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Interview | "Composing is a gesture"

Luciana Leiderfarb | Expresso, 09.06.18

At 41, Vasco Mendonça is one of the most active Portuguese composers - who found himself, he says, when he assumed the role of a craftsman. (...) This friday, Gulbenkian Orchestra premieres his first piano concert, STEP RIGHT UP, which will be played again in November in Brazil by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, a co-commission of both institutions, (...) and recorded by Naxos as a part of his first orchestral portrait CD.  

We met him at his studio in Lisbon: a piano, scattered scores, notes, a b&w photo, chaos on his desk. And a piece of paper that was the "embryo" of the third movement,  the musical gesture from where everything started. 


How did you arrive at this Concerto?

It's a two-step project, a co-commission from Gulbenkian Foundation and the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, which will also be part of my first monographic record for Naxos, with just orchestral music. Also, two years ago I was involved in the Rolex Arts Initiative, and one of the prizes was the financing of a project.(...)

This is the first time you´ve approached this musical form. What sets it apart from the rest?

As a composer, I am interested only in the piano concerto. Even if the piano isn´t incredibly present in my catalogue, I´ve always felt very close to it. In this case, I focused less on the romantic pathos of the piano than on its mechanics, on the piano as a musical machine, as percussion, and on its relation with the keyboard instruments that preceded it.

Do you see the modern piano as the point of arrival of a genealogy? 

Maybe. Because it was the idea of a machine that led me to ornamentation, in the traditional, almost baroque sense - although presented through a contemporary filter. If we pay close attention when listening to a harpsichord, we´re able to hear the noises of a precision mechanism. What remains is this huge meta-percussion. Also, I was also being pestered by ghosts of African percussion, and decide to allow them to appear throughout the piece.

How does that get along with the orchestra?

The idea was to take the common identity of the orchestra and the piano as precision machines. I have always been interested in synchronism, articulation, arabesque - here linked to the notion of parade and procession. The name of the piece is "Step Right Up," an American expression use to gather people around. The piano is a sort of MC that throws stuff at the orchestra, and I hope to have achieved an unstable relationship between them - not necessarily a dialogue. From a visual perspective, the pianist is there and at the same time remains isolated, separated from the orchestra (...)

You have written (...) a lot of music for the stage. What took you there?

Opera has always moved me a lot. There is something unique about its artificiality. Singing is usually associated with extreme acts - great happiness, pain, or lamentation, and there is something profoundly excessive in opera that brings us to the limit of human experience. Music is a self-reflexive art, a reflection of the world in second or third instance, and the connection between theater and music allows it to be anchored it in the real world. On the other hand, I am moved by the presence of the singer on stage. In terms of risk, Luis Miguel Cintra compared singing to driving a Formula 1. An actor who misses a line can improvise. A singer who misses a beat takes him and the whole room behind him. It is immensely fragile and delicate.

How do you get an identity as a composer? 

By trial and error. The world of contemporary music is a world with an elitist burden. Some music of the last 50 years has a strong intellectual component. At first I had difficulty articulating this need to rationalize everything with the search of my own voice; what I liked and what I wanted to do with the rules, with what you´re supposed to expect from a contemporary composer. And then there was a moment when that changed, from a thinker to an artisan. Realizing this craftsmanship aspect freed me immensely, challenged my tendency to rationalize with the ultimate question: how does this work as an aesthetic object? We don´t listen to rules, we´re looking to be touched and challenged.

Can you identify the moment where it changed?

It had to do with a practical question. In 2011 I had two demanding requests: a big orchestral piece for the 50th anniversary of the Gulbenkian Orchestra, and an opera commission from Aix-en-Provence festival. Suddenly, I had this crazy schedule, and virtually no time to over-think. And I thought: I have to write music in a sincere, controlled and serious way. And by way of circumstances, something was eventually released.

How does a musical idea appear? 

The question is that you need to be constantly focusing and un-focusing. An idea comes to mind, you imagine this music in your head, sometimes even record yourself singing it, so you won´t forget its character. But then the process of organizing it for 70+ instruments, while keeping its initial freshness and interest - that´s hard work.

I was going to compare it with the poet's craft, but multiplied by a hundred. Is that so? 

It is more elaborate, although it has to have the same freshness, the same spontaneity. But yes, and sometimes I get quite attached to the poetic images of authors I´m fond of. Writing a piece can sometimes begin as the materialization of a feeling. Years ago I discovered Philip Larkin  - the soundscape of my piece "Unanswerable Light" is a response to him. 

You´ve also departed from Cortázar and Bosch.

I am naturally drawn to borderline manifestations. It is when we are at the extreme of our existence, be it suffering or happiness, that we are more human. The story of Cortazar ["The House Taken"] is a tale of excess, of two people refusing to leave a house in danger. Choosing not to live, in order to avoid the world. (...)

How do you react to a work being premiered and then forgotten?

It's devastating. It is harmful for everyone involved. There are masterpieces that were played once and not even recorded, a graveyard of scores waiting to be rediscovered. Because the work will die if it´s not played.  We rarely have solid performance of contemporary pieces, it´s mostly the more or less stressful version of the premiere. My big question is: why can't contemporary music have a greater presence in people's lives?

And what´s your answer?

The feeling I have is that the ritual closeness - same orchestras, the same halls -  between the canonical and contemporary repertoires may be inhibiting to the typical concert hall audience: the need for comfort provided by the 100th version of Beethoven's 5th tends to be sabotaged by a universe of contemporary creation that is increasingly eclectic and less reverential to great European erudite tradition. Therefore, perhaps the audiences in theory more distant from classical music (those looking for new stuff in light music, pop, dance music) are more willing to be confronted with a more contemporary repertoire. And, being difficult to bring them into the traditional concert hall, I would like to think that it is not impossible.

You´re optimistic, then.

I am. The worst thing you can say to me is, "I don´t really know much about music, but I really liked your piece." There is an element of self-censorship here, of those who think that, because they are laymen, their opinion does not count. We have to accept that there is be an instinctive connection to any kind of music, the same as in the plastic arts, or in film. (...)