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A Conversation with Sergio Roberto de Oliveira


PROF. DR. TOM MOORE

Over fifteen years of compositional activity, Sergio Oliveira has become one of Brazil’s leading voices in contemporary music, something ratified internationally by his nomination for best classical composition in 2011 for the Latin Grammies, where he competed in this category with such figures as Lalo Schifrin and Paquito d’Rivera. He spent the spring semester of 2009 at Duke University as a Mellon Artist-in-Residence, and his works have been played and published internationally, with performances in the USA, England, Holland, Portugal and elsewhere. Interviews with Oliveira have been published in numerous journals and websites.
We talked in Portuguese via Skype on March 17, 2012.

©Sergio Roberto de Oliveira

Tom Moore: Let’s start by talking about your works from 2011 on. First, Bico do Papagaio [Parrot Beak]. Everyone who lives in Rio de Janeiro knows that this is a peak in the Tijuca Forest.
Sergio Roberto de Oliveira: In fact I decided to write a series of pieces about places in Rio, and I made a list of nice places, places that I love, and my daughter, Laura, suggested that I start with Bico do Papagaio. So I began with this, and it was a piece that I composed for CRON for their concert with Preludio 21. It has three movements. The first movement is called “The Rock”, which is a slow movement, with the performers playing long notes in order to give a sensation of something static, solemn, sublime, which is always there, when you look at the rock. The second movement is called “The flora”, so I imagined someone taking a closer look, and seeing the forest – I think the movement is very pretty, with some things that are quicker in terms of rhythmic figuration, that have to do with the huge number of little leaves and flowers which make up a broad picture of the scenery – there are some little quick things, staccato, to give an impression of the flora. The third movement is called “Trails”, since if you move even closer you will be on the trails, climbing up the peak. The movement in general is in 7/4, but towards the end I change it to 2/4, to give that familiar Brazilian rhythm – 3+3+2 – which has so much to do with that landscape of the Bico do Papagaio.

TM: Who played the premiere?
SRO: It was Maycon Lack, flute, Waleska Beltrami, horn, and Cláudio Alves, bass.

TM: This was the first time that Maycon Lack was playing your music.
SRO: Yes.

TM: Had you known him earlier?
SRO: No. I met him at this concert, and it was then that I suggested that he should be part of Ventos do Rio [flute trio with Lack, Rudi Garrido, and Maria Carolina Cavalcanti].

TM: So in other words you wrote this particular piece without being familiar with his playing style as a flutist.
SRO: Exactly. I knew that there would be Waleska, who had already played my Commedia, and who played in the Orquestra de Solistas – so I knew her, but I had never worked with Marcos Nogueira nor with Maico.

TM: Have you climbed to the top of the Bico?
SRO: No. I have climbed Tijuca Peak [facing the Bico], never the Bico. I have walked past the trailhead for the Bico, but have never gone up.

TM: You’ll have to make a videoclip of the group playing the piece up on top of the Bico.
SRO: It might be a problem getting a doublebass up there.

TM: Perhaps you are right….
Your next piece is “Three Glances at a Pretty Girl”. Rio is famous for pretty girls, and also for Cariocas looking at pretty girls. Were you thinking about Vinicius and his look at the Garota de Ipanema when you coined the title for the piece?
SRO: No, definitely not. I had a commission from Veredas, a duo made up of the violinist Ayran Nicodemo and the cellist Murilo Alves. I had been very backed-up in terms of writing compositions, since the previous year I had written relatively little. I was in Cinco Lagos, a little place near Mendes, where the father of Maria Carolina Cavalcanti, my flutist and my girlfriend, lives. We were sitting on the sofa, she was reading, and I decided to compose. It is a piece dedicated to her, and inspired by her. Just like Faces, which looks at four facets of a relationship, this piece looks at Maria Carolina. The first movement is called “When She Plays”, and those who know her, know that she plays with a lot of personality – she is not at all shy.

TM: She plays with verve.
SRO: Exactly – so the first movement is quite powerful – it works with Bartok staccato and long notes, and then detached sixteenths – it is a rather masculine movement, not that Maria Carolina is masculine, but maybe there is something in the way that she plays that is. The movements each have expression markings, and the first movement is marked “with passion”. The second movement is “When she reads”, which was precisely that moment that I was there with her, marked “with love”. And the third movement is “When she lies down”, which is marked “with ardor”. Here you have one instrument searching for the other, and there is a moment when the two meet.

