Entrevista a Daniel Schvetz / Interview with Daniel Schvetz
How did composition begin for me? It was a digression from my basic activity, which was playing and studying piano, but in fact, I was fascinated from a very young age by what one might call improvisation. There are many ways of improvisation.
And so, I always improvised as well. It’s a big struggle! I really didn’t want to study because I already played what I played. Then I understood that I played very little, but it was difficult to accept – I was 16 or 17 at the time – and I studied, but it was a struggle to accept that you had to study with masters and teachers... techniques, schools: Russian, French, all that!
I knew, had always understood, that producing music was an activity that would become central for me, but what I did formally until about 16 or 17 years of age was study piano, with improvising, with jazz, with bossa nova and inventions – I’ve no idea what it was; I wrote loads of music, but my inventions didn’t make it on to paper, only when I was 16 or 17 did I began to try to write things down.
It was more a question of confession: “Right. What is composing? Composing it writing down.” Studying, studying, the various disciplines were what basically gave me the training to be a composer: harmony, counterpoint and so on began from 16 or 17. Until then it was pure piano.
I did a formal course, composition at the National Conservatory in Buenos Aires, and also piano. I did the general course – it’s not exactly the same here, but… – and finished my piano studies, but I didn’t do the last part, which was the qualification – masters’ in piano – but I did the one in composition, more or less. The great teachers were outside the Conservatory.
Improvisation and other forms of composition
Basically, and if I had to explain it technically, music is normally divided into types, this kind of music, that kind of music, serious, classical, contemporary, baroque, and everything that there is. But honestly, I don’t feel that there is any kind of classification. I mean, classification... it’s a subjective definition; but I always improvised, and the fascination of going onstage with a good piano in front of me is still there. For me it’s something with no limits, it’s a fascination. It’s the same fascination I feel when I’m confronted with a blank piece of paper - or a blank screen, now, the mouse and the keyboard, as it were – I’m ready to compose and I have the same feeling as when I’m about to improvise on the piano, whether it’s for thirty instruments or a solo flute.
Of course, there is a plan and there are levels – if one wishes – of planning. I mean that if I’m going to work with poetry, well, there’s already a previous element: whether I’m going to write for a string quartet, or an orchestra, a percussion group. But planning is always subject to the present. I think a lot about planning – planning words, what I was supposed to use in this section or that section, and there are none left – in recent years I don’t have a specific way of planning. I haven’t given up planning, but...
Sometimes I take three or four days before actually starting... I sit at the window, walk by the sea. When it appears, I give the kick-off. It may not appear quickly, I can’t decide. But when it appears it really comes from inside.
It’s as though one were transformed into an observer of oneself: I’m not there. Like the fox, waiting for the moment when he’ll stick out his claw to steal the egg... That would be the first sound, I don’t know, it’s a mystery.
Serious music and Jazz
At a certain moment, I had a great revelation; I was about 13 years old when I went to the lyceum. In Argentina this is divided into seven and five years, something like year 9 here. I went to a concert at the Teatro Colón – where they were playing Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and, in the second part, Brahms’s Second Symphony. The Britten is a didactic work, as we all know, but the Brahms tore me in half, and I wasn’t expecting that! I went there as a secondary school pupil.
At home... my father is a music lover; he was also a pianist, and has a recording studio. There were predecessors, of course, there were lots of recordings of jazz, bossa nova and classical music. There was lots of music, Bartók, and so on.
But for me that was a shock! When I got home, I looked for Brahms and must have spent two or three weeks listening to his music every day. After the Second Symphony came the First, the Third and the Fourth, the Clarinet Quintet, and so on... The second revelation was some time after: the complete works of Ravel, which my parents had on LPs. From then on, it never stopped. I abandoned some of the things I liked at the time: rock, this or that, because what I was really interested in was this repertory, this aesthetic, let’s call it classical, and a strong link to jazz, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, the great pianist Earl Hines, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane. There’s no end to the list, we all know who they are... And I was fascinated by the great “arrangers”. I couldn’t separate things... when I listened to jazz it was jazz, that was that, but it was completely intuitive, instinctive, animal.
Tango and Folk music
Jazz and contemporary music were interconnected. I used to three concerts a day; in the afternoon Id go and see a jazz group, at 9pm to the Teatro Colón to hear Mendelssohn, Grieg, Dvorák, and then at night, jazz again, or bossa nova or whatever there was. There was a lot of stuff called avant-garde. We had the so-called Ditela Institute – I got there late, it no longer existed – but it was a centre for trying out pieces and all sorts of things. I remember pieces in which the pianist played blindfold and played with his nose, his elbow... experimentation! I’m not sure that I always enjoyed the music, but I was curious to see what other people thought... and I am still curious! So it was contemporary music and jazz.
When I was 20 or 21, there was the military coup, and with the repression that followed, it was not possible to do certain things; the connection with folk music, telluric music, was the way for us to be linked with something more genuine. South America, soldiers, all that business.
