Entrevista a Amílcar Vasques Dias / Interview with Amílcar Vasques Dias
INTERVIEW WITH AMÍLCAR VASQUES DIAS (complete version)
Education and first steps
My initial instruction was at the seminary. There I was able to learn piano and harmonium, an instrument used in the services. Later – and I’m talking about the time I spent studying philosophy, at 16, 18 years old, and later, theology – I began to learn traditional harmony, and worked directly with Canon Dr Manuel Faria (to whom I dedicated Pranto, even before returning from Holland). At 20 or 21 years old, in spite of some hesitation, my life was already too linked to music for me to give it up... And so I went to the Conservatory in Oporto, where, before my military service, I did the first years of the piano course. Everything I knew up to that point was “unofficial”. Then I took the piano diploma, after finishing my military service, in 1974, which also coincided with 25th April 1974 and with the desire for a certain freedom, that came from elsewhere. And then, with a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation, I went to Holland, where I was able to extend my stay with another grant, from the Secretariat of State for Culture, until I was able to establish myself on a more permanent basis. I stayed for fourteen years. I was at the conservatory even after having begun working. I taught at the Rotterdam School of Music for eight years. I lived in a number of cities in Holland, in Nijmegen, on the Germany border, in The Hague, in Rotterdam and in Amsterdam for the last two years, before coming back.
It was indeed a very stimulating environment, with something going on everywhere. The fact of gradually becoming part of the commissioning system was also a certain stimulus... And as for the teachers I had, I was lucky that they were not narrow-minded people. Everything was possible, whether influenced by jazz, rock, serialism, street music, protest music (as in the case of Louis Andriessen) or minimalism. Whatever it was, what was important was that it have a force of expression thought out as an objective, and that it be something with its feet on the ground, something solid. My teacher of electroacoustics was a noted jazz musician in Holland, a saxophonist. When I arrived, in 1974, I was asked to orchestrate Grândola Vila Morena. That was my first orchestration project in Holland – and still today I received arranger’s royalties as a result! A work that came out of this process, and which was done recently – it’s not known in Portugal because it isn’t easy to put on – is called Ser Rana. It’s a work for ten accordions, string quartet and vibraphone. A composer who at the time had a commissioning scheme suggested that I write for a group of accordionists called D’Accord Ensemble. They were incredibly good players! I was enthused by the necessity to learn about the accordion, of mixing it with a string quartet and a percussion instrument of my choosing – I chose the vibraphone. Meanwhile, I returned to Portugal. The title of the piece, Ser Rana, refers to the croaking of thousands of frogs in the River Vouga and the River Águeda, between March and July, 24 hours a day, right opposite the house where I lived at the time. There are sounds that the accordion makes which have similarities to that of the frogs – and my idea was to blend the strings, the accordion, and allow the frog, the croak of the frog, to direct me towards a piece with a great deal of energy, which gradually stops. It’s a decrescendo... After some months of the continual croaking of frogs, one requires silence... The silence I now have here, which brings other influences to my way of composing, and also to my way of living and appreciating things.
I had to study, and I had to impart a certain swing to what I was doing, which wasn’t classical music. And the fact of hearing people play also gave me the opportunity of discovering what I liked or disliked, or internalizing it. After a certain time, I began to feel that new elements had been absorbed and which had become part of me and of my attitude towards the production of sound. And so, after six years, my way of playing piano or composing has to do with a certain attitude which is no longer a “classical” attitude, but a mixture of different attitudes related to different musical genres. Indeed, the whole thing is a progression – but the root, and this is what is interesting, is always there. My years at the seminary, studying the lines of plainchant, the simplicity, the austerity of the unison, the non-polyphonic – all that’s present in my music. And there’s also a part that comes from my study of harmony, romantic harmony, rich and full, which I tried to reconcile with the nakedness of the chant line. The tendency I had for rich harmony gradually disappeared, and what I find today, especially during the last four years – for example, in my project 12 Nocturnos em Teu Nome – is simplicity. It’s simplicity because I really live in silence almost 24 hours a day, in the nakedness, the spareness of the countryside.
A little while ago, while I was in the car, I looked at S. Miguel de Machede from the left side. Now, it’s all burnt and dry, but up there on the hill, there’s a tree, a holm-oak – that made me think about what counterpoint is. Counterpoint is that holm-oak in relation to that huge, dry stretch. And all this has to do with my past, with the simplicity of a line, with a great strength and expressiveness, with Gregorian chant. Also mirrored in the past is my tendency to write for choirs: I always sang in choral groups, in the seminary, from the age of 12. For many of the scores by my teacher, Dr Manuel Faria, I copied out the choir parts, which was also a way of learning outside the classes. All this, gradually, and after my time in Holland, came to be reflected in which I’m involved in now. I make use of that which is simplest, approaching in a less traditional, less classical fashion the traditional concepts of composition, melody and harmony, which are also sonic planes, which are counterpoint – internalized and seen in the context of my life now, especially from the time when I came to live here in the Alentejo. That’s from 1996 to now – more than eight years have passed.
