Questionnaire / Interview
Part 1 - Roots and Education
How did music begin for you? Where can you identify your music roots? What paths led you to composition?
Both of my parents were cellists; my paternal grandfather was an organist: my maternal grandmother was a composer (a pupil of Max Reger). I also had three uncles who were musicians (one of them was an organist at the Cathedral in Frankfurt); and my brother is a violinist. So it was difficult to escape music. I don’t know when I started reading music, or if I started reading music or words first.
Very early on, I started playing the cello and a bit of piano. At the age of nine I joined the Choir of the Saint George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle (after that I needed no more aural training!).
At the age of eleven I started studying tonal harmony (from the treatise by Frederick Dyson) and more or less at the age of thirteen, encouraged by my harmony teacher, I became interested in composition.
When I changed schools, I got a teacher who taught me counterpoint in the style of Palestrina, but who was not really interested in twelve-note music, or in any other modern approaches; and so I was mostly self-taught, on a basis of two or three records of the music of Berg, Webern, Boulez and Stockhausen, which were in the school library.
At the age of fifteen I wrote a Suite for violin, which was performed by the Canadian violinist Frederick Grinke (at the time, my brother’s violin teacher) who played it in a concert where Yehudi Menuhin was present. It was thanks to this experience that I went to Paris at the age of sixteen in order to study with Nadia Boulanger.
Which moments from your music education do you find as the most important?
Without any doubt the year spent in Paris with Nadia Boulanger was absolutely essential. With her I felt total dedication to music: the need for intelligent rebellion, for aesthetic honesty, the absolute necessity for technical mastery, respect for the great figures of the past, the love of art…
After that my composition teacher at Oxford University, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, also influenced me considerably. He was an extraordinarily humble person, but with an amazing interior force.
I also had lessons with Richard Rodney Bennett – a very generous teacher (he never charged me for the lessons) – who taught me, more than anyone else, the absolutely fundamental importance of correct musical notation.
Part 2 - Influences and Aesthetics
What references do you assume in your compositional practice? Which works from the history of music and contemporary music do you find the most relevant?
My initial education was with the great composers of history – Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc. I learnt about their composition and also about the music of other, more recent composers. Among the major references from the past I would single out Byrd, Purcell, Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, and many others. The 20th century names that immediately come to my mind, are Berg, Bartók, Webern, Varèse, Messiaen, Lutosławski and then Boulez, Berio, Birtwistle, etc. In additional to those works that are relevant to everyone (The Rite of Spring…), in my case fundamental works would also include Et Expecto by Messiaen, Marteau sans maître and Rituel by Boulez, Berio’s Sinfonia, Verses for Ensemble and Triumph of Time by Birtwistle, as well as Eight Songs for a Mad King by Maxwell Davies, etc.
The opposition between “occupation” and “vocation” is one of the questions when defining the artistic approach of a composer. Where, on the scale between the emotive (inspiration and vocation) and the pragmatic (calculation and occupation), would you find your manner of working and your stance as composer?
I feel that composition constitutes a vocation in the sense that if I were not composing, for whatever reason, I should feel more and more frustrated and irritated.As well as being a composer, I have always taught: on the one hand, this can limit the time available for composition, but on the other, it gives me a certain freedom in my choices as a composer. I do not live from commissions; if I do not feel happy with any challenge or request, I simply do not accept it. In many cases, I write a certain type of music because I feel like doing it; I do not feel the need to respond to any “market”.
Could you describe the process behind your compositional practice? Do you write music from an embryo-idea or after having structured the general form?
It depends a lot on the type of work: on its size, form or basic idea. I have done almost everything, from pieces calculated systematically beforehand, from which the score results, to works starting without any defined direction. At the present time, in 2014 I tend not to plan many aspects beforehand. I like developing the musical argument in the presence of my listeners; there are no hidden sketches – the listener can follow everything. Nevertheless, there are obviously different types of works: one cannot approach a series of miniatures in the same way as one might a 40-minute cantata!
