Entrevista a Carlos Guedes / Interview with Carlos Guedes
It all began when I was very young... I was 5 years old, I began to learn piano, I was told to, I was actually a relatively good pianist, according to the powers that be, but when I got to 13 I decided to give up studying the piano. It was something I was told to do, but I didn’t like it, the music was a pain, that sort of thing... When I reached eighteen I began to study jazz, to study drums in the jazz school, and I began to become really interested in making music again; in fact I had a short career as a professional jazz drummer, which ended in 94. Simultaneously I began to do the Physics course in the Science Faculty. I was there for one year and then I began to understand that, in fact, I wasn’t interested in it… and music was something that I was interested in; so, I decided to go head first for music, for composition specifically, because I felt I had something to say.
In the midst of all of this, my choices were a bit heterogeneous, a bit orthodox, because meanwhile I came here to the School in Oporto, which was extremely conservative, and this affected me somewhat (I mean, I did my degree and not one of my works were played, which is something that my students cannot say, thank God), and so the thing that impressed me most at that time was something I saw in 92: Dienstag aus Licht, by Stockhausen, in the Gulbenkian, its world debut, and I was fascinated with the whole multimedia side and with the blending of theatre, movement and text in the music, and it was more or less this that awakened all of my interest to work now, for example, in Dance, in Theatre, in interactive systems related with Dance.
Meanwhile, as time went by people were influencing me, like Fernando Lapa, who was my first composition teacher. There are few who are as generous as he is, and he taught me a number of things. Then, after him, which was more or less when I went to the United States, I worked with Ken Valitsky, who was a composer who had also done his doctorate and who had studied with Stockhausen, but who made music which was very much in the genre which was called “Downtown” in New York, very much in the genre of John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, and all of those experimentalists, and I was really fascinated by that. I worked with him for some time, then I worked with Mark Enssoli, an Italian-born composer who was a naturalised American, Andrew Imbrie, who was a person with whom I worked for six months and who had a great impact on my education, because he explained things to me as simple as music as it is related to speech and nothing else. It is one of those things that until you hear it you don’t really think about it, and it was really illuminating, and then, finally, well the person... there was Tristan Murail, although my music has little to do with what Tristan does, in terms of spectral music and all of those things.
At the moment my work is going through a period where it is smouldering, because I have just closed a crazy 10 year period in my life, which coincided with my trip to the United States and then to Holland to work in the Institute of Sonology, to do research for the Thesis.
My Doctorate Thesis, or the work I did for my Doctorate, is almost the start of a phase in my life… I mean I always worked with Dance, I was always involved in a series of things to do with Dance and electronic music (such as, for example, the dancer never managing to arrive on time at a given cue) and then I developed a number of objects for the Max, which, basically, measure the musical rhythm in Dance; or rather, they extract patterns from the movement, in Dance, with their duration and articulation, which have to do with musical rhythms and allow the dancer not only to generate rhythmic structures from the corporal movement, but even to control the musical tempo in real time. Or rather, the dancer starts to move faster, the music goes faster; the dancer starts to move more slowly, the music goes more slowly. Or rather, the music follows the dancer; which is an inversion of the normal paradigm in the relationship between music and dance.
When I began to make music, to work with computers, working with technology always seemed something extremely natural to me. And so, my technological streak has to do with this interest. On the other hand, the association of Dance and Theatre is because I really like to work with other art forms at the same time.
My first experiences with Theatre, by chance, were impressive in this sense, because sometimes you have a stage producer who says “hey, this has to be 15 seconds shorter!” And obviously someone cannot go there and just cut 15 seconds from the music, right? Solving that is a musical problem. And you can’t convince the producer from the musical point of view, because the producer is thinking about timings, he or she is thinking about dramatic timings.
