Entrevista a Fernando Corrêa de Oliveira / Interview with Fernando Corrêa de Oliveira
My point of departure is way too different from other people’s, for me to be able to say that I belong to this or to that school. I don’t belong to any school. Now the fact of not belonging to a certain school does not mean that I have not been open to ideas, which have come from one. But it is not Schoenberg’s. In my style there are a lot of aspects, which are not always twelve-tone, but all of them are a result of the fact that I have a knowledge of the twelve-tone system. Yes, I really do know the twelve-tone system! Now, just because one has some knowledge of the twelve-tone system it does not mean that in the twelve-tone system everyone does the same thing. Everyone does the same thing in different ways!
My composition has been through two phases. There is one phase in which I composed freely, but I was not satisfied with that, because by composing freely. a person ends up by also composing like others. So I didn’t compose like the others, I had my own ideas. To really be different one must be different right from the outset.
Well now: composition has to start with one tiny thing. This tiny thing is a cell, and that cell is quite something, because a cell is potentially a lot. The cell is the idea, and the idea, although it looks rather as if you’re trying to complicate things, has to be developed.
When I write a symphony, this symphony has three or four thematic cells. How can three or four thematic cells be made to last half an hour? There is something more – the development. This development exists, and in my treatise I also explain how this development takes place. These are all notes, and as I was writing this book, I was also experimenting with things, and as I continued to experiment, I would reject some things and use other things. And why? Because that is how composition works. One doesn’t come up with something at once, we do something then we say: “something’s not quite right here”. And that thing that’s not quite right must be overcome. So for something to feel right to me it has to be just so.
What is important is not to be different, but to be convincing. Being convincing is more important than being different, because among the composers that were not different but were convincing, we have, for example, someone like Bach, who is convincing, and yet he still did things that others did. The important thing is to have conviction to say something in such a way that it sticks with everyone who hears it. Schubert is a composer who does practically nothing different. His music is always the same but it’s always original, and is always grabbing our attention. This he does without being ostentatious about it.
A different and yet a convincing music?
Yes. In a way, I don’t like talking about myself. I could say a lot of things, but what I’m actually looking for is an audience to be convinced that what they’re listening to is natural. For it to be natural you don’t want it to be exactly the same as the others, it has to be different. But this difference has to be well established. If it is well established, we’ll accept it, but if not, then we will not. When my first symphony was played, I was in my box with Manuel Ivo Cruz, and he said “I should conduct this work sometime”. Although he never did, that’s not what’s important. The fact is that he felt that it needed to be heard, but unfortunately it was never played again and so things were left. Why did he say that? Because he was convinced that it was worth hearing many more times.
Features of the composer’s music and first approach to “Sound Symmetry”
They are all new, but the novelty is at different levels. My Opus 1 is a symphonic poem for viola and orchestra. But that’s not where I started. I started by doing exercises to see what I could do. But that doesn’t mean that I was limiting the range of my composition from the outset. It was just the beginning. But the real beginning was before I started. As soon as I started, I began straight away with a large work.
