An interview with Portuguese composer Luís Tinoco. Part 1
Luis Tinoco is an influential Portuguese composer, radio host and music teacher. We met Luis at his workplace, the Escola Superior de Música de Lisboa, a vast modern building where he is inspiring the next generation of Portuguese musicians. Beginners and experienced artists alike will find helpful advice and many words of wisdom from one of the best in the business. In part 1 of the interview we discuss his background, inspirations and creative process. Look out for part 2 where Luis talks about his work in radio, his thoughts on music education and his advice to aspiring composers.
Dylan Berg: What inspired you to start composing? Did you come from a musical family or a musical background?
Luís Tinoco: My family has a strong musical background, and there is also a strong artistic background in my family, not only with music. My grandmother was a concert pianist and some of her brothers and sisters were also involved in the arts, in ballet. One of my uncles was a painter and set designer at the Portuguese National Opera House. There are also a lot of Architects in my family - my father is an architect and painter. During the 1950s and 1960s he was also an amateur jazz musician playing at a jazz club in Lisbon called the Hot Club.
I was brought up in this artistic environment with people from the visual arts and music. I had the luck to have these two inputs: the classical via my grandmother and the more popular, so to speak, from my father who also worked with Fado singers. In my parents home we used to have a lot of people coming from different fields doing jam sessions or just talking about the music. All of a sudden I realized I was also putting my hands on the piano and doing what all kids do - improvising and trying to build some stories with music. So I can not actually define where it started, I can only say that music has always been somewhere in my life and that is how I got involved in trying to make my own music.
DB: You’ve been exposed to different sorts of arts in your life. Outside of orchestral and classical music what else inspires you? Whether musically or from different artistic mediums. For example you have mentioned before that a poem triggered you to start writing.
LT: I think that anything can trigger the writing of music. I always think that there are things that go beyond just the selection of rhythms and notes. Even if music is not inspired by something specific, it still has its own narrative, its own inner story, even if it is just pure music.
It can start with a gesture - with a sound idea, like a combination of timbre and tone color. It can be a sense of energy you get because you are excited about something. Or it can be the other way around - because you are very still and quiet because you spent the weekend near a placid lake. Anything really can inspire someone to write music. I have a lot of compositions that started with extra musical ideas - just by reading a text, a poem. Sometimes an idea of a sentence or phrase can be enough to trigger the process of composing.
And then music gets its own wings. The funny thing is that sometimes you think the music is going to be about a certain thing - you can even plan things very strictly and think that it is going to start here and go there. But somehow, within the process of writing the music it gets its own direction and then from a certain point it is the music that directs you. Sometimes I will think that the music is going to end a certain way, but it ends up completely different! I tend to have things very open in my mind when I’m starting to compose.
DB: Could you take us through your creative process? Do you sit down with the intention of writing something? Or is it more spontaneous? You get inspiration from somewhere and think “I better write that down”
LT: Sometimes a commission has some very specific demands. You can get people asking you to write whatever you want - as long as you use this set of instruments for example. And if that’s the case, then it’s very likely that one starts by thinking about instrumentation - what I can do with this blend of instruments.
But some other times when someone asks me to write music there is something attached to it. Last year I did a piece that was written for a drumming and percussion group which is a very exciting group that we have here in Portugal. They do a lot of styles from classic and contemporary to world music. They tend to ask composers to mix a lot. They had this project of commissioning Portuguese and Spanish composer where the Spanish would write percussion inspired by flamenco music and the Portuguese write percussion inspired by Fado. Fado is not a very rhythmic kind of music. I remember when I said yes, I immediately thought “now what am I going to do?” How can I somehow be inspired by Fado music which is almost entirely vocals with Portuguese guitar? How do you use this as inspiration to write music for marimbas, vibraphones and steel drums?
