An Interview with Edson Zampronha
Brazilian composer Edson Zampronha, from a musical Italian family that emigrated to Brazil in the early twentieth century, is presently active in Spain, after studies in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. His earliest training was with his mother, Maria de Lourdes Sekeff, an important concert pianist and teacher. We spoke in Portuguese via Skype on January 25, 2010.
TM: Please say a little about the musical environment when you were a child.
EZ: Of course. I was born into a family of musicians. In my father’s family, practically all of my father’s brothers were musicians. My father did not study music, but he had a special interest in music, including contemporary music. My grandfather was a composer. My mother was a great pianist – she passed away in 2008. Her name was Maria de Lourdes Sekeff. From an early age I studied not only the technique of the piano with her, but also compositional techniques and music history. She used to take me to hear various concerts. So my family environment was very conducive to me becoming a composer, and I am very grateful not only for the talent which comes from my family, but also for the support that they gave me so that I could become a professional musician.
TM: Your grandfather who composed was your father’s father?
EZ: Yes. His name was Guido Zampronha. He came to Brazil around 1900 as part of the great Italian immigration to Brazil at that time, and he composed a lot. Recently I managed to get a hold of some manuscripts of his. The music is traditional in style, and very well-done. There’s a piece which I play for my own pleasure, which is really very good – it’s a waltz which he composed in 1963, the year I was born, for a girl cousin of mine, who was celebrating her third birthday, and she still had the score. The music demonstrates a deep understanding of building phrases, of harmonic modulations – he was a great composer. But he composed for himself, for the family – the music did not go beyond the family circle.
TM: Which city in Italy did he emigrate from?
EZ: He was from the Veneto. The family was a family of farmers in Italy. He was born in 1888 and arrived in Brazil in December 1899. In those days the immigrants had to go through quarantine, so he and his family went through quarantine at the port of Santos. They then went to do agricultural work on coffee plantations. But he always had musical talent. He used to build musical instruments, including an organ which he played. He also used to play button accordion – buttons on both sides, both for the right hand and the left. His brothers were musicians as well. His older brother, Ettore Zampronha, was also a composer, and also played accordion. Again, it was in the family circle, but he wrote down his compositions, so the scores survive. I don’t have many of them – they are dispersed throughout the family – but I have managed to see a few, and am enjoying them tremendously.
TM: What is the meaning of the family name? I am familiar with the zampogna, which is a bagpipe.
EZ: Zampogna, in northern Italy, is a bagpipe with only one drone. It is not the zampoña, or pan pipe, which you find in South America. It’s a rural instrument found in the north of Italy.
TM: And traditionally the farmers would go to Rome to play at Christmas, if I am not mistaken.
EZ: So, I was told part of the family has this name because of this instrument. We have a relative in Italy who is investigating the origins of the family, but we don’t really know how much can be said for certain.
TM: Where were you born and raised?
EZ: I was born in Rio de Janeiro, and lived in Rio until I was six years old. Then my family and I moved to São Paulo. I continued to live there until I was forty-four. Now I am living in Spain.
TM: Please talk about your musical experiences in São Paulo. What did you play? What kind of popular music did you like?
EZ: My musical education was highly focused, principally because of my mother, who was a great pianist. Once she had stopped playing concerts, she became a great teacher and music theorist, who published a number of books. I went with her to the courses that she was teaching, and she gave us excellent musical training. We could enjoy whatever music we liked, but my brother and I had an excellent education. My training included study of a number of different instruments. My chief instrument is the piano, but when I was quite young I had classes in recorder, flute, viola, later trumpet, and when I was at the university I studied bassoon, and played in the orchestra for five years. After this I sold the instrument, since my objective was not to become a bassoonist, but rather to have the experience of playing orchestral and chamber music. Since then I have been playing the piano, which is the instrument that I have played until the present day.
In 1977, my father bought a four-channel Revox [tape recorder], so I began to experiment with electroacoustic music in a period when this was completely analog in format. I don’t even have this material any more, but it was very important for my training as a musician. I also sang in a chorus, and played guitar, and got to know various musical genres beyond the classical and contemporary music which I had at home, including jazz, which I studied quite a bit so that I could understand how it worked. I admire good jazz. However, I am not a jazz musician. I got to know Brazilian popular music, which is very rich, very inventive, and really very creative. It’s very original. If you compare it with the popular music of other countries, Brazilian popular music really stands out. My preference is for more speculative contemporary music, but all of these experiences which I had before influence in a direct or an indirect way the music that I am making at the present time.
