In focus

David Miguel


Questionnaire / Interview

Part 1 · Roots & Education

Which paths led you to composition?

David Miguel: The most determinant factor has probably been a certain interest, which actually I've always had, for understanding music and discovering the secrets of combining sounds. The learning within a formal context was absolutely determinant to relate sounds with their theoretical explanation. I've always enjoyed thinking about things, reflecting, understanding and analysing... I like to see beyond the obvious perspective and the dominant position. Being a performer has never been my goal. I prefer the universe of composition and music theory.

Part 2 · Influences & Aesthetics

Which references form the past and the present do you assume in your musical practice?

DM: I have a lot of interest in Renaissance polyphony and the great choral-symphonic works from the Classicism and Romanticism. I admire the subtlety of the Lieder and the systematic line of thought of diverse 20th Century composers. Everything that sounds heavy captures my attention. My music doesn't have to sound like any of these influences in particular, nor as a mixture of it all. These are, nevertheless, compositional processes and attitudes with which I identify myself.

Are there any extra-musical sources that significantly influence your work?

DM: Yes, poetry in particular. Poetry has a literary freedom with immense potential to work in music. I specifically appreciate the challenges to find, for instance, the means to describe or represent stories and emotions by means of the technique.

Moreover, there are themes, which have been always present and which have to do more with my personality. Death, horror, pain, love or lament are always there either literally or implicitly, let's say, a permanent presence of darkness and obscurity. I relish paradoxes as the obscure luminosity, the morbid beauty, the liberating weight, yet, without falling into ingenuous mysticism, tasteless spirituality or the vulgar dichotomy God and Devil. It's much more sublime than that.

I hope that more opportunities to work with these themes will appear. It's common for people to judge these subjects as "strange", "morbid", "sad" or "depressing", but this is a defence mechanism of human beings. For me they are fundamental themes, whose application can be accomplished in a serious, aesthetically evolved and technically challenging manner. It's in this path that I've defined myself and I shan't abandon it only to follow the dominating circuits. This is what interests me to explore in composition.

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

DM: Yes, with the New Simplicity. It's based on technical parameters whose enormous potential resides in their singleness. During the years I've been exploring the expressive dimension of the techniques defining this current, particularly (and obviously) in the work of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, John Taverner and Arvo Pärt. Not always have I had the full consciousness of the used means / techniques, yet more and more I've managed to find the way how I want to concretise their articulation with the other processes that I use.

I believe that when one listens to a work of mine (although not to all of them), there's a kind of common trace in the language. That is why I'm not interested in being a kind of "master of experimenting with techniques". No. I know exactly how I want to sound and what I want to say when composing. It's a common language that is basically the reflection of an aesthetic and technical mixture.

What does “avant-garde” mean to you, and what in your opinion can be nowadays considered as avant-garde?

DM: I believe that nowadays there are the movements mainly working with the relation between the human being and the machine, particularly when it comes to the machine's autonomy, the development of artificial intelligence or cyborgs, and how they'll relate with the way we create, practice and enjoy music. We'll continue reproducing the classical repertoire in a "traditional" manner, but new languages will also exist. What changes is the human being and consequently the musical creation and fruition. I don't agree with the affirmation that “everything has already been invented”. History teaches us that every period holds identifiable and common traces. They are profoundly related with the artistic and social contexts, to which they belong.

Part 3 · Language & Musical Practice

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

DM: My musical language has been changing in time, but mainly in the last seven or eight years. Before, I had more tendency to experiment on how to work with a chosen technique. In the recent years, I've had more tendency to improve the integration and interaction between the techniques, languages and aesthetics, which I appreciate more. While learning composition one is stimulated to experiment with diverse techniques and I consider it positive. I also think that, after being educated, one shouldn't be afraid to chose a different path. For example, I don't particularly appreciate working with electroacoustic music, yet it made part of my "compositional growing-up pains", and I don't regret it. It seems to me that this is a normal path: gain knowledge, experiment, select and evolve.

Do you have any preferred music genre or style?

