INTERVIEW WITH RAIMUNDO PENAFORTE

Conceived, edited and translated to English by João Kouyoumdjian 

 

In another exclusive interview brought to you by Movimento Violão, world-renowned Brazilian composer Raimundo Penaforte has his artistic profile portrayed. Consolidated in New York for over two decades, Mr. Penaforte is acclaimed for the excellence of his works, displaying Brazilian music without clichés. His works were performed at venues such as The White House, Kennedy Center and Concertgebow and recorded by artists such as Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, Mark Gould, and Eroica Trio. Check out more about Mr. Penaforte’s works, style and background. He also talks about future projects and how you’ll be able to hear his music in Movimento Violão. Enjoy! 

 

1) You are recognized worldwide as a Brazilian composer, arranger, and instrumentalist.  But what is your specific connection to the guitar? Do you have original works or arrangements written for the instrument? What attract you the most when you think about the guitar? 

 

The guitar has always been present in my life, thanks to my brother Júnior Penaforte. In my teenage years he bought a guitar, which my parents, before changing their minds and accepting it into the house, forced him to return it to the store. Because I was born in a religious household and my father was a pastor, I played the guitar in the churches where he preached in the Brazilian states of Maranhão, Amazonas and Ceará. So I learned to play the guitar and also electric bass, drums, electric guitar, keyboard, besides composing hymns for different vocal ensembles that performed in the services. Even though I do have a connection with the instrument, it is interesting to notice that I did not compose a lot of works to the guitar. Among the original guitar works are: “Two pieces for guitar”, commissioned by you, João [Kouyoumdjian]; “Labirinto”, privately commissioned in Spain as a birthday present and impeccably executed in a recording by João Luiz; “Quartetice”, commissioned for the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, and the most recent commission: “Three pieces for flute, viola and guitar”, commissioned by Alturas Duo. I also have several transcriptions and chamber arrangements that include the guitar and trumpet, with violin, with percussion, with flute and viola, with rice and beans, with pineapple juice and “Leite Moça”, among others. What attracts me the most when I think about the guitar is the fact that I have in hands a six-stringed orchestra. In the days I’m inspired, when I start playing the guitar I forget about time, bills and life. It is dangerous! 

 

2) How was your experience working with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet (LAGQ)? How did they interpret your work? Have you ever had to interfere with your Brazilian musicality to bring out the character of each work? 

 

The LAGQ is an outstanding ensemble. Not only they are excellent musicians but also excellent people. Before they recorded my works “Prelúdio” and “Gangorra” (from “Quartetice”) for Telarc, they played the work several times, in different occasions. In the first two occasions, in Tucson, Arizona – world-premiere – and in New York, at YMCA, I played percussion with them. I didn’t write the piece having percussion in mind, but in that time it made sense to add it to the performances. In the official recording, due to financial and geographical issues, they used a percussionist from California. When we played together, I didn’t need to interfere in the musicality. The ensemble knew Brazilian rhythms, and this expedited a lot the process. There was, obviously, an exchange of musical ideas in relation to the execution of the piece as a whole. This is contained in the process. 

 

3) You projected yourself a lot abroad due to your arrangements, among which he can mention the project with Mark Gould, first trumpet player of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. As a first-rate composer, does it bother you the fact that many people regard you as an arranger rather than a composer? How one thing can feed the other (if that indeed happens)? 

 

