An Interview with Nikolai Brucher
Nikolai Brucher (b. 1979) is a young Carioca at the start of a career in music. In 2005 his work for orchestra, Tri Kartina (Three Pictures) won first prize in the first Cláudio Santoro Competition, held under the auspices of the Brazilian Academy of Music. His music was heard at the 2005 and the 2007 Bienal of Contemporary Brazilian Music.
We spoke in Portuguese at the Sala Cecilia Meireles during the 2007 Bienal (October 25).
In the Beginning
TM: How did you become a composer? Were there musicians in your family?
NB: My father, when he was young, many years before I was born, used to play recorder. He and my uncle had an early music ensemble.
TM: Where was this?
NB: Here in Rio. It was called Banda Antiqua, or something like that – early music, Renaissance music. Afterwards he became an engineer, gave up music, but continued to be interested in it, especially Bach, Handel, Baroque music.
When I was a child I was not very interested in music, and it was only when I was fourteen or fifteen that due to my father’s influence I began to listen to a few things. My interest was just through listening – I wasn’t playing anything. I had had music classes in school – I learned to play recorder, learned to read and write music, but then I forgot it all, because I was not interested in it.
TM: Was your father from Rio, or did he come from elsewhere?
NB: My father’s family came originally from Germany, but my father was born here in Brazil. My grandparents had left Germany and moved to Portugal, before or during the war, and at the end of the war they left Portugal and came to Brazil. We had this connection with Germany – my father always spoke a lot of German, we spoke German at home when I was little – less nowadays.
So I began to listen to a lot of things, began to buy a lot of records, but I didn’t play, didn’t have a practical connection with music, didn’t study music. My father said: “Maybe you might like to study an instrument, in case you want to study music in the future, and maybe piano would be the right thing.” I began to study piano when I was sixteen, and quit because I wasn’t interested. I only started again when I was eighteen, when I was finishing school. I studied at Pro-Arte. I began to study piano, because I always had in mind to become either a conductor or composer. I always liked the orchestra, ensembles, and was not very interested in individual instruments. The piano seemed like the most practical instrument for this type of career. And so I eventually decided on composition. I thought that a composer had a role which was more original, and more important than that of the conductor. I guess it’s a rather egotistic way of thinking, but that is how I was thinking at the time.
TM: The composer leaves traces behind.
NB: Perhaps. Even so I continued to be interested in conducting. I very much like the orchestra. Eighty percent of the music which I listen to is for orchestra. That is not the case for the music which I write – I write little music for orchestra – but my interest is very much focused in this direction.
TM: What sort of music were you listening to as an adolescent? Contemporary music? Baroque music? Classical music? Popular music? Jazz?
NB: I began with Brahms and Beethoven. I listened to a lot of Brahms, and even today he is one of my favorite composers, no doubt.
TM: Does this come from your German heritage?
NB: Perhaps. The first symphony was one of the first pieces that I listened to, and I got interested in music because of pieces like this. I continued in the Germanic/Austrian tradition, and then there was Bach, due to my father. My uncle, who had the ensemble with my father, had played guitar, and then went deeply into the lute, so much so that he went to England to study with a woman…
TM: Diana Poulton.
NB: Exactly. I began to study guitar with him, just playing around, but I think that because of him I became focused on polyphony, counterpoint. When music is lacking counterpoint, it becomes poorer. I didn’t like Saint-Saens, French music… “This music has no counterpoint…it’s very vapid”. Later I became very interested in Mahler. Little by little, my horizons expanded. Brazilian music, Villa-Lobos, since I am Brazilian. I still buy lots of recordings. I listen to much more music than I write.
TM: Is popular music important for you? Or peripheral?
NB: In my case it’s peripheral. I am not very much involved, though it’s not that I don’t like it. I don’t know how to play popular music, I never studied it. Sometimes I go to Lapa to hear my friends play, since I have lots of friends who play popular music. But I don’t, and I don’t think it had much influence on me.
The London Connection
TM: You studied at Pro-Arte, and then went to study music at the university.
NB: I studied piano with Dona Elza, who is a character, for two years or so, and stopped because I went to England, and spent six months there in England and elsewhere in Europe.
TM: You went to see the world?
NB: I had a girlfriend, went to be with her, the relationship didn’t work out, but I stayed there. I went to concerts, bought records, and ended up getting very interested in English music.
TM: In London?
NB: I was mad about composers from the beginning of the twentieth century like Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton….
TM: These composers are not as highly-valued as Mahler in general… They are undervalued.
