An Interview with Sergio Roberto de Oliveira
Composer Sergio Roberto de Oliveira is a native of Rio de Janeiro, where he was born on October 24, 1970.
He lives in Tijuca, a middle-class neighborhood of the Zona Norte (North Zone), with his wife and daughter, and is presently completing a second master’s degree at the University of Rio (UniRio), located in the Zona Sul (South Zone) in the shadow of the world-famous Sugarloaf Mountain. He has won prizes for both his work in popular music and classical music, and performs with two ensembles: Prelúdio XXI, a composer’s collaborative, and Tasto, a piano duo with composer Marcio Conrad. His duo for baroque flutes, Circus Brasilis, had its U.S. premiere in December 1999 at Princeton University. Other works include a suite for string orchestra, a piano concerto, a sinfonietta, a fantasia for solo flute, a duo for flutes, and recently a second duo for baroque flutes, entitled Faces. We talked in Rio in early April of 2000.
TM: Where were you were born? Tell us about growing up in Rio, and your musical experiences as a child.
SRO: I was born in Rio. My childhood was in Tijuca — that’s a neighborhood which is very traditional. We lived in apartments, not houses — I am an apartment kid. My experience of music as a child comes from my parents, of course. They just listened to popular music — I didn’t have any contact with classical music at this time. My father, Paulo Roberto de Oliveira was a friend of lots of musicians. My godfather, Sergio Bittencourt, was a musician and composer — a popular composer. He is the son of one of the best chorões [sing. chorão, pl. chorões — musicians who play choro, the vernacular instrumental music of Rio, São Paulo, and other cities, dating from the late 19th century and still developing], Jacob do Bandolim. My father was in contact with Jacob and other chorões and instrumentalists – always in popular music. My first teacher, Claudionor Cruz was a chorão too. At the end of my life he was my partner in choro.
TM: What did he play?
SRO: He played guitar. He could play all the string instruments in choro — cavaquinho, bandolim, but his instrument was the acoustic guitar.
TM: Six or seven string?
SRO: Six, but he could play the seven-string version, too. In the old days, he had one of the most famous regionais bands, the Regional Claudionor Cruz, which worked in radio.
TM: Where did he live?
SRO: In the north zone, very far from here.
TM: Did you study with him privately?
SRO: At his home. He had an informal school.
TM: What did he teach?
TM: What were his methods? He was a guitarist and you are a pianist.
SRO: He said he would give me lessons on piano, but that first I had to know theory very well. We never got to the piano. I had to stop, because it was very far, and I couldn’t go there by myself.
TM: How old were you at this point?
SRO: 12. I had never thought about being a musician until I was twelve. I had no contact with instruments — my father is not a musician, and there are no musicians in my family, except for my godfather, who died when I was nine. When I was twelve, two months after my birthday, it was Christmas, my mother said to me “What do you want to have as a gift?” and I said “I think I want a piano.” My first serious study of the piano was when I was 16, at the Escola de Música Villa-Lobos, in downtown. I could study theory, harmony, piano there, and composition as well. They had a composition workshop with Tato Taborda. He is a contemporary, avant-garde Brazilian composer.
TM: What were the differences between his approach to composition and that of Claudionor?
SRO: Claudionor was always talking about what was in the books, and Tato Taborda was talking about the sound, how you can do it no matter what the books say. I took harmony with Maria Aparecida Ferreira. I studied with her both at the Escola and privately, at her home. I felt like I was very old, so I had to catch up.
TM: Growing up in the U.S. I didn’t know anyone who was studying theory and composition as a teenager. Is it common in Rio for teenagers to be studying theory and composition if they are interested in music?
SRO: Nowadays, yes. There was a movement in the 80’s towards instrumental music, what they call Brazilian jazz, and this is a good bridge between popular music and classical music — to think about music, not just do it, like popular musicians do. Studying composition is not so common.
TM: But theory is.
SRO: People want to know how music works. My interest in composition so early is because I started to study piano at sixteen. My mind was working better than my fingers. When I had a piece, I asked myself “how could someone write this?” It was more interesting than playing it well. On an unconscious level, it was trying to play better, as well. I was always studying with composers. My piano teacher, Leopoldo Tousa, was a graduate in composition as well. It was natural for me. My first composition class was with Maria Aparecida. One day she said “I want you to compose a piano piece.”
TM: How old were you?
