Entrevista a José Carlos Sousa / Interview with José Carlos Sousa
Learning: stages and turning points
It may be commonplace but I had the first urge which led me to study composition while I was still in the Conservatory. My time as a student was more or less normal and in the last year that I had Composition Analysis and Techniques (C.A.T.). I was perhaps lucky to have met some students from the University of Aveiro who were doing a course in Viseu, which – in parallel with the normal classes of one of the teachers who was Isabel Ramos - were trying to do various activities within composition (besides the “curriculum” which is established for the 3rd year of the C.A.T. course.). These activities were aimed at the practical side of composition: to compose in a group, composing things other than the type of composition included in the “curriculum” and which we have to study. Perhaps this was the starting point. After that I entered here at the University of Aveiro and I did the normal courses of a student, a higher course of music in the University.
Here there were a few teachers who influenced me, of course. Important teachers for my musical path as a composer, three of whom I could point out here. I will start by speaking of my teacher Evgueni Zoudilkine, who was my composition teacher for some years; it was with him that I really began to compose or to take my first steps in composition. Here and besides the conservatory, it was with my teacher Evgueni that I began to work and begin to understand what it was to develop a musical idea and what it is to compose. I worked with him for 4 years. I also worked with the teacher João Pedro Oliveira and with my teacher Isabel. With João Pedro Oliveira I worked more with electro-acoustic music, which also made me very interested in composition, interested in working with sound and not simply working on a musical idea which is put down on paper which someone can eventually interpret. It is working the sound itself and the musical idea through sound, sculpting it, working the sound itself. It was with my teacher João Pedro Oliveira that I began to work in this field of composition. With my teacher Isabel Soveral, this was much later… a stage during my Degree and which had to do with my Masters which I am now finishing. Here I not only worked on an important part of my path as composer such as the technique of “making music”, but also thinking about things and organising methodologies to achieve a supposedly artistic, compositional work. She was an important teacher as I worked a lot in this area. In terms of my educational experience, this was more or less what influenced me most. There are also another two institutions which played an important role and which influenced me in one way or another. One was the Gulbenkian with “Encontros” – the famous “Contemporary Music Encounters” of the Gulbenkian. These were really stimulating weeks for a young composer full of all of those ideals, with that energy to compose… in fact, when I came out of there it seemed as if I could compose anything – well, that energy would soon evaporate afterwards! But in any case, it was there that I came into contact with great names and with great works which you could hear there. I think that for a young composer this represented an energy which came from outside of the academic path and which could make us go beyond it somewhat.
Another important institution is Miso Music. Not only for the same reason as the “Encontros” of the Gulbenkian, or rather, for the contact we have with composers and with various trends, but also for the support and promotion which is given to young composers and their works. Even if they are not “great” works, it takes courage to back these composers and their works which may possibly not be “the ones”, but which really play a decisive role. It is extremely important to promote concerts with these works – and that is where Miso Music has been (and still is) a very important institution for any young apprentice composer who wants to begin to show their work.
The Role of Electroacoustics and the Creative Processes
When I think of a work, I almost always think of it now with electro-acoustics and we could say that it is almost a “sacrilege” to have this resource available and not use it and develop it in a work. Obviously with a large orchestra (with the resources that a young composer does not have) you can also achieve results which may be similar or, maybe, even better than with electro-acoustics. But in fact, when I now think of a work or of writing a new work, I always think of doing it with electro-acoustics, with the computer, working the sound itself. Therefore… I practically no longer think about writing for a “classic” string quartet. But if I did a string quartet, or if I was asked to do a string quartet, I would try to have a string quartet with electro-acoustics. And this is due to what interests me about composition: working on sound, the work of exploring timbres, working timbres, on the sound itself. It can be done with sound and with derivations, not only in electro-acoustic terms, but also through electro-acoustic processes which act on the sound. Well, you can perform similar operations and ideas to those in instrumental writing… all based on the work you do on the computer, with software which works with sound. When I have to write something as an instrumental, this electro-acoustic idea is always present. Of course when I am thinking of writing something only for instruments, even where there is no electro-acoustics, it will be there somehow, the idea will be connected to it somehow; the timbric and textural treatment that I will apply to the acoustic material that I want to develop will have a lot to do with the electro-acoustic material.
I also use both possibilities (concrete sounds and transformations) because this is sometimes necessary to achieve a given objective and a certain idea I may have about what it is I want to work on. Lately, the works I have done are more based on sonic objects, essentially taken from the sounds of instruments with which I work on in the instrumental pieces and which have electro-acoustics. In this sense, the sonic synthesis is not so present. The way in which I work the objects and how the instruments are used is by using programs which synthesise sound to transform these very objects. And also to create my instrumental electro-acoustic vocabulary, which eventually includes the synthesis of sound.
The transformations… this has motivated me, but there is an essentially practical question, which is a lack of knowledge on my part in this area in real time. And Miso Music has given, - well it has given more, now it seems that the courses have not been so active – very important courses which were done with Max/MSP and others, but which I did not take full advantage of at the time. It is also the case that during my curricular plan here in the University this area was not greatly elaborated and so I have a gap which prevents me from exploring this area in a more interesting way. This exploration would be much more empirical and so it is best not to go any further.
Brief Journey through the Catalogue of Works
The first piece that I have in my catalogue, Pequena Almofada, is a “children’s” piece I did while I was still in the Conservatory. It was that starting point for the composition students to create various activities based around composition. One of them was an in-house competition in the school where I received my first prize (if that is what a composition prize is); in any case, it was a motivation for me and for me to think that I could learn composition. It wasn’t such an important composition prize in the sense of the prize in itself, from the Institution which gives it, etc., but it was important. I believe that it was from this point on that I understood that a composition could be viewed differently and to then try to look at composition more seriously in my life. This children’s piece, based on Ostinato, is no great shakes in compositional terms but at the time it served exactly this purpose.
