In focus

Luís Tinoco


Photo: © João Vasco Almeida

Questionnaire / Interview

Part 1 · Roots & Education

How did music begin for you? Where do you identify your music roots?

Luís Tinoco: I grew up in an environment strongly related with the arts, surrounded by close family members and friends dedicated to different areas of creation or performance, including music. Therefore, a moment where I would identify a beginning or a discovery doesn't actually exist. Music has always been present and rooted in me.

Which moments from your music education do you find the most important?

Luís Tinoco: A great part of my music education took place, precisely, in the context of the family environment – listening, observing, making my first attempts with improvisation under my father's attentive (and critical!) eye / ear, falling asleep very late on sofas at studios during rehearsals or recording sessions, etc. All this experience has been fundamental during the first years.

Later, the almost two-year period during which I studied with Mário Laginha was very important and gratifying. Then, I entered the Composition Course at the ESML (Music College of Lisbon), which opened my horizons and where I acquired more discipline (with the support of Christopher Bochmann), but also more freedom (with another support of António Pinho Vargas). When I graduated from the Course I thought that I'd needed to get to know other realities, so the two years spent in London studying at the Royal Academy of Music with Paul Patterson, were extremely happy and inspiring. Later, I went back to England, this time to make my PhD at the University of York and this was also a very gratifying period, given that I had the privilege of working with Nicola LeFanu, a composer who I highly admire both for the work and music, but also for her sensibility, intelligence and refined critical spirit.

Part 2 · Influences & Aesthetics

Which past and contemporary references are present in your music?

Luís Tinoco: In the more distant past, the references constituted rather a study field, more for the pure pleasure of listening, than as a working material which I would incorporate in my writing. Still, if we consider the more recent past or even the present, my references shall encompass a quite diverse range – from the albums from my youth (Facing You by Keith Jarrett, Maiden Voyage or Speak Like a Child by Herbie Hancock, Symbiosis by Bill Evans, First Circle by the Pat Metheny Group, Black Codes From the Underground by Wynton Marsalis, etc.) to the music by Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartók, Maurice Ravel, Alban Berg or later by György Ligeti, Witold Lutosławski, Henri Dutilleux, to name only a few.

One should also emphasize that professionally I am always listening to music, not only because I compose, but also because I have been producing radio programmes for the Antena 2 for almost 20 years. In this context I'm constantly surprised and attracted by the music which is nowadays being created within a frankly extended spectrum, and which includes names such as György Kurtág, Peter Eötvös, George Benjamin, Wolfgang Miterrer, Michel Van der Aa, Hans Abrahamsen, Yannis Kyriakides, Kenneth Hesketh, Marc-André Dalbavie, Bent Sørensen, Mauricio Sotelo... the list is immense and it keeps being expanded.

Are there any extramusical sources which significantly influence your work?

Luís Tinoco: I believe that, sooner or later, any composer ends up turning to literature as a source of inspiration or as a working material to be transposed to a musical context. On the same day while responding to this question, for example, I've received an e-mail form the writer Almeida Faria with a most beautiful text, which I've immediately kept in my “drawer” of projects.

Regarding other fields, I feel that visual arts have also been a constant stimulus in a great part of my work. There are various aspects within the fine arts, photography, cinema, which can easily be transposed to a sonic context, for example, when it comes to parameters such as density, contrast, texture, light, proportion, space, form, colour, stain, line, point, transparency...

Yet the same can be applied to words, obviously. In the book Quem disser o contrário é porque tem razão (Anyone who says otherwise is right), a lot of what Mário de Carvalho explains about the work and dilemmas of a writer, can be transposed, without great difficulty, to the work (and also dilemmas) of composing a musical text.

In the context of Western art music, do you feel close to any school or aesthetics from the past and the present?

Luís Tinoco: As I've already referred, my spectrum of references is frankly extended. My interests include currents which don't fit in the type of writing that I have been developing, but which, however, I consider extremely stimulating and challenging. I believe that I will be only able to evolve and transform my way of composing if I don't limit myself to listening to the music by the composers with whom I share more affinities. The greatest surprises can take place precisely when we pay attention to the work of the ones who are apparently less close to us.

