Entrevista a Isabel Soveral / Interview with Isabel Soveral
Development as a composer
You know, I’ve been composing for twenty years now, which is ages, and makes me think that we really grow very slowly. This cycle of twenty years made me think a great deal, made me think about my first piece and analyse what I did, what’s in this first piece and what is still present in more recent works. And of course this exercise has made me aware of the development, principally technically, intellectually, of what would influence my formal choices, the formal work... But really, that’s what I concluded, that we grow very slowly – because composing is rather like learning to know ourselves. And it’s a slow process, very slow. And we discover ourselves in our works...
There’s a first phase... My first piece is from 1983, for solo flute, and there’s a first phase which includes this piece (Quatro Variações para Flauta Solo), the Opiums (for solo clarinet) and also includes a piece for piano, Fragmentos. So we can say that it’s the period from 1983 to 1988, when I went to New York. This was the most innocent phase, more experimental. I was still a pupil at the Conservatory, but was working with Jorge Peixinho outside the Conservatory – until he began to teach there. So I came from Oporto to seek out Jorge, to work with him, after a course he gave there. And this phase was extremely important, because for one thing Jorge was, as everybody knows, a crucial personality in the development of Portuguese music, and he was a bottomless well. To speak with him, to talk with him, to work with him, was an unforgettable experience. So this was a period of tremendous learning. But this happened in one way, which was... Jorge encouraged our intuitive side. He wanted is to bring out our expressive tendencies, and there was some experimentalism, but all this was very innocent. He himself would sometime say: “Look, how interesting, what you’ve got here you’ve already written in this other piece, in another way”. And this whole process happened very much without my being aware. So I did this cycle, that’s quite clear.
Then, when I went to New York, I began working with electronics, with electronic music, which is another world. It was a new world, not only because I had access to electronic means and studios, but also in terms of the whole business of learning – the whole working process was different, a different experience. I was part of a real school that takes technical and theoretical training seriously, and that was also important. I went to the electronic music courses in Viana do Castelo in Portugal, but we didn’t have access to the technical side. The American school obliges one to be a technician too, to work independently. We grow in this sense too; it’s very important for people to begin to be more independent. But during this time in New York, I had the idea that I had to finish this cycle, I had to... but I kept putting it off. I went there for two years, and then got into the doctoral programme – in fact, I did a master’s and a doctorate at the same time; it was a bit of a mess. But basically I wanted to finish this cycle, and I wanted to see when this would be, in order to begin another. This is interesting, because circumstances in New York limited me. I was obliged to follow a very strict programme, and I missed all that business of just writing, that I had had with Jorge... And so, from a certain point, two or three years later, I needed to come back to Portugal, or to Europe.
I learned a lot there. I owe a great debt to the Americans, because I think being a musician here is very precarious. In this respect, they’re fantastic. Things are there to be used, everything’s there so you can work, and if you want to work, you can. But I always look upon this time in the United States as a cycle. At least on the one hand, or in terms of my personal development, or my relationship with the act of composing, and so on. But on the other hand, in the middle of this time in New York, I began a cycle, the Anamorphoses.
I stayed another two years in the United States, but my mind was actually already here. In fact, I began to come and go, I didn’t stay there all the time. I tried to work as much as possible in the analogue studio, which had analogue synthesizers, such as the Buchla, which is a synthesizer that has become fashionable again, but at the time you could hardly find. There was the Moog, which didn’t interest me as much. The Buchla interested me because it doesn’t have a keyboard, so you’re not limited to the tempered scale, you create your own scales, with sequencers. For me, it was more complicated to work with, but it was more complete for what I needed. I worked quite a lot with the Buchla... And then in the last year in New York, I was already basically collecting material to bring back here. Because I knew that I wouldn’t have access to this kind of studio in Portugal. So I did months of work in the analogue studio collecting material to bring back. This was at the same time I was finishing my doctorate, which was not so important for me. What was really important was to advance as far as possible in the field of electronics. And it was with this material that I brought back that I continued the Anamorphoses. Then there were the Anamorphoses, the Quadramorphoses...
The compositions “Quatro Variações”, “Contornos”, “Opium I” and “Opium II”
The first work, Quatro Variações para Flauta Solo, (Four Variations for Solo Flute) is a work in which I have no idea of influences, of what happened, what didn’t happen... Actually, I even have difficulty in remembering how the composition of this work progressed. I know it’s important, it’s the first one, and it was the piece I took to Jorge Peixinho and said: “Will you work with me?”. And he said, “Yes, alright, let’s work”. So it probably had a lot of Jorge’s influence, but I was very young and it was a work that grew very intuitively. But in the Opiums, in the clarinet pieces, there was in my idea, not looking back now but at the time, some influence of Stockhausen. Why? Because I heard Stockhausen’s work and it was a total revelation. A huge leap. When I think today about why the music touched me, I think it has to do essentially with its sound world, in the sound imagination. And these are things that can’t be taught, they’re things that happen. I was immediately influenced by that sound world. So it wasn’t a process that at that time was completely intellectual. It was a reaction, a stimulus that had consequences later.
