Entrevista a Luís Tinoco / Interview with Luís Tinoco
INTERVIEW WITH LUÍS TINOCO (complete version)
Could we begin by talking about your family upbringing, what the influence of at least two members of your family, your grandmother and your father, meant to you?
Well, to begin right at the beginning, my grandmother was a pianist and piano teacher. She had a career as a concert artist in Portugal, with some success. She had been a pupil of Vianna da Motta – her name was Maria Carlota Tinoco – and she gave many recitals for Portuguese Radio. She and my grandfather were a very interesting couple, because they gave concert series and organized an entire cultural and musical life in Leiria – my grandfather was the director of the local lyceum.
It was in this atmosphere that my father was born, in Leiria, and the world of classical music was present through this family connection, not just through my grandmother’s being a pianist – very concerned with this tradition of the pupils of Vianna da Motta, with a repertoire based mainly around Liszt, Chopin, Grieg, and so on – but also the musical life in my grandparents’ house, where everything would end with musical evenings and parties with people from all areas of the arts. So, my father grew up in this kind of atmosphere, and there were some great people who passed through - Guilhermina Suggia and others. My father, curiously, did not have any academic training in music. he’s a self-taught musician, with an unusual aural ability, but he never did any conventional study – his field is architecture and the plastic arts. However, he also followed a musical career, principally in jazz. He played piano and double bass, and was a member of a group which, in the 1950s and 60s, influenced the first generations of jazz musicians in Portugal, which would later give rise to people such as Rão Kyao, and in later generations the Moreiras, Mário Laginha, Bernardo Sassetti, João Paulo Esteves da Silva and so on.
All these different kinds of music found sucess in a way by means of the Hot Club, and in particular the work of Luís Villas-Boas, and also of the musicians who worked with him.
My first musical memories are linked to my grandmother, and also to my father. To my grandmother because it was with her that I began to learn piano (I remember this well, because I lived in her house for a while). I remember things such as sleeping under the piano while she played, and studying with her. She really wanted my bother and I to learn and play piano, perhaps because of our close relationship. We then went to Elisa Lamas, with whom I continued my studies.
From my father there was, obviously, a very strong influence, and not only as regards to what I am today, but as a listener to music. It was with my father than I also began to try to improvise. My father used to play harmonic sequences a good deal on the piano, and my brother and I would sit on his lap and improvise melodies that we played three-handed – my father two and us one! so, I think it was then that my abilities to build musically began. My harmonic world began there, because I copied what my father did at the piano.
Very often I would be doing my own things – it wasn’t exactly composing, I was more searching for harmonic sequences – and, very often, he would be in the next room. When there was a passage I wanted to remember, which I liked but couldn’t remember what I’d done, and I’d spend fifteen minutes trying to find it again, he’d say to me “Oh, what you did was this” – and he’d sit down at the piano and play it. I’d say “Ah, thank you” – and that allowed me to carry on. In this sense, it was really a privileged beginning, because I always had somebody there who would help me to hear and to develop this ability to sing and make music.
At the same time, I must make mention of the musical life that went on in my parent’s house – my bother and I were very young, and, when we should already have been in bed, very often we’d be sitting on the stars watching jazz musicians in a jam session down there in the living room... So we lived in this atmosphere, with classical musicians, jazz musicians, or even fado musicians – because my father was lined for some time to “light music”, and he wrote lots of music for Carlos do Carmo and others. There was a large number of musicians from various fields, from folk music, Portuguese pop music to jazz and classical music, which all coexisted in my parents’ house. So I ended up absorbing all this.
Did folk music influence your own music at all?
No, it didn’t at all... But perhaps Brazilian music, because many Brazilian musicians appeared at the house, such as Ivan Lins... When I was young, between about twelve and fourteen, they were very strong influences: Milton Nascimento, Ivan Lins, etc.
In your music there’s a very natural link with tradition. You have melody, harmony and those very traditional parameters: perhaps that comes from this coexistence...
Yes, I think that, if you asked me, for example, where I pinpointed my contact with Afro-American music or with classical music – because very often I read biographies of people who say “I began listening to jazz when I was fourteen”, or “I began listening to Stravinsky...” – I couldn’t do this, because these things were always there. And that was a privilege. From the classical repertoire, I remember the Vianna da Motta concerts, which I sued to go to with my grandmother. I remember, at one time, seeing Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto, because in that year it was the set piece for the finalists. I remember too how it affected me, that concerto, all that lyricism – So this was, obviously, present.
