Entrevista a António Ferreira / Interview with António Ferreira
I don’t know when I became a composer. The whole process happened, I wouldn’t say naturally, but in the course of life in general. What I can say is that in around 1981 I felt a desire, coupled with a huge curiosity, to go ahead with the idea of composition. I used to spend my holidays with friends in Holland, and in 1981 I got hold of a record, the old vinyl type, produced by INA-GRM of De Natura Sonorum by Bernard Parmegiani. I remember that when I listened to it on my return to Portugal, I couldn’t understand what it was all about. I didn’t feel angry, just thoroughly intrigued and spurred on to find out what it was.
I had an intuition that there was an order there, some kind of calling, a desire to be a composer, but this was completely different from what I had thought music was. Rather pretentiously, like all young people of 19 or 20, I thought I had already heard a lot of music and already knew the most avant-garde and most “way out” things. But this was completely different. That was the point at which the difficult beginning got under way: looking for books hidden in the most obscure corners of Buchholz book shop in Lisbon; or trying to get anyone who happened to be travelling abroad, to get some book or other; reading book bibliographies, such as the little book by Michel Chion: La Musique Électroacoustique, which appeared in the collection Que sais-je? of the Presse Universitaire de France in 1982. That book helped me enormously, since it had critical appraisals of many pieces that had been written up until 1980. It had a bibliography and a discography and bit by bit I began to think “How amazing! Here are people who use a whole lot of machines, or a whole lot of things that I thought had a more functional use, or a more reproductive use”. Because what I knew of music was, in fact, music of a more popular nature, or rock, or music of a so-to-speak more classical/academic nature, but supposedly this music showed a different way of being performed, but which went on to use techniques of pop or rock to make recordings and discs. This was a field in which it appeared that the means used were not simply those of reproduction, but those of synthesis and creation. This was my first big paradigmatic leap.
It was a shock to discover that there was a structure there, and that it was not something old-fashioned. Structure is always present in one way or another, I think that’s inescapable. Obviously, the rules change and the means of musical expression change, and that is the whole point. There, what I felt was that there was structure, and there were rules which I could not recognize by ear, because the surface of the music was completely hidden to me. It was this leap that the person who had made the recording, in this case Bernard Parmegiani, had made, and that I felt I was also in a position to make. And by making this leap, maybe I could expand my own way of hearing and listening, and so improve it. The thing is I have a certain notion of a person’s individual perfectionism, in individual terms, not in social terms, which I think only produces disasters and problems. However, I thought that perhaps I could progress further, stretch a bit more.
Reasons for the interest in electronic music
I can make two suggestions, one more prosaic, the other more detailed. The most prosaic is that as a man, overgrown boy that I am, there is a tendency, I wouldn’t say innate, but a great tendency to like machinery and gadgets. In one way or another, and with one or two exceptions, whether it be cameras – cars are the most obvious case – whatever it be, possibly collecting bones, men like to fiddle about with objects, and make things. There are those who say, like some “creators” (in quotes because that’s yet another polemic word) that the works they create are their children. This is not really true, because, in contrast with a woman who, when she has a child, quite apart from the pains of giving birth, also has at least ten, fifteen or twenty years caring for that child, a male creator makes his work and can then forget it completely. That work then goes off on its own, leaving him free to be courted by the “muses” to create new works. However, the thing isn’t really quite as clearly defined as that. This is the prosaic part, another part is for reasons, well I am not quite sure what reasons, maybe family reasons, given that my father is an engineer – perhaps this fact has been influential in an unconscious sort of way – and I chose to study Chemical Engineering. The reasoning behind my decision to do this course lay in the fact that I had a great love of perfumes, and I still do. I wanted to study organic chemistry, bio-chemistry, or the “chemistry of rare earth” as they call it, which is directly linked to these areas. When I was at the Instituto Superior Técnico – I began in the 1979-80 academic year – one of the subjects we studied in the first year actually involved computers. And I, who up until then had had nothing to do with computers, found myself making programmes to do this or that. There was another programme in which one had to simulate a game of chess, and I found it highly amusing that one should be able to feed in a variety of different pieces of information. It was a coded language, but it was also a language with syntax, it didn’t exactly have semantics, but it did have syntax, and this gave rise to certain actions in a system, or in an electronic circuit, or whatever, from which there emerged a result. That was what fascinated me. When later on I found out that there were other people who were already using – not computers because at the time they were extremely expensive and extravagant machines – the idea of machine, the idea of a machine, of having a syntax, that would later produce a result in music, these two ideas began to come together, with the prosaic part on top acting as the icing on the cake.
