I have an ongoing series of interviews with Brazilian composer Sergio Roberto de Oliveira, dating back to 2000, when the composer was thirty years old. The audio file for this 2010 interview went missing until recently, and the transcript has not been published until now. Oliveira discusses two vocal works, an instrumental commission for an Italian festival, and a duo which has since gone on to generate an award-winning short film. We talked in Portuguese at Oliveira’s recording studio, A Casa, in Rio Comprido, Rio de Janeiro.
Dec. 30, 2010, A Casa Estudio, Rio de Janeiro
STM: We last talked in August of this year , so there’s not so much music to catch up on. Let’s talk about Canção que não foi escrita, which was written for the duo of Doriana Mendes, soprano, and guitarist Marco Lima.
SRO: It was written for our October  concert by Préludio XXI. We commissioned them to do the performance, rather than they commissioning the piece. Doriana is my favorite soprano, not just because her singing is great but also because she has a wonderful stage presence – expressive, beautiful, powerful. She is smaller than me, and I am 159 cm tall….
STM: She wears BIG heels…..
SRO: It’s not just that….
STM: She has a big presence.
SRO: Exactly. I wrote two pieces in a row for voice and guitar…..a lot of pieces for voice and guitar this year.
STM: A new phase, perhaps.
SRO: Guitar is a hard instrument to write for, but once you are used to it, it gets easier. Now the guitarist are saying that I am writing very well for the instrument.
STM: You have many pieces for flute, and flute is an instrument that you studied while you were a student at the University of Rio. What is helping you to become more idiomatic in your writing for the guitar?
SRO: The first one who is responsible for this was Nicolas de Souza Barros. He decided to teach a course for composers on how to write for guitar – lots of material, very well prepared, lots of examples. This was the impulse behind my first piece for guitar, the Suíte Imaginaria. This was in 1997-1998. The Suite is from 2000.
After that, Armildo Uzeda was very important. He recorded the Suíte Imaginaria, and recorded it very well. He gave me the incentive to write the next piece for solo guitar, Umas Coisas do Coração[i]* . You know how things work with me; normally it is the ensemble that choose, not me that chooses the ensemble. If I am writing more music for guitar, it’s not a choice of mine – it’s something that happened.
STM: And that means you are creating a reputation as someone who writes well for the guitar.
SRO: Yes. Principally after these three pieces. The public that heard the performances, the guitarists who attended – they all commented that my writing for guitar was powerful.
STM: Can you give some tips on how to write for guitar, or are those trade secrets?
SRO: Everyone has their own path. What is important for me, what is creating this phase for me as a composer, to write things that are simple. My Suíte Imaginaria – I think it is excellent – it is a piece that is used as a test piece in the university in Rio Grande do Sul. But it is a very difficult piece. Nicolas himself told me this once: if a piece is very difficult to play, it is has to be very good to make the effort worthwhile. If not, no one will want to work on it.
STM: Technically difficult for the guitarist to be able to play it?
SRO: Yes. Usually there are at least two voices happening at the same time. There are people who listen who think (not listening live) that there is more than one guitar playing. I learned the technical resources that I could use, and decided to use them. This is something that has to do with being young – you want to use the technical resources to the uttermost. That’s not bad, as long as you do it with wisdom.
STM: Were you using a keyboard as you were composing?
SRO: No. What I always used to do, and have stopped doing, was to use tablature, so that I could understand the positions of the guitarist’s fingers. For my most recent pieces I already had a clear notion of what I could do, and what I couldn’t do. This was a step forward.
At this point everything is very complex in my life, and I am trying to find simple solutions for everything. I’ve been doing this in my music for guitar, which has been turning out so well. I’ve been using open strings, positions which let the guitarist be comfortable. Instead of trying to extract the absolute maximum that the instrument can give, I try to extract what can come out beautifully, without using everything, without using the more complex resources for the guitar. The third movement of Umas Coisas do Coração is really very simple, but at the same time I think it is very beautiful.
STM: Lots of open strings, lots of barre chords…..
SRO: Lots of parallelism. In this piece, Canção que não foi escrita, I use lots of open strings in the rapid passages, lots of repeated notes. The repeated drone gives a punch, and at the same time is not difficult for the guitarist to execute. I think the difference between the technically inexperienced and technically experienced composer is for the former the music HAS to be difficult for him to express what he wants. For the latter, he knows how to express the same thing with music that is less effortful for the performer. Sometimes there’s no way out….
STM: Like the things that Matisse did towards the end of his life – just lines.
