Andreia Pinto-Correia: A (Inter) National Talent (December 1, 2012)
Written by Mónica Brito
Published by Patrimonial Movement for Portuguese Music, Glosas
Months after the unforgettable night at Carnegie Hall, Andreia Pinto-Correia goes back in time and returns again to her future. From Lisbon to New York, a portrait of a composer that brings Portugal to the world.
Is your daily routine very focused on your work?
Completely. But I have to add that it greatly depends on deadlines. The approaching of a deadline always creates a kind of chaos, particularly during the last two months before a work is due. My routine is very varied, I can work all night long, but I can also wake up at 5 am and work all day long. In thirty years I will probably not be able to keep up with such a rhythm…
With such intense professional activity, how do you manage your calendar as a composer and how do you define your priorities?
I confess that sometimes I would like to “ disappear”…although it is not possible most of the time. I frequently travel to artistic residencies that allow me to be in a remote and isolated place. I can be surrounded by nature, in a cottage on top of a mountain, for two months with little access to the exterior world, and with limited access to telephone or internet. Obviously, this is not very practical and it is quite a luxury to have such an opportunity also, because it usually involves some sort of application and selection process.
Do composers apply for such residencies?
Usually one has to apply for these residencies, but on certain occasions one is selected by nomination. Some composers do not work well in such intense isolation, but it works very well for me and I tend to be extremely concentrated in my work. This year was very challenging, since I was teaching quite a lot and it was complicated to manage time with teaching, composing and traveling. I live according to what I am writing at the moment, entering the world of each work, and to teach every week while traveling was very challenging. I had already done it years ago, but this time I had to manage it better, with such an intense compositional work schedule. For these reasons I decided to suspend my teaching for the next school year.
To teach is not a priority for now.
No, not at all. I really like teaching but I do think that I have a personality that better fits private teaching and not so much large classrooms. This year I was responsible for the composition seminar at the New England Conservatory. It was a very large group of students that included undergraduates, masters, and doctoral students, it was a great challenge also because I was substituting for the department chair who teaches that class. It was a great learning experience for me, but I do enjoy better to teach in a more personal manner. During this next year, I want to remain focused on my dissertation thesis which I will submit in just a couple of months, and on my current commissions, all of them very extensive in scope.
I should remind you that you were awarded a teaching excellence award…
(laughing) That was many years ago…
But is an honor that speaks for itself.
It was in 2002, during the time when I started to write music. I was giving twenty hours of classes per week and concluding two degrees at the same time, a true madness never to be repeated. I do think that it is related to our cultural aspect, this warm Portuguese side. I worry a lot about my students and realize that I am almost like a sister to all of them, some who are foreigners like myself, people that come from all parts of the world. This year I had students from United States, China, Thailand, Russia, Vietnam, and Iran, among other nationalities.
That cultural interchange on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean created a sort of solidarity or, by contrast, some resistance towards your being Portuguese?
Indeed, I was the target of some curiosity not only by the musical community in the United States, but also by colleagues from all over the world. I get immense stimulation from getting to know different cultures, as well as another way of looking at music and life. Of course, there are always less happy moments…I remember, for instance, a session for journalists at a very prestigious festival in which I was part of a group of composers hailing from very diverse parts of the world. After the presentation of composers from China, Russia, United States and the UK, it was my turn to go on stage and introduce myself. One of the journalists was very surprised and exclaimed: “I did not know that there were any composers in Portugal!”…I was very indignant!
Does that mean that there is a generalized lack of knowledge in relation to Portuguese music, even in the more specialized circuits?
I cannot make a generalization. In the United States one can find composers from all over the world, but it is true that there is not a lot of contact with Portuguese music and with Portuguese composers, just as with certain other nationalities less present in the country. There is a certain exoticism associated with my origins. Some people think at first glance that I might be Spanish or Moroccan. I cannot control other people’s reactions, but I can and should educate them if it is in my power to do so.
Is the idea of Portuguese music in the United States confined to fado music?
