Vítor Rua interview
From Unearthing The Music
The following is an e-mail interview conducted by the UNEARTHING THE MUSIC Team with Vítor Rua in April 2020.
You started your musical career before Carnation Revolution, being a part of several bands in Porto. Can you tell us what the music scene was like at the time? How easy was it to access new music, especially music made outside Portugal? How did the music scene change after the revolution? I started performing live at 11 years old with a band called SNIF, which played music from other bands. Once, the rest of the musicians - who were all older than me - arrived at my home (where we rehearsed) while I was playing a song and asked what it was. I told them I wrote it and they decided to rehearse the song - and we played it during our next performance. It was such a big hit with the audience that they asked me if I had any more songs - I told them I did and so we started playing more and more of my music, to the point where we only played my song during the last concert we had together.
That was very rare at the time! Bands back then mostly played other bands’ music. The band Pesquisa - who would later become Táxi - played that show as well and afterwards came meet me and tell me they enjoyed it a lot.
Later I joined King Fischer’s Band and we started playing in bars and clubs in Porto (we were the first to make performing in that kind of places popular in the city - this was around 1975, when I was 14). We had one month contracts and as soon as we left a club we already had a contract with another one. Eventually we even had contracts with two clubs at the same time, and sometimes we’d ride our motorcycles with our guitars in the rain to play in one and then go play in another some hours later.
I was making around 30 contos a month, which at the time was a lot of money - an university professor at the time would be paid around 23 contos a month. When we started playing in two clubs at once it became 60 contos - not even surgeons were paid that much.
When I was 10 I already had studio experience, since I recorded often at the Tenente Valadim Radio Studio in Porto. But there were barely any recording studios or even instrument shops (Casa Ruvina was one of the few) in Porto, and those that existed had very few instruments for sale. I had to order my first synthesizer from abroad, in 71/72, because there weren’t any for sale here. It was only after the start of the 80s that a shop named Caius opened in Porto, where I could buy synthesizers and Roland electric guitars. That was where my aunt Carolina Rosa bought me my first electric guitar.
There weren’t many record stores and their selection was very limited, especially for rock, jazz, and every genre besides light and classical music, which were the easiest to find. If you wanted to hear the music coming out outside Portugal, you had to order it from abroad or buy it there, or else make a copy in a cassette or reel-to-reel tape if you knew someone who already had it.
Within my family we didn’t discuss politics, so I only realized we lived in a fascist society on the 25th of April of 1974, when my brother explained the truth about the country to me. But Porto was a backwards town then, especially when it came to culture, without anything like the Gulbenkian Foundation that Lisbon had, and where concerts with foreign bands happened once a year at best.
I never “lacked” freedom in what we did - rather, we were allowed to do anything we wanted to do. In King Fischer’s Band we used to play American and British folk and country songs, and in GNR it was new wave rock. In SNIF we’d play music by the Beatles, Procul Harum, Manfred Mann, Rolling Stones, etc, so there was no reason for us to be censored.
Your musical career is marked to a large extent by experimentation and improvisation. How and when did your interest in this approach come about and how did it evolve over time? I started experimenting with musical instruments from a young age. Even before I had a synthesizer I’d try things like stuffing an acoustic guitar’s sound box with a balloon which I’d fill up in order to touch the strings and muffle them, which resulted in a banjo-like sound.
Since I didn’t know how to play keys, as soon as I got my synthesizer I played it in an experimental way, unlike most players who came from a piano background and thus played it like one. It wasn’t the case for me - I saw it as a new musical instrument which required new techniques. Afterwards I started playing electric guitar and synthesizer at the same time with a technique I invented, and that’s how Rui Reininho met me, because he was told there was “a musician who played his instruments in an unusual way”.
But it was with Jorge Lima Barreto, in 1980, that my interest in experimental music developed in meteoric fashion. With Telectu our experimentation grew to such a level that almost nothing we were doing in Portugal had ever been done, and some 37 years later these records of ours are still seen as “very advanced”. We were always buying new instruments (especially synthesizers and samplers, mixers and recording material), and after exploring them for a while and recording with them we’d move on to new ones and experiment with them.
You’ve developed many projects either as a solo artist or in collaboration with artists from around the world, including Chris Cutler, Carlos Zíngaro, Evan Parker, Paul Lytton and Ikue Mori, among others. What draws you to these collaborations with such different artists? Do you feel as if there is a common thread which runs through your entire musical career, despite the large variety of genres and approaches you’ve explored?
When Telectu started inviting foreign musicians to play with us, everything changed, both for Telectu and for myself as a musician. Improvising with these musicians was an extraordinary way to learn more about improvisation, but also how to interact with other musicians.
Interestingly it was usually (with the rare exception of Elliott Sharp) other musicians who entered “our” musical world (as was in fact mentioned in an article in WIRE magazine). Each musician brought something new for us to learn or incorporate into our own music. And they would learn from us. These were true workshops. Around that time (in 1987) I also started composing, and obviously this constant back and forth between improvised and written music was also very productive for me as a musician.
A musician’s “common thread” is his “style” (if he ever reaches it). And style is a kind of “sound”!
Trumpeter Jon Hassell’s sound comes from playing with 50% of the instrument’s sound and 50% air sound, then he uses a sound processor (Eventide) which is a harmonizer (it creates several notes from a single one and these notes are in an harmonic relationship with each other), and finally we have the melodic part: the scales or modes he chooses for his musical phrasing. But would another musician, with the same instrument, the same processor and using the same scales and modes as Hassell sound like him? Likely, yes. Yet those in the know will recognize it’s not him. In the same way there are hundreds or even thousands of pianists trying to imitate Keith Jarrett, and yet we can still tell the original from the copies. Like a celebrity voice impersonator - the voice is similar (in tone, expression, timbre), but not the same.
We can thus conclude that the fact that two musicians use the same instrument or the same scales and modes, doesn’t make them sound the same. For a conductor it becomes even more complicated. They don’t play any instruments, the musicians are always different and the music they play can be hundreds of years apart in their creation. But still, we can tell if an orchestra was conducted by this or that conductor. So if the sound-identity isn’t defined by the sound of the instrument, if it has nothing to do with the musicians involved (for a conductor and an orchestra), and if it doesn’t even have anything to do with the choice of music or the notes, scales, rhythms used in it, what makes us distinguish the sound of a particular musician from another, like a mother penguin can tell the sound of its child apart from that of thousands of others surrounding it?
Maybe to the answer to this question (which is not a simple one), is that sound-identity is a mix of all of these variables: instrumentation, instrumental techniques, musicality, timbre, rhythm, and a wide range of sonic idiosyncrasies belonging to the individual or individuals creating the music.
In that sense I believe that what ties my entire career together is that “sound” I’ve created along the way and which is made up of my own little things that reveal themselves in my work, whether it's me playing an instrument or writing in paper.