An Interview with Marisa Rezende
October 23, 2007
Sala Cecília Meireles
Rio de Janeiro
Composer Marisa Rezende, born and raised in Rio, is a fundamental presence in the musical life of the city, not only for her compositions, but as perhaps the most important teacher of the next generation. We spoke in Portuguese during the 17th Bienal of Contemporary Music.
Family and Education
TM: What was the musical environment in your family like?
MR: There was a piano at home. My mother studied a little, and my father played quite a bit by ear, without ever having studied piano. My mother says that quite early, when I was not even four years old, she noticed me playing a “música de roda.” She thought that perhaps it was by chance, and she asked me to repeat it, and I did. After that I was always playing, so that my start in music was spontaneous, and quite early. My aunts and grandmother were always singing, but it was very informal – there was no one who was involved in music in a professional way.
I began to study with a teacher at five years old, who taught me to read before I had begun school, so that I could take piano lessons. I remember my father, when I was very young, and playing samba, insisting that I play it right. “It’s stiff! It’s stiff! Make it swing!” He was joking, but it was very important. Some things from this period were fundamental in relation to being relaxed, treating it as a game, to not being afraid of the instrument.
TM: Your family is from Rio de Janeiro. What is their background?
MR: My mother used to say that her family had been carioca for four hundred years, since she did not know of a single relative that was not from Rio. My father, and my paternal grandparents, were also from Rio. The previous generation was from the state of Rio, from Campos, close to the state of Espírito Santo. So we are from here.
TM: Was the family Portuguese originally?
MR: Very probably. My mother’s surname was Costa Pereira, and my father’s was Nunes de Barcellos – everything pointing to Portugal.
TM: You mentioned samba, playing music by ear. What was the musical scene like in the city when you were a child?
MR: My mother always used to take me to the Theatro Municipal to hear all the pianists who came through. I heard Guiomar Novaes many times, [Alexander] Brailowsky as well. When the first international piano competition took place here, I must have been twelve or thirteen, and I went to all the performances. My mother was very focused on giving me experience with the instrument.
As far as the rest – nightlife, bars – we had no connection. My father was a doctor. He liked to play, and I am sure that he went out on the town when he was younger, but not when I was a child. I have memories of blocos on the street during Carnaval. My experience with popular music comes from listening to him play by ear, and so I also began to play by ear. I listened to radio, which we heard a lot of when I was young, and my experience of classical music came from study. I started at five and stayed with the same teacher until I finished my education as an adult.
TM: Where did you do your undergraduate studies?
MR: That is a very complicated story. I began to do my bachelor’s in composition here in Rio, at the Escola de Música. But I married very early, and a year and a half after starting school we went to live in Boston, Massachusetts, where we spent four years. I had two daughters there. I came back with two daughters, and started the course in composition where I had left off. And three years later we moved to Recife. I lived in Recife for many years. So I got to Recife in the middle of the course in composition. I had done three and a half years here in Rio, but as soon as I got back from Boston I became pregnant with my third daughter. I have three daughters who are very close in age. I finished my undergraduate work eleven years after I began, in Recife.
TM: Were you active musically in Boston?
MR: Almost nothing.
TM: When was this?
MR: We went in ’64, and returned at the end of ’67.
TM: A very interesting period in the USA. Did you feel a culture shock when you got to Boston?
MR: Yes – it was all very different, the way people functioned, winter was something completely new. It was difficult – we had little money, no relatives there, and two children to look after. It was a complicated period. I took some adult education courses at Harvard at night. It was glorious – to be able to get out of the house at night and go somewhere. My husband had gone to do his masters’ at MIT. He was supposed to have returned after the one year of his fellowship, but it became obvious that it made no sense to return to Brazil, since he was there, and it was better to continue. It was something completely unplanned.
TM: Most of your training was in Recife, then?
MR: When I left Rio to go to Boston, I was already a finished pianist. I had completed the technical course in piano, and was playing a lot, with recitals and so forth. So my training in piano was all here in Rio. The beginning of the course in composition was here in Rio also. I learned fugue and counterpoint with Morelenbaum and Virginia Fiúza. When I got to Recife, it was very odd, because the course in composition didn’t exist anymore. There were a couple of students who had to complete some course or other. So I had class with a musicologist, Padre Jaime Diniz, who has since passed away. He was a very interesting person, but was not a composer.
TM: Someone with a considerable interest in contemporary music.
MR: He liked contemporary music, but he worked with Baroque music from Pernambuco. He has books on organists in Brazil. He had a chorus – I sang in his chorus for a long time. I got to Recife in 1972, when he was already close to sixty. It was he who introduced me to the Ludus Tonalis of Hindemith, Bartok, lots of things…
TM: How did you start your career as a composer?
MR: After eleven years of undergraduate work, I went immediately to the United States, to Santa Barbara, where I did a master’s in piano, but I wanted to do composition while I was doing the program in piano, and the first two works that remain in my catalogue are from this period in Santa Barbara – a trio for oboe, horn and piano, and a trio for strings.
TM: Who was teaching composition in Santa Barbara at the time?
MR: It was already Peter Fricker. There were other people as well – [Edward] Applebaum, Emma Lou Diemer, but I studied with Frick, and did some other courses with David Gordon. This trip to the United States was very important for me. It was a good school, with a good library, good recordings, scores – I loved that. It was wonderful. The building worked, places for everything, easy, calm – I took advantage of everything. It was a short time – the middle of ’75 until the end of ’76, because the children were getting big, and going to school. I said that I wanted to go back and do the doctorate, and went back in 1982 to UCSB to do the doctorate in composition.
TM: During your first stay at Santa Barbara you still considered yourself to be a pianist, and during the second you had come to think of yourself as a composer?
