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A conversation with Sergio Roberto de Oliveira III


Brazilian composer Sergio Roberto de Oliveira has recently initiated an international festival of contemporary music in Rio, and continues to be active in North America, as a part of Vox Novus (, and in collaboration with composer Mark Hagerty and the Delaware-based ensemble Mélomanie. His work was recently performed in Vienna for the first time.

We talked in Portuguese via Skype on June 15, 2014.

©Sergio Roberto de Oliveira

©Sergio Roberto de Oliveira

TM: You have been very productive since our last conversation, with almost twenty pieces. Let’s go back to 2012 and talk about Baobá.
SRO: It was still in 2012 that I composed Baobá for a concert by Prelúdio 21 with the Duo Bretas-Kevorkian, which is a four-hands piano duo with Patrícia Bretas and Josiane Kevorkian. I really enjoyed working with them. I wrote Baobá as part of the series of pieces that I have been producing with names of trees, including Angico and Jacarandá. The work has already been recorded on the disc Cartas de Amor by GNU [the new music ensemble of the University of Rio – UNIRIO], so the first recording was not by the dedicatees. I dedicated it to the duo in the score, but I also wrote “for Saint-Exupéry” in homage to the Little Prince, which was the first time that I had heard of this tree. It has a little section of four measures which I try to make very solid, like the trunk, and then it continues to be varied until the end of the piece, which is very Brazilian, and in fact the duo asked me to take that material and write another piece for them – they adored it. Recently I have made a lot of use of theme and variations, and things in that vein – variations, and rondos, as well.

TM: Tell me about the duo.
SRO: I didn’t know the pianists – only by reputation. They had done the Rite of Spring for piano four hands and percussion, which had been a success. Patricia had played in some bienals, and also in a concert of music by Jocy de Oliveira. And so I had heard good things about Patricia. It was very interesting to work with them, first of all because they are very generous people – you really want to be friends, and for me this makes a huge difference. I am able to separate the artist from the human being, but when you can put the two things together, it is perfect, you know? They are very nice people, and as pianists they are very different, which is something good to have for a piano duo. Both are great pianists, but with different characteristics, though it is hard to define. They function very well together, and in part because they are great friends. This generates knowledge of what one can contribute to the other, a respect – the work is pleasant and easy. For the premiere I was not able to work with them until about a half-hour before, when I made a few comments, and in the concert they already were effective. Later I had the chance to work with them in a project that probably will be called “Pairs”, which will be another CD that I am doing with Mark Hagerty, with two duos playing the music of two composers – the Duo Santoro and the Duo Bretas-Kevorkian playing my music and the music of Mark Hagerty. For this CD they have recorded Baobá, and I could work with Patricia playing my piece Pares with Ricardo Santoro, and Josiane played a piece by Mark with Paulo Santoro. So over the last two years a duo that I didn’t know came to be quite close to me because of the project that we did, and I think that this collaboration will continue to produce other things.

TM: The notion of two people playing the same instrument but with a different voice is interesting. We have this ideal where in a duo it is impossible to distinguish one from the other – the notion of two instruments that are equal but different is somewhat unusual.
SRO: I think it can be quite rich. My vision of music that it is more interesting when you have more people and more ideas contributing to the final result. The other day I was talking with a visual artist, and she was impressed with the idea that I write music for instruments that I don’t play, and that I do not compose at the piano, but directly at the computer. I told her that it was pleasurable and important for me to have my art, composition, and to have other artists, the performers, doing their art on top of mine. When you have a duo, on the one hand, you are seeking unity; but on the other hand, they are contributing different ideas and different sonorities….it’s much better. Otherwise you would write a solo piece.

TM: In jazz, the best thing is when you have such different voices that combine to produce a complex result. The more different it is, the better.
SRO: Exactly. This is something that also gives me a lot of pleasure in working with chamber music. If you work with an orchestra, even though you may have various instruments, they put less of their personality into the music. You have a much more unified sound, which is the sound of the orchestra and the maestro…I think it is very interesting when you have chamber music in which you can distinguish not only the voices, as you said, but the ideas – each different idea comes together to produce a general idea.