SRO: I don’t know – about 20. After all these people I could study with Cesar Guerra-Peixe, who was my first important teacher.
TM: When was this?
TM: You were twenty when you were studying with Guerra-Peixe. Were you in undergraduate school at this point?
SRO: No. The course at the Escola Villa-Lobos was free, that is, not arranged in a fixed program of study. In 1993 I went to undergraduate school at UniRio. I had gone to university in 1987 to study philosophy, but just for three months. I love philosophy, but all the other students went to the library after class to study philosophy and I went home to study piano, and I realized “there is something wrong here!”
TM: Where did you study philosophy?
SRO: At UFRJ. I think it was a smart way to continue to study music, because my mother was very worried about my future. I said “I want to be a musician.” She thought that I had to study lots of things in order to have a job. The course in philosophy was very easy. But I convinced her that I wouldn’t make very much money with a degree in philosophy, and, if I wasn’t going to make lots of money, I might as well be a musician!
TM: What did she think when you dropped out?
SRO: She was a little worried, but my parents were very supportive. But it was a convincing argument — I could actually make more money as a musician than writing books on philosophy — things are very hard in Brazil. So she insisted that I go to college in music. But I waited until 1993 because I felt I was not ready. If you don’t have your own ideas, it’s very difficult. You have to know yourself as a musician. In 1995 I became a composer — until then I was just writing exercises.
TM: Tell us a little about Guerra-Peixe.
SRO: He was around 80. It was as if I was in front of the music. When he talked about orchestration, I could hear the orchestra, hear his experience and talent. He was like an icon. My studies with him impressed me a lot. Sometimes he slept in class, but he was music personified. At that time he was the most important living Brazilian composer.
TM: I learned recently that he started out playing choro in Petrópolis, and then in movie theatre orchestras, so he also came from a background of popular music.
SRO: He did a lot of research in this music.
TM: In teaching composition did he draw on both popular and erudite music?
SRO: Just on erudite music.
TM: What composers did you look at?
SRO: We were always looking at the technique of music, composing melodies, acoustic harmony. We studied Schuman in orchestration, but not composers. He taught classical composition — no relation to popular music. He was a great composer of film music, and one of the best arrangers of his time.
TM: Who did he write arrangements for?
SRO: He was a arranger for the festivals of popular music here — Milton Nascimento — all those guys had their music arranged by him. He worked in radio, with many arrangements for singers of the 40’s and 50’s. I don’t know if this is documented, because here in Brazil people are not so careful about the history. Radamés Gnattali and he were the most important arrangers at the time. Gnattali was also working with popular and classical music. This is something common in Brazil, because popular music here is so strong, it’s normal to have people on both sides. In my case, it’s a little different. When I listen to these guys I have the impression that they take popular music simply as a raw material, and when I compose I try to do it like a popular musician. When I work with melodies and form I try to think about both popular and classical music. I don’t hear this in their music.
TM: You studied with Guerra-Peixe…
SRO: From 1990 to 1992.
TM: Do you still see the other students from that class?
SRO: One of them is a composer in my group, Prelúdio XXI, Neder Nassaro. He was already studying with Guerra-Peixe when I started. He was much older than me.
TM: Where did you go to university in 1993?
SRO: UniRio. I finished in 1998.
TM: Were you older than the other students?
SRO: No There was one that was my age, and one younger. Every semester three students are admitted in composition. Most people that study composition in undergraduate school are about my age — 23, 24, or older.
TM: Do they need that time to be able to pass the entrance examination?
SRO: Not only that. People need to be more mature to study composition. People can study an instrument very early, but in composition that’s not true. Almost everybody was older than 25.
TM: Can you tell us a little more about what you were up to before you went to UniRio?
SRO: I was working with ballet. There was a working agreement between the Escola and the Escola de Ballet Maria Olenewa, near the Sala Cecilia Meirelles in Lapa. As soon as I could play anything at the piano I began to write songs, so I just adapted songs to the ballet.
TM: For whom did you write the songs? Were these popular songs? Lead sheets with chords?
SRO: At this time I was competing in song contests, and won two. The first was the Festival de Música de São Jose do Vale do Rio Preto, a city near Petrópolis. I always spent the July vacation there with my family. I saw the announcement and knew that I had to go back, see my friends and try it. This was about 1990. In 1992 there was another contest, this time in Rio de Janeiro, promoted by the state of Rio de Janeiro, called Festival de Zona Oeste. This time I won both first and second prize.
