Entrevista a Sara Carvalho / Interview with Sara Carvalho
Audio Version | Text Version

Awakening to Music


There’s a funny story... My mother says that when I was three years old I was always doing those things that children do, such as conducting, for example, and she would ask: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” – and I would always reply “I want to be Beethoven”.  So, I don’t know... I think I didn’t even knew any music by Beethoven...  I mean, perhaps I knew a symphony, because my mother listened to music at home, but I think she didn’t say “Look, this is Beethoven”, or “Listen, this is Mozart”.  But this is something she tells as a joke: “Look, she wanted to be Beethoven, now look at her!” – a bit of a joke.  Later, at about ten years old, I went to the Gambozinos.  This is a centre for learning music, and I think it was very important, because there was a lot of freedom.  We learned music in a very creative way, and I began to have classes with Fernando Lapa when I was about fourteen, in order to take the exams for the Conservatory.  At the same time, we had free composition classes, which I liked very much, but it never occurred to me to be a composer, thought it was something I liked doing.  When it was time to go to university, there were two questions.  The thing was, that I also like languages, and could have chosen either Portuguese/English or music.  I played piano, but wasn’t a great player because I wasn’t patient enough to study.  I liked music classes... At Gambozinos we had an Orff group, and we used to do some things.  We recorded a children’s CD, and so on...  When the Aveiro course began, it was a teaching course, and teaching was something I did like doing.  I thought that I could enjoy myself while doing something useful, and put myself down both for music teaching and composition.  I did the tests, passed, and João Pedro Oliveira said “No, you’re coming to work with me!”.  So I began working with him, and the thing began really from nothing... The bug bit me... I began to learn and to like it more and more, I did the course with João and then decided to continue.  I went to England and there was a great change in my life – obviously because it’s quite a different country from Portugal, in every sense, but also because it was there that I heard a work of mine performed for the first time.  When I did the course in Aveiro, I never had the chance to hear anything of mine performed – I wrote pieces, but they remained inside a folder...  When I arrived in England, I entered a piece of mine, which was chosen and performed, and that was a singular experience.  I wasn’t a beginner, I was already twenty-five or twenty-six, so it really was something that made a great impression on me.  I realized that music and composing was much more than...  It was something inexplicable...  I wouldn’t compare it with the birth of my daughter, because even so, the birth of one’s first child... Babies when they are born are one thing... But the experience is very similar.  Then I was invited to stay and do my doctorate there, and I carried on.


Studies at the University of York


I applied to many places in the United Kingdom, and they all said that, with the portfolio I had, they would accept me.  I was somewhat confused.  I’d been in England aged eighteen as an au-pair, in London, and, through the family I was with, I met a musician.  He tuned instruments, such as pianos, but also worked with clarinets.  He did many things, a kind of one-man-band.  So I rang him and said “Look, I want to do a master’s in England – what do you advise?”.  And he recommended some important places to me – there’s no point in saying which they were here, in order not to advertise – and told me that York was a very interesting centre. He told me that it was one of the few schools in the country where there were no exams – everything was done by means of coursework and performances – and that there was a composer there, well-known in England, Nicola Lefanu.  He thought it would be interesting for me to work with her.  What finally made me decide – because I was hesitating between this and working with Michael Finnissy, who is of the same generation as Nicola – was the fact that York is a much cheaper city than London.  The cost of living was three times cheaper, and as I didn’t have a grant, because it’s a difficult thing to manage in Portugal, I decided to go to York.  I’m very happy, I think it was the ideal place for me in terms of the city, of the people, of the university... It’s a shame I don’t work with electronic music, because there’s a good centre there...


So I ended up going to York, and there I was able to work not only with Nicola, but also with Roger Marsh, for example.  I did a course with Brian Ferneyhough, and Betsy Jolas also gave a course there, and I don’t think my education stopped there – I’d like to have much more time to attend courses.  I think that sometimes people have the idea that when they are already teachers, they no longer need to go on courses, they’re the ones who give the courses.  I think people can always learn from each other.  The last one I did was an opera course, something I’d not had the chance to do directly before.  I have a number of scenes written for an opera that I’d like to see performed, but I’d like to wait for a proposal – not necessarily financial... I think it’s very interesting to link theatre to music, to the other arts.