In relation to the following pieces… the piece for guitar Pitina was perhaps my first piece while at University, where I began to use a more structured manner of thinking and more related with composition in more “serious” terms although it was naturally still a very incipient work. This exploration, at the beginning of my academic studies, shall we say, already had something to do with the study of sound, with a concern to explore the instrument, an exploration of uncommon instrumental gestures and which are typical of contemporary music. To explore the gestures of playing an instrument in a non-conventional manner and from there to also take non-conventional sounds. This is what my piece already reflects, even at the early stages of my learning. I did it within the context of my string quartet the name of which had to be altered to Quarteto de Cordas Evgueni when I registered it for copyright… There must be hundreds of string quartets and I ended up by paying tribute to this teacher who influenced me a lot and who helped me a lot in my compositional development.
It is a piece which I think is important and basically the thinking that was behind it represents a kind of work with sonic fields, clouds or sonic aggregates, which change and in which some aggregates move into others through microtonal processes. I worked the microtones and created sonic fields wherever the piece went. It is possibly an interesting piece… at least for me it was important and was part of my learning process.
Then came the electroacoustic pieces… Both Apocalíptica and Viagem were very important pieces for the discoveries I made concerning new possibilities. To compose the sound itself, to work the sound itself... These pieces were really important, principally in this aspect of timbric work, the development of sounds made only on the computer through the synthesis of sound, which I made… Obviously the software is created by various people and there may be very similar sounds, but perhaps in these pieces there are sounds which are more “mine” than in other pieces. And in this sense they were also very important pieces in my musical career.
The piece Viagem ended up by being important in another way because it won a prize (although Apocalíptica also received an honourable mention and was very important as it is a piece that I like a lot). Both are pieces which, in my opinion, are interesting due to this work with sound, and not only with the representation of sound, which is an important difference.
In relation to Mousikomanía I and II, these are works where I thought more in spatial terms, or rather in using space in the work, both in space and in their execution. They have not been played yet, but at least the work and thinking behind Mousikomanía II for chamber orchestra, which has to do with resonant spatial placement, without electro-acoustics, but which is related with what I had studied in electro-acoustics, or rather that electro-acoustic thinking which is also present in the instrumental pieces.
The spatial developments in my writing itself are more notable in Mousikomanía II and have to do with the very location of the musicians. Most of the musicians are on the stage with the conductor and then there is the spatial placement of a percussionist, which will have a number of instruments “above” the orchestra musicians. At the end of the hall there are another two percussionists with another series of instruments and where I can possibly move the various sounds produced. Lastly, at an even higher level and above these percussionists, there will be a horn section which also play at a certain moment in the piece. And this piece was not conceived for a virtual space, it was actually conceived for a real space which is the auditorium of the Music Department at the University, which has a metal structure where the lights are placed, for example. Another idea I had is that, when putting on a concert in a place like this, the musicians could possibly be suspended… Well, it’s just a thought, but the works haven’t been played yet…
The Contemplations cycle
The Contemplations cycle is constituted by pieces where I see myself again as a composer and which explore more of that which I prefer to work on as a composer, which is electroacoustic music with instruments. Of course I also like to work with instruments – what sort of composer doesn’t? But I like to blend both worlds, I don’t like to use only instruments or only “solo” electroacoustics, I like to create works which end up perhaps a little more complex to perform because the electroacoustic part is not in real time. It is prepared in the studio and its interpretation becomes more complicated: if the musician drags a little or gets ahead, it is obvious that things won’t happen in the right place. And that is why the pieces are not so easy for the interpreter.
At least these pieces have all had their debut and been played, one of them in the Música Viva Festival last year, which was Contemplation III, for string quintet, piano and electronics. The others… Contemplation I, which is for two guitars and tape, and Contemplation II, which is for saxophone and tape, are pieces where I – knowing the musicians for whom I composed them and with whom I worked a lot – did not write with the musicians but very much “used” them to extract the sounds which I wanted to work in the piece, and to discuss possible technical problems which might arise in the execution, etc. These pieces already reflect well what I think or the idea that I want to actually compose. And they are also pieces which are connected by the “starter motor” which is the timbre, timbric work with resonant objects, timbric metamorphoses operated via the computer or instrumental metamorphoses which I operate on each instrument throughout the piece. This was what was most important for me and was my fundamental concern in these pieces: this sonic, timbric work of exploration of mine is transversal to all the pieces of this group, I think. In some pieces the transformation of timbre is very pronounced, because they are sounds which are eventually played on the instrument and which are then put on tape, they are then transformed and return to the instrument transformed in some new way. But essentially they are pieces in which the main work, the main concern was the sound, the transformation of the sound, the timbre, in spite of being – well – anchored within an organisation into what might be semi-serial structures, whether in pitch or rhythm.
In these pieces the harmonic material is similar but not part of the same source – the harmonic and rhythmic treatment is similar, it is worked with the same models – but what unites them is more the manner in which the sound is worked, or rather, the timbric work, whether from the instruments or from the electronic and acoustic metamorphoses which are employed in all aspects.
For now, this is a cycle which closes here, which also had to do with the practical work in my Masters Degree, for which I needed to present a project. The project consisted in producing a cycle of works which included electroacoustic instruments, mixed works, and as these timbric concerns are part of the dissertation for my Masters, my work dealt with that.
Of course, this topic will be very present in the pieces which I will continue to compose, and this timbric work is something which I want to continue to explore.