Entrevista a Fernando C. Lapa / Interview with Fernando C. Lapa
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There are various points in this story. The first has to do with my family, who weren’t professional musicians, but my mother sang very well – and still does. My late father didn’t have any musical talent, though he liked traditional music from the Alentejo. I remember that, when I was a child, we sang in several parts. There were eight children, and when my mother found us singing she’d end up teaching us a second voice. I think she even invented a third voice sometimes, though she never had any musical training. She has a feeling for it, and so, from early on, we began to enjoy and to live with music. However, there was no reason to suppose that any member of the family would become a musician.


At the Seminary in Vila Real, when I was ten, eleven years old, I had a teacher who was an extraordinary person – and who is still alive, though quite elderly now – Father Ângelo Minhava. He was an autodidact, and played many instruments. He had a great love for music and, above all, had a great facility for making other people like it. I remember perfectly – and I’ve heard the story told many times – that he’d get his primary pupils to listen to opera, and managed to make them listen to an entire aria without any visible indiscipline. He really had a great facility in this regard.


At the time, I think it was usual in music teaching to give some dictations and so on, but he must have realized that I had some ability, and he asked me to transcribe folk songs. Because in a class of 20 or 30 pupils there was no possibility of doing any more individual work, he’d write out the first notes for me and ask me to prepare the rest of the melody at home for the next class. And thus it was that I learned to deal with sharps and flats, semitones and these little differences. For a child of that age, such as me, it meant feeling as though one were inside the process, and not outside it as a mere consumer. And so, spontaneously, I became almost a composer. Nat this time, I got used to writing things down and dealing with them, and then I began writing my own things.

Later, still at the Vila Real Seminary, I had a teacher who had studied in Rome and who was qualified in organ, conducting, etc. We began to have piano classes with him, and to study some repertoire. It was then that I thought that things could go in this direction, though I wasn’t following as regular a pattern of study as would have been the case in a conservatory. But, very naturally, I began to become excited and to be able to do more things, and so I continued on this path.


Later I left the seminary and went back to square one. I took the conservatory course from the beginning. Of course, as I was always in contact with music, I did the course examinations as an external pupil. Perhaps not in such a systematic was as one of my colleagues from the Conservatory would have done.


Then, compositionally speaking, I had Cândido Lima as my teacher, at the end of the general course, and then in the higher course.


This accumulation of experience, of knowledge and precision of Cândido, even as regards Portuguese music – you can see that he’s someone who I would say has taken a path that doesn’t really belong to modern trends, even when it seems most obvious, because there’s really nothing like his work – but, I was saying, Cândido maintained this attitude of intellectual honesty which I much admire, even though it wasn’t my own aesthetic choice. So from this point of view, dealing with somebody like this was very important for me.


I met Jorge Peixinho already quite late – I’d like to have known him earlier, because he brought something to thinking about contemporary music that other people I’d met didn’t, or couldn’t in the same way. Jorge was very Latin, very warm, he’d fall in love with things, very visceral... His liking for refinement, for instrumentation... Sometimes I’d hear him talking about Debussy, or some other composer, and the way he’d sometimes speak about one note, about a single musical gesture, was something utterly fascinating. This kind of richness, timbral, dynamic, and the liking for colour that’s very present in his music – and also because it has much to do with the way I feel musically – I’d have liked to know better... perhaps at some other time, but I wasn’t lucky enough.


Then there’s a great line of influences which has to do somewhat with my studies and my investigations. I myself, at a certain point, thought of studying fine arts, because I like painting very much. Even as far as my education in general is concerned, which was not at all specialized in the modern sense of the word, I’d say that I am – and it may seem a little pretentious to say this – very renaissance, and have a renaissance relationship to culture, perhaps somewhat eclectic as a result of my curiosity, tastes that are not limited to music. So I myself cross music and many other things. I think for example, by taste rather than ability, that I could have gone into poetry or the plastic arts.


So my influences and interests, or the things that have marked me during he course of my career, are very varied and come from many different places, and not precisely from one figure, one person, one school, current or aesthetic. In this sense, perhaps I’m a bit “untidy” and complicated. But I like it this way.


