An Interview with Frederick Carrilho
October 24, 2007
Rio de Janeiro
Composer Frederick Carrilho was born in 1971 in the state of São Paulo, and has studied guitar and composition, most recently at UNICAMP in Campinas. His music has been heard at the recent biennial festivals of contemporary music in Rio, with the Profusão V – Toccata making a strong impression at the Bienal of 2007. We spoke in Portuguese.
Family and Education
TM: Let’s talk about the influences of adolescence, the family, the musical environment. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
FC: I was born in Penápolis, a city in the interior of the state of São Paulo, but when I was a month old, we moved to São Paulo, where I lived until the age of sixteen. Then I moved to a city near Campinas, named Indaiatuba. My mother is a musician, a pianist, and my grandfather was the pastor of a Baptist church, and played sax at the church. From a very early age, three, four, five years old, I was used to seeing my grandfather and my mother playing at church. At about five or six, my parents started me on guitar lessons.
My father had lots of sets of records, of instrumental and orchestral music, and when I was by myself at home, I would listen to them. Since I didn’t have much to do, I would turn on the enormous Victrola (78 rpm), and put something on. I got to know music by Handel, other composers from the Baroque, classic and romantic.
TM: What year was this?
FC: 1976, 1977.
TM: A period by which 78s were already old-fashioned.
FC: A bit. The Victrola played at both 78 and 33, but the discs were old ones that played at 78.
So I started guitar, and entered a conservatory at age 11, and went through to the end of the course. When I graduated I dedicated myself to performance, and for the next ten years that was my focus. Another interesting thing is that my first experience in composing was at age 12. I was listening to an aria from Messiah by Handel, and made a sort of variation/arrangement. I started to dedicate myself to composition at about age 23, 24, with music for guitar, and then for groups including guitar.
TM: Let’s talk a little about the church. Musical experience at church often plays an important part in the development of a musician. What was the music at your church like? Was it more like American gospel? Was it more Brazilian?
FC: There is a musical style which you find in the more traditional churches – Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist. They have their own repertoire in their hymnals, which is primarily music from the late nineteenth century, and still is very important. This is something which I heard a lot of. I was born during a transitional period for church music. In the sixties you had the revolution with the Beatles and rock and roll, and this is something which made its way into the churches, whether in Brazil or elsewhere. So church music began to be made based on these influences, which were not the traditional sources. Traditional church music in the smaller churches was done with piano or organ, and the congregation singing. In larger churches there was an orchestra which accompanied the congregation. Parallel with this there were songs which were more popular. So you had a mix of more traditional church music with music from the sixties, a situation which continues until today.
TM: What sort of music were you listening to as an adolescent? Even a composer who is working in the area of classical music often listened to rock, progressive rock, jazz, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin…
FC: Exactly. Since I was born in the seventies, in addition to my father’s discs which I listened to, I used to listen to the music which was playing on the radio at the time in the seventies. What made an impression when I was an adolescent in the early eighties was Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Pink Floyd, music which had quite an influence on me, and continues to have an influence. In terms of jazz, there was John McLaughlin – I used to listen to a lot of his records, including the trio which he had with Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola. This made a great impression on me after I started to study guitar. This was around ’83, ’84. Before this there was the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which I heard somewhat later, since I would have been too young at the time. This music is part of my vocabulary – it’s in my genes.
TM: When you studied guitar what type of literature were you working with?
FC: The traditional repertory. Bach suites, which are part of the study of every guitarist. Sor, Giuliani. And later music from the twentieth century – Leo Brouwer, Villa-Lobos, of course, since all Brazilian guitarists play Villa-Lobos. Then I became interested in more experimental music for classical guitar, composers like Berio, various others.
TM: Did you have classes in popular music and jazz at the same time?
FC: I was listening to this music, but did not have formal instruction in it. Brazilian harmony was also something that was present, since you listen to bossa nova, and get very familiar with it, and in studying harmony you want to know how harmony works in bossa nova. And there are connections between bossa nova and jazz, so I didn’t study formally, but tried to study these other styles on my own.
TM: You did your baccalaureate work at the conservatory in São Paulo?
FC: Yes, in guitar. I studied with Professor Enrique Pinto, maestro Abel Rocha, and with the conductor Naomi Munakata. Maestro Abel was the director of the symphonic band of the state of São Paulo. Maestrina Naomi was the director of the chorus of USESP, and Enrique was one of the most important figures for the guitar in Brazil.