Being somewhat reductive, I could say that I feel rather close to the music originating from countries such as Hungary, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. But then I immediately notice that, responding in these terms, I'm leaving behind composers such as Beat Furrer, Jörg Wiedmann, Brett Dean, Unsuk Chin, Alexander Schubert, Toivo Tulev, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, François Sarhan, Andrew Norman... all of them coming from geographical latitudes and currents, outside the circle that I have already indicated.

And I can't fail to mention the importance which listening to jazz music continues to have for me. Obviously, I also put jazz in the category of "art music".

Are there any influences of non-Western cultures in your music?

Luís Tinoco: I don't think that there are any influences resulting form a profound musicological research with the objective to incorporate the elements that are more distant from the music of Western tradition. Although I have an enormous pleasure in listening to music from other geographical latitudes. For example, when I was a kid and I spent my holidays in the Algarve, I loved tuning the radio to Moroccan channels in order to listen to the music of North Africa...

Nevertheless, I won't deny that the way in which I have approached the timbre and percussion in my music, reveals some echos of other musical cultures, especially the oriental ones. Sometimes, these resonances emerge in a conscious and intentional way, as for example in the third movement of my Cello Concerto (2016-17), whose score in the final measures includes the indication “as a gamelan”. I also wrote a piece for erhu and orchestra (Shadow Play from 2011), in which I included some quotations of ancestral Chinese melodies.

However, perhaps it would be more exact to say that these influences emerge, more frequently, as a result of my interest in music by composers coming from countries such as Japan, Korea or China but who, nonetheless, can be taken as Western composers, since they belong to the tradition of classical European music.

Part 3 · Language & Musical Practice

Please characterize your musical language from the perspective of the techniques / aesthetics developed in musical creation in the 20th and 21st centuries, on the one hand, and on the other, taking into account your personal experience and your path from the beginning until now.

Luís Tinoco: Looking back on my path since my student years at the ESML (Music College of Lisbon), I can identify an evolution inside a language, which includes elements of an expanded tonality combined with elements of chromaticism. There's also a rhythm alternating between pulsation and irregularity / instability, between an intense energy and the exploration of static moments. There are also sonic spaces, which are strongly sustained by the exploration of textures and a special attention towards the timbre. It's a music living much from a construction of harmonies, at times exploring spectral colours. Its expression is strongly supported by the idea of gesture.

When it comes to your creative practice, do you develop your music from an embryo-idea or after having elaborated the global form? In other words, is it developed from the micro towards the macro-form or is it the other way round?

Luís Tinoco: I would say that in most cases, I begin with an embryo-idea, which I then keep developing during the process of composition. These ideas can be born from materials which I've initially sought by improvising on the piano or from a gesture sketched on paper in a quite graphical manner, and which I then transpose to a musical realization. They can also originate from research on a certain type of sonority, timbres, textures, even without having a pre-established plan on what the following step would be. In short, I don't start writing a single note without having a very clear idea on how I want to begin every score. Yet I am rarely certain on what the conclusion will be, even if I have plans on some specific moments which I wish to include in this path between the departure an the arrival point. When I work with pre-composition I essentially do it to structure specific sections which, due to a technical or other reason, demand a preceding work and planning. Actually, every time I've tired to design the whole piece a priori, I've always come to the conclusion that in the process of composition I end up following detours, taking me away from the global, previously imagined architecture.

When I studied in London, I had a quite depressive colleague who sometimes entered buses and disappeared. On the following day he would tell me, what the route of his travel had been. Obviously, I imagined that at times he would have gone to not very interesting places... Yet he used to justify this peculiarity by saying that, thanks to the aleatory character of his routes, he had already discovered surprising spaces, which he would have never got to know, had he always defined rigorously the departure and arrival points.

I know that some composers are able to get the maximum benefit from their creativity, ensuring the control over the material through rigorously planned structures. Each one should find his or her own solutions and working processes. I don't believe that any methods can be better than the other ones. Yet I must confess that when it comes to music, I like the idea of starting every journey without being completely sure of the final destination. As for the buses, I hate entering into the wrong vehicle.

What is your relation with the new technologies and how do they influence your music?