DM: Without a shade of doubt, Metal. It's immensely diverse from a technical point of view. Normally people associate Metal with "screaming guys", "noise" and "heavy music". Now, I like – a lot – heavy music and I think that there are also heavy things in the classical genre. This "weight", this "heaviness" isn't only a question of timbre – guitars and screams – but it's rather expressive. It seems to me very diminishing to limit the audition of a genre only to the timbral aspects.

In Metal one can find great lyrical voices, bands with a sophisticated approach to the form, diverse scales, and also the ones who successfully join very different aesthetics. Devin Townsend can be here an example, since he encompasses Black and Progressive Metal with Rock and Choral-Symphonic. Elend was one of the phenomenons with which I've fallen in love the most, as they managed to join everything organically within a unique sonority, clearly breaking up with the genre's traditional concept. Cradle of Filth used to build their songs with a lyrical richness and unusual operatic concept of the form, while other bands such as Rammstein or Oomph! symbolise the heavy Lied of modern times. I could give many more examples and spend hours explaining the motives for this passion of mine. Nowadays there are a lot of people in this field who are actually eclectic and who also create with a clear notion of the theory behind composition.

However, evidently, there are sub-genres in Metal which are effectively only screams and others which should be observed from another perspective. I don't identify myself that much with the phenomenon's social part, but this has more to do with some basic aspects of my own personality. Apart from the obvious sociological studies, there are many other published ones focusing mainly on Metal's technical parameters. It's a very rich genre, much more interesting than all the other ones included in the (academically) so-called Popular Music.

When it comes to your creative practice, do you develop your music from an embryo-idea, or after having elaborated a global form? In other words, do you move from the micro towards the macro-form or vice versa?

DM: It depends mainly whether I'm composing with something external, as a poem, or not. Working with poetry means having a quite solid notion of the piece's macro-form. I like, for example, the formal notion used by the madrigalists, who created sets of poetic small sonic images. Nevertheless, I believe in the need for unity and material cohesion. An “embryo-idea” contributes a lot to it, creating a motivic consistency that is independent from external factors.

How in your music practice do you determine the relation between the reasoning and the "creative impulses" or the "inspiration"?

DM: I don't believe in inspiration or creative impulses. I particularly loathe the mystification that composition is a kind of alchemy or magic. No. It's all technique and knowledge in service of what I want to express. What the vox populi calls inspiration can possibly be best explained as a set of influences, circumstantial or not, which end up determining the process of composition. For example, composing a work inspired in a contemporary, tragic event doesn't captivate me at all. I prefer to draw from more timeless and structural aspects.

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

DM: I'm very fond of that Batman and Robin meme, where the latter one says "I'm a conceptual artist...", immediately taking a slap from Batman who says: "Shut up! You don't know how to compose". To my mind it often happens that one hears about music working well the space and timbre, yet it's nothing more than a collection of beautiful / interesting moments disjointed from each other. For me the most important parameter is the Form. It's the Form that defines the great composers. Perhaps it's implicit that a composer needs to know how to work the form, but I have the feeling that if the question was "what's the importance of the form in your music", the answers would be surprising...

Therefore, when it comes to the space, I aim to compose without too many spatial restrictions, so as to potentiate the reproduction of the works by different groups, independently of the place. When it comes to the timbre, it belongs to the fundamental parameters to be considered in any work. However I disagree that one is truly a contemporary composer only when one has written half a dozen of unconventional works, full of extended techniques, just to give the impression of being bold and avant-garde. Here I'm almost always sceptical as it "smells" to me like an insipid and inconsistent thing, if thoroughly squeezed. In a certain way, working the timbre has become vulgar, giving the sensation that it's enough to join some timbres and... "magic"! Working the timbre well, integrating unconventional timbral aspects with more traditional sonorities, requires a great deal of aesthetic reflexion.

Does experimentalism play an important role in your music?

DM: It depends, what one understands as experimentalism. Is mixing the Metal language with the New Simplicity experimentalism? No? But why not? In any case, I don't compose thinking about “experimentalism”. I prefer to think of exploring languages without being properly concerned with breaking up artistic conventions and traditions.

Which are the turning point works in your path?

