Miguel Azguime, July 2016 . Revision: August 2018
PART 1 . Roots & Education
How did music begin for you and where can you identify your music roots?
The music education began very early I believe that around the age of five. Simultaneously I attended “classical” music concerts (using the general term) with my grandmother (amateur pianist) and my par- ents. Nevertheless, an immense curiosity towards all kinds of music made me cross, during the years (since childhood until the end of adolescence) and beyond the strictly academic contexts (I attended during many years the Academia de Amadores de Música and then the National Conservatory before going to study outside Portugal), baroque music, rock and roll, jazz, free jazz, music from outside Europe, particularly African (with its diverse variants), Arab, Persian and Indian music, music from Bali and Japan (especially Gagaku and Nô). The richness and the fantastic rhythmic complexity of these sound worlds led me to percussion, leaving behind the baroque flute, which accompanied me until the age of sixteen.
Regarding percussion, I began studying it privately with Catarina Latino and at the National Conservatory with Júlio Campos. Then I continued it in Germany with James Wood and then in France with Gaston Sylvestre at the Rueil-Malmaison Conservatory. It was in France with Gaston Sylvestre and around the same time in Portugal with Pierre-Yves Artaud, who gave various flute master classes at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (I got to know about him through Paula Azguime, flutist, my beloved and life partner), that I had a true contact with contemporary music creation and I got to know personally a lot of composers who have made and make the 20th century music history, including Tristan Murail who was my only composition teacher and with whom I studied privately in Paris between 1985 and 1986 – it was a short but decisive period. There are also other composers who came to mark my education, that is Emmanuel Nunes, Clarence Barlow and Brian Ferneyhough, whose composition seminars I attended.
What led you to composition?
In the childhood: the regular audition, either at home by means of the records that my father used to listen to almost every night or at concerts where they used to take me, of the great works for orchestra from the classic and romantic repertoire, originating in the idea that one day I would write “such things”. In the adolescence: in the mid 1970s the audition in concert of Arnold Schönberg’s Variations for Orchestra op. 31 that constituted a revelation and opened me the door to a totally new music world, to which I came to “aspire”. What followed was the search and discovery of a new repertoire that until then I had been unaware of, and that came to be my companion. In 1984: the participation in the International Summer New Music Courses in Darmstadt and consequently the decision that apart from the professional activity as percussionist (accompanying me until the age of 47), music composition would be “the objective to follow” at the heart of my activity.
PART 2 . Influences & Aesthetics
Are there any non-musical sources that influence your work significantly?
No. Although it is possible to establish all kinds of associations in the realization of any artistic object, in my case music follows its own paths. In other words, music is constructed by means of its own material, from the research and its organization in a music discourse. Just like science, the research on bacteria, for example, or on any other phenom- ena, constitute in fact the bacteria themselves and their environment, or the phenomena and their own conditions.
In the context of Western art music do you feel close to any school or aesthetics from the past or the present?
I feel heir of the whole artistic, intelligent and sensible past, being in the present close to what is progressive and innovative.
Throughout history the creative power has been the key to the capacity of human evolution, giving in the present the answers that construct the future. The heritage that constructed me, and which came from the past, is only the one that has made the art of music and consequently the humanity move forward, whereas along the way all the superficiality, unnecessary repetitions, epigonisms, inconsequent reflections, mediocre realizations… have been disappearing. In the recent past the approach that has influenced me the most has been spectral music. It has revealed and made me discover a new understanding of the sound phenomenon, integrating acoustics and psychoacoustics, reincorporating the perception into music discourse, being envisioned as an extended and therefore comprehensive concept of what music and sound is.
Are there any non-Western culture influences in your music?
I don’t think so, despite my studies and practice, during many years as percussionist, of a large amount of non-European music.
However it is evident that nowadays, more than ever and by means of mobility, internet and, in short, glo- balization, we are subject to a constant relation with cultural diversity and the multiplicity of expres- sion within the artistic objects. It certainly has and will have definitive consequences in our sensible understanding of the world. It should lead to a definitive abandonment of the idea of cultural superiority that has characterised the Westerners, heading towards a new paradigm that is nevertheless still difficult to imagine.
This exposition to cultural plurality is slowly but decisively changing the view on us and on the others, hence exercising an indelible influ- ence. Nonetheless I envision myself in the strict context of Western art music, as outside of it I could only be what my time would make of me.