When one lives in the Alentejo, 24 hours a day, the first thing one feels is the silence – which contains sounds. The sounds of the silence here are completely different from the sounds of any probable silence in Lisbon, for example. Here sound is felt as sound, but I know there are distant or less distant sounds of a barking dog, or a bell belonging to a sheep that’s struck somewhere a few metres away, on that hill, or the sound of the crickets, which is a constant sound, or a more distant one, of the frogs or toads: all this is part of a constant silence. I endeavour to make the idea of silence present, so that it can be internalized by the listener. I usually move between the computer and the piano, whether I’m working on a piece for orchestra or for piano. And there are almost no sketches.
Imagine that I choose an arpeggiated chord (E-G-B), and a gesture, a little note, C – I’m referring to the first chord of the 1st Nocturne, called Geografia de Rebeldes. How do I get anything out of such banal, simple, tonal material? And the point is not to do with its being tonal or not, whether it has an expressive presence so that the development of this chord can be interesting... It may develop itself in terms of dynamics, for example, of the register in which it is played. All these are ways I find to make something out of something simple, something stripped of other associations. The main thing is not listening and thinking “I hear something minor”, the main thing is managing to attribute the expressive force which I try to give to the chord. In the same way that in an atmosphere in which nothing is happening, in the midst of silence, which, if it happens, is incredibly strong, because one hears the sound of that silence. Sometimes, one or two sounds that appear as fulcral points in a piece, if they’re interesting, should appear and be heard repeatedly. And they’re not alone, they are enveloped in other sounds that appear, by virtue of their strength, in order to create counterpoint. In the same way that, if you look up there, what you see are stretches of land, most of them dry, burnt, yellow. It’s the golden Alentejo, for three or four months, until the end of September. But that image we see now, everything that exists there, is that stretch which dominates, which is dry, without any visual interest. Everything else that occurs, in this case the holm-oaks, has an incredible strength. And then there’s all that has to do with the actual geography of the land, which suggest to me counterpoints, polyphonies and inclinations. I see and compare this evolution during the course of the whole year.
Yes, tonal language. The song on Manuel Alegre’s poem - “Ir a Évora descobrir o branco” – does not have a greater expressive load on account of being or not being tonal. The whole connotation of tonality is of another kind, and that connotation is right there. I believe that it is possible to do different things with tonal elements – even in this, Louis Andriessen’s influence reassured me, calmed me down. I mean, in 1974, if had been here in Portugal, in the atmosphere and the mentality which surrounded the official teaching of music in Portugal, I would not have had the courage to make an arrangement of Grândola Vila Morena, or of Canto Alentejano... In order for somebody to do it, it would be necessary to have a background, as was the case with Lopes-Graça. But unfortunately, I had not been educated for that. Therefore, it was only in Holland that I discovered the melodic and harmonic richness of some traditional Portuguese music, influenced by the open, creative and inventive attitude of some of my teachers and atmosphere... During the eight years in which I taught in Rotterdam, I had pupils from the most varied cultural backgrounds: children of Portuguese parents (emigrants), children of Cape Verdian parents (Portuguese speaking), children of ex-colonials from Indonesia, people of different religions, different social layers, different cultures. This taught me to place our culture in context somewhat. The experience with these people, the observation of their cultural conscience, gave me courage to do the same. When I returned to Portugal, fortunately I had already lost many of these scruples as to whether I should or should not make arrangements of write music for José Afonso’s poems. It was a chance to grow in various directions.
How does your thinking as a composer work? Which techniques do you use?
I listen a great deal to what I want to do. I work a great deal at the piano, and try out a great deal of material in constant interaction with my desire to organize something in order to express something. For example, if I take three notes, which are, or are not, more or less interesting for being played successively or because they make an interval of a minor third... I’m at the piano and I’m testing the strength that these three notes have, ascending or descending, and it’s of no interest to me to say that it’s a minor third, since I’m making tonal music. No, what interests me are those notes, because it’s they that have fallen under my fingers. Probably I’ve been thinking about them for several days, while I’m watering, while I’m checking to see how the fruits are doing, while I’m feeding my dogs, or while I’m simply looking out over there – I’m always digesting small, simple materials. When I come to the piano, I take those three little notes up again, and I position them in different octaves. What interests me is that these three notes, with their timbre and all the resonance that the piano has and that the performer will confer upon them, bring out certain specific pitches, intensities, registers and timbres, within a movement and a certain speed, within a certain rhythm or a certain duration. I am making a line which is already outside the canons of a traditional melodic line, because it works with other parameters of composition, and I know that now I need a counterpoint. But I’m not going to make a counterpoint that will be obvious in the sense of these three notes – my counterpoint will perhaps be of the same kind if I repeated these three notes in three different octaves, ascending or descending (I prefer descending). I’ve already decided that the note I will choose for make this counterpoint will have characteristics different from these in terms of register, of intensity and of timbre and duration. And this is the note that I will gradually justify to myself, because I found it almost intuitively.