On the other hand there are people who regard electronic music as being in step with the present day. Because of all the machines which have come into being since the beginning of the twentieth century, all the mechanical machines, the existence of electricity, which allows for the possibility of continuous sound, with what the English call drones and which in traditional western music we can relate to pedal notes, to sounds that endure, that are continuous. However, I think our society has gained a continuous background noise, due to the motors which are always running, the rheostats, the light bulbs, with their 50 or 60 Hz of electricity. There is always a background noise. In fact, when there is a huge power cut, which happens in Portugal from time to time, the silence which results is incredible, whether out of doors or indoors. The dozens of little rheostats, dimmers and motors which are always running, continually produce this noise. Now, this continuous sound is not really a natural sound because all sound has a tendency towards a transient evolution, and for reasons of physics, they cannot be sustained for very long. They appear and they disappear. Maybe that is one of the reasons. As far as sonority from the aspect of tone-colour is concerned, well, I’m not too sure about that. If it has to do with the present day or not. Maybe it does.
Well it’s like this: as anyone that writes, paints or indeed does anything else, will tell you, when works are thrown open to the general public, control over them is lost from that moment on. And that is something which is part of my personal research, to find out what other people think about this. It’s not questions, it’s not interrogations, and it’s not provocations, because I’m not the sort of person who likes to provoke, but it’s somewhere there between question and provocation. I really like to see other people’s reactions. I am a human being, polite in talking to other people. Regarding a CD, people will say: “This is horrible, this is incredible, this is like this, like that and like the other”, and I make notes and try to establish a pattern, and I have to say that so far I have found absolutely no pattern whatsoever. For example, most of the people I knew in the eighties, in another area coming mostly from rock and pop, who continued to make music after the interregnum in which I was doing nothing, moved on to and are now in a fashion of glitch and noise, doing things like Rafael Toral, and Nuno Rebelo, who also came from other areas. These people like my first CD much better than the second. They say “your first CD is unique, you surpassed yourself with it, and it remains completely up to date”. As far as they are concerned, it is up to date, it works perfectly. This second CD is good, as Rafael Toral told me, but it is more musical, so to speak. I said to him, “Great, as far as I’m concerned, the first CD was a youthful work, and in this second CD I felt a far greater desire to form a structure and to want to create”. And so, I managed to do that, but in other people’s expectations, people who have almost taken out political sanctions against it, as well as against the system and academia, actually the other CD, with the name it has – which had nothing to do with what was done up until now – I can see that it fits far better into the spirit of those people. I actually think that it is those people who are about ten years behind. When I want to stir up a controversy, I say, “You are ten years behind the times, so in another ten years’ time you are going to like my present CD”. But by then I hope I shall be in another phase, a completely different one, if I manage it.