After York, I came back to Portugal, and in terms of learning, I stopped.  I’ve grown by myself, studied, listened to music, the things you do in order to keep abreast.

But, basically, I try to find my own path.  You do this in many stages throughout your life, and, with composition, it’s a bit like that.  Of course there are opportunities which lead you to particular places and others that divert you somewhat from what you had in mind – it ends up not being what you thought, but something else.


Models and references


It’s funny: I worked with Nicola for many years, but her music was never a model for me.  It’s a bit strange to be saying this – and it’s got nothing to do with liking or disliking her music, because I do like it – but I couldn’t identify with what she did musically.  What did affect me profoundly was Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau Sans Maître.  When João Pedro Oliveira told me I should look at Le Marteau Sans Maître, I did.  Perhaps today I see it in a different way from the way I did then, because my ear at the time was more innocent, and I didn’t fully understand the techniques used.  But it was something I’d never heard before, and so it was a genuinely different sound for me.  It also affected me because it was right away during the first year of the course. Later, of course, there were other composers who I began to discover, such as Ligeti and Ferneyhough, with all that complexity which I perhaps used to have, but have now abandoned.  But there are many composers who affect one, such as Jorge Peixinho, with all that lyricism – not to mention others from elsewhere...  Yes, I think that some composers affect you, you learn with them, and your own path is really what you take from here and there, and that you work with.


Jorge Peixinho


I never worked with Jorge Peixinho.  I merely have some scores and recordings of his, which I requested from José Machado.  I worked on Peixinho during my master’s – I looked at two or three Portuguese composers from different generations and wrote something, perhaps a bit amateurish, on their music.  It was at least a way of showing in England that good and very interesting music is written here too – that was the general idea.  Indeed, I gave a number of seminars in England on the same theme – people would invite me and were genuinely interested.  But I never knew Jorge Peixinho, though I attended concerts at which he was present – but I was very young, and rather shy in these matters.  I’m not one of those people who push in and say “Hello, I’m Sara”, and so on – I tend to stay a bit in the background, while others take care of public relations...


Doctoral thesis / Solos I and Solos II


The thesis is a portfolio of twelve pieces, all of them for very different groups, but all acoustic – I haven’t written any electro-acoustic music.  And they’re twelve pieces that range from a large group, such as an orchestral piece, down to solo works.  The doctorate includes four solo pieces that were written from year to year – this is an idea that I’ve kept up, because I think it’s interesting.  So, there is Solos I, written in February 1997, then there is Solos II, written in the following summer, and Solos III, in August 1999, and so on. In a sense, the book of solos almost traces out what I was doing then and what I’m doing now, because I’ve written a new piece every year.  The first Solos was written after the string quartet, and the first three minutes are nothing but rules.  The first movement of the quartet finishes with a short violin solo, almost destroying the whole structure, and I thought: “No, I need to continue this solo somewhere else.  Here there’s no space, but I need to continue it intuitively”.  And Solos I was the first piece in which I used material from the quartet – I had developed this material too much, and so I wanted Solos I to be a kind of amplification, but in a freer fashion.  Even so, the phrases are all controlled, there’s phrase that works by diminution... so, there are lots of rules!  Solos II, from the following year, is still a very structured work – imagine starting with crochet = 52, and you have a quintuplet, then it’s crotchet = 60 with a triplet.  The objective was great virtuosity: the work was written for Pedro Carneiro.


Solos III


Jorge Salgado Correia asked me to write a piece for flute, and wanted me to use all four flutes.  That gave me some complicated problems to solve, but, at the same time quite interesting.  I need to think how I could use the four flutes without that problem of “player picks up, plays, puts down, twenty second later he plays again...”.  in addition, the flute needs to be warmed up a little – all these things so that it works properly, and so the solution was to make it a theatrical piece, in which the player has to declaim a text.  He plays part of the text – literally plays, it was all worked out – and then he also speaks the text.  Basically, it is the word made music, literally.  There was also a table that I made – A would be the note A, A whatever would be A quarter-tone sharp... of course it did not remain exactly like that, because the results can be too indeterminate to work in an interesting way.  So I afterwards altered it as I needed...

