Entrevista a Tomás Henriques / Interview with Tomás Henriques
Development as a Composer
My development as a composer is quite unknown to the majority of my composer colleagues and other people. I come from practical music making. The change to composition was a choice I made between 18 and 20 years of age. My whole education was connected to practical music making, in chamber groups and orchestras. Only when I went to the Conservatory, aged 14, did I come into contact with composition, and become interested in the way in which music is written and created.
There was not really a composer who influences me. In my case, it was more thinking about how one wrote music and which possibilities of writing there were, and which new languages one could create. Obviously, I began to listen to a great deal of music by contemporary composers. Equally important was my contact with Peixinho, with whom I discovered much new music, as well as Emmanuel Nunes, in his famous seminars, in which I came to know other people who are now in the mainstream of Portuguese music.
Nevertheless, I consider my education at the National Conservatory of Lisbon to have been important. Later, in 1984-85, my participation in the electro-acoustic courses in Viana do Castelo allowed me to meet Teruggi, which led me to go to Paris to study this kind of music for some months. This connection to electro-acoustic music became quite strong, since I could link it to something that I found quite fascinating – the use of information technology and new technology in composition. Since then, my musical output has followed a double path, including not only new technologies, but completely acoustic pieces.
Compositional Approaches and Processes:
Instrumental Music versus Electro-acoustic Music.
I make no clear distinction between my electro-acoustic music and my instrumental music. I think there’s a connection between them in terms of the kind of colour and sound-worlds I create. For me, electro-acoustic music – and the technologies that allow me to work with sources other than instrumental sources – is simply another way of expressing that which gives me most pleasure, or that which I am interested in expressing as a composer. So there is a parallel between the musical approaches in these two fields. My liking for harmonic refinement, for example, I think is also reflected in my electronic music. the integration of the element of surprise, or contrast, these are all denominators that may be found in both my instrumental and my electronic music. All the work I did with the GRM only affected me as far as the freedom of choice of materials and the freedom of the potential of these materials was concerned. I was always very careful, when working with the electronic part, always to have an ordered scheme of thinking.
I believe in a line of thought that demands – whether in terms of electro-acoustic music of any other – structured thinking in relation to what one may actually modulate, what may be got round, modified and distorted, but it must be thinking that unifies and gives a direction to the composition, in which one may feel, formally speaking, a structure and an architecture that support the music. otherwise, we enter into the nebulous realm of intuition – which I think already has a pretty strong artistic expression in the 1960s and 70s, but which doesn’t make much sense now. Therefore, my electronic music and my acoustic music share this concern: to follow defined structural patterns, which I work, refine, modify and recreate.
Sometimes there is a certain appropriation of the kinds of specific studio techniques in the field of instrumental writing. All the work it is possible to do with electro-acoustic music, such as, for example, layering, in extending and compressing material, distorting it during the course of time and frequency, obviously allows thinking and reflection on these processes. One may extrapolate this to the instrumental area and vice-versa. In other words, the thinking and approaches of acoustic music – such as that of exploring sound masses by means of canonic processes – may be related to layering. There’s a real feedback that influences these two aspects of my work.
Above all – concerning electro-acoustic music – timbral thinking takes on, in my opinion, a great independence, from which I diverge. In some works, such as Time Warp and even in Trois Rêves, which was written more recently, sound masses with harmonic characteristics are heard. One may say that at a given moment a perfect major chord is sounded, or a perfect minor chord, but it is used in a dysfunctional way in terms of tonal context. Of course, in electro-acoustic music this would make no sense, though there exists, obviously, a separation between timbral richness – which evolves in a much more discreet way, more measured, more refined in relation to time – and the harmonic option – which make it more uniform and stable. I am speaking of these two works because one may really hear, from time to time, sound masses that define perfect major or minor chords, which have no other effect than allowing a stability of consonance, psycho-acoustically speaking.
In electro-acoustic music, there’s the problem of consonance and dissonance - the problem is a bit different from instrumental music. because the possibilities are much greater. In any case, what we hear are games between sound masses more or less consonant or dissonant. For me, what’s really at stake in all the pieces, whether acoustic or electro-acoustic, is the balance between consonance and dissonance. What gives them their form is the way in which this is delineated over the course of time.
The problem of form, consonance and dissonance.
When I speak of the notion of consonance and the stability of a sound mass, I do it from a physical, acoustic standpoint – where there is a separation, or non-coincidence, in the great sound cake of harmonics, in which certain relationships of whole numbers are established, or more complex relationships in which interferences are created – and from the psychic standpoint of the perception of that same stability. Obviously, when one speaks of non-harmonic consonance, there are many studies already extant today on the non-harmonic nature of even a fundamental interval, such as the octave. Moreover, in more timbrally complex sounds, there are octaves which are tuned even when not in an exact two-to-one proportion. There’s quite an interesting field of work in this respect. But, returning to the original idea, I’m talking about a consonance that gives me stability, whether physically or psychically. In musical terms, I can obtain an energetic reduction in terms of the way I direct the musical material. For me, it’s essential to work with contrasts, even though they be between consonances – it’s much more difficult to work only with consonances than with consonances and dissonances together.
