Sérgio Roberto de Oliveira: An Interview
Sérgio Roberto de Oliveira, who will celebrate his fortieth birthday this year, is one of the leading composers on the contemporary Brazilian scene. We spoke in person, in Portuguese, while Oliveira was visiting composer-in-residence at Duke University, April 29, 2009.
TM: The last time we talked was August 2008. Now it’s April, and we are in the closing days of your visit to Duke as composer-in-residence. Let’s talk about the pieces that you have written during this period. First, there is Dam. This is a piece for alto flute, something new for you, and a piece for Maria Carolina Cavalcanti, the first piece for flute solo you wrote for her as soloist. Please talk about the interaction between this instrument, this performer and this work.
SRO: The first thing that I think is important to state is that I am in a moment where I am searching. I had a very well-defined esthetic, and now I am looking for different paths. So it’s interesting that each of the pieces which I have been writing here have different esthetics and are following different paths. With regard to the alto flute, I felt quite comfortable – it’s a flute , and I wanted to take advantage of the additional resource that it offers – the deeper notes that are not found on the ordinary flute – and at the same time connect these with the high notes that are part of the idiom of the flute in general. The piece was a commission from Maria Carolina from a year or two ago. We went to Amsterdam in December of last year – myself, Maria Carolina, Rudi Garrido and Ana Paula Cruz, who make up the Trio Ronai, and Laura Ronai, for a lecture/concert at the conservatory there. It was a very nice time, because these people, especially the Trio, and I became very close, with a level of intimacy that we hadn’t had before. I have known them for five years, and in five days the friendship became much closer. I promised Maria Carolina that I would finally write the piece for her. It was the second piece that I wrote for her to perform – the first was Farsa, which was for her and Ivan Paparguerius. Her sonority was something that I found very interesting – her sound, her precision – and also her understanding of the Brazilian idiom, especially that of Brazilian popular music. So it’s not by chance that this is a piece which is modal, and flirts with tonality. When I wrote the piece I thought about a harmony in which she plays both things – she plays the root of the chord, and also plays the melody above the chord. She arpeggiates the chord, and goes on with the melody, bearing in mind that she has an understanding of harmony, which I knew from hearing her performances, but also has all the experiences that she brings from having played in the Orquestra Família of Itiberê Zwarg, and I wanted to include those as well in this work, which is a theme that is heard, and each time it reappears it returns with more and more ornamentation and variation, until the variation leads to new material, but always in the context of D Dorian.
TM: Towards the end the music veers toward something which is explicitly nordestina…
SRO: When I think of the Dorian mode, there is no way that I can avoid making a connection with música nordestina – my life experiences connect them. So when I had thought of D minor it seemed to be moving more and more through the course of the piece towards something modal, and so it arrived at the material which is nordestina. This is something that is very new for me – this lack of control over the evolution of the music. It’s very new for my compositional process. I always, in my first ten years as a composer, had complete control over everything that would happen in the piece before I wrote a single note. And now that’s no longer true.
TM: You are moving much more toward intuition.
SRO: I am leaving space for intuition. There is control, the piece has structure, but I leave a void which can be filled during the process of composition, a void which is filled by intuition.
TM: As a gringo, I see that the place of the Northeast in the imaginarium of the Brazilian is the house of the soul. Rio may represent modernity, but the base is always something from the Northeast.
SRO: In my life there are two things which are very powerful – Genisa, who was my nanny, who is from the Northeast, and this certainly made a mark on me, but also the moment in my adolescence when I got to know the work of Elomar. Adolescence is a period in our lives which marks us. I heard Elomar’s work when I was fifteen or so, and at the same time I was reading Herman Hesse, something which for me is very strongly connected, as strange as it may seem – this German and the nordestinos. So I can’t really talk about the imaginarium of the Brazilian or Carioca [a native of Rio de Janeiro] in general, but my sadness is nordestina. My happiness can be as well.
The use of the rhythms, modes, patterns, the clichés of música nordestina is always an easy solution when you want to give a Brazilian character to something. It’s easy to make explicit what you are talking about, there’s a simplicity to the structure – it’s easy to be clear. To write something which is explicitly a samba means using elements which are a little more complex – it can take away something from the clarity, or else you end up getting too close to the lowest-common-denominator.
