Entrevista a Tiago Cutileiro / Interview with Tiago Cutileiro
Education: from the guitar to composition
I began to study classical guitar – the so-called classical guitar – when I was around 13 years old. Before this, at school, I had studied flute and things like that, more for kids, but when I began to study guitar, before being able to play the first piece I did a piece of my own which I thought was easier to play than the one I had been given for me to learn and so you could say right away I was a budding composer, but I never thought about this for a long time, you know? I studied classical guitar, I played some songs but without taking what I was doing very seriously. I studied classical guitar in a school in Lagos, with the teacher Luís Robert, and I studied piano also. I began to really like music but always from the perspective of an interpreter. I did composition but didn’t think much about it. Later I went to the National Conservatory of Music, here in Lisbon, and curiously this is where I first approached composition with my teacher António Sousa Dias and then, in my second year, with Jorge Peixinho. I was 2 years with Jorge Peixinho as my teacher, and curiously my liking for composition disappeared.
My interest in composing ceased and I dedicated myself very much to interpretation. I studied piano seriously and so this was my ambition. And then, for a series of personal reasons I did not finish the Conservatory and I stayed in Lagos and upon stopping my studies in the Conservatory, I started to compose again. Always more or less as fun without thinking very seriously about it. And I continued to study classical guitar. I began to think seriously in composition only perhaps when I was about 22, 23 years old. I began to find what I did when I composed curious, I began to reflect on what I was doing and to get a little excited with it and, little by little, I stopped studying guitar – which was the instrument I used to play at the time – and to practically do only composition. Then, when I realised this, that I was completely involved in composition, I had my first course with my teacher Emmanuel Nunes in the Gulbenkian and there you have it, from then on I began to take the idea really seriously. I practically stopped playing because, somehow, I consider that studying interpretation always had a castrating effect on my compositional streak.
When I play I play my own things, if I start to spend a lot of time looking at other composers I lose the desire to be me who is the one doing things. And so, in terms of people, Emmanuel Nunes was very important here. Meanwhile I had already done some courses with a teacher who is a guitarist and also a composer, Leo Brouwer, and I had also taken pieces – always for guitar – to this course and which the teacher Leo Brouwer had seen. And so it is a very progressive passage from guitarist to composer. Finally on this stage of development, - and taking into account the opening up of degrees in music in Portugal, in this case, it was much more practical for me in Évora – I had two children – and I had already started my degree in Aveiro but it was impracticable – so I decided to do a degree in composition in Évora and I did my degree there with the teacher Amílcar Vasques Dias. Basically that was my education. Later, obviously, I did courses, composition workshops, but what really influenced me – besides the workshops by Emmanuel Nunes, obviously – it seems was the whole of this development.
Works for guitar
I wrote pieces for guitar - Forças de Bloqueio and Lego, for solo guitar, and these are the only two pieces. It was a tremendous effort to compose them and I did the composition as I considered it was necessary for me to produce these 2 pieces. Then the others, it is a fact that they appeared because I was a guitarist, but it is one of those coincidences, I mean, because I was a guitarist I knew many guitarists and, obviously, I prefer to compose for people who will then play it, right?
I don’t get very excited about composing on paper. I had people – and I still have people – who ask me to write music for guitar. And I know many guitarists but I have great difficulty in composing for guitar, I prefer to compose for groups with guitar.
There is a tendency to grab an instrument and try to compose on that instrument and I, for various reasons, got used to composing without an instrument, I mean, at a desk imagining everything, but without that thing of being… The piano yes, I think the piano is very useful to better understand the harmonies I am doing, to see how certain things come out but always as an abstract instrument, which is basically to play what the other instruments will play.
The guitar is a very specific instrument and, therefore, to compose at the piano for guitar is complicated because you can screw up, you can write things which are impracticable and therefore I tend to grab the guitar and see how it is possible. And when I grab the guitar my fingers go to their usual places and it begins to sound like something other than what I wanted to do.
