Entrevista a Patrícia Sucena de Almeida / Interview with Patrícia Sucena de Almeida
Education and important personalities
Well, I started studying music as a child – this is already a cliché, many musicians say that – but I was almost forced to because I was in a school where I spent the whole day, as both my parents worked. They enrolled me in music and dance classes, to keep me busy all day. I had musical training, I did music with a percussion group and then I attended dance classes, classical ballet. And that is how I started to become acquainted with music and the arts in general. Then I went to the Coimbra Conservatory, where I started having piano lessons and continued my musical training, but it was only when I was 14 that I started to really like the piano. Before, my piano studies were fairly unconscious. I didn’t really think about what music was or about what I was doing. Around that age I met a piano teacher - Jorge Ly – who had come from Lisbon to teach in Coimbra. He really encouraged me to study the piano – for I did have some patience – and from then on I became really interested and studied many hours a day, as pianists do as a rule. 8 hours a day or so and I did not want to do anything else. Later I went to the Superior School of Education, in Coimbra.
But, shortly afterwards – a year or so – I came to the conclusion that that was not exactly what I wanted – teach kids, that was not it… I did not find that stimulating and I decided to look for another course. That is how I met another teacher, João Pedro Oliveira. It was with him that I began to study composition and write my first pieces. The first one was for the piano, it was almost a “joke”, because I had to present a piece for the exam and I went to see my teacher, João Pedro, and asked him to help me write it. It was also with him that I began to study composition as such, the theoretical part.
I studied the theory of composition intensively for one year to prepare for the entrance and I did that with my teacher João Pedro. During that year I discovered so many things about composition, both the theory as well as listening to many works – and I became fascinated. It’s really true, that’s what happened. And I studied and studied…
I took the standard course in composition and continued the classes with João Pedro Oliveira, in electroacoustic music as well as in other theoretical disciplines, but these were the 2 major subjects I studied with him.
When I finished the course in Aveiro I felt a strong need to leave, to see new things, new cultures – to know what was going on in other places. It was also an academic preoccupation, for future work here in Portugal, because I wanted to teach at university level and, therefore, I thought I would try and get the necessary qualifications abroad and then come back. But, on the other hand, I thought that it would not be easy to go abroad and start studying composition straight away with a teacher of my choice, or to feel that that was the right thing to do. It was quite an adventure, from that point of view, because I did not know what I would find. And it all happened in England. I thought of other countries, the United States, France, Germany – but I don’t know, perhaps it was destiny… I ended up in England. First in Scotland, then I went to London and finally to Southampton.
When I went to the City University, I thought that – at least that’s what I had been told – that we would have to “perform” works, that we would have many opportunities. I was really enthusiastic about it, but when I started having classes I was faced with someone who was really incompatible with me and with my ideas. I was not managing to develop, either mentally or as a composer, with the person I was confronted with. I stayed for about one year and then decided I would definitely have to change university. But then it was quite a difficult period, because I had to find the person I was interested in on my own and, in that world, there are many people with whom one can work.
What happened was that I went to see several English composers and by talking and exchanging opinions, they came to the conclusion that I should work with Michael Finnissy. Considering the work I showed them, my ideas, what they had heard about me, he was the person I should be working with, even if I had to be transferred to another university that’s what I had to do.
Despite being someone who is very difficult to approach initially, once you penetrate into his mental world, or when he sees who you are, and if we function mentally, I think he is fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And very often he was very hard in his critique and I left the class feeling really low; it was far from easy! But he gave me so much and that was enough to make me forget these situations. He was someone who encouraged me to read very important works of philosophy which opened my mind to composition, to ideas, thoughts, to everything. It was fantastic.
There was a Belgian composer – Luc Brewaeys – with whom I studied – I had forgotten to say that, but it is certainly worth mentioning. During the period I was in London trying to find a new place to study and because I had met Luc some years before, I asked him to give me a few lessons. I use to travel from London to Brussels to have classes – because I was a bit lost and I needed someone to guide me for a time – so I went to meet him several times to talk about composition, to show him the work I was doing. He was another person who was important in my development.
