May 08 2004

Ronaldo Miranda: An Interview

Ronaldo Miranda


Ronaldo Miranda

Continuing his interview series with Brazilian artists, Tom Moore sat down with pianist, composer and music critic Ronaldo Miranda at the Catete neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro in late 2002.







TM: Can you say a little about where you grew up and the musical environment in your family?

RM: I was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1948, grew up and was educated here. My musical training began when I was six years old, but I started to study music more seriously at thirteen. Later I went to the Escola de Música of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). I did all my undergraduate studies there, in piano, composition, and also journalism. Later I did my master’s there, and more recently I did my doctorate in São Paulo at USP. But my principal training was in Rio de Janeiro. I studied piano with Dulce de Salles, a very fine teacher, and composition with Henrique Morelenbaum.

TM: Where did you study before entering UFRJ?

RM: I did practically all my study there, since there is a technical course prior to the bachelor’s program. Before entering the school I studied accordion starting at age six, an accordion similar to the bandoneon of Argentina, but which is not the same. It’s a very Brazilian style accordion, closer to the Italian style. That was my start. My whole family wanted me to study piano, but precisely because of that I didn’t want to; I wanted to study accordion, which was an instrument that was in vogue in the fifties, like the guitar was in the sixties and seventies. If on the one hand it didn’t move me forward very much technically – the right hand played the keyboard, and the left hand the bass buttons – on the other hand it helped to develop the theoretical side, since they had good instruction in music theory in Mario Mascarenhas’ accordion school, and when I went to the school I could skip to the last year of music theory and then go on to harmony. At twelve years old I already knew all my music theory, since at the accordion school I had learned notation, rhythm, dictation – I knew how to read and write music.

TM: What kind of music was in style for accordion?

RM: [laughs] Very easy music – Spanish music, tangos, boleros, Latin-American and Brazilian things, arrangements of things from opera, overtures. Really tacky! I think this is the popular side of my musical education, and that the communicative, popular part of my production comes from a musical past that began in this way.

TM: A gringo, if he knows anything about the accordion in Brazil, will think of forró.

Luiz GonzagaRM: But at that time forró was not in style. There was Luiz Gonzaga, who was a very good accordionist, with “Asa Branca” – there was a little, but mostly, here in Rio de Janeiro, people played this repertoire that was not Brazilian – it was quite international, very Spanish. It wasn’t genuinely Brazilian.

TM: Is your family completely Portuguese? Do you have relatives from other countries?

RM: Completely Portuguese, and Brazilian for some time. My father’s family is directly Portuguese – my great-grandparents were from Portugal. They immigrated to Brazil, and my grandparents were already Brazilian. My mother’s family had already been in Brazil for quite some time, because they were from the north of the state of Rio de Janeiro – the region between Campos and Espírito Santo. My maternal great-grandparents came from that area of sugar plantations – they worked in sugar refineries. On my father’s side they came directly to Rio de Janeiro.

TM: Did the Portuguese bring their music with them when they immigrated to Brazil?

RM: That is a complex question to answer. I think that they did bring influences from Portuguese music, because when the court arrived here, that was the beginning of music in Rio de Janeiro, so to speak. In a general way, urban popular music begins with Portuguese influences here – choro and so forth. I have a piece which I did for wind quintet called “Variações Sérias” (there is also a version for piano four-hands and for guitar quartet) which demonstrates this quite well, since it is a set of variations on a theme by Anacleto de Medeiros, a composer who lived at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century. The theme I use, and the variations which I wrote, show the influence of urban popular music and of Portuguese music, fado in particular.

TM: When you were an undergraduate at the School of Music what was the environment like in composition? What were the influences? Was there avant-garde music? American music? European music?

RM: I had a very traditional, very rigid education, because the School of Music here was modeled entirely on the Paris Conservatory, because the great Brazilian composers studied in Europe in the nineteenth century – Henrique Oswald, Leopoldo Miguez, Alberto Nepomuceno, Francisco Braga, José Siqueira. José Siqueira was professor of composition when I arrived. He had been a student of Massenet at the Paris Conservatory. I didn’t study with him since he was old and had retired before I arrived. I had been studying harmony, counterpoint and fugue in preparation, and when I arrived he had left. So I went to Morelenbaum, who was his assistant.