TM: I am more familiar with the scene in Rio. What is the situation with the conservatory in São Paulo? Is it conservative? Does it follow the French tradition?
FC: In São Paulo they are a little more diversified in the sense that each discipline has its own methodology. For guitar, for example, you have something which is more traditional. The pianists also have something based on the romantic school. Theory tends to be traditional. We used the Schoenberg treatise on harmony, from the first part of the twentieth century, and counterpoint from the same period.
TM: You studied performance at the undergraduate level. Were you already composing?
FC: Between the age of twenty and twenty-five I was already composing a little, but since I was very focused on performance there was less time for composition. Gradually I spent more time on composition. I studied with various composers, Achille Picchi, Raúl do Valle, José Augusto Mannis.
TM: You are presently finishing a master’s in composition.
FC: At Unicamp in Campinas.
TM: Do you have models or anti-models for composition in the program at Campinas, composers who are ones to emulate (or avoid)?
FC: There is not a specific list of composers to study, but some suggestions. A professor may suggest a work to listen to, and later to study. In terms of my training, I don’t like the word “eclectic,” but it is appropriate in this case. From the traditional composers that everyone knows, from the Baroque, or even from the Renaissance – Palestrina, Gesualdo, John Dowland, Bach, Handel….in the twentieth century there was a huge number of composers in the second half of the century. In the first half, there are certain composers which are more often people’s favorites – Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, and others who are more experimental – Berg, Webern, Schoenberg. From the second half of the century I had more freedom of choice, having to do with my personal taste, so I got to know composers like Xenakis, Penderecki, Ligeti, figures whose music I enjoy listening to and studying. And there are composers from other genres – Frank Zappa, whom I paid a certain homage to in my piece. Could you tell? And other exceptional composers – it is hard to make a list. There are Russian composers, Polish composers, Hungarian composers, who are very important. Schnittke, who very much attracted my attention. Friedrich Cerha, another exceptional composer. These are composers who are not yet part of the academic lists, but are on the same level as other important composers.
Popular and Classical Integration
TM: Your piece at the Bienal [Profusão 5 – Toccata] was received very well. The integration, mixture, anthropophagy of influences from popular music and classical music was very interesting, and extremely well-done. Too often you hear compositions with influences from popular music which are not very well-digested, which remain as a sort of objet trouvé, where the popular music is alien to the rest of the style. In your work, it was impossible to say where one style ended and the other began. Please say a little about the structure, the motives, the rhythmic references.
FC: Integration was one of my principal objectives in the piece, fusing various elements. You have a classical way of thinking, with influences from other musical styles. You have the influence of rock, which is clear, and the influence of Brazilian rhythm. It’s difficult for a composer to speak about his own work, but the principal motive is the quintuplet. Although the piece is impregnated with the influence of rock, at the same time it has elements of the rhythm of bossa nova [snaps fingers, and pronounces the typical cross-rhythms for the guitar style of João Gilberto]. The instrumentation highlights the rock elements, the drum-set, for example. At the same time, you have bossa-nova elements. At the end, the references are explicit, with the tambourine and the cuíca. They are there at the beginning, simply to introduce the instruments.
TM: The first time the cuíca appeared I thought “My God, someone is singing on stage!” since the sound was so low. Usually you hear it in its higher register.
FC: A voice was not a possibility. I talked with the musicians and chose the cuíca.
TM: Let’s explore the presence of Frank Zappa in this piece.
FC: Frank Zappa is someone who is an inspiration not just through his music, but through his musical ideology, a music that is free from styles and structures.
TM: Sometimes a composer creates a structure which is not easily perceived by the listeners – the direction of the piece, what the piece wants, where it wants to go. In this piece the direction was clear.
FC: The piece is a toccata, so it explores the virtuosity of the instrumentalists. The first part presents the principal elements, with the rhythm which everyone plays together, and the second part is more soloistic with marimba playing the same motive, but with variations beginning to appear.
TM: Is this work part of a series? Does the five come from a series, or from the quintuplets?
FC: Good question. It comes from the quintuplets, and from the other four ideas which are the pillars of the music – rhythm, instrumentation, timbres, layers. The name is related to the use of the elements, but I could imagine a series – 5.1, 5.2, 5.3…
TM: Let’s talk about your other works. What are your favorite combinations? What direction do you see your work heading?