Aesthetic Position


As a teacher of analysis, for a long time now, I spend many hours trying to explain music to others, but when it comes to talking about my own, I say “Hell, this is complicated!” At times one has to talk about what we do in a deeper way. Because it’s one thing to say two or three general things about a piece. You always know how to say this, you don’t need to think about it much. But analysing a piece that you’ve written, as one does to Bach, for example, or Webern or some other composer.... this is already a little more... Usually other people do it.


But there are, of course, some points of reference to guide us. I think I’m lucky in living at a time when, aesthetically, one can feel that one is in the right place. However, we live at a time of confrontation of many aesthetics and peaceful coexistence between the. What was once an academic avant-garde, or rear guard – now there are composers who feel much freer in relation to what they do and, above all, in relation to the role they have in Society. And this is rather different. There are some sociological points here that also have to do with the composer’s role. I’m convinced that 20 or 30 years ago the answers would have been different from those of today. In the first place, everything has to do with the relationship of the composer with the performers, with the musical world, but also with the public in general.


Some choices I’ve made, confronted with this panorama, have more to do with my way or being than with any dominant trend. As I say, I live in a time – and I’m happy about this – in which I don’t see any problem in writing in a particular way just because it recalls A, B, C or D. Aesthetically, I have much more to do with French music than with Anglo-Saxon or German. One of the reasons is because when I was a student, in my general studies and at the lyceum, I studied French as a main language, so I’m from a school, or a time when the cultural vehicle was much more French than English or American. This doesn’t mean that we have to build sealed compartments and say that Debussy or Messiaen mean more to me than other composers.


Eclecticism and simplicity in musical language


When we begin to have a bit of history, we begin to understand that the essence of things appears when we begin to eliminate the “fat”, the excesses. In other words, when we manage to express things in an essential way. This can be done in a simple way, but not impoverished! Mozart’s music is also simple, sometimes scandalously simple, but when performers pick up a score and think they can play it in five minutes, just because it has semibreves and minims, they then realize that it’s perhaps a little more difficult than they thought... Of course, when the ear hears the final product, it is able to understand that simplicity. But Mozart, amongst others, had the gift of saying everything with very little. This happened also with Sophia de Mello Breyner, for example, who had this gift of writing two words and saying everything.


I think that the most difficult thing is to be able to say everything without too many words. And that’s my quest, every day more...


I’ll give you a simple example: a year or two ago, I wrote a piece for the Lisbon Contemporary Music Group (Grupo de Música Contemporânea de Lisboa), a commission from the group for Ana Ester Neves and the group’s standard line-up. So I set words by a poet from Oporto that I’d known for just a short time, Valter Hugo Mãe. I liked his poems very much because they were almost microscopic. They dealt with various elements of space in which certain elements recurred. I liked them very much, and it seemed to me straight away that I could do something with them. When I finished, I thought something was missing from the piece, not that it was easy, because there are some difficult things in it, but it also wasn’t exactly a group of Lieder for voice and piano. The instrumentation wasn’t very large, but it also wasn’t very small. There was a harp, a string trio, winds and so on. But I remember thinking: “Aren’t there too few notes?” Only after hearing the piece was I sure that I had written the necessary notes, and one can’t always manage that! That score only has – and I say this with conviction – the notes it needs. Neither too many nor too few. So it’s a quest, but also a technique, a purification until one arrives at the essential elements.


Sometimes we’re labelled... they’ve done this to me, too, said that I was of the harmonic generation, harmony again... I like this label, because I always loved orchestration, for a group. I’ve always liked this, but I think that the situations imprinted in my works are very much more complex. I think there are people, technically speaking, who can, from a certain point, do many things with little material. They are techniques that they explore and develop. They’re experiments they make. But I don’t like reducing things. I think I’d have great difficulty in writing a piece such as those by Arvo Pärt, or a composer of this kind. I think I’d have difficulty because it’s too few things. I tend to drift easily – for technical reasons, moreover – towards questions of sound combinations in space and time, from which point things can begin to evolve. There is, nevertheless, a concern which has to do, in addition, with my education, with my concern for, I’d say, polyphonic order, the management of various elements that are present. So individual movements rapidly become complex and have groups of sounds, harmonies and sonorities that were not expected at the outset, which are definable by the base harmony.