It really depends. There are many people that have never listened to or heard about fado. I remember a work that I wrote in which I had a performance note that read:
“project the sound like a fado singer”, this created a great perplexity in the ensemble. I explained what I meant and they found it really interesting, but suggested that I use English words and concepts in order to make it more accessible to future performers. It concerned a very specific interpretative marking to “sing” the notes with a particular kind of surrender, as the work was already very abstract in nature. Meanwhile, the performers asked me to bring a recording of fado in order for them to understand what I was asking for by this particular marking.
Do you share the opinion that more opportunities – both at the level of educational institutions and the amount of festivals and competitions – excessively magnify the competition between yourself and your colleagues?
First of all, I should say that all my composition teachers were from the United States. I never studied composition in Portugal where the music scene is very different. I cannot speak about the Portuguese composition scene with total competence, since I am not its product. Obviously, the most immediate difference resides in the fact that the Portuguese scene is much smaller than the American one.
I think that there are advantages and disadvantages in both systems. Not all of my American colleagues are extremely competitive, but it is true that the American system generates a bigger sense of competition, which is something to which I had to adjust. For instance, you might have two hundred candidates for one doctoral spot. I took my entrance exams along with thirteen other finalists, after passing two selection stages, for one spot at my University. In a doctoral program in a top university, any grade below A- leads immediately to academic probation that can lead to the expulsion of a student. It is a very high and rigorous level of excellence. Of course, I am speaking about top universities, competitions, and festivals. But I have verified over the years that there is a great level of misunderstanding in Portugal towards great American Institutions (…)To be in the United States does not guarantee immediate success. It gives you access to excellent opportunities if you have talent and, above all, if you work very hard – I will not deny it – with a great spirit of sacrifice.
A highly competitive system by nature.
Very selective. As we usually say in Portuguese, it gives us “strength”. Right at the beginning of my doctoral program at the New England Conservatory, my supervisor Michael Gandolfi repeatedly told me several times something very interesting, a very American expression: “You have to develop thick skin”. It is exactly this aspect of developing “thick skin”, of immunity, and of managing dealing with rejection. Knowing how to learn something positive from a harsher critique of one’s work, and above all being able to discern whether there is any essence and foundation beneath those harsher critiques. If they come from a composer that knows my music very well, or if they come from someone that I respect immensely, I will take them very seriously. It is necessary not to be alarmed if you do not see a review with “brilliant” or “amazing” attached to it. Above all, being exposed to a very competitive system for several years makes me look for balance, to be able to put things into perspective, and to look for a healthy place, which is not always easy.
From everything that you heard or read about your music what have you retained?
I retained several moments, mainly those that involve people that I greatly admire.
Obviously, positive reviews in top newspapers such as The New York Times are fantastic, mainly for more practical management of one’s career. In this area I have been lucky. But one of those special moments involved composer Elliott Carter and it did not need words, just a special gesture. Elliott Carter is a great composer; he is almost 104 years old and always represented the vanguard of contemporary classical music in the United States. In 2010 during the premiere of a work of mine in the Boston Symphony Orchestra Summer Festival, I was a bit apprehensive because Elliott Carter was seated in the row behind me. I could hear his commentaries regarding the other pieces in the program…(laughing). After I went onstage to thank the ensemble and take a bow, he came to meet me, gave me a hug and a kiss. It was worth more than a thousand words…
Your Portuguese roots are present in all your work, even without being immediately obvious?
Yes, they are present, sometimes through the titles; almost all of them are in Portuguese. For better or worse, I hear music in Portuguese. I also like to savor the words and the rhythm of the words in Portuguese. I am not sure if this is possible to explain. A title chosen by me usually relates to a poem, an image, a memory, a place, or is even chosen just because of the sound of that certain word.
One of your next works is Alfama, a commission by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and Gulbenkian Foundation, that will be directed by Maestro Joana Carneiro. Does this piece relate to the intuition that you mentioned earlier?