The style of composition that I have had since the start of my career in composition has remained the same. This doesn’t mean that I have not evolved, because I believe that something new is born at the moment of composition, with each new work, and this has also happened with me. Unlike Schoenberg, who set aside a year to write his compositional system, I wrote works while I was developing the system. The system of composition and composition itself came about at the same time, because I always think that it is the works that give rise to the system, and not the systems giving rise to the works. So in this way, to be able to outline a system, which is what I did, I didn’t create the system first and then the works – the works are made according to the system and the system appeared at the same time as the works. I am not saying that there wasn’t a way pointing in a determined direction, because systems can move forwards as well as backwards, and at the moment there are aspects in my system which are older than others. The elements of a system do not appear in chronological sequence, they can develop and turn back etc. etc. I could even say that my system of composition has different periods and these periods are not all the same, some look back, some look forward, because to outline a system one must have a certain vision of what one is aiming for. And these intentions do not appear in chronological order, they may be one thing before and another thing later, and finally they make a sequence. But this doesn’t mean that there was a definite aim – first it will be this, then it will be that, then it will be something else. My system allows for turning back, and, oddly enough, one of these turnings ends up with an atonal consonant system which is something that many people don’t understand – how can it be atonal and consonant at the same time – because consonance is a contradiction of an atonal system. Not so to me, because I can write – as indeed I did in my work, or rather series, Serões da Rainha e Senhora Minha, which is a series of compositions that last about half an hour – in a consonant style in the middle of a system which is in itself atonal. And so, to be atonal and consonant is not contradictory to me; one can be consonant and atonal with the same logic
Differences between the learning process thru the so-called classical system and the “Sound Symmetry”
Whether it is easy or difficult depends on us. It’s easy to me; it may be difficult to others. In fact, whether it is easy or difficult depends on the composer. When I started my first work I found it very easy. To begin with, I made a point of using the simpler aspects of the technique but the work lasts twenty minutes and I don’t spend twenty minutes doing the same thing. It’s difficult to say how one starts. I usually start with few notes, not necessarily twelve, but it could be more. There may be a small difference, but there has to be a certain degree of variety.
Advantages for the composers in using “Sound Symmetry”
My system is a system with lots of possibilities: it is not limited to a certain number of notes – indeed at times there are more than twelve – and these are all possibilities. I can also limit the number of notes. When I was a teacher in schools I also made experiments with my pupils and would ask them: “What system would you like to use?” Some replied, and others didn’t know what to say – but those that had an opinion would say, “I should prefer to use Schoenberg’s system”. Some others would say that they would like to use mine, although I didn’t really believe them completely, because you must demonstrate what you want and they might not know exactly what they wanted. But whoever knows what they want will, in this case, discover so many solutions that he will end up by saying, “but now I have to choose”. He has to choose, because to the eye it’s nothing but notes, notes, notes. To understand the transformations there are – the transformations that one can find – all you need is to know what you are aiming for
The existence of more than twelve notes doesn’t imply the existence of quarter tones or third tones – they’re all tones and semitones. To use more than twelve one can use repeated notes, but without any absolute need for repetition. I can write a theme with twelve notes, or with thirteen, or with fourteen, or with fifteen, or even more. Microtonality is something different. I am no microtonal composer, because that requires a different line of thought. A lot of notes require a special structure too. Schoenberg wrote with twelve, but then had to return again to the beginning. I can write themes with fewer than twelve or with more than twelve, but I have my own structural criteria for writing the theme.
There is absolutely no need for this system of composition to force either me or anyone else to follow a single trajectory, because if that were the case all compositions would be the same. But diversity was always important to my system – I rejected Schoenberg’s precisely because it was like that. It had to be like that. He had constant arguments with his pupils because each one wanted to do something of his own but he didn’t want to let them. He didn’t want it because his system was rigid and so in order for things to be as he wanted the system had to be followed. The first thing I did was to avoid a relapse into monotony. And it’s possible to be monotonous in something simple as much as in something complicated. Now I could explain his system in half an hour. By the end of the half hour I should have explained Schoenberg’s system but no one would know what to do – because in order to make something of it, it is necessary to be a composer. But he established a very simple set of rules, so simple that anyone could understand them, but to make a composition from that is something different. I didn’t want to fall into this, because I wanted everyone to be himself and within the system at the same time – and I think I achieved it. The system one creates has to be flexible, so that it can grow or shrink to satisfy each composer’s needs. Schoenberg’s system is very simple: there is a sequence of twelve notes, but this sequence has then to undergo transformations and those transformations aren’t so easy
Details of “Sound Symmetry”
Well, here there are ten or twelve ways of making transformations. And why? If anyone wants to discover more, they can. The truth is that we are already going a lot further than the twelve-tone classics. They made transformations but never established a method of this or that or any other sort. Since they never systematized that, I researched it for myself and I found these possibilities. That is not to say that it is not possible to find others, but the truth is that these were sufficient for me, sufficient to my composition.