TM: It is interesting that this piece that portrays a flutist does not use the voice of the flute. This is your first work for this combination.
SRO: Yes. I have written very little for violin in fact, which is because of the fact that here there have been few violinists asking me for pieces. I haven’t been very active in that environment. I have been writing for cello because of my friendship with the Duo Santoro, and with Hugo Pilger and the Quarteto Radames Gnattali.
The fact that I put as the first movement of this piece “When she plays” means that I was trying to give a picture, not of the flutist, but of the woman.

TM: A view from outside.
SRO: Exactly. Playing is only one of her facets, not necessarily the most important one. The relationship that I had with her before, before we were boyfriend and girlfriend, as composer, was very much through how she plays. This music is precisely in homage to this new vision, a more complete and holistic vision of her.

TM: Let’s talk about something more technical. Strings have different technical possibilities than winds do – pizzicato, effects with the bow, harmonics. Did you want to explore some of these?
SRO: I explored a few of these possibilities – pizzicato, Bartok pizzicato. You know me well – in general I don’t use extended techniques unless there is a very serious reason to do so. Above all I think about how the music can be organic for the musician. It can be difficult, but it has to be organic. I worked within the technical possibilities thinking of the hand of the violinist playing, the bowstroke, but without thinking of having to explore all the technical possibilities of the violin. I use the technical possibilities when there is an expressive need to do so. In the first movement, there IS the use of pizzicato to get the expression that I was looking for, and I didn’t think twice about using it. But in general I am more concerned with expression. My music has more to do with the Baroque, when you could take the same piece of music and adapt it for various different instruments. My music is very easily adaptable – you yourself are always making suggestions in this regard, precisely because although my music is organic for the instrument, it is not tied to specific techniques for that instrument.

TM: Next on the list for 2011 is another duo, this one for oboe and bass clarinet, titled Falta [Lack]. This idea seems to be extremely present in your works.
SRO: Certainly it’s something Lusitanian, the influence of Brazilian culture, perhaps, the constant melancholy. Brazil has all these colors, but at the same time there is presence of suffering, of saudade.

TM: Do you think the Brazilian suffers from having crossed the ocean and left Lisbon behind?
SRO: He left Lisbon behind, and Africa as well. I am not sure that the Brazilian misses Lisbon in particular, but this sense of loss is very important, I think. I think it’s very human. Whether or not someone likes my music, they will have to admit that my music is very human, it tries to explore human feelings, the depth of the human soul, rather then being simply abstract music. Even when I create an abstract music, it takes into account that the musicians who are playing are human beings, and the listeners as well. There’s no point in thinking about art, without realizing that the art is made to go from one human to another. Yes, you will find various pieces of mine that deal with saudade, as well as with other things – parties, happiness, people meeting each other….

TM: But in Brazil even at the end of a fabulous dinner there’s a sense of something missing, which is why people say “ai ai”…
SRO: Yes, it is a sense of something missing – “ai ai, I wish I were on my sofa now….” You are always wanting to be in another place, with other people…..

TM: You have already had plenty to eat, but something is missing.
SRO: I think it’s very healthy, because otherwise the Brazilian’s emotional completeness would be linked to food. Perhaps we are thinner because of this.

TM: What was this particular “Falta”?
SRO: It was a very specific moment in my life, the period post-separation. My friend Luis Carlos Barbieri, the guitarist, was talking to me about separation – he already went through two separations, and he said “Sergio, it is as if they amputated a part of you. That absence will always be there with you. In spite of the fact that it was a conscious separation, and the fact that I am on a happy path, the lack of those moments, that house, that family, that dynamic, is very present for me. It seems funny to say that a lack is present, but that’s how it is. The lack of the presence of my daughter, her presence in my daily life, is very present. This lack is a definitive lack, because my daughter now is an adult, so it’s a lack that leads to another lack. The lack in this music comes from the lack of that dynamic, that life that I had.

