José Orlando Alves — An Interview

His work, Insinuancias, was heard at the 2007 Bienal of Brazilian Contemporary
Music in Rio de Janeirio. Presently he lives in Joao Pessoa, Paraíba, where he is professor of
composition and co-ordinator of the Laboratory of Musical Composition
( at the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB – We
spoke in Portuguese.

Oct. 23, 2007, Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro

TM: Let’s begin by talking about music in your family.

JOA: My mother studied piano, was a pianist, and still is, though presently she is more active
with popular music. When I was little, she was always practicing, and I loved it, and was always
close to the piano. I remember that when I came home from school, instead of watching Sitio do
Picapau Amarelo, I would turn off the TV so that I could listen to my mother play piano instead.
In a moment I will be teary-eyed. My mother is still alive, but this is such a strong memory. It
was fundamental. With the first pieces that I wrote I involved my mother in the process, since
they were for piano four-hands. I wanted to be there playing with my mother. They were trifles in
terms of composition, but they worked.

TM: How did she come to be a pianist? Was there a tradition of music in the family?

JOA: There was my grandfather, who was a violinist, and my mother, who studied piano. She got
to an advanced level, played the Well-Tempered Clavier, and then she married, and stopped,
moved to Belo Horizonte. I am not aware of anyone else in the family who was musical.

TM: What are the origins of the family? Where were they living, whether in Brazil or abroad?

JOA: On my father’s side they were Portuguese – my grandfather immigrated from Portugal by
ship. On my mother’s side, they are Alvarenga – Italian, but more than that I don’t know.

TM: If I am not mistaken that is a name from northern Italy, in the Veneto.

JOA: That may well be. There are many Alvarenga in Brazil. My family is all from the southern
part of Minas – from Lavras, which is an hour away from S. Joao del Rey. S. Joao del Rey has a
very strong musical tradition. Recently they opened a school of music there as part of the federal
university. They are all there.

I moved to Rio de Janeiro to study music in 1987, when I was 17. My father made me enter a
course in business administration, since he thought there were better professional possibilities
there than there were in music, and since at the time I was financially dependent on him, there
was no way that I could say no. And so I also have a degree in administration from Bennett [a
Methodist college located in Flamengo], and this was very good for me in the sense that I had
just arrived in Rio, and needed to make friends. Many of the friends I made there continue to be
friends until today. The department of administration was more important for my social
connections than it was for the material in the curriculum

I went to the School of Music of UFRJ in the technical course for piano at the same time that I
was finishing the course in administration [at Bennett]. In my last year in administration I took
the entrance exam for the undergraduate course in composition at UFRJ. The undergraduate
course in composition was immense – a seven-year program. In my last year in the undergraduate
course, I had already entered the master’s program. So my education was all inter-linked. The
only time when this was not the case was with my doctorate, where I had a year between the
master’s and the doctoral program.

TM: What was the instruction in composition at UFRJ like at the time? Was it traditional?

JOA: I began in 1991. It was super-traditional, and for me it was even more traditional, since I
had professors from the “old school” My salvation there at the School of Music was that I was
the first composition student of Pauxy Gentil-Nunes, who was very open, very modern, wide
open to innovation. For me it was a moment for me to get free of the restraints of tradition. I
remember that the first piece which I wrote for him was a suite. Our composition program was
based on forms – you had to pass through the suite, the sonata, the symphony. My suite, for flute
and piano, was very traditional – quite modal, very much within the canon. The allemande – we
would look at allemandes by Bach, Couperin – how are they put together, what is the rhythm, etc.
Bouree….Everything was very closed, very traditional With Pauxy things opened up.

My sonata was very traditional as well, although set theory was already present. Pauxy’s
influence was very important, because he made me enter a universe of control of pitches. I tell
him now that this was something that was already present inside me, but at the time I thought
“my god, what the heck is this? I am going to have to learn to use this to compose”. I went home
depressed thinking that I was going to have to use set theory. Normal form, prime form….more
and more BS.

Well, you know there can be a sort of prejudice against knowledge until you began to understand,
and you say “wow, there’s actually something to this!” And so my compositions began to be
organized, with control of pitches. To such a degree that my other professor, Marisa Rezende,
tells me “Enough! You have to move on! ” Time to move on to other forms of expression,
without having to be so fixed on control of pitch. (Confidentially). But it’s so good…..

TM: Which composers did you look at in studying with Pauxy?

JOA: We didn’t do much analysis, since that was a separate topic. At the end of the course, we
talked a lot about Penderecki. I remember going to the National Library to study the St. Luke
Passion by Penderecki. This was something that made a deep impression, particularly in the area
of texture, which is something that I am now beginning to develop, thank God. The
Threnody…all these scores were at the National Library, so you could listen while following the

Ligeti came later, during my masters and doctoral studies, but the strongest influence as an
undergraduate was Penderecki.

