Jun 23 2003

Edino Krieger: An Interview

Urban, Contemporary, Classical – An Interview with Edino Krieger

Edino KriegerComposer Edino Krieger, born in 1928 in Brusque in the state of Santa Catarina in southern Brazil, has been a benevolent presence and important influence on music and culture in Rio de Janeiro for many years, where he is beloved and respected by musicians in all parts of the sometimes fractious classical music scene. A number of discs with his work should be available to American listeners, including the Concerto for Two Guitars recorded by Sérgio and Odair Assad on the GHA label, as well as the survey of his works on the Soarmec label, which includes the Suite for Strings, Divertimento for Strings, the Ludus Symphonicus, Estro Armonico and Canticum Naturale. We talked at his residence in Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro, in August 2002.


TM: What was the musical environment like in your family when you were young?

EK: I was born into a family of musicians. My grandfather, whose parents were German, played viola. My Italian great-grandfather played wind instruments. My father was the oldest of the children in his family. He started making music early – at eight years old he was already playing bandoneon, he played in the cinema. Later he learned to play violin, clarinet, saxophone, guitar. He was the musical leader in the family. He taught his brothers various instruments, and his cousins as well, on the Italian side of the family. In 1929, when I was one year old, they organized the first jazz band in Santa Catarina, where I was born, which was called the Jazz Band America. They were all members of the same family – five Kriegers (my father and his brothers), and five Diegolis, from the Italian side. Besides the jazz band, they also did the carnavals in the whole region, in my city, and in neighboring cities – Tijuca, Florianópolis. They did all the Carnaval balls, the parades, they rehearsed groups that were going to participate, chose their costumes and so on. The carnival rehearsals took place in the tailor shop of my grandfather, who was a tailor by trade, as were my father and all his brothers. So during Carnaval they turned the huge room of the tailor shop into a place to rehearse. Everybody went there, they chose the song for Carnaval so they could make the costumes – a gardener, Pierrot, toreadors from Madrid. The costumes were made to fit in with the music in those days.

I grew up in this environment. My father also organized the choir for the Evangelical Church (my family on the German side were Lutherans), and so I heard the jazz band, music for Carnaval, and religious music. He was also director of the band, and so I also heard a lot of the repertoire for band – dobrados, marches, that sort of thing. And what’s more, my father and his brothers put together groups to do serestas (serenades), which they played on the weekends, at night, under the windows of people’s girlfriends, a repertoire which was very typically Brazilian, which was just getting started in this period, in the twenties and thirties, which was when you had Pixinguinha, Ernesto Nazareth, when this type of music was taking shape. I also heard the whole repertoire of waltzes, maxixes, choros, schottisches, which was the origin of urban Brazilian music. That was my spontaneous musical training, even before starting to study music.

TM: What was the music like in Santa Catarina? Was there influence from Italian music? What part of Italy were your Italian relatives from?

EK: My Italian great-grandfather was from Southern Italy. My grandmother (my father’s mother) was born in Italy, but farther north, in Bologna. My father’s grandparents were from the north of Germany, from a little city near Hamburg. But what is interesting is that from my city, Brusque (40 km from Blumenau, which is better-known)…

TM: For its German culture…

EK: Even today Blumenau is very connected to its origins. The Oktoberfest is very well-known. It corresponds to the Brazilian Carnaval, since there is almost no Carnaval in Blumenau. In my city, certainly because of the influence of the activities which had been started by my father, there came to be a different sort of tradition, much more involved with the Brazilian cultural and musical traditions, like Carnaval, choro, serestas. Even the municipal band there had a different repertoire from the one in Blumenau, which until today has a more Germanic repertoire. But Brusque was more in tune with what was being done in Rio de Janeiro, in São Paulo, and which got there, in the days before radio, because my father would acquire scores and parts from the publishers in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo so he could keep up with what was being done there.

I think this is interesting from the cultural point of view, because in spite of being a city with a very central European tradition, with many immigrants from Italy and Germany – my own family used to sing Italian and German music – it didn’t just stop there, just cultivating its origins. It went through a kind of metamorphosis, a symbiosis, that is, with the music that was being made in other regions in Brazil.

TM: You began by studying music in Brusque. At what point did you arrive in Rio de Janeiro?

EK: I began by studying violin with my father. He wanted me to be a virtuoso of the violin, a Jascha Heifetz – it was his greatest dream. He was a rather good violinist himself. I started at seven, and by the age of twelve or thirteen I was doing concerts throughout the various cities in the state. The governor of the state was present at one of these concerts, in Florianópolis, the capital, when I was fourteen. After the concert the governor came to the dressing room to give me his compliments, and to ask if I wouldn’t like to continue studying the violin in Rio de Janeiro. Of course I said yes, and the next day he gave me a scholarship from the state government so that I could study violin at the Conservatório Brasileiro de Música in Rio de Janeiro.