FC: I don’t know yet. I can’t classify my work as being freely atonal, or experimental. Integrating these styles is still something quite new for me. In my pieces for guitar I do not make much use of atonality, experimentation with sounds, space…my language is one which I could classify as freely tonal. In the area of guitar I have a direction. If I am using a steel-string guitar or an electric guitar my music is already more experimental. I think a composer today has to be able to work in different languages, not because the market demands this, but because if you don’t you will be limited, restricted to one area. For contemporary music ensembles I use a different language than I do when writing for guitar. A teacher of mine once said that a good composer has to be able to write in C major, with conjunct motion, a traditional melody, or a piece for orchestral with complex elements. I write and compose in various styles – I don’t have a specific language yet, though I hope to.
TM: Let’s talk about brasilidade. The early concerts of this year’s Bienal seem to be lacking the presence of Brazil. One of the works seemed to be American in style, but in general the presence of national elements in classical works is something which differentiates Brazilian music from that which is produced in Europe, for example. How do you think about this question?
FC: Today this question is much more important for me. As a performer, my training was very traditional. I spent many years paying attention to music from outside Brazil, music which is held to be “good” music.
TM: Canonical music.
FC: There is always a certain negative stigma attached to music from Brazil. Today I pay much more attention to Brazilian rhythm and harmony, to music that arose from within Brazil, as a fusion of various different cultures. This music is something unique. It is present in my work. I see that even in compositions which I wrote without thinking about this detail, from ten years ago, it was already present. I was thinking about classical harmony, but using chords with ninths. Syncopated rhythms were also present. The piece for two guitars already was integrating these things, although on an unconscious level, in order to give structure and variety to the work, with a more Brazilian rhythm in one section, and more Spanish idioms elsewhere, with rasgueado, etc.
TM: How does a piece get started for you? Is it a concept, a structure, a melody?
FC: Good ideas come – I don’t know if there has been a scientific study about this – when I am taking a shower. Seriously! When I am going to sleep as well – I put my head down on the pillow, and as I am traveling, thinking, before I fall asleep, my level of concentration and relaxation allows certain ideas to come out. This piece – Profusão – I don’t want to mystify it, but I would get up in the middle of the night and work on it for a couple of hours on the computer. I compose directly at the computer. I would be singing the passage, and begin to improvise on the passage, and I would get up and get it down. This went on for quite some time, since I spent six months working on the piece, the first half of 2007. But the principal motive, the quintuplet, came to me during a barbecue. After various beers, I was talking with a friend who is a drummer. We were listening to music – Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple – he is a drummer who plays music that is more popular. I began to improvise, playing around, and I liked the idea. And at the next barbecue, and the next, and the next, the idea was always there. I was always playing around with this motive. I wrote it down, and it turned into the piece.
FC: Usually that is how it works. You get to the moment where you think “I have to work on the next project.” Sometime I have difficulty in deciding on the instrumentation which I am going to use. If I think about writing for soloist and orchestra, the work involved is enormous, so it’s easy to feel a little lazy. But musical ideas appear more spontaneously. I always try to have respect for this question of intuition. It is always present. You can be very preoccupied with the formal question, the structure, the number of measures, unity… I try to let my intuition control the unity of the piece. I sing and sing the whole piece, the various sections. If I don’t sense that it is tiring, then it is OK. An important detail – this piece is supposed to be a little quicker [than the performance heard at the 2007 Bienal]. As it is very difficult, it ended up going a little more slowly. I commented to my friends that it was a little long in some passages, but in fact it is shorter, since it was supposed to go faster. I like intuition, blood, emotion, energy, things that are part of Brazilian music, and I think that a Brazilian can’t let this go to waste.
TM: What future projects do you have?
FC: Making a bunch of children… buying a house on the beach… I want to continue composing. Yesterday I was talking about the piece I want to write for the next Bienal. There are other projects for guitar, for electric guitar… I am thinking about putting together an instrumental trio or quartet with electric guitar, with those influences that we talked about, John McLaughlin, these great guitarists… There are various projects which I have begun but which are not completed. One of them is for symphonic band. I have sketches, but I am waiting for the piece to mature. I worked for four months on the piece for band, but I have put it aside for more than a year. I think it is crucial for a composer to have a perception of when the music is really ready. The response to this piece for the Bienal [Profusão] has allowed me to see more clearly the things I can explore which are inside me.
You can read more about Frederick Carrilho here.