Entrevista a Carlos Caires / Interview with Carlos Caires
My journey towards composition… Well, since a tender age I was always pushed towards music. My father was a melomaniac and he had a lot of records at home, my mother also often took me to concerts, so since I was very young I have been very aware of music. While I was still at High School, I would always go for extra-curricular activities to do with music – either flute or guitar classes. When I was thirteen I went to the Gregorian Institute of Lisbon and began my musical education studying piano and later studying harmony, counterpoint and a discipline which was the Techniques of the 20th Century. Somehow, it was this subject which pushed me a little towards composition. It was given by my teacher Bochman – who in fact was also my harmony and counterpoint teacher. This subject was a little innovative – given the spirit of the times – and put me in contact with the first works of the 20th century (Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky). Given that there was just one year’s subject matter, we managed to get as far as Boulez – they weren’t composition classes as such, it was more of a secondary level discipline, but it had some analysis, always complemented with a little writing in the style of the period. Going back to my teacher Bochman, as in fact he was not only my teacher in this subject but I also went to an extra-curricular series called “commented auditions” in the Gregorian Institute of Lisbon, in which, once a month, he gave a commented session – or rather he would choose a work, only works from the 20th century, he would let us listen to it and would speak a little about the piece, composer and context.
When I finished my secondary level studies – so I was finishing High School, my 12th year and I was also finishing piano, harmony and counterpoint at the Gregorian Institute of Lisbon, there arose that situation where I had to choose if I went to university or if I chose music: it is everyone’s eternal dilemma. By chance I opted for music - I was also quite encouraged by my family – and I went to the Lisbon Superior School of Music, which in fact had just opened, I believe it was just it’s second year of operation. As for my liking for composition in itself, and to be completely honest, I cannot say that when I started at the Superior School of Music I already wanted to be a composer, although I entered a composition course. I wanted to study music, I wanted to study it at the highest level I was able to. I wanted to learn a lot. I wanted to study orchestration, but really my liking for composition more or less grew throughout the course – clearly when I was halfway through the course, I didn’t know if I was going to be a composer, but I wanted to do composition, without a shadow of a doubt. From then on I was composing and trying to present works – everyone knows how it works and it isn’t always easy – at the time I knew César Viana, who directed an orchestra called Sinfonia B, which premièred one of my works and then there was the Lisbon Sinfonietta. So, little by little, some of my things were being played. Then, when I finished the course, I entered the Superior School of Music as an assistant – so in a way I kept in contact with composition, now on the other side, as a teacher, getting to know new students, new minds, younger people, something which is always very good and stimulating.
After that, I was at the Superior School of Music for six years – and at the end of those six years I wanted to complement my education and study a specific area which was “Computer Music”. And it was at this time that I decided to go to Paris - I went to Paris because I knew a composer whose music attracted me a lot. Not only the music but the way of thinking, his writing about music and who was Horacio Vaggione. I decided to go to Paris to follow a university path with him, and having done my degree there, which is called “maitrise” I did the DEA (Masters) and at the moment I am completing my doctorate, always with him, always related with this area.
Following the composition course – this is a personal thing, but I have no problem in talking about things like this – there was a period when I was a little, not diffident about composition, but lost in relation to my references. I then directed a choir, spent some time directing, I did some orchestra direction courses (Spain, France), I directed the Portuguese Musical Youth for a few years. I then founded the Ricercare choir with Paulo Lourenço and Vasco Azevedo, I did many concerts of choral music, some with orchestra, I even enrolled in the Lisbon Metropolitan Orchestra to attend the orchestra direction course – here, I also wanted to compose at the same time, I was a little divided. The decision came with the piece Al niente because I wanted to revise it and, at the same time, I had a lot of material to study for the orchestra direction course (an overture by Mozart, a symphony by Schubert…).