DM: One of the first works, Scordabasso (2004), for double bass quartet. Also Amnis (2010), premiered by the Gulbenkian Orchestra, as it has indicated me precisely the paths which I haven't wished to follow. More recently choral works such as – O Silêncio (2013), Soneto do amor e da morte (2014) and Sorrow came and wept (2018).

Part 4 · Portuguese Music

Try to evaluate the present situation of Portuguese music.

DM: It depends a lot on which angle one choses for the evaluation. If we make a comparison with the situation 50 years ago, certainly we are much better now. If we make a relation between the alterations in music education and the quality of the musicians, of the music, etc., we are undoubtedly better. If we look at this topic taking into account the democratisation of culture, we are better.

If the question was "could we do better?", the answer would be: "yes, of course". I think that doing better is always possible, so I don't have a defeatist, pessimistic or moralistic vision on the subject. I don't like when one says that Portugal has always been behind, or that "that's the people we're stuck with". One criticises a lot, but does little. One reacts a lot, yet thinks little. The kind of approach – "it doesn't have to do anything with me, so I'm not interested" – annoys me a lot. The initiative and the capacity to change the surroundings is in our hands as artists (and, not to forget, as educational agents), without being pedantic nor megalomaniac. Within our radius of action we can make a difference – for example, little by little, by means of emphasising the value of the phenomenons, education and appreciation, etc., we can convince people to go to concerts more for the music than "for the experience" at fashionable festivals.

During the years I've learnt to understand much better the context of the phenomenons and to observe the multifactorial contributions for their development. I've learnt to be moderate and considerate. Portuguese music is fine, it's good, and it will always continue to suffer from the same problems and affirm itself with the same qualities: very limited financial resources, but an inventive capacity to create a lot with little; small scale, yet always with individuals of global dimension; the unchanging periphery, and yet with a network of contacts that no country has ever had. Yes we can improve in three fundamental aspects: organisation, rigour and efficiency. Oh!, and in the appreciation of the work by others, giving monetary expression to artistic creation. Obviously.

Is it possible, in your opinion, to identify any transversal aspect in Portuguese contemporary music?

DM: Yes. We are certainly not the tail of Europe. We are short of resources, but certainly we aren't short of people. We are good. Portuguese (or the ones who have made Portugal their home during decades), are really good. We have some personality / "Portugality" traces helping to understand some idiosyncrasies, apparent paradoxes; yet they also make part of us.

From a musical point of view, I think that in the last 20 years there have been considerable aesthetic changes. There's no one dominant aesthetics anymore (nor an airtight set of them). There's space for the ones composing within a more cinematic line, for the ones composing more experimental music, for the avant-garde and conservative approaches. The problem lies in the circles of power. Most probably, the commissioners follow "fashionable names". I have no doubt that, like me, there are many composers who are less performed or who aren't even invited to the "main networks" because they're not "in fashion". I've never had a work performed at the Casa da Música and it doesn't interest me a lot. Although I write a lot for choir, the country's main vocal ensembles don't contact me to make commissions and this has only one explanation: my personality. Generally the musicians like a lot this "cool" and "friendly" personality, etc. They like to sympathise, to fraternise, to keep everything among friends. I'm not very keen on public appearing, I don't have any need for doing this. I don't keep on constantly sharing photos from the concert here, or the recording there – "here I am with these cool and good people" –, in other words, I don't persist on building this social artist image. I'm not the kind of person with a mainstream character, commonly existing among musicians. I don't have a conventional personality, I don't create immediate empathy with people and this is reflected in the opportunities that I have. Without dramas or resignations. These are only the facts and I'm ok with them.

To have my name in the limelight, to be in the main circles, "falling into grace" of a dozen of influent people and consequently having the rest appearing – now I don't need this, I don't feel the need to be spoken of. The people with whom I work on a daily basis and to whom I give my dedication, can always count on my availability. I embrace the new people with whom I cross and I'm lucky to gain valuable artistic and educational experiences. I don't choose the people with whom I relate with only seeking personal benefits and advantages – these are indifferent to me.