TM: What do you submit to these contests?
SRO: A tape, and if you are selected you have to perform.
TM: Who was on the tape?
SRO: A singer, Adriana Romano, a friend from high school. She’s a great singer, and she’s very good at winning festivals. At this time we had a show, just piano and voice playing popular songs, at little cultural spots (“espaços culturais”). You get the cover charge, and we had tapes that we sold. But it wasn’t important to make money. I was also composing for theater at the time. I worked with Antonio Abujamra, who is a very important director. This was just a staged reading but it was very good to work with him. I worked also in children’s theatre.
TM: Where were the theatres?
SRO: With Abujamra it was a play by Saramago at the Teatro Dulcina, near Rua Senador Dantas.
TM: And the children’s theatre?
SRO: At the Teatro Noel Rosa in Vila Isabel. The same play later went to the Teatro Cândido Mendes in Ipanema, and also traveled through Brazil, with my music on tape. I also composed for another children’s theater which works with schools. Recently I worked with the Teatro do Sesi downtown. This time was very productive for me in popular music.
TM: What genre of music was this?
SRO: What is called MPB — bossa nova, sambas, samba-canção. I also played with jazz groups — quintets, quartets. I can’t say I am a jazz player, but it was an important experience to get the language of jazz. Everyone here that plays bossa nova plays jazz too.
TM: Rock and rap are very popular with younger people, but people in their 20’s are still writing MPB?
SRO: Most people in their 20’s are composing and playing rock and roll, because there was an important movement in the eighties which they called B-Rock.
TM: What is the audience like for MPB these days? When you played in these cultural spaces who was listening to your music?
SRO: People older than 30, 40. I remember that my friends in school were usually playing in rock bands. Adriana also sang in a rock band. We don’t have prejudice. I played in a progressive rock band. I can’t say I am a rock musician, but it was very interesting.
TM: Are you still writing MPB?
SRO: No. It sounds crazy, but the opportunities in classical music are better than in popular music. In classical music if you study, if you have talent, if you write well, people want to play your music. In popular music, there is lots of money involved, so it is very hard.
TM: You have to be very popular to be successful in popular music, whereas you can be less popular and be successful in classical music.
SRO: Here we have what we call a “panela” [“cooking pot”]. It ‘s all the same people.
TM: So it’s hard to write songs for the successful singers.
SRO: You have to know somebody. I don’t come from a musical family — I don’t have lots of musician friends. My father’s musician friends are older.
TM: So it’s easier to get into the “panela” for classical music.
SRO: I won an important contest in classical music, but I don’t think it would be possible to win the Globo Festival.
TM: But if you did you’d be set for life. Tell us about UniRio.
SRO: It was a great experience. I could learn different things. There were people who were serious about their work. For me the fact that it was not a freely structured course, but that I was required to study all these things was important… It was also important that it was a school where it was traditional to have popular musicians. Every time you go there, in the garden there is someone playing choro or samba. It’s a nice change of pace. I could be in class talking about Mahler, and then walk out and people are playing Pixinguinha. This is the difference between UniRio and the Escola de Música Villa-Lobos. At the Escola people were studying in class; at the university people are talking about music in all the spaces. At UniRio I studied with David Korenchendler, my professor of composition, orchestration and counterpoint. It was also very important to study harmony with Leonardo Sá, who is a good composer also. It was very important to study with Laura Ronai. I was deciding whether to go to UniRio or UFRJ. I looked at the two curriculums, and the people teaching at each place, and I decided to go to UniRio, but there was something in the curriculum at UFRJ that I thought was very interesting. You had to study one string instrument and one wind instrument, which was not required at UniRio. But I thought “I can do this,” and I decided to study flute, my favorite wind instrument, with Laura Ronai. I learned more than just flute, because she is a wonderful musician. The most important thing I learned with her is the approach to the music — how to think about music. As a composer, the way I saw the music was changed.
TM: In what way?
SRO: First of all, the performer’s way is different from that of the composer. You see the music differently from the way we do. It impressed me greatly — to see what level of artistry you can achieve in the moment, how much you can extract from the score, how your vision can completely change the music. I came to respect performers much more than I had before, and even to incorporate some of this approach when I am composing. What can I do with these ideas, before the instrumentalist begins? It was very important to learn flute, to learn how to write for flute, to experience playing the flute, and to try to make this not just a limiting factor, but something that is part of the music.