From the point of view of horizontal writing, even when I write more complex things – I’m very much concerned with being inside the performer’s skin, in the skin of the person who’s going to read a line or a movement horizontally. In this sense, there’s some “modalism” – I don’t know if it’s the right word – but there’s this concern in the sense that complexity is more the result of the totality than individual parts. Then there’s a polyphonic management that makes things more... I note that I very often write almost the twelve sounds. This is basically a complication of polyphonic structures, without being actual clusters, which are even defined by space, and generate more complex things. But, line by line, I work in a different way.


I always try to makes syntheses, because I think that there are no antagonistic elements. There are above all elements of a technical nature, or even aesthetic, which we can make coexist. Since somebody had the idea of superimposing tonalities, I think we can also superimpose many other things. From this point of view there are various realities that can peacefully coexist, and from these, other things can come. This doesn’t bother me much. I accept that, at one point or another, this may cause some dispersion in that we are using materials from different roots, at various moments, but I like that.


I like cinema and the arts of movement very much, theatre for example, and there are narrative editing techniques. Very often I like to use in pieces the technique of parallel editing, which is when there are two stories being told at the same time, making use of movement, alternating one with the other. These are things I’ve used many times and which are based on the ferocious opposition of two worlds, or three, or four... Initially there’s the idea of a puzzle – and I have many pieces which have to do with the sum of the space and time of very different things – and where my objective is that this group of elements, which like pieces of a puzzle, result in a more global understanding. I remember, for example, Schumann, and those series from the 19th century, which, though made up of small pieces, give the idea of an absolutely fantastic set of almost microscopic pieces. This kind of construction is somewhat more visual than structural, and also has to do with other experiments I made in the theatre and film, and even in the plastic arts, which suggest things to me.


Form, Structure and Methods


Well, firstly, the question of form is fundamental for me, especially when one is dealing with small and large architectural structures. I’ve written works of 15, 20, 30 minutes’ duration, and in this kind of work, the question of the orientation of the musical gesture – or of the non-orientation, of course – is fundamental. This is a quest, and in this sense I must be a somewhat perfectionist, because I am seeking to give an answer to a given problem that at times may be complex. But this is all a purely technical question.


I’ve done everything. I’m not frightened, and never have been, by blank paper. I don’t need to have the piece all worked out from beginning to end, to have an idea of what’s going to happen in order to deduce details later. However, I’ve also had this experience. In some works, there was already a complete image, with a title, with an expressive means and structure. But it also often happens the other way round, not having exactly a mobile. Many times I say to my pupils that a composer may find more than one way of doing the same thing. There’s the technique of variation, of paraphrase, and all these things... And so from a certain moment, we begin to make choices and the composer’s work begins to be more and more that of the choices he makes in relation to the various possibilities that are open to him. So from this point of view, the blank page doesn’t frighten me, because from there things begin to appear. As happened with Webern, they begin to organize themselves. From there come ideas and then something strange happens... I don’t know if this happens to other composers, I’ve never talked about it much, but when I finish a piece, especially a larger one, there are always lots of notes left from things I haven’t used. I usually keep them, thinking that perhaps interesting things are contained in them that may be used, perhaps at another time. But the strange thing is that, outside that context and that moment, they are absolutely useless.


Music for all


I’d say that the technical elements of music of today’s aesthetic that are common to many don’t belong to anyone in particular. The writing techniques of composition are very rational. A German will write like a Frenchman, and an Irishman like a South African. In this sense, there’s a great circulation of materials, ideas, processes, something rather international. In any case, there are some elements which are more general and which do not define origins so much. So all Portuguese composers are fully European composers, not only because we belong to the European Union, but because this is our cultural space, and there are not so many differences in writing between A, B, C and D.