If people want to use this table, they may notice that the words are not used very strictly.  But it was the intention behind the phrase – I made this equivalence of phonemes and then tried to adjust the meaning of the word to the same context.  I thought of form as the way gesture itself fits within the text, essentially.  I needed freedom in order to compose; it couldn’t be just setting out a strategy by saying “ok, I’ve got all my schemata, this is well thought-out, I’ve thought of these chords, these harmonies, these rhythms and now it’ll all come together, a bit like total serialism”.  They have all those things, and there are things which work well – with luck – and there are others which don’t work – with a little more bad luck – but I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t work like that.  This was because the musical idea I had wasn’t transmitted; it was close, but not exactly that.  The idea came out as an embryo, but the embryo then ought to have grown in a rather different way.


Solos IV, V, VI


When I arrived at Solos IV, at the end of my doctorate, things had changed.  This was a work which I wrote already thinking about opera, of music theatre (or theatre-music)... My problem is that theatre appears first, and my objective is to make music appear first – that’s why I like music theatre, because the music appears first, and only then the theatre.  It’s the theatre that serves the music, and not the music that serves the theatre.  Therefore, in any event the music is foremost.  But if the work were performed outside the theatre, it would also have to work, because I’m quite practical in these matters.  I think: “No, when that’s recorded on CD, what if it doesn’t work?  People can’t see it.”  But it’s important to try to create a direct connection with the public, because there’s a theatrical element and because there’s something that stretches our imagination.  Everyone then interprets the movements in his own way, which gives some freedom to the performer to assimilate things in a more personal way – you won’t find two performers presenting a piece of music theatre in the same way.  But at the same time, I want it to be heard, and to work without images.  Solos IV was a project for this music theatre piece. And that was why I wrote it.  I worked with using the soprano voice and also the story I wanted to develop, that story of Persephone.

The material began to develop in a much simpler way, because there are four characters in the same work, and therefore I had to specify spaces, clothing, lights.  The piece in the end transforms itself, and the way I did this musically was with certain harmonies, certain rhythms, with ways of singing.  When I say that the planning is there, I mean that... I continue to work with a lot of rules and organization!  That’s why I say that perhaps, and only in the case of the doctorate, the book of solos is very interesting, in that it shows the path I followed.

People have asked me for them; I have performers for the solos for harp, piano and guitar, and now I’m going to begin another one, but I haven’t yet set them free.  I think that, though they were written year by year, are in a way still theatrical in conception.  There’s something missing... and until I find it, I won’t let them go...

And this is in spite of them being already composed and following a similar path...  It’s funny, the first and second are grouped together, and the third and the fourth are grouped also in some way; the fifth and the sixth continue the idea, and eighth I don’t have much idea about yet, not even for what instrument it will be – because people have become a bit annoyed with me for not releasing them: “What about the Solo then?  When are you going to give it to me?”  They are ready, but there’s something missing – I’m not sure if it’s in the theatrical part...  I think that if they were recorded, they would work... But it’s something to do with images...  I need to speak to somebody who knows more about these things, there’s a blockage there...  But I have undertaken to write another one next year, and so it will continue!

The third and the fourth are the theatrical experiment, but the fifth and sixth carry on... When I speak of grouping the Solos, I’m talking about the way I worked on them, harmony, material, a certain story that continues from one to the other.  In a way, in this case there is the same kind of drama in Solos V and in Solos VI, but it is with this drama that I’m no satisfied.  That’s why I don’t want to go too far, and prefer to wait for it to happen – probably if we made this recording in two years’ time I’d have some different ideas, because one is constantly searching...  I’m so pleased with the first four!  I’d like this to continue to afford me some pleasure, and if I’m bothered about the fifth and the sixth it’s because something’s missing.  I don’t really know yet what it is – probably when I let go of them there will be four or five premières in a row, I don’t know...


