Interview with Filipe Pires

From Unearthing The Music

Filipe Pires. Photo by Perseu Mandillo, sourced from the Portuguese Music Research & Information Centre – MIC.PT

The following interview from the MIC.PT Archive with the Portuguese composer Filipe Pires, has been republished here with the kind permission of the Portuguese Music Research & Information Centre – (Original here). The interview was conducted by Miguel Azguime on July 7th 2004, with transcription, redaction and revision by Pedro Ferreira and João Carlos Callixto. Translation from Portuguese to English: Mark Cain. You can also watch a video recording of the Interview on the MIC.PT YouTube Channel by clicking here.

Stages in the life of a composer

This is apparently a very simple question, but the answer is not easy and, most of all, not short – it has to be split up into many sectors, accordingly. This immediately assumes a journey, an evolution which develops over a whole lifetime. The beginnings always relate to our first period of learning. Actually I won’t go as far as describing my first music lesson when I was six years old. In any case, from the time I began – I wouldn’t say when I opted for composition instead of the piano, as for a number of years in my youth these two areas overlapped – I gave concerts, I was a pianist, and at the same time I was already a composer. Simply, until I left the country to study more in depth abroad, which happened when I was about 22 or 23 years old, I was both of these things – this was at the end of the fifties, beginning of the sixties.

I went to Germany in 1957, when I had already finished the Conservatory here in Lisbon. Until this time, more or less, I was – I would not say a victim, as everything has its advantages and disadvantages – but the result of a kind of paralysis in the music scene in Portugal and music education also reflected this. The height would be Bartok, Stravinsky, but not all of Stravinsky. Therefore my time at the Conservatory was dominated by Ravel, Debussy, some Hindemith, also, and some Bartok, in certain aspects. The school of Vienna was something unthinkable. The simple fact of mentioning this in a class, asking the teacher a question, was something subversive. There was no answer to that, the issue was sidestepped. I had some colleagues with wider horizons, some thought along the lines of and were inspired by Messiaen, but they were the exception. Hindemith himself, although a Neo-Classic, was therefore quite something… When I went to Germany, my teachers sounded me out for a while and then allowed me to do what I wanted, but I continued to feel that I was being watched, so that they themselves could know where they were and how far they could go. Well, I can’t say that I went very far at that time, but it let me take a fairly big leap, and which was later progressively helped along with various visits to Darmstadt. And I have to say that on occasions when I was there, for two or three weeks, it was a kind of musical intoxication. There was a bit of everything, from music from the far North of Europe to the furthest point South of Africa or from Asia, and in some ways there was a convergence of trends. Obviously, I later came home and began to absorb it all, and this all took time. Evidently, perhaps due to my temperament and because I was never bothered about what was fashionable in any sense, I felt the need to change language – and I did – but not because it was what was the latest thing at the time. I was always considered as a person who looked backwards rather than forwards... So, it’s all the result of a progressive evolution and I just cannot say what influenced me at any one time. Evidently, in Lisbon, within the context of the conservatory, it was mostly Ravel, Debussy, Hindemith, Bartok and little more. Later, when I went to Germany, I began to feel somewhat fascinated – although I never really settled for it – with the twelve note technique and other aspects, like aleatory music. I was quite open, you could say, to that kind of thing. Much later on, in the sixties, it was mostly electro-acoustic music that interested me, which made me pass through a lot of trends, styles, techniques and aesthetics.

Even today I don’t regret anything I have done, as it was the product of the moment, of that stage of my life. Our way of being can also change, so I don’t regret anything. Now obviously, there are works that I still like a lot and others that I no longer like. But that is what I thought at the time, and therefore, backed up by the idea that our manner of expression is always changing, I can say that I really went through many stages.

Affirmation of one’s own language throughout the various stages

I always feel I am myself, although this may constantly be a different me. Even as I can very often look to the past and go for techniques or compositional systems that I have used before, although I may reformulate them in a different way. It’s a bit like fashion… loose or tight trousers. When a fashion comes around again after it was the rage thirty years ago it is not exactly the same – there is something that is brought back but at the same time reformulated and sent in another direction.

The connection between image and music

The image is very important for me, sometimes more important than poetry or prose, even as a reflection or memory of something gone before. I am very sensitive to colour, to timbre and to the interplay of visual forms, as much in painting as in cinema or, although to a lesser degree, in sculpture. Colour and volume have influenced me a lot, in various ways.