It’s easier for a composer to claim that he is a neo-tonal or neo-romantic composer in the United States than in Europe. In fact, I worked with some people who practice the toughest kind of serialism there is in the United States, such as Charles Warren, with whom I learned a great deal. I think he was the person who influenced me most in terms of writing and in terms of an big explosion of creativity, which was diametrically opposed to the kind of aesthetic and to the kinds of pieces I was used to hearing – especially the works of the Second Viennese School and the composers who followed the development of that school, notably Pierre Boulez. People such as Warren had a very refined métier of vivacity and expressiveness that really surprised me, and made me understand that there was light at the end of the tunnel. They made me understand composing music using serial methods was perfectly viable and a worthwhile option. In the United States there are various anti-Warren currents, and even more anti-Babbit currents (these are the two fundamentalist serialists), but I think that my approach with regard to my inserting tonal materials is, in any case, merely occasional. I remember a work I wrote recently, in 2002, Time Warp, in which there is a chord of D flat major, which is fundamental during the whole piece. In any case, it is a choice. It has to do with the insertion of an element of stability in terms of sound energy. I don’t identify myself at all with tonal music, or with the neo-tonalists. As an aesthetic choice I think that tonal music had its place in history. Even the minimalists, by bringing back tonal harmonies, did so in a very different way, in that there is no functionality, because all the material is expanded during the course of time and thus one loses the idea of harmonic progression. What I do identify with is a style of writing based and founded on a structured thinking that, almost always, has to do with the creation of groups of notes in relation to which is affected a group of modifications, many of them very simple. I have come to the conclusion that the simpler the options, in terms of modification, the more effective the sound result. At times, a simple inversion of the material is much more interesting musically, or sonically, that a multiplication by a factor of 2.5 – this is done with the computer, with which one may algorithmically generate results in numerical terms when one is dealing with series and notes. From time to time, I have used some mathematical processes, but I come to the conclusion that I obtain better results if I sit at a table and do it by hand. This doesn’t mean that one may not arrive at very interesting things algorithmically, but I think there’s still a great deal of space for creativity in the simpler things, obviously subordinated to structural thinking. This is essential. I think that what is common to all my works is this structured element. I think there’s a formal solidity, though one cannot hear all concrete formal aspects associated with the material.
Information technology in the creative process
I do a great deal of experimental work in terms of trying to generate material with algorithmic processes, especially now with the MAX/MSP – with which it is easier to carry it out, instead of creating things from nothing. Though the final result leads me to reflect afterwards on what I am hearing, sometimes I end up working with a set of materials and choosing to write in a much more “human” way, approaching the material in a simpler fashion, more direct and more controlled by me. All this, as I said a while ago, while not neglecting, obviously, the potential of the computer.
Sibila I, Sibila II, Frames, Sudeste and Time Warp
Sibila I is a piece for piano and electronic sound. It’s a work in which the electronic part was conceived from the beginning as being extremely instrumental, and in which I try to extract the components of the frequency defined on the basis of the electronic sound. That is, there exist many electronic sounds of abstract origin, or of concrete origin, as well as of electronic origin. At first, when we hear these sounds, we cannot identify them or place them within a context of frequencies and define a D or an A sharp. They are electronic sounds that, in an abstract way, I juxtapose with the piano’s material, inserted on the basis of their frequency characteristics. Thus, sound masses are created which contrast with, superimpose themselves, and dialogue with their frequency components. It’s a piece from the beginning of the 1990s, in which the piano part has as basis a group of twelve chords, which serve as a kind of harmonic cantus firmus that goes through the whole work. In fact, the work is a set of variations on this harmonic field.
Frames is another piece that uses the same kind of thinking, in which the relationships of the notes, whether vertical or horizontal, are taken from the harmonic field, and all the material is generated from the variation and increase in complexity of the relations already extant, from the beginning, in this harmonic field.
Sibila I is an important piece in that it is based on parameters of numerical origin – numerical relationships and ratios – that place in juxtaposition the instrumental structural part, in quite a direct way. The electronic part is simple, with synthesized sounds, others not recorded, selected, sequenced and organized in a relationship of similarity and difference between the notes and the electronic sound, in the parameter of frequencies.
Sibila II is basically Sibila I without the electronic part. This is because it was conceived from the beginning do that the piano part could stand alone as a solo work, with which the electronic part blends. It’s obviously the electronic part that gives a completely different dimension to the piece, but, with small modifications, the part for piano solo can be played by the pianist and stand by itself, on the basis of the music written only for the instrumental part. It’s a more mobile Sibila, which can be taken around and more easily played without the electronic part.
I’d also like to mention Sudeste, from 1992, for five percussionists – two marimbas, two vibraphones and a temple-block – that takes as its original idea work with the parameter of duration. Here, rhythm is quite an important element, in which the concepts of pulsation and the diversion of pulsation, on the one hand, and the concept of rhythmic motives – which contrast, clash and fit together – on the other, provide the most important substance of the work. As far as pitch organization is concerned, the work is very much grounded in the concept of canon. Canons that occur by temporal stretching, that are not linear, but which are composed by the processes of retrograde and inversion and which during the course of the piece compact and expand. The piece goes forward essentially on account of these canons, and of the multiplication of the material, in which the melodic line later explodes and is used in the other instruments.
