In focus

Paulo Bastos


Questionnaire / Interview

Part 1 · Roots & Education

How did music begin to you and where do you identify your music roots?

Paulo Bastos: Music has entered my life with vinyl records. Still as a child, I already thought that one day I would have records of my own and I would collect a lot of music. I remember the importance of my 12th birthday present: a record player in style of a suitcase, where the upper part was an incorporated stereo loudspeaker. Then there were the instruments, the practice of improvisation, "invention", of playing music by ear, and "composing" without pencil and paper.

My more inherent music roots originate from my paternal grandfather, who was an amateur musician and who played in a philharmonic band (as a clarinet and saxophone soloist). My grandfather used to write the parts for all the instruments, as he knew to read and to write music. Yet my essential background comes from the teenager phase – the rock bands (Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Velvet Underground, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, etc.), some jazz (Keith Jarrett, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, etc), some classical music (Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, etc), among many other things outside the more common categories.

What are the paths that led you to composition?

PB: Still today it seems to me that I began studying Composition in the 1980s, taking the first steps in the basic music knowledge and practice – solfeggio, piano, choir, musical training, etc. It was completely natural. I remember the first music I wrote as soon as I had the first lessons of Musical Training and when I learnt to write the first notes. Immediately, I felt the need to combine them in a personal manner, to compose the first pieces.

Likewise, the influence of my piano teacher, D. Hélia Soveral, directed me towards the Composition area. All of her pupils had to study, apart from the obligatory elements from official curriculum, various pieces from Bela Bartók's Mikrokosmos (Volumes 1-6). To this, one should add pieces by Francis Poulenc, Igor Stravinsky and Portuguese 20th Century Composers. This constant approach towards 20th century music has influenced my capacity to listen, making me more open for everything new.

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

PB: I think that the most important moments in my musical education are related with the experience gained at the Music School of Porto, where I studied before having begun the superior education. There, I had the opportunity to have lessons, internships or workshops with D. Hélia Soveral (the central and most relevant figure in my path), with the Strasbourg Percussionists, Miguel Ribeiro Pereira, Sharon Kanach, Madalena Soveral, among many other musicians. In that time, the Music School in Porto was a place of reference in the city and in Portugal. The walls of this old building hosted a lot of music. Despite the non-existence of orchestras and megalomaniac projects inside the schools, the students gained prominence at a national and international level (particularly when it comes to the Piano and Voice). Everything was much more intense, yet calmer. One had time for everything – to study (a lot), to attend incredible workshops, and thus to evolve musically.

Part 2 · Influences & Aesthetics

Which past and contemporary references are present in your music practice?

PB: The references that are certainly present are: Perótin, Gesualdo, Johann Sebastian Bach, Robert Schumann, Fryderyk Chopin, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern, Bela Bartók, Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Francis Poulenc, John Cage, Erik Satie, György Ligeti, György Kurtág, Luciano Berio, Louis Andriessen, Steve Reich, John Adams, Morton Feldman, Frank Zappa, Keith Jarrett, Prince, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, among many others...

Yet it's not even possible to list all my musical references, which I have at the present moment. Suffice it to think that there's always something new to listen to and that I live in a sense of constant search and discovery.

Are there any extra-musical sources, which influence your music in a significant manner?

PB: Generally speaking, poetry and literature are the extra-musical sources, significantly influencing my work. This influence stands out in the more recent music. Thus, as examples I can mention: Lewis Carol in two works Cinco quadros para Alice (2009) and for Alice again (2013); Miguel Torga in Cinco canções de Miguel Torga (2016); Eugénio de Andrade in Em palavra à noite (2017); Fernando Pessoa and Mário Sá-Carneiro in Três poemas de Natal (2013); Miguel Torga, Alice Vieira, Luisa Ducla Soares, Sidónio Muralha, Eugénio de Andrade, António Botto, Manuel António Pina in Pelo aroma das sílabas (2014); Leonel Neves in O Elefante e a Pulga (2012); Mário Sá-Carneiro in Cinco indícios de ouro (2012) and Íris-abandono (2016); Sílvia Mota Lopes in Terra e Theia (2014); Latin sacred texts in Missae Breves (2015) and the two Ave Verum Corpus (2015); and the popular rhymes in Lagarto macaco, burrato! (2013); among many others.

In the context of Western art music, do you feel close with any schools or aesthetics from the past or the present?

PB: I particularly like the aesthetics of Hungarian music, that is, the music by composers such as Bela Bartók, György Ligeti and György Kurtág. When it comes to contemporary music, there are many schools and aesthetics, with which I identify myself. However, I'm not exclusively and collegiately attached to any current. I can highlight the music of Morton Feldman, Luciano Berio, Luis Andriessen, John Adams, Gérard Grisey, Bruno Mantovani, Kaija Saariaho, Marc-André Dalbavie, Georg Friedrich Haas, António Pinho Vargas and Arvo Pärt.