Concepts and creative processes
Generally, when I write a piece there are always several ideas in the background, either about drama, lightning, set design or about aspects that are outside the field of music. I don’t know why, but when I have an idea, usually I have other thoughts that have nothing to do with music. When I think about it and try to find out why, I related it to Kagel, because I remember festivals I attended in Belgium, in Ars Música – it was the year dedicated to Kagel – and listening to some pieces that impressed me. They had some small theatrical details which I found fantastic, despite the fact that, in my case, the work does not have a sarcastic or comical character, being more dramatic and more tragic. I was fascinated. I remember when I was still studying in Edinburgh and arriving with my luggage to attend a conference by Kagel at the Gulbenkian. So I remember all the effort I made to take advantage of situations where he was present or to go to his concerts.
Generally, the pieces I wrote started with an idea inspired by a painting or a philosophical idea or a sculpture or perhaps something that has nothing to do with music and after that it’s very difficult to put into words.
I think that there are many sides to it. Often, it will be a visual idea that is transposed to a musical gesture, which implies sounds and the gesture itself. Frequently, if I use a painting as a starting point, elements of a painting – either visual or even performance elements - these are transposed, filtered by my thoughts and then transposed to a piece. For example, I am now thinking of a piece I wrote called Mens Sana which is based on 2 Bosch paintings, The Stone Operation and The Ship of Fools, and in which – particularly in this last painting – the fools gave me both an idea for the characterisation of two characters that I use in the piece, as well as a mental idea or an idea for a musical gesture – used at the beginning of the piece.
The two characters perform as actors and, simultaneously, as conveyors of sound. In this case, they have 2 percussion instruments and they’re going to perform at the beginning and at the end of the piece. Therefore, they are going to intervene in the whole performance of the piece.
For example, in Transfiguratio, the initial idea also came from a painting called the Three Ages of Man and Death, by Hans Baldung Grien. I was really struck by the characters he uses in the picture, symbols of the various ages and stages of life. In my piece, I use various elements which feature in the painting – a veil, an hourglass and even the lighting in my piece is related to the colours he uses in the painting. I needed to do that because music itself is related to the passing of time in life.
I’m not quite sure if it is Musical Theatre!… Up to now I have not had a chance to stage the whole piece – that is, the musical part and the dramatic part – it’s all written down in the music scores, the whole staging involving the lighting, the sets, the necessary actors, dancers, everything is noted down. I have difficulty to getting people to accept, because that it’s so important. Although even I have not yet had the chance to see what the result would be…
But, I feel sure that it is not theatre… musical-theatre, it has nothing to do with that. It’s as if there was another instrument playing, it’s something that is integrated. That’s all I can say on the subject.
As I was saying, it is very difficult for people to understand that what is written down is a part of the piece, an essential part. Everything is integrated in such a way that the whole thing works. I think that the fact that it is a difficult piece is no reason for the choreography, or the part with the actors, not to work. These are really integrated in the work – the gestures with, for example, a movement performed by the actors – they are both integral parts.
Actually, in the piece that I am now writing I already feel quite sorry for the musicians, for they are going to be actors as well as players – well, not actors as such – they are going to have to play and make vocal sounds – it’s a different way of performing, they’re going to have to do both simultaneously. Normally, I put in other people to do that, they have enough work with the musical score.
Harmonic, rhythmic and melodic language?
I don’t know that I would speak in terms of harmonic language, perhaps because for me it works more in terms of lines, independent lines. Despite the fact that there is, obviously, a relationship between the notes, they work more like independent lines, vertical lines. Usually, I create melodies from ideas that come from the title of the works, relating to letters of the alphabet and making changes and creating relationships and, from then on, as I already mentioned. I have a melodic basis that I also relate to theatrical ideas – gestures and all that. In this case it’s the melodies – they go up, down or stay. It has to do with the ideas that come up in relation to the theatrical, dramatic part. From then on I start to visualise, but in terms of lines, and not so much vertically. Vertically may work, for me, when I think in terms of textures or gestures that have texture as their main element.
