To begin I would like to ask you about the roots of your musical life. Where does your inspiration come from and what was your principal motivation to follow the path of a musician – composer and conductor? How could you describe the relation between these two occupations?
The roots of my musical life… I was not a prodigy child, who dominates music at the age of five and in my case it happened relatively late…but it was above all through listening to Beethoven. One of Beethoven’s symphonies, the seventh, opened for me a whole new world, which since then has never left me. And then there was a series of situations, which led me to take up classic guitar lessons and develop a great interest for the history of music, to get familiar with its course, until our times. Then there was a sequence: I sang a lot when I was younger, I sang in various choirs and then I started studying composition and decided to follow this path. The question of creation came to me very early. Even without knowing anything about musical technique I have always had the necessity to create things. At that time they were ballades and songs – I came to have a rock group, which perhaps was not quite rock, but more transversal. Therefore I have a cycle of 30 songs from that time, quite simple, according to the technique I possessed. Creation was a thing that happened quite soon, right at the beginning.
When did the idea to become a composer come to you?
This is more complicated, as it demands… I was talking about songs, and what one means by being a composer is everything, including the technique and so on. There was also a thing that happened, I am not quite sure when, but which was a change of direction, a rising to a different level. And it was not that of songs, it was not enough. This led me to look for a different technique. I think that the only consistent thing there was a desire, which I would not even call “desire”, but almost a necessity to create music; in other words to express myself.
And how do you join the work of composer with your work as conductor? Is there a mutual influence between these two worlds?
For me the idea of being a composer is not far away from the idea of being a musician, a performer. For me these two things are very contiguous. I am not able to imagine a composer without being a musician. After all the entire history of music shows us that all of them were musicians. Performance and composition blend, interlace and we do not know where does one begin and the other finish. I feel that being a composer makes me a better conductor and as a musician I will become a more creative composer. Therefore I see these things as connected. It is obvious that each of them has its own vicissitudes: composition has a technique, which is different, it is a thing that some know and others do not and the same applies to being a conductor or a musician. There are also very practical questions, which do not have anything to do with the technical things. These are two different spaces but then there is this big river, which unites them.
The opposition between “occupation” and “vocation” is one of the fundamental questions in defining the artistic approach of a composer. How do you manage these two dimensions? To exemplify – Igor Stravinsky is known for his daily creative routine, which reminds me of an office clerk’s work (8 hours per day). On the other hand there is a strong romantic vision of creative impulse, of inspiration. Where, on the scale between the emotive and pragmatic, could you localize your way of working, your stance as a composer?
For me to compose or to be a musician is not an occupation. It is completely out of question. To give a popular example, it is as in the blues – a way of living. Therefore for me it is a form of life. At this moment I cannot conceive my life without the activity that I have. One thing affirms the other; they are equal. This is very clear to me. Coming back to the words of Stravinsky, he also said that a composer is creating even if he is not thinking about his work; he continues to compose and that is exactly what I think. For this reason I would call it “vocation” or “a way of life”. While waiting for a tram, perhaps I am working on my music, even though I am not. So it is a quite combined thing.
Regarding the question of “creative impulses” and the “office clerk”, I think that these two things occur at the same time – one needs to be an office clerk with creative impulses, because if not, ideas do not appear. In my opinion there is a great myth, which does not correspond to reality at all. Even the greatest romantics such as Beethoven (who perhaps is not a romantic, but this was where he was heading) or the idea of Mozart being a great bohemian – this does not correspond to reality. To wake up very early, to work the whole day and to go to sleep, and to wake up very early, to work the whole day and then to go to sleep – it is like that.
Therefore these are the two things at the same time: it is occupation, but also inspiration.
The inspiration can appear in every moment but it is crucial to work hard...
Very hard! Inspiration will not come if there is no work. I think 99 times, then I cannot manage, then I stop and suddenly “bam!” an idea appears – it is a little bit like that. One needs to have a large base; the brain needs to think a lot before getting there. Initially it does not, but then all of a sudden a thing appears, like a break and “vum!”. This is how it works, or at least this is how I function, more and more. In fact at this moment I have a creative routine, a kind of discipline – working on “Banksters” was almost as a new stage for me… I worked practically like an office clerk...
Regarding your new opera... On March 18th the São Carlos National Theatre in Lisbon, where we are right now, will premiere “Banksters”. Until now this project is certainly one of the most important in your carrier as a composer. The libretto by Vasco Graça Moura is inspired in José Régio’s “Jacob and the Angel”. Which aspects of the history of the banker’s fall have special meaning to you?