TM: Where did you study in secondary school?
EZ: All my musical training was at home until I went to the university. So when I went to the university, I had not had classes at a conservatory or at a music school. Sometimes my mother would enroll me at a music school, but she was my teacher there. She was very concerned that I might be receiving instruction that was not good. My principal teacher was my mother, with the exception of the teachers with whom I studied various instruments – recorder, flute, viola. But in general, music theory and composition I studied with my mother. She did not compose, but had studied composition. When I was experimenting, she helped me, and guided me, gave me tips, which was very important for me. Even when I was much older, she always had an opinion about what I was doing, and even when the pieces were very experimental, she had valuable things to say.
TM: Please talk about the university.
EZ: I did two undergraduate programs – one, which I completed, in music at UNESP [São Paulo State University], in composition and conducting, and another, which I did not complete, in philosophy, because I was not interested in working in philosophy, I just wanted to learn it for my own edification, so I didn’t get the diploma, because I had a few courses left to take, which I did not complete. It was very important to study it, but my center was in music. At UNESP I was able to meet composers and music theorists who taught me a lot and broadened the musical universe that I had received from my mother. One of the things I that noticed when I got to the university was that the training that I had gotten at home had really been very good. Various things that I was studying at the university I had already learned from my mother, so it gave me a different point of view.
TM: Who was teaching composition there at the time?
EZ: When I started at UNESP, the university was going through various changes. The turnover for professors was considerable. That was positive for me, because I attended courses with Michel Philippot in contemporary music, with Carlos Cater – very interesting classes in musical analysis –, with Samuel Kerr in conducting, with Igor Lintz-Maués in electroacoustic music and harmony, with William Zobel, an Austrian composer who was substituting for a professor who was taking a sabbatical year, with Fernando Carvalhães in ancient music, and also with Villani-Cortes, a composer who has a point of view which was completely different from all the maestros and composers whom I already mentioned. He also had a very good knowledge of jazz that was something that I wanted – I learned a lot from him. These professors, and others who I have not mentioned, because I would have to go through the entire curriculum, are people to whom I am very grateful.
TM: Where did you go from there?
EZ: At that time the course in composition and conducting at UNESP was a six-year program. After I completed the fourth year of the program, I received an invitation from the Municipal School of Music of the city of São Paulo to become a professor there. I was still quite young, and had not completed my undergraduate program. I had the opportunity there to carry out activities in musical theory and choral directing that were very useful. So when I finished my undergraduate program in 1988 I was already teaching at the Municipal School of Music, and it happened that I had a chance to do a masters’ in composition at the School of Music of UFRJ [Federal University of Rio de Janeiro]. The master’s program was just getting under way, and only had a few students at that point. So I went to Rio, and my adviser there was Marisa Rezende. I learned an incredible amount with her. She had a different vision of music from those that I had been exposed to before. I finished the program there in 1991. In 1992 there was a competition for the position of professor at UNESP, which I entered and won. There were many good candidates, and I began to think that I might not get it. But I did a good test, and got in. I began to think about doing a doctorate. I waited a while, because I had a heavy work load, and began my doctorate in communications and semiotics at PUC-SP [Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo] in 1994. My advisor was Arthur Nestrovski, who is someone with brilliant ideas. I finished my doctorate in 1998, and began to travel extensively outside Brazil due to a number of activities, including two post-docs, one in Finland, and one in Spain.
TM: We haven’t talked about your compositions yet. To what year would you date your “opus 1”, and which piece would it be?
EZ: That’s a very difficult question. I started writing compositional essays very early, with considerable advice from my mother, but I would not consider them opuses. I am not even quite sure where they are – they must be in São Paulo, but I am not sure. Some of my earliest works which are played in concerts already have a level of compositional maturity, although they date to a time when I was quite young. My Composition for Piano III, which is from 1984, when I was twenty-one is one example. Another one is my Composition for Piano II, from 1981. It is a piece which I recently transcribed in Finale, and am planning to play in concerts. There are even pieces from 1977, when I was thirteen to fourteen, but I don’t perform them in public.