So - I thought - this is the moment to decide, it is now, I will finish the piece and compose. Clearly I could have probably done both, but what I am saying is almost symbolic. It was a decision which would affect the rest of my life – even if I resolved the question temporarily, I would have to deal with the situation later on and so I decided: I will finish the piece and I will dedicate myself to composition, giving up orchestra direction. And so, I cancelled my inscription in the Metropolitan Orchestra, I left choir direction and from then on it was only, composition. The piece Al niente represented my return, and reaffirmation of my true vocation.
MASTERS, DOCTORATE, AND DEVELOPMENT OF A NEW COMPUTER-ORIENTED MUSICAL WORK ENVIRONMENT
When I did my degree, I developed my first basic work with music and a computer, to be more generic. My project was a piece, a piece for piano and electronics in real time – which in fact had already had its debut in the Música Viva Festival, played by Ana Telles Antunes - and my project consisted not only of composition, but also of the development of software which would allow the electronics to be performed in real time as well as a discussion on the implications that this had on my manner of composing. When I went to Paris, it wasn’t as if I was a fully formed composer, but I had acquired a certain “métier”, and obviously if I was confronted with electronics there was a clash, shall we say. It wasn’t a clash, but a confrontation – and we need to see the instrumentality in electronics, which is the instrumental gesture in electronics, this being the aspect which has interested me most lately. This is the aspect that I took to my masters and which I am developing in my doctorate. Concretely, the doctorate – it is a little difficult to summarise - but uses all the theoretical work and reflection concerning this problem: the bridges between the instrumental world, instrumental composition, and what I intend to do with electronics.
It is clear that if I use a normal audio editor, Pro-tools or Digital Performer, or other, I can do this. Only that the entity I create is not an easily re-workable entity – or rather, it is not a structured edition of the sound. For as much as I cut little bits and paste them (I have a session with twenty four tracks), I can perceptually identify by ear that there are four compound objects superimposed there. I can have done this with this intention, but afterwards it is extremely difficult for me to take one, or another and another and rework them or introduce the concept of variation in this object, because of the very type of editor. Now my doctorate project has been essentially to try to propose another type of sound editor and this is what I am working on, I am making a prototype in Max/MSP, which already works reasonably well and with which we can make a structured edit, shall we say, from the idea of a musical figure. Or rather, I start with small entities, and accumulate – grouping them into figures – and the figures can be accumulated into a higher entity which I call the mezzo-structure; the terminology doesn’t matter, what matters is the principle, it is a structured edit where I keep all the instructions related with what I have changed in that sound in the working memory of my programming environment.
Or rather, I can always go back, and keeping the same figure or basic morphology, introduce small variations to create new, similar objects. It is clear that this is a highly debatable compositional principle, but it is mine, it is the one I intend to implement, and that is why I made this software.
What I am trying to do with these electronic resources is something which always worked this way in instrumental music. In fact the very notion of a score implies this a little and although we know what gesture we want in the end, there is, in fact, the need to realise it, playing a note, and then another, and then another. So if I take a generic granulation tool and suddenly introduce a series of parameters, I have a sound which can last five seconds in which I have control over each particle, with a merely compositional gesture I have created an entire texture. If I wanted to do the same thing instrumentally I would necessarily have to detail each note for each instrument.
This is a little of what I am trying to implement in my programming environment and, in fact, Horacio Vaggione also has this way of thinking, but I think that this was a curious encounter. For some reason I obviously became interested in going to study with him, it wasn’t exactly by chance.
There are just instrumental works, there are just electronic works… well, not yet, but I am finishing one at the moment. And there are mixed works, these being the ones that are captivating me most at the moment. I have one mixed work with clarinet and electronics, one with flute and electronics, one with piano and electronics, and recently, last January, I debuted a piece for four percussionists and live electronics, in Italy. I have therefore worked a bit with mixing environments. Concretely, in terms of electronics, I have been interested in that question – what is the “instrumental gesture” in electronics, how can get the same type of phrase, of morphology if you like or of figure – I have worked on this and I have developed some computer tools to work precisely on this concept, on the concept of the musical figure, on how you can work on the figure with the help of the computer.