The School of Music was very European in its approach to teaching music. What happened with me was this: on the one hand I had a great technical grounding, because I had to do counterpoint using all the original clefs, a very rigid approach to fugue, but I was lacking in a context for contemporary music. So it was very difficult for me to get started with a contemporary idiom, because everything came out sounding old-fashioned when I began to write, since I had no other point of reference. I had a serious problem of musical identity when I began composing.

In 1968, when I began my program in composition, I was almost dazed, because what I was hearing in the festivals, the bienals, was the Polish avant-garde of the sixties – Penderecki, before he became a Romantic, when he was aleatoric…Anaklasis, Threnodia…that sort of thing – Berio, Boulez, Dallapiccola. Even Lutoslawski, who was not really so contemporary, was difficult to understand when I heard his Concerto for Orchestra.

Today when you hear classics of the twentieth century you hear them as if they were something normal. The standard repertoire – Stravinsky, Bartok – have become something classic, but at that time it was something difficult for me, because I couldn’t manage to compose in that idiom. So Morelenbaum tried to open up my head a little in the direction of contemporary music, forced me to write in that language, gave me themes for variations which were very contemporary, “e eu apanhava com aquilo” – it didn’t feel natural. He would say “No, work at it – later you will arrive at your own language –but do this as an exercise,” because in the course you needed to compose in various styles, in various forms, including serial music. So I did it as an exercise, but I had the greatest difficulty with it. Particularly because I took a long time to finish the course in composition, not because I was a poor student, but because I didn’t have time.

I lost my father very early, when I was eighteen, and so I had to work. That is why I became a journalist and music critic, because I started at the newspaper when I was eighteen and was studying at the same time. It was an “atrapalhada” (confusion), because I didn’t have time to do everything. My father wanted me to become a lawyer, if you can imagine that. He made me take the entrance exam for law – it was nothing that I wanted to do – and I carried that burden for three or four years, doing law in the mornings, music God knows when, all that stuff…until I said “I am going to go crazy! It’s not working out, not working out there, I am burning the candle at both ends” and so to my family’s despair I dropped out of the program in the fourth year. I dropped out because I didn’t want to go into that; I wanted to be trained as a pianist, I needed to study so I could graduate in piano. So I did piano, and I did journalism because I was working at the newspaper, and I stopped composition. Later I went back and graduated in composition in 1976. It took me eight years, because I stopped and went back. So finally I graduated with a degree in three things – piano, journalism and composition. And then I caught my breath.

So now I had to begin to compose, because there was no point having all those diplomas and not having time to compose. I had some pieces from that period, songs, pieces for piano, but nothing I felt that was  really strong for my future as a composer. So I finally started looking for a more contemporary idiom, and there was a composition competition for the second Bienal in Rio de Janeiro, in 1977. So I wrote a chamber music piece called “Trajetória,” for soprano, flute, clarinet, piano, violoncello and percussion (xylophone and vibraphone). It needed a conductor because there were a lot of people to coordinate. And I won the first prize, with a piece which was more contemporary, and from then on I started to write more regularly. The next year I wrote the flute trio “Oriens III,” some pieces for piano, a piano concerto, and this phase, which was outside tonality, using free atonality lasted from 1977 until about 1984. And then, since I had already written some pieces for chorus which were more  neo-tonal, let’s say, I began to write instrumental music which was also in that vein, depending on the goal of the individual piece. For example, I was commissioned to write a piece for saxophone and piano for a show which was neither a concert of classical music nor something which was popular music, a show with Paulo Moura, Turíbio Santos, Olivia Byington, and I realized that I couldn’t do something really contemporary, so I did a fantasy for saxophone in a hybrid language, partly neo-tonal, partly jazzy. Now I think that I have fused the two languages. There is a trio for piano, violin and violoncello which demonstrates this, with sections which are more neo-tonal, and other sections which are more contemporary, so that this is something that has become more natural, more blended in my compositions. I feel much more at ease in my own language. By this point I have about fifty or sixty works.

TM: Which choruses did you write your choral music for?

RM: Not for any chorus in particular. The first choral piece was a commission from FUNARTE, and then there were some competitions.

