RICHARD BOUKAS, composer, guitarist, educator

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My father had classical music records playing in the house from when I was an infant. Music’s magical sonority and intrinsic emotion fascinated me and made sense in a totally intuitive way. I heard Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and Italian opera. My ears got an early head start and by time I was three I could retain an entire symphony in my head, exactly as if the record was playing. It wasn’t until university when someone pointed out to me that I had perfect pitch.

Being a teenager growing up in the 1960’s to early 1970’s, there was so much fantastic music: American popular music (Folk, Rock, Motown, Soul, R&B), Jazz, Jazz Fusion; classical pieces from Early music to contemporary and exotic traditions such as India. Everyone played guitar and sang, formed bands to play their original songs and the great hits of the time. I started writing my own songs when I was thirteen. I had no theoretical or notational training, so these songs were committed to memory.

A career in music was not something I planned on until I finished university at twenty. Once my guitar playing and singing improved to a certain level, all kinds of jobs started coming my way. Thus began the tricky balance of accepting commercial work that paid the bills versus pursuing my original music which paid quite poorly, if at all.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

By seventeen, my listening tastes embraced more challenging music with a thirst for new sonic vocabularies – Stravinsky, Bartók, Schönberg, Zappa, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery. By my early twenties, I formed small jazz groups to play jam sessions and small clubs. To balance with standard repertoire, I began writing my own jazz pieces. By 1975 I was smitten by Brazilian music and never looked back.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

In undertaking a non-compromise career to create and present your own music, the first thing you must accept is that there is no “equal sign” between the quality/uniqueness/output of your work and the recognition or success you ultimately receive. Seeking recognition is not a good reason to commit to such a difficult path. To be taken seriously as a musician or composer, you must always create the best quality music possible, and never settle. A composer never “arrives”, only to rest on their laurels. You traverse various stylistic phases, only to seek a whole new set of challenges. For me, the transition from writing aphoristic Jazz pieces to through-composed chamber forms took a while to develop. I did extensive self-study of how master composers created within larger formal dimensions and prolonged their materials using development and counterpoint.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

There are two kinds of commissions: paid and unpaid. Most of mine are unpaid, borne of exciting collaborations with brilliant musicians and ensembles. It is a true gift and divine inspiration to compose with the sound and idiosyncracies of specific musicians vibrating in your head and heart. Writing hypothetically for a certain instrumentation rarely produces one’s best work. Certainly one can work on one’s craft, but such music often has a didactic quality lacking the essential inspiration that comes with real creative collaboration.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

Working with special musicians and ensembles help focus a composer’s core vision and make our job quite easy, actually. All creative effort is a challenge, a mission you accept without dread or fear of not being able to produce. You must be willing to take big risks with no guarantees whatsoever. Let the universe and your musician collaborators speak to you, follow the muse and capture the sonorities that appear effortlessly.

Of which works are you most proud?

That’s a very subjective word that doesn’t quite capture how I feel about my work. Navigating the compositional waters for more than fifty years, it is only in hindsight that I can clearly view my various phases stylistically, technically and developmentally. In each phase, I’ve tried to remain true to the vocabulary I sought to realize, and do so at the highest artistic level possible. Being completely faithful to one’s intuitive process engenders a certain integrity and truth in the music which resonates with most musicians and even lay people. There’s a strength of conviction and commensurate vulnerability in revealing your creative soul. And when I perform my music, that’s even more intense.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Since the late 1970’s, my music has been based within a wide variety of traditional and regional Brazilian genres. Depending on the ensemble, the two main stylistic influences are contemporary chamber and/or jazz. My chamber, choral and solo instrument works are through-composed. As far as broadscale form, some are built on existing traditions, while others evolve organically based on how I treat my initial materials. I prefer to compose with a strong thematic, motivic and rhythmic mandate, squeezing every last possible drop out of my initial materials. The way Brahms and Bartók grind their materials down to dust, and the final double bar appears. My harmonic and contrapuntal vocabulary is constantly evolving and directly in response to the Brazilian genres in which I am composing.

Many of my works – especially those I have composed for Diálogos Duo (myself on guitar with clarinetist Louis Arques) since 2016 are tributes to master Brazilian composers and musicians. I channel the stylistic influences faithfully while allowing my own vocabulary and treatment of the materials to govern the path of the piece. Depending on the artist tribute and period of their activity, some of these multi-movement works take on an historical arch of up to a century or longer.

How do you work?

This varies greatly with the piece, instrumentation, desired performance/recording situation and other factors. In the case of Diálogos Duo, I start with a broad concept of a suite consisting of between ten and eighteen movements. Such is the case with A Dozen Choro Tributes, featured on our second CD, Choro Tributes. I made a list of those musicians for whom the tributes would be written, sometimes each connected with a specific sub-genre. The final sequence of pieces can be historically chronological or evolve more organically as I get closer to finishing the actual composing. I find this initial “top-down” process very effective in motivating and committing myself to larger works with a common theme. To date I have written seven suites, sixty-seven movements for Diálogos Duo.