Yes. Alfama is part of a triptych and the idea for this extended work arose from a conversation with Dr. Risto Nieminen, Director of the Gulbenkian Foundation Music department. Alfama will be premiered in February in the United States by conductor Joana Carneiro and the Berkeley Symphony. The triptych will be performed again in its entirely on April 11 and 12, 2013, at Gulbenkian. I should add that it is a great honor to work with the Gulbenkian Orchestra and Joana Carneiro and it is a dream come true. In the United States, people often ask me about her, mostly due to the coincidence that we are both from Portugal and part of same music scene. When I received this invitation, I thought it was quite special that we were both from Lisbon, approximately from the same generation, and in the United States. Thus, I decided to celebrate our first musical meeting by writing something related to our city. There is indeed a very personal side to this work, a kind of ode to my roots.
Did you have total creative freedom to create this personal interpretation?
Yes. I must say that this is not a composition about fado. Not that I have anything against fado– quite the contrary- but this work is my abstract vision of Alfama and Lisbon. I remember going to Alfama quite often, mostly during the summer. I always associate Alfama with the end of a cycle, not only because I used to go for long walks after my classes were over – this without even mentioning the Santo Antonio festivities at the beginning of the summer. It is a place where I often return to, and that is part of my routine in Portugal. It is also an area where I like to wander when I have to make big decisions. Besides these personal reasons, I find it a very special place, due to the fact is built upon layers of other civilizations, marking the coexistence of different epochs and simultaneously, a strong and ubiquitous presence of water. The name Alfama is related to the presence of baths and fountains.
Everywhere you go, you breathe in the history.
Everywhere. Alfama is a king of microcosm of being Portuguese, and specifically being from Lisbon. This is an aspect that I like to use in my music in a more discrete and abstract way. It can be expressed through certain textures and gestures, never forgetting those layers of history, nor the presence and fluidity of the water element. These are poetic images that I transform into musical moments, atmospheres, textures, and sensations, or perhaps mere memories, that are expressed throughout the work.
Your music is often described as poetic or even cinematographic. Do you feel comfortable with these adjectives?
I think that each composer reacts in different ways. I cannot control the way in which people perceive or interpret my music. I can agree with it or not, but I feel thankful that audiences can find something they can relate to. It means that they were able to identify with what they listened to, and that they interpreted the music themselves, that they could translate the experience, if I may say so…If that is what made them connect with me and my music, there is no reason for being disturbed with how they perceive it.
Do you feel that you already have a faithful audience?
I think so. With regards to the United States, certain audiences are associated with specific institutions. I think my compositional aesthetic appeals to particular institutions and festivals which have their own audiences. I was lucky to be associated with these festivals and institutions. Since I began my career I was fortunate to have the support of the Tanglewood Music Center, the Boston Symphony Orchestra Summer Festival, with whom I have been associated for more than four years now, since I started writing concert music. I have also received support from the American Composers Orchestra, resident orchestra at Carnegie Hall, with whom I was selected as young composer in 2009 as part of the EarShot program, and from whom I received a commission to be premiered at Carnegie Hall for the opening of the SONIC Music Festival in New York City. I have been associated with certain ensembles and soloists throughout the years. I think that this kind of relationship is a very essential and healthy one for my own development as a composer growing up along with the performers of my music.
You mentioned that when you sit down to compose, you usually already have the structure of the future work defined. Is this ability something that is derived from experience, or is it something innate?
Both. It is something innate, but it is perfected with experience. As if one has had the chance to experiment with a variety of colors over the course of many years. One develops a sense for, and eventually knows what a combination of a kind of yellow with a specific kind of green will yield. One knows what will be the result if one decides to choose a slightly different color. It resembles a language that is continuously perfected and refined. This process seems to be quite simple but it is not only the result of many years of writing and studying scores, but also of experience as a listener, attending concerts, and observing what works and what does not work. There is a percentage of intuition, but above all there is a greater percentage of exhaustive work.
And it all began in Lisbon, at the Academia de Amadores de Música.
