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A Conversation with Sergio Roberto de Oliveira II


With two recent nominations for the Latin Grammy in classical music, Sergio Roberto de Oliveira is one of the leading composers in Brazil, and had a particularly active season at the close of 2012, with a series of concerts and CD-box marking fifteen years of activity. A previous interview with Oliveira appeared in Sonograma no. 14. We spoke in Portuguese , via Skype, on July 4, 2013.


TM: Let’s talk about the Incelença de Domingos. When I was visiting in April of 2013, you were working on this. This is in tribute to the great popular Brazilian musician, Dominguinhos, as well as drawing on something that is very present in your work, the music of the Brazilian Northeast. And it is also another piece commissioned by Mélomanie, the ensemble based in Delaware. I recall you saying in the past that you made a particular point of having recognizably Brazilian motives in your works that would be premiered outside Brazil.
SRO: What you said is important. When one is making Brazilian music outside Brazil for non-Brazilians, it is important for us to make music that is really recognizable as being Brazilian. It is not a sine qua non, but it is part of what I like to do. There’s a saying that if you want to be universal, write about your village. An incelença is a style, a kind of music that is sung when people die, usually at the person’s wake. You invite a group of cantadeiras (women singers), who will sing through the night, asking God to send his angels to accompany the soul of the deceased to the place where it will wait for the final judgment. An incelença can also be sung for someone who is dying – it can substitute for extreme unction, I believe. Some people say that singing an incelença for someone who is still alive can be bad luck. I disagree. Domingos is still alive, and thank God, he is improving [1]. He was in a coma for several months. A coma is something that disturbs me, because it seems like a state of limbo – you are neither living nor dead. I wrote the Incelença for Dominguinhos asking God to direct his soul to the place that was appropriate for it, whether among the deceased, or among us, the living, once more.

The piece has various characteristics because of the genre. The incelença is supposed to be sung twelve times. If you sing it fewer than twelve times, you attract bad things for the people who are present, who may even catch diseases from the deceased – this is part of tradition. So I made an  incelença based on the number twelve. There are twelve sections. Each section has twelve measures. I made considerable use of the melody by Dominguinhos, with words by Gilberto Gil, Lamento Sertanejo. The piece begins very slowly, with the quarter-note=40, as if we were really walking in procession behind the coffin of the deceased. By the end the piece is more cheerful, and people can imagine that the angels have arrived to care for the soul of Dominguinhos.

From the instrumental point of view, the piece was commissioned by Mélomanie, as you mentioned, not only including Mélomanie, but also Minas, a group from Philadelphia doing Brazilian music, which is Orlando Haddad, a Brazilian who is a guitarist and singer, and Patricia King, an American, but who lived in Brazil with Orlando. So there were these two languages to take into account. I didn’t want to make a piece that was extremely difficult, even though there were measures in seven beats, which is something that not everyone is accustomed to – I wanted to make a piece in which everyone could be heard at their best, and I think I managed to do that. The piece is for everyone in Mélomanie – flute, violin, gamba, cello, and harpsichord, and also for Orlando’s guitar and Patricia’s voice. Since I wasn’t sure about her accent in Portuguese, and also because I wanted the piece to be more international, I had the vocal part vocalize, rather than singing text.

TM: These Northeastern traditions – do they have correspondences in Portugal, or are they things that only survived in Brazil?
SRO: I am not so familiar with Portuguese folklore, but in general, they have roots in the medieval traditions of the Iberian peninsula. Most of these traditions, whether in music, or in popular literature, come from the fifteenth, or fourteenth, centuries. Even the language – I learned recently that there are many things in Brazilian Portuguese which have been out of use in Portugal for at least two centuries already. Things become frozen here while the culture evolves there.