I never felt very bad about that; but, on the other hand, I have also been lucky to work with very good people, who asked me for work, who asked me to do the best music I could. The last two projects I did, with Saguenail, who is a French cinema director who lives here in Oporto (we have already worked together for some ten years), were really impressive; on the penultimate, he showed me a scene lasting seventeen minutes, and said: “now I want seventeen minutes of music for this”, which led to a piece of electronic music which I put on one of those CDs… it is called Schizophrenic Thoughts for Solo Violin” – I once sent it to you for a Música Viva festival. In this case I began by knowing it would last for seventeen minutes, and so I made it that long. The last project was even more enticing and crazy, because he asked me for a musical passage which was for Mourir Beaucoup – entre Nova York e Cabul, which you also have there in the CDs, for which he also asked for a piece, lasting around sixteen or eighteen minutes, and he then edited the whole film on top of that.
I think that this was really, by far, the best work we did together, and it is, perhaps, amongst the best works musically that I have done, and when you find people working in this sphere, in fact, possibilities open up in these areas which do not usually open up in music. For example, in the music for Antes de Amanhã, the film, the one that led to Schizophrenic Thoughts…, I sampled a violin and then the first part of the piece sounds as if it is a violin solo, but I asked a violinist to detune the violin as much as possible for me, until you almost couldn’t get any sound out of the strings as they were so loose, and then someone played no more than three notes and I recorded it like that and then, patiently, edited it all together to create a piece, where, suddenly, it sounds like a violin, but then it falls apart completely into a piece of electronic music, and to do that, for example, as a musical piece to play live… I don’t know if that would be the first motivation to make a person do it.
For example, the music for Mourir Beaucoup, the passage Entre Nova Iorque e Cabul, also begins with a quartet – double bass, viola, cello and soprano saxophone – which leads into an electronic piece in the middle, noise and suchlike... and along with Saguenail I very much like to explore these types of impossibilities, which were not possible before; I mean, because you wouldn’t do a piece which for six minutes is an instrumental piece, and which, all of a sudden, transforms itself into an electronic piece and after twelve minutes it is electronic music.
To do this live is a challenge! For example, I never presented Schizophrenic Thoughts, and I also don’t think Mourir Beaucoup will be presented, because a public presentation of this almost doesn’t make sense for me, where you have instrumentalists playing music for six minutes, then you have twelve minutes of electronic music, where, in the middle, you also have instrumental music, but completely processed, and things like that. For example, in this aspect the Cinema has been a vehicle for me to experiment, really, things which musically you… well this isn’t the first idea you have when you’re making pure music. Although the piece is a piece of pure music, because the script is extremely abstract, essentially the sequence of the film is just images, scenic shots after scenic shots. I mean, there is no story, there is no concrete cinematographic narrative, and the actual musical narrative was a thing which I constructed from beginning to end, without even so much as thinking about the script of the film, it was like that. In this aspect, the experiences I have had are really interesting.
In terms of Dance, I have also been lucky to work with choreographers who appreciate my music and who want me to make music as I like, as I want and as I fancy... For example, with Isabel Barros, we have also worked together for some seven years, and at times I realise I am giving her choreographic ideas, just as she gives me musical ideas, and things happen in an organic way...
I am now returning to pure music. In New York it was very difficult to get musicians to work with; I mean, it is very easy for you to write things which can be read in two hours or in two days, but when you want it played, when you want to get this type of work played, it is extremely difficult to get people to work, because there are no subsidies, everyone works very professionally, I mean: each musician works in around 3 or 4 or 5 different places and I was always interested, also, in a speculative side and to explore things in music which, at least for me were new. And so, I mean, to be writing music which can easily be read, I mean, where there isn’t even the slightest attempt to approach the physical or acoustic possibilities of the instrument, more or less like that, it didn’t make much sense. So I turned to electronics, I made electronic music even for theatre plays and dance pieces; more recently, for Cinema also.
Lately I have begun again to work with musicians and I am beginning to return once again to pure music; I now received three commissions, one from Camerata Senza Misura, another from the OrquestrUtópica and another from the Orquestra de Jazz de Matosinhos, which will be instrumental pieces, “tout court”, without any other type of references, it will be fun.
And now when I got back to working with instrumentalists again, it’s quite funny, because people generally think that my scores are quite lacking in instructions, and I don’t know if this is a quirk of someone who works with electronic music. I mean, when you work in electronic music you can do everything and foresee everything very precisely; and now in instrumental music I am interested in exploring things where the musicians themselves have things to say. I prefer, for example, not to put so many indications in a score and even ask the musician: “Take it! It’s yours, now go and do something with it!”.