Above all it is a problem of conception of the thing itself, or rather, all the approaches that I made to electronic music were always perspectives. We had a great idea of a sonic mass which we then sort of – either by accumulation, or by juxtaposition, by whatever process – we made it more complex by layers. When you speak of sound “treatment”, and I don’t like the word treatment at all, because I think that it is easier and even nicer to speak of composition, to compose, to invent a sound is to compose it – it is generally worked with very global parameters - generally, in fact the very “interface” of the computer, the metaphor of the “plug-in” is a global thing which is applied to a sound in a global way. Now, it is clear that you can also work instrumentally in the same way, there are always these two ways to compose, top-down and bottom-up – which means to start from the bottom and go up and vice-versa. In fact in instrumental music we have two paradigmatic examples: Pierre Boulez who worked bottom up, he began very small and accumulated and Karlheinz Stockhausen who perhaps already knew what his globality was and then worked it down. Now, the way I see it, in my perspective, I am much more inclined to define the detail and based on the accumulation of details, construct the final scheme – although I know, or have the idea, or I should have the idea of the final scheme where I want to end up. Obviously it is not as simple as that, but the methodology is how I just explained it. Now, concretely, it’s like this: when I work on electronics or with recorded sound of any kind, let us suppose that I want to compose a figure – and here I will perhaps throw in a word which is assembly, or micro-assembly, because this is the way I like to work, a complex figure made up from many sounds which form a given morphology. We can almost call it a theme, if we want, a theme which could last one second, half a second, two or five seconds, it doesn’t matter. But it creates an entity.
It is clear that by getting a compound figure through micro-assembly, which may include sounds which last fifty milliseconds, I am in a scale of work which is not the same as in instrumental music. The idea is to understand – this in fact is one of Vaggione’s ideas – that the problems which arise in composition are somewhat the same whether in instrumental music or in electronic music. Everything depends on the scale through which you look at sound: the sound has to be composed. If I write a C on a score, I know I have to write the dynamics, I have to say what is the instrument, I have to know what is the articulation, and all of this makes up the sound which will finally be heard. I am speaking a little of this, because at times there is a perspective that perhaps this is a little old hat, perhaps in education, in school, I don’t know, where great importance is given to the notes as a symbol on a score – only that a note is not only a symbol on a score, a note is, in the end, a sound… it is there to be heard. I will just give an example which may perhaps illustrate where I am going with all of this. It is a bit influenced by the serial music from the fifties, well more than fifty years have gone by but the education we received, even up to the eighties, was influenced by this. Obviously, not that it is wrong but I think that it is a fact, and when in an analysis class, irrespective of your teacher – and I have already been a teacher and maybe I did the same thing – you take Webern’s work, for example, and we see where the series are. And in Boulez the same thing. And at times there are issues which I’m not saying are not approached, but perhaps do not have, do not gain the same weight as this approximation, of the notes, which are fulcral questions in fact, because it is this, at the end of the day – it’s not only this, but both things are interconnected. The question of timbre, dynamics, the sound in itself – one thing is the note, another thing is the sound – and I needed to work in fact with electronic and electro-acoustic resources to really interiorise and mature this idea which is more or less accepted by everyone, but which in my case was not yet second nature. I don’t know if it is yet, I don’t know if it ever will be, but that is where I want to get to and which, in fact, even when I write instrumental music now I think that my attitude has changed a little in relation to what it was ten years ago. Of course there is all the theory, games with notes, etc., but in fact, I think that I don’t place dynamics with such impunity as I did for example ten years ago. And I am speaking against myself, but that’s the way it is.