TM: Portugal was the western part of Andalucía (known as Gharb-al-Andalus), so perhaps these things having to do with numerology come from the Arabic or Semitic traditions.
SRO: Perhaps. I don’t know the origin of the tradition of twelve. Maria Carolina Cavalcanti tells me it’s impressive how often I work with numbers. I have a series of works titled “Two”, the piece for percussion is “Seven”, my box of CDs is “Fifteen”, and the other day I was talking with her about another project named for a number. I don’t know whether it comes from that culture from the Middle East….

TM: How was the response by the audience in Delaware? This piece must have been rather exotic for them….
SRO: It was fantastic. One of the great things was that Mélomanie invited me to be part of the concert, and talk about my piece before it was played. Not that the piece needs context, but I think with the context it becomes much more powerful. The audience was in tears, and those who weren’t were choked up, trying not to cry. There was a man who told me it was the most beautiful piece he had ever heard, and a woman told me she wanted the piece to be played at her funeral. Inside our individual cultural rinds there is a human essence, and this human essence communicates, even though the modes and rhythms I chose may be exotic, and talks about death and transcendence. Everyone feels these in the same way, and has the same experiences.

TM: To continue in the spiritual vein, let’s talk about your new piece for orchestra.
SRO: This was a commission that I was very happy to receive from the National Symphony Orchestra, a traditional orchestra which formerly was the orchestra of Radio MEC [the radio station of the Ministry of Education and Culture]. It will be premiered on October 2 [2013]. I had been thinking about a piece on the creation of the world, and in talking with you, decided to make a piece looking at this from several different points of view. My notion is to make a piece on the creation, combining it with the “Myth of Three Races” – the creation, according to the whites, the Portuguese; the creation according to the Africans, and the Candomble of Rio de Janeiro; and the creation according to the Indians, the Tamoios, who were the Indians who lived in Rio de Janeiro. I also wanted to make this a sign of good luck for myself, since it is my first commission for symphony orchestra, which is why I wanted to talk about creation as the genesis for my first symphonic work. It will begin with chaos, and I still have to decide if I will have the three myths interpenetrating chronologically in the work, or whether I will have the three traditions in three separate movements or sections. I am leaning toward the latter.

TM: This will be for large orchestra?
SRO: The number of musicians will be somewhat limited, since the performance will be at the Municipal Theater of Niteroi, which is not a large space, but the orchestra will have triple woodwinds, brass, four percussionists, timpani, harp, celesta. So I have a whole orchestra to have fun with, though I don’t know whether I will use absolutely everything.

TM: To move backward a bit, let’s talk about Oitis. This is the name of a piece, of a group, and of a tree.
SRO: As I did with my CD Sem Espera, where three musicians and myself traveled around the world with the program, I planned for a CD where with three musicians and myself I could present my music. So I invited Maria Carolina Cavalcanti, flutist, Luis Carlos Barbieri, an excellent guitarist, and his wife, Mimi Cassiano, a vocalist. They chose the name of the group. For the CD that we recorded, I had works for all the combinations, except the trio. There were pieces for flute/guitar, flute/soprano, soprano/guitar, but nothing for the trio. I told them “when you name your trio, I will use the name for the piece”, and they named the trio Oitis. As you know, I have a series of pieces named for trees, and this is another one of those. I had a problem finding a poem about oitis [Licania tomentosa] that I could set, and it happened that Paulo César Feital, who is a poet, and a lyricist for popular music, came to my studio to produce a recording. One of his greatest successes is Saigon, which everyone here in Brazil knows. I played some of my music for him, and he himself suggested writing a poem. He said “Sergio, can you put lyrics to classical music?” and I said “Not only can you, but at this very moment I need a poem called Oitis. Two weeks later he sent me the poem, which is a poem that talks about Brazil. He makes the oiti into a character, an eyewitness to the history of Brazil, from the arrival of the Portuguese until today. It was great to be able to work with someone who is part of another universe, part of the universe of popular music. I am very interested in dialogue with other arts. Lyrics for popular music are so different from those for classical music that it is almost an entirely different art. The CD was issued in October, together with the piece. The piece was played once more just now in May, on the series of concerts by Preludio 21.Sonograma-Magazine-Sergio-Roberto-de-Oliveira01

