Interview with Álvaro Salazar
From Unearthing The Music
The following interview from the MIC.PT Archive with the Portuguese composer Álvaro Salazar, has been republished here with the kind permission of the Portuguese Music Research & Information Centre – wwww.mic.pt (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. You can also watch a video recording of the Interview on the MIC.PT YouTube Channel by clicking here.
Formative Period: stages and turning points
It’s difficult to answer, because most of the time one is not exactly aware of how things began. Mainly, in my case, because although my mother played piano well and gave home recitals which delighted me, I was not born into a family of professional musicians. This was possibly something that, from my earliest childhood, motivated me to develop my interest in music. But very early on (not that early, because I was not a precocious child), I decided that my life would be that of a composer, in the first place. And in some way I subordinated everything to composition. I studied various instruments, but did not master any of them: I studied classical guitar, piano, oboe, cor anglais, a bit of double bass… But all this was in relation to conducting an orchestra. Indeed, at the beginning I was interested in keeping up both activities professionally, conducting and composition. At a certain point, the scales tipped, and I became much more interested in composition and in a way conducting came to be a facet of composition. Let me explain a little better: my real compositional learning was by means of the study of scores, the analysis of scores by other composers. And conducting gave me an exceptional means of being in contact with these works – and therefore analysing them, studying them, and also conducting them. These days, my interest is in composition, also because for some years I have been practically unable to conduct because of the deterioration of my vision; I have very poor sight, and find it difficult to read scores. I even had to cancel concerts – unfortunately, important concerts that appeared more recently at this later stage of my life, and that I had to cancel, because it was impossible – I don’t mean that I can’t conduct the odd concert – but it has to be under two conditions: either the programme has to be quite staid, let’s say, without the problems of rhythmic and metrical complexity normally to be found in contemporary works, or I have to be invited a long time before, which gives me the chance to memorize as much as possible, because it’s impossible to work now just be reading.
Because of this, lately I’ve been concentrating much more on composition, which doesn’t mean that my sight problems have not also affected my composition, because I have great difficulty in copying scores, in writing them, and so on. In a sense I followed the path I chose in music – I’m not saying that I reached the level I wanted, but that’s another story: but I followed the path I wanted, and have no regrets.
I need to go back a bit further to explain something about musical life in Portugal in my day, when I was young… At that time, composition teaching at the Conservatory was extremely weak. There was practically no teaching of composition, but compositional techniques of the past. As you know, at the National Conservatory, which was the establishment with which I had most to do, composition was taught at one point by Armando José Fernandes and Croner de Vasconcelos.
Now in these classes, and with all due respect to their memory, these teachers were not exactly adepts of the most advanced methods of composition, and so we didn’t even talk – or only very little – about the new trends. We’re talking about the 1950s, beginning of the 1960s. There was a certain lack of information… including that which these teachers didn’t like, such as the Viennese School (in its entirety)… they didn’t like it, but they also didn’t know it well. And this was a problem. In terms of composition… there was classical baroque harmony; tonal counterpoint, fugue, and then orchestration and sonata. This meant writing a kind of standard or stereotype sonata, which of course the great composers never did. The theorization of sonata form is very late, from the mid-19th century.
I very often say, when I’m feeling more caustic, that composition was time wasted. I wouldn’t say that it was completely wasted, but it was in large measure. On the other hand, in the market there was no easy access to scores, or discs of the most advanced music. Of course, when one could, one travelled, bought a disc, a score… but the information that we had was much less than today. In addition, and continuing what I was saying, the teaching programme was very much atrophied in comparison to what is taught today, especially following the establishment of the Higher Schools in Oporto, Lisbon, Aveiro and so on.