There’s something else that’s important to me: the first time I was in the Alentejo, I realized that the people from Alentejo are different. They express themselves in a different way, because they were born in a different place, and geography makes people what they are. There are, indeed, some indications of having been born in a particular place and at a particular time which are the indications of our environment, our culture, sound, environment, and so on. Looked at in the wrong way, these things can give rise to complicated nationalisms and this has nothing to with me. But seen positively, they are the elements that differentiate, or can differentiate products made in very different spaces and become identifying elements. This difference is good and positive, I believe. Thus, there is a cultural basis common to Portuguese culture that, as far as I can, I, take on board. Some see this in the titles of the pieces I write, or because they hear one, two, three, four or five in the titles and think of it as a cycle, or programme. I’m not that sure of having a programme, but it does show some concern with this.


Perhaps because I’m simply attentive, not only to the musical world, as I said before, but also because I read a good deal and I’m alert. I’m somebody who identifies himself with this space and with other people who, coming from other arts and other areas, have the same outlook as I do. I don’t know if this is because of being Portuguese – neither do I know what that means – but it must have to do with this atmosphere that we breathe and like to claim as our own. So, there’s a certain contradiction between the regional and the global.


Thus, I consider that a relevant part of my work is also, by the means I have within my grasp, make others understand that this space may also be theirs, independent of their culture and social standing. I don’t forget that I live in Portugal, and in this sense there’s also a certain programmatic attitude in the things I do, in the sense of wanting the music to serve, not as a kind of flabby union, but a positive way of making people enthused by something... that they’ve very often never experienced.


There are people who have never been to a concert of “classical music”, and so do not know how good such a thing can be. I very often have to do with amateurs, whether in working with choirs, in classes, and so on, and I think I understand this quite well, and I know that there are often false barriers which people themselves put up, because they’ve never tried it. And so I recognize that in part of the music I do, not all, but especially the music I do in which one is more in contact with this aspect of things, I have the obligation also to open the door to this world. And I open it. And it’s in that way that I’ve worked.


I did an opera with Carlos de Azevedo and Carlos Guedes for the Casa da Música – which wasn’t yet called that – and the inhabitants of Aldoar. I’ve worked with an amateur choir for many years and enjoy making music with them. I compose some things for them, and this is also a dimension of my work: to show that, in fact, composition is not a côterie or an élite, or a close space: many people can come in... and so, my attitude has something of this.


Communication and relationships with performers


Firstly, I never wanted to be alone. The idea of being proudly alone, of having my aesthetic and my group of friends, this is not for me. Not that I’m afraid of solitude, exactly, because composers are used to working alone. It is, in fact, a solitary work. But in this sense, I think that there has to be something more in our music that is beyond us, otherwise probably it wouldn’t even be worth putting the notes on the paper. I think this has to go further, there must be some principal of communication. I’m not saying that it’s the person for whom it’s written who establishes the rules of the game, not that. I am proud that at least, it’s I who establish the rules of the game for what I’m doing. However, it’s obvious that the bigger the audience, the wider the spectrum of people who will receive something, I think that – out of respect for them – I have to find a way, technically and in terms of writing, of saying something to them.


In other words, I don’t say “I’ll write a piece independently of anyone else, and then we’ll listen to it...” No. Also for another reason, which is that I always worked with this. I like to write, not exactly for the audience, but for a performer, or a singer... I have about 30 pieces of chamber music, and most of them were done for colleagues, for groups, etc. Many were not even particular commissions, though there are many others that were. But as I was saying, in the chamber music, I’d say certainly more than half, were not the result of commissions but of writing for somebody in particular.


And, without losing identity, to remember who is the musician that plays it, and what he does well, this for me is something important. I always like it when there is something or other that makes the performer participate. If I’m writing for somebody, a pianist for example, who has not played much repertoire of this kind, I want – and usually in this way I know what’s going on – there to be some part in which he also travels this path, but I also like to leave him a basis, where he can feel that he won’t have to learn music all over again. And this feedback is something I like to maintain with a performer, and then, of course, with the audience.