TM: Good music has phrases that are based on the amount of breath you can take in.
SRO: When I composed my fantasia for solo flute for Laura, the thing that was the most impressive when she played was the way she breathed. It was so musical, it was a musical element, not just something you have to do to continue playing, not just a pause, but more expressive. I learned that this was important when I compose, to realize that it is not just silence.
TM: Because how people breathe affects how the next phrase will be shaped.
SRO: Yes. You can hear the breath. It is music as well, it is part of the music. You cannot ignore it. A little like Cage’s ideas!….
TM: Who else did you study with at UniRio?
SRO: These were the most important professors for me. David makes you write music — you really have to compose a lot. He gives you three classes, and then tells you to compose a concerto, and of course in his class he works with your difficulties in composing the concerto. The first semester we studied theme and variations, and I was just writing exercises, and in the second semester I had to write a suite for string orchestra. He is a very difficult teacher — very demanding of his students. This suite was my first piece. This was in 1995, and in 1996 there was a national contest in Rio de Janeiro supported by RioArte, for pieces for string orchestra, and so I entered my suite, and won second prize. There were two categories, one for solo instrument and strings, and one just for strings, and the other category was won by David. And third prize in my category was won by another student of David. My first flute piece was composed for the festival Panorama da M²sica Brasileira Contemporânea.
TM: The fantasia?
SRO: No, the duo for flutes, which was my first piece to be performed. I said “I will enter my string orchestra piece” for the Panorama, and when I went to enter, they said “You have to provide the orchestra.” So I realized I would not be able to enter the string orchestra piece. I went home and in four days I composed the duo for flutes. It worked out well, because if my string orchestra piece had been played in the Panorama it would not have been eligible for the RioArte contest.
TM: Who performed the duo?
SRO: Alexandre Bittencourt and Claudio Frydman, both of whom are students of Laura Ronai. I dedicated the piece to Laura, because she taught me to play flute.
TM: Where did the Panorama take place?
SRO: At UFRJ. This concert was in the Sala de Congregação.
TM: What other pieces have you composed?
SRO: Here in Brazil it is very difficult to have pieces performed, and almost impossible to write for big groups. I have a Sinfonietta from 1997 which I like a lot, but it has not been played yet. It’s tonal, I wrote it using jazz harmonies. My piano concerto was my final project for the degree at UniRio. It is dedicated to Tom Jobim, who is the composer that influenced me the most. I come from a family that just listened to popular music, and although I now listen to classical music a lot, I listen to popular music, too. The way Tom Jobim worked with popular music is great, the way he wrote for orchestra … I used some of his melodies in the concerto. It also has not been performed. I used popular percussion in the piece, including berimbau. David always made you write your markings in Italian, so I found the Italian word for berimbau. David said, “What’s this?” I said, “It’s Italian. You don’t know this instrument? It’s a berimbau.” David said “You have to write this one in Portuguese.” I also used congas. I have other pieces, but it’s hard to write pieces that will never be played. So now I am working a lot with flute, because I have flutists who are asking me to compose. I also am working on a guitar piece that will be performed on June 15 at the Salão Dourado of UFRJ by Nicolo de Sousa Barros. We had a group of composers that asked Nicolo to give us a workshop on composing for guitar. He asked me to write a piece for him. It’s called Suite imaginaria. Each movement has dance names, but the movements are not exactly those dances. The first dance is “Baião” — it has elements of the baião, but it’s not a baião. The choro is not really a choro — I put rests where you should have notes, and notes where you should have rests. This is why it’s called “imaginary.” You think it’s one of those dances, but it’s not really. I have been working with baroque flutes over the last year. This is interesting, because it is a completely different instrument. My view of the baroque flute is that it’s a “pÌfano metido a besta” [i.e., a “conceited” pÌfano, the wooden folk flute played in the northeast of Brazil]. I am always trying to make a link between popular music and classical music, so when I write for baroque flutes, I am trying to create an atmosphere of music from the northeast. I want to talk about Prelúdio XXI. We are seven young composers, and although it’s easier to be in the classical “panela,” there is a panela there too. We don’t get the lucrative commissions, and it’s hard to have performance space. We have the Bienal, and the Panorama — two open festivals, where you can have your music played, but it’s not much. So we decided to get together and present our own concerts. We had an interview with Radio MEC (note: the station of the Ministry of Education and Culture, the only classical station in Rio). They would not have interviewed me, since I am not so well-known, but a group has a stronger presence. Since they interviewed me with Prelúdio XXI, they will now interview me by myself. Our group does not have an esthetic in common. This is good, because our concerts are very eclectic — each composer has his own style. The composers are Marcio Conrad, J. Orlando Alves, Daniel Quaranta (who is from Argentina, but also studied at UniRio), Heber Schünemann, Luiz Eduardo Castelões, Neder Nassaro, and myself. Now I have the opportunity to have my pieces played, and this opportunity leads to other opportunities. On our first concert, I invited Laura Ronai to play, and wrote the fantasia for flute. This piece opened a lot of doors. She invited me to write a piece for you (Circus Brasilis, for two baroque flutes) and she played the fantasia when she visited Princeton.