Both Opium I and in Opium II (and Contornos are more developed in this sense, it went beyond this), were works that came about as a result of this discovery. So I could say that probable Stockhausen’s sound world influenced me quite a lot. But only in this way, the sound world, in the organic elements of his work, the material that is developed. We’re not talking about clear techniques, we’re talking about quite simple and physical perception that fed the imagination of a very young person, and was influenced by it. I think so, that I was sensitive to this.
In Contornos, the group of pieces, I began really to work... My music was quite contrapuntal, already in the Quartet, but it comes about naturally. It wasn’t because I had discovered through somebody... or because... No, it was really... It’s a quality of expression, let’s say. A tendency.
The Morphosis cycle
This tendency was later increased to include timbral aspects, for example. Thus the Metamorphoses, the Morphoses and the Anamorphoses... Where does the name come from? The name comes precisely from taking seriously this question of morphosis. We don’t know where we are, because it runs away and changes, and we can’t get hold of it because the material is alive. It’s one of the characteristics of my music. It’s as though I’d created monsters, at times, at others not... but the material that is there is alive.
There’s a way of working which is very organic and very much present in the whole Morphoses cycle. The actual musical idea is “intellectualized” in order to do that. In the service of this tendency, this process. And so, I work on this openly. The material evolves, as though it were almost alive, in a very organized way – but then, yes, it must be very structured. And then this constant alteration of timbre is widened, very much influenced by the world of electronics, which is present and not present, and that, when we finally notice, has already gone. So it’s widened to other parameters, and is today present in my music, even that for orchestra.
When I look at my instrumental music, for example, for larger groups – such as Anamorphoses VII – I think the electronic imagination is quite present in the sound world. Sonically, one feels that in the work there are choices that have to do with this trajectory, of the influence of electronics. This happens even when we talk to an instrumentalist, when we say to the percussionist who’s playing the xylophone, “on the high note, don’t make a crescendo, don’t do anything” –that’s electronic. And if he makes a crescendo, it’s like... like a crescendo at a mixing table, which goes out and comes in. It has to do with aspects of expression, of the musician, who will touch things, work. The musician takes from it some human aspects and adds some mechanical ones, so to speak. It has to do with the actual writing. But the musician, the performer, has to understand, and sometimes he doesn’t know, that form the very first idea, I have this desire that sonically, the piece be on the boundary between the electronic world and the instrumental world.
The material of the Anamorphoses, which is initially quite concise, a group of intervals and rhythms which are applied in a particular way – it’s not worth going into technical details here – and begin to create fragments of material, and as the Anamorphoses appear, I’m already working with fragments that begin to have their own identity. That phrase doesn’t any more, that material doesn’t... It’s as though it were once again the “one” of the working elements. Of course, the density increases, because it’s a question of scale. If I’m going to apply a morphosis process, I apply a norm, a morphosis equation, which applies short and simple elements to complex elements. And this happens throughout the Anamorphoses. All this also comes from electronics. When I went to the studio to compose, everything there was completely different. The actual learning to react to the material, the composer’s way of being is different. The working time is different... During this whole phase, I felt as though I were a sound sculptress. I felt, when I went into the studio, much more like a sculptress than a composer... who’s sculpting sound masses.
And I needed – independently of all the sounds I make at the beginning, in the studio, beginning with the oscillator and going on to create the sound I want, or the “instruments” I want – to begin working with the material of the Anamorpohses, and so I began to transform it into more extensive material. So I began to have a different way of working, which influenced everything I did afterwards. That is, today, when I start a piece, when I have an idea for a piece, or nearly an idea for a piece, I begin to work on the material. And I work on lots of material, stacks of material, the house is full or material! It’s a process that takes a long time, and it’s very, very difficult. For me, it’s the most complex part of my work. Then, when I have all this basic material, I begin to write the piece. And then I go through, I shape the work... I deal with the material in a different way. And it extends itself.
There’s a tendency towards cycles. Of course, there are cycles because I produce so much material and then I want to write pieces with it! I have to achieve my aims; it’s important to explore and develop this side. Therefore this tendency towards cycles. And, moreover, I never know how to finish a cycle. I interrupt it. The idea I have is that, for me, even in the work itself, if you say to me: “but how do you finish a work?”... Don’t ask me that, because I don’t know. I interrupt the work, and then of course my experience as a composer is technical... you know how one interrupts? One interrupts, finishing it at that moment. But for me the work is not completely over, it could continue. When Anamorphoses VII was premièred, the first thing I said to [António] Chagas Rosa, who was next to me, was “well, this could conitnue for another ten minutes...”. I mean, it could perfectly well continue! Sometimes it’s external circumstances, that have nothing to do with the process, such as the duration of a commission that has to be delivered, or something... so I interrupt. But I need to continue. And then we’ll see what comes out!
