An Interview with José Orlando Alves
José Orlando Alves is a young composer, originally from Minas Gerais, but who spent many years in Rio de Janeiro, where he has been active for a decade with the composers’ collaborative, Prelúdio XXI. His work, “Insinuâncias,” was heard at the 2007 Bienal of Brazilian Contemporary Music in Rio de Janeiro. Presently he lives in João Pessoa, Paraíba, where he is professor of composition and coordinator of the Laboratory of Musical Composition at the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB).
In the Beginning
TM: Let’s begin by talking about music in your family.
JOA: My mother studied piano, was a pianist, and still is, though presently she is more active with popular music. When I was little, she was always practicing, and I loved it, and was always close to the piano. I remember that when I came home from school, instead of watching Sítio do Picapau Amarelo, I would turn off the TV so that I could listen to my mother play piano instead. In a moment I will be teary-eyed. My mother is still alive, but this is such a strong memory. It was fundamental. With the first pieces that I wrote I involved my mother in the process, since they were for piano four-hands. I wanted to be there playing with my mother. They were trifles in terms of composition, but they worked.
TM: How did she come to be a pianist? Was there a tradition of music in the family?
JOA: There was my grandfather, who was a violinist, and my mother, who studied piano. She got to an advanced level, played the “Well-Tempered Clavier,” and then she married, and stopped, moved to Belo Horizonte. I am not aware of anyone else in the family who was musical.
TM: What are the origins of the family? Where were they living, whether in Brazil or abroad?
JOA: On my father’s side they were Portuguese – my grandfather immigrated from Portugal by ship. On my mother’s side, they are Alvarenga – Italian, but more than that I don’t know.
TM: If I am not mistaken that is a name from northern Italy, in the Veneto.
JOA: That may well be. There are many Alvarenga in Brazil. My family is all from the southern part of Minas – from Lavras, which is an hour away from São João del Rey. São João del Rey has a very strong musical tradition. Recently they opened a school of music there as part of the federal university. They are all there.
I moved to Rio de Janeiro to study music in 1987, when I was 17. My father made me enter a course in business administration, since he thought there were better professional possibilities there than there were in music, and since at the time I was financially dependent on him, there was no way that I could say no. And so I also have a degree in administration from Bennett [a Methodist college located in Flamengo], and this was very good for me in the sense that I had just arrived in Rio, and needed to make friends. Many of the friends I made there continue to be friends until today. The department of administration was more important for my social connections than it was for the material in the curriculum.
I went to the School of Music of UFRJ in the technical course for piano at the same time that I was finishing the course in administration [at Bennett]. In my last year in administration I took the entrance exam for the undergraduate course in composition at UFRJ. The undergraduate course in composition was immense – a seven-year program. In my last year in the undergraduate course, I had already entered the master’s program. So my education was all inter-linked. The only time when this was not the case was with my doctorate, where I had a year between the master’s and the doctoral program.
TM: What was the instruction in composition at UFRJ like at the time? Was it traditional?
JOA: I began in 1991. It was super-traditional, and for me it was even more traditional, since I had professors from the “old school.” My salvation there at the School of Music was that I was the first composition student of Pauxy Gentil-Nunes, who was very open, very modern, wide open to innovation. For me it was a moment for me to get free of the restraints of tradition. I remember that the first piece which I wrote for him was a suite. Our composition program was based on forms – you had to pass through the suite, the sonata, the symphony. My suite, for flute and piano, was very traditional – quite modal, very much within the canon. The allemande – we would look at allemandes by Bach, Couperin – how are they put together, what is the rhythm, etc. Bouree….Everything was very closed, very traditional With Pauxy things opened up.
My sonata was very traditional as well, although set theory was already present. Pauxy’s influence was very important, because he made me enter a universe of control of pitches. I tell him now that this was something that was already present inside me, but at the time I thought “my god, what the heck is this? I am going to have to learn to use this to compose.” I went home depressed thinking that I was going to have to use set theory. Normal form, prime form….more and more BS.
Well, you know there can be a sort of prejudice against knowledge until you began to understand, and you say “wow, there’s actually something to this!” And so my compositions began to be organized, with control of pitches. To such a degree that my other professor, Marisa Rezende, tells me “Enough! You have to move on! ” Time to move on to other forms of expression, without having to be so fixed on control of pitch. (Confidentially). But it’s so good…
TM: Which composers did you look at in studying with Pauxy?
JOA: We didn’t do much analysis, since that was a separate topic. At the end of the course, we talked a lot about Penderecki. I remember going to the National Library to study the St. Luke Passion by Penderecki. This was something that made a deep impression, particularly in the area of texture, which is something that I am now beginning to develop, thank God. The Threnody…all these scores were at the National Library, so you could listen while following the score.