So I came here in 1943, when I was fifteen, and began to study violin. And at the Conservatory I met Koellreutter, a German professor, who was very young at the time, twenty-something years old, and who was developing his work, beginning to have a formal group of students. I was interested, took a test, he accepted me as a student, and I began to study composition. Little by little I lost interest in the violin. My father was very sad about that, but he got used to it… instead of having a Jascha Heifetz he would have a…

TM: Mozart….

EK: A composer. I wouldn’t end up being either a Mozart or a Villa-Lobos… but…

So then in 1948 I was studying with Koellreutter when I got a scholarship for the Berkshire Music Center in Massachusetts, at Tanglewood. I did a six-week course with Aaron Copland, and after the course, through Copland, I got a scholarship to Juilliard in New York. I spent the whole year there in 1948-1949, studying with Peter Mennin, another young composer, who later became the director of Juilliard.

TM: What was the culture of classical music like in Rio de Janeiro in the forties? What sort of interest was there in modernism? What was the difference between Koellreutter’s pedagogy and the Brazilian professors?

EK: The teaching of music was very traditional. The School of Music of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which was called the National School of Music at the time, trained virtually no prominent composers. At an earlier time there had been excellent professors of composition there, beginning with [Alberto] Nepomuceno, Henrique Oswald, who was a great composer, Francisco Braga, who was an excellent teacher. After the death of these great teachers, there was no continuity – the teachers who succeeded Braga used a very traditional pedagogy, which was academic in the worst sense of the word. The place was filled with retrograde academicism. I remember that the first time that there was talk of doing a piece by Schoenberg there was an incredible reaction – “this is not music, this is just madmen inventing a different system” – Schoenberg was taboo in this period. This was in Rio de Janeiro. The situation was less serious in São Paulo, because there was one composer, Camargo Guarnieri, who was fairly open-minded, even if he was strict in instruction in counterpoint, harmony and so forth. He was also an iron-willed defender of the nationalist aesthetic –he thought that all Brazilian music had to be based on musical elements of the popular culture of Brazil – folklore and so on. He was an excellent composer, and trained a number of generations of important composers. Some of them continued to work in the nationalist vein, and others didn’t’t. Almeida Prado, for example, was a student of his who followed a different path.

But when Koellreutter arrived here at the end of the thirties he began to show that there were other experiments that were going on then in Europe – the Viennese school, with Schoenberg, Webern, etc., and this because some of his students, above all Claudio Santoro, began to get interested in this, to ask Koellreutter for information about it, and wanted to know, beyond traditional and nationalist music, what one could do, what the other paths were, the other possibilities, and they wanted to get up to date. And so he began to teach about serialism, and a little group got started to study it, which provoked a very violent reaction on the part of the traditionalists, the academicists, here in Rio de Janeiro, and in São Paulo, on the part of the nationalists. And so there were battles on two fronts against this opening that Koellreutter was proposing. It was period of many fights on aesthetic matters. Camargo Guarnieri wrote an unfortunate article defending nationalist music, and accusing Koellreutter of leading young Brazilians down the wrong path. Really, it was terrible. This was in the fifties. Later it all blew over. Today these are just historical matters. Nobody worries about whether you write nationalist music or not, whether you write serial music, or clusters, or perfect triads in C major. Nobody is worried about defending their thesis, but rather about simply writing the best possible music.

TM: What were the models, the ideal composers for the traditionalists in Rio de Janeiro? Edino Krieger

EK: I can only tell you about the training I had at the time. There was a professor at the School of Music called J. Otaviano. He was a composer who had had a training that was extremely traditional, to make music in the style of Schumann, Beethoven… Debussy was already very advanced for him. So how did he teach composition? He used to have the students take a Beethoven sonata. You take the first movement of the sonata, and make an analysis from the point of view of structure – how many measures does the first theme have, how many measures, and in what tonality, does the second theme have? Is it in the dominant? How many measures in the transitions, in the development, and so forth. Having done this you mark your music paper, and write what you found in the analysis. After you have everything planned out on paper, then you close your Beethoven, and sit down to compose, using the schema you have written down. So it was a way of teaching music without any creativity, that is, a completely schematic approach – you copy the schema from Beethoven, rather than using your own creative fantasy. This was the dominant spirit in those days in Rio de Janeiro, which was the only place where composition was taught. So the parameters of this type of instruction were the sonatas of Beethoven, the music of Schumann – European music from the Romantic period. There was no Wagner, and Schoenberg was simply considered anti-music. This was the pattern. So when Koellreutter arrived and began to widen people’s perspectives, to show people how to understand the harmonic structures of Hindemith, what was called acoustic harmony, to study the acoustic principles of harmony, and not simply the rules – not just to avoid parallel fifths and octaves in the harmony, but to understand why – this way of teaching of Koellreutter’s provoked a very great reaction.