Squashed Fairies, Máscara, Blows Hot and Cold


I don’t begin a piece until I know its title – if it has a story, it has to have a title, doesn’t it?  Or there can not be a fixed title, but something that makes me do something related to it.  In Squashed Fairies, for example, the title was there before I wrote a note, which means that when I discover a title, the work is practically finished.  Afterwards it’s that business of placing the notes, orchestration, doing things.  Every piece has a story... Máscara is about the different masks people do in order to deal with each other.  Blows Hot and Cold is the title of a Dexter Gordon poster, in which he is smoking a cigarette.  I was looking at this poster once – it’s black and white and very beautiful – and I remembered: “ah, he’s looking thoughtful, but I’ll write a story about what the cigarette is thinking, not Dexter Gordon”. Because cigarettes do have a duration... At the time I smoked, now I don’t... But I thought it would be interesting to do a piece of the duration of a cigarette, which is more or less three and a half minutes.  The second movement of the quartet is indeed three and a half minutes long – there are those rules!  So, in the end, Blows Hot and Cold is the story of a cigarette!  Of course it’s a metaphor, but I’m talking of inhaling and exhaling, of smoke, of pauses, while you’re talking, with the cigarette burning slowly... These things are almost programmatic.  Of course nobody realizes that it’s the story of a cigarette.  But now I don’t smoke, I stopped because it’s a terrible vice...

Squashed Fairies is a delightful book. It’s a book about fairies in an imaginary world, and is about a girl who says she catches fairies in the pages of her diary.  The girl has many mistakes in her writing, and this was the starting point. Basically, there are three scenes, an introduction and a prologue, which represent the girl’s catching these fairies.  That’s it, a musical vision of what she was doing in the written vision: “Nanny, today I caught a fairy!”.  It’s lovely, my children love the book, and I thought it would be interesting.  The instrumentation is piano, harp and string quartet, and I thought this would transmit well this ethereal world.


Programme notes as an approach to the audience


In General I don’t care whether people understand the texts I used in my pieces – I give them an imaginary world.  Because my programme notes are a little surrealist, aren’t they?  I give them a phrase. One two, or three, but I never talk about the way I made the piece – otherwise, I’d have to assume that the listener knows music, and I try to write my programme notes for lay audience in analytical terms.  I think it should be like this, because if we want to get this kind of music heard by everybody, we have to give people something with which they can identify in some fashion.  In fact, theatre is great, because people have more points of reference for some reason.  But if you have an orchestral piece, people hear it, they enter into that world, in Squashed Fairies, for example, and they say ”ah, yes, you can really hear that ethereal fariy world...”  However, when there is a lot of theatre on the stage, the players can seem fools wandering about up there, and I don’t want this to happen.  If on the one hand it’s not sufficiently important, on the other it’s precisely this point that gives rise to my story.  I think there has to be a point of balance, especially in works that are very theatrical, so that they can communicate in the best way possible with the audience.  But when it comes to them understanding exactly what I am doing, I prefer to have an explanatory programme note.  As it happens, people usually ask “But what does Squashed Fairies mean?” or “Why does it have an English title?”.  I reply “Because Fadas Esmagadas sounds horrible in Portuguese, and in English we don’t have the problem...”


Surya Namaskara


There’s a piece of mine, surya namaskara, which has theatrical elements.  There’s an enormous screen, and behind is my yoga teacher, and she does the “surya namaskara” – a set of positions in yoga that represent the greeting to the sun.

There are twelve movements, and there is a chamber music group.  Everything was dark, and so it was shadow theatre – my teacher did only the “surya namaskara” on the work, because I thought it would be interesting to have the thing that gave rise to the piece integrated within it.  I don’t mean that we can’t simply hear the piece but it would also be interesting to have the Greeting of the sun live.  In this case, as I said, there are twelve movements, and these twelve movements correspond to twelve moments of the piece, each one as though related to the movements that Ana – my teacher – gave.  They are static positions, essentially, and of course the music cannot be static for the whole time – there are changes, and when they happen the music undergoes some of the changes.  Once again it is a story, but in this case a concrete story...