TM: Let’s talk about Assum. This is another entity, a bird, which is present in your piece Circus Brasilis, where you talk about the blindness of the assum.
SRO: This was a commission from the group called Camara <>, which is the contemporary music group of the Federal University of Bahia. They commissioned a group of works to celebrate the centennial of the birth of Luiz Gonzaga, the great popular composer from the Northeast. In the commissioned work the composer was to deal with one of the songs by Luiz Gonzaga. I chose Assum Preto, a piece that has a big effect on me, and talks about this bird. In the Northeast people put out its eyes, so that it cannot fly, and the person can keep the bird without a cage, but blind. It is also said that when this is done the bird sings more sweetly. It is terribly cruel, and is the story behind the song by Gonzaga, which talks precisely about this, in the first person.

My piece is for the instruments that were available, which were mandolin, accordion, percussion and cello. Here as well, as I did with the Incelença, I made use of the original melody, but here I made a pun, with references to three “black birds”. I referred to the Merle Noir, by Messiaen, Blackbird, by the Beatles, and Assum Preto, by Luiz Gonzaga. I took material from each for the basis for my piece.

TM: Will that cause you problems with intellectual property?
SRO: No, because I only used brief sections from the melodies – one or two measures, bits of the arrangements – that traditional guitar from Blackbird … they are recognizable, but wouldn’t lead to a lawsuit for plagiarism.

TM: I read an essay recently claiming that precisely this lack of the possibility of using other’s material is what causes problems for modern music, since in any other period this would not have been an issue.
SRO: Frankly, I don’t think it’s an issue, but I hope that my music becomes so well-known that the lawyers come after me.

TM: It seems like you have moved into a phase where your music is a little more tonal and less modern in terms of making more explicit reference to more popular genres.
SRO: You are right. Even though this was not something planned, a conscious decision, yes, it’s taken place. I am looking for more simplicity; whereas before I was looking for a very complex counterpoint, now I am moving to things that are a little more homophonic, more modal – reflections of the kind of expression that I am after. It’s not that I am looking toward tonality, but the fact that I have been looking at pieces where this is the appropriate language, the best tonal solution. As has been said, there is still plenty of music to make inside the tonal system. I think one has to do this consciously, and without feeling trapped.  I think that the great advantage of postmodernity is that we don’t have to have a commitment to only one esthetic. We can use any thing from Palestrina counterpoint to electronic music at the same time. As a creative artist I don’t feel like I have to account for my choices to anyone. I can quote Dominguinhos, the Beatles, my own more tonal material….what is important for me, as always, is the expression.

TM: To sum up…now you will soon be 43, you have celebrated fifteen years of your career, and you are a long way past the beginning of your career…you have successfully confronted your midlife crisis….you have had your Latin-Grammy nominations….you have established yourself in the public eye.
SRO: You are absolutely right. I have thought a lot about this. I really needed to establish my space. In 2011 and 2012 I wanted to increase the intensity of my work in order to reaffirm this space. I did my series of concerts, put out five CDs, I transitioned to being a public figure…thanks to this, together with everything else in my career, I am now getting orchestral commissions. I was offered, and will be doing, a radio program on Radio MEC, starting later this year. I battled a lot to achieve this space, and now it’s there. I can’t entirely relax, first, so as not to lose it, and secondly because this was never a Machiavellian strategy, but rather an expression of a composer who is an entrepreneur, so of course I will always be enterprising, creating new things, but as you say, more relaxed…not an obligation to develop my career, but as a natural expression of my personality as an artist. This year I created a new international festival of contemporary music which will take place here in Rio de Janeiro in November. It’s bold, but for me and for Brazilian contemporary music it is very important. Likewise I have planned releases for two more CDs for this year. The process of recording the CDs in 2012 made me realize that I want to have all my works recorded.