Some would say that music, due to its nature, is essentially incapable of expressing anything, any emotion, mental attitude, psychological disposition or a natural phenomenon. If music seems to express anything, it is only an illusion, a metaphor and not reality. Could you define, in this context, your aesthetic stance?
I do not agree at all with this idea. Fortunately, music can move me – even to tears; I doubt that if it were unable to express anything I would manage to get to this point. Obviously music does not communicate objects or philosophical concepts; but it is able to create states of mind, perhaps better than any other means of artistic expression.
Are there any extra-musical means, which influence your work in a significant way?
In certain pieces – even in the ones that have no text – there has been a strong influence of literature. I am particularly fond of certain types of literature: one can find the influence of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne and, sometimes, of the English “metaphysical” poets. I also like a lot of Irish literature – W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien, who have had a more hidden but strong influence on me.
How do you see your music on the panorama of evolution of Western music? Do you feel particularly close to any school or aesthetics from the past or the present?
In a wider sense, I feel very close to Bach’s music: I identify myself absolutely with the idea that music is either an extension of life, or its expression. It seems to me that this is an interesting aspect of his music. When it comes to more recent composers, I feel great affinity with the work of Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez; I think that, above all other composers, these two achieve a kind of total osmosis between music and life, which I also feel and hope to be able to transmit through my work.
Are there any influences of non-occidental cultures in your music?
Very few. There are some more or less conscious moments where one can feel the influence of Arab ornamentation – although these techniques are not very distant from the music of the Southern Iberian Peninsula or the Alentejo!
Part 3 - Language and Compositional Practice
How do you characterize your musical language when taking into account the techniques developed in 20th and 21st century composition? Are there any musical genres / styles for which you have particular preference?
My music is clearly atonal and has a rhythm that I like to classify as quantitative, in other words, based on the duration and not on a functional bar. Obviously, atonal does not necessarily mean harsh or dissonant – in fact, for me “dissonance” does not exist: rather, there are different grades of consonance. What is more, my music is often more consonant than atonal music; A-tonality (that is, the negation of tonality) suggests the needs to contradict tonality, which tends to lead to a high level of dissonance. The music that is truly and independently non-tonal opposes nothing, and so can be less furiously dissonant! I enjoy inverting Schönberg’s phrase when he speaks of the “emancipation of dissonance”: in my music one encounters the “re-emancipation of consonance”! In fact tonality or atonality in music, has little or nothing to do with the degree of consonance or dissonance; it has to do with the existence, or not, of tonal functions. These principles give rise to a whole series of consequences in thinking musical language.
In the context of your practice as composer how could you define the relations between science (physics, acoustics, mathematics, etc.) and music?
There is no doubt that sound has physical features, that shape its character. This fact is not a phenomenon concerning contemporary music alone: it has always been like that.
What is your relation with new technologies and how do they influence your manner of composing and your musical language?
My music has very little to do with the so-called “new technologies”. It has a lot to do with nature, which is neither new nor old. Nature is constant.
What is the importance of the spatial and timbric aspects in your music?
Spatial aspects have very little importance in my music; what is fundamental is the timbre (and I do not mean fabricated or manipulated timbre!) – it is directly concerned with the instruments and their performance. I like to play on instruments’ idiosyncrasies and their characteristic timbres.
What are the works that you consider turning points in your career as composer?
My music is constantly evolving, but obviously there are certain turning points more marked than others.
The first turning point would perhaps be my second piano Sonata written in 1976. More or less for the first time, in this work I characterized the music by means of lesser or greater use of certain intervals. From this work on, I began the development of a technique based on harmonic and melodic “flavours”. From that I developed the idea of interval groups (or families): that is, groups based on a greater or lesser proximity and relation between intervals. This technique establishes a hierarchy between the intervals, in stark contrast to the equality of all elements, so emblematic of serialism.
A second turning point would perhaps be the piece Gestures I for wind instruments. Written in around 45 minutes during a lunch hour at a hotel in Brasília, this piece shows how one can produce expressive musical gestures, without specifying pitches or rhythms. This piece was important for my evolution because of the emphasis put on gesture and communication.