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

PB: I've never thought about it. I don't see or hear my music as having any trace, which would surpass the “here and now” of my practice, within the limits of my own Western culture experience. I doubt that my natural interest for some aspects within the Oriental cultures (for example: Japan) is sufficient to have any kind of permeability of the Orient in my way of approaching music.

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

PB: The "avant-garde" will always be associated with the more complex musical currents – the ones that were historically connected with the great ruptures, for example, the pos-serial ones, starting in the 1950s. Nowadays I don't see such strong stylistic divisions, however, one can obviously still find them, for example, in some French, Austrian or German music.

Part 3 · Language & Musical Practice

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

PB: I will begin by saying that it's much more difficult to write about what one does than to appreciate the technique and aesthetics of the music by others. My musical language isn't hermetic – there are works in my catalogue, which are completely different from each other. And I do it consciously, since I think that a composer should try various languages and techniques. For me there's no school, current or aesthetics, to which I would be totally faithful. I have some points of reference, which are audible in my music; they have to do with the composition processes and have been changing.

A great part of my initial production is composed of miniatures – the idea of composing cycles of pieces / miniatures, has always fascinated me. The expressive force and the intensity that a miniature can contain is enormous, It concentrates not only the musical thought, but also has extreme expressivity and briefness. In this sense I've been strongly influenced by composers, such as: Robert Schumann, Arnold Schönberg (atonal), Anton Webern or György Kurtág; particularly in their way of approaching this form of aphoristic writing.

On the other hand, I also feel comfortable in the area of music with pedagogical character, so I have written some pieces for children and youth. On the same line, I also enjoy writing pieces where the universe of children's imagination is present, yet they don't necessarily have to be performed only for children.

In the meantime, I'm under the strong influence of other music to which I listen and which I study. So my own music has been delineating new paths, leading me towards areas which I'm still not able to define. In this sense I've adopted more extensive forms, in search of a sonority with urban contours. It's connected with a subjacent, imaginary rock, reflecting the velocity of the surrounding things and life, as well as the repetitive and unidirectional aim of the world we live in.

Is there any musical genre / style towards which you have preference?

PB: It has always been difficult to answer to a question of this kind. Since I can remember, I've always listened to a lot of music. There's almost no day when I don't discover something new...

However, making some distinctions but without giving any justification, I can thus highlight: jazz, American and European repetitive minimalism, Hungarian 20th and 21st century music, and the music of Morton Feldman.

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

PB: Generally, my music is developed form the first gestures, which are the work's first moments pointing me out the path to follow. It often happens that the music leads me towards places, which I haven't planned before. It's never a strict process. The form is being constructed without making part of a previous plan. Many things work simply through "becoming".

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

PB: The technologies are a constant element in my music, since I use them systematically. If one understands the new technologies as basic music informatics (score edition software, sequencers, synthesisers, etc.), they constitute an essential tool in my work, both as composer and as teacher. I coordinate the electronic music creation by my Composition students, and I also compose some electroacoustic music myself. However, the basic notions of electronic music have always played an essential role in the way I work with the plasticity of the sound. In other words, I've used some basic techniques form electroacoustic music in my instrumental pieces. I thus apply processes such as: fade in and fade out; rhythmical alterations originating from a delay; the chaotic effect of distortion; the effects of equalisation in auditive perception of the sonic distance; the morphing effect applied to the sound in solo, chamber music or orchestral pieces.

Does experimentalism play an important role in your music?

PB: I don't think it does if we take into account the historical experimentalism associated with the musical avant-garde, for example. Nevertheless, as composer I've always seen myself as someone experimenting, from one work to another. As a result, every new piece I write is an experience which, despite the imperfections, ends up being created.

Which works from your catalogue are turning points in your path?

PB: Mokuso for two pianos, two clarinets and two flutes from 1994; Adsum for four hand piano from 2004; and the Missae Breves for choir, oboe and organ from 2015.

To what extent composition and performance are for you complementary activities?

PB: If one understands the term performance only in the context of the stage, then these aren't the activities, which I want to associate. However, I should say that playing an instrument – the piano, particularly – is for me a permanent and essential gesture whilst composing. I often tell my students that improvisation is important and it begins with a creative process. I believe that the process of creating a work of music also involves making experiments on the instrument.

Parte 4 · Portuguese Music

Try to evaluate the present situation in Portuguese music.