This is important for me, for people that like my music, and for future listeners. I will die someday, and I want to leave not only scores, because scores communicate with musicians, but CDs communicate with the broader public, and I want to communicate with the public. So all this effort continues. Thank God I am still being commissioned to compose, I have my composers’ group, with nine to twelve concerts per season, and there are other projects. Recently there have been some possibilities for video and cinema – these are still in the opening phases, but it seems natural that I should write for cinema as well. So my career keeps moving on, even if a little more relaxed.

TM: You were working to become captain of the starship, got the captain’s chair, and now you can take it anywhere you like.
SRO: A good metaphor.

TM: And The Photographer and The Actress.
SRO: This has a place in my catalog more as an homage than for the music itself. All the CDs in the Quinze box had photography by Alexandre Chaves. I met Alexandre Chaves in a rather unusual way. I was teaching at a school for contemporary theater, and one of my students, since graduate, was an excellent actress, and I saw her publicity photos. I said “your photos are wonderful”, and she told me that it was her husband who had done the photography. I saw other photographs of his, and loved them, and invited him to be the photographer for the set. Now he is the photographer for all the productions for my record label. I am very grateful to him, because I told him that I was working on a project that was bigger than the money I had for it, and so I didn’t have the money to pay him for the photos. If he wanted to do it, fine, and if not, I would understand. He did it. He’s someone with another source of income (he’s a solicitor for the Republic, which pays well). His wife, Lucia Furtado, also recited a poem for one of the pieces (Luz e sombra), and when the photography was done, I wanted to be able to give them something in return for all their generosity. When he was doing my photo, he told me to take a piece of paper and pretend that I was writing music. I said “No, I will really write a piece of music”. It was a short piece for solo violin. It still hasn’t been performed (which is something rare for me).

TM: It’s like the piece you wrote during the concert by Maria Carolina.
SRO: There’s also a connection with Rabequinha, which premiered in late 2012 in New York City at a concert called Fifteen Minutes of Fame by Douglas DaSilva, an American composer, with Brazilian parents. He discovered that his father had been given a violin (he was in Paraiba at the time), with all sorts of family stories connected to it, and commissioned one-minute pieces from about fifteen composers to be played on his father’s violin. The project was called My Dad’s Violin. Since I was the only Brazilian, I felt that I needed to pay homage to the violin of the Northeast, which is why the piece is called Rabequinha. Another piece like this is Musica Precisa, which I wrote for Isadora Scheer, and there’s the little birthday choro for flute that I wrote for you years ago (Rapidinho).

TM: One of these days there will be a CD devoted to birthday presents.
SRO: A good idea. I have been wanting to do a CD of music for solo instruments, Allegory, Perdão, Olhar da Santa….

TM: Please talk about Leme.
SRO: I wrote this for Sara Cohen, Paulo Passos, and Tomás Soares, that is, for piano, clarinet, and violin, for a concert by Preludio 21. This is part of my series of pieces in homage to places in Rio de Janeiro. As you know, the Zona Sul has various portions of a ship – Leme (helm), Pontal (below-decks), and Gavea (crow’s-nest).

I only go to Leme at night (I think I have only been to the beach in Leme once), but I have been to the various restaurants there at night, and so I think of Leme as someplace cool, misty, calm, placid

TM: the sound of the waves at night.
SRO: Yes. I made a piece to convey this feeling, with a harmony that is always repeating, developing gradually, with long chords, long notes, a melody that is more static….the fastest part of the piece is a series of half-notes…it’s a piece with a lot of space, and another facet of this phase you mentioned. The piece is not tonal, but is looking for a simpler expression, with less density, less dissonance. There is dissonance, but it happens so slowly that it is easy to absorb.

TM: Have you noticed a change in the response from audiences for music from this new phase?
SRO: Not really, since I confess that the first time I realized that I was in a new phase was twenty minutes ago when you mentioned it. Even in my most dense music I have always sought elements that communicate. What I have sought is to communicate through emotion, since I think is the universal element that bring all people together. Everyone, wherever they live, whatever their age (except for children) knows the pain of love. If you are talking about the pain of love, everyone on the face of the earth will know what you are talking about. Everyone knows pain, everyone knows happiness, the happiness of seeing a child being born – these are universal emotions. I have tried to communicate using these emotions. And so my music has always been well-received.