My path to música nordestina is a different one – it’s a matter of getting in contact with my sadness, my Northeastern melancholy – I always think of those roads in the Northeast, the houses…
TM: Your Northeastern sadness appears in the Circus Brasilis, and there with verses which you wrote to accompany the score. Do you see yourself moving towards future projects which have a more literary edge?
SRO: I have already done some experiments in writing poems and music – there are works for which I first wrote a poem, and then the music, but the public is unaware of the poems. For Circus Brasilis, I put the verses in the score, and it’s nice when they are read for the audience at the performance. But for Silence (Silêncio), for example, I wrote a poem, and the public is unaware of it, and sometimes even the performers. The same is true for A Véspera do Fim, for which I wrote a poem first. I haven’t matured enough to really accept my poetic side. When I was young everyone thought that I would become a poet. This would have been my natural path, because I always loved poetry. My first artistic expression was poetry; then came theater, and finally music.
TM: Another path would be to find your “Aldir Blanc”…
SRO: I have to explore this more…in fact, life guides us… The things that happened in my life guided me to the place where I am today. I have been the one who pushed to use my poetry as a form of expression, because opportunities were not appearing. João Bosco or Guinga did not turn up to be my songwriting partners, so that I could be Aldir Blanc. Who knows?
TM: I think it’s interesting that the first piece you wrote here in the US was also the most explicitly Brazilian.
SRO: Yes. They say that there is no such thing as coincidence, and I had a deadline for finishing this piece. Although I don’t know, I think that this one is not the most explicitly Brazilian – I think that would be the string quartet.
TM: It depends on who the listener is.
SRO: For the quartet is Brazilian from the first note to the last. Dam is Brazilian, but subtly, and in fact the harmonic complexity at the beginning is typical of jazz, and then it moves in a Brazilian direction. In fact, my commission from Maria Carolina had a deadline of February 4, which is her birthday (the same as the birthday of my godmother, which is a day which I cannot forget), and I had promised that it would be ready for her birthday. And when the possibility arose that she could come to premiere it here in the USA, there was another motivation for getting it done.
TM: Let’s talk a bit about your first month here. You had already traveled to the USA many times, and to other places as well, but this was the first time that you came, so to speak, to stay, rather than just as a visit. How was it as a musician to live in a place where there is so little music evident in daily life?
SRO: Very difficult. Very strange. Not only that, but you know that I am someone who works too much, and perhaps it is the city, perhaps it is the environment of the university… I come from a university where people play music in the garden outside the music buildings, just for the pleasure of playing, something that I never saw here. I never saw anyone playing just for the fun of it. I saw people involved in projects. Either they were going to learn something, or do something with a purpose. There was a spontaneity that was lacking. Our students commented on this in class, that it seemed like we Brazilians live through music, and I said yes, I don’t how you cannot be like that. This was something new, and bad, not to see this at Duke and in Durham, especially because even though Duke is a university where music is not particularly strong, there is certainly a serious music department, and I imagined that there might have been more musicians making music. If there were, it was always behind closed doors, and turned inwards. Even the groups that exist are always rigidly planned. You never see anyone making music outside, even when the temperatures are warmer.
TM: Very different from UniRio. Something commented on by other visitors that I met this week was the absence of people walking on the sidewalks. They showed me a picture of West Village, a place next to Brightleaf Square, the center of nightlife in Durham, and even so…
SRO: I have direct experience of this, since I am living there, in West Village, and I always walk wherever I go. The quantity of cars in the city is impressive. It is a very small city for the quantity of cars that it has. For me it was a shock, particularly because I had been in Amsterdam in December, which is just the opposite, with a huge number of bicycles, which means that there are people in the street, even if they are not walking, but they are exposed, they can stop at any moment, you can see them. And here it simply doesn’t happen. People here are very much concerned with their own lives. The car is simply an expression of this. When you walk you are interacting with the city. When you are in a car you are moving objectively from one place to another. By yourself. It makes a difference.
TM: Let’s talk about the piece you wrote for Susan Fancher, Ice. This is the first piece which you have written for saxophone.