An extreme technique that I used in the eighties, was the musical transcription with a coded system I invented for a series of icons – mostly dots and lines – made up by Jorge Pinheiro. I transcribed them musically, thinking to the millimetre in the distance between each point, in the length between each line, and transcribing it all according to the duration of the sounds. Then, I had in mind the point and the page it was all on, and also the range, the timbres and the durations. I think in a very orchestral manner – even when I write a piece for piano I am thinking about an orchestra, it is something inevitable for me. Even when I was a pianist I always thought of an orchestra. The questions of timbre and even the use of the pedal are important, with which you can transform sound. It is like a mechanical game, where a key operates a hammer which hits a string, which is perfectly mechanical. But with the thought and the action which results from this thought this same thing is transformed. In fact it is transformed and produces different interpretations. The simple fact of pressing a key with our thumb or with our forefinger produces a different sound. If our arm or our wrist is in a certain position, if our fingers are straight or bent, if we hit the key from above, all of this creates timbres, different sounds, and this therefore translates musically into timbric or orchestral nuances, this is what I want to explore.

In the case of the transcription of Jorge Pinheiro’s icons, I use the word “extreme” due to the millimetric precision I did it with. In the other extreme case, in the area of impressions, sensibilities and the like, evidently this is where I can have a much greater latitude in the sense that something would make me think of something else and therefore I transcribe depending on the impression it caused me at that time. It may be a very impressionist impression, going as far as to be redundant, but even so I still feel things very impressionistically. I like to be led by my instinct, which is, necessarily, filtered and which is based on very solid foundations which I was fortunately given. These foundations are here and even if I don’t feel them all the time, they surely appear, as they are already a part of my internal combustion. More and more I, once certain principles and bases have been assimilated, like them to be altered and transgressed, obviously – to then let things flow freely in tune with your imagination and sensitivity, which is what ultimately can transmit something more personal and less stratified.

Methods of composition

I usually tell my students: “Everything I am telling you here is just a basis upon which each of us should build our work, our creation. Once we have acquired the basis, when your lessons here at school have finished – or at least when your lessons with me are over – you will have or should have created your own roots and principles to do exactly the opposite of that which I told you. Because if you continue to do what I told you or if what you began to do goes on for too long, you will never leave the same spot.” I’m not saying it is something that bothers me, but rather it is a statement of what has happened with me throughout my life and therefore I would like my students to perpetuate this instability and not become stratified at a certain point or certain position, no matter how good it may be, as this would just make them repeat themselves endlessly.

Let us say that this is a need that I feel, which means that I can free myself from any preconception. I will never forget a criticism that João de Freitas Branco made of my work Portugaliae Genesis, for choir and orchestra, based on texts written in colloquial Latin, dating from the birth of the Portuguese nation – this being in 1968. João de Freitas Branco, after a lot of thought, and from amongst much praise and other objectively less precise comments, came up with a phrase which I have never forgotten. He said that he thought it was odd that a 34 year old person would produce a work which, while not vanguard, was almost a vanguard work of the rearguard. Perhaps he expected things which I did not use in that work, although which I may have used in other works at other times. Or rather, that that work, given its context and even its very literary text, obliged me to follow a given path, or to mix various paths together, and not others. I restricted myself to a given number of contingencies, not for any other reason but out of intrinsic necessity. Just a year earlier or later I was producing works which were completely different from that one.

Confluences of styles

I think the mixing of styles, what we today have agreed to call post–modernism, is only pejorative for those who do not understand things or who understand them unilaterally – everything has its pros and cons, obviously. If I endlessly mix Hindemith with Palestrina and with Bartok, clearly this would have to be organised differently. But as for mixing various styles within a given work, in this aspect of post–modernism I have the impression that even before post–modernism itself was invented I was already doing this after a fashion – which is what made them call me a musical reactionary. I never had a problem in using, if necessary, a Dominant-tonic cadence. Obviously this was just something that happened along the way, I was not going to copy one of Bach’s chorales or transcribe something with all the features of the 18th century in my own manner. In Portugaliae Genesis I use Gregorian, Jewish and Arab sources and primitive counterpoint – I obviously would not repeat that now in the same way. Actually, I think it is a bit childish to musically justify a work based on historical characteristics determined by each text, but at the end of the day it is what works there. Now I don’t know, obviously the way a dish is cooked is no longer up to me to comment.