So, access to more up-to-date information… it also couldn’t be had really through concerts, because there was very little contemporary music in concerts (or they were very timid about programming it)… only certain neoclassical works, or pieces from the beginning of the century, from time to time. But it’s obvious that there was not the practical knowledge of the more interesting composers, of more open aesthetics than those of the musical life of Portugal at the time. Today other things are possible, there are discs, scores, a different kind of teaching, obviously. With these limitations, one of the ways of getting to know more advanced music was indeed by studying scores – those that one could find… and that’s what I did. And, in my case, as a young orchestral conductor, what I did was to programme contemporary works whenever possible, but even today it’s not that easy, because there are problems in hiring parts, for example… it’s all very expensive. Apart from the resistance of the orchestras, and of the principal players of the orchestras, who are generally, with rare exceptions, quite conservative. Because within conservatism they can simplify their work quite a lot: if next week they’re going to play Beethoven’s 8th Symphony, they’ve already played it innumerable times, and know it practically by heart. Now… if they have to have a new score, absorb the meaning of certain notations… all this is quite complicated for conservative minds. This happens all over the world, and Portugal is no exception. Of course there are orchestras more used to it than others, such as the Gulbenkian Orchestra, which plays it quite regularly… it could even play more, but then there’s the reaction of the audience: it’s not contemporary music that’s going to fill the Large Auditorium of the Gulbenkian Foundation. The Foundation’s annual contemporary music series proved that over a number of years; unless there’s a social element… If Boulez comes here… it looks bad if you don’t go… or Xenakis or Stockhausen… but apart from that, people don’t go to the concerts, and the small attendance justifies stopping them.
Coming back to conducting, of both symphonic orchestras and chamber groups, with which I could perform contemporary music… it gave me a lot of pleasure to leave the well-trodden paths, and, secondly, to have access to works that I found it interesting as a composer to study, analyse and see how others did things.
I think that my compositional training was this. Analysis was, moreover, my great compositional discipline, and I learned a great deal like this. And that was also the opinion of Olivier Messiaen.
Works not in the catalogue
One might almost say that it’s a whim, saying that there are no pieces. I’ll explain: as for my early works, my first attempts as a composer: I destroyed them all! I’m talking about pieces that were played in public (so it’s not just my imagination), were withdrawn from the catalogue and destroyed. Some were actually destroyed physically, others in the sense that nobody was allowed to play them, and I don’t show them to anybody, and are mixed up with old papers to be thrown away one day.
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t make use of some of these works – the Palimpsestos series, for example, is based on, or informed by, we could say, here and there by fragments, of “quotations” of earlier works. But in fact, in 1965 I destroyed all the works that had been performed until then. And afterwards, I started from zero.
Palimpsestos II, which is for solo flute and dates from 1965… and there’s a fragment of Palimpsestos I which was for solo piano, dating from 1962, and only that one was played in public. The others are not from that period, but date from after 1965.
So, I destroyed, started over and took some time to perform anything in public again for a very simple reason: my output was so small that I wouldn’t not have felt that I had made my debut as a composer with a little piece for solo flute or a short piece for one instrument, unless they had had been of larger dimensions and of more grandiose aims than they were. Then came all those things that we all, or many of us, from my generation went through – military service, four years of military service in my case, problems of that kind – and indeed, only afterwards did I begin to perform things more systematically.
I’m very demanding… As an orchestral conductor, for example, I never conduct my own works. This for a very simple reason: I don’t feel able to demand as much of an orchestra in a work of mine in rehearsals as I do in a work by another composer. I’d feel badly about this at times, and unfortunately it’s necessary, being somewhat sharp, somewhat rough, a little too demanding, to ask to hear a certain passage many times… With a piece by another composer I don’t have the slightest problem – and I do it – but with my own music, I wouldn’t like to do this, I don’t feel able.
As for chamber and solo music, I founded Oficina Musical in 1978, and during the first years I didn’t want to perform my own pieces – I didn’t want to fall into the trap of transforming Oficina Musical in some way into a group for my own professional promotion. For example, the publication of scores, which is still not very frequent with Oficina Musical, has not included any of my works, because I thought that only after publishing many Portuguese composers would I have the moral right to put out a piece of mine as well. And this is indeed now going to happen with Oficina Musical.
As for the works I destroyed, and because this is important, I destroyed them for a simple reason: because they were incipient attempts at composition, technically and aesthetically, for the reasons I mentioned earlier, on account of the delay we felt here in relation to what was going on in Europe, the USA and other parts of the world.
Let me just add that perhaps my works don’t exist… and it’s not a joke… for one reason: I decided, some two years ago, that only the works published under my supervision will survive (and I hope that my family respects my wishes). All the others are pieces I’d like to rework here or there, or at least revise and check to see if they need these corrections or not. This means that what is not published does not exist.