Ligeti came later, during my masters and doctoral studies, but the strongest influence as an undergraduate was Penderecki.
TM: In Brazil there are composers who seem to be fundamental, such as Penderecki and Ligeti, who are perhaps less present in the study of composition in the US. Why are these so important in Brazil?
JOA: In Brazil? I think they are important for composition in general.
TM: Which techniques in particular?
JOA: The manipulation of texture. The idea of micropolyphony in Ligeti is something fantastic, something, polyphony, which comes from tradition, but a new kind of polyphony, a new way of thinking about musical texture, which has a tremendous impact on the listener. You listen and think “My God, this is an orchestra playing. It sounds like a work for tape. Lux Aeterna – the first time I heard it shivers sent up my spine…even today it does. All of Ligeti has this effect…the Requiem… When I first heard it I didn’t know why it worked this way – my listening was very intuitive. After I did some research I began to see the complexity of his style of writing, the quantity of divisi – every stand has a separate part. I thought it was fabulous. This made a big impression.
The Eastern European school – Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Ligeti – they are of prime importance in music at the close of the twentieth century. Music changed.
TM: Does Western Europe have such important figures?
JOA: You had Stockhausen, Boulez, with a great impact in the area of serialism. But the torch passed to Eastern Europe. Musicology will have to look at these currents of influence, transmission of techniques, but will have to wait for the dust to settle. Ligeti only died last year. Penderecki is still living, and was here conducting in Rio last year. Of course his process of composing has changed. Everything is much more traditional. What apprentice composers value is precisely his music of the sixties.
TM: Was there a phase in which you were involved in popular music?
JOA: I very much like popular music – Chico Buarque, bossa nova. I listen to it, I think there is a moment for it, but in the process of composition, it was always purely classical music. I never worked with popular music. My reference was always classical music, from the time when I was young. I studied Chopin waltzes, and so I composed waltzes inspired by Chopin. When I was studying Beethoven, I composed pieces in the style of Beethoven, as a sort of game. One thinks “this was compositional exercise fundamental to my training” – yes, but at the time it was a game. I would take a theme from Mozart, and write variations.
My training where I grew up was very much lacking, since I only had piano lessons, with no lessons in theory, solfege, dictation. When I got to Rio de Janeiro, and had to do a test in dictation, in solfege, I was royally screwed, so that I could not go directly into composition, but had to go through the technical course in piano to get the training that was lacking.
So what did I do? I recorded my pieces. I was lucky with my teacher, because instead of saying “this is foolishness – you have to study, etc. etc.” she encouraged me, saying “how beautiful! Since you don’t know how to write it down, let’s record it.”
TM: Do you still have the tapes?
JOA: I don’t have the least idea what happened to them. I have been away from Minas for many years. But we recorded them, and listened to them later. It was only much later that I learned how to write music down. Composition was something much earlier.
TM: Your teacher Marisa at the Escola de Música is a brilliant composer. How were your studies with her? My impression is that she encourages students to follow their own paths.
JOA: Exactly. Marisa was someone who was essential. After studying with Pauxy I went to study with her for my master’s. It was fantastic. I regret not having been able to study with her longer. The masters was only a two-year program, and very much directed toward research. She is a great researcher as well as composer.
She was my adviser. I had already studied composition with Pauxy, and she liked my work. I didn’t have classes in composition with her, but analysis and theory. What is fantastic about Marisa is her humanity. You have class at her house, converse, she understands your problems. There is friendship which goes beyond the class. She is a very, very enlightened person. Words are inadequate. She was essential for me because she had a very solid background in research. A year later I was doing a doctorate. Had I been frustrated in the masters program, which happens, it could have held me back in continuing my studies. But with Marisa, things went quickly, calmly. I owe a great deal to her for the knowledge she shared with me.
TM: Where did you do your doctorate?
JOA: In Campinas, at UNICAMP. My adviser was Jônatas Manzolli, who opened other possibilities for me in terms of composition, of language, of systematization of knowledge. My only regret is not having been able to enter the field of electroacoustic music. I never had time. UNICAMP would have been the right time, since they have various composers in that area – Denise Garcia, Silvio Ferraz, as well as Manzolli. Nowadays at UJRF they have Rodolfo Caesar and Rodrigo Cicchelli, but while I was doing my masters there Rodolfo had just arrived from England.
