Sérgio Roberto de Oliveira: An Interview
Photos © 2006 Tom Moore
Sérgio Roberto de Oliveira is an active presence in the contemporary music scene of Rio de Janeiro, working with the composers’ collaborative Prelúdio 21 (along with Alexandre Schubert, Caio Senna, Heber Schünemann, Marcos Lucas, Neder Nassaro, and Orlando Alves).
In 2006 he celebrated ten years of professional activity as a composer with his first solo CD release, Sem Espera, devoted to his works for flute, the largest part of his oeuvre, and including works for solo flute, flute duo, flute trio, and one quartet. Falls House Press (based in New Hampshire) will gradually be publishing all of his flute compositions in the United States . We talked at Oliveira’s studio, A Casa Discos, in Rio de Janeiro in late 2006.
TM: Let’s talk a little about the flute. You studied the instrument in order to be able to write idiomatically for it – but why the flute? What is it about the flute that attracts you?
SRO: I think the instrument is great, perhaps due to the fact that I heard a lot of choro when I was growing up, a lot of popular music, and I always thought the flute was simply beautiful. Of course, there is one thing that attracts you to start with, and then you discover other aspects. For me, the first thing would be my childhood memories, an emotional connection. Later I went beyond just simply the sonority. The fact that it is made of metal, but a woodwind, that it is sweet, but generates an infinite number of harmonics, I think is really great, and one of the things that I am looking for when writing for a group of flutes is exactly those harmonics, to take care with the tensions, the small intervals, or those others that will really resound. I really like the resultants from the flute. On this CD [Sem Espera], when we were mixing, I was very happy to see how well we had managed to capture the resultant harmonies.
The flute also has that similarity with the human voice, and that is something which creates yet another link between the way I hear and the flute. Studying flute was very important – it turned out right.
TM: Often composers have an intimate relationship with the piano, and this has effects on how their music is written. Piano music is quite chordal, may be contrapuntal, but music that takes the voice, one line, as its basis, has other qualities. Your works for the flute are contrapuntal but avoid a chordal idiom.
SRO: Quite right. This is very interesting, since my instrument is the piano, and particularly interesting since I come originally from popular music. I played popular music before I started composing classical music, and in popular music you are always thinking about chords, about a melody and accompaniment, but my passion for counterpoint is undeniable. My music has its basis in counterpoint. I had the good luck to study with a great contrapuntist, David [Korenchendler], a great teacher of counterpoint. This gave me the tools to allow me to create the music that was in my head, though at the same time I have always been thinking about harmony, a harmony that is atonal, but still harmony. I am always interested what results from the combination of the various lines. I remember that when I was studying with Guerra-Peixe we studied “acoustic harmony,” and discovering acoustic harmony changed my life. It gave me a chance to think about harmony outside a tonal context, without having to think about the triads from popular music.
TM: The principal challenge for today’s composer is to find a balance between the obvious and the hermetic, between the accessible cliché and something difficult and rebarbative. Your music is quite far from common practice tonality, but at the same time has something charming which speaks directly to the new listener, even someone who does not know contemporary music. How do you attract the listener without falling into the clichés of past centuries?
SRO: For me this is fundamental. For various reasons, including psychological ones I have always needed to be liked. I need to communicate. My mission as an artist is to communicate with someone. Though not necessarily with a someone of today. I can certainly produce a piece which I think will be understood by very few people today, and which will be better understood a few decades from now. This has always been a decisive factor in my music – I want to communicate. As a producer I think this is fundamental as well. You have to build audiences, you have to attract people to what you are doing. Listening to popular music and working in popular music created for me a Brazilian accent which I carry over into my classical music. Although my music is structured rationally, it nevertheless speaks with a Brazilian voice, which is unavoidably popular.
WHAT IS IT THAT MAKES MUSIC BRAZILIAN?
TM: Let’s talk a little about “brasilidade.” Here in Brazil it is obvious what is Brazilian and what is not. The influences of folk and popular music are always present. Outside the country it is perhaps more difficult for listeners to pick these out. What is it that makes music Brazilian?
