Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?
Music itself. The art of communicating thoughts and emotions through organised sound-events always seemed to me so otherworldly. I still find myself pondering what is music, really, and what can we still make of it.
It took me some time to get to the point where I decided I’d be a composer of ‘classical music’. Since I was very young I have been interested in music but, being from a small countryside town in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, I didn’t have much contact with classical music growing up; I didn’t even know anyone who enjoyed this type of music. I was, nevertheless, loving the music that was within my reach and ended up playing acoustic guitar, electric guitar, drums, bass, keyboards, and sang and wrote songs in many different bands from the age of 11 up to 22 – something I still do in my work as a music producer.
At some point during my teens, I fell in love with the music of Bach and Ravel; and from then on, I knew the realm of artistic communication I wanted to dwell in.
Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?
My first two tutors in classical music: my guitar teacher Paulo Martelli and my harmony and analysis tutor Marisa Ramires. They are both very inspiring people in their own particular way. Through their lessons they engendered in me this love for the art of communicating through music.
What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?
I would imagine that all artistic careers – if not every career – have their share of ups and downs… frustrations with oneself as an artist as well as with the specific social niches one inhabits and the unpredictability of one’s professional path and development. However, that being said…
As a foreigner – a Brazilian – in London, it is a challenge to build a career away from home and deal with the Eurocentric skepticism in relation to South American artistry when it comes to classical music. Although I try not to think about that too much.
What frustrates me, really, is the limited reach of contemporary classical music when compared to other genres of music and art forms. Projects are created and consumed within a small community, and it saddens me that this rich music hasn’t yet been able to reach bigger audiences.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?
There’s nothing more fun for me than working on a commissioned piece, especially when I get the chance to know the people I am working with. What I learned from studying how the Xavante and the Suyá – indigenous Brazilian tribes of the state of Mato Grosso – create their music is to consider the soul of the artist whom you’re writing for as well as to compose with your heart and body first and then your with mind, letting your instincts take the lead. Brazilian writer Guimarães Rosa once put it quite succinctly: “if the head doesn’t understand it, the body will guess it right”.
So I’ve learned to understand and to take into account the performers’ abilities and energetic projection in my composition to create works that are not just tailored to these musicians, but rather inspired by them.
What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?
Since the start of my career I have been collaborating and writing for guitarist Vitor Noah. It is a special pleasure to work with him as we have similar backgrounds and aesthetic identities, as well as a passion for championing Brazilian culture. I have dedicated to Vitor my first book of 8 preludes for the solo guitar, a work which was the focus of his Masters dissertation in Die Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Graz with Paolo Pegoraro in Austria. Vitor Noah has premiered most of these piece in concert, three of which he has recorded in an EP “Images on Guitar”, released last July: . These pieces are a good representation of our collaboration:
I have also been working closely with the talented cellist Sarah Gait who, together with flautist Meera Maharaj, commissioned a cello and flute piece for their duo Improv Indigo earlier this year. The result was Brincadeiras Brasileiras n2, a piece inspired by Brazilian children’s folklore where both performers are required to sing while playing their instruments. This has just been released through the label archForm. Sarah will also be performing my cello and piano sonata with pianist Yuanfan Yang – and we are discussing a future commission for a Cello Concerto. Her technical agility, rhythmical accuracy and powerful expressive sound fit my musical thinking just right.
Most recently, I have also been collaborating with conductor Ryan Bair and the Audentia Ensemble for which I have become a composer-in-residence for the next year and for which I am schedule to write two new chamber works.
Of which works are you most proud?
I’m usually the most proud of the work I’m currently working on. At the moment, this includes a piece to represent the mythology of the Amazonian rainforest, scored for 2 guitars, harp, violin, cello, flute & percussion, where players are required to sing and play native Brazilian percussion instruments and bird whistles.
However, my Concerto Apinayé for Guitar and Orchestra has been the piece that I dedicated the largest amount of time to and am happy to have achieved exactly what I aimed for. It is a thirty-two-minute-concerto for singing guitarist inspired by the culture and mythology of the Apinayé tribe of North Tocantins, Brazil. The task of uniting the Guitar and Orchestra with the indigenous myths of the Apinayé, as well as finding the right way to introduce the voice of the guitarist as a sound element in the Concerto, singing a text in Apinayé language as part of his role as soloist, took me 10 months of straight compositional work with 10 revisions and more than 18 minutes of finished music in the bin. The Concerto will received its premiere at the Royal Academy of Music, and will be recorded in the studio and available commercially by the end of the year.
How would you characterise your compositional language?
My compositional language has shifted slowly over the years, although the way I structure music and my artistic goals have not changed much. During the past few years I have been mostly influenced by the sound of Brazilian native elements, as well as the indigenous – more specifically the Suyá and the Xavante tribes – these sounds are to me more potent and interesting than much of the ‘serious’ contemporary music that has been made over the last few decades. I spend most of my time listening and studying their music than the new trends of contemporary or experimental music.
Therefore, lately, I’ve been researching their music to discover how to achieve and attain this same native – earth belonging – feeling and dramatic potency in my own compositional output, investigating the ways these sounds and music are made, and, why and how they’ve come to exist.
How do you work?
I normally work with a piano and a guitar in hand. I use my voice a lot and write with pencil and paper; I often record myself and sometimes use the computer to help me test out textures I am unable to hear in my head.
Additionally, when I have the possibility to be hands-on and try things out on an instrument I’m writing for it’s really inspiring and it can significantly influence the output – especially when writing a piece of music that is more focused on the sound-events rather then the organisation of the notes.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
My favourite musician is not a classical musician. It’s João Gilberto! He’s my biggest inspiration! His dedication towards finding a unique focused identity and the way he carried it out with perfection through a life time of work is very inspirational to me.
My favourite composers to listen to are Stravinsky, Bach and Nancarrow although the composer’s I look up to the most and listen to as a source of inspiration are Purcell, Villa-Lobos, Messiaen, Marlos Nobre, Nancarrow & George Benjamin – a bit eclectic, I know, but these are all composers that are to my mind great at communicating.
I won’t get into performers I love, the list would be too big!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Using your art to communicate effectively and being able to influence the spirit of your audience, in whatever sense.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Accessibility in their music. Inclusiveness in their performance. Selflessness in their artistic creations.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
In a peaceful place; leading a balanced life and working with music.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Happiness seems to me to be a concept that exists in opposition to sadness. If one would be happy all the time, one would cease to be ‘happy’. Perfect happiness would be therefore unattainable. I believe that happiness is in achieving balance.
Rafael Marino Arcaro is a Brazilian composer based in London, UK, with a Masters Degree in Composition from the Royal Academy of Music. His work focuses on new types of expression through structured forms of composition, contrasting virtuosic playing with folkloric inspired sounds. His Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra, commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music, received its premiere in September 2019.