There was an initial stage of my writing, when I was here in Oporto, with that totally modernist school in Oporto, fifty indications for each little note... And now I’m in charge!...
When you’re working with musicians, principally as the musicians with whom I am lucky enough to work with lately, who are intelligent and who know how to read your music and who know how to play your music, I think that it is extremely interesting for a person to have this experience, also with other musicians, when it is not only “Here is the score, now play me this!”
There are things in my music which I think are fundamental. What I am going to say may seem a little ridiculous, but I hate music which is a bore; so, I do everything so that my music will not be boring. Or rather, I am very concerned with the discourse, in the articulation of the discourse of time and in the timing of things when they happen.
In relation to style it is a little different, because my music has influences which range from grunge to commercial electronic music, dance, in fact, later when you listen to the records I got for you, you can see this; I mean, above all I like to feel good and I have to like to listen to what I am doing, this is the first premise. Then, after that, everything depends on the work. As I attack on various fronts, I am really concerned with discourse, with articulation in time, I am constantly very concerned with the whole problem of time and how time expands in music, and how the musical discourse is a vehicle of temporal perception and of the different ways it makes us feel time.
On the other hand, in relation to electronic music and instrumental music, or music with dance, I believe I am or at least I try to be extremely aware of the environment in which I am working. In electronic music, as you said very well, of course a person can “squeeze” computers until they do exactly what you want. And I have used this a lot, although now I have been a little more fascinated by algorithmic and stochastic processes, or by cohesion, where the computer itself can have something to say about what it is I want it to do; I mean, to give it a small voice, I think this is an extremely interesting process. And this is a characteristic in the other music that I do. I mean, as I said just before, when I work with instrumentalists I much prefer to hide the indications in the score and try to understand from the instrumentalist, I mean, to work with the instrumentalist not as if they were a person who will perform my piece in a purely literal way, but as someone who is a musician, and who therefore has something to say about the music. It is the same with a dancer, when they will move to my music, I respect the dancer almost as much or even as much as a musician who will bring life to my music with movement, or who will give me an interpretation on this.
For me this is very important, because it is from the dancer that I sometimes get musical ideas and I want to make the dancer feel my music, for him or her to interpret. It’s the same thing with instrumentalists; I mean, I prefer to take out indications, to speak with the instrumentalist and sometimes the instrumentalist will even suggest: “And if I played this note here, instead of...?” I accept everything and more, provided that they are, in principle, honest indications and which try to enhance the music. And I have been, as I said, very lucky with the instrumentalists who have worked with me recently, because they are very good, and I can transport all of this collaborative aspect which I have been getting used to, having worked so much with theatre and with dance, and transpose it into pure musical practice, in the sense of it being an interactive process… the way the piece grows.
One of the things I am about to do is, eventually, a small Ensemble, with two or three musicians who like my music and whom I also like a lot, professionally, and we will try to develop a collective project for the creation of music.
But by chance just before I was going to talk about this, about “Gesamtkunstwerk”, which is a word I love a lot, because I think, in fact, that nowadays computers and interactive digital systems are a good vehicle for balancing these things or for rethinking collaborative artistic activity, of various arts, on another level. I won’t say on a higher level or on a lower level, but on a different level, if you like. As from the moment (with what I have done) when you can, for example, take elements from a dancer, in real time, which may be used to generate music, here you are giving the dancer a small musical role, but it is a musical role which I believe a dancer feels good with, because they don’t feel they are playing an instrument, they feel that what they are doing is relatively organic, because it has to do with their body and with their movement, but I am not imposing problems on the dancer like moving in a certain way, which was something which used to happen a lot with those systems which have sensors (and dancers are not used to having sensors tied to their body); by having a camera system, for example, you can give the dancer the freedom without having to impose the problem of operating an interface with the body; and this has more to do with dance than actually tying a series of sensors to the dancer and saying “now do this and you trigger this, do that and you trigger that”. In this aspect, I believe that you can really reformulate (because things touch each other, and you are also a poet and you know it; I mean, perhaps it is very easy for you to speak about the relationship between Poetry and Music); and now you have systems which allow you to create simultaneous translations between worlds, I think that this, in fact, opens up new possibilities for collaborative works, it opens up new opportunities for the so-called global art work, but I think that it is an opportunity to work which is interesting, obviously, and above all, to explore.