As far as the first CD is concerned, I’d like to mention something which has to do which what I was talking about a little while ago. For example, in December, João Paulo Feliciano rang me at home, inviting me to put one of my pieces of music into a stand, under the auspices of Experimenta Design, which in this case consists of a huge lorry containing a sort of exhibition of Portuguese design and which will go travelling around Europe. So, they had reserved a small stand that was supposed to house my piece. A person would go inside and it had a lighting system controlled by the sound, and there the person would be immersed in the system and listen. The piece they wanted was from my first CD, called This Is Music As It Was Expected. Yet again they said: “Very good, that CD, very all sorts of things, it’s really good that you brought out another edition, it has a this, that and the other sound” and I said, “Right, yet another thing I did fifteen years ago, when I have things now!”, but things of today don’t have a chance. For a certain group of people further distanced from it – but it’s very difficult categorizing people into this and that – but sometimes people like certain things more, and if you want to like certain things which are possibly more complicated, you have to learn how to do it, unfortunately! Now I think that the general public have to learn, because they can’t, as they use to be able to, listen to a work by Palestrina in the same easy or intuitive way as they do to a work by Wagner. The tonal structure is quite different, but there are things in common which people used to be able to grasp without having to learn anything – now the public is almost invited to learn. I think it’s a bit heavy, but I can’t see another way of doing it. But this is just to say that in this piece, I afterwards managed to talk to them, and so only the voice of my composer friend Rodney Waschka II was used, who recites a text I wrote called Do Princípio e do Fim, [“From the Beginning and from the End”], and I managed to make a bridge, a connection between the two. Something new, with new material, and I have to say that as far as I know – because it has already been to Barcelona and to Paris and other cities are in queue after that – it’s really quite a big success. People really liked it, and it has worked very well. Present day things, the CD called Músicas Fictícias, which from my point of view is already outmoded, the things which I do now are perfectly in step with what I want to do, although, once again, I am now thinking that the time has come to move on to other situations or rather, to some extent I have found a way of producing pieces which are acceptable abroad. They work very well at festivals, and now I could go on doing this, but my life is always very eclectic. As soon as I begin to form a habit, I try to break it. Now I am again trying to break it, which is somewhat difficult because I still haven’t seen very clearly in which direction I should be going forward.
Well, if I only knew. To think of it, that is really my question too. Let’s do it like this: when in 1998 I was able to re-launch myself in composition, it was quite clearly a question of technique. Macintosh computers had become sufficiently fast for me to be able to recreate, to a certain extent, the studio in Holland in my house, just as I had imagined it. And in fact, that is what I did, and my first pieces, (which don’t exist, no-one has heard them yet,) disappeared, and have a flavour of the eighties about them. Then I did what I thought I should do, which was to listen to what was being done now, in various fields, and I found out that it had changed a bit in terms of sonority and attitude. Things are more elastic, fresher. So I went through a certain period of readjustment and adaptation, because in this field of electroacoustic music the only way I can see for a person to learn is by listening, either that or by exposure. There is no formal way, you can make descriptions, with better or worse metaphors, but it is simply by hearing. There is no other way. It’s a question of listening, to tens and hundreds and hundreds of CDs until you begin to understand how the sounds are linked together. How do they make the transformation of A to B, what are the connections between one sound and another, how does a sound with a metaphorical image and another sound with another metaphorical image move from one to the other. At that point, I began to understand, I began to set about applying technique again, and that is my situation today. I see now that it is a process I could have continued to practise, but being in a precarious situation – I am not connected to any institution, and unfortunately I have no commissions. Because when someone has regular commissions they find themselves in a system for producing material – I can take risks, because I have nothing to lose. So, I’m not just going to stay where I am. I already had my system set up and I could now have got on with my career, but no.
There is also a fundamental contribution from a technical and aesthetic reflection which makes its mark and points out directions. There is a collection of texts by the New Zealand composer Denis Smalley which I really enjoyed reading in which he elaborates a little on theories by Pierre Schaeffer and others, to which he gives the name Spectromorphology. Or rather: morphology is the form, and the spectra are the sounds. However, he found that the sounds have a form given by their spectre, by their composition. And that form, that transformation of form, is one of the ways of giving progression to a structure (in this case electroacoustic or acousmatic music) so that the progression can be made, in order to provide contrasts, to have points of rest. However, making a structure is, in fact, creating a form. This was an area which emerged at the end of the eighties but which has been, I wouldn’t say validated, that’s not quite true, but developed by a number of composers. It began with Jonty Harrison, who was also a contemporary and colleague of Denis Smalley and, later on, by his pupils – mostly English: Peter Stollery, Natasha Barrett, and Andrew Lewis, who are now all well established. They all composed a set of electroacoustic pieces, which I feel have a poetry and a force which I had not heard since I heard Bernard Parmegiani’s first record in 1980. In certain respects, this has been the area on which I have concentrated to relearn and find out how I could do that. I think that this I have managed to do, both from the technical aspect and also from the aesthetic aspect, from how to connect the sounds and how to order them, I think I’ve more or less succeeded. Now I feel that I should move on from that aspect.