SRO: I think we are trying to invent this country, trying to discover what it is to be Brazilian. I am not a theorist. Certainly the question of the music of the Brazilian people, of popular culture carries with it this matter of national identity. What we have always had in Brazil is the figure of the artist who goes to Europe to become learned, and returns to Brazil. When he gets back, this great mixture of cultures, the culture of the blacks, of the Portuguese, of the Indians, of all the other immigrants, makes you produce something that is Brazilian. I don’t know exactly what it means to be Brazilian, but I really like the vision of the Modernists. To be Brazilian is to be able to mix, to absorb, to accept what is foreign, what is different. This is why I am always bothered by prejudice, prejudice of any kind. If you proclaim that you are white, or black, or Indian, or Japanese in Brazil, that is something that rubs me the wrong way. There are countries which may say that they are completely white or black or Indian – we are something else; we are Brazilians, we are a mixture of all these things. We are a people which accepts, which welcomes with open arms (and here you have the Carioca influence) that which comes from anywhere, and this comes to be another ingredient in this great cultural broth. And so what it is to be Brazilian is changing at every moment. A hundred years ago we did not have the influences that we have today, but what continues is this possibility of welcoming with open arms, and of transforming what is received into something Brazilian, to mold and to let oneself be molded, to transform and to let oneself be transformed.
TM: Brazilian music has qualities which attract listeners from all over the world. A happiness, a spontaneity combined at the very same time with suffering, an acceptance of all of life…
SRO: Yes. This duality which we have of pain and happiness, our capacity of celebrating sadness, of making fun of ourselves…the greatest quality of the Brazilian is that he can laugh at himself, at life, at pain…and this has a social side which can often be cruel, but we are never only sad, simply sad, we can be sad, but we can discover a smile, a happiness. In my piece for harpsichord solo [the Suite] which Tracy Richardson premiered, I remember that I was trying to explain this to her (I don’t know how well I managed to get this across to her as an American) that one of the movements was presenting someone’s pain, but a pain that we celebrate. Even suffering can dance.
TM: And at the same time happiness cries.
SRO: Of course, of course. We enjoy being down in the dumps (maybe it is something human, but I can only speak from my experience as a Brazilian) – we like it. It’s delicious to suffer, just as happiness brings the suffering of knowing that it is transitory, that it will end, and of knowing that not everyone is happy….
TM: Essa sopa vai acabar – the party has to end.
SRO: The end of Carnaval, of Ash Wednesday, is emblematic of this. Carnaval is wonderful, it is the moment for you to let go, get rid of all the things that are oppressing you, but you know that Ash Wednesday is going to arrive.
TM: Brazilian rhythms are strongly present in your music for flute, and ostinatos. The rhythmic structure is fundamental to the effect which the music makes. Where does your approach to rhythm come from? From popular music as well?
SRO: In most cases, yes. What you noted about ostinatos is very interesting, since this also comes from popular music. The other day we were talking about clichés of tonal music, and in popular music, based on dance, rhythmic clichés are fundamental. Samba always has the same beat, the baião, always has that same beat, with variations. When I want to make reference to a Brazilian rhythm, the ostinato is a way of doing this, even if the rhythm of the ostinato is not a specifically Brazilian rhythm. I want to create a rhythmic cliché on which I can base a melody. Here we have once more the presence of accompanied melody which comes from popular music.
My music is always dealing with these two things at the same time – counterpoint and these rhythms. Brazilian rhythms or intervals which refer to Brazilian music. One complements the other, and you often see this in different movements. For example in the Trio no. 1 [for flutes] the first movement is based almost entirely on a very characteristic rhythm, in block chords, the three flutes playing together, and the third movement is a fugue, with some wild counterpoint, which I am very proud, and at the same time, an ostinato. And lyricism in the second movement, which is a song. You see this structure in various works of mine – I want to give the public, within the same piece, a variety of emotions, intentions, thoughts.
TM: Almost all of your works have as their origin a request or a commission. The great writer Philip Pullman, asked for advice on writing says “Write only what you want to write. Please yourself.” But as a composer writing a commission for a flutist, you must please the flutist, and the audience. How do you strike a balance?