TM: The contrast between music teaching in New York and Rio de Janeiro must have been rather great.

EK: I really didn’t’t notice such a great difference, because I went to New York after having been in Koellreutter’s school, which was open-minded. So for me, the music of Wallingford Riegger, whom I knew personally in New York, was not something strange, since it was already familiar from analysis and from the performance that we had promoted on the radio and in concerts, I already knew all this contemporary musical production. For me there was no shock. I suppose that a student who had learned to write sonatas according to Beethoven form and who arrived there would have noticed a big difference. But I had already left here with a different experience and a different vision of things. I had already begun to work with serial music. The pieces which I did in this period were all serial. When I went to study at Juilliard I asked Koellreutter if there was a composer there that he would recommend, and he knew a number of professors there, some composers that were serialists, including Wallinford Riegger, Roger Goeb, and he said to me, “Look, since you have already worked on serialism, you have already done a number of serial things, I recommend that you look for a teacher who is not a serialist, so that you can have another experience. There’s no point in going there and doing exactly what you were doing here for the last three, four, five years.” So I chose Peter Mennin, who had been student of Boulanger in Paris and came from a different school. And the things that I did at Juilliard were a different type of thing – not serial.

TM: It seems like nationalism in the United States was already played out by this point. For you and the other composers of your generation in Brazil was brasilidade an essential criterion for your music?

EK: Look, I would say the following: Brazilian music is a very strong presence in the shaping of a Brazilian composer in a general way. In my case, I grew up hearing music for Carnaval, serestas, music for band, and all this makes up part of a repertoire that your memory stores away. It’s part of you, part of your history, part of your auditory history.

Even those who try to liberate themselves from a kind of academic nationalism retain this on an unconscious or subconscious level. I remember that in the period when we were working with serial music, with twelve-tone music, this topic would come up frequently for us. Is it possible with this type of language and technique to have some kind of presence of elements of Brazilian music, or if we use an advanced, free language, are we going to be confused with the composers from whatever part of the world who do this sort of thing?

And some things came out of this type of discussion. For example Guerra-Peixe, a composer who had a training very much involved with Brazilian popular music, an arranger working for radio orchestra, but who was also very interested in these new directions, the possibilities opening up, of getting out of this vicious circle of academicism, wrote a string trio in this period with a second movement that had a lot to do with the seresta, but which was also twelve-tone. I wrote an experiment with a Choro for flute, which was strictly serial, but with rhythms from the Brazilian choro. This was something intentional, on purpose, a premeditated experiment. After a while this would come to be something spontaneous. Now, for example, I don’t see any incompatibility between using a very advanced harmonic language, and using elements, whether melodic, or rhythmic, from the Brazilian musical tradition. I think that Brazilian composers, more or less, have the same experience – not using Brazilian music as something which is a duty, as it was in the school of Camargo Guarnieri. After a certain point composers felt free of the obligation to do this. They write Brazilian music if it’s going to happen, they don’t have to avoid Brazilian elements in order to avoid seeming reactionary or traditionalist. So this dualism in Brazil is passé. I think this is very positive, since it is a way for you to write music that is not just like the serial music that is written in the United States or Europe, there is a component, a contribution from a culture that, after all, is important, Brazilian musical culture. Brazil created the material for this musical culture, whether from folklore, popular music, the rhythms – it’s very rich. In my concerto for two guitars, which is not serialist, is not an avant-garde work, not advanced in its language, but is free, in the second movement, for example, I used structures such as clusters, but at the same time, I use musical ideas and themes which come from the violeiros of the Northeast, melodic structures based on modes, and not on tonality, Mixolydian and Lydian modes, which are the modes used by the singers of the Northeast. This mixture of elements from tradition with aleatoric procedures, with contemporary procedures, is something which I think is interesting in Brazilian music today.

TM: In talking with a composer recently he suggested that thirty years ago, at least in the US, it was impossible for him to conceive of a life as a composer, but that he needed to work in the academy in order be able to support himself, in contrast to the situation today, where composers have a little more public presence. What is the relation in Brazil between classical music and the academic environment?

EK: In Brazil it is completely impossible to live as a composer, because compositional work in Brazil is something voluntary. It is rare for a composer to have a commission. I have had a fair amount – I have various works that were done on commission, but it is not normal.