NB: Their orchestration is very good…Britten, my God! And then I moved back to Brazil. I had very much enjoyed living in England. I was working in a bar, since my cousin was married to the manager. I lived with them, made some money, wasn’t spending very much, could go to concerts. After coming back I had to go to university, and I took the entrance exam for composition. I was lucky to pass, since I had gone for six months without studying piano. I had come back to Brazil in September, and the entrance exam was in November. I started at UniRio in 1999. I studied with David Korenchendler, not only composition, but also counterpoint and orchestration.
TM: Counterpoint was already something that belong to your makeup.
NB: If you look at my earliest compositions you will always find a fugue.
TM: How was Korenchendler as a professor of counterpoint?
NB: He taught species counterpoint, and used a French text by Dubois. He used to give us rules of counterpoint from memory. I did fugue with him, very strict, but always tonal counterpoint, never modal, though that is something that would have interested me. His teaching is quite free – if you don’t want to do something, you don’t. You have to pull him. Sometimes I think that there are gaps in my education, due to the fact that there insufficient demands placed. I like David a lot as a person and as a composer, but his focus is not so much on pedagogy.
There were other very important professors at Unirio. Guerreiro, in harmony. I studied analysis and choral conducting with Carlos Alberto at Pro Arte. And later I studied electroacoustic music with Vania [Dantas Leite]. Although I consider this genre important, I took the course more through respect for her – it was not something that particularly attracted me. I wrote some pieces at the time, but for the moment acoustic instruments are enough for me.
After undergraduate school, my father thought it would be a good idea to study abroad. But I didn’t really pursue it, and continued at UniRio for my masters’. At the time I didn’t apply in composition. I always felt unsatisfied, felt that my pieces were not good. Composition has never been a pleasure for me, it has always been very difficult. Of course, when I talk to people, they say “it’s the same for everyone!”
TM: Your Germanic superego giving you a hard time…
NB: Even if everyone feels the same way, I never hear anyone complaining. Anyway, I was going through this phase, and I wanted to continue to do music. Music is the most important thing in my life, but I wanted to expand, to do musicology. I always was interested in the history of music, composers and their works, I always read much more in this area than in treatises on harmony. I read various biographies. So I took the test to do musicology. I got in, and planned a project on Brazilian symphonies from the Romantic period: Nepomuceno, Leopoldo Miguez. 2005 was my first year in the master’s program. In the middle of the first semester, I participated in the competition of the Brazilian Academy of Music for young composers, with the Petrobrás Orchestra, and I won. And so I thought “perhaps I should switch to composition,” made a request to the faculty, and switched.
TM: Where did this piece, “Three Pictures,” come from? How did you casually happen to produce a prize-winning composition?
NB: They announced the competition when I was finishing my undergraduate program, at the end of 2003, and you had to submit the piece by March of 2004. I was doing work in electroacoustic music with Vania, and I had no time to work until the end of the semester. Then there were the holidays, and by the time I could get started it was already January. So I got started, and by February I had the feeling that what I was doing wasn’t good, wasn’t appropriate for the competition. But I didn’t want to lose the opportunity, so I took another piece, and orchestrated it. The only piece which I had which was appropriate, and was the right length, was a piano sonata, which I consider to be my first composition. I don’t even know if I have kept anything prior to this.
TM: So Opus 1 won the prize.
NB: More or less. I added some passages here and there, changed some things, and the orchestration increased the piece’s potential, but that’s basically it. It took a long time for the results of the competition to be announced, at the end of 2004, and the concert with the three finalists was the following year, when I switched to composition, and planned a project on contemporary symphonic music from Brazil, looking at Almeida Prado, Edino Krieger, and Ronaldo Miranda – the pieces which they wrote on commission from the Ministry of Culture to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Brazil – form, harmony, orchestration. I continued with composition, but in a rather independent way, since I was not linking my creative activity with my research, though certainly I learned things in research that I would apply later.
Recently I have been very much concerned, perhaps too much, with the unity of the work, something which is almost repressing me. The most recent piece which I have completed is for violoncello and piano, which was written to be premiered at the 2007 Cello Encounter. The work is based on a series, but the series presents the same group of three notes four times – a minor second and a minor third. All of the harmony and all the melodic lines come from this series. Not that this is treated in a rigid way. But I feel like I am very tied-down.
TM: You feel like you are wanting to open your mind a little.
NB: Exactly. Contrasting two things which are completely different is something that I rarely do. Everything moves from one thing to the next. You transform the first thing until it becomes the second.
TM: Very Germanic.
NB: Perhaps. I think my training is lacking in some areas. I never studied set theory, for example. When I studied this in the master’s program, I did a presentation on my quintet for winds (the one performed at the 2005 Bienal), since Carol [Gubernikoff] thought that this reflected set theory. But at the time I was writing the piece it never entered my mind.
TM: The music comes first, and the theory later.