TM: You described the influence of the Polish avant-garde earlier. Were there other influences during the period prior to your turning more toward tonality?

RM: Look, there is no influence from the Polish avant-garde in my music. It was what was being done at the time, and it made an impression on me because it was so different from what I was accustomed to hearing. But I didn’t feel at home in that language, and it took quite some time, five or six years, before I tried to do something more contemporary. I tried to work with free atonality – I didn’t follow a system, whether serial, twelve-tone, minimalist, or pointillist. I was doing something free. Of course I could draw on all these things for my music, but as a technique appropriate to the moment. Let’s suppose that I am writing a piece for orchestra, which is freely atonal, but at a particular moment, I want to write a pointillist passage, or a series, something for that moment, but the piece as a whole is not going to be that way – it will be free. The same thing is true with minimalism – I think that it is very interesting as a technical resource for some moments.

TM: Could you tell us about your work as a journalist? You worked at Jornal do Brasil as a critic.

RM: I didn’t start there as a critic. I worked in a department which was responsible for cultural promotions; it invested a lot of money in cultural events. At the time it was a very wealthy newspaper, although it isn’t today. In the sixties it was the wealthiest newspaper in Rio, and the most influential from an intellectual standpoint. They had events in the area of cinema, visual arts, music. I was responsible for this department, which did public relations, a sort of cultural marketing. After some time I combined this activity with writing criticism. I started at JB in 1966, and stayed there until 1985 – nineteen years. I was a critic from 1974 until 1982, and later went back to writing sporadically, as a free-lancer. There was a team of critics at the time, because there was Luiz Paulo Horta, who now writes for Globo, Edino Krieger, an excellent composer who also was a critic. We succeeded Renzo Masarani, who was an excellent critic, and who retired in 1974. At first I was by myself, and later I shared the criticism with Horta and Krieger.

TM: In the US it seems like there is less and less space in the newspapers for articles on culture, music reviews. I have also heard that in Brazil there was more cultural influence from the newspapers in the past.

RM: Yes, I think that the space for classical music in the newspapers has diminished considerably here as well. It may even be worse, since the New York Times, for example, has more music than there is here, more critics. Here I think there is less and less, particularly in the area of criticism. It’s difficult.

TM: Do you think the prestige of classical music is no longer what it once was?

Heitor Villa-LobosRM: Yes, this is a difficult problem which is connected to music education. Formerly, forty or fifty years ago, music instruction in the schools was compulsory. Villa-Lobos worked very hard for this, and was successful. It is no longer compulsory, and this is a serious gap, because graduates don’t have the same level of knowledge. We have popular music which is very strong and very good, and people are only aware of this. I am not against the appreciation and dissemination of good Brazilian popular music – I think it should be appreciated, but there is this other music which is strong and good as well, and people don’t know it. In the schools we are training the journalists and publishers who are going to decide what will be printed, and they are not going to give publicity to something that they don’t know. They know, more or less, what is going on in the cinema, in the visual arts, in theater, in dance, but they don’t know who is who in Brazilian classical music, so it’s very difficult for them to appreciate people who they don’t know.

TM: So there’s a lack of instruction even for the elite in Brazilian society.

RM: Certainly, a lack of musical training.

TM: This happens even in the private schools?

RM: Yes, unfortunately. There are few schools that have music. Perhaps some of the foreign schools here in Rio, but in the Brazilian schools instruction in music is quite deficient. I see this in my own family.

TM: Am I correct that you work at the Escola de Música?

RM: I worked there for many years, was professor of composition, but I retired two years ago, because I started working very early, and had already been working for thirty-five years. I was director of the Sala Cecilia Meireles, which belongs to the state government, through FUNARJ (Foundation for the Arts in Rio de Janeiro). It’s like the Teatro Municipal, though the Teatro Municipal has its own foundation. The Sala is part of a foundation which includes other theaters and other museums, but is also linked to the Department of Culture of the State of Rio de Janeiro.

TM: How does the budget work?

RM: It comes from the Department of the Treasury, but it’s very complicated. This year, for example, I had no budget until July, which is why I decided to leave, since it was the middle of the season and there was nothing definite. The budget is very small, but even now they have not yet paid any of the artists who played in our season. They also rent the hall. So some of the events are produced by the Sala, and some are outside groups. At the moment, there are only rentals, since there is no money for programming. Recently there have been about twelve to sixteen concerts a month. Out of those about half are rentals.

