Caio Senna: An Interview
Caio Senna, born 1959, is Professor of Harmony at the University of Rio (UniRio), located in the beautiful neighborhood of Urca, in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain.
His works are performed and recorded by leading figures in the musical life of Rio de Janeiro, such as baritone Inácio de Nonno and harpsichordist Rosana Lanzelotte. His most recent compact disc, Primeiro Diálogo (the title comes from a Faustian dialogue by Fernando Pessoa) (UniRio UNI004) presents a varied palette of chamber music, with songs for tenor and piano, an extended toccata and three brief miniatures for piano solo, and a suite for the unusual combination of bass clarinet and two guitars. Senna’s music is immediately captivating while rewarding many listenings, and he is accessible while nevertheless writing in a style that is entirely his own. We talked in Portuguese on August 12, 2002 in Rio de Janeiro.
TM – Could you say a little about the musical environment in your family when you were growing up? Did you have musical relatives? How did you get started in music?
CS – I don’t have any immediate relatives who are musicians. I have one cousin who is a guitarist, but there is no tradition of musicians in my family. There are two branches of my family which are Italian, on my father’s and my mother’s side. My father’s family, although it had some connections with literature, was not very much involved with music.
In my mother’s family, there was a lot of music making at parties, they would play serestas – they are all from Minas, and singing and playing guitar is something that is very common in Minas. My mother studied piano when she was very young, for eight years, but when she got married, she didn’t take the piano with her – it stayed in her parents’ house, and so there was no piano in our house. I never studied the instrument until I was fifteen years old. She sang a lot, played the guitar, and encouraged me to sing. She sang with me all the time. At least that’s what everyone tells me, since I don’t remember it.
TM – What kind of music?
CS – Serestas from Minas, popular songs – she would sing me to sleep with Brazilian popular songs that she enjoyed. So I never heard a traditional lullaby – I heard the repertoire of the popular singers of the time. There was an environment where people enjoyed music, but no one studied music. There was a certain amount of drama when I decided to study music, because people didn’t like that at all. In my mother’s family people became engineers. There were lawyers and politicians in my father’s family, but in my mother’s family they were engineers.
TM – Where did your mother’s family come from?
CS – My mother was born in Belo Horizonte, and my father as well. Everyone was born in Minas. My maternal grandparents and the cousins were born in Ouro Preto. Of my paternal grandparents one was born in Belo Horizonte, and the other in Ouro Preto. My mother’s great-grandfather was Italian. He was an employee of a British company that sold arms – he came to America to sell guns. Nice, huh?
TM – When was this?
CS – At the turn of the century. He traveled between Argentina and Brazil, and married a girl from a family in Rio Grande do Sul. They ended up buying a farm in Minas and settled near Diamantina. He enjoyed music, and was very forward-looking, keeping up with the technology of the period, so that when the first gramophones were offered for sale to the public, he bought one, took it to the farm, and frightened the servants with voices coming from the beyond, since he hid it behind the wall. He liked music, but no one was a musician. All of his daughters and granddaughters played instruments – it was part of a woman’s education.
TM – What instruments did they play?
CS – They played guitar, learned by themselves, although they didn’t have lessons. I have a great uncle who still plays guitar today, he loves to play serestas, and accompanies them very well. Each one of my great aunts studied a different instrument – violin, singing, piano, my great-grandmother played harp. There was a lot of music in my family, but no one was a professional.
I was not the first, but the second, since there is a second cousin, my mother’s cousin, that is a musician as well, although I think that he is no longer working as a musician.
I began studying late. I played well by ear. I remember that when I was thirteen or fourteen, my mother asked if I wouldn’t like to study piano, since she could tell that I really liked music. I told her that I was too old to study piano, and things went along like that for a while, but when I was fifteen I called my grandmother and asked her if she wouldn’t give me the piano that was at her house. She fixed it up and sent it to us, and I began to study using the method of Amyrton Vallim, Piano by Ear.
He was a popular pianist, who was blind. He invented this method, since he was unable to read scores – he had a marvelous ear, played nicely, but couldn’t read. So he invented this crazy score that gave the name of the note, but not the rhythm. You picked up the rhythm by ear. It was a horror.
I studied for a year using this method, and saw that I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I decided to actually study piano. This was when I was eighteen.
The advantage of Amyrton’s method was that it taught me the chords and symbols from popular music, so that I was already composing before I had studied music. I had four or five compositions.When I really started to music, I headed more and more towards composition. But I didn’t want to be a composer, or rather, I wanted to be a composer like Tom Jobim – to play piano and compose. That’s what I adored. I thought I would be a composer of popular music – I never imagined that I would be writing avant-garde music.
