An Interview with Jocy de Oliveira
Composer and pianist Jocy de Oliveira was born in Curitiba and spent her youth in São Paulo. In contrast to many Brazilian musicians she has spent a very significant part of her career outside Brazil, with study in Paris and many international concert performances and recordings. Her interpretations of the Catalogue des Oiseaux and the Vingt Regards by Olivier Messiaen were issued by Vox in the seventies. Her recent work in music theater is available on a number of compact discs. Inori à prostituta sagrada (RER) and Illud tempus (O.O. Discs) are the first and second parts of a trilogy that was concluded with As Malibrans (2000). She is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Music. We spoke in English at her residence in Leblon, Rio de Janeiro, in August 2002.
TM: You have been involved with the avant-garde in Brazil for quite some time. Can you tell me what the musical culture was like in Brazil when you were younger, what the influences of the avant-garde were in Brazil, and how that interacted with nationalist music in Brazil?
JO: To begin I don’t know if there is an avant-garde anymore, although that the way that we were labeled, more so in the United States than here, where we don’t use the term. I was never connected with any nationalist movement, which was much earlier. As you know, my career began when I was very, very young. As a child I was already a concert pianist, and went on for many years playing abroad, in the U.S. and Europe, which included seven years playing and recording the piano music of Messiaen, playing as a soloist with Stravinsky, and having a number of composers writing for me, including Berio, Xenakis, Lejaren Hiller, Santoro, working with Cage… I was very young when I got married to the conductor Eleazer de Carvalho, who was thirty-five years old than I was. I met him when I was playing with him as a soloist. This naturally gave me the opportunity to meet many musicians of a different generation. Of course I matured a little faster. I had close contact with Berio, Stockhausen, Cage, which was very important to me. These were the important influences, much more than anything from Brazil, since in my twenties I spent much more time abroad. I was here giving concerts every year, but coming and going. Here the composer with whom I had the most contact was Claudio Santoro — I performed the world premieres of many of his pieces. But I never performed any music from his nationalistic period — I was not interested — but rather the music from his serial period. I also did the Musica Concertante which he wrote in 1944, which I discovered in 1964. It had never been performed. I did it in Brussels with the radio orchestra, and it was recorded. It was not really twelve-tone, as he used a series of nine pitches. But it was very important for our development; in 44 he was young, and the environment was very nationalistic.
My studies were primarily abroad. I took an MA in composition at Washington University in St. Louis with Robert Wykes. I came to Brazil to perform. In studying in Brazil my goal had been to become a pianist, not a composer.
TM: Where had you studied piano in Brazil?
JO: I studied with Joseph Kliass, who was a Russian pupil of Schnabel. He had a very important school of piano in São Paulo. Then I went to study in Paris with Marguerite Long, where I stayed for some time.
TM: Studying in the United States seems like an unusual trajectory for a Brazilian in the 1960’s.
JO: It was 1967. I was still married at the time, and was divorced soon after, but Eleazar was the conductor of the St. Louis Symphony. We lived in St. Louis, and it was a good opportunity to do a master’s. Before and after that I was always on the road, traveling and giving concerts with different orchestras.
TM: Your biography seems reminiscent of the nineteenth-century Brazilians who spent a substantial amount of their careers outside Brazil — Henrique Oswald, Carlos Gomes.
JO: Most of the musicians here have gone to study abroad, particularly to Germany. By now it’s normal to go for a master’s degree. It’s always interesting to open your horizons, although you have the possibility of studying here, definitely. For me in the sixties, we didn’t have an electronic music studio here. The first time that electronic music was presented here was in 1961, when I organized a week of avant-garde music. We had to bring all the equipment — mixing, amplification, spatialization of sound — from Holland. Luciano Berio came, David Tudor, Henri Pousseur… Stockhausen was supposed to come, but at the last minute he couldn’t make it, but his music was still performed. I had a piece that was a play in collaboration with Berio. He worked on the electronic music in Milan, and we did it here with a very important theater company with Fernanda Montenegro which is still going. In fact she participated in my last opera. That was in the Teatro Municpal here, and in the Bienal in São Paulo. I was interested in contemporary music very early. My studies were very traditional, but still I was interested in playing Schoenberg, Berg, Webern in addition to Liszt, Beethoven, Mozart.
In my early twenties I went to Tanglewood every year, where you could hear the Fromm concerts. It was a very stimulating period. By now Tanglewood is very big, very commercial — not the same. I played with the Boston Symphony at the time — Ravel, nothing so far out.
TM: What was the reception for avant-garde music like in 1961 in Rio de Janeiro?
