Entrevista a Carlos Marecos / Interview with Carlos Marecos
First contacts with musical composition and influences
While studying at the Academia de Amadores de Música, I had already begun to compose, as an autodidact, though I didn’t known whether I would pursue it more seriously or not. Only later, when I began to study Harmony and Counterpoint with Eurico Carrapatoso did I think of composing more seriously.
In terms of, shall I say, aesthetic influence, I don’t think there was anything much. But as a person, a teacher, a personality and as a composer, there was a great influence, though not technical or aesthetic. But the strength that Eurico Carrapatoso has and that he emanated he passed on to his students. Quite apart from the path and style that each student followed, the influence was more in terms of the precision and performability of the pieces. I studied with him in the Superior School of Music, and I also studied with Christopher Bochmann and António Pinho Vargas
I think they all influenced me, in different ways. Not so much aesthetically, but humanly, technically. I retain from Pinho Vargas, for example, a more distant attitude towards music. Like someone who doesn’t go so deep, or at least, when I worked with him, he didn’t go very deeply into technique and aesthetics. He had an interesting point of view, he stood back a bit from aesthetics and tried to see the musical work as it should also be seen: distanced from aesthetics, almost in the place of the listener. This kind of relationship is also very important, because though I make music for me, I also make it for others and for an audience. In the case of Christopher Bochmann, there was also this concern with the listener’s point of view, but there was a deeper approach to the whole technique of composition, from which I inherited some technical details, but which I used, I think, in a very different way.
Using Folk Music
I’ve worked a lot with folk music in various ways. Of course, in this relation with traditional music, in principle, there is the composer’s own character, if we look at this as a new work and not as a mere adaptation, or a mere orchestration of traditional music.
I don’t view it in that way, even if the harmonizations are sometimes simple, from respect for the style of folk music. I love the ingenuousness of folk music, but in spite of that, at least this is how I understand it, I always try to make them my own works. I know that it’s pre-existent material, but if we go back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, what composer did not work with pre-existent material? So, it’s not through harmonizing that I’m going to consider them as not being my pieces. Of course, being very much linked to folk music, when I write a completely original piece or when I do one harmonization, I try to bring the two languages together, if one can say that they are two languages.
I think that folk music and its ingenuousness give that touch of imperfection that things need in order not to be too sombre, not to have that too serious appearance, of a test tube. Yes, a test tube, but a concert is not a test tube. A concert is for the audience. All this is very vague... And what has folk music got to do with this? Perhaps this idea of ingenuity and purity sometimes doesn’t work very well in music. Purity in the sense of ingenuousness. Not so much ingenuousness, but in the sense of things not thought out too much with the idea of being... that’s the problem of the contemporary. Everything has to be new, everything has to be original. Not with that aim, that it must be a new experience. If it is a new experience, it’s fine, but it doesn’t have to be. Music is for living. It’s obvious that it’s part of our time, but it’s to be lived, it’s not for the test tube. I hope that ideas are understood, even these other ideas I’m putting out, and not so much by concrete definition as by what they mean.
My searching for imperfect and ingenuous things and contrasting them with other things is an initial idea. Then the question of the test tube arises: everything has to be a test in the 20th century. Everything had to be experimental, or it wasn’t valid. It can be an experiment, it’s great when it’s an experiment, but it doesn’t always have to be like that, because it creates a rift between the audience and the composer. If it’s an experiment, gradually nobody has the patience to hear it – this was really what happened. But I’m not against experimenting. In general, when I begin a new piece, I try always to try out something new. New for my language, to add something I feel like risking to see if it works. However, I think music is to be heard. Experimentation has its limits, but there’s always experiment.
I’ve talked only about one aspect of folk music: the question of ingenuousness. But ingenuousness is only one aspect; I wouldn’t like my language to depend entirely upon the use of folk music. But really, what is there that is contemporary, leaving aside folk music? There’s nothing more contemporary than working with other things. I’d go so far as to say that audiovisual history, the evolution of the internet, is all work with pre-existent things. Working with pre-existent material from here and there doesn’t seem to me to be in itself, something that’s not of the present.
I’ve thought about the question of contemporary music as opposed to the use of pre-existent materials in a piece I wrote called AlgumAntigoMaio, it tries to solve this problem in a musical way. Solve in inverted commas. I work with folk music, even modifying the texts, which is not the case with my earliest pieces, such as the Sete Canções Populares Portuguesas, based on the songs collected by Lopes-Graça and Michel Giacometti. Going back to AlgumAntigoMaio, I based it on traditional melodies, but I change the texts. I change the music, and try to write a prelude to the selection I made in a style completely different from folk music.