TM: In Brazil there are composers who seem to be fundamental, such as Penderecki and Ligeti,
who are perhaps less present in the study of composition in the US. Why are these so important
in Brazil?

JOA: In Brazil? I think they are important for composition in general.

TM: Which techniques in particular?

JOA: The manipulation of texture. The idea of micropolyphony in Ligeti is something fantastic,
something, polyphony, which comes from tradition, but a new kind of polyphony, a new way of
thinking about musical texture, which has a tremendous impact on the listener. You listen and
think “My God, this is an orchestra playing. It sounds like a work for tape. Lux Aeterna – the first
time I heard it shivers sent up my spine…even today it does. All of Ligeti has this effect…the
Requiem… When I first heard it I didn’t know why it worked this way – my listening was very
intuitive. After I did some research I began to see the complexity of his style of writing, the
quantity of divisi – every stand has a separate part. I thought it was fabulous. This made a big

The Eastern European school – Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Ligeti – they are of prime importance in
music at the close of the twentieth century. Music changed.

TM: Does Western Europe have such important figures?

JOA: You had Stockhausen, Boulez, with a great impact in the area of serialism. But the torch
passed to Eastern Europe. Musicology will have to look at these currents of influence,
transmission of techniques, but will have to wait for the dust to settle. Ligeti only died last year.
Penderecki is still living, and was here conducting in Rio last year. Of course his process of
composing has changed. Everything is much more traditional. What apprentice composers value
is precisely his music of the sixties.

TM: Was there a phase in which you were involved in popular music?

JOA: I very much like popular music – Chico Buarque, bossa nova. I listen to it, I think there is a
moment for it, but in the process of composition, it was always purely classical music. I never
worked with popular music. My reference was always classical music, from the time when I was
young. I studied Chopin waltzes, and so I composed waltzes inspired by Chopin. When I was
studying Beethoven, I composed pieces in the style of Beethoven, as a sort of game. One thinks
“this was compositional exercise fundamental to my training” – yes, but at the time it was a
game. I would take a theme from Mozart, and write variations.

My training where I grew up was very much lacking, since I only had piano lessons, with no
lessons in theory, solfege, dictation. When I got to Rio de Janeiro, and had to do a test in
dictation, in solfege, I was royally screwed, so that I could not go directly into composition, but
had to go through the technical course in piano to get the training that was lacking.

So what did I do? I recorded my pieces. I was lucky with my teacher, because instead of saying
“this is foolishness – you have to study, etc. etc.” she encouraged me, saying “how beautiful!
Since you don’t know how to write it down, let’s record it.”

TM: Do you still have the tapes?

JOA: I don’t have the least idea what happened to them. I have been away from Minas for many
years. But we recorded them, and listened to them later. It was only much later that I learned how
to write music down. Composition was something much earlier.

TM: Your teacher Marisa at the Escola de Musica is a brilliant composer. How were your studies
with her? My impression is that she encourages students to follow their own paths.

JOA: Exactly. Marisa was someone who was essential. After studying with Pauxy I went to study
with her for my master’s. It was fantastic. I regret not having been able to study with her longer.
The masters was only a two-year program, and very much directed toward research. She is a great
researcher as well as composer.

She was my adviser. I had already studied composition with Pauxy, and she liked my work. I
didn’t have classes in composition with her, but analysis and theory. What is fantastic about
Marisa is her humanity. You have class at her house, converse, she understands your problems.
There is friendship which goes beyond the class. She is a very, very enlightened person. Words
are inadequate. She was essential for me because she had a very solid background in research. A
year later I was doing a doctorate. Had I been frustrated in the masters program, which happens,
it could have held me back in continuing my studies. But with Marisa, things went quickly,
calmly. I owe a great deal to her for the knowledge she shared with me.

TM: Where did you do your doctorate?

JOA: In Campinas, at UNICAMP. My adviser was Jônatas Manzolli, who opened other
possibilities for me in terms of composition, of language, of systematization of knowledge. My
only regret is not having been able to enter the field of electroacoustic music. I never had time.
UNICAMP would have been the right time, since they have various composers in that area –
Denise Garcia, Silvio Ferraz, as well as Manzolli. Nowadays at UJRF they have Rodolfo Caesar
and Rodrigo Cicchelli, but while I was doing my masters there Rodolfo had just arrived from

My doctorate at Campinas was great – three years of my life where there is nothing that I could
complain about. I was granted a leave from work. I always worked, and that had an effect on my
studies. Everything went right at Campinas from the moment I arrived. All my works were for
solo piano, and I even managed to arrange a heavyweight pianist, Ingrid Barancoski, who came
to Campinas, played forty minutes of solo piano, didn’t charge a cent for artist fee – I managed to

cover her travel and expenses through UNICAMP.