“Jacob and the Angel” is about a king and takes place in his court, so it is timeless. The librettist made a transposition to the times when the king becomes a banker and the court is, let’s say, the world of big finance. In this sense two things are important for me in the banker’s fall, and one of them is the question of death – death, which is for most of people tenebrous (and I also belong to this group). I had a strong desire to illuminate death, to transform it into a beautiful and not painful thing. It is always difficult, since we all have our experiences, our loved ones, and our own condition. Nevertheless this is one of the most important aspects. As for the second one, it is the question of the banker’s interior, which can be extrapolated to other people. I call it the “from particular to general” case, a search for our own interior. I believe that there are many people who are able to live their whole lives without in fact getting to know who they are, what is inside of them, in the essence. I believe that it happens and I find it tragic.
Especially today in the world dominated by materialism, people do not reflect much about their lives.
Exactly, in the world where stereotypes exist, people dream or think that they dream that they are one way or another. This inside journey, this search for “who in fact I am” happens in my opera, but not without violence, since an angel provokes it. This is theatre. For me these two aspects are important. The fall is a fall upwards and not downwards – the angel comes to destroy the banker in order to save him. This idea is already quite old and was used several times.
Regarding the musical means, which you used to compose your opera, you often mention creative freedom as well as opening to the past and other musical “contaminations”. The new opera also encompasses this aesthetical stance?
Yes. There are various things here, which I find important – somehow like Mahler, who used to say, “symphony is the world”, and should be able to embrace everything. That is why he used marches, “Frère Jacques”, and all those things.
Yes, popular music...
…popular, but also more Wagner-like fragments and so on. Therefore, “symphony as the world”; At this moment, in 2011, I feel a little bit of this approach – music should be able to embrace everything. Music should not have neither aesthetic nor ideological barriers. In this sense I have become more and more open to everything. I say “more and more” because I think that I began this “opening process” some time ago. This is the only possible path for me. My only discipline is to keep me free. I make an effort to be free, not to have prejudices and not to presume things, a priori yes or no. There is one more important thing – I think that this cannot be achieved in the succession of styles. I am not talking about eclecticism. This has to be a coherent and organic thing; it is a question of synthesis. It is like in a sausage factory; everything that enters comes out in a specific, condensed way. In the end this was not the best example…
In the opera’s 2nd act, for the sake of dramaturgy, I used four different styles – a habanera, a fado, a waltz and a funk. The idea is to give to this habanera not only momentary coherence but also a broader meaning in the dramatic flux. One needs to do it with technique and synthesise everything. In this case, it is a dodecaphonic habanera, perhaps the first in the history of music. There is a fragment with a sequence, in which all the notes appear three times. In this aspect this is a wish for synthesis, perhaps enabled by the technique. Basically, this is my intention.
In a short documentary, which belongs to the DVD with the recording of your previous opera “O Rapaz de Bronze” (“The Bronze Boy”), you talk about the necessity of renewing contemporary opera. Let me make one more reference to the words of Igor Stravinsky, who said: "Opera does not attract me at all … Opera is falsehood pretending to be truth, while I need falsehood that pretends to be falsehood. Opera is a competition with nature.” What is opera for you and how do you see its reinvention as a genre, which synthesizes not only various aesthetic approaches, but also joins music with theatre and visual arts?
In opposition to Stravinsky I am fatally attracted to opera and regard it as the world’s major spectacle. Too bad it is so expensive, isn’t it? In the end it complicates the production. Of course there are other things much more expensive, as the cinema, for example. But it continues. These are the financial questions, which I am not able to approach. Nevertheless I think that opera is indeed the world’s greatest spectacle. Regarding to its falsehood, I do not really see it this way. For me art should always say the Truth (with capital “t”) in a false manner. This is actually quite like Fernando Pessoa wrote: The poet is a pretender. He fakes so completely. What is false appears as pain. The pain that he really feels.” This is what I mean.
Perhaps art only chooses various things from reality in order to show them in a different way. Isn’t it like that?
These are quite personal matters. To my mind art should not represent reality. Stravinsky was quite ironic and what he said is somewhat distorted. Art should not reveal reality. Suffice it to see what happens everyday. There is nothing more real than to see the poor here in Chiado, without legs. So I think that it is not this reality that art should show. For me it should represent, faking, the things sublimed. If not, it is not worth for me and I do not have any interest in it. I treat art as a kind of redemption. I need the art and I think that people also do, which gives us recovery and hope.