And at the time of the military coup, this was cut off. One feels that there is a wall, and this brought me closer to many things. Argentina is part of South America, it’s not Europe, Buenos Aires is not Europe, it’s South America, it’s the third world, and being part of the third world and South America implies a relationship with the kind of expression that each country has – folk music, now known as ethnic music. It’s the music that’s been being made for 500, 500, 1000 years, depending on the country; in my country, some 200 years; there’s not that much more history. But folk music called me, and from that came an expressive line, if you like a folk projection that allowed me to take hold of folk music and rework it, arrange it. So this entertained me for three or four years, and then I realized that I was living in a city, not in the mountains or in the country. So I returned, as it were, to Buenos Aires, to the concrete, and soon accepted the possibility of tango as a resource, a way of expression, which I never left. And I had, in fact, already a strong connection with tango, because it’s something I always listened to, and at first it was Piazzola, before traditional tango.
Then I found out that Piazzola was part of something much bigger. Let’s not talk about aesthetics, but it’s a fact that anybody who lives in Buenos Aires and is nocturnal like me, hears a lot of tango; I went to all the bars, heard lots of tangueros, but never played any tango, and then one day I did. Perhaps I learned by ear, from having been with the tangueros. I don’t consider myself a specialist, but, well, I played tango and I still do, and like it.
I have to make mention here of the instigator, so to say, of this possibility of searching out materials from one source and reworking them in another way in order to go to another source: Bela Bartók, who in a way had followers all over the world: Alberto Ginastera, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Fernando Lopes-Graça. In every country there’s at least one composer in whom we can detect this neo-bartokianism of the 1940s and 50s. It’s obvious, and, thank God, it was a good thing, because it had a fascinating cultural component. But I must say, honestly, that I love many kinds of folk music. Those which I know best are from the interior of Argentina, where I consider tango to be an urban folk music. I mean, tango is really a cultural material, an expression of the city, urban, like rock or the blues, and I don’t see any difference between this and what happens 1000 km north of Buenos Aires, Chacarera, Samba, folk music, and so on, expressions of the mountains, earth, country and sea. And it’s of the most extraordinary richness! You’d need a number of lives to enjoy it all... But, more than an influence, this is material that I’m constantly consulting in order to make use of it. Perhaps I’m doing something wrong, but I use it. I enjoy it and make use of it.
Bartók spoke of a natural folk music, a pure folk music, an imaginary folk music, more or less. I feel very close to this. In other words, there’s rhythmic, melodic and harmonic material... At the moment I’m not a specialist; of course I can talk about it, write something... I love drums, the “bombo legueiro”, because you can hear it a league away, that drum that accompanies the guitar and the singer and tastes like good food! Or a real dance! This, for me, is an inspiration. I don’t know exactly how to explain what inspiration is, but what I now is that for an artist, a painter, a writer, there’s a moment at which in the creative act, there is no distance between the creator and that which is created, and perhaps, for am psychologist, it’s a coming close to what is called inspiration or “having the knack”, whatever. But there’s a point at which there’s no distance, it’s almost direct.
The move to Portugal
I came to Portugal in 1990, which may have altered my aesthetic somewhat. During the previous three or four years, I had created the El Borde project in Argentina, but I must say that the conditions in my country – economic, social, personal and so on – meant that I always had groups: quartets, quintets. But they were always folk music groups. But I always made such complicated arrangements of folk music that anyone seeing it from outside would see, as it were, a kind of demonstration of my impotence in entering by any of the normal channels. So I tortured the music in order to put together things that we supposedly folk music, tango. The first El Bordes were... well. It was torture to put together each piece, and I understand why, but I wouldn’t go for it like that again. When I arrived here, I had El Borde fresh in my head, and made some attempts. Tango was a part of my life, but it was a relatively small part, which doesn’t mean that I can’t play a “tanguito” well and enjoy or give tango concerts on the piano, or improvise at the piano. It’s something that I enjoy enormously in my professional work, but it’s small; as a composer, I write, as it were, much more music.
In Argentina, obviously, things were complicated for a professional musician, because I had to accept certain kinds of work as a musician because I couldn’t find a better way.
In Portugal, after two or three years, I was able to reintegrate what I thought was the way in which I thought a musician should behave. A composer, as we all know, has a complicated life. It’s not easy. But I began to regain some of my self-confidence. Then, from a certain point (during the last six or seven years) there was a kind of flourishing, in my view, in that I began to be able to bring together quantity and quality and, of course, it was much easier to travel. I have better and better opportunities of contact with other composers, other aesthetics.
La parábola del Tigre e del Espejo: drama in the work of Daniel Schvetz
How was the parable born... well, the process doesn’t matter; basically, there was an idea and I had the opportunity to make it real. There was a favourable conjunction of circumstances in which I had an interesting instrumental group: two wind quintets, a saxophone quartet, two percussionists and a singer, or a reciter. The connecting link is the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges and a poem by Fernando Pessoa, who was a kind of guest of Borges.