What is your understanding of the “avant-garde” and what in your opinion can nowadays be considered as “avant-garde”?
In a time when apparently everything seems possible, paradoxically we live in a totalitarian regime of the market and economy, which shapes, formats, restrains and muzzles (even when we aren’t aware of it).
The past totalitarian regimes “on behalf of the people”, which crossed the 20th century, together with the present democratic demagogy distorted little by little the need and the concept of the elite, diverting the idea of the avant-garde through depreciation, rejection or even denigration. By definition the avant-garde is innovation and without it there would be no future.
What would be of us without the avant-gardes that in every time and space pointed out ways, led to research, thought, the essential creation until the last consequences in the light of their time, making the humanity move forward.
In every time the men and women who assumed the responsibility of the avant-garde frequently faced prejudice or even occasionally persecutions. The material poverty and humiliation, from which they suffered, was also not rare. However they fol- lowed it in order to broaden the horizons of our sensibility and knowledge. The avant-garde is thus also a synonym of freedom.
PART 3 . Music Language & Practice
Characterize your music language taking into account the techniques/aesthetics developed in music creation in the 20th and 21st centuries, on the one hand, and on the other, having in mind your personal experience and your path from the beginning until now.
To characterize my music language seems an impossible enterprise… but I understand my compositional practice as continuity in relation to different pasts, some of them more recent than the other ones, within a hybridization and multiplicity that reflect equally diverse experiences. Making reference only to the 20th and 21st centuries there are technical and aesthetic contributions that marked my path, such as the heritage of Schönberg and serialism, the heritage of Cage and a certain idea of both experimentalism and aleatorism, the heritage of spectralism of Grisey and Murail, but also their predecessors (Debussy, Messiaen, Scelsi, Ligeti,…) and above all the revolution initiated with Pierre Schaefer and concrete music accompanied by a profound technical and scientific knowledge on the sound phenomenon. This led to a new way of making and thinking of music, going beyond the note concept and replacing it with a different, more comprehensive one, that is sound and timbre.
Regarding your creative practice, do you create your music from an embryo-idea or after having developed the global form? In other words, do you start from the micro to the macro form or is it the other way round? How does this process develop?
In my case a composition normally starts from the material itself, from what I designate as a morpho- temporal configuration, that is a sound object with determined timbral properties, and which at a microscopic level develops over time. It has, thus, a form of its own and carries a unique potential of transformation.
When I mean the timbre of a certain sound object, I am referring to its acoustic characteristics, to its spec- tral components, to the harmony and rhythm inherent to it at a microscopic level.
This “starting point” can be built of one or more sound objects that can be synthetic, concrete, instru- mental, natural… The form of a piece is constructed as a journey, which actually means travelling through and crossing these objects, subject to various pro- cesses of transition and interpolation between them, and/or transformations and inner metamorphoses. Consequently, the macro-form appears posteriorly as a result of this journey!
How in your music practice do you determine the relation between the rational and the “creative impulses” or “inspiration”?
My music practice is intimately linked to reasoning applied to creation, to the search for the most ad- equate answer (frequently by means of considerable analysis and research) to the problems posed by a determined morpho-temporal configuration or context. Nevertheless at the moment of starting a new piece I always put myself in front of the “void” of a blank page (or the “emptiness” of silence), listening to the “appearance” of a significant sound object or its idea.
What is your relation with the new technologies, and if there is any, how do they influence your music?
For its production, music has always been connected (except for the voice) with the use of an instrument. Throughout history, the instruments were evolving, coming to exceptional examples of technological development, as in the case of the piano. In every moment the improvement of the music instruments concurrently gave place to the creation of a unique repertoire (sustained by exceptional instrumentalists), which in many cases has come to perpetuate their existence, crossing periods and aesthetics. Electric instruments emerged within this continuum, followed by the electronic and more recently by the digital. All of them motivated and motivate a new repertoire, stimulating the creation of new sets of works. These, in their turn, will possibly validate and ensure the longevity of the instruments that brought them to life. In this sense and assuming here “new technologies” as synonym of “new instruments” that belong to the present tense (in the plural because they are multiple and different, despite existing within the same logical and physical support: the computer), they make part of my music, side by side with many others instruments already with history and repertoire. It is evident that, just as the ones in the past, these new instruments have come to stimulate the creation of works specifically destined… or in other words, that explore their potential giving us the possibility to listen to something new and never heard before still waiting to be invented. Otherwise the art of music wouldn’t be creation! The influence that the new instruments exercise in my music is thus the one they stimulate according to their own characteristics.