Perhaps let’s us escape from reality? Or it is not an escape?
I do not see it as an escape. It is a support, a force, which we suddenly feel and it let’s us move on. I think that this is why people started creating paintings on cave walls. It was not only about decorating the cave. One does not really know why, because those “artists” passed away, but there was certainly more to it – not only decoration, but also a mystery or even transcendence. I see it in this manner.
Falsehood is necessary. This entire opera is false, jus as all operas are. I see the artistic content as being between the lines and not direct. I think that all big art is between the lines. For example the value of a book, a thing apparently false, is between the lines. Articles in newspapers do not have anything hidden between the lines. There are modern authors, writers who rely greatly on the concrete and one reads phrases, which are in fact intense and great, but I feel that they lack things. They do not have this “between the lines” approach, which makes it all more profound.
And how could you explain the reinvention of contemporary opera? It is one of the questions, which you raised in the documentary...
I said that I would like to participate in this process. How many decades more will we continue to listen to “Rigoletto” or “Tristan and Isolde”? At present everything is fine, a large-scale world production exists, with five hundred Rigolettos per year. I mentioned Rigoletto, but I could be talking about any other opera, this is just an example. How many decades more will we continue to listen to these works? Will the opera houses of 2100 still stage one more “Rigoletto” production? I doubt it. Therefore what I mean by renovation is that there should be contemporary opera production. And it does not necessarily have to shock, but in needs to exist, to live…
…and attract audiences.
People need to show their interest. It does not suffice to have one production and after that nobody cares. One needs to have a communication with the audience, so in this sense I only see the continuation of opera if this communication exists. I find it really difficult to continue having “Rigoletto” or “Madame Butterfly” in 100, 150 or 200 years, if we are still here. The same thing refers to classical music, music of the past.
Yes, although I think that when it comes to music of the past the research on performance is today so profound that one comes up with new ways of interpretation all the time…
Without any doubt, but still, I continue to think that art exists and has always existed, it is natural, like the paintings in caves or like going to the toilet. Art will never cease to exist. Yet certain forms can disappear...
..or change and evolve...
...or simply die. At this moment popular music (pop, rock) has a tremendous force. I am not criticising, but I would not want to take this path. By “tremendous force” I mean that the release of a new fado CD is probably more important than my opera, “Banksters”. I am not sure if yes or no. A musical form could not be eternal. So opera can finish? Yes. Perhaps. Maybe it will. Why not? I think that one needs its renaissance in this sense. It is communication with the present with the day-to-day. Opera cannot be a museum otherwise it will die. I am quite sure that if it continues like that, with theatres for elites…
…but it has always been like that…
I don’t think so. But perhaps I am wrong. To give you an example – in the 19th century Italian opera was a part of the folk, of politics.
On the other hand, Wagner in order to create a complete work of art chose opera and turned it into a more elitist genre…
Yes, of course. I am not saying that no, but I consider that opera was not always the “high society” art. Perhaps it became with more or less transcendent ideas. It had a great force. However today, can I call “West Side Story” an opera? I certainly see the power that it has, and yet there are people who claim: “This is not an opera, but a musical”. Nevertheless it has this force, like Pessoa said: “to exist is to be visible”. When art is secondary, that is, not visible, then I am not quite sure whether it exists. On the other hand there is the question of historical confirmation – “in that time it was not, but then it became”. It is also possible. To renovate is to create relevant and valuable things so that a person goes out from the concert hall with a good or bad impression, but not neutral – “whew, finally it ended”. Or things like that.
To finish in a lighter manner my last question concerns satire and humour. Since your new work is satirical could you explain how these things are important to you?
They are very important. I think that irony and satire can have a great impact, when people manage to see them. Tragedy for me is easier, and probably for other people too. It is clear and potent already in itself. On the contrary, a comedy is much more difficult, but at the same time it has much more impact. It is also much more risky because when it does not function it turns out to be ridiculous. A not well functioning tragedy can be just neutral. When one desires to be satirical and there is no humour, for me, it is ridiculous. That is how I see some programmes on television, which intend to be comic. It is horrible and not funny at all. Therefore I think that comedy is difficult, but when it works it has the strongest impact and helps in communicating with the audience. It is really significant for me to have this gesture in my music, this intention to be ironic and transmit things between the notes. In the past I was working a little bit on this. One year ago I presented here my Intermezzo “O Velório de Cláudio”, which was an attempt to be ironic. I think this if fundamental.