How a piece of work is created

It is never the same, I don’t have a preconceived system. I recall a trio for piano, violin and violoncello, when I was still a student in Germany and with which I won the Casella prize in Naples. This is a work which I no longer like one hundred percent, but, as with any other, I don’t reject it as it was the child of its time. This work, I still recall it perfectly, started from a chord which occurred to me and which I played on the piano. I liked that chord so much at the time – although today it is a very normal chord for me – that I began to think: “How did I get here and where do I go from here?” Or rather, this chord will not necessarily be the centre of the whole work, but it could just appear after a certain time, right? So from that chord I began to think how do I start to reach it and then how do I get out of it to end the piece. It therefore happened just like that. On other occasions it is exactly the opposite, I think of an overall structure – independently of notes or any other rhythmic or sonic element – and then everything is directed towards that. Which does not mean to say that I keep the structure until I finish the work, as I then start work and begin to diverge, to diversify, and when the work is completed it is nothing like the structure I had thought of initially.

I don’t have a single system for writing each work. Generally I finish a work and think: “This was my masterpiece!”. But that was right when I finished the work, as when I begin another that one is immediately forgotten and no longer belongs to me, I don’t like it so much. I begin to construct another work which will be another masterpiece, to which the same thing will happen.

Electro-acoustic music

When I began to work with electroacoustics, we were still in its protohistory. We had vinyl records and record players, magnetic tape, cutting and sticking tape. So, at that time I felt compelled to put onto magnetic tape what I was feeling orchestrally. I cannot define where things began and ended as many things overlapped, but there was a stage when the inverse influence was felt through electro-acoustic experiments, mainly in the area of concrete sounds, according to Schaeffer’s theory, and which had quite an effect on my orchestral writing too. Let us say, therefore, that the stew was brewed from various reciprocal influences in this regard.

I had a stage which was, so to speak, prehistoric – we are now in History – which was when we went from analog to digital. In a way, I am still in anticipation – I am fully aware that this new stage of evolution is very stimulating, even for me. I want to get back, although I’ve drifted away from it due to various circumstances, including due to a lack of time and opportunity to get more involved with new technology, but I catch up whenever I can.

The importance of Pierre Schaeffer

He had quite an effect on me, mainly concerning an aspect to which Schaeffer and his school attached a lot of importance and which I retained as a fundamental feature. They were constantly pushing us - because we were a group with various nationalities and were doing our apprenticeship in the Groupe de Recherches Musicales - to be as demanding as possible with ourselves in the choice and use of each sound object. Or rather, a sound object included each and every simple or compound sonic phenomenon, elaborated or not, which could produce any kind of musical discourse – from the most incongruent noise to the most worked of sounds. The choice, the selection and the very manipulation of the object should be subject to our highest standards, we could not just go along with any old thing. This had quite an effect on me, essentially in the instrumental aspect and even beyond electro-acoustics, to be demanding in the choice of timbres, of rhythm and sonic organisation.

Figurations Series

The idea of Figurations – I came to call them Figurations just as I could have called them “Arabesques” or anything else – actually came from Figurations I, a piece for solo flute which I was asked to write in 1968 by the flautist Carlos Franco: “Write a short piece for me for the flute, I need it and would very much like you to write it.” Clearly, at that time I thought: “Well, I will compose a twelve note series and then switch off from the whole academic aspect of this twelve note series with regard to the organisation of the discourse, a la Schoenberg or his immediate followers, and I will try to use it in any other way I can remember or think of.” I then wrote a small piece for solo flute on that twelve note series which gradually appeared. First one note, then two, three notes, four, five, six, then a complete series, then reducing by one note at a time, etc. I therefore made a different dish from what I usually came up with. Then, I don’t know why, but after a while the opportunity arose to write a piece for piano and I thought: “Hold on, I’ll do Figurations II, but now for piano.” Therefore, everything came about progressively. Then someone requested a work for two pianos, someone wanted something for the harp, and I continued to think of this possibility, as Figurations II are a series of short sequences which may be played in any order. I thought that they could be superimposed on Figurations I, for flute – very often they are played simultaneously, because the series is the same, although the way they are treated is different. The fact of calling them Figurations perhaps came from the idea that each piece is to a degree the result of somewhat capricious melodic or rhythmic designs – well, it is just a title.