TM: How would you describe the esthetic position of these works?
EZ: They are highly experimental. The Composition for Piano II only uses two notes, D-flat and E-flat, with extremely varied rhythmic structures. I have tried to analyze these pieces to see how I was thinking at the time, and it is challenging. It makes perfect musical sense, but it is quite difficult to explain this piece analytically in a clear and conventional way. In the case of Composition for Piano III, I use three notes – B, C and D-flat, and the piano is transformed into a big resonator. When I play this work in public, I have no qualms in saying that it makes a big effect on the public, because of its power. I play this piece regularly on my concerts, and the results are always very positive. It is exclusively about resonance – the use of pedal and repeated notes produces a gigantic mass of sound which really engrosses the listener. The work has not one bit of melody or harmony, no conventional rhythms at all. In this period I was working with the extremes, with highly successful results. For this reason, I have kept the piece in my repertory and in my catalogue. If not I would have withdrawn it, as I did with various other pieces.
TM: Could you say a little more about Marisa? Were there aspects of your musical thinking that changed due to working with her? Who were the other composers in that program at the time?
EZ: Marisa is a great composer. After my studies with Marisa there were important changes in my music. Marisa has a clarity of thought which was something that I did not possess at the time. This clarity was something that made me want to clarify my own musical thinking, so I would be better able to understand what I myself was doing. When we understand our music better, we are already on the way to changing it into something different. I came into the program writing one way, and left writing something different. My language, which had been extremely experimental, gained a clarity that it had not had before, clarity in form, and all the other parameters. This was the music that I was writing about twenty year ago.
TM: To go back to the period of your doctorate, would you like to talk about a representative piece from that time?
EZ: There are various pieces that I could choose, but since there is a piece of mine from this period which has been recently published in France, that is the one that I will focus on. It’s short – about two and a half, or three minutes. It is called Modelagem X-a. This piece is for vibraphone, and on YouTube there is a very interesting recording by Augusto Morales. My doctorate was about the influence of musical notation on creative thinking. We do not simply think about music in a particular universe, and then write it down. The medium itself is what allows us to think about the music that we are making. I explore various types of musical representation, and look at how a particular type influences our musical thinking. In Modelagem X-a we have all of these elements – very controlled improvisations together with precisely written notes producing a musical arch which grows, develops and disappears. One of the things that I was particularly looking for in this piece was large and rapid change in timbres. My solution was to ask the percussionist to play with two different mallets in each hand, changing rapidly from one to the other. One of the mallets was a normal medium mallet, and the other rattan. In this way the instrument has a considerable and very versatile range of timbres. In this piece I use the idea of “self-similarity”. For example, in Hamlet, we have a play within a play. I really enjoy the artistic use of self-references in almost all the pieces that I write, but they are particularly present in my pieces from the 90s. We have a sort of dialog between two virtual vibraphones, in which one vibraphone is representing the other in a different way. We have a very dynamic game of representation which the listener perceives and follows very easily. Although the language of the piece is quite experimental, at the same time it really communicates. This, I think, is the fundamental characteristic of what I have been doing since the end of the nineties, trying to create a music which is at the same time inventive, creative and very communicative. Communication with the public is very important for me. I don’t mean pleasing the public in an easy way – I mean communicating with the public, so that the public can understand what I am saying even if it is very complex. This means taking into account the ear of the public, and my own ear. The form for Modelagem X-a reflects back on itself, so that we have a work within a work. A musical segment that you hear at the beginning suddenly appears in a completely different form in the middle of the work. It is not a recollection of the past – it is profoundly transformed to achieve a new meaning. The public is very sensitive to this type of operation, even if it cannot be put into words. This is the sort of thing that I began to explore after my doctorate in many and various ways.
TM: Please talk about your post-docs.