SRO: It’s the first piece for which saxophone is at the center. There is another piece, a quintet called Muito Prazer, which includes an alto saxophone. But it was never premiered, and so I never heard it. That meant I couldn’t take advantage of the experience, since you only get a response when you can really hear the music. But it’s certainly the first for soprano sax.
TM: How does writing for sax differ from writing for flute? For me there is a certain warmth…
SRO: Exactly. The sax has power, let’s put it that way. The flute has a lyric quality, a sweetness, a lightness, which is unique, and for this reason it has malleability, and flexibility. The saxophone is an instrument which is a little harder, although it is still quite malleable, more powerful, with a more incisive sound. Even if you are thinking about a saxophonist with a sound that is very lyrical, very full of air, even so it is much harder if compared with the flute. That was something I had mind the entire time. The game that I played with Ice, which was precisely to begin the piece with something cold, thinking about the hardness of the instrument, with big leaps (sevenths) the whole time, with long note values, and then to transform this into something more flexible and more malleable, is, I think, an expression of this ambiguity that the instrument has.
You mentioned warmth – I see it as something colder. Something harder, and thus colder in this sense. Like a piece of ice, which you mold to the extent that it melts. I melt the ice in layers, just a piece of ice melts. Sometimes the ice melts more rapidly, and then stops at a section which is harder. And then it melts a little more…and so forth. I was also very fortunate to be working with a brilliant instrumentalist, who had a complete understanding of the piece, and has a beautiful sound. This was very important for the piece’s success, because I wrote the work with her sonority in mind.
TM: I think of the passing of the semester, when you arrived in mid-winter, with subzero temperatures, and now as it closes, the temperatures are over 30 C. So that life here has melted just a little…
SRO: Exactly. A perfect metaphor. I hadn’t thought of it, but I will pretend that I had.
TM: Let’s talk about the Quarteto Brasileiro no. 2, which was premiered this past Saturday. Your first quartet is still waiting to be premiered. What is the most explicitly Brazilian thing about this music?
SRO: It’s hard to answer that question, because there is so much that is explicitly Brazilian. The first movement has a melody that is composed over the melody of a frevo. I thought explicitly about a frevo by Edu Lobo, the “Frevo Diabo.” I thought about the melodic rhythm of the “Frevo Diabo” in composing this music. In spite of this, the other instruments are not playing the rhythm of the frevo, but are also playing Brazilian rhythms. In the third movement the instruments are playing an accompaniment which is explicitly an accompaniment for frevo. It could be a quick march, but I was thinking of a frevo. The second movement has all the lyricism of the Northeast, although the first appearance of the melody is atonal, though already flirting with modality… I think it is very nordestina… It very much recalls Circus Brasilis. It is basically música nordestina made in homage to Ariano Suassuna. That is why I used the frevo, from Pernambuco, where he has spent most of his life, although he was born in Paraíba.
TM: Neither Fancher nor the Ciompi Quartet are familiar with the musics to which you make reference – not with music from the Northeast, nor with Brazilian music more generally. How was it rehearsing these pieces given that situation?
SRO: Usually I try not to do this. I always think of my music as the basis for another artist to exercise their art. I try not to teach. With Susan I didn’t do anything. She played exactly what was written, and I think that the written score was quite effective in making clear what needed to happen, especially in the piano part, which had considerable Brazilian influence, and Jane Hawkins brought it out well. With regard to the quartet, they were more concerned with this. Jonathan Bagg, the violist, asked me to beat out the rhythm of the frevo, since he wanted to understand how it went in order to be able to produce a better performance. I think the rhythmic interpretation that they did for the first movement, especially Jonathan, was perfect. They might have been Brazilian musicians… The third movement sounds more like gringos playing. A Brazilian ensemble would play it differently. But I think it’s beautiful.
TM: Is it possible to do something more explicit in the score for performers from other parts of the world?
SRO: I tried to indicate accents. I never give bowings, because I think that every string ensemble will be able to give better bowings than I will, but I mark articulations, and I think that they were quite explicit. What’s missing is a certain swing, a certain something that is very difficult to indicate, like jazz – you write “swing,” and they play a certain something different than what you have written.