I began my musical studies very late, at around sixteen or seventeen years of age at the Academia de Amadores de Música and at the Hot Club Jazz School. I studied both classical and jazz simultaneously. I confess that when I began my career as a concert music composer both in the US and Europe, I had an inferiority complex because people reacted very strongly with regards to my jazz background. Sometimes I wondered if I had committed a crime… I received the most extraordinary and unexpected reactions! (laughing) Afterwards I realized that having such an eclectic background was of great advantage. I had sung in a choir, I had been a soloist and had performed in a great variety of stages and halls, I had very variegated musical knowledge regarding other cultures, and had traveled and worked in various musical scenarios. I also had collaborated with my father in studying folk traditions, and all of these aspects eventually made me who I am as a composer. But this was a very natural process. It is this very seemingly “unorganized” musical past that defines my personality as a composer.
Were you in Portugal during the moment when you decided to become a composer?
No, that moment happened very late in my career. And it was not as conscious as you might think. I left for the United States for the first time in 1994 as a performer/soloist and had an accident right after my arrival. I could not use my right hand and realized that I could not accomplish what I had been dreaming of for many years. It was very hard for me and I returned to Portugal. When I finally could return to the United States, after being absent from my studies for five or six years due to various surgeries, I had decided to use my original scholarship to learn all that I could in order to be the best musician I could. I studied theory, conducting, repertoire, orchestration, analysis, History, everything… it was only in 2002, at the end of my undergraduate studies, that I wrote my first piece, Aljezur, and that piece was a great success. Afterwards, I was invited to be a fellow at the prestigious BMI Composers Workshop in New York. However, I really wanted to study with Bob Brookmeyer, a great composer, great vanguard musician, and experimenter. I auditioned to be his full time student and he accepted me, thus becoming my first composition teacher. I remember perfectly my first class with him and the first work that I wrote under his guidance. He said with a very solemn face: “Your music is so dark that I think my wife and I will have to adopt you”. Every week I had to write new music, rehearse and conduct the jazz orchestra. Those were years of great creative energy. Very early on Bob noticed that my works had the tendency to grow and grow to immense and almost symphonic proportions…(laughing) There was not much room for improvisation, and I tended to use instruments not usually associated with the jazz tradition, in short, a big nuisance for all those great improvisers who just wanted a solo spot in which to shine. I think they all wanted to run away from me…and Bob, very patiently, encouraged all that…One day he asked me if I wanted to write for a symphony orchestra. And so I did it. The Conservatory’s orchestra performed my piece and it went very well. When I initially applied to the doctoral program, I had planned to seek a jazz degree, but eventually I was approached to apply for a classical composition degree. For since the beginning, Bob knew that I was searching for something else, and he understood what that was long before I did. A true great master and mentor in every sense. The advice that he gave me was to follow my own path, although it was very sad for both of us to let it go. Now that I look backwards, I think that I felt that it was time to follow a different musical path, although I would not have gathered the courage to cut the rope that connected me to him. He was an extremely important mentor, right up until the end of his life.
Do you still write any jazz music?
No, nothing at all. During these past years, I have received several offers to write jazz, but I cannot relate to that past any longer. I had affinity for it at a time in my creative life, but that cycle has been over for sometime now. Occasionally I like to listen to some jazz, to go to a concert, to listen to friends. Surely is part of my own vocabulary, even without me realizing it. But it is true that this change of path was a part of a natural and extended process. I had already had experience in contemporary music although not much in terms of writing. From the moment that I decided to start composing concert music, I decided to cut all my ties with the jazz scene. Jazz was a very important part of my musical life and upbringing, and it will always remain with me, but I decided in 2007 never again to conduct jazz orchestras or to accept commissions for jazz ensembles.
Are jazz and classical styles incompatible in the career of a composer?
No, I grew up with both simultaneously. In my case, it was a personal choice and a necessity to choose one of them. I know this is what I want to focus my creative time on – meaning classical concert music – and I do not have any regrets about it. It is a very personal choice to completely disconnect with jazz. There are other composers that choose to work in both styles and I have great respect for them. In my personal case, it does not make sense for me. I do recognize that my distinct background gave me a very different education and vision than most of my colleagues. The fact that I was a soloist, having experienced the “other side” as a performer, also as an improviser and as a conductor, gave me a physical connection with music and composition that certainly helped me in my development and perhaps in the growing of my career as a composer.