As for electronic music, I could talk about Time Warp, for example. Time Warp is a work that, as I mentioned before, uses a sound mass – a kind of harmonic pedal based on a perfect major chord. It’s a work that starts from material generated, synthesized, sequenced and created with a programme that I wrote in 1993, PANGEA. This is a programme for the spatialization and editing of sound, which allows one to break up a sound into a very large group of small fragments and re-orientate them, not only in time, but also in space – in that each fragment may be placed in any channel of acoustic space. A section of this piece was made with this programme. There are various sound objects which are introduced into the composition, notably a small excerpt of a Gregorian chant, which I tried to insert in order to create a certain stability and a certain timelessness. Since I use, in musical terms, a pedal – which is the perfect major chord – that gives this feeling of stability, I inserted this chant also in order to help me obtain this feeling. As far as the temporal dimension is concerned, I tried to make this quite extensive, so that one could get lost in the temporal sense. So it is a work that has several components, but which I think blends things timbrally, harmonically and formally, though I consider the piece to be a simple one. It isn’t complex, in the way that I often hear, or as we usually hear in festivals in which many things happen simultaneously. I have a tendency to write in a simple fashion, so that it is formally easier, not to follow, exactly, but stable in terms of its use over the course of time.
Sound editing software: Pangea and Real Move
Time Warp and Trois
Rêves, for example, are completely
different works. They were composed using software I developed recently – PANGEA and, more recently still, Real Move.
I have a love-hate relationship with programming. Hate in that, very often, I notice how much time I’ve spent looking at the computer screen trying to do something with programming, when I could have achieved much more if I’d been writing music. It would be more immediate, and I would perhaps achieve different results. In any event, my work with and liking for mathematics and the exact sciences – this was really what I studied at school and also at university, where for a time I studied engineering – has meant that I have worked particularly on the creation of programmes for sound spatialization. Pangea was developed while I was studying in the United States. More recently, Real Move is software that allows the spatialization of sound in real time. Obviously, after programmes as important and well-written as Spat, it is difficult to create different and useful things, but in any case, Real Move is a programme that allows the user to work with the computer mouse and the cursor on the monitor, to determine the trajectories of the sound. With the loudspeakers on the screen one can define the trajectory of the sound being heard in real time, whether it be a live sound or a recording played in real time.
I work with Real Move in such a way that I can control it with a MIDI glove. In a way, it is much more interesting for a user to be able to use two MIDI gloves and work at the same time live with two sound sources, and doing the sound spatialization. Visually speaking, it’s much more interesting, and one can even use this component in dramatic terms on stage, by means of the gestures of control of the sound sources.
What is new in this programme? It allows the distribution of the panorama to be done not as it is done traditionally – in groups of two columns, in stereo, as is the paradigm of spatialization – but also in quadrophony, or octophony with sixteen channels, and the sound can be on all channels at the same time. The gestural element allows the generation of the quantity of amplitude that is transmitted through all the channels. Obviously, there is still much experimentation I must do in order to see if it really works in musical terms. On paper, in mathematical terms, it already works. In musical terms, it’s obviously a new stage that I’m going to have to work on. Another important thing with regard to Real Move is the fact that each channel may be connected directly to a digital processor, so that it is thereby possible to have the same sound on four or eight channels, and each one of these channels has a completely different processing. I can thus have a uniform sound ambience – because it’s the same sound that’s in the acoustic space – but the fact that each channel has a different processing creates timbral differentiations which, in compositional terms, may be musically interesting.
When a sound is localized in relation to a centre of coordinates, a vector is defined. Moreover, each column is also used as a centre of coordinates so that vectors are created for each column for the localization of the sound. Only afterwards, using mathematical processes, is the relative weight of the proximity of each column calculated, and this is done after the computation of the quantity. I don’t know exactly how this will work out in sound and listening terms.
I’m reading more and more, and learning about how the brain perceives sound, and am coming to the conclusion that space is a parameter extremely difficult to work with, because the ear has a tendency to like extremely clear, extremely well-defined sound images. For example, with Pangea I can break a sound of five seconds in a thousand pieces and place them at various points in space. What is very difficult is to create a work in which this kind of technological innovation may be used in a musically coherent and strong fashion. I’ve made many experiments, but I have not yet written a work with Pangea, though I think that in terms of software it’s quite innovative. I’ve already introduced it in some communications I’ve given internationally, and it was well received and is thought highly of, because it effects the spatialization of sound in time, and not in terms of frequency.
The problem is that this is a different kind of approach, in which there must be an awareness, and an availability to create works of this kind, and I haven’t had this very much. Just now I’ve been writing much more music for acoustic instruments, which has to do with the question of visibility in the field of contemporary music in Portugal, in which it is quite easy to be labelled or forgotten. If you write electro-acoustic music, you are labelled with the electro-acoustic music stamp, and are not then invited to festivals and concerts of instrumental music. So I’m trying to alter the balance of writing.