The generation of the 1960s and travel abroad.
We were living in a time warp, as you know, and in some ways it was the generation that I call “the generation of the 1960s”, and which includes the composers whose works began to be known in the late 1950s – early 1960s, such as Jorge Peixinho, myself, Constança Capdeville, etc. who, whatever else they may have done, causes a break in Portuguese music. Quite apart from the value and the musicality of certain composers, which is not the point here, the fact is that, until that point, Portuguese music was several decades behind what was going on outside. In fact, that was always a problem of Portuguese music in other centuries, with very rare or very occasional exceptions.
And so, I was aware not only of the primitive technical quality of these works (perhaps it’s going too far to call them works), but also of their aesthetic inadequacy.
And from then on, from the beginning of the 1960s, I was fully aware of this time lag and of this technical deficiency. Then there was a period of trying to acquire large amounts of information. I read many scores, I listened to a lot of music… In 1965 it wasn’t possible to put it off any more, and I spent almost four years doing military service.
Only after that, and after a period outside music in order to earn a living, could I make use of a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation and to Paris and soon, where it was indeed possible to find far more information and work more seriously on analysis, concentrating particularly on certain phases of music or particular composers.
I was able, for example, to analyse the whole of the Viennese School with Gilbert Amy, who’s only slightly older than I (two years), but who was at another stage of development and who was an extremely generous person, making himself available to give me these classes free of charge: and I learned a great deal from this analysis with Gilbert Amy. In addition, and making full use of the fact of being in Paris, I also took the conducting course. I had already had conducting classes in Vienna with Swarowsky, also in the 1960s, but for a short time, because military service interrupted my stay in Vienna.
But I took my Licence de Concert at the Ecole Normale de Paris with Pierre Dervaux, and was in Pierre Schaeffer’s studio at the GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales), which was a centre dedicated to musique concrète. It was really an important time for me, and I subsequently returned to Portugal and continued at the Conservatory, where I had already begun before, as a teacher.
Influences, languages and technical and aesthetic perspectives
Sometimes, finding out about something relatively late has its advantages. For example, in my catalogue there is not a single dodecaphonic work – even though many people think I’m a kind of Portuguese dodecaphonist. I know the Vienna School rather well, I analysed the main works, but I have no dodecaphonic or total serial work in my catalogue. If I had begun a little earlier, I would have, certainly. The Vienna School was absolutely the first opening out for me. There’s also another composer who still means a great deal to me: Varèse. I think that critics never mention the presence of Varèse in my pieces, for the simple reason that they don’t know Varèse, but that’s their problem!
And then certain tendencies appear quite early, from this period on. And I believe that the fact that they appeared early, and at the same time my near-obsession with going back to earlier works, correcting them and re-writing them, meant that what I wrote had a certain unity. Perhaps somewhat pretentiously I could say that I have a style in that when you hear a piece, you can recognize it as mine. Of course, this does not negate the influence of other composers! There are readings, literature, essays, philosophy and so on. There are readings which impress us profoundly, and very often we are unaware of how this comes out in our own work, but there are composers to whom I always like to refer, because even if you don’t notice traces of them in my works, they can have had a great influence on me, in perhaps less audible, less visual ways.
Of the Viennese School… Webern, obviously, through his economy of means, his strictness, influenced me, or perhaps my temperament is already Webernian… It was more this constructional strictness, the rigorousness of his thought, the use of silence, to which I will return because silence has a very important role in what I do… If silence in fact exists… (if Cage were here, he would say it doesn't).
Varèse… I think he was vital above all in the exploration of the extreme registers of instrumental groups. I mention instrumental groups because Varèse’s works that mean most to me are not his orchestral works, but rather his pieces for smaller groups - Integrales, Octandre, Hyperprism… And there, for example, the use of brass in a very high register, in a very low register – we know very well that the note there doesn’t come out precisely, whether in terms of tuning, whether in terms of emission, but that was of his own choosing… This also affected me quite a lot, apart from the dynamic polyphonies.
