Tuesday, January 1, 2008

An Interview with Marisa Rezende / Tom Moore

Composer Marisa Rezende, born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a fundamental presence in the musical life of the city, not only for her compositions, but as perhaps the most important teacher of the next generation. We spoke in Portuguese during the 17th Bienal of Contemporary Music, on October 23, 2007, at Sala Cecilia Meireles.

MOORE: What was the musical environment in your family when you were young?

REZENDE: There was a piano at home. My mother studied a little, and my father played quite a bit by ear, without ever having studied. My mother says that quite early, when I was not even four years old, she noticed me playing a música de roda. She thought that perhaps it was by chance, and she asked me to repeat it, and I did. After that I was always playing, so that my start in music was spontaneous, and quite early. My aunts and grandmother were always singing, but it was very informal -- there was no one who was involved in music in a professional way. At five, I began to study with a teacher who taught me to read before I had begun school, so that I could take piano. I remember my father, when I was very young and playing samba, insisting that I play correctly. "It’s stiff! It’s stiff! Make it swing!" He was joking, but he was right. Some things from this period were fundamental in relation to being relaxed, treating music as a game, and to not be afraid of performance.

MOORE: Your family is from Rio. What is their background?

REZENDE: My mother used to say that her family had been carioca for 400 years, since she did not know of a single relative that was not from Rio. My father, and my paternal grandparents, were also from the city. The previous generation was from the state of Rio, from Campos, close to the state of Espirito Santo. So we're all local.

MOORE: Was the family Portuguese originally?

REZENDE: Very probably. My mother’s surname was Costa Pereira, and my father’s was Nunes de Barcellos -- everything pointing to Portugal.

MOORE: You mentioned samba, playing music by ear. What was the musical scene like in the city when you were a child?

REZENDE: My mother always used to take me to the Theatro Municipal to hear all the pianists who came through. I heard Guiomar Novaes many times, [Alexander] Brailowsky as well. When the first international piano competition took place here, I must have been 12 or 13, and I went to all the performances. My mother was very focused on giving me experience with the instrument. As far as the rest -- nightlife, bars -- we had no connection. My father was a doctor. He liked to play, and I am sure that he went out on the town when he was younger, but not when I was a child. I have memories of blocos on the street during Carnaval. My experience with popular music comes from listening to him play by ear, and so I also began to play that way. I listened to radio a lot, and my experience of classical music came from study. I started at five and stayed with the same teacher until I finished my education.

MOORE: Where did you do your undergraduate studies?

REZENDE: That is a very complicated story. I began to do my bachelor's in composition in Rio, at the Escola de Musica. But I married early, and, a year and a half after starting school, we went to live in Boston, MA, where we spent four years. I had two daughters there. I came back with my children, and started the course in composition where I had left off. And three years later we moved to Recife for many years. So I got there in the middle of the course in composition. I had done three-and-a-half years in Rio, but as soon as I got back from Boston I became pregnant with my third daughter (all very close in age). I finished my undergraduate work 11 years after I began, in Recife.

MOORE: Were you active musically in Boston?

REZENDE: Almost nothing.

MOORE: When was this?

REZENDE: We went in ’64, and returned at the end of ’67.

MOORE: A very interesting period in the U.S. Did you feel a culture shock when you got to Boston?

REZENDE: Yes. It was all very different, the way people functioned; winter was something completely new. It was difficult: we had little money, no relatives there, and two children to look after -- a complicated period! I took some night courses at Harvard. It was glorious, to be able to get out of the house and go somewhere. My husband had gone to do his master's at MIT. He was supposed to have returned after a one-year fellowship, but it became obvious that it made no sense to return to Brazil, and it was better to continue. It was something completely unplanned.

MOORE: Much of your training was in Recife?

REZENDE: When I left Rio to go to Boston, I was already a finished pianist. I had completed the technical course in piano, and was playing a lot, with recitals and so on. So my training in piano was all in Rio. The beginning of the course in composition was in Rio also. I learned fugue and counterpoint with Morelenbaum and Virginia Fiuza. When I got to Recife, it was very odd, because the course in composition didn’t exist anymore. There were a couple of students who had to complete some course or other. So I had class with a musicologist, Padre Jaime Diniz. He was very interesting, but was not a composer.

MOORE: Someone with a considerable interest in contemporary music?

REZENDE: He liked contemporary music, but he worked with baroque music from Pernambuco. He had books on organists in Brazil, and a chorus; I sang in his chorus for a long time. When I got to Recife in 1972, he was close to 60. It was Diniz who introduced me to the Ludus Tonalis of Hindemith, Bartok, and lots of other music.

MOORE: How did you start your career as a composer?

REZENDE: After 11 years of undergraduate work, I went immediately back to the U.S., to Santa Barbara, where I did a master's in piano, but I wanted to do composition as well, and the first two works that remain in my catalogue are from this period: a trio for oboe, horn and piano, and a trio for strings.

MOORE: Who was teaching composition?

REZENDE: Peter Fricker. There were other people as well -- [Edward] Applebaum, Emma Lou Diemer -- but I studied with Peter and did some other courses with David Gordon. This trip to the United States was very important. It was a good school, with a good library, good recordings, scores -- I loved that! A wonderful time! The building worked, and I took advantage of everything. I only staying a short time (middle of ’75 until end of ’76) because the children were getting bigger and going to school themselves. But then, years later in 1983, I went back there for my doctorate in composition.

MOORE: During your first stay at Santa Barbara, did you still considered yourself to be a pianist, as opposed to the second time, by which you had come to think of yourself as a composer?