In harmonizations, for example, I never use triadic chords. Tonal/modal steps are recognized, but harmony, the harmonic pillar of each harmony, never presumes the use of triadic chords. At times there is a mixture of what we might consider two triadic chords, in other words, a kind of bitonality in which each chord, for example a D minor and a F major, may be mixed but are never organized in thirds. There’s an insinuation; of there were a third present, there would certainly be aggregated notes. There exist harmonies with characteristic intervals, but not with triadic chords.
As for texture, I’ve used very often in my harmonizations aleatoric counterpoint; really it was Lutoslawski who began the use of that technique, if he didn’t actually invent it. I’m not saying that this is highly original, but it’s a characteristic that I took over for harmonizations, and I think it works.
Ubi Est Deus
My greatest challenge in this work was to write in an atonal way with a text taken from the Psalms, from which I chose an aggressive text, quite aggressive, about violence. When people think of psalms, in writing music for psalms, they usually think of well behaved, very delicate things. It’s perfectly well known that that’s not the way it is. But I looked for a violent, bloody text that spoke of a massacre and that had many crude words about a massacre.
It made perfect sense to work with a slightly “sour” language, because I don’t think contemporary music can get stuck in an aesthetic that only allows one to write dramatic works. But in this case yes, it made perfect sense for the text in question. It was a piece for a large group of instruments, with various groups spread around the stage, and so on, if was a challenge in this sense, and was also a challenge to my musical technique itself, in the actual language used, which it’s a bit difficult to talk about in detail now.
With Ubi Est Deus, perhaps the greatest challenge was to work with large instrumentation, with dissonant music, dramatic in fact. In the case of O Milagre Precisou de Auxílio, one of the challenges was to write music that, without being ironic, without being tonal, was not music that constantly sought to flee from any tonal archetype. Just because it recalls the past, I don’t have to reject it or throw it out. It’s a music that’s not tonal, but doesn’t try to hide anything that might be consonant, for example. And when I talk about consonance in harmonic terms, I could take much the same approach to rhythm or a regular pulse, because if a regular pulse is a frequency or recognition of this regular pulse, it can also, in a way, be considered an approximation. I think a regular pulse and consonance are interconnected.
Regarding the use of texts I have perhaps a rather particular attitude to texts, I don’t know. Either I work with very old texts, anonymous, or I work with authors more or less of my own age. I never liked hiding behind a famous poet – writing a piece on a text by Fernando Pessoa, say, much as I admire him. But that’s not my attitude: either I work with very old texts, or with texts by friends of mine, people of my generation who are doing the same as I am doing in music. And in this case, it was a text by Carlos Martinho, with whom I have worked quite a lot. And you can say that it’s an ingenuous text, but it’s not even ironic
… Sobre Memórias de Adriano
The title is: On Hadrian’s Memoirs. I asked Carlos Martinho to write a text on the memoirs of Hadrian, and that was what I set. It’s a poetic text. He wrote the poem based on the book.
I worked more in terms of exploring the ideas that the text gave me, than with the inspiration from the original book itself. Curiously, it’s an intermediate situation, because the violence of the book is ingenuous. It was a commonly accepted violence, nothing to be condemned. When you read the book, you have the idea that the Emperor was a good man. It’s an accepted violence. It’s interesting to see the difference between, for example, today when violence is condemned, but subtly accepted.
I worked with one of the groups that had already done the first folk song cycle. It was interesting to see the same group in another way of looking at music. It wasn’t as though I were simply setting a poem to music, it was more a piece, I can’t remember how long, that had the text part in just a short section. So it was more an inspiration for the music as a whole, and then the text appears in a short section, including tape, as it was at the time, or CD now, of course.
But I’ve worked on other texts, including those by Carlos Martinho, in which the structure is really based around the text, which is not the case here. The fact of having read the book, of having taken his poem as inspiration, meant that the part with the text was reduced. The instrumentation is interesting, somewhat strange. Here I used harpsichord mixed with vibraphone and clarinet. So there were instruments apparently designed for different musical styles and periods.
