axelrud, then, as now, principal at the OSB.

TM: So, where did you go to university?

AE: UFRJ, then RUBIN in Jerusalem, then back to UFRJ for my master’s, then Indiana University. At IU I studied the flute with Kate Lukas. A very good teacher.

TM: At UFRJ were you studying flute or composition already?

AE: My bachelor’s was in flute. My master’s in composition, and at IU it was both. At IU, doctorate.

TM: You went to Israel after finishing the bachelor’s in flute at UFRJ?

AE: No. I interrupted it, went to Israel, then resumed when I came back to Brazil.

TM: it must have been quite a contrast.

AE: In Israel I had a memorable lesson-meeting with Hanoch Tel-Oren. Then I had some lessons with Raanan Eylon, a fantastic player. Both Raanan and Renato had studied with Hanoch, who became a legend among his students.

TM: This was at the Samuel Rubin Music Academy?

AE: Yes, the contrast was great, even if I don’t know what you have in mind as you ask me that question! The lesson with Tel-Oren (who died recently in Texas) was at his then home in the Galilee. With Eylon it was also at his place in Jerusalem. In the academy I had decided to study “music theory,” because I found their judgment of my flute playing unfair.

TM: It seems like your study in Israel was the turn in the road between performance and composition?

AE: Not at all. I went there to study the flute at a place I was told had a more intense and interesting music environment. The overall performance level in Israel was certainly higher than that in Brazil, but, judging from how they graded my flute playing, it was obvious they had other, non-musical interests, which was to me a big disappointment. That’s why I decided to take the ‘neutral’ music theory course, and later, ultimately, to abandon it altogether. My disappointment with the Academy coupled with my father’s sudden fatal illness, and the Gulf War took me back to Brazil.

TM: Did your theory study move you in the direction of composition?

AE: No. I was already a composer who played and had others play my music in public concerts in Rio already 4 years before leaving to Israel, where I had no composition lessons at all. My flute duets, for example, date from 1985. But the theory courses at Rubin were very good.

TM: how were they different from theory study in Brazil?

AE: Well, theory studies in Rio were one big catastrophe! So, anything better was a plus. But at Rubin it was not anything. It was pretty good. Especially the Russian professors were a big plus. They separated written harmony classes from piano harmony classes. This was excellent. The solfege professor used his own method, which was pretty good. Also music history with Dalia Cohen was special. My ‘problem’ was that I had no problem with any of those classes, except the piano harmony, which is very important and I had no experience with. Other than that, the Israeli approach to young talents in composition was pitiable, which is probably the reason why most good Israeli composers leave for the US or Europe.

TM: Do you mean that there is no space for having compositions performed?

AE: Well, that’s a problem everywhere on the planet! No, I mean something different. They didn’t use to look at very good young composers and encourage them, and tell them what to do to advance their careers. There is a famous Golda Meir passage with ex-president Nixon which is very true. Nixon would ask her like “well, you are the prime minister, Mrs. Meir. Why don’t you go ahead and do what needs to be done?” She said: “you don’t know how Israelis are like, Mr. President. I lead a country of presidents”…

TM: …Something which has its good points and bad points. Take me back to your earliest compositions. Did you have a mentor or teacher in composition at that point?

AE: You mean around 1985? By then I was 18.

TM: Yes. What were your models in terms of style, your influences?

AE: I never had real composition classes until I left for the US in 2000. I learned by myself. Especially by “eating” every score of Bach, Telemann, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. that I could buy or read from around age 14. My personal history with composition during my teenage was very strange and mysterious. In fact, I had a big nervous breakdown at age 18 as a consequence of trying to understand how I could compose in Central European early 19th century style. When I was 16, I could already compose in a somewhat Schubertian style, then have it performed by my friends. They wouldn’t believe it. Especially the Strutt Quartet. I still have some old tapes of their performance of my early pieces for string quartet.

TM: What was the Strutt Quartet?

AE: This was an amateur string quartet: Mr. Roberto Strutt, cello. Mr. Carlos Mendonça and occasionally Mr. Izaak Mendlewicz, viola. Mr. Victor Matienzo, 2nd violin and Mr. Waldemar Szpilman, 1st violin. Mr. Strutt’s father was a great Italian composer of British origin. Unfortunately unknown. There seems to be some significant works about him in Italy, especially at the Santa Cecilia Academy of Rome, where he taught before leaving for Brazil.