My travel back and forth was tiring. I didn’t live in Campinas – only for the first semester.

TM: Living in Rio, and studying in Campinas.

JOA: Seven and half hours by bus. When I was active as teaching assistant there, which was very
important, I had to go every week. I would take the bus from Rio on Monday nights at 10 PM,
and arrive in Campinas at 5:30 AM.

Was it exhausting? Yes. But I wasn’t working, so when I returned to Rio I had my time available
for to do research. I got used to it, and when I finished my doctorate I even missed them. You
know that nostalgia? It happens with people who travel every week. In Paraiba, since it is the
only center for composition, there are people who come from Recife, from Natal, from the
interior of Paraiba, so we talk about this a lot.

TM: Here in Rio you have been active with Preludio 21, a group of composers which will
celebrate its tenth anniversary in 2008.

JOA: In 1998 I was beginning my master’s. It was excellent, something unheard of. Of the
composers who made up the group in 1998, Sergio [Roberto de Oliveira], Neder [Nassaro], and
myself have been there from the start until today. It was something informal that worked. I
believe that it continues to work today because of one factor: friendship. There is friendship,
togetherness that links these people. If these links break, with disputes and suspicions, it is like
shellfish by the sea – they close up, and the group almost doesn’t exist. And then you have to get
over the trauma, and get back to work. The principal thing is friendship – we are all friends,
thank God.

TM: The group doesn’t have a single esthetic, but seven composers and seven esthetic points of

JOA: Everyone is doing his own thing, but little by little you move closer. You begin to take in
influences from other people in the group. There are lots of thing that I have “stolen” from
Marcos Lucas, from Caio Senna. Through proximity, since we have so many concerts each year,
there are influences flowing from own to the next.

TM: I suppose rather than “Les Six”, you are The Seven.

JOA: But that was a group which had a mentor, Nadia Boulanger, who was behind the scenes,
something we don’t have. One could perhaps even elect someone for that role, for example
Marisa, who was teacher for at least three of us – myself, Caio and Alexandre Schubert. Fewer
than 50 percent of the group

The group is something which I like a lot. I was nervous when I left Rio to work in Paraiba that I
could lose the group. Our most important concert was the first one at the Theatro Municipal, and
on the very next day I left for Paraiba. When I traveled I was exhausted, but the concert at the
Muncipal was something that could not be missed.

TM: Your work has an economy of means, with a small number of motives for which you
develop the various possibilities. A music which is minimal, perhaps in the original sense, not
like the American minimalists. Instead of a tropical profusion, a la Villa Lobos, you create a
work from a tiny nucleus.

JOA: Exactly. There are compositional processes in my head, and perhaps I need to free myself
from them. This piece at the 2007 Bienal [Insinuancias] is a classical example of working with
sets of pitches – tritones and semitones. This set pervades the whole work, perhaps not as
systematically as when I was studying for the doctorate. Here I work with sets, but more freely,
with more liberty.

When the piece was commissioned for a concert of Preludio XXI at the Centro Cultural Telemar,
there were problems with bringing in the percussion instruments, with the size of the stage, there
were only two percussionists – a series of problems. We had a meeting, and so the percussion
available was limited to glockenspiel, vibraphone, suspended cymbal, triangle, and tam-tam

This was something based on circumstances. I like to work with a larger set of percussion. The
piece by Caio at the 2005 Bienal with two pianos and percussion – I thought “this is something I
have to do”. In fact it is something that I am going to do, not two pianos, but one, with seven
large percussion instruments.

This question of organization of pitches is something that I have very much internalized. Now I
am beginning to look at the question of texture. I have a piece written for the brass quintet in
Paraiba, which was very well-received – I wrote an article on it for ANPOM – which is entirely
based on the question of texture.

I am writing a piece now for Preludio XXI, for orchestra and percussion, which has been
difficult, because I need to manage time for both teaching and composition, and texture is
speaking to me more insistently. What is textural music? It means not working with motives,
with predetermined rhythms – music will flow depending on texture. I am very much taken with

TM: What projects do you have for 2008?

JOA: I want to get back to entering competitions. Here in Brazil I have won five prizes, but
nothing from abroad. There are plenty of opportunities. There was a competition in Luxembourg
which seemed made-to-order for me – for an instrumental combination that I had mastered, no
age limit, no entry fee…So now I am focusing my efforts in this direction, in addition to my compositions for Preludio XXI.

image_description=José Orlando Alves
product_title=Above: José Orlando Alves