TM: The fourth piece…
SRO: …Is a tango, which is dedicated to the fans of Piazzolla. I spent some of my time here alone in my apartment listening to Piazzolla. The tango begins as something implicit, and over the course of the piece becomes more tangoistic. It is a piece for two flutes and piano in which I make explicit reference to two other works of mine, which are movements from the set of Bagatelles. I am not going to explain this, since a word to the wise is sufficient, but the two movements are “Loss” and “Free.”
TM: …Not the movement “Tango,” which opens the Bagatelles….
SRO: No – that would be too obvious
TM: This piece is for the performers from the ensemble GNU?
SRO: In fact, GNU was invited by Prelúdio XXI to play a concert in our series at the Cultural Center of the Federal Justice Department in August , and they will play this piece there. The performers will be Maria Carolina Cavalcanti, Márcio Angelotti, flutes, and Antônio Ziviani, piano.
TM: Would you like to say something in general about spending this long time outside your home city?
SRO: It was an important learning experience – there are a lot of things that I will only become aware of once I have returned to Brazil, when I can make a comparison with my own culture. You learn a lot about who you are, about who are not… Concerning the artistic environment, as I said earlier, I find it sad that it should be so. On the one hand, I worked with some very generous performers. There were others who regarded me as an exotic curiosity since I was Brazilian, and those were not performers for whom I wrote music… I composed for those who saw me as an artist.
Unfortunately, I found very sad the lack of connection with local composers – there was a combination of factors that meant that a greater level of interaction, which might be have been instructive on both sides, didn’t take place. People frequently accuse Americans of being too pretentious, of thinking that they are better than others – the sports that Americans like are only the sports that are only played in the USA – baseball, American football, the USA doesn’t use the metric system – there are various things that set Americans apart. I sensed this in the area of composition. If you are arrogant you lose the possibility of learning from other people.
For me as an artist it was very valuable to work with different performers, to see a different musical environment, and to learn a lot about myself and my music as well.
TM: You will be soon re-entering “real life”. What are your upcoming projects?
SRO: There’s the season for Prelúdio XXI, which began last week, which will be full of new and different combinations, which means a lot of new music to compose. Next month the concert will be for a clarinet quartet. I didn’t have time to compose a new work, but will adapt my piece “Dois Pontos,” originally for clarinet and bassoon, for clarinet and bass clarinet. This will be an opportunity to premiere the work. I have a trio to compose for Marcus Ferrer’s group, for the combination of mandolin, viola caipira and cello. Sometimes it feels odd writing music for combinations of instruments for which I don’t know when the next performance might be, since they are so unusual. On the other hand, it’s very stimulating to write for new combinations. I also have to write a piece for clarinet, horn and piano. Not to mention all the music which is begun, but not completed – my Missa, my Te Deum, my Brazilian Suite for recorder and piano/harpsichord, commissioned by John Turner. And there are recordings. I want to record, as soon as possible, a CD with my music for piano, a CD of duos, for one instrument and piano. There’s a project with music by Mark Hagerty and myself for percussion. And it’s certainly time for Prelúdio XXI to issue its own CD, although there’s a fine disc by guitarist Armildo Uzeda with works by some of the composers from the group.
It would be wonderful to release a ten-CD box, celebrating ten years of Prelúdio XXI, with a CD for each season, but the cost would probably be prohibitive. You would need a very generous sponsor.
There are various groups in Rio that are interested in doing a CD in collaboration with Prelúdio XXI. It all depends on how the costs can be shared.
TM: In recent years you have presented your music in the United States, England, Holland – are there other countries in your future?
SRO: There is a project for Germany, which almost happened last year, a possibility for Paris, and I just had a conversation here at Duke about the real possibility of going to Senegal, which would be very interesting. I will get started working on all these when I get back to Rio. What is most concrete will be another trip to the USA, with a commission for Melomanie, which is a joint commission with Elaine Funaro’s ensemble.
TM: You have such a strong strain of lyricism in your music, particularly that for flute, but you have very little music for voice so far.
SRO: It’s curious – I began my career as a composer writing popular songs. So far I have not been receiving commissions for vocal music. Sandra Cotton from the Duke Department of Music was interested in premiering a song, but I didn’t have the time to compose something for her.
TM: Have there been no projects for voice with Prelúdio XXI so far?
SRO: There was a program for voice, flute, guitar and marimba, but at the time I wanted to premiere my piece Farsa, for flute and guitar.
