Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
My family has a strong connection with music and the arts, and so I was, from a young age, in close contact with many musicians, listening to them performing. I have to say, though, that my original plan was to pursue a career in film making. When finishing my secondary studies I was accepted to study at the Lisbon College of Theatre and Film, but these plans eventually reached a dead end when I realised that I was devoting more time to music than to my film degree! And so I quit the course even before completing the first year and started planning to apply for composition studies at Lisbon College.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
My father, although a painter, had also been an amateur jazz musician, playing the piano and the contrabass at the Hot Club in Lisbon during the 50s and early 60s. So, my first influences came from that sound world, with a special affection for the work of Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. On the other hand, my grandmother had been a pianist and a pupil of the Portuguese pianist and composer Vianna da Motta (a former pupil of Liszt). Therefore I also have pleasant memories of listening to her playing Chopin, Liszt, and other Romantic composers which were, of course, her field of expertise. Then, little by little I started listening to the music of Ravel, Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky, and eventually I came to discover other living (at the time) composers who impressed me greatly, such as Ligeti or Lutoslawski.
When I eventually finished my first degree at Lisbon College, I decided to go abroad for postgraduate studies in London. This marked my musical life to a great extent, as I got the opportunity to experience a different reality from the one I had back home and this meant both the chance to start hearing my music being performed in concerts and, also, to observe a very plural, varied, exciting and tolerant cultural life. I still remember attending a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with the London Sinfonietta performing Brian Ferneyhough and Steve Reich in the same programme. I guess this was in 1997 and by then London represented a fantastic experience that meant broadening my horizons and my knowledge of the music being made and performed.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
I can’t say that I have faced great frustrations. Rather, I have been lucky to have been offered a good number of opportunities to compose and work with some fantastic musicians. I won’t hide though that my country is on the fringes of Europe and, although the internet has shortened distances considerably, we have been for too long on the periphery, away from the main European centres of production and music making. On the top of this, for political reasons, Portugal was detached from the remaining European countries during our long dictatorship regime and this has certainly contributed to deepening that detachment. However, I do belong to the post-revolution generation that grew up with a new sense of hope and freedom, and this also gives us the responsibility to keep our standards high and prove that our music also deserves a place in concert halls, both at home and elsewhere.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
Each different commission raises a different kind of challenge and pleasure. For a start, one needs to be truly artistically committed to the guidelines, so to speak, of each commission. If one doesn’t believe that a project can be totally in tune with one’s mode of expression and aesthetic values, then it might be worth considering dropping the commission. Having said this, I also find it very stimulating when the commission itself raises some issues that challenge me to move away from my “comfort zone” in order to find new solutions and answers. And I find it particularly stimulating when, on top of this, the commissioned work calls for a deep degree of collaborative work, either with soloists, or with other artists from different fields (stage, dance, etc.).
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
I always find that each performance gives me the chance to learn more about writing music and to reflect on how can I improve as a composer. At every new première I’m always anxious at the prospect of not having succeeded in achieving my goals, or not having conveyed a clear idea of what the music is about. By working directly with particular musicians and singers, I have to say that this helps greatly to reduce my level of anxiety, as they can give precious advice and be a precious source of inspiration. The same happens when one has the opportunity to work more than once with the same orchestra, as each ensemble also has a different “personality” and different qualities. When returning, one feels a sense of familiarity, and those many musicians seated in front of the music stands become less and less anonymous. And I treasure this personal relation with musicians as, after all, we’re making music together.
Of which works are you most proud?
That’s a difficult question as I tend to change my relationship with each piece as time passes by. Sometimes I discover that some particular work that I was very much attached to is no longer interesting to my ears. The reverse can also happen. I wouldn’t say that I have a love-hate relationship with my scores but I do find that my connection to each piece tends to have its own life, with ups and downs, just like with any of the other relationships in our lives.
Having said this, I tend to be more satisfied or in tune with the works that are more recent, maybe because they are fresher in my mind and closer to my most recent compositional solutions. In my most recent CD, the “youngest” pieces are the Cello Concerto and The Blue Voice of The Water, and therefore these might be, at present, the ones I feel most attached to. Thinking retrospectively, I retain a particular emotional connection with the orchestral piece Round Time, as this was a composition that had a strong impact on my career and, in a way, on my self-confidence as a composer. It was my first orchestral commission and I still remember how frightened I was when I accepted that challenge. In the end, it all went well and it clearly gave me the confidence to keep going and to move forward.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
Depending on specific moments in my life, my music can either explore a particular energy, with a strong rhythmic pulse and drive, or it can also be very quiet, with a certain nostalgic quality. One gesture tends to balance the other and I have come to the conclusion that after composing scores that are quite dense in movement and quantity of notes, I tend to write others that have quite the opposite feel. In any case I think that most of my compositions have a substantial degree of detail on with regards colour, timbre and texture, as well as a clear concern for harmony.
How do you work?
Not being a performer myself, I nonetheless compose much of my material using the piano. Mostly, improvising in search for pitch material that I might find suitable for each specific piece or musical idea.
However, this is always followed by desk (and / or computer) work, filtering the previous material and freeing it from its direct relation to the piano as an instrument. Regarding the works’ structure, I tend to through-compose each piece, from bar one to the double bar. The formal shape tends to be decided very much in progress, although I sometimes draw some sketches on paper to visually imagine the shape, density and the evolution of a specific moment or section.
When working with other fields such as dance or opera, for example, then, of course, my composition process can be much less linear, jumping from one section to another, going backwards or even changing the original / planned order of events.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
I have a rather long list of people that I greatly admire and this list keeps expanding every day, as part of my professional work includes broadcasting new music at the Portuguese classical radio Antena 2. I’ve been doing freelance work for the radio for the past 18 years on a weekly basis and, therefore, this experience puts me in direct contact with many new works and new emerging composers, many of whom I truly find to be very exciting and inspiring.
To the quoted composers in one of the first questions (Ligeti, Lutoslawski, etc) I could, of course, add a few more such as George Benjamin, Peter Eötvös, Marc-André Dalbavie, György Kurtag, and also some performers that I find very inspiring such as Barbara Hannigan or Pierre-Laurent Aimard… the list is immense!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Professionally, success means having the opportunity to work with musicians, ensembles, stage directors, choreographers, librettists, etc., whose work one considers to be at the highest artistic level. On a more personal level, I always find that success should mean achieving our standards as artists. I mean, to be as close as one can be to finishing a score with the feeling that its quality as a work was accomplished and is quite satisfying. Not getting closer to what I consider to be the desired quality for a musical work, then that is my definition of failure.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Well, apart from the obvious “work hard” advice, I would add self-criticism, nonconformity, the will to dare and to be curious, this last one including a true curiosity (and also respect) for other musicians’ work.
What is your present state of mind?
Alert, watching and with my eyes wide open, as a group of my students have been doing a written exam while I’ve answered this questionnaire.
Luis Tinoco’s The Blue Voice of Water is available now on the Odradek label