It’s called A poem, and it’s a poem of extreme syntactical and sonic richness. Though it’s a text, it seems as though it’s a pun. I’m fascinated by the sound of the spoken word; the consequences of it move me profoundly, quite apart from the actual meaning of the words. It’s well built, it’s wonderful architecture! This is true of other poems by Pessoa and other Portuguese poets. So we can say that the first thing was the choice of poems. How can I make something coherent if I only select poems I like? So I tried to search for thematic groups, to put something together: “Right, let’s look for a couple of poems by Borges.” Metaphysicians, man, being, existence... Another group of poems was dedicated to Don Quixote. I chose two or three poems. Another was dedicated to the animal, or to the animals for which I have a particular empathy, felines, and in particular the tiger. He talks about panthers, lions, but there’s something special about the tiger because there are many poems about it, and in fact it’s part of the title. Then there’s a group of poems dedicated to people from Buenos Aires itself: the cuchillero – the man who wields the knife. These were the first, the starting point for the tanguero, of the guapo, the man, the macho... And with this I tried to put together a piece which took me to various places during the course of he summer of 2002. (I finished it finally in early 2003). And then I thought: “How can I make it coherent?” Because I was concerned about the structure; I didn’t want a group of songs without... So I had recourse to something I like very much, which is the visual element. There are moments in the piece in which there are tutti, and there are points when there play the English horn, the piccolo, and the two percussionists, another point when the four saxophones play, standing up, another point at which the conductor is on stage, at the edge, and the performers spread out among the audience and on the stage. Everything is disordered, and then the singer begins to talk above a recording of himself. It’s the poem El Otro (The Other). The singer begins to speak over a recording of himself with some effects – it’s a very simple recording, no sophisticated technology, but it’s interesting to hear his own voice above himself, with the rhythms out of synch. Then the conductor gives some indications and there are tremolos, vibratos; some are short, three are longer; I do it with my fingers, and give an instruction... Then at another point, the piece finishes, everyone stands up, they take off their jackets, their shirts, and put on hats and begin to play a rap – which is something else I put in there along with jazz. What most concerned me was not to lose the dramatic aspect, but also that it not be, as it were, exclusively dramatic. The texts are quite complicated.
I don’t know if it’s of any interest to recount the story and the origins of the Sinfonia Apocalíptica, but it’s basically a symphonic piece for a small group; but the idea of symphony interests me as a total work, so to speak, movements, structure, and I thought it was the most appropriate term. It is indeed a work for four, a sax quartet, string quartet and percussion. It has four standard movements, in that each one has its own characteristics. This part was organized with the conductor, because it had to be organized to that it worked properly, the space, the tempi... I used a Celtic theme by Ian Anderson, from Jethro Tull, and the idea was that there should be another instrument apart from the four saxophones that played this melody, but the audience would not realize who was playing it. Then we worked out the visual element, which is more effective: it’s the fact that, in the fourth movement, marked adagissimo, each instrument has a solo, so it’s a string orchestra, with different kinds of texture, but it’s a solo: first the tenor saxophone plays, and when he finished he stands up and walks offstage.
Then comes the also saxophone, and the same thing happens: he stands up and goes out. So the audience has already understood that each one of them will play and leave. What the audience doesn’t know is that the conductor will also leave at the end of the fourth movement. So it’s a collection of “fears”, to see what will happen in the middle. We have three saxophonists and they begin to play with the orchestra, they reach a forte peak and them suddenly, from nothing, there appears a melody... free, with no tempo, ad libitum – well, then the fourth saxophonist returns and the sax continues to play: “Who’s playing the sax? Is it a recording? Is it the conductor playing?” And then the melody finishes, the saxophonist plays, the sax quartet harmonizes it; and then I should add that the fourth movement is dedicated to a generation who were active when I was an adolescent: the peace and love generation: Woodstock, hippies, who were perhaps followed by the yuppies... It’s dedicated to Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and there are brief quotations from the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Ian Anderson… it’s a dedication. And so, the fourth movement is very visual, obviously, the orchestra claps, gets up, recites, does a rap...
The only thing I would never do is defend the indefensible; in other words, I could not say music is tonal, music is atonal, Ligetian textures. Everything is a source of inspiration. I’m not going to give up C E G, or a tonic-dominant relationship, just as I’m not going to give up a sound that changes its quality gradually over five minutes – if it’s necessary – and there it is, it’s justified. The information we have is so enormous, and I like jazz, rock, rap, folk music in all its aspects. One walks through the street and there’s so much material and information that one can use. Why not use what’s on the radio if it’s a source for recreation? Of course! At least, it’s the way they do it. I may be wrong, it may be wrong... I feel that I can’t be exclusive. Of course, at a certain period of my life – total serialism – I thought I controlled everything, and I think one can control or have materials. But also, control comes from the distance between that which I want to do and myself; being reasonably objective and faithful to myself. I don’t know if I am, but I try.
Quite honestly, if you asked me “When were you tonal? When were there strange textures? When was... you can’t understand...” Of course, I pick up the score and describe it. When I was small, I felt that the creative act has an instinctive component… the creative gesture of the painter, of the poet. This impulse - which may be small or large - but it has an animal component, in the best sense. An animal has a brain, a stomach, a body, and in this sense, I prefer to accept my animal nature. We have instinct! And the brain can direct the instinct.