Melody is one thing, rhythm is another, but very often there is an element that makes a connection which is related to theatrical and dramatic elements which come from the paintings I mentioned or from any other source of inspiration. It’s as if the images I have – mental images – become notes, rhythms and situations. That’s it.
Works: “de-catalogued”, “catalogued” and recent works
I don’t know if this happens with all composers, but I consider the work I write to be an experiment and that is perhaps why the works you mentioned before I consider to be experiments. This period corresponds to the time I spent at the university in Aveiro, when I started to compose, to experiment and even with a piece that I wrote from beginning to end – with a duration, instruments and even if it has all the elements of a piece – I consider them experiments. Even now, I have difficulty considering any work of mine an “opus” as such. For me it’s an experiment and the whole phenomenon of the performance of the piece and all that goes with it, it is an experience that one goes through. Perhaps later on I shall become more aware that it is a work, but for now that is what I have to say about the pieces that were removed.
I think perhaps I’ve been through two important phases, since living in England. The first, in which I wrote the pieces, was very unstable. I was going to a foreign country, totally different from Portugal and I had to adapt mentally to the place where I was, to the people, to English culture… and that adaptation was very difficult and I did not manage to compose much at the time. I wrote a piece for the violin – which I consider an experiment – I did a lot of orchestration as I said before, and then I wrote a piece which I think was a kind of arrival point. Strangely enough, I wrote it when I went to London and perhaps it made me feel more secure at the time, because as I said I had to change universities and look for a teacher and I needed some sort of security, mentally at least. It was precisely that piece that was played in Holland by a Russian group.
After that there was another response to that phase in my life which was Argumentum, a composition that was played when the city of Oporto was the Capital of Culture, in 2001. It was a fighting and defensive reaction to the people who were around me. That is why I had the idea of a slide and thought of conceiving a ramp with a castle on top which I was trying to defend. The whole piece is built around that idea – defence, attack - because that’s what I was going through at the time.
It was precisely at that time that I started having classes with Michael Finnissy, – I had started this piece and I began to have ideas and work on the material. It was exactly at that time that he started teaching me and we began to have deeper conversations on the aspects I wanted to develop in that piece. And it was as from that time that a new phase began for me. By then I was studying with Michael Finnissy and I read a lot. It was like an “injection” of books on philosophy, English literature and this had a great impact on me. I did not expect to find the stories and the fantasy that I discovered. English literature gave me all that at a time when I perhaps needed to forget that I was abroad and needed to feel more at home, mentally at least.
After composing Argumentum I composed 2 pieces - Illuminatio and Recordatio – and these 2 pieces are connected, both as far as the material and the ideas go and, perhaps, they are also linked to the nostalgia I was feeling in relation to the country and the people. But that phase had to pass and I had, anyway, to change my attitude, so perhaps as a reaction to this I then composed - Transfiguratio, Ludus Aeternus, Mens Sana in Corpore Sano, Monstrum horrendum, fatum hominis, Silens Clamor.
The background to these pieces began to have deeper philosophical ideas related to the philosophy of people like Michel Foucault, Carl Jung, authors I had started to read and who fascinated me. Many of the ideas they developed in their books inspired me and I tried to integrate them; I often used them as the basis for the pieces I wrote. Not just that – I started taking ideas from painting also, mainly from works by Hieronymus Bosch – I found the symbology in these very interesting. The fact that these symbols had another meaning for me was very important; I did not just want to show people a situation, but what it meant symbolically. I’ve always found that very interesting and still do.
Perhaps I should say a few words about a piece called Monstrum Horrendum, that was quite different from other pieces because I based it on a story by Mary Shelley, about a monster - Frankenstein.
It was different in that aspect, because I took a story that I was reading at the time which made an impression on me – not just on a philosophical level, but the story itself and the plot – and from there I went on to build the piece. I also took some aspects from real life, the birth of a human being, all those aspects related to man and his creation, to work on and develop ideas for the piece.
The book ends by saying that he disappears into the infinite and the idea that I convey in this piece is precisely – which finishes with a piano, a piano solo – that of uncertainty. We all remain in limbo, because we don’t know. We remain in an atmosphere that is rather strange, undefined, questioning.