TM: I’m sure there’s a doctoral dissertation there waiting… What would you think of as your op. 1, the point where you thought “now I am composing seriously”?

AE: Hmm. That’s a difficult question, because I never really looked at my fully tonal music as anything less than my non-tonal music, whereas my colleagues would laugh at me… But still, for good reasons, I consider my flute duets as op.1.

TM: I would say that they are modern, and technically challenging.

AE: With that set of pieces, I jumped from the world of the “line” of European tonal music to my own style, so to speak. A sacred line, by the way, which my spirit caught or was caught by around age 15.

TM: Could you characterize your style? is there Brazilian influence? Do you draw consciously on various Brazilian idioms?

AE: I did that only later in my life. Adolescence to me was a spiritual trip to my European origins. Of course it had to end on a nervous breakdown! Can you imagine a young carioca, living by the beach, surrounded by amazing women, just ‘traveling away’ to Europe internally?

TM: It’s not what society is expecting in Rio de Janeiro…

AE: In fact I felt terribly, unbearably lonely. No one in my family could understand what was going on with me. I was the only one, you know, the ‘crazy’ one. It was only when I had my first musical friendships and spent many nights at my friend Rodrigo Ribeiro’s place that I started having some dialogue about myself and other musicians with someone. It was great. A family that was the opposite of mine in many ways.

TM: Tell me about Rodrigo.

Laura RónaiAE: Oh, God… Rodrigo was my best friend during those key years between 15 and 19. He was also a flutist. I first met him at Proarte, in Laranjeiras. A fantastic place for meeting young and good “old” musicians. That’s where I met Carlinhos, Laura Rónai, Marcelo Fagerlande and Homero Magalhães (of blessed memory).Rodrigo’s father was a leftwing journalist. His mother an artist, writer and painter. His brother, Vicente, who also became a friend, was (still is!) a composer and arranger of MPB. And Rodrigo was a brilliant mind. We had a lot in common. Both of us wrote poetry, listened to music together, talked about philosophy, politics, etc.

TM: How did this friendship shape your approach to classical music?

AE: It was both Rodrigo and Vicente who first introduced me to contemporary (that is, 20-century) concert music. That was a shock! At their place I first listened to Bartok, Stravinsky and Ravel. That changed me forever.

TM: Of course! What contemporary music could you hear being performed in Rio in the eighties?

AE: Well, there was some. The problem was that I didn’t go to those concerts. I had once heard Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin and got a trauma! The music was “horrible.” I couldn’t stand it! So I kept myself away from it… And kept composing in early 19th century style. At Rodrigo’s place things changed, because Vicente, who was older and was already studying at UNIRIO, would explain things to us, etc. But even then they were amazed by how I processed things. When I came up with the flute duets, Rodrigo (the first one to try them with me) was taken aback. I remember him saying “dessa vez você se superou” [this time you outdid yourself]… But that wasn’t exactly the case. Vicente would not be very happy about my 19th-century string quartet pieces, as it was so old fashioned. But deep inside they recognized not every kid would do it. Then the flute duets brought up all I had heard with them in a ready, personal style. That shook them, and me too. It was all new. By then I also had Megalogadron premiered by Noel Devos at UFRJ. Marlos Nobre wanted to know who the author was. I was right beside him, but felt too shy, so I never told him it was me, until I did it many years later, before leaving to the US that was a solo bassoon piece I wrote to an older colleague at UFRJ, Ricardo Rappoport. But he didn’t know me well. It sounded like ‘puxassaquismo’ [preferential treatment], and he was already leaving for France, so he ignored it. But Devos liked it and premiered it. Needless to say, that was even better. In fact I was not mature enough to understand what an honor it was to have a musician like Devos premiere a piece of mine. You know, people are just too informal in Rio! He still remembers the piece. I have his recording of it to this day.

TM: He’s a great musician, and a fundamental part of the history of music, not just of the bassoon, in Brazil.

AE: Of course!! I didn’t know it when I was 18.


Doctorate at IU

TM: So, tell me about your decision to go to Indiana for composition.