Concerning installations, what I like about exploring installations is the relationship of the public with the piece; in this aspect, the last three: the first was a Christmas Tree in the Rivoli, which was done with the INESC Porto; the last two, the Casa da Música one where we did that string-less Harp with Lali and Kirk Wolford, with a video projection and where we thought of a whole installation for a route through the Casa da Música...
I mean, I am more concerned about understanding how you can induce someone to work with an object that is there, and then to plan modes of interaction, and understand how a computer – as I work really in technology, I mean, I don’t do installations, or I never did, and neither did I ever think about, for example, environmental installations, where things are more or less installed and there is no relationship between the public and you go into a space and the space is pre-determined, it will not move according to the public – I am interested in exploring situations where the spectator can influence the result which the object is providing at the time. And in this aspect all the installations I have done so far, you would send yourself crazy trying to understand how the whole of the section was planned, the whole of the interaction between the spectator and the piece.
Generally this involves detection, and it is with this that I have worked; with understanding, specifically, in the software of the harp, for example, how to understand the type of gestures, in a very rudimentary way, if you were making percussive gestures or if you were making smoother gestures, and reacting according to this.
Now with this, with “Willower”, which we debuted in Amsterdam, it had to do with how close you were to the piece, I mean: if you went closer, the characters went away from you, but then, if you stayed still, they started to move closer to you again... Planning this is a lot of work, but then I think that it is very gratifying, and I like and I am very interested in exploring this type of relationship. How can a person establish a relationship with something that is inanimate and how can this communication be established – now that is a relatively complex problem.
I once said in an interview that for me serious music was music made with earnestness. And I think that I have a serious attitude in relation to what I do. Although things can go all over the place, and they very often do, I am perfectly comfortable with that. Or rather, I don’t know if I have a defined musical style, and I’m not really worried about that either, I have my style of doing things, true; I think that this aspect, at least for me, is the most valuable of everything that I do. Above all, trying to hear what I like and trying to put what I like on paper – it’s one hell of a job. Now, if you think what will A, B and C think...! Clarence Barlow had warned me about this, once by saying that since 1990 – and he even has the date, because he’s got a thing about dates – “In the eighties this was rubbish, and it was in 1994, it seemed we were all in a smoke-filled Bar and someone opened a window... and people once again started to do what they wanted!” I think the same, I think that today there is a general movement of things, people are increasingly doing what they want; and I think that this is the great victory of Post-Modernism, although I don’t really “dig” post-modernism in everything, I think that it is really that people, in fact, have lost a certain pretentiousness about what they do, and started to do what they like; and not feel embarrassed to show it in public... I think that this is a great victory for the end of the 20th century in European music, or in Western music, if you like. Look, these days you have people in rock and in less erudite music who are doing very serious work, with great quality, and I think that composers have started to understand this and began to understand that perhaps a legitimate way to go is for people to make what they listen to, what they like and not to have lots of problems in affirming this and in doing this.
I think that we are starting out on an interesting Era in terms of musical production! I don’t know if you read Jacques Attali’s book, a book called Bruits...? This book is called: Noise, the Political Economy of Music in English.
It came out in 1974, and he foresaw an Era – back in 1974, it is fabulous from his viewpoint – which he called the Return of the Minstrel, where people would have mechanisms and equipment available to make their own music at home and so we would then return once more to a New Era of the Minstrel, comparable with the Era of the Bards and Minstrels of the Middle Ages, of the 14th Century, and I said to myself: “Ah! But he foresaw this in 1974?!” And, in fact, today we are almost fully in this Era. With the diffusion, through iTunes and MP3, etc., everyone can already share the things they do, without major problems, and you have a lot of people, a lot of “New Kids on the Block” who are doing very interesting things musically through technology, and I think that this is the start, at least, of an Era which I think will be completely different and which will probably completely re-balance the form and practice of music in our civilisation, and I think that this is interesting.