SRO: At least for me, at this moment, this is what I am aiming for. If, until quite recently, I was using extremely independent elements, I think I am heading towards a greater simplicity. Everyone always praised my themes, the ease I have in composing beautiful themes. It’s a talent that I have. And I think I used to run away from this since it was too easy, and I went looking for other things. But now I want to use this capacity I have for composing beautiful and simple melodies along with the experience that I have gained. I think that I am more concerned now with moving people emotionally, than with what they think.
STM: I know you are a great admirer of Tom Jobim. Do you think that in your first ten years as a composer of classical music you were trying to get away from this world of popular music, of Brazilian popular music, to create some distance between these two worlds, and now that you are moving back toward a place where you began?
SRO: I can’t say that. I think my music was always impregnated with popular music. Perhaps I did have a certain fear of tonality. But modality was always present from the beginning. If you look at my first piece, the Suite for Strings, there is the presence of popular music. My music for flute is always using the music of the Northeast. I think what I might be escaping from is tonality….if I used the elements that I use in tonal structures, then we would really be talking about popular music [laughs].
STM: Let’s talk in a little more detail about this piece. First, the lyrics. The words are by Mario Quintana, and it is part of a series of pieces with lyrics by Quintana.
SRO: Exactly. I was given a book called “Canções” with poems by Mario Quintana. Each poem is a song. And at that moment, in 1993, I decided – it was when my daughter was born, I was given it by the godmother of my daughter – to set those poems by Mario Quintana. And this one is very simple. It says: Someone smiled, like Our Lady, on the sad soul of the poet. He went home, and wanted to bring with him the good that they did for him. He went to sleep. And all night his sleep was bathed in the light of a poor lost star. Tremulous, like a light against the wind.
In the piece I tried to create a three-part structure, in which the first part is the enchantment which the poet experiences through the smile. When I presented the piece in the concert by Preludio XXI, I said exactly this – that the world needs smiles, and that only the smile is capable of saving us. And this enchantment has a lot to do with the moment that I am experiencing right now….I think, once again, it has to do with simplicity. I am not after complex suffering – I want a simple smile. When the poet says “smiled like Our Lady” for me, Our Lady is a simple woman, with a simple smile.
The second moment the poet goes home, and falls asleep. I told the performers that they had to put the poet to sleep, and I think this was very well done, both from my part as composer, and on their part as performers. From this point on the music is conveying a dream – the guitar becomes more agitated, things are more fantastical. At the end, where he is talking about the poor little star, I imagined that he had woken from the dream, so I present the theme once again, but I leave some doubt through the way that the theme is presented about whether the poet actually saw the smile, or whether everything was a dream.
STM: How did you decide to set this poem for this singer?
SRO: I decided to set this poem for myself. This was the poem that I wanted to do at this moment.
STM: For you was Our Lady Aparecida?
SRO: She was a simple woman with a simple smile. I wasn’t thinking about a metaphysical religiosity, but in the religion of humanity, humans relating not with God, but with each other. I try to do this in my life – distribute smiles. Sometimes you see someone in the street in a bad mood, you smile at them, and they respond. You changed the life, the day of that person at that moment. It happens with me too. I am feeling bad, and I see a smile, sometimes not even one directed at me, maybe one from a mother to her child. This is the smile of Our Lady – from mother to child. It’s enough to illuminate your day, for you to feel that yes, humanity is great, yes, that there is a solution. I hear people putting themselves outside humanity in order to criticize humanity, as if they themselves are not part of all this. Each individual human is marvelous, no matter how much you may be seeing a scoundrel in front of you, he has precious things inside. Unfortunately, the life he has had means that he is manifesting the worst things about himself. But it is always possible to rescue him, and I think the smile is the most powerful way to do this.
STM: Let’s move on to another song – Canção do Dia de Sempre. Gisele Diniz, who is a singer who is much younger, with a completely different style than Doriana. Doriana is a tiny, brilliant gem. Gisele has a big voice, a big sound – the difference between the two instruments is striking. How does this piece differ in style from the piece for Doriana?
SRO: I was really not very familiar with Gisele as a singer. I had heard her sing once, at concert by Preludio XXI, in a piece by Marcos Lucas, but I wasn’t clear about her capabilities. I chose a much more complex poem (again, I chose it because of what it said for me) , and I was much less bold about the melodic line. The guitar part is more complex, and that for the singer is simpler – few leaps, lots of stepwise motion. I was trying to write nothing that was risky. At the same time, when you have a big voice just one note can be something that is very good. With Doriana, I could rely on her capacity to take my piece and make it into a gem, to use your metaphor, I made something simpler, that could shine through its simplicity, and the complexity is there for the guitarist, who has work a little harder. Even so, it’s not difficult for the guitar. There are a lot of chords, I used a lot of parallelism, lots of repetitions of clichés. It is a poem that reflects my moment in life, where I am questioning the eternity of things – the old Soneto de Fidelidade by Vinicius de Moraes, which says that it is not eternal since it is a flame, but is infinite for as long as it lasts…. When Quintana talks about the Song of the Day of Forever, I think this is fabulous. I have reminded myself of this often – that more important than being happy for forever, is to be happy now.