SRO: First of all, my commissions have been very generous, with plenty of latitude regarding what I write. Of course, when I am writing a piece for you, for Laura Rónai, for any musician, I have in my head what it is that is going to make you enjoy playing that piece of music. I think “what Sergio is it that this person likes?” Why did he ask me for this music? What is it in my music that appeals? What side of my thinking should I emphasize for that person?
TM: Which “Faces” [title of a duo for flute by SRO from 2000]…
SRO: In the pieces which you asked me to write Brazilian rhythms are very much present. For you as a foreigner, as a non-Brazilian, they are wonderful. If I am going to write something for Ana Paula [Cruz] I will take advantage of that immense sound of hers, which you can hear in the two trios on Sem Espera. She is always the third flute, with a big, beautiful, robust sound.
FIRST, THERE IS THE IDEA.
TM: You have told me on many occasions that the most difficult part of writing a piece is to find the concept, the hook, which you structure the piece around. There are composers who begin with a vague idea, and the piece takes shape as it is written. But for you, once the concept is there, the rest flows naturally.
SRO: First I have to think of the music as a whole, all of the aspects, the size it will be, its proportions, the form. First, there is the idea. What do I want to say in this music? This can be something technical, or not. In the Trio no. 2 I play with the idea of the maracatu, but it enters on the wrong beat. It should be a pickup, but it’s not. And this deforms the rhythmic accents.
First I have a big idea, and I will use this idea to build the whole structure. When I sit down to write, I am already at the easiest part – choosing the notes. Music for me is not about choosing notes. Music is in thought, musical thought. The notes have to be an expression of this, and so they will obey criteria which are more technical, rather than musical. Why write a piece in one key, and not another? Because in the context of the tessitura I want to use, the piece has to begin on that note, and not on another.
When I sit down to write, that’s the easiest part. It’s not by chance that my blog is called “Choosing Notes.”
TM: Do you think there might be a connection with the theater here? In the commedia dell’arte all that exists begins with the situation and the characters. I am thinking particularly of your series of duos, but for the other pieces as well.
SRO: That is something that had never occurred to me. Something that is very clear for me, especially for the pieces for flute, when I am working with chamber music for players who are well-established, not for larger groups, but for trios, quartets, quintets, duos, I always think of characters. I always have a vision of various different characters. But I had never connected the process with the theater. Perhaps, perhaps. In Sem Espera, especially in the trios and the quartet, you clearly have different characters. In the first movement of the Trio no. 1, which is called “Presentation,” they begin by playing as a block, and then I let each character introduce himself with a little solo. I think this matter of thinking of the characters is connected with counterpoint, because in counterpoint you have various characters, and unlike in the theater, they can all be talking at once, and it comes out right.
TM: People say that the great genius of Mozart as a composer for the opera was that he was able to combine four or five different characters, but within one piece of music that functions as a whole.
SRO: This is the great advantage which music has over theater. Both music and theater happen in time, but we can stop time when we think of verticality, when we think of various things happening at the same time. I can be thinking of “x” number of things, and you can hear those things, each one separately, and also can hear the combination. You can have different planes of hearing and understanding the music.
TM: Your Duo is one of the oldest pieces in your oeuvre. How does it reflect your musical thinking at the time?
SRO: It is the first piece which I wrote which was performed publicly. You can get a good view of the student of composition becoming a composer. I was saying to Alexandre Bittencourt and Rudi Garrido as we were recording it that it was the piece I wanted as my opus 1 – that I have always been trying to be as successful as I was in writing the Duo. It has two distinct movements. The first is contrapuntal, where I am trying to explore the tension and interest of the sonority of small intervals, the tritones which produce beautiful resultant tones. In the second movement I am still working with minor seconds, major sevenths, minor sevenths, but exploring the Brazilian, rhythmic elements, the rhythmic clichés of Brazilian music.
TM: The Fantasia, a great work, is perhaps less explicitly Brazilian, with a very lyrical character. Here the influence of American jazz is particularly evident, which is not often found in your work.