At the beginning of the 1970s I was much impressed by the Italian composer Donatoni. I attended a number of festivals at Royan, where I heard some things that interested me and still do, on account of their ornamental texture, their sonic ping-pong. Also in Italy, the later works of Luigi Nono interested me, and influenced me, though later on.
Returning to silence and to something important: non-tempered space or micro-chromaticism generalized into non-tempered space… silence affects me very much… There is, curiously, a composer who affected me greatly and strangely still does, Morton Feldman. He, in a way, inverts the functions of sound and silence. Silence sculpts the sound. I’m very interested in the poetics, the compositional gesture of some of Feldman’s works. Then there are those more recent influences… or more recent loves. Composers such as Lutoslawski are very interesting, and even his technical-theoretical approach interests me.
I suppose that certain traits may come from this… the appreciation for not very dense textures, the use of silence… And a number of things which would be unthinkable for me without the influence of electroacoustic music. There are certain things which came about from my study of electroacoustic music. I’ll give an example of a technical feature which I use frequently – and whose parallel may be found in electroacoustic music when we add the attack of a sound to the resonance of another, and which in my day of electroacoustic prehistory we obtained by cutting the tape with scissors and splicing two centimentres (at the most) – which is the attack of a tam-tam with the resonance of a trumpet, for example.
What I often do is to use a technique harmonically: if you can imagine the attack of a particular chord played forte, fortissimo or staccatissimo and at the same time other instruments play a harmony tenuto and pianissimo. What we hear is in fact a harmony and the resonance of another – not that one… I use this a lot. It has implications beyond the merely acoustic aspects, it has implications as well in the formal field of micro-form, which is of considerable interest.
The "Palimpestos", "Ludi Officinales" and "Intermezzi" cycles
Well, “cycles” may be overstating the case for these three groups of works…
A palimpsest is a parchment in which a text was written and erased, and over which a second text is written, normally in order to save material (in the middle ages, even a third text could be written); today, through scientific means, it is possible to discover the previous texts. I called these three works Palimpsestos because, though I did not use scientific or analytic processes, I know (as any composer does) at which points are to be found fragments underneath the text… these fragments have to do with some of those works I removed from the catalogue or destroyed, which appear as a kind of “self-quotation”, of which only I am aware. The material is taken from different works, and the three Palimpsestos have almost nothing in common.
Nothing is carried over, thematically or in terms of material, from one Palimpsesto to another… they are totally different and independent from each other.
The series of Ludi Officinales is a work for a chamber group in which there are three possible routes: a route for three strings, a route for piano and percussion, and a route for flute and clarinet. And there the material for each one of these routes is indeed entirely taken from the mother-work, though with different developments; it’s not a copy, and here we can speak of a cycle.
The Intermezzi, which number five to date, are works that were written with the intention either of exploring technical aspects which were new to me, which I was able or intended to use later (in some cases I could, in others I only had the intention) in other kinds of works, or else because they are, so to speak, intellectual ruminations on things I’d already done in other works. In reality, the Intermezzi are independent from each other, and the idea of arranging them in a group of I, II, III, IV, V, came about only because they have something in common.
Glosa e Fanfarra sobre uma Fantasia de António Carreira
There’s an orchestral work which is particularly important to me, and that is Glosa e Fanfarra sobre uma Fantasia de António Carreira. It’s a work with an eventful history. It was written in 1975, but only premièred in the 21th century, in 2002 or 2003 and, if I’m not mistaken, it was premiered in Madrid. It had already been played in part in Romania, but the complete version… the first performance was in Madrid. Then, in the following year (or in the same year, I’m not sure), the Gulbenkian Foundation programmed the work in two concerts. It was a kind of child that took ages to be born… the nine months were over, eighteen months, ten years and it still hadn’t been born. Finally it was born and was well received.
As regards composition, it’s a work that has a quotation taken from a work by António Carreira, and this caused me some problems: the problem of large scale form! Because it’s a work that lasts 23 minutes without pause, and because it’s written for a large orchestra! In addition, it was a paradigmatic work in that it showed the vicissitudes of Portuguese music. It was written in 1975 for much percussion and many percussionists and much brass.