Possibility of presenting the complete series in concert

Here the musicians would have to choose between an infinite number of possibilities, including allowing pauses in between each one, or even interrupting the execution of one to allow the others to be played. All of this is clearly viable and I believe there will be something in common, which is the fact that the series is the same for all of them, which would grant a certain unity to the whole.

Tordesyalta and the question of the musical theatre

This work is, shall we say, a kind of preview of a future century, where the world is shared differently: Tordesilhas and Yalta. It is somewhat Kafkian… Zoocratas, on the other hand, is a farce of bureaucracy and has entirely different episodes which flow together in an uninterrupted succession using only true facts that all happened to me throughout my life. I speak of incredible bureaucratic things but which took place and which I, quite ironically, place in the mouth of animals. Now, in fact, both texts are mine, and I therefore don’t feel as if the topic or the modality has been exhausted. I had other Musical Theatre plays, but the opportunity does not always appear, or at least, not when we want it to. However, I would still like to come back to this with another work.

Tordesyalta was my first theatrical experience in this aspect, and it is anything but opera, or at least opera in the traditional sense. It has something of everything, but I tried not to think about it and tried to do something quite amateur, in my sense of the word. After I had written the play, I showed it to various people from the world of the theatre and I was surprised when they told me: “Ah, this is very theatrical.” I hope these were sincere opinions as I didn’t pay them, so… In any case, I was happy as I tried not to be influenced by A, B or C. This is now clearly the result of a never-ending search for something different in terms of changing my path. I would never feel happy if, after a number of years, I was going in the same direction that I had adopted years before.

Semantic / phonetic duality in the use of texts

This is a very interesting question, because it brings one aspect into focus which I think is fundamental. I speak of that need which the composer very often feels in transmitting by sounds that which an image conveys to him or her. As in cinema music, for example, where there is a dramatic scene and you hear music with timbales, there is a romantic scene and there has to be a very lyrical violin solo, etc. But to what degree can we go for the opposite, in order to awaken the spectator and listener, so to speak, and not to send him to sleep. I remember the extraordinary impression I had the first time I heard Wozzeck, by Alban Berg, in that scene where the music band passes in front of Maria’s house. The melody is perfectly banal, almost ridiculous, but in that context there is a situation of profound anguish and the orchestration and the very harmonic accompaniment are so agonising that they establish a contrast. I find this aspect much more interesting to explore than the actual “identity” of the music with the scenic action. Concerning the other aspect that I was pointing out, that composers destroy the poetic text, I still haven’t gone to the extreme – although I’d like to try – of composing by cutting and decomposing a text, so as to leave vowels and consonants disconnected from each other as if they were phonemes. I think that, unless a situation requires it, this does not translate poetry. I can’t say that that is the same poetry as the poet’s if I in fact pull it all apart in such a way as to make it unrecognisable.

This fundamentally is a musical composition but I think that if it is such a drastic change it does not allow the composer to say that it is based on the poem or on the text of such and such an author as it is the cadaver in an advanced state of decay which could not even be recognised as such. By this I don’t mean that this isn’t a form of expression. “AAARRRAAUUUOOOOIII” – things like this are perfectly admissible. What we have here is that I haven’t gone as far as to dismantle a text and say “this was the text”, if it isn’t there.

There are some of my choral works where there is fragmentation, but it is a momentary fragmentation, as the word appears in its complete form either before or after. They are different situations.

Work as a process of communication

I have thought more about this in recent years. I think that, obviously, a creative artist should not stoop to the point of trying to please a less illuminated public or one that hungers for any type of culture. If he rises too far, however, he runs the risk of having only half a dozen listeners and spectators who understand the message. My problem is not so much one of trying to please everyone or just pleasing a few. Evidently the artist who composes just for him or herself without thinking of anyone else cannot complain. We have to communicate with someone; we shouldn’t bury our head in the sand. So if one desires to communicate, who is it we wish to communicate with? That is the first question. There may be various answers, of course. But the idea that we should go for quantity instead of quality, this is something that only someone who in fact has no other aspirations should do, because whoever has aspirations would also have to think about quality. How do we reconcile the one with the other? I think that there are ways of finding, by those that listen to us – and lately I have tried to achieve this – various possible interpretations. Each of us can think of a book we have read, a piece of music we have heard or a film we saw and we liked for some reason, and, when we speak with someone else who has a completely different cultural context, we can understand that that person liked the same thing a lot, but for other reasons – or rather, there are various possible interpretations provided that there is a wide enough range, not necessarily 360 degrees, but which can be understood by various types of people, by various social, cultural and even geographic groups. How? Clearly there are many ways of doing this but I think I have tried and I have thought a lot about this problem.