AE: Well, Indiana came almost as an accident. I had won the Riera international competition in Caracas, and one of the members of the jury was Don Freund, a professor of composition at IU. He offered me the best fellowship at IU for a doctorate. I was not sure composition was a better choice for a DMA than flute, but I viewed it as a good opportunity to study/work in the US without owing to the Brazilian government. As it turned out, I was totally wrong. I thought the fellowship would be enough to survive in the US, but I could barely eat with it. Then I applied for a CAPES scholarship and got one. By then, 2000, I was already mature enough to take advantage of opportunities, as opposed to my time in Israel. I had already had experience as a university substitute professor in Rio, and had already been principal in a professional orchestra, in addition to having played in many orchestras in Rio. So I did take advantage of IU. But still my US time had something important in common with my Israel time: I learned as much history, or even more so, than I learned music. My time in the US after 9/11 made me quite knowledgeable about international politics and how the media function. That became a second activity, parallel to music. It was not without a precedent. I had studied social sciences in my early 20s at UFRJ.

TM: Tell me about the culture for composers at IU. Was there a “party line” about what you had to study or was the teaching tailored individually to each student?

AE: It was tailored individually to each student. IU is a fantastic place to study music. And the composition department is very diversified. However, each professor (of 7!) has his own preferences. It’s a complicated issue. Most of them have a penchant to write “modern”, and the department’s policy is not to force any aesthetic trend down the students’ throats. For the most part it works well.

TM: What did it mean to be Brazilian in the context of the USA?

AE: Much more than I thought it would! I was raised in an America-loving family and have several relatives living in the US for many years. But still I had a doctor in Bloomington asking me if I had malaria or yellow fever!! Because I’m white, or relatively so, no one would look at me with pre-conceived ideas. But I was shocked by how ignorant American musicians are of great Brazilian composers…

TM: Let’s continue by talking about the pieces you composed while at IU.

AE: I wrote one of my most important works there, the viola concerto, but also a wind quintet, a solo piano piece, a song, a little Chassidic quartet and a symphony.

TM: Tell me about the viola concerto. Why the viola? For a particular musician?

AE: Yes. It was written for Yuval Gotlibovich, an Israeli violist of extraordinary talent and musicianship. We became friends.

TM: Had you met him while studying in Israel?

AE: No, we first met at IU. The viola professor there is also an Israeli, Prof. Atar Arad. Then Yuval, despite his young age, became a professor for a while. He later left for Spain, where he now lives.

TM: What are the challenges in writing a concerted piece for viola as soloist?

AE: Not very different from writing for the violin. The main difference is that the viola is harder to play in its highest register. So it demands more from the player, especially as most of its repertoire is not written that high. But I love its sound. It has qualities of the violin and cello simultaneously.

TM: Is it more difficult to have it carry against the sound of the orchestra?

AE: Yes, somewhat so. It has a more veiled sound.

TM: The cello often is identified with a soulful Jewish sound.

AE: The idea of a soulful Jewish sound is… well… I think it depends more on the player than the instrument.

TM: I was thinking of the Bruch Kol Nidre and Bloch Schelomo….

AE: Right. But that is because the cello’s most resounding register is its tenor register, which coincides with a cantor’s voice in the synagogue. Hence the Kol Nidrei… But there is a very particularly Jewish way of playing the violin. It suffices to compare an Oistrakh or Perlman interpretation of any work to a Anne-Sophie Mutter one, for example. In fact, as it turns out, the entire Russian school of violin playing is Jewish.

TM: Is the Israeli string sound Russian?

AE: The Israeli string sound is for the most part Russian. But there is a Belgian, Grumiaux-style sound that has influenced Israeli and Jewish players as a whole. Atar Arad seems to have been influenced by it. And so have the Brazilian Bessler brothers. You had asked about the viola concerto and I didn’t answer. It is my most original and powerful work to date. This was a direct result of being at IU. They have good graduate students and a good contemporary ensemble. So I knew I could write what I really wanted to write. I’m trying to have the viola concerto played in Brazil, but it will be hard…

TM: Does it have a title or subtitle? A program?

AE: Yes. It is called HADEREKH, meaning THE WAY in Hebrew. It is based on the first verses of Genesis.