In this sense, I wouldn’t write the music that I write in the cases when I use these new instruments, just as Chopin wouldn’t be Chopin without the existence of the piano.
Your work frequently takes upon a multidisciplin- ary approach. Could you explain how and why?
Apart from this particular dimension considering computer as a music instrument, its role in supporting the textuality is broader. Apparently there is no great change between the “printed culture”
represented by the book (a privileged medium of the Gutenberg revolution) and the “electronic cul- ture” represented by the computer. Yet, one cannot loose from sight the fact that for the set of its diverse applications the computer has a singular function: the manipulation of data in binary format.
It thus constitutes a polyvalent medium for writing thanks to its capacity of receiving different input sources either visual, auditory, tangible or concep- tual… All of them are converted into elementary information through this series of electric alternations between zero and one. Once captured and reduced to this common binary denominator, the differences between the various types of information become blurred and easily combinable. Whilst allowing this transparent integration of sensorial, intellectual and historical data, the computer became the first artistic instrument (and perhaps the catalyst) con- verging all representations. The computer’s sub- jacent logic can seem to be the quintessence of the logics and linear constructions typical of the “printed culture”. Yet while the experience of a user in the “printed culture” can be reduced to a line that goes from A to B, the experience of a computer user is more similar to a unique central point with different rays that reach it and depart from it. Every ray is linked with another point, which on its turn can be linked to another series of rays, and so on. The central point would be the result of the mixture of the inputs of all the rays, moving from the simplicity of a short text towards the complexity of a virtual simulation of any movement or model.
The capacity to work, think and communicate in such a form constitutes a major rupture with regards to the constraint of the printed sequential progression. The place no longer has importance, the context becomes more relative than absolute and the information becomes associative instead of linear. Thus the computer has come to provide the means for a creative transversality and thanks to its multiple inputs and outputs it will allow for an integrated representation and operability within the textuality (understood in the broadest sense as reflection), and therefore within the thought.
This intertextual hybridization will ensure not only the operative transversality of the music parameters, but also the transversality of the same parameters with the ones from other areas and disciplines, which I decide to integrate into my pieces. What is more, this intertextual hybridization also changes profoundly the way we listen to and apprehend the world of sounds, and by means of the same technology, the way how we get to know and understand it. Musically speaking, this also means that the nature of the elements that make sense has been considerably extended.
Define the relation between the music and science and how the second one manifests itself in your creation.
Beyond the ancient and eternal intuition of the musi- cians to understand the sound phenomenon, the contribution of science in the last decades towards the deepening of knowledge on the sound phenomenon, has been decisive and in my case has fundamental implications. The music that I write is thus profoundly marked by these developments and it wouldn’t be conceivable without them.
The capacity to comprehend this complex phenom- enon (and to relate it to the perception), in parallel to the existence and development of instruments for analysis and other “operative” instruments that allow to manipulate the DNA of the sound (please forgive me the analogy), and to organize in this way new chains of sense as well as to provide new currents of thought, this is what remains at the core of my whole compositional work. This connection is even more important when in my musical universe not only all the sounds find their place, independently of their origin or way of production: ambient, concrete, instrumental, electronic, synthetic… but also all of them are to become susceptible to transformations as well as to abstract and associative speculations – in total capable of integration in a coherent and communicative music whole.
What is the importance of space and timbre in your music?
The timbre has a fundamental importance in my compositional work, as I already referred, and it should be understood as a structural element prone to abstract speculations and to its organisation as discourse and vehicle for communication. I would like to remind that when I refer to the timbre, I mean its acoustic characteristics, the intrinsic properties of the sound, its spectral components and their dynamic profile…
In my instrumental work the space isn’t treated in an equally structuring manner, but in many works it has been taken into consideration in the actual writing. However it is necessary to contemplate differently the space in writing for acoustic instruments than the space in electroacoustic music composition, which I consider to be in its essence the art of sound spaces. It is an art that is produced inside a general sound space constituted by various sound spaces, which make reference to the spaces existing between the sounds, between every music element; they are actually spatial and musical spaces created during a composition of an electroacoustic piece.
How do you handle the relations between music and text?