Tão bom viver dia a dia…
A vida assim, jamais cansa…
Viver tão só de momentos
Como estas nuvens no céu…
E só ganhar, toda a vida,
E a rosa louca dos ventos
Presa à copa do chapéu.
Nunca dês um nome a um rio:
Sempre é outro rio a passar.
We think that the river is the same, but it isn’t. The water has already gone by.
Nada jamais continua,
Tudo vai recomeçar!
E sem nenhuma lembrança
Das outras vezes perdidas,
Atiro a rosa do sonho
Nas tuas mãos distraídas…
Again, it was the poem that I needed to set at that moment. The whole question of the perennialness of things, of the infinity of things, at the same time that they are passing, ephemeral, and how important it is to be important in the day to day. Now. Only the now exists. And from this as well comes all this desire of mine to make simpler music.
I confess that although I still don’t know much of his music, I have come to be very close through Facebook with the music of a composer from Minas, Antonio Celso Ribeiro, who must be around 50 years old, who is really working for simplicity. He is really looking for tonality, for things that are really simple. I like his music, I heard him once in Amsterdam, where we met in person. Perhaps I have been going down this road thanks to my contact with Antonio Celso.
STM: We often think that the problem has to have a permanent solution rather than thinking “I am going to resolve this problem for today, and tomorrow there will be other possibilities for looking at this problem.”
SRO: Exactly. I think this is curious, since we as human beings have the awareness that we are going to die, that we are finite. And this is something that should remove from us our sense of responsibility for the future, because the future is not a reality, it is a possibility. On the contrary, animals are much more immediatist – and I think we should be simpler and think about today. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should be irresponsible. But responsibility shouldn’t come from a commitment to the future, but from a commitment to what is right. You don’t decide something because of a fear of the consequences. You do the right thing, and naturally the consequence will be good. That’s what I think, at least.
STM: Let’s discuss Ipe[ii]. You have various series of pieces – stones, trees, theater. This piece was going to be premiered in Italy, and you chose a very Brazilian kind of tree, a tree which doesn’t exist in Europe. I know that the music represents the structure of the tree in various ways.
SRO: First of all, the invitation to participate in the Sonata Islands Festival was very important for me, because it was totally spontaneous, came from a person that I didn’t know, who had heard the CD Sem Espera, who was the director of the festival, and a flutist. And so he invited me to compose for the festival. The idea of these series helps me when I don’t know for certain which piece I am going to compose, or which title I will use, and so I have these series which are like a menu – I can take a look and choose something ….
STM: Appetizers, main dishes, desserts….
SRO: Exactly. I had recently been given a tree – an ipe – I was very happy to have been given a tree, and I wanted to pay homage to this ipe. I began to write the music in Teresopolis, where I have a house, and there, when I was composing, there was a bem-te-vi singing very insistently, so that in spite of the fact that the piece is named for the tree, perhaps I am talking more about the birds than about the tree.
The first part of the piece is related to the seed. I use staccatos and long notes, with the long notes often in harmonics, in order to say that “this is a potentiality”. For example, a C pizzicato in the contrabass, and a G in the flute, part of the harmonic series for the C, a way of saying that this C has the G within itself, just as the seed has the tree within it. In this first section I use a series, and I present it in a very pointillistic way, precisely to show something granulated, having to do with earth, with the seed in the earth. The rhythmic proportions come from the Fibonacci series, since we know that this series governs the growth of the branches of various trees. So in this piece I am talking about the birds, about the Fibonacci series, which for me is mathematics written by God, and then in the final section of the pieces, which is talking about the leaves or flowers – the leaves of the ipe area beautiful, they look like yellow flowers – I used our familiar music from the Northeast to show this party, all of this color, which for me is very human. So I was honoring God, nature, man – man when we are talking about dodecaphonic music, which is a human construction. I said that I put in the bem-te-vi in Teresopolis, and I continued composing the music here in the studio, and just at that moment a sabiá began to sing very loud here. And so I decided to include the sabiá in the music, singing fifths. Since I was doing some many things with threes, there needed to be a third bird in the music, and in honor of Tom Jobim, I included the matita-perê, which sings a simple semitone. I don’t know if you know, but the matita-perê is not really a bird, but a person that has been enchanted. So there’s something mystical in this as well, that I thought would be interesting to include. Of course, there is also a song for the sabiá from Jobim as well. And the bem-te-vi is the bird of my childhood. In the apartment where I was living at until I was ten I always woke up to the sound of the bem-te-vi.