TM: And why this particular scoring?
SRO: As always, it was a commission, from Ximena Poveda Viera. She needed a piece for her graduation recital, and asked for a piece for oboe and clarinet or bass clarinet. The piece was originally intended for oboe and clarinet, but there was problem in communication, and at the premiere it was heard on oboe and bass clarinet, which was fine. I was feeling this way at the time, and she asked for the piece, rather than the other way around.
This is a big advantage for a busy composer like myself. There are always musicians asking for pieces, there are always projects, and I end up having an emotional road map of my life – for every moment there is a new piece to compose.

Tom Moore: Please talk a little about the musical resources for this piece. Your style changed somewhat several years ago. Has it crystallized?
Sergio Roberto de Oliveira: No. I am always changing. I didn’t change my style – I added things. I almost had a sort of agenda, things from my youth that I wanted to affirm for myself. One of these was to make a statement as a Brazilian composer. This was something that was very important for me. I still use this, but with a much broader focus. I am in a phase that is almost expressionist – let’s put it that way. This piece has an expression marking “As a cloud on a cold morning”. The piece is in 5/4. I have written a lot in 5/4, because I think that it produces a movement that is better than 4/4, or ¾. It has a certain instability – you end up dividing the measure in two different halves, and that creates movement. In terms of form, like another earlier piece, Miss You, it is in the form of a pas de deux. It begins as a duo, then there is an oboe solo, a brief moment of transition, a clarinet solo, and finally another duo. I thought it was interesting to use this form precisely because it talks about meetings and missed meetings. There are moments when they are together, and moments when they are separated. This separation produces a strong impression of missing someone, of solitude….

Sergio Roberto de Oliveira

©Sergio Roberto de Oliveira

TM: Why did you choose to put the expressive marking in English?
SRO: I think it is because of memories of cloudy days in places where they speak English.

TM: I think of mornings in Rio as hot with bright sun….
SRO: We have cold and cloud days, too, that is, for our standards….in fact, I love cloudy days, precisely because of this melancholy.

TM: Let’s talk about Perdão.
SRO: This is a work that was written for the first evening of Yom Kippur, the service that includes the Kol Nidre. Just as there are “New Christians” there are “New Jews”, and so you asked me to write a piece for this service. I tried to reflect this very human and humble sensation of a human facing God. The scoring, for flute solo, already gives this feeling of smallness, and solitude, of someone facing himself, and facing God. I chose to write the piece in 9/8, which is a kind of provocative in-joke, since the number 3 in Christian music makes reference to the Trinity, I wanted to write 3 to the second power, 3 squared. At the opening it already establishes a tessitura that goes beyond the octave, a minor ninth, that shows man seeking the divine, and returning to man. The melody shows this communication between man and the divine. I also wanted to make sure that it did not interfere too much in the meditational moment of those listening, and so even there is some music that has a higher register, and moves more quickly, I wanted to respect this moment prior to the service for the Day of Atonement

TM: To focus on the meter, 6/8 often has something to do with happiness, with dance, while 9/8 might have something more to do with melancholy, the barcarolle, for example.
SRO: True. But mostly I chose the meter because of the in-joke.

TM: And now Agora.
SRO: This was one of the most unusual moments in my career. Maria Carolina Cavalcanti, my girlfriend, a flutist, went to play a concert with the guitarist Jorge Santos, and I was just there to hear my girlfriend play. Jorge Santos forgot his folder of music, and had to go back from the Fort in Copacabana to his house in Gloria, at rush hour. Maria Carolina was there by herself waiting, and it was taking a long time for him to get back. The producers wanted her to start playing the concert by herself, and she came to ask if I had any of my music for flute with me, that she already knew. I didn’t, so she gave me a piece of score paper, and I improvised a piece. I think that I never wrote a piece so quickly in my entire life – I wrote a piece in five minutes, with a single idea – that it could last as long as possible, and it had to be completely possible to read it at sight. She had decided to play the first movement of the History of the Tango by Piazzolla by herself, and while she was on stage playing, I was in the green room composing. The scene when she finished playing the Piazzolla was amusing, because she finished the music, I appeared from the door at the back of the stage, with the music in hand, and gave it to her. In fact she still has the score – I haven’t seen it since….