SRO: Yes, although I like to listen to and play jazz. Another piece where it is present is the piano work Atonas, as it is in the third movement of the Fantasia. I wrote the work for Laura Rónai, and her most sterling quality is her lyrical expressiveness. In writing for her, I don’t think about Brazilian music – it’s not something that speaks to her on a fundamental level, not the first thing that appeals. Hence the lyricism. You find the rhythmic qualities in the final movement, the jazz influences, since I needed something to contrast with all the cantabile of the first two, with a sort of dialogue between the upper and lower ranges of the flute.
TM: …which also evokes her in conversation.
TM: You also wrote Sem Espera [a quartet] in response to a commission from Laura Rónai, an educational piece for a group of flutists who were less advanced technically, but even without virtuoso writing the piece makes a strong effect. For me it is your work that is closest to bossa nova, another style rarely evoked in your music.
SRO: True, and I will certainly say for the whole world to hear that one of my greatest influences is Tom Jobim. Laura asked for a piece for a course that she was going to teach in Tocantins. The title works very well for my first CD after ten years as a composer (“No waiting”), and the piece has that name because she asked for it a week before she had to travel. I was looking for a lyrical, even melancholy quality. The bossa nova quality comes from the chords that I am using, more diatonic, tonal, familiar to people who play and listen to popular music. Since not everyone listens to contemporary music, I wanted to create an emotional connection between those instrumentalists and the music.
TM: In the trios you have the presence of the personalities of the three flutists.
SRO: The first trio was not dedicated to the Trio Rónai [Maria Carolina Cavalcanti, Rudi Garrido, Ana Paula Cruz], which had not been formed yet, but in the second trio even the names of the movements are in homage to the performers, and draw explicitly on the talents of each one. It is funny how three such talented people can have talents, sounds, and expression which are so different. What luck to have these three people playing together at the same moment in time, three students of Laura – I think they are three great talents in Brazilian music.
The Trio commissioned the second trio on the day that they were recording the first. I said, playfully, “What does each of you want?” Ana Paula told me to write whatever I felt like, Maria Carolina asked for a piece without a D or a B-flat – I don’t remember exactly anymore – she was just pulling my leg, since at the recording session she was having a problem with getting those notes to sound – and Rudi asked for something that was very Brazilian. The movements are puns on their names.
As it happens their talents are very much evident in the first trio as well. They all picked the flute parts that suited them.
TM: I asked you for the 12 Bagatelles because every flutist plays sets of exercises from Andersen and that period, but there are fewer sets of modern pieces which work on musical and technical problems.
SRO: I wrote a set in which each work has its own particular challenge, but it is not a pedagogical work. There isn’t a particular technical problem for each one. The level of difficulty is a little more varied, some easier, some harder to play. If you play all 12 it is an apprenticeship. I was very happy to hear during our recording sessions for Sem Espera from Ana Paula Cruz that a student of hers was playing the first bagatelle, the Tango.
TM: In the nineteenth century studies the difficulty lies more coordinating the movements of fingers and tongue, but here the difficulty is more cerebral – to manage to count the rhythms, to find the music that lies within the intervals and rhythms. The difficulty is mental, cerebral.
SRO: This is where music happens. Pauxy Gentil-Nunes, who recorded the Bagatelles, called me the night before the recording session, to say that he had just noticed some important details – “Now I am going to have to work on them all over again. I see that these two bagatelles have various different levels, as if there were different flutists playing…”. This was great, because I always want there to be various different levels on which you can understand my music, from the most basic level of the listener, to the instrumentalist who is enjoying what he is playing…but if he keeps looking, he will be discovering other things. The bagatelles, Scales, and Arpeggios, things which you would expect to find in studies for flute, have very complex musical structures – each one of the scales is very different, from well-known scales to modal scales, scales based on mathematical series. The Arpeggios have a triangular structure. There are some technical difficulties, but once you get past the difficulties you begin to make music. Some of the bagatelles are much more lyrical, for the student to work on, or for the performer to express himself. Expression is fundamental – you have to show your lyrical side.