A third turning point would perhaps be the work Monograph for piano; as the title suggests, this piece has an almost didactic character, as it is a more or less systematic summary of the techniques used more intuitively in previous works. Most notably, this work and others of the same period elaborate musical gestures on the basis of their contour (morphology), where the intervals used can produce different levels of intensity and harmonic flavour.
After this period, I feel that there has been a gradual evolution without particular turning points. But perhaps it is the recentness of events that make it impossible me to recognize turning points in my own work!
How do the three aspects of your professional activity, composer, conductor and professor, influence each other within your artistic / professional career?
I have no doubts when it comes to the mutual influence between the various aspects of my musical activity. First and foremost, there is a direct relation between composition and teaching. The need to define things, which teaching requires, helps me in developing compositional technique in a more conscious way. This fact is not necessarily positive in itself but there is no doubt that it influences the way in which the composition is developed.
My activity as conductor (particularly with groups of pupils and young people) has greatly increased my ability to communicate with people and, I think, the ability to evaluate the communicability of the sound. Naturally, it has also considerably increased my comprehension of the characteristics of various orchestral instruments.
Nevertheless I think that there are various “types” of composers: there is the composer-performer type (Bartók, for example); the composer-conductor type (for example, Boulez); and there is the type of composer-teacher (like Messiaen). I feel a certain sympathy with each one of them, but I feel – as objectively as possible – that I probably find myself above all in the of composer-teacher category.
Part 4 - Portuguese Music
What do you think of the present situation in Portuguese music? What in your opinion distinguishes Portuguese music on the international panorama?
Portuguese today music is exciting. There is a group of very talented composers that possess great technical mastery. I think that this was not the case in previous periods of the last century where many were self-taught and had very variable commands of compositional technique. Nowadays there is a “minimum level” below which it is already not acceptable to fall. There is also great variety of aesthetic tendencies – from spectral music to neo-tonality, from new simplicity to new complexity – but, fortunately, there is little incompetence! There is no doubt that this reality brings great richness to composition in Portugal today.
How could you define the composer’s role nowadays in the globalized world?
“The composer” is a term that encompasses various, different functions: that is, depending on the type of music and on its social function, the composer’s role can vary quite considerably. The music, which I write, seeks to be contemporary in every sense of the word. And this means several things. In the second decade of the 21st century, we are living in quite different times than those of half-century ago, when I was a student. Words like “originality” or “avant-garde” no longer have the same meaning. I think that in the last half-century there was a fundamental turning in the evolution of classical music (if such a designation still exists). In my view, the music of Mozart represents what I would call a moment of maximum parallelism or equality between the way the music is structured (composer) and the way it is heard (listener). Going back in the history, it would be more difficult to hear the structure in Bach; and probably even more difficult in case of Palestrina, Dufay or Machaut (principally when we take into account forms like the isorhythmic motet!). Since Mozart, Beethoven would be a little less “balanced” when it comes to the way the music is structured and the way it is heard; Brahms, somewhat less; Wagner again less; Schönberg even less; Webern less still; and finally reaching Boulez or Stockhausen where the way the music is heard is very far from the way it was structured – in this case, the most thorough compositional analysis does not help much in appreciating (or understanding!) the resulting sound. It is obvious that this idea described in only a few lines of text seems a little absurd! But it is sufficient for me to be able to explain why I think we have entered a new phase of music’s evolution. Once again, we are now moving towards a closer approximation between the way we write and the way we listen. We have inverted the direction of the evolution between Mozart and Stockhausen. I doubt that we shall reach a point of parallelism and equality as one finds in Mozart so soon – who knows, perhaps in a century’s time? Nevertheless, I think that the tendency exists. I have accompanied an “inversion of direction” during my creative life! What an honour! Perhaps I have played my part, however small, in making this change happen!
According to your experience what differences do you notice between the music environments in Portugal and in other European countries?