And are these things that you now identify in your music?
Curiously, that concerto by Tchaikovsky, who’s a composer I don’t put anywhere near the top of my list of favourite composers, even today, when I hear it, I feel a great empathy for it. Because in really was part of my musical education as a listener, at a particularly special time,
You then went to the Escola Superior de Música in Lisbon.
Yes, but it was late. It was late because I was very divided between music and the visual arts and cinema. I was really in doubt as to what I should do: whether I should go for cinema, or the plastic arts, or music. I spent a few years doing a bit of everything, but not coming up with anything. I had private lessons, for example, with Elisa Lamas, and then I did two years of jazz piano with Mário Laginha. I tried out various situations until, at a certain point, I decided that what I was doing lacked substance. I was able to write lots of beginnings for lots of pieces, of three or four minutes, but I couldn’t develop them in time, I could manage anything long-breathed. And I felt that, if I did conventional composition studies and studied orchestration, if I studied composition in a traditional way, this would perhaps provide me with the tools and the vocabulary in order later to develop what I was trying out, but hadn’t yet found the way. It was at this time that I asked to be admitted to the Music School. I think I started in 1991 or 1992 – at that time, at my age, I could already have finished the course... It was there that I began to solve the problems I had in writing. I don’t say that I got to know particular things, because, for example, even when I didn’t have the slightest idea that I would take the composition course, I went every year to the contemporary music concerts at the Gulbenkian Foundation. I went from the 1980s onwards. Sometimes I liked it more, sometimes less, but I remember perfectly having followed them, and I continued to do so. Obviously, at that time, the composers who most influenced me were those who had to more to do, perhaps, with what I heard when I was a child: Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók, etc. But then I got to know Ligeti and Lutoslawski and others – also because of them being composers who had inherited that music that I also used to listen to. And, at the same time, I didn’t stop listening to Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans or Herbie Hancock. So there was a congestion of information rather than a digestion. I was always, even when involuntarily, absorbing things from very different sources.
At the ESML did you feel that your interests were very different from those of the other pupils, or was this kind of eclecticism common?
I think that nowadays it’s more and more common to find composers working in so-called classical music who’ve come from rock, jazz, garage and so on. So that idea that you can only be a composer if you’ve studied an instrument, been to conservatory and followed the genealogy which begins, if you like, with Bach, and then goes through Brahms and Mahler and so on – this genealogy, for me, had no relevance to my studies. I may have followed it as a listener, but not as a conventional study. I think this tendency is more and more common – we begin to see in composers’ biographies that they come from all kinds of places, even quite often from other areas of art, rather than music.
In this respect, yes, it wasn’t to be expected that I would be accepted for the course... I must say, in fact, that I got in with some terrible marks, and I’m not at all ashamed to say so! In fact, the admission test that I took was much more influenced by Keith Jarrett than by any classical composer. But I also need to make it clear that I have never been, and never wanted to be, a jazz musician. Jazz for me is a matter of digestion. Since it’s a kind of music that I listen to regularly, sometimes some things appear spontaneously in my work, but that I can’t even identify as being jazz. I don’t think it has that validity, because jazz is music that basically depends on improvisation, and my connection to composition has always been through writing, never with the spontaneity which I so much admire in true jazz musicians – that I’ve never had.
What about your time in London? I imagine that it was an interesting experience.
I think that London came about for a number of reasons. One of them was perhaps for family reasons, because I was in fact brought up in a family with Anglo-Saxon influences in various ways.
Then, when I finished the course in Lisbon – I studied with Christopher Bochmann and António Pinho Vargas, and also with a Brazilian teacher who int he meantime has left the school, called José Carlos Bonacorso – I wanted to continue my studies and wanted to go to a country where I could find a pluralism, a transversality, which would be connected to what I consider to be my way of looking at artistic creation, not just musical language. Obviously, there were other possibilities, such as the USA, the Netherlands and England, rather than Paris or Germany, for example. So I considered the choices, as the USA was very far away, being so far for so long bothered me somewhat, while with the Netherlands or England, one can be there in two hours – and so, I chose England. I wanted to live in London, and so I wasn’t even very bothered about what or where I was going to study. I applied to various places in England, and eventually accepted a place at the first institution to offer me one, the Royal Academy. I went there, liked the atmosphere very much, and found it marvellous, as far as access to contemporary music and its various forms of expression were concerned. I was indeed very lucky, and so I accepted the place they offered at the Royal Academy. And it was there that I did my master’s.