My technique allows for a great deal of variation, but this variation is no anarchy, because if one were to look into the transformations of a theme - and in this book there are examples of this - the variations applied to a theme in this way, cause it to appear the same and yet it isn’t. As there are a number of aspects that are not immediately noticeable, one begins to think “this really has changed a lot, the themes have been transformed but am I left with something else, or the same thing?” The musical dramaturgy is something that has to be looked at in general terms. I wrote a work called Twenty Pieces in Symmetrical Counterpoint. It’s all counterpoint, but I used a number of methods of thematic transformation, though always in a way that the theme should be recognized as if it were the same. The theme is always the same – always the same entity, but never the same details. The differences can be greater or smaller, but there is always sufficient reason for someone to say: “It may be different, but it’s always based on the same thing”.
João Pedro Cunha’s Master’s thesis on “Sound Symmetry”
I have neither the time nor the memory to make a detailed biography of everything that happened. There are things which I consider to be very important and others that are still quite unknown, and those are the ones I should like to emphasise. There was a relatively recent case of a pupil of mine who also went through this some years ago. The mere fact that he was my pupil implies that there was a difference in ages. He has a son who is a musician; and that boy, João Pedro Cunha, went to study in England. He went to a university to study music and then thought in terms of a Master’s degree.
He had to choose a subject and came to tell me that he wanted the subject of his thesis to be my system of composition. I was happy but at the same time I was a little worried, because I didn’t know what he was going to do; although I thought he wouldn’t do something superficial, nevertheless I wasn’t completely happy. We had to have a number of meetings so that I could explain what it would be most or least important to emphasise, and at the end of it all there was an exam. I know that he was given the highest mark possible. For them to award his thesis that high mark, they were giving credence to my system, because in the final analysis, the two are the same. He put it forward in his own words, but everything he said was what I had previously told him. This recognition came before any in Portugal, because we’re all very nice people, but things work differently.
Lack of recognition of the composer’s work in Portugal
I have to say that I can forgive the indifference of a lot of people in this country, because few even know what it is to have a compositional system. Indifference starts there. And why? Because there has never been a Portuguese system of composition. No, never. The Portuguese go back eight centuries, and in these eight centuries there has never been any system that has originated here. We know all about Schoenberg’s system, and then there are others that are attempts at creating systems, but basically, in order to create a system, one must not only write – one must compose, and one must compose within the system. Well, just to mention the larger pieces, I have written five symphonies. But to write five symphonies, you have to know what you are doing, and for these five symphonies to be played, there also have to be people who understand what’s there. This means that people have to prepare themselves to be able to play the music. Among many things that intrigue me, there is one that intrigues me especially: why should it be that the Gulbenkian Foundation (Fundação Gulbenkian) sent back the composition treatise I gave them? I gave them a treatise several years ago, and it was sent back without a single word. Why? Does someone dislike me, maybe? I know full well that it takes some time to understand what is there, but – I mean – there must be someone that can manage that!
But I shall do something else, too, and this is also something new. I already have the orchestral material ready to give to that English University so that they can play my work. They’re going to play my 1ª Sinfonia. I chose the first one, because it has already been played and was given a favourable review. But we live in a closed world. Those who might have something to say, don’t. Others, who have nothing to say, do so even less. So I feel I have to get it off my chest, otherwise they will say to me, “So you knew what was going on and said nothing to anyone?” I don’t want to have that reputation. I want to be able to say whatever I think I have a right to say, and time will tell. As for international repercussions, that will take longer, because we live in a closed world, and for many people, just knowing that something is recognised elsewhere will mean that one can start talking about it here. But to begin with, it’s rather a slow process.