The majority of composers in Brazil really need to have some other means of supporting themselves, whether as teachers, often at universities and schools of music, which continue to be the main employers of the Brazilian composers, and which happily are still being created. When I began in the forties, there was really only one school of music which had a course in composition. Today there are various universities, and the School of Music itself is much more advanced in its pedagogy, and even has a department of electro-acoustic music. In addition, there are other universities which also have courses in composition – UniRio for example. In São Paulo, in the forties, there was only Camargo Guarnieri’s school, which was private. Today there are a number of universities in São Paulo, USP, UNESP, UniCamp, which are important centers of musical creativity. In Minas Gerais, there is a center at UFMG, and also UFRS in Rio Grande do Sul. Instruction in composition today is much more wide-spread. But normally composers need to work teaching music, or in other activities, generally in public agencies, in order to survive and do their compositional work in parallel. In my case, I am not a professor, but have always worked in public agencies. I began my professional life working for the radio of the Ministry of Education, doing programs on music. Later I directed various agencies, including the Foundation for Theaters in Rio de Janeiro, the National Foundation for the Arts (Funarte). I was director of the National Institute of Music, and this work guaranteed me enough to be able to survive, and in my free hours, which generally are always busy, to do music. This is the normal situation for all composers.

TM: Rio de Janeiro has a very busy musical life with many composers who have interesting works, and of course there is the Bienal. When did that get started?

EK: The Bienals of Contemporary Music began in 1975. They were really the continuation of two music festivals which I organized in 1969 and 1970, which were the Music Festivals of Guanabara. The festival in 1969 brought together for the first time fourteen works by young composers, for orchestra, or for chorus and orchestra, and this was something entirely new. Many critics said it was the most important thing since the Week of Modern Art in 1922 in São Paulo. And beginning with this festival, which had important prizes, that at the time were equivalent more or less to fifty thousand dollars, and with an international jury, which came to judge these national works at the Teatro Municipal, including Penderecki (Lutoslawski was invited, but couldn’t come at the last minute), Roque Cordero from Panama, Heitor Tosar from Uruguay, you had the first display of contemporary Brazilian composition. The first prize from this festival went to Almeida Prado, who nobody knew at the time. With this prize he spent two years in Paris, where he could study with Boulanger, with Messiaen. The next year the second festival had an international scope, with participants from other countries in the areas of symphonic and chamber music, and then there was a lapse of five years, because the secretary of culture who had decided to organize these festivals died, and his successor had no interest in them. I had prepared a project for the festival to take place biennially, someone found the project (it was Myriam Dauelsberg, the director of the Sala Cecília Meireles), and decided to carry it out. So the Bienals were started, which are still going on today. It’s interesting to note that the first Bienal had about thirty participating composers. The most recent Bienal had about a hundred and eighty. So these Bienals were an incentive, providing a new space where composers could hear their works performed, and many composers made their debuts with the inclusion of a work of theirs in a Bienal – Ronaldo Miranda, various other composers of the younger generation.

TM: Can you tell us about your recent projects?

EK: In 2000 there was the Sinfonia dos 500 Anos. Last year I did a cantata to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, called The Age of Knowledge, about the importance of knowledge in people’s lives. A wind quintet called Embalos, with movements based on the rhythmic structures of Brazilian music, in a rather free idiom. In the near future there will be the premiere of a piece called Passacaglia para Fred Schneiter, a Brazilian guitarist who died prematurely last year, and the Guitar Association is having a competition in his memory in Niterói, and they asked me to write a competition piece, which is going to have its debut now.

I was recently in Karlsruhe for three months, and there I did some pieces for harpsichord called Momentos.

TM: Who will perform them?

EK: For now they have not been premiered. There was a Brazilian harpsichordist that I met there, but who has lived there for a long time. His name is Wilke Lahmann – a German name, but he is Brazilian. He will do the premiere.

I did a transcription for violin and two guitars of Sonâncias for a trio in Belgium with a Swedish violinist and the Assad Brothers, which also has not yet been premiered.

This year I wrote three songs on sonnets by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, whose centenary is being celebrated this year. They will be premiered in August by a Brazilian baritone and pianist who organized a program in homage to the two great Brazilian poets, Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Cecília Meireles.

TM: Have you seen increasing prominence for Brazilian classical music outside Brazil?

EK: Yes, I think so. In 2000, for example, in Karlsruhe, there was a program with ten days of Brazilian music in homage to the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Brazil. Ten Brazilian composers were present. In 1996 there was also a very important program of Brazilian music in New York, which was the occasion for the debut of the Concerto for Two Guitars by the Assads. At the time there were twenty Brazilian composers present, with concerts in Carnegie Hall and various other auditoriums.

At this point, our tape ran out and we moved on to cafezinhos, but Krieger could certainly fill many more informative afternoons on the subject of contemporary music in Rio and elsewhere. Participation in the Bienal which he founded is eagerly sought after by young composers as the seal of approval for their art, with hot debate about who is included. Even today, with prizes not nearly as generous as before, the Bienal is still the most important event in contemporary music in Brazil, and recognized as his creation. His activities in support of music in the public sphere mean that there is no performer or composer who is not in his debt. He continues to be connected with and supportive of musicians in younger generations. His music exemplifies Brazilian values in many ways, not least the impulse to be part of a larger community in its accessibility and idealism.