PB: I think that the present situation in Portuguese music is generally positive. Today, there are more (I don't know if better), functioning education institutions. There's more initiative throughout the country, reflected in the multiplicity of associations, festivals, competitions, ideas, etc. Nowadays one can observe a more democratic access to music, either for the ones who want to study it or for the audience in general. Nevertheless, together with all these positive aspects, very often connected with individual initiatives, there are also a lot of constraints when it comes to the dissemination of Portuguese music. Roughly speaking, our music doesn't reach the great European concert halls and still maintains some distance from the concert programmes at national venues. There's a certain inferiority complex. The big concert halls foment the subalternity of our music, in favour of the music from other countries, such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom or America. They construct the programmes with large-scale themes, which are, invariably, turned towards the outside. The ostensible inclusion of the music from other geographical regions, means a systematic exclusion of our own music. This is one of the major problems, which António Pinho Vargas describes very accurately in his book Música e Poder (Music and Power) [March 2011, Almedina].

When it comes to composition, nowadays there's more balance concerning the representativeness at the national territory. There are a lot of good composers throughout the country. This situation began to gain shape sensibly at the beginning of the new millennium. At the beginning of the 1990s there was still an enormous asymmetry concerning the number of composers coming from the Lisbon and Porto schools, for example. The major part of composers from my generation came form Lisbon. In Porto there was a gap (with some exceptions) of some decades between the mid 1980s and the new millennium.

What, in your opinion, distinguishes Portuguese music at the international panorama?

PB: I think that it's almost nothing. Nowadays can composes music everywhere, using the the same tools, the same techniques, the same styles. There could even be something distinguishing our music, yet it will never be sufficiently pronounced in order for us to say that the music is distinct just because it's Portuguese. Still, I'm convinced that there are countries where it's possible to feel this “national” trace. In general, they are countries where the people's musical education is very strong. They are countries with a great tradition of musical literacy, countries where music is an essential part of the great educational and social valences. Unfortunately it's not the case of Portugal...

How could you define the composer's role nowadays?

PB: Naturally I can only draw from my own experience, in order to answer this question. I've always felt the need to compose, despite very frequently doing it only, as I use to say, "for the drawer". The composer needs that his or her works are performed (and particularly the ones that have never been). He or she needs commissions for the music, to compose and to have his or her works recognised (positively or negatively). I often think of the works that I've already composed and I'm aware – without any kind of confabulation – that I already have a relatively extensive creative output, with more than one hundred pieces. It's a considerable number of works, despite the fact that only a couple of them are performed more frequently. Unfortunately a very significant part of my works has never been performed or hasn't exceeded the premiere. I'm aware that it's due to the fact that my music doesn't make part of the Portuguese mainstream "circuits" – the great concert halls or the featured chamber music ensembles and orchestras.

If he or she can and has this opportunity, the composer of our times should also be a teacher of reference. As Composition professor I have played my role in training and educating young composers. Indeed, in 2000 I initiated the first Composition course in Portugal, within the secondary teaching. The Composition Course at the Calouste Gulbenkian Conservatoire of Music in Braga (unique until 2014, as far as I know), since the beginning has affirmed its objectives and the role to educate future and new Portuguese composers. This has been my daily pedagogical experience for more than 19 years – I've taught a significant number of young composers who are now recognised nationally and internationally. Here I can mention (in chronological order): Ana Seara, Osvaldo Fernandes, Sara Claro, Sofia Sousa Rocha, Francisco Fontes, Pedro Lima, Jorge Ramos and João Carlos Pinto, among others. My essential role as professor has been to stimulate the renovation of generations in the area of Composition.

Part 5 · Present & Future

What are your present and future projects?

PB: At this moment I'm finishing a commissioned work for wind orchestra and percussion. I'm also working on a piece for a four-part choir and organ, with text by José Augusto Mourão.

Could you highlight one of your more recent projects, present the context of its creation and also the particularities of the language and techniques?

PB: In the context of the Transmusica project, a transnational production by five composers and two pianists, I've recently composed Sou já do que fui (2019) for four-hand piano. Apart from me, the involved composers are Theo Herbst (South Africa), Michael Walter (Germany), Nicolas Jacquot (France) and Riccardo Vaglini (Italy). The pianists are from the Jost Costa Duo – Yseult Jost (France) and Domingos Costa (Portugal). This work is based on the unifying theme of identity, seen from an individual perspective – the identity of the "I". Sou já do que fui is an autobiographical work, since it consciously approaches the sonorities and general traces present in my music during the recent years. Here I can highlight the writing with constant alternations of measure, different for each of the pianists; the repetitive and obstinate sense of some moments; the rapid harmonic modulations; and the lyrical character of some instants and suspensions.

How do you see the future of art music?

PB: I see the future of contemporary music with some perplexity, since everything is being increasingly mixed and confused. Any kind of a more or less musical gesture is comprehended as music, and a certain chaos exists when it comes to art in general. Nowadays, there are musicians who are focused on conceptual options, who "compose" without being familiar with the metier. It's a true disarray, making it difficult for the audience to understand what the western tradition art music really is.

Paulo Bastos, June 2019
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