Luís Tinoco: I have written various pieces – orchestral, chamber music, and music for stage – in which I've integrated new technologies. However, I've always resorted to the support of my colleagues with a solid experience in the domain related with these means. Emanuel Marcelino, José Luís Ferreira, Filipe Lopes, Carlos Caires... I believe that the new technologies should be approached with maximum seriousness, in the environment of a profound and careful research. Thus I've always opted to work with colleagues who could show me paths and solutions, or who would help me realizing the ideas, which I wanted to put into practice. Yet this is a perspective put in a quite functional plan of incorporating technology into my music. There is also another, less obvious level of influence, which actually has accompanied me for a long time, including the music I've written without any use of technology. I mean for example the way in which I work with the timbre, orchestration, or even the form. There's a notion of sound as substance, as something organic and with a plasticity that one can mould, and which can be applied into purely acoustic contexts.

The way how I hear and compose is, in a certain way, rather more permeable to this type of ideas, than to another, more conventional parameters. This curiosity started gaining shape when I found myself neglecting the piano practice in order to entertain myself with some “household appliances” (synthesizers and samplers), which I had at home. It intensified with the developing interest towards cinema, foley and edition. And of course on other occasions the influence has come from listening to music works with electronics, when finding myself thinking of ways to transpose that type of sonority to an instrumental context, in which I normally move and which is to me more familiar.

There is a somewhat rooted idea that not using (or a moderate use) of new technologies could result in a kind of "antibody" or aesthetic divergencies... I disagree completely with this common place. The importance of music produced through the new technologies can be expressed in innumerable manners, and it doesn't require their practical application in the creation of a work.

What is the importance of space and timbre in your music?

Luís Tinoco: Both of them have enormous relevance. A part of my production has been focused on instrumental formations of major dimensions, allowing me to explore with great pleasure various potentials and timbral combinations – not necessarily through the dimension of an orchestra and the quantity of the available instruments, but through the variety of available colours and their disposition in space. Orchestrating isn't only balancing volumes and combining timbres. It is also conceiving the movement of the sound in the space, exploring the potentials of the "field depth", just like in photography. What to put in the first plan versus the other middle and more distant plans? How to move the sound in this tridimensional space? And, obviously, how to explore scales ranging from the most silent, subtle and almost chamber sonorities, to denser and more intense textures?

All these preoccupations can be applied to the most varied types of instrumental formations. My answer is focused a bit more on the orchestra. It's a "tool" with immense possibilities, which I have been able to use with some regularity.

When it comes to working with spatialization itself – that is, composition in function of specific distribution of the instruments in the concert space – Cercle Intérieur (2012) was the piece where I explored this dimension at a deeper level. This commission implied the use of the same instrumentation and spatialization as in Terretektorh (1965-66) by Iannis Xenakis. It's an orchestra of 88 solo parts with the musicians surrounding the conductor in an enormous circle, and with the audience seated beside the musicians. Obviously, to compose a piece with this spatial disposition implies, very likely, that the score will have a very short life when it comes to its circulation. Yet the pleasure of writing and thinking of the movements of sound inside this orchestra, and of imagining the different possible auditions for the ones inside this "intimate circle" – performers and audience – strongly justified the risk to invest various months of working on a piece, whose possibilities of being performed and heard live again are, frankly speaking, quite accidental.

Does experimentalism play an important role in your music?

Luís Tinoco: If one understands the term "experimentalism" in the context of a current or avant-garde aesthetic positioning and rupture of conventions and, in a certain way, as an anticipated search for something that hasn't been put in to practice yet, I won't say that my work can be labeled as "experimentalist". However, if on the one hand I think that not all the works can be classified as experimentalist, on the other I believe every work of art, or the whole truly creative process, must include an experimental dimension. And in this sense, in every piece I write my goal is to have this experimental dimension, not only for the pleasure which it gives me, but also for believing that the disquiet is a fundamental element to maintain a state of auto-criticism and dissatisfaction. And this one we should never give up. Being in this state of agitation and restlessness, not only lets us find the energy necessary to achieve levels of major elaboration and quality for every score, but it also ensures that in the end, already after having put the double bar, we continue to compose because there's actually always something to resolve. We have to continue making experiments and proceeding in the direction to find new solutions and new expressions.