EZ: After my doctorate I tried to immerse myself deeply in sound as material, so I went to study programming to see if I could synthesize unusual timbres from chaos theory, things that had never been heard before, so that I could produce completely new materials. I was in Helsinki in 2000, and was coming to the end of my stay there, and had not been able to generate anything new. I was a little frustrated that I had thought that the research on chaos theory to the synthesis of new sounds could give me something new, but by chance I went into a library which was next door to where I was living, and opened a book on neurosciences, and by chance I opened it to a diagram of the human ear. I don’t know anything about neuroscience, but when I saw that diagram, a light went on, and I said to myself “Edson, you have to look at these sounds as raw sounds, and filter them, as the human ear does, because when you filter them, you will find the sounds that you are looking for.” I closed the book, and went to my work space, and the first thing I did was a simple filtering of one of the sounds which I had generated in four frequency bands – low, medium-low, medium-high, and high. When I did I heard sounds of birds, sounds of rivers, and two others which had clear morphologies, but which I was not able to identify. I thought “how interesting! Before filtering I only heard noises. After, I can hear sound objects with a connection to the world. What will happen if instead of using this more-or-less birdlike sound that I have here, I take a recording of an actual bird and put it in this same frequency range?” When I made this substitution, I saw that it fit in very well. Then I ran a second experiment. I tried to take the bird recording and put it in the bass range, and another sound which was low, I put it in the treble. So I had switched one for the other. In that way, it didn’t work. In the first case, the sounds seemed homogenous. In this second experiment, it sounded artificial and forced. I concluded that I was not working with new timbres, not with unheard sounds, but with harmony. Basically what is behind this is a broadened harmonic construction using timbres and portions of the spectrum much broader than a single note, timbres that are connected with specific morphologies. So I went back to studying harmony from a different point of view. I returned to doing something in instrumental music that would be less typically dissonant, and more harmonic, but with this completely different concept. So my music changed radically. I began to discover harmonic relations from a point of view that I had not had before. I was not able to find any previous study about this, and concluded that I had come on something important for music theory. My work since then has been to try to understand what happens in these operations, how they function, and what kind of musical discourse we are able to construct using these. I have arrived at some conclusions which have been partially published in various articles, and the final result will be a book called A Construção do Sentido Musical [The Construction of Musical Meaning]. This is my goal in the medium term, a book which I believe will have important conclusions for our other composing colleagues.
TM: When will it be published?
EZ: There are still a few things which need to be completed, but it’s planned for 2011.
TM: Will it be published in Portuguese in Brazil?
EZ: That’s still up in the air. It could be in Portuguese, since that will not be a problem for me. But it might be in Spanish or English.
TM: Please talk a little about your work in Spain. Brazilians have a connection with Portugal, but less so with Spain. Do you find things in Spanish culture that remind you of Brazil?
EZ: Brazil does have some similarities with the Iberian peninsula, but in general the culture is quite different. From a distance, we seem similar; seen close up, Spain is quite different, including in the way music is viewed, and for that reason my point of view is adding something to what they already have. One also notes many differences in the area of social interactions. Brazilians are affectionate and outgoing – the Spanish have a different way of expressing their happiness and their spontaneity. A Brazilian may misinterpret the way people react in Spain, and vice versa. In terms of music, I do not believe that Brazilians are as pragmatic as Americans are, but we are considerably more pragmatic than musicians in Spain. I consider my music is more expressive than pieces that I have been exposed to here. Contemporary music here is very good, but more cerebral than I had imagined at first. I see our Brazilian music, not just mine, but that of other Brazilian composers, as something more spontaneous. Not only that, but it is made in a different way, something that I can’t even put into words. For example, in Brazil we are able to mix very different things in a very coherent way, with no prejudices.
TM: This could serve as a metaphor for Brazilian society in general.
EZ: Probably Brazilian music is a reflection how Brazilians behave. A different way of expressing ourselves, which is expressed in the music as well. I have talked with Spanish composers, and some pieces which they consider very expressive I hear as less expressive. If I share something which I consider very expressive, sometimes they hear it as exaggerated. There is certainly a difference of scale.
TM: Could you talk about a current project?
EZ: In 2010 I will do my first symphony which will be premiered here in Spain. My ballet will be premiered in Salvador in February. I have a piece for three pianos which will be recorded in the United States. There will be a CD release with my works, all works which have not been previously released. There is a volume of scores which is being published in Spain. I will be back in Ecuador once more to give master classes in the university in Quito, together with a concert of works for orchestra. It looks like a very promising year ahead.
For more information about Edson Zampronha, please visit his web site or MySpace.