For example, my work Canções Cativas [Captive Songs], which earned this name because it cost me a lot of work to get the structure right. I don’t know why, whether it was because I was concerned about other things, other problems, but it was very hard work creating a structure of the sort I wanted for the material I had. Hence the name “Captive Songs”, because the songs were held captive inside the musical material. I spent a great deal of time reordering them, replacing them and rewriting them. That was a composition that I took a long time reordering because I had just constructed certain sound complexes, often lasting several seconds, sometimes as much as 30 seconds, and then I wasn’t managing to link them together. I even thought of making a collage by contrasts, but I was no longer interested in a surrealist aesthetic. I’m not going to do that again, because I really had to hear a whole lot of things over again, think again, and then take a new look at the musical material. I discovered, for example, that certain low sounds could easily be crossed with the drone of a motor, which could be the origin of a pedal point of a sound aggregate that filtered another object. So, from there I started more or less to create the structure. It was the first piece in which I felt all the aesthetic problems and all the questions and solutions proposed by Denis Smalley in an article in 1986. Therefore, this is a piece I would salvage.
The metaphor is a figure of style. I’m not quite sure if it was first defined by Aristotle, or someone else like that. As a figure of style, it is a person speaking about something using terms taken from something else. It is a transferral. Right from the outset, there is the idea of progression from A to B, that’s the first thing. The second thing is that in music, as we understand it, (with tonal instruments) there is a large divide between day to day sounds and the sounds of music. This separation was made especially clearly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries onwards. And so, when someone talks of instrumental music they are of necessity always talking in metaphors. People have tried to get away from that, but when it comes wanting to say something, it always ends up by being in metaphors. One speaks of metaphors of density, of masses, or, as I have suggested, of structure, of clarity, of progression, or of movement. Because the idea of movement in music is a metaphor. The idea of height, of rising and falling tones, that’s another metaphor. Therefore, so-called traditional music lives through metaphors. In electro-acoustic music, the field becomes more peculiar, in that when someone writes a composition, instead of saying “it sounds like the birds” they can introduce a live recording of actual birdsong. One can play with the literal aspect of the sounds but also, by using transformations, one can play with the metaphorical aspect of the sounds too. I think that while in traditional music a person can play with the metaphorical aspect of the sounds – though the music itself is always manipulated in terms of metaphor – in electro-acoustic music a person can play not only with the literal aspect but also with the metaphorical aspect, which comes from the past. This produces another level of tension, a level of differentiation which one can use creatively.
When I spoke in terms of metaphor, and gave those examples of structure, form, etc., those are only the metaphors to describe music in technical terms; I should have said that whether we are describing music in technical terms, or in poetical terms, we are always using metaphors. Therefore, the so-called technical language of music is a metaphorical language, although it has become customary. Also, in addition to all this, if someone wants to say something further, they have to have recourse to other metaphors, of a far more poetic nature. Or rather, the person making the description has to be more inventive, he has to use other words instead of using a vocabulary that is already really established. In actual fact, technical vocabulary is a metaphorical vocabulary and the other becomes a more poetic vocabulary. In the field of electro-acoustics, the technical part has nothing to do with metaphor; the technical part really is a technical description. Someone says: “I did this, I connected these wires, I used this programme, I used this process “. That’s one thing, now as to the transformation of these structures. These structures make sound and these sounds are transformed into something else: let us call it music; I have decided to call it music. And this transformation, this transition, in which there is the poetical part, and also, as I was saying, the metaphors. There are sounds which one may use and which appear in their literal aspect, for example in the case of birdsong. Quite simply, the sound of recorded birdsong in a concert hall creates a completely new context for the concert hall. It creates a space which comes from the outside but which does not exist, so immediately the metaphor becomes doubly poetic. In other words, reality, literal reality, becomes poetic by means of the composer’s action and by means of the music. To me, this is music working.
