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Interview | "I´ve always been interested in deviant behaviour"

Myriam Gaspar | Sábado, 12.10.16

The composer likes to see himself as a craftsman. A craftsman who carves the score with notes. Not just any notes. The notes that reflect what he thinks and how he feels about the world. About guilt, for example. The main subject of Bosch Beach, his most recent opera, commissioned by Jheronimus Bosch 500 Foundation, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of the Dutch painter, opening October 20th, at Teatro Maria Matos. Inspired by Bosch´s 'The Seven Deadly Sins', Vasco Mendonça´s piece was deals with the arrival of refugees in Lampedusa, in a beach full of tourists sunbathing. Whose fault is it? The composer was leaving for New York when he spoke to us on his three new pieces opening this October.


What are these pieces you have been working on recently?

I´ve preparing a new production on my previous chamber opera The House Taken Over, inspired by the writer Julio Cortazar's short story Casa Tomada, which debuted in Aix in 2013.(...) The second work is a piece of chamber music called Fight | Flight | Freeze, which will be performed at the Lincoln Center on the 12th in an event sponsoerd by the ROLEX Institute,  and is based on a mechanism all mammals have when facing a threat. We fight, flee or play dead.


Why did you choose this title?

I always had claustrophobia and fear of flying. And this mechanism - Fight, Flight, Freeze - is distorted when there is a phobia. Claustrophobia or the fear of heights are distortions of that process. That is, the mechanism is there, but for the wrong reasons, because there is no real threat.


How is that transposed into music?

Over the past five years I´ve had to travel so much that I was sort of stunned. Now it's just boring. The fact is, these mechanisms have always interested me and are something with which I've always had to deal with. The piece itself is somewhat rough, made with music moments that succeed each other in a discontinuous manner, not very organic. I see it somewhat as a representation of panic.


How do you react to fear?

It depends on the type of threat. Fear of flying is an acute form of claustrophobia. But there are several strategies to control it. Now I don´t feel anything, really. Deviant behavior always interested me immensely, but it is very difficult to transpose this into absolute music, because it is so abstract. No text, no actors. For me it is more like a motivation, an excuse to create music, to express things that, at some point in my life, were important. to me. This piece coincided with a tumultuous period of work, I traveled a lot, my children were small. There were a number of factors that could cause anxiety.


How does the management of the creative process with your day-to-day?

Composing music is always a highly technical and abstract activity. There´s an idea you want to express, but then when you start putting it down on paper, there are many details that have nothing to do with the creative process. Things as prosaic as: does the violin play this note? You have deal with orchestration, compositional technique, etc. This technical dimension leads me to think more like a craftsman and less in my psychological motivations. Composers I admire in the conceptualisation of a piece, generally have this approach of a craftsman. As if they were potters shaping the clay. This was a hard piece to write. It was written in the most bizarre places. Some bits in Helsinki, others in Los Angeles, while traveling. When I finished it, I had no idea what it was. It was so different from anything I'd done. And now it´s is a piece that I really like. And I am very pleased that people like to perform it. It has stones, paper tearing, it is extremely virtuoso. Not everyone can play it. It requires a level of energy and anxiety that relates to the title.


Bosch Beach was inspired on Jheronimus Bosch´s  'The Seven Deadly Sins'. Did you chose the name?

The name was given by the librettist. The Jheronimus Bosch 500 Foundation commissioned us an opera that should somehow be inspired by this painting. It is a particularly evocative depiction of sin, the world of Bosch is always populated with these completely deranged creatures, monsters and lecherous beings. These medieaval paintings were a kind of moral guides, dealing with guilt and sin. For example, Bosch was part of a sect that considered people with physical disabilities as sinners. And as we were discussing how that ambiguity and strange relationship with guilt would translate to the contemporary world, those horrible pictures of Lampedusa appeared, where refugees are side by side with tourists drinking cocktails at the beach, an absolutely obscene image.


It is a contrast. But whose fault is it?

That is our point. On the one hand, those poor bastards, lying on beach chairs, can´t be blamed for the disgrace happening 20 meters away from them. On the other hand, they are part of a world that is responsible for that same disgrace. That is, we have our thirty seconds of guilt when we see those pictures, but then we calm down because we think that we are powerles. If we are in a Club Med on a Greek island and twenty people cast ashore nearly dead, we´ll obviously give them our water and our blankets. But to what extent we are willing to give up certain aspects that are a part of our well-being and way of life? The opera takes place in this space, a rather strange beach, where three bathers are spending their holidays surrounded by a universe of death and misery.


Do you think people will understand?

What interested me the most was to empathize with the bathers. Through music, particularly through their vocal lines, I wanted to suggest the following: these swimmers are not necessarily monsters, we can recognize ourselves in them, to a degree. Their actions are reprehensible, but they´re are also capable of compassion. This recognition is the key to the restlessness I wanted the audience to experience.


People always end up feeling guilty.

When I saw that child´s picture on the beach, who is the age of my son, I didn´t sleep for three days thinking about. We need more awareness. When I look around me, I realize there is something seriously wrong with the direction we are taking. This whole issue with the refugees is quite bizarre, in the sense that we are responsible for those migrations, but then think superficially, we think the Muslim entering Europe will put a bomb in a shopping center. We either acquit or condemn. And we lack true political leaders. We mainly focus our discourse on numbers. Numbers decide people's lives. As if some sort of alien octopus decides those who survive and those who don´t. There is a dismissal of political decisions and lack of political courage (...)


Fear speaking.

We must refuse simple explanations because the world is complicated. There are situations where we can't say this is good or this is bad. We have to reach out to others, understand their motivations, make our own judgment instead of repeating the mantra we hear.(...)