It’s perhaps the mixture between what’s intuitive and what’s exploratory that gives me the material, but perhaps not all of it, for my pieces. I was never one to compose long pieces – the longest is about thirteen minutes, for electroacoustics, piano and flute. One can say that the ideal is somewhere between six and ten minutes – the pieces of about two or three minutes’ duration make up cycles. If you look, for example, at the piece about plants, of which Tojo, Glicínia, and Cardos are part, and a number of other pieces, they are about five minutes long. Longer projects, such as the 12 Nocturnos, make up about thirty minutes of music. Lume de Chão is made up of twenty-four memories – or moments, or preludes, or nocturnes. I tend to call them nocturnes, because I do actually prefer to work at night, and that’s real – perhaps because there’s more silence still. But they’re pieces of short duration, in which I have an idea to get out in that time, and it’s of no interest to say anything further.
The expression of something appears after weeks and weeks of doubt, of insisting and changing. I have to conclude that the piece is expressing the logic that I found in it.
In Geografia de Rebeldes, the harmony ends up being tonal and functional – but not tonally. It ends up being functional from the point of view of timbre – of contrast, of counterpoint, from the point of view of another sound, after the whole introduction, built practically on one chord. The idea here was also connected to an image, or to a text which makes one associate images...
I’ve used some poetry about the Alentejo, by poets such as Manuel Alegre, Manuel da Fonseca and José Saramago. I think that I currently feel close to the realities transmitted by this poetry, by this organization of words and sounds. If I think of the verse “irei a Évora descobrir o branco” (“I will go to Évora to discover white”), I know what it means, I’ve lived it. I don’t mean that when I wrote Demain, dès l’Aube, on a poem by Victor Hugo, I was not honest and sincere. But with Gabriela Llansol, there was a tremendous involvement with this place and with the other participants in the projects – the pianist and the actor. Though they are twelve excerpts from twelve different books, we had the same experience, aligning Gabriela Llansol’s idea of 12 Nocturnos em Teu Nome (12 Nocturnes in Your Name) – a title she herself devised – with the musical framework I proposed for a project conceived in twelve segments. I read books of this kind, of strong prose, intimate, cryptic, autobiographical – poetry or prose, I really don’t know, but it’s always very difficult to fathom. And there’s always an idea, which is the first, and that often derives from the title itself... Rebellion, for me, was to take something extremely simple and make of it a piece of music that would be interesting to listen to.
What purpose does intuition have in the music of Iannis Xenakis? It has a fundamental purpose, because, in spite of all his calculations, it’s precisely through intuition that he decides what is or is not interesting. This attitude, about which he spoke in one of his workshops which I attended, made me think that I don’t have to search for very much if I know that my intuition has a lot to give. And one of the things that’s connected to my intuition is the way I work when composing, which is basically visual. I visualize many things that I hear. One of my teachers used to say that I had a filmic way of composing, that I composed like somebody making a film. I believe that, for me, the fact of composing makes me work normally, intuitively and instinctively, with images – and this image is linked to a memory of an enthusiasm or to the expression of something. It may be the expression of tenderness, of surprise, of peace, of fear... I have here behind me a photograph of a scalaris, a very common snake in these parts. In fact, I wrote a piece called Elaphe scalaris. I consider these scalaris to be musical monuments, because I know they have music. That organization of scales suggests lines to me, in the same way that, looking at the hill over there, in eight months’ time, when lines or bands of mauve lilies, I will begin to see that the hill also has music. I still don’t know how I’ll transmit this, how I will organize these images in music. And so the fact that I like to make this connection with words helps me to enrich my musical expression. The fact of connecting myself to an image fulfils the same function.
I know the next thing I do will be connected to the cycle of trees and fruits, and will be a multimedia piece. I’ve been photographing all the fruit trees here on the hill, from the end of August to the end of November. I’d like to share this observation with someone who will never have the opportunity to see how an apple tree blooms or blossoms in March or April. And, the way the blossom comes, which will give rise to the fruit. Similar to a piece which has to do with the first rains of September and with the activity of amphibians, using dozens of oak-apples, painted green and yellow, which are the colours of the toads and frogs. I put them all inside the piano, and play with the projection of hundreds of images – images which deal with respect for life, and are therefore educational. The interest here is also in the display of energy of the performer, at the piano, for example. Thinking about music has to do with all this, with energy and learning based on observation.
It always takes me a long time to digest things. I have doubts for a long time, and so I compose in short stretches, always closely connected and interacting with my space here. I never spend more than an hour composing, at night. I’m always going out, coming back in, picking up a leaf and looking at its structure... and seeing that it contains music! Why? Because it’s different. And feeling things, the touch of things. All this is constantly swirling round, it has to do with sensitivity, tenderness, gratitude – gratitude in the broadest sense, gratitude for what’s around us, the trees, which only ask for water to live. This process is part of my way of doing things, of my sensitivity...