So let’s look at the word Anamorphoses itself. Perhaps this will help to explain... Imagine an object that is deformed. When one looks at it, one is not exactly sure what it is. It’s unfocussed, it’s deformed... Then we take a mirror, with a cut, and it’s this cut that we make in the mirror, this line, it corrects the object and gives us the perfect object. This is the idea behind Anamorphoses.
I’m no physicist, so I explain this and deal with it in a poetic way. But the idea of Anamorphoses, in which the relation between the instrument and electronics... Normally, when you hear a piece for electronics and instrument, you think “Right, here’s the instrument and here are the electronics which are performing with the instrument”. With me, it was never the case, except when I didn’t manage. This was during the Anamorphoses phase, because afterwards it was different, from the sixth work of the cycle onwards. But in general, what happened was that I wanted it to be so that for all the sound material, one could not have a clear idea of where it was – whether in the electronics, or in the instrumental part, or in the mixture of the two, and when. There are moments with more light, because the material is more transparent, and moments when it is as though transforming. It’s that idea of “being alive”, which I mentioned before, which is transforming itself in front of your eyes. It’s a genuine metamorphosis, in the sense of transforming itself from one thing to another. And I manage this precisely in the very close relationship between what the acoustic instrument and the electronic instruments say. It’s what each one says. And it’s very close, it blends and sometimes one has no idea, one can’t distinguish. This is very much present in all the Anamorphoses, especially from Anamorphoses VI, for saxophone and electronics, onwards, which was the first work in which this process began to change. Why? Because before, the tape, or the electronics, always had a very instrumental attitude. For me, it was like creating imaginary instruments, in that one could always imagine a musician playing them. From Anamorphoses VI, at times this aspect is so present that we imagine: “But this is almost... Isn’t this a violin? This is almost a violin. This is the Buchla, this is an analogue synthesizer”. But we manage to imagine a violinist playing staccato. I wanted this to disappear after Anamorphoses VI. The piece for saxophone and electronics is the first that has a different concept behind it. One can perfectly well understand the attitude of the electronics, the attitude of the instrumentalist and of the instrument of written music. Therefore, it’s completely different. They are close, yes, because the electronics are almost like a shadow.
I began to be fascinated by the idea of shadow. Sometimes, that idea of being close, but not the same thing, a projection of the main object in a circumstance in which the light is different, in which it’s this way... So, I began to work with the electronics in another way, still very experimentally in Anamorphoses VI. And I’ve followed this line.
The instrumental discourse is very clear. And this discourse does not interfere with that of the electronics, but there is its presence, enveloping, like a skin, what is presented by the instrumentalist.
Mémoires came about... I was in Paris, in 1997 and 1998. When Mémoires were written there – and Inscriptions too – they arose from some work on memory. It’s a game... It was an idea, originally... These ideas have various phases, as we grow with the work, which becomes more and more intellectualized...
But I’ll talk about the first one, because the first one is the one that, in the end, says more... When we ask “But why this work? Why that work? I need to write, I need to don it. But what? And why? What’s going to appear now? And where does it come from?” In Paris, I’d come to the end of a special phase in my life, emotionally, of which I had only memories, obviously. There was an attempt to recover this emotion, this feeling, so as not to let it escape or change too much. Because we have great difficulties in retaining the most important part of the memory, because the brain does not always allow it. And I wanted to recover that emotional intensity, that density of the whole emotional experience... So I thought: “No. This will be my next work. Bringing back that emotional experience...”. And you think that, but it doesn’t mean that another person who hears it will understand any of that. It doesn’t come through the work – it’s just for yourself, it’s the stimulus, let’s say. And so I tried to create through the elaboration of very specific material which, principally in intervallic terms, in terms of sound, of sound combinations, in terms of frequencies and also of images, would be very intimate but that would project memories, shadows, moments... This is difficult to explain, I don’t really know how to, but it’s the recovering of that emotion, which obviously already appears in another way.
“Inscriptions sur une Peinture”
In Inscriptions... something interesting happens, this thing of the painting that condenses, like a photograph that condenses, which transmits all the emotional intensity, and so forth. This notion in music is a little strange, because music happens in time. So, trying to freeze moments, almost to take a sound photograph of this musical idea, is difficulty, its something that’s impossible. So it only happens on certain levels, not in the totality. We can’t do this in an absolute fashion. In Inscriptions... I try to do this. I try because it’s a work inspired by a painting. Obviously it’s a painting that has a reading different from that of the music, and it doesn’t happen in time exactly. It’s of the time of each person. In music, time imposes itself and implies other times that are connected to our memory and to the way in which we live time. But it happens... The discourse unfolds in time. In Inscriptions... I try to have a moment in the work in which I synthesize all the sketches of the painting. The painting is made in layers, and I saw the painter working on it. I followed the whole process of the creation of the panting. And Inscriptions sur une Peinture has the various sketches. Then there is the moment in which the density is very great and in which I try to recover the plastic density of the painting at that moment. They intersect... At a particular moment the sketches intersect, and so all the materials pass... At that moment, if one could take a photograph, everything would be there. And then it continues, because the music does not stop. It’s a strange relationship... It’s almost autistic, as a compositional process, but for me it was stimulating.