Meanwhile, you were composer in residence with OrchestrUtópica.
I was invited to write a work in 2009 entitled ….e das noites luz (…and from night, light). After that, I received an invitation from José Júlio Lopes to be composer in residence for 2011 and I accepted it with great joy. It is my goal to maintain a connection to my roots and to Portugal.
During the time in which you were preparing your debut at Carnegie Hall, in October 2011, you shared some details of that experience with Glosas readers. Was that experience a sort of challenge to overcome?
It was a really positive experience. Elegia a Al-Mu’tamid was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra for the occasion of the SONIC – Sounds of a New Century Festival in New York. It premiered in a sold-out hall with important composers and critics in attendance. It went very well. Perhaps one of the most emotional experiences of my professional life, the stamp of a new cycle, of a new stage of my music, also because that work represents a certain aesthetic turn. I traveled to Portugal just one week after Carnegie Hall for the premiere of Esculpturas by the OrchestrUtópica and I was still under the effect of such an amazing experience. I have the sensation that all of that was a mirage.
Did you receive more invitations after that night?
Yes. A premiere and a commission for Carnegie Hall might make a difference in the way you are treated. But it really is a responsibility to be able to match the expectations of an institution like the American Composers Orchestra or Carnegie Hall when they commission a composer hailing from Portugal. The United States has forty thousand registered contemporary music composers. When a composer starts to reach a certain level of success, she will become part of a smaller and smaller circle of colleagues, but to have one prestigious commission is not enough. One has to constantly prove that one is a true professional, and I think that is the way to build a solid career. More than producing a large number of works, or having one very prestigious commission, for me it is more relevant to prove to the institutions who believe in me that I have musical and personal integrity and that I will give my best. There will always be somebody who does not appreciate my musical aesthetic, but I must feel that I gave my best to that work and that I was responsible and honest towards my body of work.
Your next premiere will be a suite derived from the opera Territories, in November, and you have yet another project in Portugal in this particular area of composition.
It is a work commissioned by the Companhia Ópera do Castelo and the Drumming GP, with libretto by Angolan writer Ondjaki. We have been working on the text for a couple of years now. I am a great admirer of Ondjaki’s musicality. His choice of words is naturally musical, poetic, and very appealing. We met each other many years ago in New York City at a jazz concert, through a mutual friend. This particular project has been in incubation for some time now, and I enjoy this slow process, being able to work in great detail. Unfortunately, we still do not know when the premiere will take place…maybe in one or two years.
Which moments do you highlight from this past season?
Carnegie Hall. But not only that. I enjoyed immensely working with the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra during the world premiere of Xántara. It is a fabulous orchestra. It has the reputation of being the orchestra that performs the best pianissimo, and I can confirm its fantastic level of detailed execution. Not only was maestro Osmo Vänskä deeply engaged in the whole process, but also the whole orchestra was incredibly receptive to new music. It was really stimulating to hear, almost a whispering…a brilliant execution. Unfortunately I was not able to attend the European premiere of Acanto, an older work, performed by the Orquestra Metropolitana de Lisboa. I was very sorry to have missed that – I have great respect for maestro Cesário Costa. I also had other moments that were very important from a different perspective, like the death of Bob Brookmeyer, my dear mentor and the first person to really believe in me as a composer. I truly miss him.
Do you imagine yourself returning to Portugal?
(pause) I imagine myself traveling many times to Portugal, and I would like to be able to have more projects in Portugal. I travel quite a lot between the two continents. For instance, last year I spent five months in Portugal…But I have already created my contacts in the United States, I built strong working relationships during all these years and I feel very privileged to have great support and to feel so esteemed. Of course, it is also a dream to be able to come to Portugal. But the United States is the best place for me to be, the place that offers me better conditions for the development of my work and knowledge.
