Entrevista a Virgílio Melo / Interview with Virgílio Melo
Audio Version | Text Version



To start with there is one thing I wanted to point out which is that from time to time there is a discourse, which seems as if whoever dedicates themselves to more complex or contemporary music forms does so out of a kind of militant obligation. You hear a lot of people say: “Ah, contemporary music is no fun”… My first experience of contemporary music and of music in general was a kind of revelation and a great pleasure. The first time I heard Webern was like an intellectual and sensorial earthquake. And so it was always very much like that. My education was, well, a poor one.


Constança Capdeville who is one of those almost Zen-like phenomena… I learned nothing with her, but she was one of those people who knew how to open up what was inside of each person – not learning in this case is positive. In this she was an absolutely extraordinary person, and I know that in these interviews you will have others saying exactly the same thing or almost. Then there was a very important person, Santiago Kastner, because contrary to what one may think he was not exclusively – contrary to many musicologists, unfortunately – centred on his speciality (Iberian music). He was the first person, no matter how much this may shame other teachers, who roundly and soundly explained what was dodecaphonism, for example. Then later on there obviously came that figure of Emmanuel Nunes, who is for me obviously one of our great living composers, although it is not a fashionable thing to say, who obviously was influential through his seminars, and then with whom I later studied. Then a person who, I usually say, taught me to think, is a man called Rémy Stricker, with whom I studied aesthetics in Paris and who is the author of various very worthy books. And there you have an education which is a little – I don’t like to say eclectic because the term has been so bandied about (eclectic being almost the same as mental confusion) – but it was really very eclectic. So there was a man with a certain humanistic dimension and at the same time conservative, like Kastner, someone nicely anarchistic like Constança Capdeville and someone with the extreme intellectual discipline and sensitivity of Emmanuel Nunes. And finally someone like Rémy Stricker, completely bent on psychoanalysis but who at the same time was an excellent analyst. There is a text on João Pedro Oliveira which I wrote and which speaks a lot of that image of the bee, which tries to make its honey from different pollens, it is a little like that idea.



HISTORICAL perspective, AESTHETIC perspective

There is a kind of artistic SELF which has something to do with the mythical SELF or with the depths of the unconsciousness or probably with the two things at the same time, which is very often different from our social, psychological, and even intimate, relational self, shall we say. So at times I am surprised with what comes out, generically speaking, and I confess that at times it is difficult to distance ourselves to be able to make a judgement. I am not speaking of a judgement of value but for example there are many composers – Boulez is a typical case of the type who knows what he wants to do and does it, and when he doesn’t manage it, he knows perfectly where he fell short and moves on. In my opinion there are others who are completely misled, which obviously has nothing to do with the value of the music. Curiously I think one of these cases is Debussy, who very often says things about music – I did this, I did that – and then probably the outcome or the major consequences of that are completely different things. So, in my case, I think that there is something which basically is common to many others, a certain attempt on the one hand – how do I say this without seeming a little pretentious – a kind of a sacred side to music, or a kind of parenthesis of eternity in the chronological time in which we live, and which basically I think that all good music has. And there is also an aspect which concerns me and which is the question of silence, because I think that it is an extremely real fiction. Basically Cage is right when he says that silence does not exist, and just like many other things which do not exist, this is extremely important. What is really important in life are the things which do not exist – sound also does not exist. I had an acoustics teacher who used to say “sound does not exist” – it is a perturbation of particles, if no one is there, if the subject is not there then there is no sound, there is simply particles moving – it is a purely mechanical thing. This is one aspect. I assume a certain heritage of music from 1945 onwards, I don’t know how I should call it – I don’t like “avantgarde” because it is an absolutely horrendous military and political term, and to call it contemporary music also means nothing, because all music is contemporary in its time – but this generation which I usually call the “golden generation”, who are those who are now slowly disappearing (Berio and Nono have already gone, Stockhausen and Boulez are both already advanced in years), but I think that those generations who began their activities as composers following the Second World War, one thing which opened doors, even if today it is being rejected in certain aspects, I am convinced that will return because the doors which were opened have not yet been completely explored, contrary to what people may think. And in fact I am convinced that the aspects which are called post-modernism (whatever that may be!) has to do with things which we have already heard – a little like a supermarket of styles, as Alexandre Delgado used to say. This has been magnificently realised in Berio’s symphony, in 1968, and at that time post-modernism wasn’t talked about as yet – there are aspects there which will return. Then I am also concerned about this: I have noticed that I have oscillated between two extremes: on the one hand a certain logic, what the French especially call spectral music, the “processus”, something which develops… It isn’t quite a development, it is to unfold, to calmly be born, live and die, and then a formal discourse, at the other extreme, a formal discourse which is more modern, a little like Joyce’s experiments in literature, a more fragmentary discourse, not immediately tautological.