Yes, it does bother me, in a certain way. On the other hand, I cannot complain because, commercially speaking, almost all my arrangements were recorded. This generated a contradiction. How can I not be called an arranger having a list of CDs that prove the opposite? Well, that’s another issue. My first arrangements were three songs from “West Side Story”, for violin and piano. As it usually happens, I was hired last minute by the violinist of this project. Her idea was to perform the arrangements at the Pacific Festival, in Japan. When I turned in the pieces, she liked it so much that decided to add them in her first CD, for the label Denon Records. When the CD was released, the arrangements started to circulate in radio stations and were actually also played in the speakers of Grand Central Station, in New York. Eventually they were performed at The White House, for the president at that time, Bill Clinton, and the first lady, Hilary Clinton. That opened the doors for other projects that included the CD “Café 1930”, by the trumpetist Mark Gould, the CD “Carambola”, by the trumpetist Fernando Dissenha, the arrangements for the preludes of Gershwin, three songs from“West Side Story”, by Bernstein, and the arrangements from “Bachianas No. 5”, by Villa-lobos, for three CDs recorded by Eroica Trio. I confess that I never intended to become an arranger. I wrote my first arrangements when I was working in the library at the Juilliard School, in New York. I had just graduated and continued to work because in that year the library was opened after graduation for one additional month before closing for summer. As nobody visited the library and the majority of the students had already left the dormitories, I had all I needed to work: time, silence, records and books. Therefore, the arrangements were made literally at the Juilliard library. In regards to the interaction arrangement/composition, I think of arrangement as re-composition. It is the destruction of the old for the construction of the new, while maintaining the music foundations of the original piece. This is an almost archeological process – destroy to reconstruct (the history). Bach was a champion in that department. He recycled his own material and material by his ancestral with the goal of constructing new formats. In regards to how arrangements feed composition and vice-versa, I think that this can vary according to each musician. Sometimes, you modify the piece so much that it loses its connections to the original, becoming orphan from a composer. In general, that happens when the inner voice of the composer speaks louder than the voice of the arranger (and vice-versa). 

 

4) You compared the arrangement process with an archeological process. Is archeology an area that you have curiosity in studying? 

 

When I studied at Hardin-Simmons University, in Abilene, Texas, the Bible course was a requirement for graduation. At that time, I still carried with me the old revolt that exists in most sons of pastors (ex., the rock star Alice Cooper is son of a pastor, such as Vincent Van Gogh, Malcolm X, Friedrich Nietzsche etc.). I tried to avoid the Bible course but there was no way out: I had to accept it. On a certain day though, reading the universities’ journal, I came across an announcement about an archeology project in Israel. I could use it just as an elective class, the announcement said. That interested me a lot. When talking to the professor responsible for the project, Dr. George Knight, he guaranteed I could use the credits for the Bible course and said that he would teach the course to me through private lessons during the weeks of the archeological work in Tiberíades, Cafarnaum. Besides, when he captured my enormous interest in participating of the project, he also got me a scholarship. Therefore, on that summer I went to Israel and was taught the first part of the Bible course: the Old Testament. It was an unforgettable experience. In the following year, I returned to the archeological work in Israel and was taught the second part of the course: the New Testament, while working as volunteer. Unfortunately, in the next year, given the terrorism of Moamar Ghaddafi, the University canceled the archeological trip and I spent the summer working as a painter (a wall painter), at the university. Ghaddafi did not know his days were coming to an end and that I was an excellent painter, not only painting walls but also doors and footers. In the following year, we went back to Israel to finalize the project, which lasted 10 years. In this last trip, I found a blue vase made of glass of over a thousand years old. I took two days to remove it from the ground. Besides the archeological experiences, there were also musical experiences. In one of my visits to Israel, I met Naná Vasconcelos and Egberto Gismonti, in Jerusalém, who were in tour with the show “Duas Vozes”. In this period, I visited Cairo and several European countries. I was happy… and I knew it. 

 

5) The image of Brazil is still a lot represented by the tripod "soccer- samba-carnaval", which generates a distorted postcard in regards to what a Brazilian artist can be. Were you a victim of this stereotype? How is your experience establishing yourself as a Brazilian classical music composer abroad? How do you bring out the “Brazilianism” of your music without appealing to clichés?  