What do you think was the most important part of this experience as a composer?
For one thing, the pragmatism of the English, especially of my teacher, Paul Patterson. I can’t say that, in compositional terms or even in terms of my aesthetic position, he was a great influence, because I don’t see much to do with me in his idiom. However, he was a person I very much enjoyed working with, because he was extremely pragmatic in solving problems of writing or notation. He was very sensible in this, because he never tried to get me to solve a problem at some point in a composition in his way. He understood perfectly well in which direction I was going, what my influences were and what my points of reference were, and his work was precisely to help me to develop this musically.
On the other hand, I had come from Lisbon. I think that, in terms of technical preparation and correct writing, Professor Bochmann was wonderful, because he helped me with this... I’d really come from quite that chaotic life I’ve already mentioned – moving from this to that, and not achieving anything – and Professor Bochmann was excellent at getting my head straightened out and organizing ideas, including teaching me working methods. Then I worked with António Pinho Vargas, who was fabulous in the realm of the poetics of music and musical discourse. So, I had poetically and technically, two outstanding teachers, with whom I think I learned a great deal. I think that great thing, during my two years in London, was to be able to write regularly and to be able to hear my music played beautifully. Suddenly, I had entered into a more professional world of music. At the Escola Superior de Música, everything had been more theoretical; I’d write pieces and they would remain in the drawer, while in London, everything I wrote...
That’s relative too, isn’t it? Because before London, you wrote your String Quartet, didn’t you?
That was accidental. The String Quartet is, in terms of my trajectory and my catalogue, Opus 1 – in fact, it’s not even the first, it’s the second work. The first was a quintet which was never played, because I think it’s really a beginner’s piece. The String Quartet is perhaps the first piece I did in an academic context, which I think has something to say, and in which you can see where I’m going – including some technical mastery in the writing. The String Quartet came about because in that year I was working with Professor Bochmann. He asked me what I wanted to write, and I elected to write a string quartet. When I finished the piece, which was what I submitted for examination in the second year of the composition course, there was Lopes-Graça Composition Prize, which included, and still includes, the performance of the prize-winning work – unlike many composition competitions which give you a certificate and that’s it. In that year I was lucky. Since I’d done the String Quartet, I sent it in, and was happily informed that I’d won. Thanks to that, I heard the music performed – but that was thanks to the Lopes-Graça Prize, not to the Escola Superior de Música.
Do you mean this work shows traces of the path that you wanted to follow? What are these traces?
I think that, in listening to the piece, you can hear perfectly well one of my great influences, Ligeti. Ligeti is, among living composers, perhaps the one whom I would place first. I don’t like these hierarchies, because it’s always unfair and somewhat simplistic. It’s very restricting, but I must say that he was, and still is, a very strong influence on the way I understand music. I could only have written the String Quartet because I analysed, for example Ligeti’s String Quartet no. 2. I listened a lot to his music.
There are aspects of this Quartet – in terms of texture, notation, rhythm and the discovery of timbre – that have a lot to do with experiments I made later on. There’s a particular way of organizing the content of the piece by means of panels, which has to do with my visual and narrative way of perceiving my music. in he Quartet, you can already clearly see this tendency to group things in what can be seen as a polyptych of situations, which I intended to be quite visual and narrative – to have a line, a starting point, a development and a finishing point. In this respect, it’s curious that some of my more recent pieces, principally because I have gone back to using regular rhythm, have moved apparently quite far from the String Quartet. But I recognize their DNA, I know their genetic code very well, and I know that there are many things there in embryo that I’m doing nowadays. At first glance, you could think that what I did in 1995 and what I’m doing today is by two different composers. But in accordance with this idea of the panels, each work is a panel in the polyptych. What I’m doing today is probably an embryo of what I’ll be doing in ten years’ time. I think that’s the way things evolve naturally.
