Entrevista a João Madureira / Interview with João Madureira
How did I start composing? The answer may be a bit presumptuous, but I believe it came to me. I can still remember my first melody… I didn’t even really know how to write music, so what I did was to invent a sequence of notes, memorize it and play it many times over during the course of that day and the next. Then record it on a tape recorder. But I was never really aware of it.
I’m the fruit of a generation to which musical education wasn’t very important. My parents belong to the generation that worked for the 25th of April, so there wasn’t much concern with getting to know Beethoven very deeply in order to be a happier person, really. I subsequently asked for a guitar, I wanted to have an instrument on which to play, and a guitar was a much more accessible thing than a piano, which would have been much more expensive.
I went on learning about other composers… and I still listen to all kinds of music; I’m not the kind of contemporary composer who only listens to Mozart, Beethoven and then Schoenberg, Emmanuel Nunes… I don’t believe this to be the best path, it’s only one of many, but I listen to all sorts of music and I used to play all sorts of music and music was to me, at first, a way to communicate. Then I learned about contemporary music, which was truly fascinating to me, and got into the Escola Superior de Música de Lisboa. I also studied with Donatoni in Siena, after which I went to Cologne and to Strasbourg. In the meantime I stopped studying, as I thought I’d done enough of that.
During this time, there was always nostalgia for something I’d lost, which was literature. And I was faced with a great decision: either I’d do composition or philosophy. I had good grades in philosophy and had a philosophy teacher who used to say, not without irony, I now realize: “You are a philosopher, you may go.” And indeed I left the world of philosophy for the one of music. But the taste for verbal expression, for the text itself, still lingers, and I also feel its presence in my music, even in things without a text; its presence is manifest in “n” things I do, because to me text is absolutely basic.
Words and composition: two realities within the same space
I believe music to be essentially space… mental space. Its wealth doesn’t lie for instance in the complexity of pitches, in the complexity of rhythm, in the complexity of timbre, in the complexity of dynamics, in the complexity of texture or anything else one might want to invent, but in the relationship between all of these things. And music can have 1001 parameters… it’s what captivates you, completely intuitively, and which I think is an important component of aesthetic judgement, is never one parameter by itself. And if I sing “Laaaa…”, I’m producing timbre, creating dynamics… I’m creating space. I’m singing a note but pronouncing a text, a vowel. And I cannot dissociate any of these things, because they immediately create a space. The idea even comes to us from rotting old French structuralism. It’s almost banal… that an object may completely decompose!
I do believe that the richness of music is connected to the dimension of this space one creates; both text and music bring this out easily. This has to do with the operas I’ve watched. Words themselves, to me, are always completely double. I’m now composing music for some poems by Ruy Belo, a collection under the title Boca Bilingue (“Bilingual Mouth”). Boca Bilingue is an essential part of language; when we say something, we immediately say it in a particular tone and in a particular way. And this particular way may betray the meaning of what we’re apparently trying to say. From that point one creates a labyrinth of different meanings for the same text; because the text is music. This has a lot to do with concrete poetry, as well as with musique concrete: understanding this very double element of music. As a matter of fact, I believe folk musicians understand that, at least some of them do. This has to do with the fact that I think music is essentially text, and that text is essentially to do with music.
To me, composing happens by means of a way of thinking about how a piece of music may be a metaphor of another, may contain a stylistic figure of this kind, or the way that I, musically, have a paraphrase, a synecdoche, or a metonym... those things we learn at high school.
As regards phonetics, for example: one can take a phonetic aspect but it immediately acquires a meaning. It is going to be the bearer of meaning; it is not possible to have someone going “ai, ai, ai” and not think that person to be expressing pain in Portuguese, as opposed to be pronouncing a phoneme A and the phoneme I! It’s not possible! And so, this contradiction is always present. But I believe there is a betrayal. I believe that when you put words to music you’re betraying the text, you’re providing your reading, which is already a betrayal. We must be aware that none of us is actually reading the same Camões or the same Fernando Pessoa… none of us! This may be even more explicit in music (neither do we hear the same Beethoven or the same Mahler). I wouldn’t say this is contradictory, but it is highly subjective! This weakness is also its strength, isn’t it? To be very subjective...
Spectralism and respect for harmony
I think there are two sides to spectralism: the obvious one of freedom dodecaphonic and serial writing and its academicism. And the very positive side which is the fact that a lot of tools have been developed that enable us to understand music. But this latter side, which is also positive, may cause people to look at music in one way only. This tendency may be pernicious. It is always bad when certain criteria form a particular aesthetic current influence the way one evaluates all others. But I do feel that spectralism was a true blessing! I will undersign anything to do with spectralism because it cut through all those terrible prohibitions, all those sine qua non of serial music. We’re back to having octaves, major chords. All we needed was to know what we were doing, there you are! It integrated physical things such as breathing.