TM: To move away from music – could you talk about the present moment in Brazil?
SRO: I think that basically what we have is a big crisis in terms of representation, and this began in Facebook, like everything else recently. It is interesting, because with the election of Pastor Marcos Feliciano as president of the Federal Commission on Human Rights, someone with apparently homophobic and even racist attitudes, we started to see pictures in Facebook with the caption “He does not represent me!” “I am gay, and Marcos Feliciano does not represent me.” “I am hetero, and Marcos Feliciano does not represent me.” “I am “fill in the blank”, and Marcos Feliciano does not represent me.” From then on, even with a tone of parody, people have continued to frequently use this meme of “…does not represent me!” If your soccer team doesn’t play well, “Flamengo does not represent me!” Anything that you don’t agree with….this was catalyzing something that has been taking place in Brazilian society for a long time. Our politicians do not represent us. Something that contributed to this was the election of Lula. Lula was a charismatic figure, and yes, a large number of Brazilians felt that he did represent them. Dilma, the current president, was a creation of Lula’s. She was his adviser. No charisma, no background in electoral politics. People voted for her thinking that they were voting for Lula’s politics. But in fact Dilma does not even represent the people that voted for her. Lula would have been representative. This is true for politics at every level in Brazil – representatives, governors, senators – and this crisis in representation is the great moving force behind the demonstrations. A few things that I noticed about the demonstrations: people were there as if it were Carnaval. Precisely because there is not only one agenda, people were celebrating the fact that they were there, commemorating the possibility of being able to demonstrate. After a period of twenty years, since we were able to have Collor impeached, with people staying at home, an entire generation was out on the streets again, and people were very happy, with bands playing. Another thing that I noticed was that it was as if there different blocos for Carnaval – there were various groups that were present. I was in the group of the artists. I carried a banner that said “React, artists!” And further, there were people with signs with absolutely individual demands. The only thing that really united everyone was protests against the governor [Cabral]. The reason for this demonstration having become so large was the fact of the violence of the Military Police. There were many reports of people who were demonstrating peacefully and who were attacked by the police. The people reacted, and when they reacted, the media began to film. The media never covered the beginning of the violence, which was when the police attacked. I also noted, because of this, a very strong reaction against the press. Because of the internet, people now have independent confirmation that what they read in the newspaper or see on the television is not the truth. When people began to see that this was true for the demonstration in which they were participating, they began to be hostile to the journalists who were there. The reporters were trying to report live, and they could not be heard, because everyone there was booing them. “Down with Rede Globo! The people are not stupid!” So people can see that television does not represent them either.

And finally, as in Facebook, people want to speak without being edited. You can say whatever you want to say, without mediation. And so people feel that they have a right to have their demands heard, no matter how individual or global they may be. More than a movement for a single goal, this is a movement that demands expression.

TM: This is a worldwide situation today. Turkey, Brazil, Egypt – the government does not speak with the voice of the people, and particularly does not speak with the voice of the middle class. In the case of Dilma, a person without charisma does not project the image that the people has of itself. Lula projected the image of someone who worked hard, and who had come up from the people itself. Dilma does not. And now people want to speak publicly with their own voices.
SRO: There is a song by Gonzaguinha called “É” which is about the desires of the common man. He writes about what people want in the most basic terms. This song is more current than ever today. We really don’t want so much. We want to be citizens, to have to the right to basic necessities, and the right to express ourselves, and to love. Things that every human being wants. To be happy, to find someone from the sex that you are attracted to, and to be happy. This is what people are demanding around the world. To have a voice.

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[1] Unfortunately, Dominguinhos’ health did not improve, and he died on July 23, 2013, several weeks after this interview was done.