I think I have found some solutions, because even in my own experience I have sometimes had reactions from such diverse people who tell me, in their own words and sometimes with no technical terms at all: ”I liked your work for this, that or another reason.” While a colleague, a specialist, a composer or musician would tell me the same thing in other words, but referring to other aspects of the work. So, within the same work one has to reconcile aspects which can be digested by various publics. I think that perhaps therein lies a concern, a worry of artists and creators – I don’t mean just composers, as this can be generalised.

Recent works for orchestra

Amongst these four orchestra works, the first, which I called Os Sons Abandonados, was a piece based on material left by Jorge Peixinho. I mean material which he didn’t use, various notations completely unconnected from each other, although many appear on the same page. Some of these elements were in fact very interesting and very stimulating musically, and they didn’t follow the image that we normally have of Jorge Peixinho as someone who rejected melody. He went through a stage where, shall we say, he was closely connected to a certain dictatorship at Darmstadt, but from which he later managed to escape, even in a very healthy way of being free from all preconceptions. He had an idea and wasn’t just looking at himself and saying: “No, these are two consecutive notes and therefore can be taken as a fragment of a melody, I cannot use this”. He actually used things like that, and which to a point were taboo. This is to say that I discovered melodic cadences, things with extraordinary lyricism. Obviously when I got hold of that I was not concerned – which would have been absurd of me – with imitating Jorge Peixinho’s style or doing things in Jorge Peixinho’s way. No, I tried to construct my own discourse, and for that reason I called it Os Sons Abandonados ("The Abandoned Sounds"). It is a piece lasting ten minutes, and it was the first of the series of four commissioned by the Porto National Orchestra. The second, which has also been played, I called Ricercare. It is a piece for orchestra, with material which is exclusively my own, but with other objectives, which convey a stage of unrest and almost exasperation in which I found myself at that time, which therefore provides a great contrast of musical situations. The third and fourth works were delivered by me but have not yet been played. The third is a parody which I had wanted to do for quite some time, but had never had the opportunity, and which I called Playing Ludwig. It is, so to speak, an orchestration of mine of very short fragments of some of Beethoven’s sonatas and symphonies, especially those with a predominance of dominant tonic cadences. For various reasons, which aren’t worth going into here, I became allergic to Beethoven when I was 18 years old, although I greatly admire and really like some works, but in relation to most I always feel inclined to find faults and not qualities. I think it was also for this reason that I decided to write this work. In fact, the fault and the biggest problem is mine and not Beethoven’s, evidently. The last work is a symphonic choral work which I called Babel, because it is based on texts in Latin, from the Old Testament, which tell of the building of the Tower of Babel. It is for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra. As I said, these last two have not yet been played.

Pace of current work

As from the time when I had to start meeting deadlines, with this contract with the Porto National Orchestra, I had a period of almost three years of continuous production for these four works. I finished one and immediately started another, as I had deadlines to keep.

The work happened daily and when it wasn’t daily it was agonising for me. I say this because if I stopped for two or three days I would then have to follow another path and not the one I was following when I stopped… So, this is the great drama. After that, I obviously got on with other works which I had been asked or commissioned to do, and now I confess that I am in a period, for the last few months, where I haven’t written anything. I am trying to recharge my batteries, as I feel a bit tired of the pace of finishing one work, starting another, finishing the work, starting another – it is quite draining…

Writing an essay on orchestration

Now my immediate project is not so much a musical work, but rather a literary one. It will not be a treatise on orchestration nor instrumentation, but rather a kind of reflection on orchestral thought. I speak of thinking in terms of an orchestra when one is playing piano or another instrument – or rather, not limiting the instrument’s technique only to the technical aspects of interpretation. As this would not be an interpretation, it would be merely execution, and I think it is a shame to limit the sonic realisation of a work to its simple execution. Therefore, this is how I am now thinking of gathering the material that I have filed for over thirty years now and which I still have not had the opportunity to bring together. I want to take advantage of a small break in my composition activities and immerse myself in writing this book.