JO: The Teatro Municipal, which is 2,500 people, was packed, with people sitting on the floor. Many people couldn’t get in– it was quite an event. Even in 80’s one of my operas (it’s not really an opera, but that’s what we say in Portuguese, since there is no word for music theater), a multi-media event was done at the Lagoa. We had turnstiles, so we knew exactly how many people came. It was free, and for two performances we had sixteen thousand people. Today it wouldn’t be possible.
TM: Where was that at the Lagoa?
JO: At the Estádio de Remo. In the gardens at the Museum of Modern Art (MAM) in the eighties we had nine, ten thousand people. There was more public. The reason is easy to see– at the time things were less commercial. It was easier to put on something like this. You didn’t spend so much, even if you had a lot of technology. Now we are competing with pop music, commercial music, which has incredible financial possibilities. It’s impossible to do something in the open air without spending a fortune. And for new music you don’t raise that kind of money.
TM: Was there government support for the avant-garde festival in 1961?
JO: We had the Ministry of Education supporting it, as well as Philips. In order to get support from Philips, you simply went and talked, and maybe the guy there would be interested. And he was– he was musical, was interested, he gave us tremendous support. Now it’s not like this, since you have legislation (Law 1-A) that doesn’t define culture, so anything is OK. If you come with a rock concert and I come with an opera, we have the same opportunities, incentives. It’s very hard, since why should a corporation put money into something like what I do, instead of putting it into rock. I shouldn’t be complaining, since I don’t have one work on the shelf- everything that I have done I have performed.
TM: What was support for contemporary music, for the arts in general, like during the dictatorship? I have spoken to people who thought that there was a greater respect for culture, surprisingly enough.
JO: In my case, I did push a few things that were looked at closely by DOPS (like the FBI). Naturally my work would be questioning certain values, stimulating — it was considered dangerous. There was censorship. I did installations, some process pieces — I did these on purpose to see if anything would happen. I was living in the States — I had an apartment in New York, I would be back and forth. Once someone called and said “I think it’s a good idea for you to keep quiet, play your piano, go back to your apartment in New York before anything can happen to you” — nothing ever happened to me. But I had performances shut down by DOPS. I don’t think they supported the arts at all.
TM: What were the ideas that were threatening to the government?
JO: Once I had a concert at the Sala Cecilia Meireles that was called Communications — Visual and Sound. In between the pieces there were speeches, and I had scientists, political scientists, Santoro and myself. We would say things, and the public would debate. It was more like a happening. At the same time we played Webern. They were stimulating, and would make people think and question.
In Curitiba there was an event based on Satie’s Vexations. Pianos everywhere, especially downtown, people saying Dadaist texts. Small process pieces — we were very interested in that in the sixties — participation of the public. So that was also complicated — the mayor had to come and see that nothing would happen, because the police was everywhere and wanted to interfere. Naturally this tweaked something. If one came and gave a recital playing Mozart, everything was fine. There were many occasions like that, things that I should not have done, of course, but it was too tempting to see the results of my investigations.
TM: It seems that government support of the arts has been more important in Brazil than in the US. I am interested in how that worked in the 1960’s.
JO: In Europe when you mention music, it’s classical music. If you want to refer to pop, you say pop. But here it’s the reverse — if you say “music” it is pop. So you have to make it clear that it is not. This word erudito is something that is quite derogative in a way. The competition is very hard, because the media is not prepared — some years ago things were much better than now — we have journalist who don’t know anything about music. The government is also a problem. When they sponsor something abroad it is something that projects that exotic, stigmatized image of Brazil — carnaval, soccer, samba, pop music. Over the years everything that I have done has not been through the government. Now in this sense things are a little better, because the Ministry of Culture has a department that you can ask for tickets. This is important for me, because when I bring fifteen people to Europe, I can ask for fifteen tickets and they give me seven. So at least I will only have to pay for eight.
People say maybe it’s because popular music is so powerful in Brazil — but so is classical music — we have a tradition of very good composers that have been completely ignored in the past. I think it’s due to the fact that we don’t have the political will to support a cultural program for music. Dance has a lot of support, theater has as well, but music is difficult.
TM: I am amazed to see that there are dozens of plays listed in Globo. But for classical music there is usually one or two, or at the most three events for a given day.
JO: But things are getting worse — we had much more. We don’t have critics fighting for space in the media. I had an interesting meeting with the Secretary of Culture in Rio, and there is a possibility that there will be a big center for symphonic music, chamber music, new music, with three or four halls. Let’s hope that it will happen under the present administration in Rio.
TM: What sort of support for programming will there be?
JO: We hope that it will be well programmed. The symphonic hall will be taken by OSB, and we hope that there will be a commitment between the OSB and the government to renew the repertoire and play Brazilian music.
TM: Where will the center be located?