In general, I’ve tried very much to use the same melody with various rhythms, timbres and simultaneously; in other words, I have tried to create a kind of musical texture which is sometimes secondary, and sometimes primary in a way I think is quite unusual in the creation of textures: to have the same melody with different rhythms, with various timbres with which one can create a kind of textural technique. Of course, I obviously don’t do this in the way Ligeti did in the 1960s, but a texture can be constructed, for example, with a secondary layer that serves as an accompaniment to the other layer, because I don’t want to say it’s another melody. And this is a technique I’ve gone back to. It’s obvious that it works best with different timbres. In this case, with 21 clarinets, the technique was used a great deal, even though the timbres were identical. In this case, I tried to use the technique also for identical timbres, though the piece was intended to be premièred in a church, in which I could distribute the musicians spatially. It only makes sense in a place where spatial distribution is possible.
But it was possible to experiment concretely for the first time with students playing, because with the professionals there was a certain resistance to the spatial distribution. I consider that the composer shouldn’t write music to catch the performer out. I’m obviously interested in the relationship between composer and performer being one of equality. You write the music and the musician gives the performance. It’s his show. So, if the musician doesn’t like the piece, it’s better for him not to play it, because I want the performance to belong to both, and so it’s obvious that things have to be performable. When I said that it was complicated to try out the spatial distribution with the professional musicians, it was because there really was some resistance, because musicians don’t like playing sitting next to the audience, they like to be nearer their colleagues, further from the audience. But it’s interesting the first time done by students. I’ve been interested in working with spatial distribution without computer. There are n computer programmes for spacialization in real time, with speakers and so on, but for me it’s much more interesting to do it without this equipment.
In this case, it’s obvious that they were clarinets, but if I programme an echo or a reverberation at some other point of the room, I know that I can transform this echo on the computer, and play a clarinet and have a clarinet sound completely transformed by the computer at the other end of the room, but even so one recognizes that it comes from the clarinet. I find it very interesting, for example, to play a clarinet and see the sound of a flute reflected.
In any case, this piece was for clarinets, 21 clarinets, which allowed me to experiment with chords of 21 sounds and make n journeys through space. There was a refrain... it was a ritornello of space. What came back was the journey through space, what was repeated was the journey. The music was different, but if the sound went from one place on its way there... I don’t remember... but if it began on the stage and then went here and there, in the refrain what was repeated was this journey but the music was different.
Stage Music: the experience with O Bando
The experience of composing stage music for dance and theatre helped me a great deal. It served, for example, to work in a way that wasn’t usual. I remember that when I worked with the O Bando theatre group in Expo ‘98, every Saturday I was recording new music. That sounds like something from the past, when we used to spend the entire weekend recording, go home and write music, have a group available to play new things on the following Saturday, play them badly still, experimenting. It works like a lot of test tubes that you throw away, and say “this one smells bad, I’ll do something else”, and that’s fantastic, better than being there doing everything, planned out on paper, theoretically very correct and that then doesn’t work when you try it out.
The operas “La Serva Padrona” and “O Fim”
I think it’s important to discuss opera, because I did a modern version, if you can call it that, with Paulo Lages, of La Serva Padrona in which I changed the orchestration and, furthermore, we changed all the music in the recitatives. The recitatives were done in Portuguese, and the arias remained in Italian. For the recitatives I wrote my own music, stage music, so that instead, with some Pergolesi from time to time. But it was originally composed stage music without forgetting that the basis was baroque music.
There’s a logic of employers and servants, who now only exist in soap operas – they’re full of this kind of servant who comes from another country, who goes, for example from Italy to Brazil and talks in Italian from time to time, and that’s the way it works. They would be talking in Portuguese, and when he became very excited, he’d change to Italian and begin to sing. But with this kind of approach to a comic opera, making use of this team, we thought of the other one in a completely different style.
Paulo Lages adapted António Patrício’s O Fim, and it can only really be a dramatic work, because you can say that it’s the end of Portugal. So it could only be a dramatic work, very different from the other one, and it interests me to work with a text in Portuguese.
As to this opera, O Fim, it’s almost like the relationship with traditional music. I experimented with an extant baroque opera, and now it’s another world. It’s a more dramatic world, in which I want to try out new situations. The opera is called O Fim – Ópera Íntima [The End – An Intimate Opera], and there will be musicians near the audience, so it’s not a grand opera, it’s a chamber opera, in which there will be a great closeness and confusion between musicians and audience, and in principle it will be for small venues.