I think that in all of my works - with the exception of the last which no longer has it – whether it is Canções Cativas or A Horizontal do Vento, from 2002 and 2001 respectively, there is always a part, an area within them, which is more sono-photographic, or phonographic. There is now a group of people who are very active on the internet, who devote themselves to phonographics. When I heard that word, I thought they were old 78 vinyl records, but they say they are photographs with sounds. So, they have a recorder, and make recordings and then present them just as they are. They say they are unedited, but it’s not quite the case, because as soon as someone chooses to record something, it automatically becomes a point of view. There is always the person’s point of view, however small that is. But it is also true that they make no transformations since they do not want to use systems or complicated machinery.
In the majority of my compositions, I use a sono-photographic part in order to contrast with the more abstract and detailed structures, with more technical pirouettes, preceding and succeeding them. In fact, that is how the structure comes into being, and sometimes it uses previous sounds that are transformed, but it also uses sounds that have not been directly transformed. In a piece which was to have been performed in Évora in 2002, but which never was, a 13 minute piece called Les Femmes Harmoniques, there was a long structure. There was a gesture made by a synthetic piano, but of a perfectly tonaI character, that blended in with a structure that lasted five or six minutes, almost at the extreme limit of audibility, but where there were dozens of small sounds, natural or others. I had imagined that this would be performed live, in a large space, in the Temple of Diana in Évora, with its huge exterior, on a summer’s evening, so as to re-contextualise the entire space. There were sounds of water, sounds of animals, of insects which I imagined lived there, but then too there would be the sounds of cars passing slowly by from one side to the other, and also the sounds of human beings, of people talking, though very quietly. This was my idea, to give the impression of reality from the use of illusion, which is a real question of metaphor.
Specifically here in Portugal, for a period of six or seven years of hiatus, I worked on the control of noise and sound pollution. It is a preventative measure and purely a question of setting the levels, just as they are dictated by machines that we call sonometers, within the legal limits. There is no other reflection beyond this, in fact practically it can hardly even be that, but at International Congresses that I attended, I saw that as far as I know at the moment, there is concern to rethink this rather legalitarian and incomplete approach somewhat and to go in for the idea of sound ecology. In other words, to think that not all sounds are bad, nor that all noise, even that which is produced artificially, is necessarily bad, and that perhaps one should try to create a balance that produces a whole soundscape. I think it is a bit difficult, but it is a breath of fresh air, over and above the idea of simply measuring the levels and controlling them. In legal terms, however, when there is a complaint and one gets involved in these procedures, one can’t make long explanations.
We can close our eyelids and select the images we want, but our ears hear 360º without eyelids, all the time. If we are hearing continuously, our attention eventually wanders. It is natural that we only hear a noise if it is very loud, or if it comes up behind us as if it was a danger. Meanwhile, with images, since we have eyelids and a bi-ocular, bifocal vision, focussed ahead like all predators, we have a tendency to focus. Maybe because of this we take more notice of the abundance of images, but I think that as well as this being a civilisation of image, it is also very much a civilisation of sound. I think a person loses half the story if he doesn’t connect to the sound. It’s like in the cinema, where I see lots of interviews with directors, and then I see the composers or the sound designers always saying that the sound element in cinema is treated like a poor relation. Even in big productions, they have about a week in which to do everything, and it is all based on the question of image, on the frame, which has great importance. But it is the sound track which gives a film its context, so that one can see things which are not there, the context all around, the complete atmosphere. Without that, most productions get nowhere, only a little story remains, all very well….
Approaching composition nowadays
With the works as they stand now, there is a sense of balanced synthesis, with life and expression, between my technical know-how and my ability as a composer tout court from the order of the structures and the choice of sounds, dynamics, processes and development. For some time my technical ability was as a rule, greater than my capacity for composition. I spent some considerable time getting this aspect up to the level of real technical ability. I think that now they are well balanced. I think that perhaps I still have to work on my capacity as a composer and let my technical capacities stay as they are, also because they cannot go much further. Once a person knows how to programme, the machines remain the same. But it is necessary, as a composer, to have more ideas to employ and also to look out for new things that I can do.