"The first rule to keep having an audience: surprise them somehow"
Dylan Berg: How did you get involved in your radio work?
Luís Tinoco: I did my first degree in this school (Escola Superior de Musica de Lisboa, where the interview took place). When I finished that then I decided to go to London where I did my masters degree at the Royal Academy of Music. After two years, when I came back [to Lisbon] I was unemployed so I started looking for things to pay my bills. There was an opportunity to start teaching at the Lisbon College and so I started teaching in this school. This was in 2000 actually, so in the beginning of the new millennium I completely changed my life.
One of my colleagues who was teaching here had had a radio program at the classical radio station for a long time and he was tired of doing that. So he said “I don’t want to do it anymore, you need work so I’m going to propose that you replace me doing my weekly radio program.” I had no experience at all with radio, I never thought I would do a radio program in my life. But I proposed to do a program that was called ‘Century Score’ because this was the 2000s. The idea was to interview composers, performers, conductors, musicologists and to ask them what were their thoughts about the heritage of the 20th century music and what was their expectation of what was about to come in this new century. They invited me to do eight interviews and if that would be a complete flop that was it. But it went well and they asked me to do more interviews!
"It is about new music, but not from a Eurocentric perspective..... I also broadcast music from New Zealand, Mexico, Brazil and Iceland"
For the first two or three years I was doing new music, but always in conversation with someone. Then when I finished that program I proposed to do a new one, which I am still doing now, called geography of sound. It is about new music, but not from a Eurocentric perspective. It is not just showing what is happening in the mainstream of new music in Europe - Paris, Berlin, London, Vienna. I do play a lot of music from these places as this is where lots of new and exciting things are happening but I also broadcast music from New Zealand, Mexico, Brazil and Iceland. So it is a very panoramic view of music making today. I haven’t stopped doing that program ever since - I have been continuously doing my radio show for 19 years now, so almost two decades!
DB: You were commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, and you have mentioned previously that their program of commissioning works inspired by musicians from Seattle is a way to connect to a younger audience. Do you think it is important to connect to a younger and broader audience?
LT: I think that there is a big gap between the music making today and the classical, by which I mean the notated traditional way of composing. So the heritage that comes from Bach to Brahms to Stravinsky to Schoenberg - the tradition of notated music. We have got to the point that today people actually don’t have time to listen, they don’t care, they don’t give themselves enough time to close their eyes and see what is happening on stage because many times they don’t even go to concerts, they just get it [new music] on Spotify or Youtube. I find it absolutely terrifying to understand music and to discover new songs by listening to music on a laptop with very poor quality of sound. The mystery of being present in the concert hall and getting all that energy from the performance - things make a lot of sense when you hear music live.
We live in a time where the conception of the arts has to be fast like fast food - you have to read it fast, you have to watch it fast. So it is very difficult to find an audience and say “come on, lets go and listen to ‘St Matthew Passion’ by Bach or even ‘The Rite of Spring’ by Stravinsky” because these works are not easy to understand on a first listening and they don’t have the energy and the thrill that the younger generations are used to getting with other types of music.
In regards to the teaching of music - we are now in the 21st century - and a few decades ago we were learning Webern, Schoenberg, Stravinsky or Messiaen as something very new and very fresh because that was the modern music of the new century. So the teaching of composition in the academy is still very much focused on music that is 120-130 years old now.
As teachers we also have to find ways to, of course, show students all that heritage but also things that are being composed today. That is the biggest gap - the students normally don’t know it. They have heard ‘Verklärte Nacht’ by Schoenberg in their music theory class, but they haven’t heard something that was composed one year ago by a composer living next door. So I try with my radio show to fill that gap - 95 percent of the music that I play on my radio program has been composed within the last 5 years. This is also good for me, because as a composer myself, I discover new things every week.
"If you don’t want a concert hall completely packed with people with white hair, you also have to go and fight to renew your audiences"
Going back to your original question about the Seattle Symphony commission, I think that was really a very clever and exciting project that the artistic management of the Seattle Symphony did. Because Seattle is a city where you have all these very big names from grunge to Jimi Hendrix, but also in Jazz - Bill Frisell, Quincy Jones. All these big names have been somehow involved with that city. And that’s where you can really trigger and connect more easily with new generations. If you don’t want a concert hall completely packed with people with white hair, you also have to go and fight to renew your audiences. It’s not enough just to wait for them to discover the hall and go there - you have to show them that they can also find excitement there.
So they started commissioning composers every year for a program they called ‘Sonic Evolution.’ Each composer had to choose someone related to the pop culture in Seattle and compose their own work inspired by them. With my love for jazz music, when I found that Bill Frisell was living there I wanted to do my piece inspired by Bill Frisell’s sound. It was really very fun because I had the opportunity to meet him there and he sent me a lot of recordings, all the scores of his pieces. It was really great fun to compose something that I wanted to be my own language in the style and manner that I work as a composer but at the same time be connected with something that is different from my comfort zone. I think that the Seattle Symphony had a huge success with that program - with really renewing their audiences and getting lots of people of different ages going to see concerts.