 

The word “victim” is maybe way too strong but in this context I agree with you. There is no way out. In general, the foreign audience expects at least some Brazilian drumming in Brazilian pieces, no matter the nature of such works. I confess that I feel somewhat guilty because I’m always thinking in rhythms. On the other hand, sometimes I think of things that are not so rhythmic oriented, meaning they are more cerebral and extremely academic – depending on the day. I never liked this tripod you’ve mentioned. The stereotype does exist and it’s up to each artist to define his/her goal. A goal exists to be a target, but when the poet says: “goal” he could be meaning to say the intangible. The fact that I have long hair and dark skin, does not mean that I’m a musician from a popular band or soccer player of the Brazilian soccer team. Nothing wrong in becoming part of a popular band though. On the other hand, becoming part of the Brazilian team... Like the saying goes: “Looks can fool you”. The fame of Brazilian music through Samba, Bossa Nova and, from sometime to the present, from Brazilian Jazz and Chorinho feeds this wrong portrait that shows a distorted idea that everything goes around soccer-samba-carnaval, including classical music. There is an expectation that music from classical Brazilian composers, regardless of their several different styles, portraits, in a certain way, Brazil, native Brazilians, forests, animals, carnaval, feijoada and the “Alcibíades”. They don’t realize that not everything in Brazil is just samba-soccer-carnaval or jungle and favela. Brazil is an enormous country with an even bigger musicality. To expect that everything turns out in samba and carnaval just demonstrates cultural misinformation in the peak of globalization through Internet. On the other hand, in general the ignorance dresses so well that leads mannerisms. How I bring out my “Brazilianism”? I respond with a quotation from Phillip Glass: “Waking up early and working the whole day, everyday.” 

 

6) Your works were interpreted all over the world in some of the most prestigious concert halls around the globe such as Concertgebow (Amesterdam), Carnegie Hall (New York) and The White House (Washington DC). Even though the recognition is higher abroad, you will have a work of yours interpreted by the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira (OSB) this year. Do you consider this engagement evidence that the cultural scene in Brazil is changing in the sense that it is offering better working platforms for Brazilian musicians? Do you think this change is in direct relation with the economical growth of the country? 

 

I don’t think that this premier is related to the economical growth of Brazil, and I don’t consider this engagement to be evidence that the cultural scene in Brazil has changed, in regards to offering be a better working platform for Brazilian musicians who live abroad. That being said, I do recognize the economical and cultural development of the country. On the other hand, I’m in this profession for years. It comes to a point in life when, depending on your efforts and continuous dedication, your name starts to circulate in places where in another time it did not. It’s time to get the fruits out of the seed you planted. A step after another step is necessary to move from point A to point B. Depending on how many steps are taken you can cross a street, bridge, Ceará state or the world. The life of a composer is like that as well. We take what we hear from our surroundings and work those sounds translating them into notes, one after the other. A piece after another piece. A premier after another. In a beautiful day, the recognition. Or not! 

 

7) What are your future projects? Are any of those in Brazil? 

 

The next project on the list is a concerto for clarinet and orchestra for the clarinetist André Kerver, from the Netherlands. The premier will be in the Netherlands, in 2013. Besides, there are other premiers that will take place in Brazil; one of those is part of this marvelous project by Paulo Martelli called, Movimento Violão, where you [João Kouyoumdjian] will make the Brazilian premier of “Two pieces for guitar”, after having had premiered it in 2011, at Carnegie Hall, in New York. The other premier will be “Fantasia”, executed by the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira (OSB), on July 6, 2012, at Teatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro. Another project, to be realized this year, is a result of an old partnership with trumpetist Fernando Dissenha – first trumpetist of Osesp. The project is about a CD recording of Brazilian music for brass quintet, which includes works that I have composed recently for his group, composed by members of Osesp. 

 

8) What do you think about Movimento Violão? 

 

Like the song goes: “I listen to certain songs/ They fit so nice inside me/ That it is necessary to ask/ How come it wasn’t composed by me?” This project by Paulo Martelli, must have made a lot o people question their selves, just like in the song mentioned above. Just like everything that has success, Movimento Violão is here to stay. From every little detail about guitar repertoire, philosophy, practicing, research and performance, Movimento Violão is becoming the “Mecca” of the guitar world. In the past, professor Henrique Pinto kept me informed about his guitar projects in Brazil: competitions, recitals, lectures etc. I was impressed to see him involved with so many things at the same time. Thanks to him, I was always updated about what was going on in São Paulo. It makes me happy to see that Movimento Violão is not only continuing this guitar tradition but it is also expanding and organizing the guitar community world-wide, from the local to the international. Bravo!

REALIZAÇÃO

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