I don't have any doubt that my music is (at least) as good as the one by many other composers who are more "in the spotlight". I don't participate in composition competitions, I don't like their principles as I have a lot of critical remarks to the judging methods (attention, not to the juries). I also don't keep on begging to be performed or to have commissions. My music is there, it's available I keep on promoting it / it keeps on promoting itself in various ways and anyone can get to know it. In my catalogue there's a string quartet that is much better than any pseudo-avant-garde-garbage heard here and there, yet it's not performed since my name is out of the “spotlight”. This is probably one of the reasons why the main string quartets of the country don't play it. I doubt that the reason is, in abstract, any specific technical or aesthetic quality of that piece. If it was me sending an e-mail, I probably wouldn't receive an answer or I wouldn't even be taken into consideration. Yet if it was through a renowned intermediary, a godfather, then the picture changes. This situation isn't personal, it's universal. There are a lot of Portuguese composers that I know and whose work is great, but who are rarely performed either because of their personality or for not having "fallen into grace" of the main circuits.

Another explanation is the relation with teaching. I take it very seriously, I'm not only “giving some lessons”. I have also concerns and interest with the educational system and I'm active in some projects of non-compositional nature, so it's normal that the artistic career has, in my case, less expression. To resume, I like composing, but it's not my main activity, and I even don't want it to be.

I also take very seriously counteracting to what I call the musician's "non-stop working schedule". As a general rule, musicians work in a kind of continuum, without stoping, as if they could never leave their work in the office and go home without thinking about it. Now, I prefer to have time for myself and to have live a life outside my profession. It's of uttermost importance for my well-being.

I'm not concerned with a "network of contacts", the famous "connections". I work with the ones that have interest and that I find interesting. It's a universal question, it's not personal, as in any professional area: people with close personal relationships naturally tend to share professional activities. It's the “status quo” of things. Everyone knows that it's like this and this has been the transversal aspect to Portuguese music, nowadays and always.

Part 5 · Present & Future

Could you highlight one of your more recent projects presenting the context of its creation, as well as the particular features of the language and the employed techniques?

DM: Sorrow came and wept (2018) for symphonic choir and string orchestra. The poem is by Fernando Pessoa (English poetry) and it tells a story of somebody to whom sorrow herself gets closer and weeps. For me this image is profoundly dramatic, very heavy, yet beautiful. The language is impregnated with strangely consonant dissonances, resorting to New Simplicity techniques and a stylised representation of Metal influences. For me the result is extremely heavy, yet simultaneously beautiful. Writing it gave me a lot of satisfaction. I believe it's a piece capable of circulating national and international concert halls, yet to promote it, one already knows... we need to come back to one of the previous answers I gave...

How do you see the future of art music?

DM: I'm expectant when it comes to the way of how music and art will react to the historic movement. Europe has experienced about 70 years of booming expansion at all possible levels, concerning the improvement of its citizens' life conditions. This is undeniable and only the ignorant ones can negate it. However, we are entering an era when the projects born after the war are being attacked, dismantled or discredited. The social tension is raising and being amplified, unfortunately. The phenomenon of amplifying negativity and dissatisfaction has had dramatic effects in the perception of the social conquers and of the focus on the real problems to be solved. The question of climate changes is absolutely central in all of it: it'll be the epicentre of the regression and intensification of segregation, of the aggressive nationalism, of fascism (disguised in something progressive) and of the approach "save yourself if you can (pay?)". The disbelief in science, which together with the industrialisation has turned the 20th century into the most prosperous ever, is scary; it's astonishing to see, for example, how the anti-vaccine movement has become absurd, if not felonious. The areas of thought, history and philosophy, are being reduced to "romantic and poetic curiosities" and substituted with everything that is about economy or informatics, among others, thus creating gaps in the capacity of the people to understand the phenomenons, to reflect on the messages or to develop a memory of the past (and not return to it).

I have no doubt that we are turning a decade towards a new era – from Post-Modernism towards yet another thing due to the recession, now evident and obvious, in the central areas for the evolution of humanity. On one hand I'm curious to see how artists will move around it all, on the other I'm apprehensive with the vision of the abyss. Music, and art in general, will certainly participate in these battles, assuming its role of intervention, transformation and mobilisation, helping to show the best of possible paths.

David Miguel, April 2019
© MIC.PT