The composer who has stopped experimenting for being so sure and satisfied with everything that he or she has already been able to control, is very likely only one small step before getting lost in the comfort of his or her own formulas.

And curiously this danger is transversal. That is, we can find it both in the academicism stagnated in a handful of certainties, as well as in some experimentalism which also keeps falling in the trap of (other) formulas.

Which of your works constitute turning points in your career?

Luís Tinoco: In an academic context, the composition of my String Quartet (1995) was very important for my education. It allowed me to find new solutions, including the capacity to organize the melodic and harmonic material without being tied to the piano as a tool which, until then, I hadn't been able to let go while composing. Then, already while studying in the United Kingdom, the contact with a different musical reality from the one in Portugal in the beginning of the 1990s, allowed me to incorporate more transversal elements and to recover some references which had remained "hibernated". The composition of Sundance Sequence (1999), for example, was a kind of liberation and it marked a turning point, not only in the type of the used materials, but also for having integrated elements of humour. These ones became very important in some pieces I composed later, such as Spam! (2009), among others, or in the operas with librettos by Terry Jones and Stephen Plaice.

The two years spent in London in the end of the 1990s, were very stimulating. The pluralism in the programming of festivals and concert halls which I visited, together with the audition of recordings and reading of scores at the Library of the Royal Academy of Music, allowed me to make contact with a completely different and quite varied reality. It was a time when I listened to works such as Le Grand Macabre (1974–77) by Ligeti, together with the Yellow Shark (1993) album by Frank Zappa. I also went to concerts where, in the same programme, the London Sinfonietta joined works by Steve Reich and Brian Ferneyhough. Also at the Royal Academy of Music, I was able to have contact with composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, Franco Donatoni, Thomas Adès, Richard Rodney Bennett, Michael Finnissy, Steve Martland... These were two extremely happy and stimulating years, which decisively marked my way of writing, giving origin to compositions such as Antípoda (2000), Round Time (2002) or Short Cuts (2004).

From a later stage, I can highlight as turning points two cycles of orchestral songs Search Songs (2007) or Canções do Sonhador Solitário (2011), and other compositions where I tried to explore a major statism and serenity, as in O Silêncio e as Pedras (2008).

When it comes to the more recent pieces, composed in the last five or six years, I am still not able to make conclusions, because I still don't have the necessary temporal distance.

Part 4 · Portuguese Music

Try to evaluate the present situation of Portuguese music.

Luís Tinoco: My evaluation is quite positive, when it comes to the quantity, regularity and quality of what is done, both in composition and performance. Unfortunately, my optimism is much more moderate regarding the promotion and divulgation of this reality.

In your opinion is it possible to identify any transversal aspect in Portuguese contemporary music?

Luís Tinoco: I don't know. It's difficult for me to find transversal phenomenons, because I'm too engaged as an element integrating the Portuguese contemporary music environment. What I lack is capacity and distance "to see form outside", which I am able to have while observing what is happening in the music created in other geographical latitudes. That is, through my regular collaboration with the Antena 2, I have a privileged access to recordings of works by contemporary composers from other countries and, in some cases, I believe that it's very easy to find transversal aspects. I think, for example, in the Baltic countries, the Netherlands, Austria and Germany, France, etc., not to mention much more distant cases, like the music written by Asian composers.

In Portugal the transversality which I'm able to identify is actually a tendency for diversity. It's not necessary to move back many years to remember periods in which the variety of what was being composed (and heard at contemporary music concerts) in Portugal was rather moderate. The turn of the century, for various reasons, has brought a diversity without precedent and, in my opinion, it has enriched substantially the present panorama.

How can you define the composer's role nowadays?

Luís Tinoco: We live in a moment when people stopped having time to listen. Everything surpassing the range of more commercial and popular music – frequently promoted by labels and media in a "fast-food" logic – reaches the radio stations, TV channels and concert halls with much more difficulty.