JO: It will be in Barra. It was supposed to be in downtown next to MAM. But it will be an incentive to the area, with roads to Zona Norte and to the west. It will be a challenge to really find a new audience. It’s not our audience — our audience comes from Zona Sul.
TM: How did you get started in composing?
JO: I was composing when I was a child, and even have things that were printed. It was a vocation, I didn’t decide on it, but it developed naturally. For many years I didn’t dedicated myself to composing because I was performing a lot — I was practicing eight hours a day. Only in the last fifteen years did I decide little by little to perform less and compose more, and became more involved in music theater, where I do the whole thing — the staging, the visuals, and it requires a lot of time. It’s not like composing a quartet and sending it off in the mail.
I do perform, but I perform my own music.
TM: Could you tell us about the musicians with whom you are collaborating outside of Brazil?
JO: There are performers who live abroad. We meet, play, they develop an interest and knowledge in my language and work. People like Joseph Celli in the US — we have performed together many times. Sigune von Osten, who is now doing a new work based on Medea — a music theater piece which will have its world premiere in Dresden on October 10 — a piece for singing and speaking voice, and both traditional and ethnic instruments. I looked at Medea from that angle. I am not very interested in the story, the question of love, betrayal by Jason, but the political side of it — discriminated against as a woman, considered a barbarian, third world, displaced — putting all these into a contemporary context. I started by using an anonymous medieval melody, which produces an atemporal vision — a re-reading of the medieval melody, with instruments which are not at all medieval.
This time I will be there briefly to do musical direction, but I have nothing to do with the staging, her ensemble, the musicians — it is their responsibility. In Darmstadt we had an interesting collaboration two years ago at the first performance of As Malibrans, with Birgitta Tromler, a German choreographer and director, and director of the Stadtstheater there, and she came to Brazil and spent a month rehearsing our production. She observed and went to all the rehearsals, and suggested that I bring it to Germany to do the premiere there, and then she would direct her company for a different result. We have in mind to combine the two productions in one evening. That’s a collaboration which has lasted for several years.
TM: You mentioned the term “third world”. For me, Rio is first world mixed with third world. Do you see this notion as being relevant to your work? Does being Brazilian affect what you bring to the stage?
JO: You get this same impression in New York. New York is the first world, and it is the third, if you really know New York. You have this feeling in places in Europe, migrating groups, ghettos, economic, inequality in distribution of capital…when I refer to “third world” this is a political concept invented by the Seven — it’s disgusting — they divide the cake, and the others are starving. This commission came because they asked for a piece for European and for ethnic instruments. I thought Medea would be marvelous in this sense. Of course there is discrimination. To get out of the southern hemisphere, and to be accepted as a composer and a woman is not easy. In a globalized world this will be worse and worse, because access to goods becomes more difficult. This no doubt affects one’s work — you cannot say that an artist is not political. We are political — it is through music, but this is our mode of expression. In the sixties, my very innocent things were political because they were not how artists were expected to behave. It is important to participate, to make your contribution, not to do art engagé — this trilogy of operas, my recent work, focuses on women’s values. But you won’t notice that when you see it — the first is the mythic aspect, the second fairy tales, the third is the diva. The diva in her traditional role is fated to die, or to be the victim.
TM: Except for Leonore.
JO: That’s a nice fantasy, but it doesn’t correspond to the majority of roles.
TM: How do you see the position of women in Brazilian society? Does that affect the way these operas are being created. It seems quite different from the situation in the US.
JO: Yes and no. The organization of women – women’s lib, feminism and all that came later here. There is still a lot to be done. But on the other hand the society is much more permissive here than in the States, which is a puritan society. Here you have a candidate for President traveling around with his mistress — he went up in the polls. Here it was positive — in the States it would have been negative.
And in relation to other Latin countries it is freer, not as machista. Things are much more organized for women here than thirty years ago, with all these NGOs.
But you can feel marginalized as a woman anywhere, even in Norway. The question of the status of women is something that is pertinent for any society. I don’t feel any discrimination, especially in Brazil — I never did. But that is irrelevant. Others have felt it, and the issue is there. If some women don’t, that doesn’t make any difference — it’s the majority that counts.
TM: Your trilogy is complete — what projects are coming up after that?
It will be bigger and with a different conception. It will be done here and in Germany with Sigune von Kasten, who has done premieres of Messiaen, Stockhausen and other European composers.JO: I have performed the three of them in Germany, and later this year I will bring it to Porto Alegre, and then to Buenos Aires. Medea is not part of the trilogy — it’s new and not really completed. What they are doing in Germany is one version, the duration they requested. But I am going to move on with this — it’s a work in progress.
For more information about Jocy de Oliveira, please visit her web site.