TM: Explain, please.

AE: Three movements: TOHU, BOHU, and YETZIRAH. Tohu and Bohu are the Hebrew words usually translated to English as without form and void. It indicates how things were after God had created matter but not yet given form to it. YETZIRAH means ‘formation.’ Because all translations of the Hebrew Bible are extremely limited and cannot convey the real meaning of many phrases and expressions, it is hard to explain some things. So YETZIRAH is in fact what stands for ‘creation’ in the Western sense of the word. The third movement depicts the 6 days of creation and the Shabbat, the 7th day. BOHU is inspired by the idea of the spirit of God hovering over the abyss and the surface of the waters. The work is mostly atonal, but the final Shabbat is more consonant and ends with the unity of opposites – D major and Ab major triads sounding at the same time.

TM: What do you draw on as a composer to create a work with Jewish imagery?

AE: Well, probably the fact that my Jewishness ‘increases’ as I age… My trips to Israel, Europe and the US only reinforced it. Jews cannot fully understand Jewishness without knowing well their own history. There is a myth about the uniqueness of Jewish survival over time. But it is a myth because most Jews have ceased to be Jews long ago without knowing it.

TM: Jews are only those Jews who know that they are Jews.

AE: Not true. Most Jews who identify as such these days believe they are Jews for one or other reason. But this is a long and different discussion…

TM: So, to get to the level of detail, does a Brazilian composer who is creating a Jewish work drawn on musical imagery from Ashkenaz, Sepharad, both, or neither? In the USA, you think Jewish music, and you think klezmer, Fiddler on the Roof. But what do you think in Brazil?

AE: Oh… same as in the US, plus the Sephardic heritage in the Amazon. But that has nothing to do with my viola concerto. The viola concerto is purely Biblical, and the music is fully original. Now, in technical terms, it certainly owes to 20th-century composers from Bartok and Stravinsky all the way to Ligeti and Penderecki, but only technically speaking. The music itself is very different.

TM: When was it premiered at IU?

AE: November 2004.

TM: Has it been heard in Israel yet?

AE: Not to my knowledge. And probably nowhere ever since. It requires an excellent conductor, an excellent soloist and an excellent ensemble. Yuval was considering proposing a performance to the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne in Germany. But I think he’s been busy with other projects.

TM: The Wind Quintet was heard at the Bienal in 2005, yes?

AE: Right. “Epigrams” for low winds.

TM: That is an interesting notion. I don’t imagine there is another such piece in the repertoire.

AE: Have no idea… I wanted to experiment with those timbres. Sydney Hodkinson thought it might sound rambunctious! I think it is fun and has its value.

TM: Rambunctious is a good word, something I associate with American modernists of the Ives school… Did you have models for quintet writing? Or let’s say, favorite quintets?

AE: Not at all. I had just played some. I’ve always been more attached to music for strings, or winds with strings.

TM: somehow the wind quintet seems to elicit different types of thoughts and language from a composer than the string quartet or quintet.

AE: That is true. Westerners expect more lightheartedness from woodwinds…

TM: Especially the bassoon.

AE: Ha, ha!

TM: Although the opening of Rite of Spring is far from “funny.”

AE: But there were a couple of extremely intelligent composers who wrote very serious music for the bassoon. Example: Tchaikovsky! In his 6th symphony, his use of the bassoon is amazing. Very tragic, ominously expressive. Fantastic. My solo bassoon piece is comic. But the wind quintet is not. Actually, the same is true for the bass clarinet. It can be very funny when used in music for cartoons, and very tragic in the orchestra.

TM: Is there special significance to the title?

AE: I meant it to be comprised of four light pieces, rather than a very serious work. This was because I was then composing for my recital at IU and I intended to write a much heavier work to close it (which was, as it turned out, to be the viola concerto). Still, it was fun to play it. It was the first time I played such an important alto flute part!!

TM: You mentioned a Hasidic quartet, for strings, I assume.

AE: No, mixed: viola, cello, clarinet and bass clarinet. A klezmer combination. Also because I had befriended Yuval and Guy Yehuda, an excellent Israeli clarinetist.

TM: Is there a Hasidic text or image associated with the piece? What is the title?