STM: What was the reaction of the Italians to such Brazilian music? What does Brazil represent for them?
SRO: I can only talk about the reactions of the musicians there that I was talking with. They knew the music of Guinga, of Chico Buarque, and Jobim, of course. The reaction of the audience was not exactly what I was expecting, because the focus of the festival was more on jazz than I realized. The idea of the festival was to combine classical music and jazz, with improvisation. The part of my piece that related to popular music was precisely the final section, which is a baião. But the public was there to hear jazz, and one of the musicians playing was a jazz guitarist. So I felt like the audience was much more interested in hearing jazz than in hearing my music. If I had had more American influence, or more jazz, it would have been more appreciated.
STM: In the US, Brazilian music – Tom Jobim, bossa nova, entered the world of jazz, and did not really enter the world of popular music in general. So, for an American, Tom Jobim=jazz. While in Brazil, one can easily see that the place of jazz is virtually empty. What would be occupied by instrumental music is occupied by vocal music.
SRO: With the exception of choro.
STM: Which also is not jazz.
SRO: In the fifties there was jazz here, which provided the possibility for bossa nova. And in the eighties as well. But, really, there is less and less space for jazz. You have musicians with a jazz attitude making other music because there is so little space.
In the eighties we had two jazz clubs, and what you heard there was jazz. I heard Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Ron Carter, Brazilian musicians playing jazz, even until the early 90s. We had an important jazz festival… this was my formation as a listener. This was one of the things that stimulated to be a musician was hearing jazz. Today this space doesn’t exist, or has gone to sleep. Mistura Fina was another space where you had jazz.
STM: Let’s talk about the duo Ao Mar. I heard the first fifteen seconds and I thought that this music is very heavy, with a very strong emotional charge.
SRO: And when you heard the whole thing, you didn’t change your opinion….
STM: Yes. But even in the first fifteen measures you could tell.
SRO: Yes. It has a strong emotional charge. It is quite religious. It has an appeal to the orixá Yemanjá, one of the most important of the orixás. One of the things that delayed my completing the piece was going to the beach to offer flowers to Yemanjá. It has an unconscious emotional charge, but also one that is very much conscious. I wanted to depict, not just any sea, but the sea that has a Queen, where people go to make requests, to pour out their dreams. I brought my love to the sea, like the wife of a fisherman, to ask the sea care for my love, and bring my love back to me. So the sea has to be grand, has to carry all this love, has to carry dreams. Although harmonically the music is not very complex….it is quite simple, very slow….i had to tell the performers, no, it has to be slower…I quoted a traditional song for Yemanjá. I modulate it so as to give a sense of distortion. The song appears as a sort of offering, and the music of the sea at the beginning is gradually swallowing the offering. It’s like the little boats that people send into the sea with offerings for Yemanjá. Or like the flower that you leave on the beach, and gradually you can’t see it any more. What remains is your faith. The offering disappeared, you believe that it was accepted, and wait for your dreams to be realized, your request to be accepted.
STM: I saw the concert, and it seemed to me that all the composers reacted to this combination of two cellos with pieces that were more serious. Nothing light, nothing very quick….do you think that the sound of this duo evoked from you the idea of something grand, profound?
SRO: No. In my case, the idea came before the instrumentation. If I had to do it with two piccolos, it would have been the same idea, only with different resources. For Prelúdio XXI: maybe yes, maybe it had to do with the instrumentation. It might have had to with the seriousness of the instrumentalists, who have one of the renowned and oldest ensembles in Brazil. But there’s something telepathic that happens with the group. We never hear the pieces by the other composers until the last rehearsal or the day of the concert. It’s not the first time that this happened. For example, with the concert of the Quarteto Colonial, we composed vocal quartets, and all the compositions of all the composers were talking about death. The Quarteto doesn’t have anything about it that evokes death, but still all seven composers wrote something that had to do with death in some way. And the concert was presented on the day of the mass of the seventh day for the victims of the Gol plane crash. But as we were composing, we didn’t know that the accident would take place, that the victims would die, nor that the concert would be on the day of the mass of the seventh day. So something similar must have happened for the concert with the Duo Santoro. For me, it was a piece that I had to write.
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[i] This piece was later nominated as “Best Contemporary Composition” for the Latin Grammy 2011.
[ii] The recording of the performance from the festival can be heard here: http://www.sonataislands.com/Festival2006_files/ipe.mp3