The relations of music and text are at the heart of my main concerns, probably because of my double occupation as composer and poet. After having written in the mid 1990s a work where I used an ancient Chinese text, sung in Chinese, I was forcibly confronted with the problematic semantic and phonetic relations existing between text and music in the Western languages. This is contrary to what happens with the Chinese language, which due to its characteristics eliminates the dichotomy between the semantic and the phonetic, which is the reason for this subjacent “conflict” in western languages once you bring a text to music.
As a result of composing this work I felt the need to conceive especially the writing of texts to be used in music, where it would be possible to create a state of integration between poetic composition and music composition by means of a specific regulation of parameters. And so I began to conduct compositional operations on the language, in the sense to guarantee a semantic content in pronouncedly “sounding” texts, where the phonetic organization transpires as one of the compositional dimensions.
That is to say that all the works I have written since 1996 and where I used texts, all of them have been submitted to these principles in order to ensure a state of integration between text and music, between semantic and phonetic, as strongly as possible. The knowledge on timbral characteristics of the voice and the spectral properties of the used languages constitute some of the fundamental elements of this integration. In the last 20 years I have composed various pieces that take the feature of “music as text” and “text as music” into consideration, particularly all the stage works created in collaboration with Paula Azguime and which we designate as New Op-Era (that is O Ar do Texto Opera a Forma do Som Interior, Salt Itinerary, A Laugh to Cry), but also other pieces as Conver(say)tions, Mes Ententes pour 4 Personnages…
Does experimentalism play an important role in your music?
If one understands experimentalism not as an aesthetic current with historical connotations, but yes as a stance towards exploration and artistic research, independent of any particular aesthetics, then experimentalism plays effectively a significant role in my music. I even think that there is no possibility of real invention without a persistent research and without the empiric approach of experimentation. Only the courage to remain ourselves, to accept the dangers of audacity, to run the risks of the unknown, will allow us to explore the path to follow and declare our full responsibility as artists and creators before the humanity and civilization.
To what extent composition and performance are for you complementary activities?
My music practice began as an instrumentalist and additionally to the pleasure of performing, I feel particularly comfortable on the stage. Many people have acknowledged it so I can’t deny it. The strictly compositional practice is radically opposite: it is a solitary work in isolation. So, although I abandoned my activity as percussionist the call of the stage makes me intervene vocally in many of my pieces, side by side with singers and instrumentalists, raising questions on the author’s presence and absence, put into perspective for example in the Salt Itinerary. This frequently complementary position that I take between the composition and the performance also gives me a needed pragmatism regarding the limits of performance in relation to the music text, thus opening a privileged communication with the performers and interpreters of my music. And still, the confrontation of the experience and awareness of the performance’s real time with the “out of time” of the composition process motivates an inner dialog and tension which enriches music creation.
Which of your works do you consider turning points in your path?
If quite generally I run through everything that I have done, since the beginnings of the 1980s until now, I can start with saying that there are at least three phases. An initial phase corresponding to the beginning of my active professional life when I was dedicated firstly to the interpretation of other’s works but also simultaneously practicing distinct music genres and forms, what led me to approach jazz and then free improvisation. Here, little by little, composition started to make its own way.
The second phase is marked by the foundation of the Miso Ensemble in its original set for flute, percussion and electroacosustic resources, both amplification and live electronics. In the final of this phase (the end of the 1990s) the more and more frequent collaborations with foreign musicians came to encourage a more intensified dedication towards composition for larger and larger ensembles.
And thus the third phase of my activity as musician and creator was born, where composition occupies the main place within my practice. In the second phase there are some emblematic pieces, such as 4 Estações (1986), which I consider my opus 1, Constelações (1989), Água ou Maré – Nome de Pedra (1991), Icons…
Meanwhile other pieces as De l’Étant Qui le Nie (1994-98) for piano and electronics, Yuan Zhi Yuan (1996-98) for soprano, tenor, six traditional Chinese instruments, choir and electronics (sung in Chinese), or O Centro do Excêntrico do Centro do Mundo (1999-2002) for 16 solo voices, two reciters and electronics, all of them have been important stages in my career. Nevertheless the beginning of what I call my third phase takes place in 2001 with Derrière Son Double for six instruments and electronics, piece in which I think I’ve found a unique voice and a singular path of my own, and that I have followed since then in such pieces as: Águas Marinhas (2005 – 14-insturment ensemble), Le Feu qui Dort (2008 – string quartet), De Part et d’Autre (2011 – ensemble and electronics), En Gêne Engin ni Gemme (2015 – ensemble and electronics), Illuminations (2016 – orchestra), ConCordas (2015/16 – string orchestra), Le Spleen (2017 – ensemble), Orbital Shift Variations (2017 – marimba quartet), Luminiferous Aether (2017 – ensemble), etc.