It's not possible to listen to Arvo Pärt or Helmut Lachenmann with the same velocity as one consumes "fast-music". One needs to have generosity and curiosity, give listening time, wait for surprises which can take more than three minutes to be revealed. And all this demands for something that our lives sometimes already don't have. And even the ones who enjoy the everyday dead hours (spent in public transport, for example) to listen to some music on their iPods, are more likely to choose something which can "compete" with the surrounding noise, a kind of "sonic background" keeping them company during their path, immune to the sounds of horns, loudspeakers, vehicles, etc. Therefore, the composer's role today, to a great extent, means battling (even if the weight of artillery is unequal), fighting for maintaining space and attention for the curiosity and generosity, which I have already mentioned.

The level of musical illiteracy in Portugal is scary. As long as teaching music in the basic education continues to be the same disaster which it has been until now, we won't create listening habits that are minimally comparable with the habits of reading – despite also being in danger, these ones have been rooted with other consistency. One needs to take the children to concert halls, just as we take them to museums, oceanariums or we give them books within national reading plans. Still, if many of those who are responsible for making decisions rarely go to concerts of classical music – it's easier to meet them at festivals promoted by beer brands – what kind of hope can we have? That suddenly they will come up with a "national plan for listening"?

In this context, the composer, the performer, the programmer, all these agents can have a fundamental role if at least they don't give up or yield to the simplicity of populist approaches, also putting in danger the music created on the margin of a majorly commercial logic.

At another level, less circumscribed to our national reality and listening habits, if one looks around, we have enough reasons to be alarmed and preoccupied. This, of course, together with a good dose of reasons to be amazed. Music, just as other arts, science and spirituality, can give us the balance we lack. If we are attentive and sensible to what surrounds us, inevitably we will end up finding the paths so that our activity also takes on an ethical dimension.

According to your experience, what are the differences between the music environment in Portugal and in other parts of the world?

Luís Tinoco: If I was to establish a parallel with other parts of the world where we can find rich music realities, the major difference is precisely in the already mentioned lack of interest of our elites. We can identify the lack of structures, equipment, and means for studying and practicing music, etc., but all this is consequence of a lack of interest, fatally generating lack of investment. If our decision makers liked Bach just as much as they love sport and particularly football, our country would have plenty of concert halls and "million euro contracts" for conductors and musicians.

We can have a National Conservatoire which has been falling apart piece by piece for years on end, works by composers taking decades to be premiered or which are never recored, orchestras without decent halls to rehearse, concert halls from the North to the South without financing for programming or to develop educative activities, etc. Yet if there's football and endless debates whether "the ball touched the hand, or it was the hand that touched the ball", the people will continue to be happy.

Having said this, I believe that in the last 15 years, noticeably, we have experienced a vertiginous leap in the quantity and quality of music performed and written. I've seen it closely, year by year, through my professional activity. Therefore we have been accompanying a gradual approach of our performative levels to other richer and more structured realities. Yet there's still a long path to travel, and many distractions to be fought against.

Part 5 · Present & Future

What are your present and future projects?

Luís Tinoco: Recently I have premiered the piece Cassini (2018) for symphony orchestra, which I composed in the context of my relation with the São Carlos National Theatre, as composer-in-residence, in order to mark the 25th anniversary of the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra. After any premiere performance I always require a considerable period of rest to "charge my batteries", yet 2019 will bring the premiere of three ongoing projects, two orchestral and one for trio with piano.

With the Drumming – Percussion Group I have also been recording a new monographic CD, which will reunite seven compositions I wrote for percussion between 2004 and 2018 – pieces that range from solos to multi-percussion quintets. The CD will be released in the final of 2019 in order to commemorate the Drumming's 20th anniversary.

Then I will continue with my parallel projects. Teaching, radio programmes and direction of the Young Musician's Award and Festival. And of course, I also have family and friends, but this isn't a project, it's a "work in progress".

How do you see the future of art music?

Luís Tinoco: Being in complete tune with the manifestation of a certain fear and scepticism, which I feel being implied in the question and which I've also already expressed in one of the answers, I also won't fail to manifest my conviction that music, if it is truly art, will always have good arguments to find its own paths and survive any danger.

Luís Tinoco, December 2018
© MIC.PT