My doctorate at Campinas was great – three years of my life where there is nothing that I could complain about. I was granted a leave from work. I always worked, and that had an effect on my studies. Everything went right at Campinas from the moment I arrived. All my works were for solo piano, and I even managed to arrange a heavyweight pianist, Ingrid Barancoski, who came to Campinas, played forty minutes of solo piano, didn’t charge a cent for artist fee – I managed to cover her travel and expenses through UNICAMP.
My travel back and forth was tiring. I didn’t live in Campinas – only for the first semester.
TM: Living in Rio, and studying in Campinas.
JOA: Seven and half hours by bus. When I was active as teaching assistant there, which was very important, I had to go every week. I would take the bus from Rio on Monday nights at 10 PM, and arrive in Campinas at 5:30 AM.
Was it exhausting? Yes. But I wasn’t working, so when I returned to Rio I had my time available for to do research. I got used to it, and when I finished my doctorate I even missed them. You know that nostalgia? It happens with people who travel every week. In Paraíba, since it is the only center for composition, there are people who come from Recife, from Natal, from the interior of Paraíba, so we talk about this a lot.
TM: Here in Rio you have been active with Prelúdio XXI, a group of composers which will celebrate its tenth anniversary in 2008.
JOA: In 1998 I was beginning my master’s. It was excellent, something unheard of. Of the composers who made up the group in 1998, Sergio [Roberto de Oliveira], Neder [Nassaro], and myself have been there from the start until today. It was something informal that worked. I believe that it continues to work today because of one factor: friendship. There is friendship, togetherness that links these people. If these links break, with disputes and suspicions, it is like shellfish by the sea – they close up, and the group almost doesn’t exist. And then you have to get over the trauma, and get back to work. The principal thing is friendship – we are all friends, thank God.
TM: The group doesn’t have a single esthetic, but seven composers and seven esthetic points of view.
JOA: Everyone is doing his own thing, but little by little you move closer. You begin to take in influences from other people in the group. There are lots of thing that I have “stolen” from Marcos Lucas, from Caio Senna. Through proximity, since we have so many concerts each year, there are influences flowing from own to the next.
TM: I suppose rather than “Les Six”, you are The Seven.
JOA: But that was a group which had a mentor, Nadia Boulanger, who was behind the scenes, something we don’t have. One could perhaps even elect someone for that role, for example Marisa, who was teacher for at least three of us – myself, Caio and Alexandre Schubert. Fewer than 50 percent of the group.
The group is something which I like a lot. I was nervous when I left Rio to work in Paraíba that I could lose the group. Our most important concert was the first one at the Theatro Municipal, and on the very next day I left for Paraíba. When I traveled I was exhausted, but the concert at the Municipal was something that could not be missed.
“An Economy of Means”
TM: Your work has an economy of means, with a small number of motives for which you develop the various possibilities. A music which is minimal, perhaps in the original sense, not like the American minimalists. Instead of a tropical profusion, a la Villa Lobos, you create a work from a tiny nucleus.
JOA: Exactly. There are compositional processes in my head, and perhaps I need to free myself from them. This piece at the 2007 Bienal [“Insinuâncias”] is a classical example of working with sets of pitches – tritones and semitones. This set pervades the whole work, perhaps not as systematically as when I was studying for the doctorate. Here I work with sets, but more freely, with more liberty.
When the piece was commissioned for a concert of Prelúdio XXI at the Centro Cultural Telemar, there were problems with bringing in the percussion instruments, with the size of the stage, there were only two percussionists – a series of problems. We had a meeting, and so the percussion available was limited to glockenspiel, vibraphone, suspended cymbal, triangle, and tam-tam.
This was something based on circumstances. I like to work with a larger set of percussion. The piece by Caio at the 2005 Bienal with two pianos and percussion – I thought “this is something I have to do.” In fact it is something that I am going to do, not two pianos, but one, with seven large percussion instruments.
This question of organization of pitches is something that I have very much internalized. Now I am beginning to look at the question of texture. I have a piece written for the brass quintet in Paraíba, which was very well-received – I wrote an article on it for ANPPOM – which is entirely based on the question of texture.
I am writing a piece now for Prelúdio XXI, for orchestra and percussion, which has been difficult, because I need to manage time for both teaching and composition, and texture is speaking to me more insistently. What is textural music? It means not working with motives, with predetermined rhythms – music will flow depending on texture. I am very much taken with this.
TM: What projects do you have for 2008?
JOA: I want to get back to entering competitions. Here in Brazil I have won five prizes, but nothing from abroad. There are plenty of opportunities. There was a competition in Luxembourg which seemed made-to-order for me – for an instrumental combination that I had mastered, no age limit, no entry fee… So now I am focusing my efforts in this direction, in addition to my compositions for Prelúdio XXI.