Concerning my works, I won’t talk about all of them. Al niente was my first piece to be played in public, but not in its final version. Shall we say that this piece had a first version (I am a person who, in general, revises my pieces) which was first played by the Sinfonia B orchestra conducted by César Viana, so long ago. And it was in fact the first time that I heard myself in public and this had a brutal impact on me. There you are, a person composes on the score, consciously knows what is there, knows what he is putting but there is something in the execution which transcends everything he might expect when we compose the piece. I am quite aware that there are many people who say that they know what it’s going to sound like from what is written but there are always countless unforeseen factors. And even more so with the question of time. Time passes, and time passes in a completely different way when we are listening. This is the eternal dilemma, to control time when we are composing. One page which takes a day to write will be heard in a second, it is tremendously disproportionate and this is the composer’s constant control – time, time, time. And when this piece was played it was an extraordinary experience; one week later, I got hold of the piece to revise it – there were many things I realised in the rehearsals, without having an orchestra at my disposal like Mahler to make changes during rehearsals - but I made a significant revision. Shall we say that the essence is still there: it is the same piece for all effects, but at the same time it isn’t, and that is because I changed sections, others disappeared, others were included, their order was changed or they were stretched because of the issue of time, I needed more; others I shortened. It was like putty in my hands to change it but the end result on the one hand had grown so distant from the original that I even changed the title of the piece, I then called it Al niente, because it came to have a solo instrument which is the clarinet, and the title even comes from the last gesture of the clarinet, which is a note which hangs until it disappears, giving the indication that Al niente is approaching, which is what gave the title to the piece. It was with this piece that I won the 1st Composition Contest of the Lisbon Municipality in 1995 and the fact of re-hearing a piece which was played later, after being revised, relaunched me somewhat along the path of composition.
More works…there are works which basically are included in this period, shall we say, they have the same type of musical and compositional concerns, the piece Wordpainting, the piece Lebhaft for flute. The piece Melodrama is a little different, it is a melodrama, or rather, music with recited text. It was based on a sermon by Father António Vieira as well as on other texts, but the main body is from the sermon. The programmed content of the piece was a little different from what I was used to composing at the time, but it is a piece which I should also revise, because although it worked, I think that there are things there which I could now rework, specifically the electronic part. It had a central section with piano solo which then connected with a small section with electronics. It was also at the time of this piece that I began to get into electronics and I began to listen to, become interested in and explore the computer and the available tools. At that time I wrote this piece – in 1997 – and for some reason in 1998 I went to Paris. There are more pieces, at least there is Clepsidra, for string orchestra and writings for the Lisbon Sinfonietta, which also belong a little to this period, a period with more rhythmic concerns while the piece Al niente is more strictly concerned with harmony. Then in Paris I composed Tríptico, a quartet for viola, harp and two percussionists. There is also the piece I mentioned just before, for piano and electronics, there is a version of the piece for flute with electronics, there is the piece Linear, for clarinet and electronics…Little by little I was entering a world where electronics is increasingly present, specifically with this piece, Linear, which was not for clarinet and electronics, it seems absurd to say so, but the first part – the piece lasts around eight minutes – is only tape, around four minutes or more. The clarinet only enters in the second half of the piece. This is partly due to the fact that I am still searching to see how the instrumental world could connect to the electronic world. I think that this is an eternal question which everyone who works with these resources faces – how is it that these two worlds, which are apparently so different but with so much in common – can really come together in a consistent and beautiful way, because this is what is important. So, this piece still reflects my search and so it has this solution, this device – the first part only with electronics with a type of elaboration which little by little introduces the clarinet, or rather through small melodic gestures, the clarinet is introduced by the electronics but they don’t ever completely come together. There are electronics in the second part, obviously, but much less present; there is clarinet in the first part, because this uses many clarinet sounds which are sampled, worked and mixed, but the two worlds don’t ever really come together. The next piece was a piece for four percussionists and electronics in real time and which was a commission from the RAI for a percussion group of the RAI Symphonic Orchestra. It was first played in January 2005 in Turin, conducted by the maestro Valade. The electronics part was performed by me and continued in the studio of the “Tempo Reale” centre. It is a piece where I am already looking for a greater fusion between electronics and instruments.