And basically my refusal – probably also because there is a personal difficulty (things are very often like that) – is of the narrative, classic discourse. I don’t refuse it necessarily in the others, and I think that one aspect that is being lost somewhat is a certain formal wealth in music. There are very interesting things, like the sonorities, but there is a certain formal laziness. Because there is that obsession in reaching the public… I usually have a “boutade”, which is: “The public only has one use – it is an absorbent material from the point of view of acoustics”. Because I don’t think that there is a “public” – in fact there are “publics”. And then by nature I very much mistrust collective concepts. There are people who are touched and people who are not touched, but “public”, I don’t know what that is.




I think that all of us, when we compose, we have an ideal listener, if not we would be completely autistic. There is a perspective of communication. What I think is that these terms are very much misused. I am now re-reading Proust, I promised myself I would do this before I died, and right near the end, in “Le Temps Retrouvé”, there is an admirable passage on popular or national art which he puts into the same bag, and rightly so (this kind of ideas that he talks about and which would be naive if they weren’t so dangerous). He says, amongst other things, a phrase which always struck me: that art which is called popular would be more easily consumed by the members of the “Jockey Club” or rather by the elite than by the general labour confederation. I think that he is absolutely right; they are very often things which come from a certain intellectual bourgeoisie with a poor conscience. Basically, what makes it sometimes ridiculous is that there is a desire which is a little childish to be flattered and to please lots of people. In any case, we are in the wrong area and it would be better if we did something else, like playing football or making light music, and so I think that the problem should not even be raised.




I like that Taoist saying a lot – well, I will quote one of the thousands of possible translations of the text – that is “The important thing in a vase is the empty space inside it”. This is a fundamental idea, which in fact is also found in much Western tradition. We began to turn our back on our spiritual tradition. At a certain point the East “smacked us” in the face and maybe at a good time on the one hand for us to turn towards our own, and on the other in order to see that there are things which are in common to a degree. When there is a certain type of path, there are certain founding intuitions, which may appear in the East, in the West, in the North or in the South.


There is not just one Far East, there are many Far Easts, it is so vast! But there is the discovery of the West, which influenced me a lot even through the traditional music of these countries. When I met Taira he was already someone that had impressed me – what struck me most in Yoshihisa Taira was his ear for sonorities, in fact more western things. Well, you need to remember that Taira had already lived in France for some time – I don’t know his biography, but he went there to study with André Jolivet who was an orientalist. One thing you notice in Taira is that his music is by a Japanese, but we also notice that it is music by a Japanese with an Western education.


In the case of my piece , it is very funny because, especially in France – due to the subtlety of the grammatical accents – many people thought it was a reference to the theatre Nô. It has absolutely nothing to do with it, it is (knot) in the acoustic sense of the term, so – the point of maximum pressure and minimum movement, that is the idea. I think that this is an idea I had inside of me, but where I was also influenced by Nunes. Things advance but basically do not advance as much as they seem, and there is a paradox there which is very interesting. But it is curious to see that the Far East really does it, and I was even thinking for example about Boulez. There is one thing I don’t like very much and that is the common areas, classifying things – serialism has nothing to do with the Far East, Stockhausen would have something to do with the Far East, as he obviously does, but Boulez has nothing to do with it, I mean… He can even write in texts where the guitar of Marteau sans Maître is inspired by Japanese Koto, which is not of any interest at all. And then another thing also is that one has to distance oneself from what the composer actually writes, which is interesting to see and fascinating to study, principally with people like Boulez who write magnificently, but which very often is not necessarily the evangelical truth about his own work. The best example is Debussy – I never saw such magnificently written rubbish as in Debussy’s writings. By this I mean that this perspective of silence and in a way of approaching time, influenced the West coming from Far East thinking – for example by traditional music – but I think that this is a general phenomenon. In a given period it is in the air of the times, but it wasn’t particularly so with Taira.