I wrote popular music for many years.
TM – Where did you grow up?
CS – I was born in São Paulo, and lived there until I was nine years old. When I was nine we moved to Rio, and I have lived in Rio for more than thirty – we don’t need to be more specific than that (laughs). So I am more Carioca than Paulista, and started to study music here in Rio.
TM – What kind of popular music were you interested in?
CS – At the time it was just popular music – it wasn’t differentiated. I didn’t know any contemporary concert music. What I did know was what I studied in my piano lessons, which was traditional repertoire – Debussy, Ravel – I had heard of Stravinsky – but I thought that there was only popular music in Brazil. I didn’t know there was any other kind of music, except for Villa-Lobos, and as far as I was concerned he was far in the past, a figure from the beginning of the century, which he wasn’t – he was active almost until the sixties.
TM – What were the styles of popular music that you enjoyed.
CS – Every year I liked something different. I adored Chico Buarque. Then I started to enjoy disco – that’s a phase that everyone went through in the seventies.
TM – Was there Brazilian disco?
CS – Not as far as I remember. I started by enjoying Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, all of Elis Regina’s repertoire – the chic popular music of the period. Later I started to get interested in avant-garde popular music – Arrigo Barnabé. Arrigo does music more or less in the vein of Frank Zappa. I loved rock until I was sixteen. My phases were very clearly marked.
TM – Were there other avant-garde musicians like Barnabé?
CS – Not like him. There were musicians that were underground, but not really avant-garde.
I had a band that played popular music, which played a variety of things, from chic popular music to avant-garde, alternative…
TM – What were the instruments in the group?
CS – I didn’t consider it to be a rock group. There was a Brazilian rock magazine that listed us as “eighties techno-pop.” So we were techno-pop, although I didn’t know it. I played electronic keyboard, sometimes piano, there was bass, drums, flute, vocals. It was a group where everybody sang and played.
TM – Flute seems to be very Brazilian, and not so common in popular music elsewhere. Why did you have a flute in the group?
CS – Because one of my friends played flute. We put the group together with friends that sang in the chorus at the Pro-Arte.
TM – Were you writing the material for the group?
CS – No. The repertoire had things of mine, but also from other people in the group – everybody. And some things from outside – Itamar Assumpção, which was underground music from São Paulo, I did a vocal arrangement of Arrigo Barnabé. There was one member of the group who wrote more for the group. At the time I was not composing so much. I did more arranging than composing. I only began to compose more regularly and in greater quantity when I was almost thirty years old. Now I have more than a hundred compositions.
TM – How did you arrive in the world of contemporary classical music?
CS – I studied piano, but I wanted to play modern music, and for me modern music was popular music. I began to conduct a chorus, and that is how I got to classical music. I was conducting to earn money, and took a course in choral conducting with Cees Rotterweel.
He brought a lot of contemporary choral music – things by Ligeti, by contemporary Dutch composers. He was invited by Pro Arte to give a course. Later I went to Holland on vacation and stayed at his house.
I got to know the contemporary repertoire through him and fell in love with it.
TM – When was this?
CS – 1985.
TM – Did you then study composition at a university here?
CS – I was already a composition student at the Escola de Música of UFRJ. I had studied architecture for three years – 1978-1980. In 1981 I decided to do music instead. In 1978 I had been studying piano at the same time I was doing architecture, but I thought that I was not ready to take the test for a course in piano. Since I was doing arranging I thought the course in composition was a good idea. I took the test and entered the School of Music in 1982. In 1984 I dropped out, because I was working a lot, and not enjoying the course – it was heavy. There were things that I liked, and things that I didn’t like so much.
TM – Who was teaching composition there at the time?
CS – You only started composition there quite late, since there were four years of fundamentals, if you can believe it. Only after three or four years did you begin composing.
Seven years for the whole curriculum.
At the time it was very traditional – now it’s more reasonable. At UniRio there is still traditionalism,together with a more contemporary approach. I consider pointless the kind of formalist teaching that leads some students to compose sonatas and fugues. I encourage my pupils to write free from these bonds and pursue their own paths.
So I dropped out, and spent three years away, and decided to go back because if I didn’t I would no longer be enrolled in the program. I was in a bit of an existential crisis as far as popular music was concerned, because I was already doing things that didn’t fit in there. The music was becoming more experimental, more classical – I like to improvise, but it was never my forte – I like to write. So I decided to give up all the popular music that I was doing, to stop playing, I went back to the program and decided to see what was going to happen.
And that was when I began to play chamber music. I was invited to play in a duo with a flutist – we played Le Merle Noir, the Hindemith sonata, the Poulenc sonata, the whole repertoire.