“Un soir j’ai assis la beauté sur mes genoux et je l’ai trouvée amère”
I always think of this work with Rimbaud’s poem on anger, always... I don’t know why, but I always see this work as being between brackets during my career. Perhaps because it was a very specific commission. I was commissioned to portray anger, this capital sin, shall we say. Anger, that conditioned... the whole process of starting the piece. I searched out the Rimbaud because I don’t think there’s anyone who speaks about anger the way he does. And then I began to work on the basis of the poem. Obviously, the relationship between the text, the poem by Rimbaud, and the music, because it’s there. So, one could receive the image and, whether one wishes it or not, one receives the image that the poem brings. It appears – the text is supposed to appear, because that was a condition too. The music, in this work, has two aspects: on the one hand it accompanies the poem in an almost descriptive fashion, on the other, it has an autonomy in relation to the poem, and creates moments in which the feeling of anger appears as though in a painting. They’re moments which are also flashes, which portray anger... This thereafter depends on the individual’s imagination. Anger can be many things, it can even be something very good... And so in this sense, yes. In fact, it’s the beginning of a relationship with other means of artistic expression.
Considerations and conclusions
When people ask me “What is your music like?”, it’s as though they are asking me “What are you like? Who are you?”. I mean, it’s not easy, we have an idea, we have data which we think are acquired. I’m like this, my music has that, and that and that... But whenever there’s a première, a first performance of a piece, we come up against a new face; I mean, there’s always a side that people don’t know. And the big leap – in my case, and probably also in the case of other composers and writers – is then, when we come up against the side we don’t know, but which is ours. And it’s from there that we make the leap to the next work. For me, it’s not as one imagines – that it’s in that time when we’re writing the piece, when we’re working – but in that phase that one begins to master it. So, we work, we write the piece, and it’s easy to talk about this phase – the material is this, I make this choice, and that... But then, there are many choices and much in us that is in the work and that we don’t know.
Yes, I think my work is quite visual, I think that... Everybody says so, I think so. At the beginning I accepted it, and now I agree with it. It’s quite visual, so it could be that... Well, it could be that perhaps I’m essentially a sculptress, or... I don’t know, my music is visual. People manage to have a visual image, there are always images, when they hear a piece of mine – certainly. There’s a very strong relationship. There’s much more to say about this... It would provide us with another hour of conversation!
I have the idea that, in my most recent works, particularly in the last two works, we’re moving on... And when I write, I now know what I want to write. And there’s a very strong connection between what I want and how it is, how it fits in. Influences don’t bother me, but I feel them, of course – it interests me that my language is becoming stronger, but in such a way that I can understand my potential better. You know, I always have this doubt: “When will I be me, and not other people?”. It’s something, a question... We have to make this conquest, and I’m betting on that conquest. It’s analysing what’s always present in all my work, what it brings out, what’s part of me, what do I have to accept and work on, what it not yet there... I still have doubts... “Is this really mine? Does this still show a lot of influences?” though this also doesn’t bother me, that it be only mine, but that I should be writing for me, from my own idea, you see? It’s a release, I’m in this process. Finally I began this process, after twenty years. That’s why I say that we grow very slowly... And then, I find points of intersection, sometimes in a surprising way, in one or other work I’m listening to. Sometimes I think that, at that moment, much of my work connects with certain composers from the South, from Italy, etc. I mean, there are really certain aesthetic choices that are present. But, perhaps because I’m a Capricorn, what concerns me is coherence, a formal structure, strong, coherent, that will allow me release in poetic terms and create a work that is basically to do with me.
Contemporariness in composition
This questions doesn’t bother me at all, at the moment. I’ll tell you more or less why. Of course there’s a time when I know perfectly well where I belong. I’m influenced by the modernists (for me post-modernism and so on is all nonsense). So let’s talk about modernism, because nobody really knows that the other stuff is… And then I know what I’m influenced by, I know that I’ve been influenced by schools, by Stockhausen, and then before by Webern, etc, etc. But there’s also a point at which my concerns are others. When we begin to know, begin to be essentially more concerned with style itself. What it is, how we write... And there there’s a release. At that point I’m not bothered in the slightest, because I think I’ve done twenty years’ service.