There is one with which I am personally very happy which is the only piece for a orchestra, which is called Embalos. For various reasons: because there is an aspect which I practise from time to time and which I like a lot, which are the so-called pedagogical works, works which are therefore technically relatively easy and in which the challenge is to do something musically interesting, mainly without abdicating its own aesthetics and personality. And with this limitation it is already in itself a very amusing exercise. Embalos is a work on traditional Portuguese melodies. I took lullabies – hence the name of the work in Portuguese – and I think that I did this well, it has a certain impact and I think that I reconciled (which is one of my utopias, well, my squaring of the circle) the logic of the “processus”, the thing which is continuous and which has a certain well rounded atmosphere, with no sharp angles, and a certain “éclatement”, a certain dispersion of the discourse. I think that it came out well, and then it was very well worked, I mean, it was a pleasure. It was a commission from the Escola Oficial de Santo Tirso and was played by an orchestra which brought people from two professional schools together, Santo Tirso and Viana do Castelo. And the quality of the work… I was absolutely amazed. Happily, one good thing about when you reach over forty years old you don’t beat around the bush! There is a very interesting initiative recently, which are those works by students or of young composers which are played by the Gulbenkian after being chosen by a committee. I think to say disgusting is being nice, because there is a kind of accumulated frustration over the years which they offload onto the poor youngsters, and generally the “maîtres” don’t have the authority, I don’t know why, to tell them to be quiet, because I think that a professional in an orchestra does not have to like or dislike the music, he or she has to play what is there. And fortunately the teaching of composition has advanced enough for what is written to be perfectly possible in 99% of the cases. And one small impossible note or other in a score of thousands of notes, I think is less serious than the quantity of notes which the musicians play out of tune in any type of normal repertoire, and I therefore wanted to mention this because I think that it is really sad. You don’t find this type of attitude amongst the students, who curiously very often change their attitude when they enter the professional circuit, and it is a pleasure to work with these people. They even make us believe in music and in the sacred side – because this is also connected to the sacred side, of respect. Music is to be respected. You may not like something, you may never see or hear it again, fine, but the first attitude is one of respect.




Then there is a work – well, now I’m going to flatter the interviewer – which had its debut in the Música Viva Festival in 2000, which was Circuitus, in the French-Portuguese Institute. One aspect of which was that it was the first time that I tried to do an open form and I have already had the opportunity to try the work in other combinations and it functions as well or as badly as the first. I think that here various aspects come together, it manages to connect various aspects, the sacred and symbolic side, the use of electronics in real time, which is an expression I like. I think it is tremendously funny, because you don’t have live electronics as you know, there is always a period of latency and the use of spaces, of different temperaments of the same temperament – which is a thing which also fascinates me. It’s such a shame that Western Organology is quite distanced from that. But you know Chinese culture – I have just discovered the Gujin – which is an instrument which has absolutely marvellous harmonics – I am absolutely enthralled. I now have Gujin records, I spend my life listening to it, but really there is a tuning, not because I think there is a tuning which is more natural than any other, what I believe is that the palette of intervals – and there are very interesting works which touch on this – should be extended to various possibilities. It would be a little like the various tonalities and modulation in tonal music.


Well, in Circuitus I used the intervals from the harmonic series, but the flutes are playing in equal temperament, in fact, or in the practical approximation to equal temperament, which is not the same thing. Then, it is a scheme of transpositions with intervals taken from the harmonic series. But well, if you continue the harmonic series you can get everything, it is between proportions of greater or lesser numbers. Now for me the aspect which interests me is the question of establishing various harmonic fields, various temperaments in a way which, for now, is practical and which does not always imply resorting to electronics, and then the passage between them, so it’s a scheme of modulation. What they have in common, at least, it is the octave. I should say that basically there is resistance in the field of creation of erudite music, but it is a phenomenon about which, for example, the resurgence of ancient music – which is an absurd expression because it groups together fourteen centuries of music or however many there are – called our attention to. The groups, I don’t know, which sing Medieval music in the Pythagorean temperament – well an approximation to the Pythagorean, some Mesotonics and all that… – this is something which we have already become used to hearing and even the uncultured public can recognise the different colours. So it is us who don’t accept the circuit. I now increasingly want to compose for so-called ancient instruments or exotic instruments because really where there is most resistance is in the environment of western instruments, for purely sociological and institutional reasons. And at times you can get extraordinary things with a baroque flute or a harpsichord – if you ask a violinist to play four keys, he protests; if you say it to a harpsichord player, he says “look, I’ll tune this differently”. He may even become interested and propose “Ah, but there is the Werkmeister and so on!”




I can only answer you piece by piece, although possibly – but I’ll leave that for the musicologists of the future – it may be possible to find constancies.


But that aspect is a little “French” – this perhaps may be unfair – to be there enjoying the sound, after a while it tires me, it completely wears me out. Like a magnificent cake: by the third slice you’re sick of it. And so, that somewhat Ircam air – this is another curious thing, there are some journalists who speak about the Ircam aesthetic. They still don’t understand that the Ircam aesthetic turned around 180º a few years ago, as you know – it became completely GRM, it became spectral, sensorial. This story of the sound/note, these oppositions are a little fallacious for me, as in the history of music. I think that when someone is working with a dodecaphonic series, if it is well composed, it is obviously creating a sound, and you can also create a sound with the harmonic series.