TM – When was this?
CS – From 1987 to 1991, or about then.
TM – Who was the flautist?
CS – Tina Pereira. In 1991 I took a position teaching harmony, and began to compose more and have less time to play piano.
TM – And you were at the…
CS – School of Music. Imagine – I studied architecture for three years, dropped out for a year, studied music for three years, dropped out for three years…my whole course of study took fifteen years. I started in architecture at eighteen, and graduated in music at thirty-three. That’s when I decided to do a master’s in music, since graduating at thirty-three is very sad, but to do a master’s at that age is more usual.
TM – With whom did you study composition?
CS – As an undergrad with Ronaldo Miranda, and in graduate school with Marisa Rezende.
TM – Did you work with other composers there?
CS – There were various people. Ripper, with whom I had classes for a year, Murilo Santos, who was professor of orchestration. The strongest impact was that of Marisa Rezende, whose work I particularly admire. I think she is the best in her generation.
TM – What was her aesthetic? What were the styles that were present there?
CS – The majority of the professors were very traditionalist, but it was a “light” traditionalism. Murilo’s harmonies recall Hindemith. Ronaldo is romantic, with some contemporary things. Marisa has a more contemporary style. Her music includes a lot of things, from avant-garde effects, clusters and a very complex texture to triads and modal melodies. I had a tendency towards a rather dissonant language, though not necessarily serial. When I studied with Ronaldo I invented a language in which I did not repeat a note until I had exhausted the chromaticism, though it wasn’t always a series. I tried to make chords using this, so the result is that it sound tonal at certain points.
TM – The Overture of the Suite for piano is partially serial?
CS – The Overture is the most serial of all the movements. It was conceived as a series in the melody, and it appears in the other voices – retrograde, inverted – directly from the series, but trying to form chords. When the next tone won’t fit to make a chord with the others, I keep repeating the tone until the sound changes, so that it makes harmonies.
I used to work polyphonically, which is the easiest way for you to put together harmonies, since you can prolong a tone if there is one that is not going to harmonize with the rest.
It gives a strange character to certain passages, but I was always trying to make chords. I think in terms of chord symbols from popular music, harmonically speaking – adding dissonances – ninths, elevenths, thirteenths, avoiding minor seconds – for example in C major if you are going to add an eleventh you will use F sharp, and not F natural – this is something you do a lot in jazz, to avoid the semitone with the third – this all comes from popular music. So the music is within this way of thinking, but using a series to build everything on.
The waltz is also chromatic. The freest movement is the last. I used this method quite a bit to avoid functional harmonies, II-V of something, typical habits from popular music. In order to escape these I invented this method which forced me to have to administer these sonorities – how am I going to arrange this chord so it makes sense? But it is not serialism in the sense that it was understood in the fifties, definitely not.
TM – I thought the style of the harmonies in the overture recalls both the harmonies of Charles Ives and of the Second Viennese School, which is interesting they are not generally considered to have much in common.
CS – I played an entire recital of Charles Ives accompanying a singer, twenty-four of his songs, so I have had a lot of contact with his music. The repertoire we performed was quite varied, ranging from the song he wrote at fourteen for the little dog that died, to the last song he wrote before he gave up composing.
TM – Is he known in Brazil?
CS – I don’t know – the singer invited me to accompany him, and I got to know the music.
It’s a very prolix body of work, because you have things which are completely tonal, things which have harmonies in fourths, things that are completely free – it’s very varied.
TM – A post-modern aesthetic.
CS – That is what Ricardo Tacuchian would say. I think this happens in my music. I don’t really have control over it. Since I have had many different musical experiences, I think that it all gets mixed up. My way of thinking about harmony is always contaminated by the time when I was doing popular music, so I end up taking a particular road. I tend to have melodies, sometimes I even recognize Italian-style melodies.
The suite was written in my second semester of composition at the university. I had to write a suite, but it didn’t have to be in the harmonic style of the baroque, as is the case at some schools. It was more of an excuse for a piece with various movements of contrasting characters. Ronaldo was not strict – you could do anything as long as you did it well.
TM – Until fairly recently composers in Brazil had to draw a strict line between the classical and popular music that they wrote.