TM: Let’s talk about Bis.
SRO: I composed Bis for the CD by the Duo Santoro, Bem Brasileiro. I produced the CD, and my piece Ao mar was going to be included, but I thought it would be a little long. However, a short piece would be nice. So I composed it especially for the CD, and called it Bis. Since it’s quite short it would be a nice encore piece. We put it on the CD as the final piece. It’s two minutes long, and like the title of the CD, it’s very Brazilian. Very cantabile, uses the mixolydian mode, to give it that Northeastern Brazilian feeling. It’s unpretentious, but has been very successful in concert. It’s like a little cookie to go with the coffee. Because of the success of the CD it has already had twenty performances.

TM: I understand that you will be making a video for Ao Mar?
SRO: Yes. People are increasingly making use of visual media, of videos – everyone says it’s impossible to be successful if the music is not on YouTube – and I think in classical music we are still very much behind in these things. What we have in terms of visuals is always very poor- either we have the musicians playing, or you have images that are not always in good taste. I thought it would be interesting to make a video clip – something that had the musicians playing, but that also had a script, that could tell a little story. This piece, that pays homage to Yemanjá, does have a little story, so I called a friend from school, Alex Araripe, who had studied cinema. He is not a film director, but a director of photography, very well respected, a guy who is very open to new things. I called him up and told him the story of the piece, that in the middle of the piece there is a song for Yemanjá that is an offering, and he said, “wow, I have the script ready for this. It’s been a long time since I made a short, and I have the script that is perfect for this piece.” The film came out very well, with the Duo Santoro playing barefoot on the beach, and other images of them playing in a boat drifting on the ocean, and it also had the participation of the soprano and actress Gabriela Geluda. She is an excellent actress, and the video was excellent. We’ll have the premiere of the video on Sept. 20. It’s starting to be talked about in the press, including in the online version of IstoÉ. Alex and I are already working on the next one. This will be the first in an ongoing series.

TM: Tell us about Praça XV. For the Carioca, this is a plaza/square in the center of Rio down by the ferry docks, and the location of the old Central Market.
SRO: Praça XV was written for a concert in February 2013 in New York by the group Vox Novus. It was the last piece that I wrote for them before becoming part of the group. I have to admit that my participation in the group has been rather discreet since things in Brazil have been quite busy…The piece was written for the series Trajetória Brasileira, in which Vox Novus invited Prelúdio XXI and my other group of composers. Just as Baobá is part of a series dedicated to trees, Praça XV belongs to a series of pieces depicting places in Rio de Janeiro, which includes Praça Saens Pena, Bico do Papagaio, Praça Seca. Praça XV is an homage to my friend Ricardo Grenha, a friend whom I have known since the time when I was studying at the Colégio de Aplicação. At that time Ricardo played the guitar and composed very well. He became an engineer, so the world gained an excellent engineer, and lost an excellent musician. He really could have become a fine professional musician. At the time, when we were seventeen, he wrote a piece for guitar that I adored, called Praça XV, and so I wanted to pay homage to him writing my Praça XV. The Praça XV that you hear in my piece is one that has traffic, the horns, and there’s a chord that you hear the whole time that is the background noise that you hear when you are at Praça XV. And then I add other elements that have to do with the Praça. I added a chorinho, to remember that Praça XV was a very important entry for Rio de Janeiro, I put a samba, to talk about the malandragem of Rio, and there’s a section, interestingly, that has to do with Arabic music. My daughter, Laura, does belly dancing, and she has already danced several times in the Arab restaurant that is there at Praça XV. And so I wanted to include a bit of Arabic music in homage to my daughter. The piece was written for flute, clarinet and bassoon. Later there was a concert for Prelúdio 21 by Trio Capitu, which had a very similar line-up – flute, oboe and bassoon, and so I made an adaptation of the piece, substituting the oboe for the clarinet. It worked very well – of course, it has a slightly different flavor.

©Sergio Roberto de Oliveira

©Sergio Roberto de Oliveira

TM: Please talk about the Arabic elements, since this is something that you rarely encounter in Brazilian music.
SRO: True. Since I had the clarinet/oboe, I used the augmented second, and something that I heard when I saw my daughter dancing, a rhythmic structure that I would never have connected with Arabic music (taps out a syncopated rhythm), something that I have used in various pieces of mine, but which thanks to my daughter I can now connect with Arabic music. And the augmented second, which connects more immediately with Arabic music in our imaginations. The piece is a little rondeau.