These are some pieces where I try to obtain a given sonority by means of a process. It is the first time that I have composed with musical processes, and I became fascinated with this. Since then I am still using musical processes today to compose, processes of musical composition. Shall we say that the other composition I used to do until MMC was intuitive composition, where I would accumulate sounds according to whether I thought they would fit or not. A kind of free composition, really in the true sense of the word, free of processes that I may have invented. I had an idea about this question of musical processes, Jorge Peixinho had already spoken to me about this, but it was a somewhat negative idea, it was the idea that, basically, musical processes served not to compose, or rather, what came out was something which completely slipped through my fingers. And in MMC – a bit by chance, I was playing around a bit on the computer and doing things and I wanted to get a certain type of sound, which even today is still very characteristic of my music – very long sounds, the use of very long sonic areas for a long time - and I wanted to get this sound with a process, or rather, the process did not make the music for me – I made the process to get the music I wanted. And as from there… So these pieces are really landmarks in this sense.
It is an operation on the material and, therefore, it has to do with arranging a way for the sounds to come in and out. In fact I got around to choosing these sounds, but at this stage the sounds were more or less chosen but I wanted to arrange a way of making the sounds appear and disappear without me constantly deciding on the best place for these sounds to be, because my idea was that today, when I am composing, what may seem to me to be the best place to begin a note, may tomorrow… I can look at the score and, I mean, yesterday it seemed good to me here but if I put the note a little earlier, or a little after, it won’t make a big difference! This has something to do with the type of music I am doing, doesn’t it? Because if we are speaking of very long notes, which overlap each other with various instruments, covering the breathing spaces of the others - when we speak of this type of music the exact moment when a note enters becomes relatively irrelevant, as opposed to very detailed music, where in fact when you alter the place where the notes are, the outline of everything becomes different. Here it was more or less irrelevant and, in view of this irrelevance, I had to choose a mathematical or aleatory process or something, which would allow me to put the notes in place without me constantly having to say: “No, it’s better here, it goes there…” Reaching the conclusion that it in fact makes no difference, it could be a little before, it could be a little after, and the conception of the process rids me of this problem, so I perform a process which obtains the result I want, in sonic terms, and does not mean I am constantly faced with this option of having to choose the exact spot, when there are many places it could go.
Steve Reich even uses the expression process music, and considers processes the formulas of mathematical repetition which he chooses and which, in fact, also slip through his fingers. He chooses a process and the music ends when the process ends, and this type of attitude in composition is similar to my own, it is. Then, in terms of sound, what people normally associate with American minimalism - not this idea of process which, perhaps, is what should be the essence – ends up by being that idea of a certain consonance, a work based on consonance, due to the type of notes and the type of musical material which is used. And here, you just have to not use this and it is difficult to associate my music to American minimalism, but the process which lies behind it, then in this case of MMC, it is extremely similar. Curiously I later came to find out – because these MMC were done before the first courses I had with Emmanuel Nunes – that the MMC (Common Minimum Multiple process) has to do with the use of notes with different durations and therefore which produce an out-of-phase effect amongst a polyphony. It could be various parts which produce the out-of-phase effect and which sooner or later, as there are Common Minimum Multiples, come back together again. Later I found out with Emmanuel Nunes that this is the theory of the rhythmic pairs, which Emmanuel Nunes applies and which gives a completely different sound, because he works the process in a completely different way. I work this in really a very basic way, I like people to notice this happening, while Emmanuel Nunes prefers precisely to disguise what is happening and uses this as a process.
Lego is also a piece of music made by processes and, returning to that question we spoke about in relation to my difficulty in writing for guitar, this thing of using the process allowed me to write a piece for guitar without playing the guitar, without playing an instrument. Based on this, my manner of composing changed radically, it came to be the basis for a research into the diverse ways of making processes fit in, and the songs practically cease to be idiomatic, they do not need to be for a certain instrument.