Or not... because there are composers with whom, on the contrary, one work is completely different from another. What you are saying is that there are is a series of things that are constant and which are worked on in each piece.
Yes, if I look back, and look for great contrasts, the only situations in which I think from one piece to another there is a very abrupt cut, tend to be above all prophylactic. If, in order to relax, I want to experiment with something completely different...
I’ll give you an example: when I did Canto para Timor Leste for string orchestra, which was a rather intense piece that I found tiring to write, straight afterwards I wrote a piece called Sundance Sequence, which has nothing to do with the previous piece – neither the idea, nor the themes, nor the final aesthetic result. I did it because I needed to “cool down”. When I finished Canto para Timor, I needed to do something completely different, at the opposite extreme of what I had done before. But this is rare. Perhaps it happens more for physical than aesthetic reasons.
It’s rather an isolated work in your catalogue.
In that work the text, of course, and the programme behind it, are intentionally humorous. On one level, it’s a provocative piece. On another, it’s a preparatory work for a children’s opera, which was supposed to have been written in the following year but which then didn’t work out.
Independently of what I’m talking about – humour – as such, I never again worked on such a disconcerting piece. There are many aspects of the work that occur again in later pieces. Though there are differences rhythmically, in the harmonic fields which lead on from one another, there are some points of contact with composers such as Frank Zappa – not only because of te humour, but also for reasons of harmony and melody. Even in the orchestral piece, Round Time, there are things that bring influences from music of a completely different kind, as is the case with Zappa.
So I think that Sundance Sequence is not so far from the centre as all that, and was also an embryo for other things which happened afterwards. There’s nothing to say that, from one day to the next, I won’t feel like writing another disconcerting piece. But that one was important, because I was in London when I wrote it, and it was a commission for a young composers’ competition.
At that time, I felt that the musical world, and what one heard in this kind of concert, was stagnating in a particular kind of compositional solution. I don’t mean by this to criticize, but in fact – and looking in from the outside – especially after having been to London, that’s the conclusion I came to.
When we distance ourselves from our own world, in some ways we become more critical, perhaps because of that distance. I felt that I needed to write a piece that would agitate people a little, that wasn’t conventional or traditional, which is normally what you expect from a young composer. The attitude that I think I show in Sundance Sequence doesn’t have anything new, bearing in mind that I already knew from abroad, particularly England.
Perhaps we could talk in more detail about the musical language of your last orchestral piece. This also shows the importance that literature has for you, doesn’t it?
In this particular case, the idea of Round Time – though the title was taken from an book – is not at all influenced by the content of the book itself. I think that, very often, I look for ideas in poetic texts, but the music doesn’t then have a direct relationship with the texts. I can give a couple of examples: the case of Verde Secreto,b for piano and saxophone, arose from a poem by Alexandre O'Neill, in which he says “In my opinion I have secret green [verde secreto] in your eyes”. My piece has nothing to do with this text, but I liked very much the image that it evokes. What I did was to decontextualize the secret green of the eyes of the person about whom O’Neill is talking. In another case, in A Way to Silence, I took the title from a book of poems by Yvette Centeno – the book is called Entre Silêncios – and wrote a piece which does not depend at all on her text, but explores the idea of silence and the things that happen between silences. They’re musical events that happen between silences, based on the title suggested by Yvette’s text.