This respect for the physical side of mankind as well as the honesty of having more or less harmonic thinking. I feel that these are basic things, basic concepts essential to music. What’s curious is that music didn’t close in on itself completely. There are many examples of this, but that music didn’t stop coexisting either with tonal music, with Pierre Boulez’s music or what is currently called classical atonalism. For there is actually a label for that kind of music, which is serialism, and serialism has undergone many developments.
But anyone listening to Répons, and who knows the spectral musicians, and has the score and sees how it all developed and how purely electronic sounds appear. Well, they have a spectral root and underwent a tremendous development. A language that doesn’t isolate itself from the others but coexists, in a friendly or inimical way. This seems to me very important, and we are, perhaps, nowadays in a post-spectral phase.
One of the things I think about a good deal, is this curious phenomenon of a piece of music being able to describe another one. Which just goes to show how all language is metalanguage. In modern music we had a bad experience or a prohibition with Stravinsky’s music. It is marvellous! But Stravinsky’s music was in many cases a metalanguage of tonal music and apparently it functions as an ornament or as a belated consequence of this tonal music, deriving from the same roots, etc. This is a very limited way of looking at Stravinsky’s music, but a bit of an anathema has been created, as also to some extent with Alban Berg.
Because really, in Wozzeck, tonality is taken to its last consequences, but its root is tonal, so it would always be a kind of “decadent” music. But from then onwards I think we get to a stage where music becomes sort of “independent” from its past, as opposed to tonal music, where you can still hear its modal antecedents. For instance, if you look at a Bach fugue, not knowing that it’s for harpsichord, if you look at the first 5 bars of one or two of the voices, it’s difficult not to think it’s a renaissance piece. And I think typical serial music has ceased to be able to refer to other music. Bach referred to other music and I believe the way for a language to impose itself or to become known, is through its capacity of accepting the other, which I believe spectral music managed to do.
There’s a piece by an Italian composer, who I think has already died, called Professor Bad Trip, in which a certain “parochial teacher” attitude is criticized… the music teacher is trying to convey that what’s in fashion now is dodecaphonism and if you’re a good boy, that’s what you’ll write. This idiotic “parochial teacher” side seems to have been avoided as regards spectral music, though it didn’t quite make it to Portugal.
Aesthetic problems and composition techniques: stages in the building of a language
The first piece to give me that vertigo of text and music, of two things that run together and really establish a counterpoint of languages was a song I wrote, O Sono Que Desce Sobre Mim. Then there was a cycle of poems, or, rather, a cycle of pieces from Poemusic, based on poems by Herberto Hélder. I was studying in Germany at the time. And these poems meant a lot to me. They were like a bit of Portugal in Germany, a bit of Portuguese dignity in Germany. It happens frequently when we leave our country for Germany or for France: we feel that all that was part of our world suddenly becomes smaller.
At the time I was having lessons with the German composer York Höller, with whom I was studying all the possibilities of relating music and text. There are several pieces that are important to me… Encontro, for flute and piano has a certain importance for me, but I think that Glosa… I would even like to develop it with Pedro Carneiro… It was especially from this piece onwards that my language began to be more influenced by spectralism. I think pitch or notes are the most important things in music… this is the most sensitive element of change. I feel also that that change can be made with more subtlety; but there’s no musical element with this possibility of modulation of time.
As far as things of greatest importance are concerned, Three Moments for Anne Hatherly… I experienced there the sensation of having mastered certain skills I always wanted to have, I felt I had mastered them reasonably, and began thinking of music as a metalanguage again, as music which belongs to a cultural whole. This, to me, now, is absolutely fundamental. We have no guarantee of being heard, even if we want to be fully part of society.
All that matters to me is to know that I’m doing more than just adding up numbers and organizing them in a euphonious fashion when I write music; that my music conveys a personal and individual vision of the whole.
It was only recently that I realized there was actually something personal there; I had no notion of that before.
The whole of Glosa, for example, moves towards greater dissonance, but in a very gradual and practical way; the way I did it was to go from a banal and more consonant overlapping of spectra (overlapping at the 5ths, etc), to an overlapping of spectra. After the 5th comes the 3rd, and so on. Until I reached an overlapping of a minor 2nd and an augmented 4th… it was a very simple basis. In that piece even the positioning of the spectrum is constant, so there are fixed pitches and fixed registers, or each note is in a fixed register. So that was the way it was in that piece, but I now work in quite different ways. I may retain a similar overlapping of spectra and yet have an ever more dissonant idea of register. Technically, as Tristan Murail said, one always feels how good it will be when travelling by plane, to feel and know, half way through the journey, that someone’s guiding you… that the plane is going somewhere. There may be surprises but it’s much better musically to build those famous vectors. This always inspires me, even if then I need to run away from it.