These MMC, at the time, I composed them specifically for certain instruments because for a fair part of them I had groups available which could play them but the fact is that, if a quartet or a quintet of another set of instruments asks me to write music for them, I can easily use this same music for these other instruments provided they have identical characteristics. For example the first MMC is for a trumpet quartet but can perfectly be played by a quartet of cellos, they have to be instruments with identical sonorities.
One of the things that I use most in this type of work, is to make two flutes make sounds which one flautist alone cannot make, to make the same sound last a really long time, while one breathes the other plays over, therefore, in what seems like it is only one flute but with someone who is using circular breathing perfectly. I do this with a fair quantity of instruments, the idea of having very long notes with a kind of atmosphere, a mass of sound and not based on the phrasing or articulation of small notes.
These MMC have some curious characteristics. The first MMC even has a key signature, I don’t remember now if it is E flat major or in A flat major - obviously I don’t use tonal functions but it ends up sounding diatonic. The sonority of the pieces, and all of the MMC are more or less diatonic, and all the work I did before the MMC were modal, they were modal works, tonal – not in the sense of using the tonality as a tonal function, but with the use of some harmonies which are characteristic of tonal music. And the last MMC, which I gave the subtitle The painful pathway – which in Portuguese is more or less A dolorosa via, or something like that – I finally chose sonic material which when superimposed even produces chromatic dissonances, and so that diatonic environment which other MMCs produced disappears. And I am beginning to increasingly like coarse, chromatic dissonance and as from the last MMC things change in this aspect. The idea of a sonic mass, the idea of a sonic body, all of this still remains – I still work like this today – but the harmony no longer has anything to do with being diatonic.
Composition of musical processes: XC cycle of pieces
The XC’s are also important pieces. Here I begin to use aleatory processes which I am still using today. I really liked this aspect of sounds being able to appear without being produced by a mathematical process, but by chance, and above all it produced – when transposed to instrumental interpretation – the idea of making the interpreter’s process easier.
If I have this sonic mass – where I have a flute which is supposed to come in two beats after the clarinet and I therefore have the maestro conducting, and the flautist has to be very attentive given that 2 beats following the clarinet he has to come in - and all of this was decided by a musical process, a mathematical process, and it is indicated that the flute should begin at that point but, as I have already said before, the flute in fact can come in a little later or a little earlier as this will not harm the sonic effect that I want. And so, instead of me saying to the flautist to come in 2 beats after the clarinet, if I say to come in more or less 2 beats after the clarinet, the flautist is not tense about the interpretation and, quite the opposite, does not make a mistake. He or she can begin a little before, a little after, or even make a mistake – he can also make a mistake and could play badly because all music can be badly played – but theoretically the player is relaxed because if he or she does not come in exactly at that moment and comes in a little later it all goes well just the same. And this, for me, is much more logical, with the music I write, than its opposite. If the music I write is a constant sound with small alterations but which somehow creates, or is supposed to create, a calming effect, it does not seem coherent to me that the orchestra which is to play this, or the group which is to play this, are all tense and nervous that they don’t miss their entry on that note or the other note. And in fact the ideal for me is that the instrumentalist knows that they should really play that note but the exact place where they will come in does not matter too much. And so, after discovering this with XC8, I began to try to write scores – because very often it is difficult to conceive of a form of writing which is clear enough for the interpreter to understand that this is what is wanted – which rid the musician of this tension of coming in exactly at the same place. Therefore in these pieces there are notations of the type: “Enter more or less 30 seconds after.” But it’s not like clockwork, the interpreter is not looking at a chronometer and so it is psychological time – he waits and comes in when he thinks the 30 seconds have passed. And it works – for what I want – it works quite well. Therefore these pieces, and above all XC9, is also important because I began to find ways of writing with processes but – aleatory processes.