But there is an idea that has to do – I don’t like to say that it has to do with serialism, because I think that serialism has to do with a current of Western music thought at least since Ma Fin Est Mon Commencement, by Guillaume de Machaut – with an abstract current, structural and above all, which is something like Goethe’s idea of the original plant: everything comes from that. In this sense, serial thought will always be present – nowadays all music where there is a dissonant interval with more than one octave is called serial. At least this is what the journalists call serial. The other day I found a piece which began with D 2, and then hit the C 4 – in fact it is the other way around, it was the C sharp 4 and then the D 2. In conclusion, it would be called serial, but in fact it is the beginning of A Poet’s Love, by Schumann! But right, it would be included in the classification of serial by our eminent musical journalists for sure.


But going back to the subject, there is a spectral side in this piece and also the use of ring modulation. And then there is my post-modern side (I have a student who says it is my African side), which is the integration of various types of music and so on – an aspect which I voluntarily do not insist on in my discourse because I think that nowadays it is such a despicable way to sell something that I prefer to see the quality of the goods instead of the quality of the wrapping paper. The best I heard recently – I won’t say names – is that Gershwin was a “crossover” composer when in fact he was a music-hall composer who was always obsessed with being an erudite composer. If you said this to Gershwin he would have a heart attack he would never get over. Well, you have to move into the area of the marketing discourse to really see what music is and what its effect is. But in the piece Epiclesis there is this side as it has to do with the evocation of the Holy Spirit, there is therefore an ecumenical side and a somewhat programmatical side – you have Gregorian chanting, you have a kind of electronic “tabla” which by reference recalls classical Indian music, and you have the Muslim call to prayer, in fact very well sung by an absolutely talented type from South Yemen, as well as the aboriginal instrument, the Didgeridoo.



Works FOR WIND instruments: THE preference FOR THE clarinet

In principle there is a preference for wind instruments, because I think that these are the most human instruments that there are. Don’t come to me with strings, they are extremely beautiful, but it is possible to play strings without breathing, musically speaking, which is something a bit scary. You can also do that with wind instruments, with circular breathing techniques and what more, but in any case these are special effects – just as it is also possible to play the piano without breathing, we also have many examples out there. So I like wind instruments and above all those which use a reed. I think that they have a sonority which is at the same time very human, sincere, with a magical power, more than the flute which sometimes sounds a little too pure acoustically. I like very much everything that has a reed. And you may notice that there is a surge of compositions for clarinet. At a certain time, in certain circumstances, it has to do with a person called António Saiote, who formed a school of competent clarinetists and in relation to whom you at least were sure to hear a fairly faithful version of what we had written, contrary to other instruments which in fact developed later. And so I remained somewhat faithful to the clarinet and to the flute, as it is obvious that they are agile and flexible instruments. The oboe and the bassoon are fascinating but they are not so agile. It depends on the acoustic nature of the instruments. So I think that there is no mystery in this.




The pedagogical side is fundamental, because I really like to teach a lot. It obviously is not as airtight a compartment as the composer’s side – and there are many times that students have given me ideas. There are challenges, when you have to explain things and you have to explain them from another perspective, whether in someone else’s music or in your own.


I also have some analytical projects (which are being very well received) but this is just the tip of the iceberg, of that mythical animal which torments the life of Portuguese university students called the doctorate: “I can’t! I can’t call my wife because of the doctorate! I can’t call my kids because of the doctorate. I can’t go out because of the doctorate…” Well, I am also on this adventure but it has to do with the development of analytical methods which can be applicable to various types of music, from various periods.





There are two things which I would like to say: I have a somewhat apocalyptical side, in the sense that I have faith that this will all change greatly, but that we will suffer a few catastrophes first. I know history doesn’t repeat itself, but this is a little like the period around Bach’s death and the Galant style… “Ah, what the teachers and the others have done is interesting but it is very complicated; let’s do something simpler…”. Now, I think that this is terrible and in the history of music there is a period where nothing happened until Mozart came along – there are some interesting people but a little marginal. I believe that this is something which really has to do with the spiritual side. If there is one thing which is guaranteed to get me mad it is to say that erudite music is not interactive – and some years ago, after the 25th of April revolution, they said that people didn’t participate. As if listening intelligently were not one of the most participative acts that there is! I have nothing against tapping your foot, or moving your backside, or anything else but the idea that listening is something passive gets me mad. Something which moves me deeply for example is Nono’s last works, the way in which he returned to the terms of perception, to force people to listen and which he thought was something revolutionary – and I share his political ideas and I also think you need to educate people to listen and in this way the education system is very much responsible. And it is also very responsible for a whole frenetic… People drink too much coffee, not to mention other stimulants – I am a coffee lover as you know – and there is that famous story of the attention span which the Americans invented for advertising. One of these days we will have to compose forcibly aware of the attention span… If you are well-known you are a mystic, if you’re not well-known you’re a bore.


So I think that if we concentrate on the quality of audition, even almost as a meditation exercise, it is extremely important.