Coming back to Round Time, what particularly attracted me was the idea of a round time, a circularity of time – which has much to do with my fascination for eastern cultures. I don’t mean that I have any great knowledge, or a way of approaching philosophical thoughts via the East, because I don’t, but I am fascinated by a certain serenity and tranquillity to be found in Oriental people. This notion of cycles that repeat, and our ephemeral passage within those cycles, because everything is continuous – this kind of contemplative attitude, which has to do with natural phenomena, cycles that renew themselves, and so on – all that fascinates me. It fascinates me visually and, if you like, even calligraphically. There’s a whole series of visual elements in Chinese and Japanese and other cultures, than attracts me a good deal. When I used the title Round Time, I was, in fact, writing a piece full of circular processes, in which the starting points are taken up again and become points of arrival. So the thing that sets off the phenomenon is also the consequence of the process, in that I set something in movement from a particular point – which is, at the same time, cyclically also the point of arrival and functions as a point of reference. As listeners, we do not perceive that they are there. They work, even subliminally, as foundations, as a scaffolding, as a structure which makes these arrivals present in the discourse. At the same time, there’s the idea of long time, of continuity. For example, I have another piece, Ends meet, for marimba and string quartet, in which the idea is that the last movement begin with a slight crescendo beginning on a pianissimo, as though suddenly the music were already there. In other words, this movement doesn’t even have a beginning – all of a sudden, the music is there. So this is an idea which fascinates me, music being able to begin as though it were already there. In this piece, my more recent relationship to the East is also there too in terms of timbre and colour. I feel really fascinated by this – and also, working with an orchestra is wonderful for me, because it is, perhaps, my favourite “instrument”. Orchestration is perhaps one of the aspects that gives me most pleasure. Composition is extremely tiring, and somewhat boring, and I avoid it as much as possible up to the moment when the time to hand in the score of the piece is dangerously close. When I’m already inside, there’s no way out, and in having to solve the problem, what I really enjoy is the colour. And here I think the East has things to teach. In fact, Debussy already said at the Universal Exhibition in Paris that the gamelan made western percussion completely ridiculous.
And now, what’s the problem you couldn’t avoid? What are you working on now?
Oddly enough, on a piece in which the source has nothing to do with the East. It’s a commission from Culturgest, in which I’m going to use, at their request, a ballet conceived by Jean Cocteau, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort. It will be a show in homage to Cocteau. In this piece, I decided to use five percussionists and a baritone singer-narrator, who will, in a way, recount the action of the ballet – so it will be an imaginary ballet, not choreographed. The choice of percussion has to do with the fact of it perhaps being the most choreographic section of the orchestra. What fascinates me in this section is precisely finding timbres, atmospheres and, if you like, sound landscapes which excite me enormously, like a child playing with toys. So, what I’m going to do with percussion is very much influenced by this way of looking at timbre, and which, at present, owes at great deal to the percussion section.
You said a number of things which raise some questions. One of them is the question of the piece beginning as though the music were already there. Does this have something to do with creating in space, as though it were an exhibition – when you go to see pictures, there’s already there. Is this important for you? Also, you spoke several times about discourse: I’d like to discuss that further, because you spoke of the various elements of the language of the discourse, but specifically in relation to the visual, as a way of creating something that involves the listener – once again we come back to space, to landscape. And then there’s the question of detail – the choreographic aspect, which you’ve explored in another piece, Mind the Gap.
Mind the Gap, for example, is a piece for marimba solo in which I explore, precisely, the choreography of the marimba player, because the first movement is called “Keep Left”, and is to be played entirely on the left-hand side of the marimba. The last movement is “Keep Right”, and is for the right side of the marimba. "Next Train Approaching", the second movement, is very visual, as though it were a train journey at night, and the third is "Currently Out of Order", which is quite chaotic. There, the performer moves from one side to the other of the marimba in an almost disorganized way, and we get into the question of physical space, which it is only possible to understand by observation.
Precisely, there it’s explicit – is the performer intervening in space like a sculpture, or...?
And this element is still very much present in your work. One could say that it’s something quite important to you.
It certainly is. The other is the dimension of time in space, and this perhaps brings us to discourse, as you were saying. It’s also quite important, in that we can distinguish two levels. One is that fact of there being a discourse which is situated in time, which occupies a space in time, and from which we cannot escape, because this is the essence of the actual musical discourse. But also in the sense that today composers have the possibility to include in their language different spaces and times, whether they be more or less contemporary with their own time and space.
For example, in Round Time, there are clear references to geographical spaces where I have never been, but which, on account of the time in which I live, I can see very easily – by means of television, radio, recordings, the internet, or by other means. This is a rather urban side of things, which I think is sometimes present in my music. Once again, this has to do with the space and time in which I live, which is a time in which on the television one can see things such as the first cloned human being. So this has some direct impact on my musical language, including a certain anxiety, agitation or even a mechanical dimension. This is the time in which I live. Though I like the country very much, I don’t live there. I very much like contemplating the landscape, but the way I live is 98% urban. So, this has immediate consequences for what I do.