Before you start driving you need to know where you want to go. The process [of writing music] is exactly the same - where do I want the music to go, what is the idea? Then the instrumentation, rhythms, melodies, whatever you use, they will be sowing something - an idea you have to compose your music. Many times I see, especially with young students, they start worrying about whether they should write tonal, modal, atonal, or use complex rhythms. But I ask them: “what is the piece about?” And many times they have to think about that because they are too concerned with selecting the ingredients without knowing what they are going to cook. So I will always try to know exactly what I want to cook, and then I go to the ingredients.
It is very rare that I start composing immediately on paper. I go to the piano, I improvise, I look for combinations of notes, and then I take notes. And after getting a collection of material that I like, then I start throwing things away and deciding okay this is going to be the material. I go to the computer and then I move on with the computer. Normally, for example if I’m writing for an orchestra, when I go to the computer I already have a very defined idea of what I want to do and what kind of material I’m using because I have already selected with my hands and my ears a lot of the material. And then I orchestrate directly while composing. The orchestration for me is really the same part of the process of composing. Many composers they separate things - they compose and then they orchestrate. I tend to do things simultaneously. Once I have the material then I orchestrate, but I also recompose the material within the process of orchestrating, which I find very exciting. It takes a lot of time, it’s not easy, but it is something that really excites me a lot as a composer.
DB: Do you ever experience writers block? Do you ever think “I don’t know what I am going to do next”?
LT: Not yet! (laughs). I know a lot of composers that have this fear of all of a sudden having to stop. But I actually don’t write much. I can say that I have been lucky to have been involved in some ambitious projects like writing concertos, symphonic music, opera, music theater, which is very time consuming. Much more than if you write a piece for violin and piano for example.
My recent production has been mainly for large scale works. This means sometimes I can write one piece or two pieces in one year. If I write three, one of these three pieces tends to be smaller, or for a very small instrumental combination. I don’t exhaust myself with composing to the point of getting these blocks. Professionally I have to say that composing is actually my third profession in order of my priorities. The teaching and the radio take most of my working energy during the week and then I compose mainly during the weekends or on academic vacation. So far I’ve been lucky not to be blocked.
However, what happens every time is that if, for example, I write a piece that is very dense with a lot of activity, many notes and fast rhythms, then I’m sure that the next one is going to be much more still and quiet. It is the same the other way around. My composing follows my inner pulse and sometimes I have to contrast with what I have done in the previous score.
DB: You mainly compose for orchestras, but you have done some compositions for stage performances as well. Does that have any effect on your composition process or the end product?
LT: It is completely different for my way of composing to think of writing, for example, a choral piece which has a very specific medium, or a piano trio, or a symphonic work. The biggest difference for me is on two dimensions. The first one is the size of the instrumentation. Sometimes to write ten seconds of music you can work one or two full days. So it looks like you have been writing a long section of music but then it’s only five or ten seconds! You have to fill these huge sheets of paper and think about what is going to happen from the piccolo to the double basses and everything in between. So it is very time consuming but at the same time this leads to the second dimension.
The spatial dimension of composing for an orchestra is completely different than writing for a string quartet for example. A string quartet is just sitting there in the middle of the stage in the traditional position normally. But with the orchestra you have to think that sound does not only develop from bar one to say, bar two hundred. And it’s not only just the duration, bottom notes and top notes. You also have to consider the perspective. You have the sound that comes from the front stage to the middle stage to the back stage. Some instruments throw the sound upwards like the bassoon, or backwards like the French horn, or to the front like the trumpet. So it is totally different. When you are putting the notes on paper you always have to imagine where is the sound going to happen. Is it centered? Is it panoramic? To the left or right? Is it like in a tennis match, playing games (gestures back and forth) in the stereo so to speak. How can I now get something that is in the backstage come to the foreground and mute the sound in the foreground and then send it back again. This organic dimension of an orchestral setting is really exciting! It is something I don’t think you can do with anything else within instrumental and acoustic music. Of course if you work with electronics and new media you can do a lot of things like that. But in purely acoustic terms the orchestra is probably the most varied tool that one composer can have.
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