First of all I think that the difference resides in a relative lack of tradition: there are lots of excellent ideas but only few, that are developed enough to help to create a tradition of quality. The academies or conservatoires in Paris, London, Leipzig, Rome, Munich, Warsaw or Helsinki – all of them have had an excellent tradition for decades. The Berlin Philharmonic or the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, etc. all of them have decades of tradition. London, Munich, Milan, etc. all of them have professional string quartets, which have been active for many years. I do not mean that in Portugal there are no brilliant moments, and some of extraordinary quality, but when they occur it seems that they are isolated moments in time. In a modest way, I have been trying to contribute to the alteration of this aspect of the Portuguese music life, although I am perfectly aware of the fact that a single person will never make this difference on his own, nor is it in 20 years that one would achieve such a change.
How could you describe the situation of composers nowadays in Portugal and in Europe?
I could complain and say that in Portugal, opportunities are not allocated with the same objectivity or freedom as in other countries; but in European countries of greater “cultural weight”, the opportunities also depend a lot on the people one knows, on friendships and groups. This is one of the aspects that disturbs me most in relation to the contemporary music scene. I have even ended up not really enjoying going to contemporary music concerts, as they seem like the meetings of a club: people seem only to want to know who is talking to whom; or who is sitting next to this or that Director, etc. Actually, I would like contemporary music to be more and more mixed with the music from all periods – I would prefer the term “contemporary music” to become a bit out of date, a bit passé.
Part 5 - Present and Future
What are your current and future projects? Could you highlight one of your more recent works, present the context of its creation as well as the particularities of the language and used techniques?
In 2005, 2006 and 2008, respectively, I wrote a Symphony, a large-ish Cantata and an Opera. Since then I have not approached such large and ambitious forms and I think that once again I am starting to feel I should like to approach a large structure of this type. I am thinking of writing another opera – a form that initially I felt I was not suited to; but I was happy with the result that I produced some years ago, and I think that it would be interesting to come back to it. Or perhaps a second Symphony…?
Over the years as a composer, I have used almost all forms (apart form electroacoustic music…) and I have initiated certain series of works, which I would like to continue: the series of Essays for solo instruments begun in 1980; this year I wrote no. 17 for cello! The series of Dialogues for two instruments (always from different families) started in 1978; in 2009 I composed a third Dialogue, for violin and bassoon and I am already planning the fourth. I have also written four Canzonas for groups of mixed instruments. I wrote two pieces with the title Music for two Pianos; one of these days (years) I am thinking of completing this series with a third one; and also the third book of My Ladye Celia’s Songbooke based on the texts on an idealized woman “Celia”. Last year I composed three Odes with texts by Ricardo Reis – for my music this side (this pseudonym) of Fernando Pessoa is specially relevant. I have also composed three pieces in a series dedicated to fellow composers, Letter to… where I use different musical materials from my colleagues’ works and develop them in my own way; in a way, it is a modern version of the form, Variations on a theme by…
Then there are pieces that have always interested me; for long time I have wanted to compose a String Quintet or Sextet. To write a String Quartet is always a dream – I have already written four.
Almost everything interests me! That is the problem. Among the few things in which I have less interest, is the concerto idea of a soloist with orchestra. I think I have only written one piece of this type. Yet if I have a particular request, I would dedicate myself to this challenge and try to find new solutions for the form, which from the outset I find somewhat exhausted.
How do you see the future of art music?
If I were able to respond to this question I would be the best! But, on the other hand, if I were able to predict the future perhaps I would give up composing. Fortunately, there are no predictions for the future. I feel that there are certain tendencies of the time I live in; I feel that these tendencies require from me, or better, awaken in me a certain attitude. I see that my other colleagues have different attitudes. I would not call them right or wrong. Different opinion cannot be an error; the lack of technique and métier, however, is another matter …well… I only know that there are certain things that I do not want to do – I do not like them, viscerally. At least, that is how it has been until today. But perhaps tomorrow the unpredictable will happen: who knows? From observing the past, there are some things that I think are unlikely to happen, nevertheless, I am open to the possibility of everything. Too much certainty closes the future.
Christopher Bochmann, June 2014