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15 Questions to Alejandro Viñao

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What’s on your schedule right now?
I have just finished writing 2 percussion pieces and now I will start working on a short 20 minute stage piece (music theatre or opera-like) based loosely on the book 'What I've heard about Iraq'

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?

If I think of the consistent decline in social significance of Western art music -so called serious music-, then I must conclude that we are in a crisis. To begin with we have a demographic problem. The average age of the concert goer has been climbing steadily. As our audience begins to approach the end of their natural life we need younger people to take their place in the concert hall. This is not happening. So this is the first time in history we could potentially disappear from the social radar. I am not suggesting that Western serious music is about to disappear altogether. We can easily imagine that there will always be people playing it at home or in institutions of learning. But in social terms we could well cease to exist in the next 30 years or so. Some composers I know claim we already have.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?

My view of 'the new' has changed over the years. Twenty or thirty years ago I would have considered a syntactically novel composition to be 'new music'. Today I am not that interested in syntax unless it is a vehicle for the exploration of music that is perceptually new. I must be able to 'hear' very clearly that which claims to be new. Explanations -in words- do not interest me any more.

Let me give you an example. Minimalism was once new because the new syntactical approach to rhythm it introduced lead to a new perception of time and space. I have never been attracted to Minimalism but I can see that it was once new. New is not what I like but what is perceptually new. By contrast, the total serialism of the 50s introduced a radically new syntax which had little perceptual relevance. So when I look back I do not consider serialism new, not even back then in the 50'. Music - for me- can only be new if it engages our perception in a new way.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
There is no doubt that the manipulation of sound in itself is now an integral part of composition. In some cases a piece may successfully develop a sound process, a discourse, which excludes altogether 'note to note' relationships to the extent that melody, polyphony and even rhythm may be absent. In my music sound processes such as interpolation or sound-morphing have played a central role but never to the exclusion of note to note relationships. I like to imagine music where all the possible processes play a role.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?

In my case completely unless you consider the act of going for a walk and imagining a new piece in my head a special case of improvisation. However, there are no fixed rules. I am sure I could at some point in time create a piece that started with some kind of improvisation. After all, in some of the great musical traditions it is impossible to separate what is improvised from what is strictly composed. (e.g. Indian music, jazz and even rock music)

How would you define the term “interpretation”?
I would say that every performance is an interpretation since a score is at best an accurate prescription of a piece but never the piece itself. For me the question is not to define interpretation in a general way but to prescribe certain rules of interpretation that apply for a particular piece or style, at a particular time in a particular context. I can offer no universal definition of interpretation

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?
Harmony, consonance, dissonance etc, these are syntactical issues. As I said before, for me syntax is not the point, but merely a tool. Is a hammer good? It is not good to cut your nails with but excellent for carpentry jobs. I think you cannot talk about harmony or dissonance in itself otherwise we could go back to the aberrations of the post war era. They are meaningless concepts without a context and a specific purpose in mind.

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where?

No, I would not. There is a wonderful definition by Berio (which he took from someone else) of what qualifies as 'music'. It goes like this: 'Music is anything you listen to, with the intention of listening to music'. That seems just about right to me. There are many so called 'radical experiments' that I would not listen to at all with a musical intention. So according to Berio's definition they will never be music for me. But they could be for someone who was prepared to listen to them with a different intention. When I was 16 I used to listen to Jimi Hendrix at home. My mother asked me if I was playing such awful sounds to annoy her. I still listen to Hendrix with a musical intention. She still does not. What music is cannot be defined axiomatically, in itself.
The listener decides what is music. There is no such thing as music 'a priory'.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?

They certainly are different things. Serious music -historically and generally speaking- has strived to develop a large scale 'non recursive' discourse. If you don't listen to serious music from the beginning it makes little or superficial sense. In popular music, -with its recursive form- it is possible to 'hop' into the music in different places and still make sense of its discourse. So to begin with, these 2 kinds of music require -in general- a very different attitude and approach. However, there are plenty of examples where these boundaries are blurred. Is Charlie Parker's music serious or popular? Is it large scale 'developmental' form or recursive form? Can you listen to his music from anywhere in a track to make sense of it?
And so on.

Now if your question is: are popular and serious music ontologically different?, well, I don't know, and I would be suspicious of any such claim, but I am opened to the possibility that it may be so. But at this stage it would be entirely a matter of belief.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
An artist who shows his work in public has obviously a duty to society. You put something on stage and the audience is expected to shut up and pay attention. It would be ridiculous to pretend we don't have a responsibility in this context where one person requires the exclusive attention of so many. That does not mean that you are there to entertain or please. Art is not about entertaining if that is what the question was driving at. I don't have to please my audience but I have a duty all the same. Now defining that duty can be very tricky. Is it acceptable to be didactic? I would say no. It is a very long and complex issue.

There are also art forms which seek to transform the practitioner alone, and reject any form of social interaction such as some art forms developed in Japan (archery, kendo, etc). In these cases there is no social duty because there is no social engagement. It is purely an individual working with himself.

True or false: People need to be educated about music, before they can really appreciate it.
People need to have an education to understand music since music is a cultural phenomena. But that does not mean that they 'need' to be educated. It should be their choice. Your question seems to suggest that this education should be somehow enforced from the top down. I do not accept that.

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.

Cultural subsidies are given both for useful and wasteful purposes, but yes, I would say that many subsidies are 'spread' around in a pretty mindless way. We are a wasteful society. Consumption and waste are considered our inalienable right. How could it be any different with subsidies? How could subsidies be the only social endeavour where we are not wasteful?
I think there is a more compelling question about subsidies which is this: have subsidies alienated audiences from serious art? Because serious artists, for many decades have not needed to reach or communicate or convince an audience in any compelling way. The only people we have needed to seduce were our paymasters, the mandarins that control the subsidy from which we make a living. I suspect that this state of affair has contributed to alienate our audiences since effectively they have no say. Their feedback has been ultimately irrelevant.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
I would give priority to music produced by composers and performers working with the technology of our time. I would be very traditional: I would tend to ignore the past and favour the present just as people in Europe did for 500 years when we were so successful (minus the last 70 or 80) . I would specially try to leave behind the technologies of the 19th century (the symphony orchestras, opera houses etc) and focus on the technology of the 21st century since history show that no one has ever succeeded in creating socially relevant music using the technology of somebody else's time.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?

No. I don't think in those terms. Every piece is my best piece while I am writing it and every piece is deficient in some way (or in many ways) when I look back.

Picture by Kicca Tommasi

Hildegard's Dream
Son Entero/Triple Concerto
Marimba Works
Hendrix Haze

Alejandro Vinao

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