Is the Square in Marrakesh, a work from 2008, inspired by a trip to Morocco?
Morocco is a county that I have visited and that I like a lot, but this work was not inspired by any trip. It was written for a short film by Daniel Blaufuks. I was approached by Avian Music, an experimental ensemble from New York City, to write a work for any short film of my choice. I picked Daniel’s because I am a great admirer of his work. The piece is divided into two sections that reflect the same place, the Djemaa el Fna Square, during the day and at night. Avian Music Ensemble took this work to several cities in the United States, concluding the tour in New York City.
You have collaborated with your father, João David Pinto Correia, in the development of an ethnomusicology catalogue.
Yes, at the Centro de Tradições Populares Portuguesas (Center of Research for Portuguese Folk Traditions) at the University of Lisbon, where my father was its director for many years. My father is not a music scholar but a scholar in the area of folk traditions. This particular center has many archives of Fernando Lopes-Graça -field work, folktales and traditional songs, prayers…it was very important for me to be able to study our traditions, and I made important personal discoveries by doing so. I was fascinated. I helped my father with several activities at the center, and I am always ready to help again if needed, since I always learn something valuable about our roots and culture.
Was it there where your affinity with Portuguese traditions was born?
I think so, without a doubt. I grew up surrounded by this love for our traditions. Both of my parents were professors at the University of Lisbon, so I had the luck and privilege since childhood to meet most of our great thinkers: I remember, for instance, David Mourão Ferreira, Prof. Viegas Guerreiro and Prof. Lindley Cintra, among others, all of them people who impressed me a great deal even before I knew who they were. But I am sure that this atmosphere influenced me in the way I look at and relate to art. My mother, a professor of German literature, taught me, from very early on, how to appreciate Goethe and the great exile writers such as Musil, Zweig, and Thomas Mann. On the other hand, my father encouraged me to value my roots through our folktales, songs, and superstitions. In fact, many of the concepts that I am currently working on musically are related to the Santa Maria songs, and the cantigas de amigo, de escárnio or mal-dizer. The work commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra soloists for next season is inspired by these songs. I still ask my father for help, and he is always patiently available to answer to my many questions. (laughing)
It is undeniable that you have quite an unusual biography for a composer. Do you feel that you have already reached your maturity?
No, not at all. I feel that I will be eternally searching. Composer Elliott Carter with his laudable 104 years, mentioned in a class that he was not quite sure of what he was doing during his first sixty years as a composer. How can I pretend to be more self-assured than he is? I know that I am going through a very important stage of my career, in which I am learning a lot, reflecting about what I am doing. This is a year in which I consciously decided not to take on too many commissions. Perhaps I will return to having the extenuating energy to write multiple works at the same time, but for now I need the time to have tranquility and to reflect, which I think marks a aesthetic transformation in my music. After concluding the Suite from Territories and Alfama, I will write a work for the soloists of the Boston Symphony. After that, I will have a residency at the University of Minnesota, where I will attend the premiere of an extended work for tenor voice and ensembles, with texts by Priest António Vieira. All of these works are very extensive and I want to be completely available and focused on them.
Concerning a certain serenity that you are looking for in your professional path, what are your dreams for the future?
So many things that I even do know where to start from… You must realize that my serenity is relative…The experience of creating a work is never serene. As much as I would like to reach that serenity, to create a work of art always takes away a lot from us, it is always a corrosive experience. To create involves trying to reach a higher level, to reach a faithful relation to oneself as an artist, to be able to surprise oneself, while discovering and surpassing oneself. But the creation of a work can also be associated with a certain process of disintegration and with the weighing of great questions for the artist – composer in this case. It is a permanent work in progress, 24 hours a day, from which is impossible to disconnect. It is also a learning experience to be able how to appreciate and enjoy oneself while being immersed in the anguish and disintegration of the creative process. To write music- and I think this idea is shared by many composers – also has this side of anguish, of pain, of searching for something that is very intimate, but at the same time impermanent, and thus naturally unreachable.