MR: For many years I did both. I played as soloist with orchestra many times in Recife – Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Brahms – I played a lot of piano, not just a little. When I went to do the master’s I knew that I knew how to play piano – I got by very well. I was petrified by the idea of studying music there in the United States, I spoke English, and understood it, but had never studied music there, didn’t know the literature, and I thought it was a better idea to study piano, since I knew that I would only have a short time. I went back to Brazil for quite a stretch between the master’s and the doctorate, and it was like this – part of the year there were concerts, and I didn’t compose. And the other part of the year, there were no concerts, and I composed. Even today I play in Música Nova – I play less, and play fewer things that take work. I don’t play the Tchaikovsky with orchestra anymore. And as time has gone by I am working more and more on composition. But I miss the instrument. I love to play.
TM: Your compositional esthetic is something that comes from Brazil? What were the influences of your study in Santa Barbara, your compositional models?
MR: I can’t really say. Everything that I heard and that I liked made an impression on me. The fact that of my having gone to Recife, where I studied composition with someone who was not a composer, but a musicologist, left me more open, freer…
If I had studied here in Rio, with a professor who was more rigid, it might have gotten in my way. I was able to choose – I was working with consonance in a period where people did not accept this easily. Why? It was in my head, in my ear, I liked it… Why not? So my path was a little alternative.
There in the United States I heard everything that was available, but I never wanted to compose in the style of Boulez. I went to hear Boulez and Stockhausen in Los Angeles – there was a very nice festival of contemporary music at the California Institute for the Arts. I loved all that, and learned from all of it. I made a mixture, but I can’t say “Oh yes, I see that I have influence from this one or that one….” I don’t know what sort of influence Peter Fricker had, because in my writing there is nothing similar to his. He taught me a great deal, taught me to carefully look over my scores – he did a very good job.
TM: California has the reputation of being a place with a tradition of independent composers, freer than other places like New York, Boston, Princeton, Philadelphia. Could you speak about your activities at the Escola de Música, and with the group Música Nova?
MR: When I came back from doing the doctorate at the end of 1984, my daughters were already in undergraduate school, and beginning to move to Rio. I had already been wanting to move to Rio for some time, a competition opened, and I came to teach composition here. I was very happy to come back to Rio, because I had missed Rio and the people here, my parents… It was a great experience, because I had many good students – I won’t mention names, because if one does, one forgets, but you know most of my students.
We began the group in 1989. It was an important experience, because the group rehearsed twice a week, and the function of the musicians was to play the students’ compositions. They would play the pieces before they were completed, so people could hear them, and change things, discuss them with the musicians, and this gave a lot of energy to the course. Later I managed to bring Rodolfo [Caesar], and we began to work with electroacoustic music, which was a struggle, but we managed it. Then Rodrigo Cicchelli came, and we had the beginning of a nucleus bringing together people with a different background. It was good. I didn’t like the place – the classroom building is very disagreeable, very noisy, with people giving class and three hundred different things sounding around you – it was very wearing. The bureaucratic and administrative part was not something that appealed to me.
I retired, a little early, in 2002, when I was 58. I thought “just because I have retired doesn’t mean that I can’t go back to give classes, teach students at home,” but I haven’t, since every other year I have had commissions for pieces for orchestra. I am writing the third. It’s odd, in a country where the orchestras almost don’t play contemporary scores. So I have a big score to complete. I keep very busy, so I have not taught very much.
TM: The piece from this year’s Bienal [Vereda] was from 2003. After this piece…
MR: … There is one that went to the OSB in commemoration of 40 years of the Sala Cecília Meireles, called Avessia, which for me was a backwards fanfare. The one which I am working on now is for the arrival of the Royal Family, to be played next year. The piece evokes the Botanical Garden, since it was D. João VI who founded it.
TM: In Vereda the clarity of writing was impressive, and the fact that your voice is completely individual and original, but one which communicates. Where did this voice come from? It doesn’t seem to belong to any school, and doesn’t sound “Brazilian,” but it is an open voice, which communicates emotional states. A woman in the audience, after hearing it, asked me, “What does this piece mean?”, but she also was speaking of classical music more generally. What does classical music mean for you?
MR: A métier, a style of writing, in search of details, which would not happen if I were writing music that was lighter, more popular. I have already written music for theater, music for installations in the visual arts, in a language which is less elaborate. I think that classical music presupposes a certain level of elaboration in any parameter, whether it is timbre, harmony, whatever, a more intense level. So what happened? In 2000 or so, I wrote a piece for piano, Constrastes, in which I froze some sonorities – I had not moved toward set theory – I knew that it existed, but had not done anything with it. Then I worked with Orlando [Alves], who did a master’s with me, and who is a maniac about this. I don’t like all that mathematics, but interestingly, and it was not a situation where I said “I am going to do this,” but I did it. This question of exploring a particular sonority – Vereda, in the first twenty seconds, presents all the material, in terms of pitches, which the entire piece will work with. So there is something very closed there. Now, the fun is to give that material many different faces, since, because I am on the same ground, I can change clothes as many times as I like, and I will still have the same identity.
I like consonance. I don’t close off when I sense that I have a passage with a more emotional charge, and one which also recalls something from the past. I let it come out, I acknowledge it. That is how I am as a person – a mixture of many things. I still am emotionally moved by things which were important for my parents, for my grandparents. My experiences of breaking with the past, in my personal life, in my emotional life, were all very difficult. What I see in tradition is a sort of solidity, which anchors me, which is good for me, which I cultivate. I am not a person of the last century. I am a person who experiences all the anxieties of people who live in Rio today, and in a certain way this also comes out in my music, but what I value emotionally are things that have to do with things which are very old.