CS – I think that my generation is one in which the larger part of people doing composition come from popular music. This is different from the generation of Marisa – it was very common for people to have classical training and go into composition – it’s true of Marisa, of Vania Dantas Leite, Cirlei de Holanda, Jocy de Oliveira, Murilo Santos, and various others. Now my generation is one in which most people thought they would write popular music, and fell over to this side, because they went to a university, made contact with it, and some went back to popular music. Tato Taborda does popular music, people that studied along with me, Marcus Vinícius does popular music, Roberto Vitório did popular music… Some had more classical training, some more popular training, but they all had this experience. This is different from what happened before, when there was more prejudice on both sides. There is still the idea that there are bigger things and smaller things – how can you compare a symphony of Beethoven with a song of Schubert and decided which is greater and which is lesser? How are you going to compare this with Pixinguinha, being born poor, and making such beautiful music without any training whatsoever?
I think there has been prejudice on both sides, but I hope that things are improving.
The fact that there is a course in MPB at UniRio means that it will attract students to the University who otherwise might not have come, and this is good, because everybody will get to know each other and be able to work together.
I think that what makes more sense for today is a division between music for the market and alternative music. Even in the area of early music, there is the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, but in Brazil the majority of groups in early music will be alternative.
You have music for the mass market, and music for niche audiences.
TM – When did you get to UniRio?
CS – I graduated in 1992, started the master’s in 1993, finished the master’s in 1995. I did the master’s because I wanted to study with Marisa, not because I wanted the degree. I swore that I was never going to teach in a university. By the end of 1996 I was very broke, not making much money, and there was a competition for a substitute professor at UniRio, and so I started there in April 1997. Afterwards, I decided to do a competition to be a real professor, and started as a real professor in November 1997 in harmony. And I have been there since then.
TM – Could you say a little about your works? You have number of works for flute.
CS – I always composed thinking of the performers. So the majority of the works are for piano, or for piano and voice, since I play piano. When I had a flute and piano duo I wrote the Suite to be part of its repertoire. I also did a piece for flute solo for Tina. Tanganica I wrote for a flutist who wanted it for a CD that she never made. She asked various composers, and nobody wrote anything. I gave it to her the following week.
Other things: there is the Viridarium Chymicum, which was my final work as an undergraduate, for soloists, chorus and orchestra. In the version for chorus and organ, I produced it with Julio Moretzsohn, who was my colleague in choral conducting. The majority of my choral pieces are for the chorus of Pro-Arte, directed by Carlos Alberto.
There is a lot of chamber music for flute, clarinet, violin, violoncello, and piano, because a group of a friend of mine had this combination of instruments, the Camerata Contemporânea of Rio de Janeiro. I also have pieces that were done for the group Música Nova at UFRJ. So my pieces are for heterogeneous groups, since that’s the nature of these ensembles. Música Nova has violin, clarinet, violoncello, trombone, and double bass, which is an impossible group to balance. I did a piece for clarinet, trombone, double bass and piano. Always pieces written for people – I have many things with harpsichord, since Rosana Lanzelotte was interested and made a recording.
I always compose things that I am going to hear, and rarely write something that has not been commissioned. So I have very few pieces with percussion, because in Rio de Janeiro, as amazing as it seems, there is no percussionist to play this kind of music. In São Paulo, yes, but not in Rio de Janeiro. I have a piece for clarinet and marimba, because Paulo Passos, from the Camerata Contemporânea, has a duo with a percussionist from São Paulo.
TM – What importance does brasilidade have for you?
CS – I am not concerned in the least with this kind of thing, although sometimes I do things on purpose. For example, when I wrote the Sambas for Inácio de Nonno, he gave me a text from a friend of his wife, in Mato Grosso, who had died of AIDS. He wrote the poems while he was dying in the hospital. They are very heavy, really heavy, at the same time ironic, I said “My God, if I write a really contemporary piece of music, it’s going to be too heavy.” So I decided to write some sambas, and also because the meter was very even, which is very common in sambas. So if I pull it toward irony, it will be lighter.
Often things pop up influenced by popular music unconsciously, and in pieces which are not Brazilian at all, I discover things from popular music that I was doing ten years before.
I don’t like the notion that you have to use Brazilian rhythms, or things like that.
A person should do what he feels like doing. If you feel like doing that, fine. If you don’t feel like, that’s fine, too. I once saw an article by Marlos Nobre about Villa-Lobos, who was a person influenced by national music, but his music above all was very original – he didn’t follow models. What happens with most of the nationalist composers is that they write symphonies with first themes, second themes, transition, development – a completely European form, but with Brazilian themes. So you have a sort of Brazilian Haydn – you use a folkloric melody as your second theme, and you are going to say that your symphony is Brazilian because of this?
I don’t think so. I think that anything that is done here will be Brazilian, among other reasons because it will be contaminated by a number of things that are Brazilian – the way of doing, the way of thinking, the way of feeling – it is going to be contaminated, more for some, less for others, depending on your individual story.