Of course, almost as soon as I’d written it, I became aware (as I should have been before) that a work of this kind could never be played in Portugal. At that time there were neither the percussionists nor the percussion instruments for a work such as this, and there was also no brass players, unless one got them all together…
The piece remained in the drawer… And then I felt the need to introduce other instruments into the work, and felt the lack of strings as an aesthetic necessity. In certain situations the brass were unsuccessful in particular passages where strings were successful. And it turned into a work for large orchestra. If we look at the past – which is no longer so recent – we see that this coincides with the time of the degradation of the orchestras at that time in Portugal.
One day, in conversation with a Spanish friend who’s well known in Portugal, Ramón Encinar, who was conducting the National Orchestra in Lisbon, he said to me: “I wanted to do something of yours; what have you got for orchestra?” “Well, there’s a piece I did years ago… it may need a quick revision, but it’s done, it’s ready, and has been for twenty-odd years.” And he said: “Bring me the piece.” I did, and he was looking through it… the manuscript was practically illegible, because I’d never done a clean copy; and of course, there were no orchestral parts. And he said to me: “Right, get it ready!” This was in 1999. I revised it during this period, and then gave the score to the copyist so that he could typeset it on computer and make the parts, which was a relatively lengthy process, because there are many unconventional signs; it required intensive work with the computer and the available software. Meanwhile, Encinar left Lisbon. But he’s a man of his word; he said he’d première the work, and he telephoned me and said “I’m not there any more, but I can premiere it with the Madrid Symphonic.” I said: “Wonderful!” I sent him the work, and it was premiered there… played and played well!
I should add that the work created a certain response amongst both audience and critics, which reached the ears of the Gulbenkian Foundation. And then something happened which is often the case in Portugal: if you want them to perform you or read you, first you go abroad and do something, and then you are recognized. And in the following year the Gulbenkian programmed the work twice.
The "Intradas" cycle, Silence and Non-Tempered spaces
The Intradas are works… especially between Intradas I-A and Intradas I-B, there are more than influences, there’s almost a re-instrumentation. Intradas A was commissioned by the Cagliari Festival in Sardinia, for three instruments: trumpet, horn and trombone. Of course, three instruments create a few problems harmonically speaking: you’re lmited to three voices. The piece had to be short, more or less in fanfare style. But I’ve always wanted to adapt the piece, doubling the instruments: two trumpets, two horns, two trombones. Intradas B has, in relation to Intradas A, this characteristic, of having double the number of instruments; but the material is practically identical, slightly more developed and lasting another minute or so longer than version A. Intradas II has nothing to do with I-A or I-B; it’s a totally different work for a large brass ensemble. So there’s no connection at all, except the title, because it’s an Intrada, something which begins, or can begin festively, I hope, a concert. There are two things I also wanted to mention… when a while ago I tried to do a “stylistic radiograph” and spoke of a tendency towards silence, and not very dense structures and an increasing interest in non-tempered fields. I have always said, demonstrated and proclaimed my inability to distinguish between musical sound and noise. A sound object, a white noise in the middle of a Mozart Sonata, is obviously a noise. For example, in a work by Emmanuel Nunes, suddenly a sequence of perfect chords would be the worst kind of noise. At any rate, my tendency is to demolish this boundary, between sound and noise, a tendency towards non-tempered spaces.
I’d say that a tempered note, or a sequence of tempered notes, creates harmonic fields, which has bothered me in a way for some time. I need to bring in there something that distorts that planetary system – as though seeing a particular image unfocused. What I’ve been doing is a kind of sfumato of the contours by means of the use of notes, not that one, but rather one that’s a little bit higher or a little bit lower. Obviously, when one uses conventional notation and one introduces quarter-tones, for example, one runs the risk of the final result being merely slightly out of tune. And our ears aren’t prepared for this, and perhaps will require hundreds of years of evolution in order to be able to differentiate. My idea is more a sfumato of the contours… it’s an enriching of a chord, a complex aggregate, which becomes much more complex when you have some notes repeated, but slightly un-tempered in relation to the others.
I think that the tendency towards silence is still very much present in my work. And I often say something that is perhaps not to be aken very seriously, that the ideal would be to write a work that’s a very complex sound object, preceded and followed by an infinite silence. A kind of lost world.