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
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
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
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
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
Inori à prostituta sagrada
TM: Your trilogy is complete -- what projects are
coming up after that?
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. 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.
For more information about Jocy de Oliveira, please visit her web