DB: What advice do you have for aspiring composers? Whether about the process of composing, techniques to use or other practical things?
LT: That’s a nice question because, especially if you are involved with teaching, you know that you somehow interfere in your students path. I personally am not much in favor of the old style of teaching where you have an idea of what is correct or what is wrong and you lead your students to that “correctness”. You have the experience so you are teaching students like you are teaching them how to sit in society when they are going to have a meal - do you hold the fork in the right hand or with the left hand? It’s not the same thing. Sometimes you can get teachers that do that - they say “this is wrong, this is right, you can not do this, you have to use this technique, this is the good technique now, this is fashionable, this is old fashioned.”
"what I really try to do is to stimulate in them curiosity and to be humble"
I have no certainties as such to offer. I prefer to offer the doubts. So what I really try to do is to stimulate in them curiosity and to be humble and not think that they have found all the solutions. So it’s like this kind of never being comfortable - always wanting to expand their knowledge, to know more and find out more and more and more. Like in a laboratory, you can not hope to find all the solutions to science in one discovery. If you find something then you have to discover something else next.
Another thing that I think is my purpose when I teach is not to lead the students to do their music as I do my own. I have to solve my problem as a composer outside the classroom. So when I’m writing my own music, I am only responsible for that - I don’t want anyone to interfere, it’s my own decision. I have terrible doubts, but I have to choose. It might be right or wrong but it’s my block, my territory. When I am with my students I am not in my territory, I am in their territory. So if a student of mine tells me they would like to compose something that is not to my personal taste then what I have to do is to try and help him or her as much as I can to write the music they have in their head. I can try to feed them either with music, books, films, exhibitions - try to broaden their field of knowledge, share things and also ask them to feed my own knowledge.
This sharing can be very helpful because some of them all of a sudden start finding their own voices. That is really the purpose - to help the students to not follow the mainstream, to not follow the rules, not to compose as another composer or their idol would, but to find their own comfort, to know what they want to do, how they want to express, what do they want to express. That’s the kind of teacher I would like to have had sometimes. I had great teachers, I’m not complaining, but sometimes when I would get these kind of sentences like “you can not do that, it is not correct” that was the worst way for me to get some criticism because I could not accept the black and white approach to the making of music or making of any kind of art.
DB: You have had commissions that have asked you to draw on a variety of styles, for example, your Seattle Symphony commission asked to draw influence from music from Seattle and you have also had a commission for a work inspired by Fado music. On your radio show you play music from around the world. Do you think exposing people to or incorporating different styles and influences from around the world is a good way to engage new audiences?
LT: Sometimes you find new ears and new audiences from the most unexpected people. If you think that you can really know exactly what is on people’s minds or what they expect you to do then I think that is the worst choice you can make. I’m not even raising the issue of finance. I can mention that following a certain format can be very effective to get some kind of financial return. But that’s not what I think we are talking about.
I am thinking about getting artistic feedback, connecting to people for the sake of the music and not for the sake of any kind of agenda. It is actually not possible to know one by one what this or that person wanted to do. So you have to be at least sure of what you want the music to be because you can not put your head inside of anyone else's head. If people are free to do that I think we will get more and more people going to concerts. There was a period that many composers were composing according to these kinds of rules and sometimes the rules were not matching what people were expecting. Sometimes you could also have the sense of “old-new” because it [the compositions] would again come to the same solution, the same kind of sound world. Now that we live in the period that you can get form the most complex to the most simple music and many things in between I think that is really very exciting. You can go to concerts and you can be surprised at any moment. That’s the first rule to keep having an audience: surprise them somehow.
"We sometimes see kids in museums, looking at paintings with someone explaining how Picasso or Velasquez painted. So why not do the same thing with music?"
If I think about my own country, I think that the basic studies in secondary schools and so on is miserable. The teaching of music in music academies, professional schools and universities I think now is in a very good period. I have just returned from the young musicians prize - there were people playing beautifully, wonderfully, with great artistry and technique. But if you go to younger ages I think it is terrible. It often only consists of asking kids to play the recorder, or “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven, or to play on loud speakers very cheesy, cheap music because the music teacher thinks that it will be much more cool playing ... I’m not going to say names but you can imagine what is going on in my head.
As we have, for example, in Portugal this plan for literacy that means all the schools have books from different writers from different periods that all the kids have to read. I think we could also have the same kind of plans for music literacy. We could make agreements with orchestras, chamber ensembles, choirs and so on. We sometimes see kids in museums, looking at paintings with someone explaining how Picasso or Velasquez painted. So why not do the same thing with music? Put the kids on buses and take them to the concert halls, take them to the opera, take them to rehearsals. Let them feel the excitement of the music performance live. Let them touch music instruments to play with the sound. I think when we start doing that then we’ll get more and more people in the audience and we’ll get more adults that are not necessarily musicians but they are more respectful to the music making. Because even now we get a lot of people that have important political positions and they just don’t care about classical music. So things have to change in that aspect.
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