REZENDE: For many years I thought of myself as both. I played as soloist many times in Recife: Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Brahms. I played a lot of piano, not just a little. When I went to do the master's, I knew I was a pianist, so I got by very well. But I was petrified by the idea of studying music in the U.S. I spoke and understood English, but had never studied there, didn’t know the literature, and so I thought it was better to study piano, since I knew I would only have a short time. I went back to Brazil for quite a stretch between the master's and the doctorate, and it was like this: part of the year there were concerts, and I didn’t compose; and the other part was the reverse. Even today I play in Musica Nova, but I play less, and play fewer things that take work. I don’t play Tchaikovsky with orchestras anymore. And as time has gone by, I am working more and more on composition. But I miss the piano. I love to play!
MOORE: Your compositional esthetic is something that comes from Brazil. What were the influences of your study in Santa Barbara, your compositional models?

REZENDE: I can’t really say, other than everything that I heard and that I liked made an impression on me. The fact that of my having gone to Recife, where I studied composition with someone who was not a composer, but a musicologist, left me more open, freer. If I had studied in Rio, with a professor who was more rigid, my studies might have gotten in my way. I was able to choose. I was working with consonance in a period where people did not accept this easily. Why? It was in my head, in my ear, I liked it...why not? So my path was a little alternative. There in the U.S. I heard everything that was available, but I never wanted to compose like a serialist. I went to hear Boulez and Stockhausen in Los Angeles -- there was a very nice festival of contemporary music at the California Institute for the Arts. I loved all that, and learned from it. I made a mixture, but I can’t say "Oh yes, I see that I have influence from this one or that one." I don’t know what sort of influence Fricker had, because, in my writing, there is nothing similar to his. He taught me a great deal; taught me to carefully look over my scores. He did a very good job!

MOORE: California has the reputation of being a place with a tradition of independent composers, freer than other places like New York, Boston, Princeton, Philadelphia. Could you speak about your activities at the Escola de Musica, and with the group Musica Nova?

REZENDE: When I came back from doing the doctorate at the end of 1984, my daughters were already undergraduates and moving to Rio. I had been wanting to move back here for some time; a competition opened; and I came to teach composition. was very happy to come bac, because I had missed the place and the people, my parents... It was a great experience, because I have had many fine students. I won’t mention names, because if one does, one is bound to forget someone. We began Musica Nova in 1989. It was an important experience, because the group rehearsed twice a week, and the function of the musicians was to play the students’ compositions. They would play the pieces before they were completed, so people could hear works-in-progress, and change things, discuss them with the musicians, and this gave a lot of energy to my teaching. Later, I managed to bring Rodolfo Caesar into the mix, and we began to work with electroacoustic music, which was a struggle, but we managed. After this Rodrigo Cicchelli was brought on board, and we had the beginning of a nucleus bringing together people with different backgrounds. It was good situation. I didn’t like the physical environment – the classroom building is very disagreeable, very noisy, with people giving classes nearby and 300 different things sounding around you. It was very wearing. The bureaucratic and administrative part was certainly not something that appealed to me.

I retired, a little early, in 2002, when I was 58. I thought "just because I have retired doesn't mean that I can’t go back to give classes, teach students at home," but I haven’t, since every other year I have had commissions for pieces for orchestra. I am writing a third commision now. It’s odd, in a country where the orchestras almost don't play contemporary scores. So I have a big score to complete. I keep very busy, and I have not taught very much.

MOORE: The piece from this year’s Bienal, Vereda, was from 2003. After this piece --

REZENDE: -- there is one that went to the OSB in commemoration of 40 years of the Sala Cecilia Meireles, called Avessia, which for me was a backwards fanfare. The one which I am working on now is for the arrival of the royal family, to be played next year. The piece evokes the Botanical Garden, since it was D. Joao VI who founded it.

MOORE: In Vereda, the clarity of writing is impressive. Your voice is completely individual, original, and communicative. Where did this come from? It doesn’t seem to belong to any school, and doesn’t sound "Brazilian," but it is an open voice, which communicates emotional states. A woman in the audience, after hearing it, asked me, “"What does this piece mean?" -- but she also was speaking of classical music more generally. What does classical music mean for you?

REZENDE: A métier, a style of writing, in search of details, which would not happen if I were writing music that was lighter, more popular.

I have written music for theater, music for installations in the visual arts, in a language which is less elaborate. I think that classical music presupposes a certain level of elaboration in any parameter, whether it be timbre, harmony, whatever -- a more intense level! So what happened? In 2000 or so, I wrote a piece for piano, Constrastes, in which I froze some sonorities. I had not moved toward set theory; I knew that it existed, of course, but had not done anything with it. Then I worked with Orlando Alves, who did a master's with me, and who is a maniac about such things. I don’t like all that mathematics, and it was not a situation where I said "I am going to do this," but I did anyway. This question of exploring a particular sonority is an interesting one. Vereda, in the first 20 seconds, presents all the material, in terms of pitches, for the entire piece. So there is something very closed there. Now, the fun is to give that material many different aspects, since, because I am on the same ground, I can change clothes as many times as I like, and I will still have the same identity! I like consonance; I don’t close off when I sense that I have a passage with a more emotional charge, and one which also recalls something from the past. I let whatever needs to be in the music come out, I acknowledge values old and new. That is how I am as a person – a mixture of many elements. I still am emotionally moved by things which were important for my parents, for my grandparents. My experiences of breaking with the past, in my personal life, in my emotional life, were all very difficult. What I see in tradition is a sort of solidity, which anchors me, which is good, which I cultivate. I am not a person of the last century. I am a person who experiences all the anxieties of people who live in Rio today, and in a certain way this also comes out in my music, but what I value emotionally are things that have to do with things which are very old.