This also has to do with my practical view of things. I could have written for the whole ensemble, which would have been wonderful, but Maria Carolina had already asked for a piece for flute and guitar, and she had an ongoing ensemble with Ivan Paparguerius, so that piece would certainly be played multiple times by that duo.
I have four vocal quartets which I wrote for Quarteto Colonial, which are very effective. I have a certain issue with music with lyrics, which is the question of rights. It’s very disagreeable to have to negotiate rights with the rights-holders for the poems. Using my poetry could be a road around this, although I don’t feel secure enough as a poet to do this yet. I would be very interested in setting the poems of Pessoa, who is a favorite poet of mine.
TM: How was your experience as a teacher at Duke?
SRO: It was very interesting. It was my first time teaching a class, although I had given private lessons in piano and theory. I always felt like I was an excellent teacher for the good students, and a terrible teacher for the bad students – the ones with little interest or talent. I think that a really good teacher should be able to stimulate the unstimulated, and I didn’t feel capable in this area in giving private lessons. Teaching my class at Duke was a very good experience. I had training wheels, since we were teaching the class together. Until the third class or so I was very insecure, but then I realized that it was simply a matter of preparing the class, and then it would flow with no problems. Then I started to have fun. It’s interesting to know that you are making a difference for the students. It gave me pleasure to see people coming in one way, and leaving another.
TM: For me, in my musical education, not one person ever said a single word about the music of Brazil. Not once. Never. So I had to discover Brazil by myself, when I was older than forty.
SRO: With certain exceptions, the level of ignorance on the part of the incoming students about Brazil and its culture was fairly high. So we had to teach culture through music, history through music. And that was something that I found very gratifying, because in addition to teaching about music, I was able share Brazilian culture.
More generally, in my work as artist-in-residence, all my neighbors along the hall at my office always comment on how wonderful the music coming from my office is, how spontaneous I am. Someone commented this past Sunday that I had changed all their lives through my capacity to be in touch with my feelings, and to be open to showing this to everyone. This is something that is very precious to me, because it’s not something individual – they are coming into contact with my culture. When you are in a foreign country, your tendency is close up, to try to adapt to the culture of the other, to fit in as quickly as possible. There are habits that I have had to develop here. When I meet a woman, I can’t kiss her on both cheeks. I never know how I am supposed to greet a woman. But the tendency is certainly to try to behave like the locals, and not to impose our way of doing things.
I understood from the first day that if my work was not simply as visiting professor, but as artist-in-residence, that an artist is an expression of his culture, and that yes, I did need to maintain my cultural practices, at least those that I could, in practical terms – I couldn’t maintain my way of dressing and my culinary habits – but I tried not to change my way of being, except for those things which might have been taken amiss or misunderstood.
Perhaps being a professor may open new directions in my life – that’s one of the things that I will have to digest when I get back to Brazil. I am already doing so many things that I if I start to do something new, I will have to stop doing something else. I don’t know what I can stop doing, and what I want to stop doing. I have already had an invitation in Brazil to give this same course there, but I don’t know if I want to give this course for Brazilian students.
TM: Since they already know it, the course you should give would be about American music, American culture, how Americans behave…
SRO: …but I don’t know if I have the necessary “know-how” after only living here for four months.
I don’t know if I will return to teaching, but it was an enriching experience. Not just teaching but the whole experience, including living alone, which I had never done, and which was the most difficult thing of all. Even with many friends there are moments when you are alone. You end up learning a lot about yourself, and about other people as well.
I was very happy to be able to contribute to the university, to the community, to be able to touch other people. I was able to teach people important things about my culture – “look, when you leave, you have to say goodbye!”
TM: “And when you say goodbye, you have to hug and kiss.”
SRO: And that person said goodbye that day, but the following day didn’t say “Good morning!” And I said to them, “look, in order to say goodbye, you have to first say “Good morning”!”
TM: Basic things that Americans need to learn.
SRO: And this person went on to say “Good morning!” and “Goodbye!” every day, with a smile. I had the chance to change that person.
Certainly I learned a lot as well, and I will see what results the experience has for me over the next few months, what effects it has on my life and my music.
To read another interview with Sérgio Roberto de Oliveira, you can visit Opus.