NB: I want to make a music which is well-constructed, but I have to like it as well. I can’t take some notes which are symmetrically distributed, put together a chord – if the chord is ugly it is useless. If I don’t like the way it sounds it is useless.
TM: Do you think about the audience when you are composing? About communication? About structures?
NB: I also think about the public. I want my music to be played, and I hope that people will like it when they hear it played. Last year was the first time that they asked me to write a piece for Cello Encounter, and a group from outside Brazil was going to play it. I thought “what will they like? I haven’t got the least idea. Will they want something which is more modern? Or if it is too modern, perhaps they won’t like it. Who knows?” I do have this concern, both with respect to performers and with respect to audiences. The director of the festival had to like it as well, since if they don’t like it they won’t ask me again.
There are three forces at work. One is the academy – you study at the university, you have colleagues in composition – all this has an influence. Things have to be well made, you have to be concerned with the form, the music has to be modern, can’t be too conservative, can’t be too God knows what. The environment itself is competitive. There’s not so much space, and everyone wants to be successful. One is the public. In fact you are not making music for the academy, but for the public. I may think “this part is too aggressive,” “this part is too silly,” “this part will recall something that I don’t want to refer to.” And then there is what I want. I like to think that what I want is the most important, that when I make a decision, if I am thinking about the academy, the public, and what I want, what has the most weight is what I want.
TM: Is your group of composers, the Companhia dos Compositores, still active?
NB: I was just talking about the level of competition in the musical environment, and when I was an undergraduate at UniRio, although I entered in a small class, little by little people started to do their own thing – one did popular music, one dropped out, one became a pianist – and the people who graduated with me were not the same ones that entered with me. So I never had much interaction with my colleagues, and had a certain fear of getting to know their music and feeling that it was better than mine, that I could get depressed.
There was a point in the master’s program where I was feeling unsatisfied, insecure, feeling a little lost, and somebody who had been a colleague in undergraduate school, who had been a pianist at the time, called me to say that he was studying composition, and had some colleagues who wanted to put together a cooperative, and we created this group of four people – Luciano Leite Barbosa, Pablo Panaro, Bruno Martagão, and myself. We put together the group thinking that it is so difficult to find performances for your music as a student composer – you are almost limited to concerts at the university, so we would go after concerts, and it would be a stimulus for us to compose, everyone would write a piece for a concert, and arrange for the performers, publicize it, and although I got into this not knowing what the results would be, it turned out very well. Last year, our first season, we managed to put together four or five concerts.
Bruno finished his program here, and went to France for six months, came back for a little while, and went back. He has been gone for almost a year, and his absence has had an effect on the group. I was finishing my master’s this year as well, but we got together a few weeks ago to plan new projects. It’s something that I enjoy a lot, and I think it’s important.
What Lies Ahead
TM: Future compositions, plans, ideas?
NB: Plans are the most important. As I was saying, there are areas in my education that I consider to be weak, and these are things I have to address if I want to be a composer. I have been considering studying abroad for many years, and have just applied for a fellowship in Germany, and perhaps I might do a doctorate in the USA. In the area of composition I need to compose a lot more.
TM: Are you particularly interested in composing for orchestra?
NB: Yes, but at the moment I have no way to get pieces for orchestra played. So someone asks me for a piece, it seems interesting, and I do it. For the last two years everything I have written has been like that. I remember a piece which I wrote at the beginning of 2006, which was a project for the group – music for brass, which was my idea, since I had studied trumpet, knew the players. We did brass quintets. Then I wrote a piece for Diogo’s Camerata, which is going to be played at this Bienal (“Combinações”). About two years ago I got involved with a project in the schools in Volta Redonda (Rio de Janeiro), which began, as things usually do, with music for winds. Now they have strings, string orchestras, all with students from the public schools. I got involved through a personal contact with the director, Nicolau de Oliveira, who invited me to do arrangements for band, something I had never done before, Brazilian traditional and folk music, arrangements using an appropriate language….various constraints. I knew more or less what they were looking for. And after a while they asked me for an original piece, but within these limits of technique and language, and I did a piece which was traditional in format, and quite Brazilian, something which is not usual for my music, but this piece was modal, etc. It was for xylophone and band, since they had purchased a new xylophone, and wanted to show it off.
TM: If you are writing pieces by request, you get a good feedback. You will hear from the performers what works, what doesn’t work.
NB: In this respect the experience with the band was very useful. I always liked winds, and feel more comfortable writing for winds than for strings.
I think I have spoken about the various phases of my studies, and feeling indecisive. At the moment this is a little better. Even though I don’t know exactly what I am going to do in music, I can no longer see myself putting it aside. This is something positive. I want to be better – I don’t think I am good yet. I have to study more, but I am very lazy… I have to force myself. I want to study with someone interesting, who will demand the best of me.