I take frequent walks in the woods or swims in the ocean, perhaps with a specific tribute in mind. After awhile, thematic ideas with their harmonic underpinnings start streaming through my head and must I dash back to my studio to compose. I write with pencil and paper directly from my head, unless the piece is very guitar-centric– in which case, the instrument is in-hand. Then I transfer my completed sketch into Sibelius notation software to render the initial working score and parts. Over time and the rehearsal process, multiple revisions are possible for as long as two years after the initial version. Notation software also greatly facilitates adapting existing works for alternative instrumentations. Most of these transcriptions are by request of a specific ensemble who hears the work in its original form.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Aside from the classical and jazz masters I have mentioned, the Brazilian composers who have had a profound influence on my work include: contemporary geniuses Hermeto Pascoal, Guinga, Sérgio Santos, Toninho Horta; prolific twentieth century classical masters Gnattali, Villa-Lobos, Mignone; Choro giants Pixinguinha and Jacob do Bandolim; popular songwriters Chico Buarque, Jobim and genius lyricist-poets Paulo César Pinheiro, Vinícius de Morães and Aldir Blanc.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Certainly not financial. Staying true to my creative instincts from start to finish of a work. Organizing a definitive premiere, released recording and forming an itinerary of performances. Sharing the work in an educational setting as guest composer.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Be honest and certain why you have chosen this kind of life – that your motivations are grounded in creating the highest artistic work possible, without commercial compromise or considerations. Stay true to this path no matter what recognition may or may not result, or discouraging setbacks that may occur. Form and maintain a musical community of like-minded artists (musical and otherwise) who support each other and offer honest and valuable criticism. Be tenacious in pursuing new projects, and never rest on your past work lest you descend into a self-parroting mediocrity. Use your previous work to generate the requisite faith to embrace the next creative challenge. Be fearless.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow and maintain classical music’s audiences?

As far as classical music per se, I think the well-travelled symphonic and chamber repertoire must be marketed to younger audiences in novel ways to grow the listeners and supporters of the future. Have more outreach programs which bring musicians directly into the public school system, and make it an essential part of the arts curriculum.

Forgive me for being political for a moment. Although I am not certain to what extent governmental and non-profit support is afforded contemporary composers and ensembles in the UK, I can say without reservation that support of the arts in America’s institutions, schools and communities is abysmal. Our government can make billion-dollar bombs to kill people in remote corners of the earth, give huge tax breaks to the financial elite, but somehow can’t fund and support their own artists. It is going to take a major shift in attitude and awareness on all societal levels to reckon with this immutable truth: that a world without the arts guarantees a chronic cultural and spiritual poverty. Music and musicians are a healing force in the world, and we all need that so desperately these days.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Doing even more of what I am doing now- composing, performing, recording, sharing my work in educational settings and building multicultural bridges through sharing my work.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perpetual Gratitude. Unconditional love.

What is your present state of mind?

More inspired, committed and hopeful than ever. At sixty-seven, I am still creating the best music of my life, and it will continue to improve and expand with each new work. I am as hungry for creative expression and collaborations as I was at fifteen. This is a lifelong mission undertaken without external expectations.

New York City-based prolific composer, guitarist, vocalist and educator, Richard Boukas is internationally recognized as a creative exponent and ambassador of Brazilian music. His compositions for numerous ensembles and soloists synergize authentic Brazilian genres with contemporary classical and jazz vocabularies.

Since 2016, his central compositional focus is Diálogos Duo featuring clarinetist Louis Arques and himself on guitar. Their seven suites (sixty-seven movements) is the largest body of contemporary Brazilian music for clarinet and guitar worldwide.

Boukas’s commissions include Sopros de PE (clarinet quartet, Brazil), PUBLIQuartet String Quartet, La Catrina String Quartet, Berklee World String Ensemble, Atlantic Brass Quintet, Cerddorion and Queens College vocal ensembles. He leads, composes and performs with Brazilian Jazz ensembles Quarteto Moderno, Trio Brasileiro and Duo Brasiliero. Previous duo collaborations include Brazilian pianist Jovino Santos Neto and Croatian tambura virtuoso Filip Novosel. He has also composed an extensive body of solo guitar music and transformed Brazilian vocal repertoire and Beatles songs into extended polyphonic choral settings.

Richard holds an MA in Composition from Queens College/Aaron Copland School of Music. Recordings as leader and co-leader include Diålogos Duo (Choro Tributes, Homages to Brazilian Masters), Quarteto Moderno Live! Ao Vivo!, Novosel-Boukas Duo Live at St. Michaels, Balaio, Amazôna, Embarcadero and Commitment. An itinerant lifelong educator, Boukas is faculty at New School University College of the Performing Arts since 1989, where he received the Distinguished Teaching Award. His guest educator residencies include Harvard, Cornell, Cincinnati Conservatory, New York Guitar Seminar and in Brazil, Campos do Jordão Festival and Univ. of Minas Gerais. He is also a four-time recipient of the NEA Grant in Jazz Performance.

Richard’s publishing company is Diatessaron Music.

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