The starting point for these works – these last works – is the harmony, precisely that. I began by first choosing a group of chords – let’s say – groups of notes, which interested me for what I wanted to hear. And here we have a real choice, there is still the so-called composer’s choice as he sits at the piano to see what sounds best or what does not sound good: ”I don’t want this note in this context, I want this one in this context…” and, for example, if I am working a chord of 4 notes and I know that it will come in just before another chord of 4 notes which will enter just after, I try all the possibilities of 2 notes which are left over from this chord, plus 2 notes which are left over from the other, I see if I also like that, or if I am going to have to change the following chord. So, it is in this aspect of the cadence of chords – with an aleatory element, because the notes which go from one to the other can be left over or not – and, shall we say, there are certain harmonies that I don’t want but which come out and so I eliminate the possibilities of this happening.
When I am doing a work with just electronics, here I use micro-intervallic harmony without any problems at all. When I work with instruments I prefer to use diverse possibilities using noises from the instrument – the so-called instrument noise – than to be using micro-intervallic harmony.
For example, the breath from the flute, string friction without giving off sound, so the use of noise interests me, as because this mass of sound can be made only with noise, without a single identifiable frequency.
Works with electronics
If I have a pianist who asks me for a piece and I write the piece for piano, he will play it wherever he wants. But if I write a piece for a piano and electronics, generally, I will have to go with him because he will not be able to get people to do the things and therefore the process becomes complicated. But I very much like the idea of using electronics with instruments, not only the deformation of sound with electronics – the use of the very sound that the instruments are making, which is what I do in these pieces, - but also the use of pre-recorded sounds, so sounds which do not generally belong to the environment of the concert or the piece. I have also already used this in one piece or another – put a tape – not using electronics for the treatment of sound which each instrument would have to make but as if it were another instrument, another sound being made. I like this, mostly from the perspective of them really being 2 instruments.
At the moment I am doing a piece for piano and electronics in which my idea of electronics is for the electronics to take what is being played by the piano and perform as if it were a concert. From time to time the piano stops and the electronics remains alone, not playing pre-recorded material, but rather working on the sound that the pianist was making up to that moment. Which could be a long part of the music. For example, the pianist plays for 5 minutes and then there is an interlude with only electronics for another 5 minutes, which is what the pianist played, but worked in a different way or even extended beyond the 5 minutes. I like this a lot.
Rejection of the musical narrative: from everything to the particular
This perhaps has to do with one thing which I reject in practically all of my pieces which come after MMC which is the idea of musical discourse, the idea that music is to take a direction, which goes from here to there. A kind of musical narrative which I reject completely and so in doing this, by rejecting the narrative, in fact it doesn’t make sense to start at the beginning and finish at the end, because if there is no narrative I have to see the whole and work on the whole always as seen from above. I usually compare this with looking at a painting – making a parallel with the plastic arts, – if I see the painting as a whole, or if I am looking at the painting, I see the beginning of the painting and I will take it to the end. If I take a partial view of the painting I will understand nothing. I have to see the painting as a whole. And when I compose, I have to watch the time – the painting in this case is time – as a whole and see what it is I am going to include there. I always work from a global vision of the thing.
Aesthetics and “work” on sound: composition by negation
There is an aesthetic question which has concerned me and which follows my work a little, which is the idea that I constantly doubt that what I am doing is music. In fact I am beginning to ask serious questions about how you can associate what I am doing, for example to the repertoire, to what people normally identify as music. Shall we say in other words, what people who reject contemporary music usually say: “Hey, this is not music!”. In relation to my music, I am beginning to think that maybe they are right and that what I am doing would be in an extremely wide sense of the word music or then maybe what I am doing is no longer music even, because it doesn’t have a series of things which are common throughout the history of music up to the present day. My liking for working the sound is such that I end up in fact by disregarding the overwhelming majority of things that people normally consider music, or which are part of music. And so I don’t know if later on it may not make more sense to look for another term.
These days these questions about intervals don’t bother me so much, really. If I take some care, for example, over the harmony as we said just before, not to have too many harmonies, it ends up by being, precisely, to avoid there being those harmonies where people say: “Ah! This is music!” And so, even this work is the negation of music.