TM: Next is Dreams.
SRO: Dreams is a piece that I wrote for Mélomanie, for the duo of Kimberly Reighly, flute, and Doug McNames, cello. It’s a piece that I based on the Pictures at an Exhibition of Mussorgsky. Like the Mussorgsky, which has the Promenade that takes you from one picture to the next, I created a theme representing you sinking deeper into sleep. It’s a rondeau, with fourteen sections. The first section is called Sleeping, where you are entering the world of dreams, and the final section is called Awakening. The second section is called Between Worlds, which is the music that travels between one dream and the next. Then you have First Dream, Second Dream…up to the Seventh Dream (you know that I love the number seven), finally the Between Worlds once more, and then Awakening. The piece not only works with different elements but also with different textures. The farther you get into the dreams, the greater the level of fantasy. For example, in the Fifth Dream, everything is very slow, which gives it a really trippy feeling. In the Sixth Dream, I use double stops in the cello, and multiphonics in the flute. If you know my music, you know that these (multiphonics) are resources that I use very rarely. I almost never use extended techniques, because I think that they should be used as expressive elements. I don’t like to use them for just anything, because I know that they will cause an alienation both for the musician and for the listeners. I like to use them sparingly, so that when I do they will say something important. In the final dream, I write something Brazilian, and include that old 3/3/2 that you find in the baião, and the coco, and so forth. With each section I want to make the listener sense that the music is moving farther and farther from normality. Right at the beginning, things are tranquil, I am using my typical language, not tonal, but free, flirting with modality, that sometimes is dodecaphonic, but even so is lyrical and expressive, which is the principal characteristic of my music generally.
I had an unusual experience two weeks ago at a concert of Preludio 21, at the Federal Justice Cultural Center, where we have been playing for seven years now. It’s normal for us to have many older people in the audience, and they usually adore the music. But at this concert, my music was first on the program, and I had to leave the auditorium to look after some detail, but there was a woman there who had left as well, and she turned to me in a very aggressive way, and said to “Don’t you know how to write a melody?”. I said “what?”. “Yes, don’t you know how to write a melody?” “Yes, I do.” “No, your music doesn’t have melody, and since music is made up of melody, rhythm and harmony, your music is not music.”
I thought this was simply bizarre, since a major characteristic of my music is precisely the presence of melodies that usually are rather simple and singable. I was so surprised by this reaction. I told her that I was in excellent company, since they had also told Beethoven that what he was writing was not music, and she ended by saying “I detest contemporary music.” Well, OK. If she detests contemporary music, she shouldn’t be at that concert.
But I thought it was odd since my music is usually palatable for the listener, even when it is entirely atonal you can manage to sing my melodies.

TM: How was the reaction of the audience there to Doug and Kim?
SRO: They performed it various times, and I heard the last of the set, which was in Washington. It was very good. I think it was very helpful for me to have made the reference to the work by Mussorgsky. When I said “Pictures at an Exhibition”, I could immediately see their eyes light up. The audience was a bit older, and all of them knew the work by Mussorgsky. The reference was very helpful. And the duo played very well. I participated in one rehearsal with Kim and Doug via Skype, since there was no other way for us to get together. I think we can gain a lot from technology. I don’t think we simply need to use technology for technology’s sake, but if we use it in our favor, even in making a classical art with a modern language.

TM: The next?
SRO: …is Eucalyptus, which is from April 2013, and premiered by a duo based in Norway, violin and piano – the violinist is Swedish, and the pianist Brazilian – the Duo Hellqvist/Amaral. It is another in the set of “tree” pieces, and what is interesting in the score is that I associated each letter of the name of my daughter with a musical note. So basically the music has themes that are “Laura”, “Laura Campos de Oliveira”, and at one point I used my name and Laura’s mother’s name, Miriam, to construct themes. Another device here, that I also used in Leme and in Pares, is that I created a sequence of measures – 2/4, ¾, 4/4, 5/4, 6/4 and 7/4. Throughout the entire work you have these measures in sequence. I begin with an almost ostinato melody in the violin, which changes its accentuation in each different meter. It’s a rather complex piece, and I am sorry that it hasn’t been performed again. This complex structure leads to an expressive work. The structure is always in service to the expression.

