Profile Interview (March 15, 2017)
Written by Maria Fernandes
Published by DaCapo Magazine
Recipient of a 2015 John Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship Lisbon-born composer Andreia Pinto Correia, has worked in the United States with orchestras such as the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, among others. Her compositions, according to the Jornal de Letras, “are a major contribution to the dissemination of Portugal’s culture and language, perhaps a contribution larger than could ever be imagined.”
Photo by João Barbosa
How did composition start for you? Was it always your dream?
My relationship with composition started very late. When I began my studies in music, I wanted to be a woodwind instrument soloist (saxophone); however, I had to interrupt my course because of an accident.
Only after a six-year intermission – and upon returning to my studies – did I start to compose. Little by little my passion for composition started to emerge. Today, I cannot imagine myself doing anything else.
Why did you decide to study composition at the New England Conservatory of Music? What caught your interest at this University?
The initial reason I enrolled at the New England Conservatory (NEC) was to be part of composer Bob Brookmeyer’s teaching studio. I should add that NEC is one of the great music schools in the United States. Bob Brookmeyer, who unfortunately passed away in 2011, was a very strict and demanding teacher. He was a very special composer as he possessed not only vast knowledge of concert music, but also of jazz repertoire, and he himself was an extraordinary soloist and improviser. However, due to a set of circumstances, I ended up changing my course of study, eventually enrolling as a doctoral candidate in the classical composition department.
So, I would say that I was mostly impressed by the high quality of the conservatory, and by a particular teacher. In a general way I was also captivated by the plurality of choices in the United States, by the co-existence of numerous aesthetic schools, and by the fact that there was space for all of them to flourish. In my particular case, it was important to be surrounded by musicians of great skill from all over the world and to have the freedom to compose and grow without being concerned about labels, only quality.
At the same time, I had to adjust to a very firm idea of self-sufficiency that is, without doubt, vital in the United States: The idea of the “self-made man”, in which each individual builds his or her own path, surpassing obstacles and flaws without being dependent on the great master responsible for building the career of the protégé. A different way of thinking, to which it is not as easy to adapt as one might initially think.
As the recipient of numerous awards – among those the most recent one from the League of American Orchestras – what is your posture regarding awards?
I try to be aware of what an award might represent (or not), hoping not to fall into false expectations. An award might bring new responsibilities, collaborative possibilities that might have been previously unknown or out of reach, or even more financial stability, as is the case with the Guggenheim Fellowship.
As we know, there are numerous composition awards in the world and, if I have learned anything by having served as juror role on several occasions, is that one should always contextualize one’s situation. Meaning, I remain conscious of the responsibilities and importance of the vote of confidence given to me and my work by a particular institution without forgetting the essential: to continue growing musically, giving my best in each work that I compose.
How would you define your work? What genre do you most identify with and why?
This is perhaps one of the most frequent questions that I am asked in interviews. Perhaps the best way to answer is to talk about my main interests and challenges. I am especially interested in detail, timbre, harmony and orchestration. I have a great affinity for orchestral music, which is my great passion. A more appropriate term than genre might be instrumental force. And I say orchestral music because of its numerous possibilities in terms of timbre, palette of color, and infinite possibilities.
How are your works received? Did you ever receive dismissive comments for being a “woman composer”?
I have generally been quite lucky for having received very positive reviews, some from renowned critics, but I must add that I have also received less positive reviews. This is par for the course for all of us who expose ourselves to an audience. I remain conscious – and this is particularly relevant in contemporary music– that an audience is usually hearing a particular work by a composer for the first time, without any reference or any comparative recordings.
I suffer from a deep self-critical sensibility, and there are only a few couple of people to whose opinion I pay attention regarding criticism (either positive or negative). These are composers who I greatly admire and who have known my work and my musical path for many years. I try to extract from criticism that which makes sense to me, without diverting my attention from what I would like to improve in my writing.
In relation to the second half of your question: unfortunately, I have received deprecating comments for being a woman composer, but curiously never in the United States. Perhaps this is due to the more visible presence of women composers (both at conservatories and universities), many from older generations with extensive careers and major works written. But I would like to reinforce what I said earlier on regarding your question about reviews: I try to focus on those aspects which I know I can control, in other words, the quality of my music. That is what really occupies my mind.
Would you like to return to Portugal at some point? Do you think that you would have equal success if you had your musical career in Portugal?
What the word success represents to me or to another person is very subjective. When I think about success, I think about being able to do what I enjoy, to write the best I can and have top musicians perform my music. Portugal has extraordinary musicians and it would have been equally very satisfying to have worked in my home country. Probably, I would have had a very different musical course, but not a lesser or better one, just a different one.
Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has a very interesting essay about this issue in which he discusses the existence of cultural exile (not affiliated with political or economic exile). Llosa lists reasons that could lead a writer – in this case I am substituting a composer – to choose another country as his or her basis. And how this decision affects the way in which the artist’s work is received and perceived in both his adopted country and country of origin. These are questions that I am faced with on a daily basis.
On the other hand, today it is easier to travel and be connected to what is happening on different continents. Although I am not the most appropriate person to talk about technology (I value my pencil, paper, and solitude – “solitude” here as opposed to “loneliness”, a wise distinction that I have encountered in a recent essay by Prof. João Lobo Antunes), it is true that in today’s world remaining in one specific place is not vital.
I studied composition in the United States, never in Portugal, and so I do not have the relation of disciple with any “school” or master in our country. I have developed lasting professional relations with soloists, ensembles, orchestras, and institutions in the United States. I’ve also developed some professional relations in Portugal which I value highly.
But, in answer to your initial question, I do travel to Portugal several times a year, I have my family and my closest friends in Portugal, and I also remain in touch with extraordinary colleagues with whom I have been collaborating for many years. I’ve also been lucky to have had more work in Europe which helps to maintain these relationships. You ask whether I would like to return one day? I am not dismissing that possibility, but there is a time for everything. It all depends on the circumstances and conditions. The door is open.
Did you have to give up anything in order to have a musical career? Did you have to put aside your personal life?
It was very difficult to leave Portugal, but that was a decision made a long time ago. The decision to later stay in the United States was a weightier resolution, to which different factors and experiences contributed. I have a great attachment to Portugal, and often it is not easy to be far away from everything familiar. Steinbeck posited that the place of origin is a place with a plurality of construction of memories, some of which are by nature contradictory. Memories of experiences, memories of what a place represented in key moments of our lives. Because of all that, the place of origin, that place with which we feel a unique and profound bond, is a place that lacks objectivity. This relates to your previous question regarding a possible return to Portugal, and a coherent or non-coherent portrayal of my place of origin.
But returning to your initial question, I think that my biggest obstacle was the fact that I was away from my studies for several years and started composing very late due to health issues. I lost years of study and experiences that would have been important at a certain stage of life. On the other hand, I gained a “thicker skin”, always useful in less positive circumstances. I made and make sacrifices, but I also have a dream life: I write music, travel to wonderful places where I am treated very well, and I work with extraordinary musicians.