TM: And a very recent piece that I had the pleasure to hear premiered in New York City in February of this year is Eighteen Strings. This was your second visit to New York, for a concert with works by Preludio 21.
SRO: Preludio 21 was invited to participate in a concert by the group Vox Novus in New York. The piece was written in homage to my daughter, Laura, with a title in English, Eighteen Strings, and the dedication in English as well, For my daughter Laura, with love. It is for three guitars, written for the New York Guitar Trio, and three guitars have eighteen strings. At the same time my daughter had just celebrated her eighteenth birthday. Once again, it is in 5/4, and those who know me know that I like to play with numbers, so I work a lot here with the numbers 6 and 9, which are divisors for 18. Right at the beginning there are 6 notes played by the first guitar, and remembering the three notes at the beginning of the Magic Flute, which Mozart uses to talk about Masonry, I wanted to say 6! 6! And shortly thereafter I had triplets and then sextuplets – 3 times 6 is eighteen. There’s lots of this play with numbers. Another thing that is quite interesting is I quote the Brazilian song “Sapo Cururu”, very lyrically, which is a reference to when my daughter was little, which I used to sing for her when she was going to sleep. It appears very unexpectedly in this piece to recall those moments. And again I used 3+3+2, because the piece was being premiered in New York, and it is important to make reference to Brazil.

TM: Is the presence of the song noted in the score?
SRO: I mentioned it at the rehearsal. In fact, the piece is in three sections. Each of the three sections tries to depict three characteristics of my daughter. The process of writing the piece began with my writing down these characteristics. She is a dancer; is a musician; has expressive eyes; has a smile that enchants everyone; is talented; is pretty; is interested in magic; each one of the characteristics I put in the music to some degree.

TM: An eighteenth-birthday present.
SRO: Exactly. Since I didn’t give her a car.

TM: Next is Poema Meu, another duo.
SRO: This year there have been lots of duos, because of the commissions, and there will be lots of trios as well. Preludio 21 happens to have a season with a number of trios performing – the UFRJ trio, the trio composed of the Barrenechea duo with Hugo Pilger, the trio with Sara Cohen, Paulo Passos and Thomas Soares….
But this year there have been lots of duos and solo works.

TM: In other words, even in Brazil, music is going through an intimate moment, perhaps for economic reasons.
SRO: Perhaps. Maybe it is just for practical reasons – large groups are difficult to rehearse.
With respect to Poema Meu, Maria Carolina Cavalcanti plays in a group called GNU, and was talking to me about their season – very intense, four programs, all with different pieces – they are playing a lot of music. She said that they had very little music for percussion and for soprano. I immediately said “I will write a piece” and she said “there’s no time – it has to be ready now.” I needed a text right away, and was concerned because they were planning to record these pieces, and I didn’t want to have deal with rights for the text. So I decided to write a piece on my own poem, which I named Poema meu [My poem], I wrote the poem, and the piece is quite romantic, in fact it is almost a popular song, easy to listen to, very clear tonally. And it refers to the fact that I am color-blind, which is something that I have thought about quite a lot. It begins like this:

Talvez não seja azul
O céu que eu pintei de azul
Talvez o azul que eu sei azul
Não seja da cor do sol.

Talvez

 Poema meu pode ser qualquer cor
Se eu quizer
Azul
Verde-Limão
Ou
Gris
Pode ser Poema Meu.

 Talvez o amor que eu vi (nos teus olhos)
E sei não merecer de ti
Talvez, poema,
Seja eu que criei o amor em mim.

 ***

Perhaps the sky that I painted
Blue is not blue
Perhaps the blue that I know as
Blue is not the color of the sun.

Perhaps

My poem can be any color
 That I want
 Blue
Lime-Green
Or
Gray
Can be My Poem.

Perhaps the love that I saw (in your eyes)
And that I know that I don’t deserve from you
Perhaps, poem,
It is me that created the love in me.

Perhaps

My poem can be the love
That I want.
Perhaps I am not
As handsome as you see
Your poem
My poem
Poem
Your poem
Poem
Perhaps, perhaps
My, you
Mine.

Ttranslation Tom Moore

The piece is very simple, pretty – if I had to choose an adjective I would say “beautiful”. The music is clearly in D minor, the vibraphone plays lots of arpeggios – it is quite explicit, quite tonal. Which is something rare in my music, at least recently.

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