AE: The title is NIGNLE. It means a little NIGUN in Yiddish (the language of my grandparents). NIGUN means music without words.

TM: Yes, I know. Is there a personal connection with Hasidic Judaism for you?

AE: Yes. But not through my family. It’s a spiritual thing. When I was in the US I found Chabad to be the only place where Judaism was really alive. Of course, I’m talking about the places I visited: Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and NJ. [Rabbi] Nilton Bonder in [Rio de Janeiro] Brazil is a notable exception…

TM: In a certain way Chabad is also exceptional for Orthodox Judaism in engaging with the larger Jewish world.

AE: Correct. And this is their most important quality. They are closer to what Judaism was when it still existed as such.

TM: And you mentioned a piano piece and a song. Why only one song? They usually seem to come in sets.

AE: Well, to be honest, it was an IU assignment. I had 24 hours to write a song. I did my best. It’s very short. The piano piece is much more important. It was premiered by Winston Choi, an excellent Canadian-Chinese pianist, and has already been played in Brazil twice by different pianists.

TM: When did you finish your doctorate at Indiana?

AE: My DM was done by April 2006.


At Rio Grande do Sul

TM: And then you returned to Brazil. Where did you go?

AE: I went to Rio, where I was selected for a substitute professorship in chamber music at UFRJ.

TM: What were your duties there? Were you focused on contemporary music?

AE: No. My job was to teach chamber music classes to the students. Part of it corresponds to what you call ‘coaching’ in the US. So I oriented young players in string quartets, trombone+piano, guitar duo, etc. in the interpretation of their repertoire. Flute students had a plus, of course, as I could also talk about their playing technically. But I refrained from doing it as much as I could, since I was not their flute teacher. But I wasn’t there long – I was selected for an assistant professorship here in Santa Maria and moved down here later that year.

TM: How is the musical culture different in Rio Grande do Sul?

AE: Well, they have a strong local culture, which is very different from popular music in Rio. Local music here has no samba influence, so the rhythm is very square. It isn’t close to Argentinean music, as one might expect, due to physical proximity.

TM: Quite a lot of Italian heritage, with accordions…

Vera Vianna & Alexandre EisenbergAE: Yes, I would say that’s the strongest element. Prof: Edino Krieger, who is from the South, has both Italian and German ancestors. RS [Rio Grande do Sul] is a different state in many ways. Italian ancestry is not exclusive to the south. SP [São Paulo] is very much Italian as well. But German ancestry is rarely found in the country north from Paraná. Many of my students have German family names, though there are also Italian and Portuguese. And there are black and mixed-heritage (typical Brazilian) students as well.

TM: Tell me about the projects you are working on at the moment. More chamber music? other genres?

AE: I teach composition and music theory. In addition to that, I play in two ensembles: a flute & piano duo with my colleague Vera Vianna, and a flute quartet with my string colleagues. And I direct a radio program at the UFSM radio.

TM: Are there some compositions under way?

AE: Not at the moment. I haven’t been composing much since I came here. I have no time to compose. But later this month we’ll have another ‘concurso público’ for a new ear training professor, who will take up most of my current ear training classes. Then I might have some time to compose from the next semester on.

TM: So when he arrives those projects which have been put off might get under way.

AE: That is my hope. I need time to compose, and more time to practice my flute playing.

TM: Will you be at the Bienal in October?

AE: It depends. I sent an orchestral piece to the last Bienal, which was rejected. Since the last Bienal required newly composed pieces, that was the only one I had to send them. If the same requirement holds this year, I won’t be participating. In fact, the Bienal has gone downhill since Edino Krieger left.

TM: But it remains the best way to hear what people across Brazil are doing, for better or worse.

AE: This is true, but not 100%. The importance of the Bienal lies in the fact that it is the only living-composers-only event that includes composers from all over the country. This is certainly unique, and typical of Rio’s cosmopolitanism. But there are other events going on in Brazil. In Porto Alegre there is a yearly event for RS composers. But the downside is the inclusion of foreign composers. It is contradictory in that it is not open to Brazilian composers from other states, and yet it features foreign composers. In fact, this kind of stupidity is also typical of Brazil, unfortunately. The same sort of thinking infests the SP New Music event, directed (or formerly directed) by Gilberto Mendes.