TM: Has it been played in Norway?
SRO: Not as far as I know. To my knowledge, only the premiere in Rio, and no others.

TM: Please talk about your Romance.
SRO: O Romance da Princesa que foi átras do Principe. This piece was dedicated to the Saxophone Ensemble of UFRJ, directed by Pedro Bittencourt, and it is scored for one soprano sax, two alto saxes, two tenor saxes, and one baritone sax. I wrote the work while I was in the USA last year for the premiere of the Incelença. I had a lot of free time, and I took advantage of it by writing this piece. It has a lot of interesting qualities that all have to do with theater and literature. It has a scenic structure that comes from a poem. We have the romance in the literatura de cordel [Brazilian traditional folk literature]. I wrote a poem, andon the basis of the poem I wrote the music. What I imagined was how would it be to have a kingdom, in which the prince, rather than going out to fight dragons, and thus to win the hand of the princess, stayed at the castle, and the princess went on the quest to find the prince. The prince sees a portrait of the princess and falls in love with her (as in the Magic Flute), but he cannot leave the castle, since he has promised his father, the King, that he would stay there to protect the castle. And so there is no choice – the princess has to go out in search of the prince, without even a map. She is guided by her heart, she prays to God, she travels twenty leagues with only a star to guide her (another reference to Christianity), until she hears music from within the castle, and knows that it is the castle of the Prince. She begins to sing before the gate, and the gate opens.

In scenic terms I created the court of the Prince and the court of the Princess. The soprano sax is the Princess, and the two altos, her attendants. The baritone sax is the Prince, and the two tenors, his men. The court of the Princess is at the back of the audience, and the court of the Prince, on the stage. It begins very lyrically, inspired by the Round Dance of the Princess by Stravinsky (Firebird), and they move slowly toward the stage. When they arrive at the stage, you begin to hear the theme of the Prince, which is in five beats, much more aggressive, more masculine….finally they all play together, but almost in parallel, with gradual changes in the themes, as if a love affair is taking place, each of them changing a little, modifying themselves a little, until the music ends with a G minor chord, totally tonal, peaceful. At the premiere, here in Brazil, I recited the poem, and there was the movement on the scene. I am always concerned to bring people closer to contemporary music without having to change the music, using expressive elements to do this. I thought the story would bring the public along, even as they are hearing super-dense and dissonant chords, and a more complex harmony. Just as people going to the cinema can hear atonal and dissonant soundtracks without being uncomfortable with it. This idea of scenic instrumental music is something that attracts me more than opera does. I think the possibility of working scenically with musicians, as we did in Distractions, Silencio, and other works, is very rich. It forces the musician to broaden his expressive resources. We are too worried about playing the right note at the right time in the right rhythm – we need to work on other expressive tools. Of course, you can hear the music without the story, without the motion, but I think this gives something extra to the audience. The audience adored it. The only one who didn’t really enjoy it was the saxophonist who played the role of the Princess – the male musicians gave him a really hard time.

TM: Traditionally in the works of Shakespeare the leading role for the woman was played by a man.
SRO: Of course. But in the case of band instruments we have a tradition of military bands, which are very macho. We are also in an era where we are trading in some old prejudices for other ones.

TM: Is this work another armorial work?
SRO: No, but a piece based on a traditional-style poem has to have some connection has with armorialism. Here it does not take place explicitly in the music. Of course it is possible that a scholar might come along and find one in the music. I prefer to be an artist rather than a scholar. I think we often compose with material from our conscious, and that possibly, there is material from our unconscious that comes to be part of the music as well.

TM: The mixture of the future, the past, fantasy – it reminds me of the mixture of northeastern music and science fiction in Lenine.
SRO: I think we forget that art is living. Living people play this traditional music. We can’t close it off hermetically.

TM: We have this presence of pre-technological culture in the midst of an increasingly technological life. Perhaps we are fearful about the return of a dark ages.
SRO: I don’t believe in the possibility of a dark age. I think we are increasingly moving in the direction of light. This is exactly what we are experiencing now on our planet – a moment of more illumination. The problem is that when you shine the light, what was hidden appears. What is ugly, what is filthy – it all is appearing. We are aware of a lot of bad things precisely because we are in a moment of much light.

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