Coming back again to the question of time being able to be more or less contemporary – the possibility of recovering aspects of even times which are not mine – that’s more delicate. Obviously, you have to be very careful, because recovering times other than my own doesn’t interest me at all unless I can inject some subversive element that makes them of my time – something that makes it so that it could only have been done in the last decade of the past century of now, in the first decade of this century. I’m not at all interested in taking things from the past as quotation of mere pastiche without in some form reinventing it, or recontextualizing it in the light of the present, which is my time.
Does the question of communicating with the audience condition your compositional work?
I don’t think it’s difficult to understand what I do. However, communication at any price doesn’t interest me; one has to weigh the pros and cons. But, in terms of communication, I think I’ve now found an extremely narrative dimension. People are thus guided by a musical narrative which may or may not be programmatic. For example, in Invenção sobre Paisagem, I even say in the programme notes that intend that listening to the piece should create a perception of an imagined visual space, and that I want that space to be reinvented or recreated through listening. So, I try to make the music sufficiently suggestive to stimulate this relationship, this communication, in order that there be a more communicative participation from the point of view of listening. But I don’t like overloading what I do with elements that are too defined, to the point of conditioning too much this perception that I try to establish.
But it’s also creative, as you said?
Exactly. It’s like creating a complicity. It’s interesting, because we all have this experience of people saying “Ah, here I find this, and here I see that”, and very often they find things it never entered into my mind could be there, but for me it’s extremely amusing to observe this. Very often it’s perfectly relevant, in spite of me relatively indifferent to it.
António Pinho Vargas raised precisely the question of process – he conceives of composition as a process in which he participates. Then objects appear, some of which he chooses and others not. You spoke of your concern, already at the Escola Superior de Música, with the construction of a language – the narrative side of your works is part of the language, and then there’s the material side. But you also don’t like talking about recipes... How do you cook? There are composers who really hate speaking about this.
No, I don’t hate it, but my memory is very bad at times. I don’t know if it’s a defence mechanism of some kind that I created, but normally, when I finish an piece, a week later I’ve forgotten most of what I did. The double bar-line is able to eliminate my own knowledge of my work. It’s not through not wanting to, or any kind of unfriendliness, but sometimes they ask me questions which I just don’t know how to answer. Apart from that, and in a more general sense, I think that my choice of materials is always made after listening. I often write my pieces in a continuous gesture. Examples of beginning a piece from the middle and then reorganizing it are very rare; I almost always begin from the first bar and finish with the last one. In most cases, I have an idea, which is the moving force of the piece, but I never have a pre-composed structure that I can’t get free of and go somewhere completely different. So, it is, in the end, as though I caught a bus without knowing very well where it was going... Then, if halfway through the journey I don’t like where I am, I get out and catch another bus.
But is this difference in a piece in terms of objects?
Yes, but I think that the idea of objects in music is an idea which has in a way become banal, but has always been present. I mean, I think so, that much of the music I’ve written begins from initial materials that are the embryo of what the rest of the piece will be. This was one of the things that I really wanted to develop when I began to study composition. I’m very interested in the idea of a music that has the potential for what will happen afterwards, as though a synoptic form were there in order to implode the musical gesture. When I said that my materials begin from listening, perhaps I’m going to fall back on the reply that other people have already given. I seek out harmonic fields and melodic ideas, or I begin simply with listening to a timbre. Some people think “Ah, you’re going to write a chord, choose a melody” – no, that’s something very far from the process. Sometimes it’s colours. I can work on a type of interval combined with another, or find that a certain timbre is wonderful for developing a musical idea. But everything is tried out, as far as possible, by listening. For example, just yesterday – we spoke a little while ago about the piece I’m going to do with percussion – I was in Oporto with some musicians from Drumming, trying out things on the percussion instruments, in order construct an edifice on the basis of these ideas that arise. It may be that only with an effort at solitary abstraction can I manage to obtain these results. This foes for timbre, rhythmic ideas, melodic ideas, or ideas for a harmonic field. But there’s always a lot of experimentation, and composing – this is also a cliché – is also elimination. I think that the most difficult part is to have the courage to throw out what we think are good ideas, but we have to limit ourselves to what is essential, or, in other words, the discourse I’m constructing. Then there’s always compromise, or, if you like, an equilibrium between fumbling around and then organizing the things on paper. For that, writing is fundamental. This is the reason I could never be a jazz musician, because I don’t have the capacity to develop my composition without going through this kind of attempt at rationalizing and organization, which is the writing.