Transversally to these works there is a complementary path that I follow ceaselessly, the one that inhabits the relations of music with poetry, of music with words, in the search for integrating my two creative practices: music and poetic composition. In this sense I have developed my own path of intertextual hybridization and transmediality being acknowledged in the search towards semantic and phonetic integration. Pieces for solo voice, voice and instruments, opera and music theatre or even for instruments that “speak” are paradigmatic of this approach. Among them I should refer the Salt itinerary (2003-06), which is an important moment, but also Circundante Circunstância dos Círculos (2007), Conver(say)tions (2011), Mes Ententes pour 4 Personnages (2012), A Laugh to Cry (2013) and the new Op-Era that is being prepared (still without title); among other pieces written since 1998, which deal with the same aspects.
PART 4 . Portuguese Music
Please try to evaluate the present situation of Portuguese music.
If in terms of artistic teaching and music education what has been invested in Portugal in the recent decades has been giving exceptional results, with qualified musicians, the same can’t be said when it comes to the creation and the conditions of its production. There are unstable models for maintaining the “music companies” such as ensembles and small formations, which remain underfinanced and fragile (within the few that manage to survive in such conditions). It is a sad waste of talents and competences and the public presentations remain considerably beyond the immense audience that they could reach.
The present situation of Portuguese music, despite its quality and richness, is thus active resistance for some and survival for all the other ones.
It is therefore a strong demand to give to art music in general and to music creation in particular the right to play its fundamental role within its need and qualifiable utility.
What in your opinion distinguishes Portuguese music on the global scene?
The ability to be itself, simultaneously belonging to an extended, supranational cultural space – should have given to Portuguese music a distinction, which unfortunately it doesn’t have because of the discon- solate impossibility to be acknowledged internation- ally, lacking proper means and constructive politics (meaning thorough and not superficial with its habit- ual events of mercantile logic, rootless and sterile). According to your experience what are the differences between the music environment in Portugal and in other parts of the world? Presently, and in relation to the financially more developed countries, there is only a difference of means for its valorisation, its recognition and its exposition to a broader community. In view of the quality that presently is created and produced in Portugal, I am distressed by the auditory desensitization and stupefaction. I can’t accept that this great music, certainly of unparalleled richness in the history of Portugal, is so little known and disadvantaged as it is, because of the auditory laziness, mercantile greed, imbecile voyeurism of the major part of mass media, as well as because of the lack of a strategic vision and waste for which the Portuguese state is to be made responsible by its successive tutelage.
PART 5 . Present and Future
How do you see the future of art music?
As a resistant survival in opposition to the totalitarian market, in opposition to all the forms of reductive and stultifying formatting, in opposition to the alien- ation of the highest values regarding human condition and civilization.
I consider of the utmost and most vital importance that the Art in general and the Art of music in particu- lar, in society, and outside the financial interests and the market, continues to resist and is able to develop in order to ensure the permanence of these values. Its role is even more relevant in this context of pro- found crisis that is philosophical and civilisational in nature, and from which we nowadays suffer (it is far more serious and upstream than the financial crisis). Art, just as science and scientific research, is knowledge, constituting a true model of civilizational thought. It has always played – and will play – a fundamental role in the interconnection within the knowledges, in the development of the capacities to reflect on individual and collective problems within their complexity, encouraging the sense of communitarian responsibility and the sense of solidarity, stimulating the independence given to everyone separately and to all, individuals and communities. It constitutes a true intellectual, psychological and civilizational model.
And so that Art continues to exist it needs to remain free and it is necessary to avoid at all costs its closure in a technical-financial logic of development. For this reason it is necessary to oppose the calculation as an instrument of supposed development, in other words, it is necessary to avoid the logic of quantity and promote the quality, to promote the aspects that don’t have a price in our existence and above all what can’t be calculated in human existence, which is the actual essence of our lives. I believe in the ancient and eternal aspiration of humans towards harmony that constitutes the cause of all the paradises, utopias and ideologies. This aspiration has always revived, being present in the proliferation of multiple initiatives at the foundations of a free society. Art consummates this aspiration.