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Interview | Jornal de Negócios

Lúcia Crespo | A minha Economia, 15.06.18

At his parents', Vasco Mendonca listened to jazz and classical music. Then he brought a guitar from friend's house and "tragedy" struck. The composer, pointed out as an essential voice in Portuguese and European contemporary music, realized then that it was through musical harmony he was best able to express himself. He then studied Jazz at the Hot Club, classical music at Escola Superior de Musica de Lisboa, did a masters degree in Composition in Amsterdam, supervised by Klaas de Vries, and studied in London with composer George Benjamin. It was there that he composed the opera JERUSALEM, based on the book by Gonçalo M. Tavares, and staged by Luís Miguel Cintra. In 2004, he received the Lopes Graça Composition Prize, and was the first Young Composer in Residence at Casa da Música. 


"The piano is an immense instrument, it can be so many things: an instrument of percussion, a music box - and I´m very fond of this mechanical quality. For me, the piano isn´t so much that romantic instrument, full of pathos and lyricism. I appreciate its more classical, crystalline objectivity, connected to the keyboard instruments that preceded it, like the harpsichord. I see the piano as a sort of harpsichord in steroids. I like its clarity, I like the word clarity and I always try that my ideas are as clear as possible when proposing something. When there is no master plan, a kind of overall idea, we risk becoming derivative, inconsistent.

I see myself more as a craftsman than as an artist. I like to focus on craftsmanship, like a potter or a sculptor working slowly. There´s a good expression for that in english,"through-composing": to go on composing, bar after bar - but always with a master plan at the back of my head.

I do not have any musicians in my family. My father is a doctor, my mother a Philosophy teacher, but both are music lovers, and and there´s always been music at my house, especially jazz and music. One day, as a teenager, I went to a friend´s house, and there was a guitar there. I took it with me, I started trying out some chords and became completely consumed by the experience. It was not the result of a conscious desire, it just happened to me almost like a tragedy, in the Greek sense. I´ve always wanted to be connected to the arts, I wanted to be a film director first, and then a writer, but I felt that this desire was not matched by a particular talent. With music, I realized it came quite easy and naturally, and that it was a way of channeling things I needed to express and wasn´t able to do it otherwise.

Before entering college, my most striking contact with contemporary music was with Messiaen and Stravinsky. I remember thinking that I had no idea what that music was, it seemed like a distant planet, and this strangeness awakened my desire to explore this planet, to drill into it and understand its genealogy.

My transition from jazz to contemporary music was more or less equivalent to the leap I made from light music to jazz. At one point, I felt that I could be a bit limited and I looked for some novelty and variety in jazz, and then I also struggled with the repetition of formulas in jazz, so I went looking for music that was less pre-determined. And when I entered college, I had access to an incredible wealth of composers. I also looked for them, because even now contemporary music is still a kind of UFO. There is the great canonical repertoire and then there is contemporary music.

The contemporary composer is still an invisible figure. And it is invisible because the music is invisible. It virtually does not exist in the media.

Classical music audiences tend to be a bit conservative and seek some comfort by listening to the 20th version of a piece, performed by great stars. Me and my colleagues in contemporary music feel a greater affinity with audiences who are looking for adventure. The same people that go to an exposition of conceptual art or that are willing to try a new gastronomic combination. The people who are always looking for something alive, who live the present and are not scared if Björk releases a very strange record, and really different from her last one. They appreciate the new because they feel challenged. I don't think people need to be "initiated" in contemporary music, audiences are much smarter than we sometimes think. More sensitive. Children have amazing reactions to contemporary music because they aren´t prejudiced, as no one should.

After college, I went to Holland to do my masters in Composition, under the guidance of Klaas de Vries. In Portugal, it was hard to have an orchestra available to play the students' pieces. In Amsterdam, there are a number of professional groups that do so and the city is a kind of "el dorado" for music students. I was there for two years and then I came back. 

I did part of my PhD in London. And from London, I was able to create a network of contacts that allowed me to work in several European countries, especially in France, the Netherlands and Belgium. In fact, Lisbon is two or three hours away from any European capital. Tomorrow, for example, I have a rehearsal in Paris, and I come and go the same day.

We must value local talent, but it is clear that there has to be a circulation of the artists, and I have had a lot of opportunities abroad. Most of my work in recent years has been abroad. It would be difficult to work just in Portugal, where only two or three institutions regularly commission new work.

Sometimes, when I hear the argument about culture´s economic sustainability, I am afraid this argument is being used as a kind of detour from the  maindiscussion. To ensure cultural diversity, there must always be deficitary structures. For example, most opera houses are maintained by political decision or because there are patrons that allow for the existence of a form of human cultural expression that guarantees us another kind of value, be it civilizational or aesthetic."