I work the electronics essentially according to principles which I explained just before – based on small figures, with the same figures as another scale also to be played. We can say that the electronics functions here as a fifth percussionist, only that it is a virtuoso percussionist, it can play very fast and with notes of very small values – it is a little surreal, but that’s how it is. There is also more of a cause-consequence effect between instruments and electronics, it is not only a subversion, but I try for there to be greater complementarity. In fact the electronics is all exclusively based on sounds recorded from percussion instruments, which are then reworked, mixed, cut, paste, etc.…I say the electronics is in real time, but there is no signal processing in real time. There is some, but it is very little – some resonant filters – but the main work in real time is the control and triggering of the various figures and which is done by me. Basically, the other percussionist was me. I therefore had an interface, on the one hand the previously composed figures or rather, I had the description of the figures stored on the computer under the format of text and on the other hand the computer keyboard with a module of Midi potentiometers, as well as a graphic mixing desk (Tablet) with a digital pen, with which I controlled the way in which the figure would be made up. I thus controlled the selection of samples which were read according to the positioning of the pen on the graphic desk, with the pressure of the pen being used to control various types of parameters. And there it is, basically, the real time is more in terms of interpretation than properly of treatment.
It is not the treatment which interests me at the end of the day. The treatment forms part of the act of composition, I don’t look at it as an effect (as it is sometimes said: “to add an effect”), it is not an effect as when you assume the responsibility when you are composing by opening that plug-in, etc… and this has to be faced and then conclusions have to be drawn from this act of composition. So it is important for me to go back, in relation to what I just said, in terms of my environment, so as to be able to decompose what I composed, in order to recompose in another way. If an effect is an act of composition, for me, it has this implication, that is, how am I going to develop what I have just done. And in respect of the piano piece, it was a bit like the same thing: there was a program, the Max, which worked in real time but which was not exactly signal treatment in real time, it was rather a reorganisation of the figures of the material which was written. In fact, I see my program Max as a score, somewhat like Philippe Manoury, the virtual score; that is a score, a description of a certain type of musical text. They are not notes, but whether they be algorithms or whatever, there are figures, rhythms, there is everything that a conventional score has. My attitude is not to be too rigid amongst all this. I have, for example, an ascending design, another design composed of four chords or four impulses, another also composed of a melody which has a certain shape…Now, each of these elements which makes up this figure can be worked individually – for example, the figure which is ascending can be varied in terms of velocity rising up or with the chords I can play with the deformation of the pitch (more condensed, closer together), etc. And my work is a little split between real time and deferred time, by varying these parameters which make up the general figure, or rather, the figure resulting from the reworking of the parameters – which does not become a new figure. Our ears recognise it as the same form, the same Gestalt, shall we say, and this is a very important aspect for me. Returning to a question I already mentioned – granulation - we have a cloud of grains of sound, produced by an algorithm to which we make an “input” , we provide the parameters or rather the duration, the panorama and that’s it, it is generated. In the environment I have created in programming, one of the tools is obviously a granulator which allows you to do this, only that then, through the interface, I can visualise each of the grains. At times it can be something precious, to be observing each one of the grains, but I can rework small modifications in this cloud of grains, modifying one parameter - for example, a filter at the start, in the middle and at the end. By this I want to say that you recognise the same basic morphology, but now with a small nuance in the filter parameter or in the parameter of the velocity in reading each sound or even, taking a cloud and introducing new particles of sound in it which can from somewhere else – and little by little, transform a cloud of grains of sound into something else and all this because it is important to generate something from a single gesture. There is a global idea that defines a musical object which only makes sense from the point of view of the composition if we can then work on the tiny singularities which are there – our desire as a composer. To a degree this represents the work philosophy which is guiding me at the moment.