There’s a soprano and she recites the mantra.  I invented a melody and now I don’t recall the original melody, but she says “Om Bhoor Bhuvassuvah/Tat Saviturvarenyam” throughout the piece, cyclically.  She says the mantra six times; it’s related to day and night – there are the twenty-four hours of the day, and half is represented by the twelve months of the year...  It’s this kind of thing I’m interested in exploring; perhaps nobody will ever know, but it also doesn’t matter to me whether anybody knows.  For me, it’s what makes me write, and it is thus that I find my own cohesion.  Solos IV, for example, has to do with the change of seasons and the changes of cycles – I mean the actual cycle of the mantra, which corresponds to the cycle of the day and the cycle of the year.  There are things I do within my own music, but I think they’re probably not noticed.  They are not intended to be noticed; it’s enough that they be so for me, or perhaps even for somebody in the future who is interested and wants to examine my piece in more detail.




In general, I look at the instrumentation first.  People ask me: “Can you write for this ensemble?” – and I look at the instruments, so that they adapt themselves to each other.  In Squashed Fairies, for example, that’s how it was.  I had a group of instruments - a string quartet, harp and piano if I’m not mistaken – and if I wanted, I could use voice.  But I decided to leave the voice out because I thought the six instruments would better transmit what I wanted. I was thinking about what I would write, and the idea came to me on reading that book about fairies, which I then tried to adapt.  I thought it would be fantastic, and the instruments are great – it works wonderfully with the harp, and that ethereal atmosphere is created by playing inside the piano, together with the harp.  I think I really managed to create a fantastic atmosphere.  But when Jorge Salgado Correia asks me to write for flutes, normally I have the instrumentation beforehand, and so I try, with that instrumentation, to find my own idea.  Of course people sometime say: “You have fourteen instruments to choose from.”  Perhaps I search for an idea and then, with that idea in mind I chosse the instruments that are offered to me.


I don’t usually start from musical material.  On the contrary, I start from the idea in order to find the sound I want.  So I have the idea, and then with that idea in mind I try to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.  I create the harmonic material and the rhythmic material – if necessary – which are the things I consider necessary for the work to grow in a healthy way.


Chimaera, Nothing Can Both be And Not Be, Sounding Silences


The orchestral work I wrote for my thesis is called Chimaera, but it could have some other name.  I think I’ve got stories for them all...  Really, my Chimaera has the head of a lion, the body of a sheep and the tail of a serpent, and so the work has four movements: the first movement corresponds to the lion’s head and is more rhythmic, then the second, more harmonic, a third probably more melodic, in which the soloists are freer to bring the melodies out, and the fourth is almost like a fusion, the chimera itself.  It’s only by fusing the three preceding ones that we can build the animal...

So, we’re talking about a large orchestra, perhaps forty players.  I probably didn’t make use of theatre at that time, and hadn’t even thought much about it, and in orchestral terms I’d have to think whether it was necessary to have theatre... There was and there always is a story – that’s my point of departure, and that’s how I work.  Just as there are people who believe in the Gospel and work on chapters of the Gospel, there are others who work basically with transformation.  This Chimaera is nothing more than a transformation of the material seen from different perspectives, in which three elements come together, and one more, timbre.  In this case, timbre was treated in a slightly unusual way.  I’m talking about the mixtures of piccolos and trumpets, for example.  More recently, there is Nothing Can Both Be and Not Be, which is a work for fourteen instruments and has to do with the fact that we cannot both be and not be at the same time, literally.  Essentially, I try to discover silence as the point of contrast between being and non-being.  Even within silence there are no silent structures, and so this question arises already in Sounding Silences.   They are both works that deal with the same kind of problem, though Sounding Silences is still from my thesis.  Perhaps it’s not exactly a story, but for me it is.  How we find sound within silence...