TM: Could you say a little about your recent commissions? You have a fair number from outside Brazil.

RM: Not as many as I would like, most of them are Brazilian commissions. There is the concerto for four guitars and orchestra from the Baltimore Symphony for 2004. I had some important commissions recently in Brazil – the symphony commemorating five hundred years of Brazil  (Symphony 2000). They commissioned five symphonies from five composers, and I was one of them. It was a commission from the Ministry of Culture. There was a didactic work for the Sinfonia Cultura, the orchestra of TV and Rádio Cultura in São Paulo, a sort of Young Person’s Guide.

TM: How is a Brazilian introduction to the orchestra different from an English one?

RM: Britten’s piece is based on a theme of Purcell. My piece, O universo da orchestra, is bright, accessible, and has a narrator to explain what is going on. I included explanations for each section of the orchestra, and within section, the individual instruments, except for the percussion, which is divided into pitched and non-pitched.

TM: This piece must have a certain amount of brasilidade.

RM: It’s purpose is to introduce the orchestra. It has some Brazilian themes – the oboe, for example. Some more Brazilian, and some less so.

TM: What importance does brasilidade have for your aesthetic?

Guerra-PeixeRM: I started out not thinking very much about it, when I was writing more atonal music, but even so I think there is a mark there, the last movement of “Oriens III.” It comes out naturally. My music now has many Brazilian things. It’s not a conscious nationalism, like Mignone, Guarnieri, Guerra-Peixe, Lorenzo Fernandez – that’s already had its day, and nobody can stand it any more – that nordestina thing (hums a typical northeastern rhythm, taps out a baião).

TM: In a world in which you can easily hear music from all over the world, do you think music will become more homogenized, or more strongly marked by national traits?

RM: As Brazil is a very large country, and very eclectic, you have folklore that is extremely diverse, and the national identity is the same way. There was a symposium in Karlsruhe in 2000, with a roundtable of Brazilian composers to discuss national identity and local color. It was something that was very difficult to establish. There was an era which was afro, an era which was nordeste. Now it’s trendy to use indigenous elements…

TM: Like Marlui Miranda, for example.

RM: Yes, in popular music. Like what Maria Rosa Fernandes does in classical music. She studies indigenous music, uses indigenous names – Almeida Prado, does this as well, but more with the name, than with the music. I just finished a piece for oboe and orchestra, which will be premiered in September, which has a indigenous name Abaubu….

TM: What does that mean?

RM:The Priest Fell. It comes from a legend of Padre Anchieta. There was a procession of Indians carrying his coffin on one of those beaches, and suddenly the body fell – Abaubu. It is a beautiful, luminous beach, and the name stuck. I know that beach. My music has nothing indigenous about it but the title.

TM: I was listening to your “Alleluia,” and was reminded of the piece by Randall Thompson, although yours is in quite a different mood.

RM: I wanted to write a piece that was not similar, but in the same vein – a long piece for chorus on the text “Alleluia.” I already knew his piece, and it made an impression on me. Mine is a grand fuga.

TM: Was it commissioned?

RM: I wrote the piece for a chorale of a friend here, which no longer is active, in 1985, just at the point when I had left JB, and didn’t have another job yet. I was unemployed for two or three months. I was so sad at having left the Jornal, after 18 years, since it was almost like a family. I thought I wasn’t going to find another job. It doesn’t look like an Alleluia, it looks like a requiem. Only at the end does it pick up. And soon thereafter I went to FUNARTE, which was a good period of my life, I stayed there for five years. And I was already teaching part-time at the University. FUNARTE was very active in producing scores and recordings. I also coordinated the Bienals. I did some very good work there for five years.

TM: Do you have other projects coming up?

RM: I have in mind to write a string quartet, which something I don’t have and need to do, also a contemporary piece for harpsichord. I have an invitation to the Brahms House in Baden Baden as guest composer in November 2003, and plan to write a piece there for two pianos and percussion. I was in Karlsruhe nearby, where the Hochschule is directed by a Brazilian woman, Fannie Salter, and was very impressed with the percussion class. So perhaps they will perform it.