TM: In the U.S. a group of this kind would be incorporated as a non-profit corporation. Does this happen in Brazil?
SRO: It’s not possible to get money from the government. You can from private companies, but it’s not easy. To get back to Princeton, my pieces have been played twice at Princeton University, and the second piece was recorded. I was able to present my work there during a visit in February of this year.
TM: Is it usual for Brazilian composers to study outside of Brazil?
SRO: Here in Brazil we don’t have enough information, even in the universities. It is difficult to buy records here. With the internet it is easier, but it is still expensive. We go to other countries so that we can have access to more information and better conditions in which to work.
TM: Where do they go?
SRO: United States, France, and Germany. I would also like to talk about my group Tasto. I started my musical studies at the piano, and I am sure I am not a concert pianist, but I have this relationship with the instrument. Together with Marcio Conrad, we decided to have a group where we could play the piano from the composer’s point of view. Not to show our virtuosity, but our ideas.
TM: When you started piano, you said you had more ideas than technique, and you still have more ideas than technique.
SRO: This is the place where I can show this (laughs). It’s very interesting work, because we have the space to experiment. For example, we have a piece where we put marbles in the piano. If I write a piece with marbles in the piano, I can’t know if anyone wants to play it. In Tasto we can see the possibility of using marbles, playing with mallets. The work is very interesting, because it is open. We work with 12-tone music, experimental music, and many other compositional techniques. It’s good to have the connection between composer and performer, but it’s also good to have your piece played exactly the way you want.
TM: Could you say a little more about the compositional techniques you use?
SRO: The interval is the point of my music — I am always thinking about intervals — how to put the intervals. I can think of this when I construct a series. I know that there are composers who are more concerned about how the piece works on paper than about how it sounds — I am not against this — but in my music I have to sing. I can sing something completely crazy, but I have to sing it. There has to be an expression, a logic, that I can sing.
TM: Expressing “brasilidade” [the quality of being Brazilian] has been very important in classical music in Brazil since 1920. I don’t hear that as a concern in the music of your teacher, Korenchendler, but it seems very evident in your music, in a subtle way, sometimes more obvious, sometimes less obvious. Your Brazilianity comes from your popular music.
SRO: It is something that we are concerned with. The nationalists began working with folk music. It’s like Mario de Andrade said — if you want to make bad music, make Brazilian music. If you want to make OK music, make Brazilian music. If you want to make good music, make Brazilian music. I don’t know if we have a clear idea of what Brazilian music is. People worked on bringing folk music into classical music. I want to work more with the popular music of the city. Although I use northeastern music a lot, it’s not from folk groups. My way to compose is something that is Brazilian — not just the patterns, the clichés, but the way I think of music, the way I am always trying to be melodic. We don’t know yet what Brazilian music is. I prefer to take Tom Jobim, not like all these composers using folk patterns. I prefer to work from my experience in urban music, and MPB. I am very concerned to be Brazilian. I am spontaneously Brazilian, but I am always thinking about this in a world of globalization. If you are not worried about this, you may make a music with no personality. I am very proud of being Brazilian, and I want to show this in my music. This is not important for the music, but for the nation. Singing the national hymn here is not something common — I don’t even know if I know all the words. We had our problems with the military dictatorship in the sixties, but we have to affirm that we are Brazilians. We have to construct a nation that is more proud of itself. People think very individually. I don’t think my music will be heard by one percent of Brazilians, but it is my work. My work is the space I have where I can express this idea — that we have to construct a nation that is proud of itself.