Interview with Radio Beethoven (2008)
by Romina de la Sotta
Radio Beethoven, Chile - July 20, 2008
Some have thought that you studied music in order to master the architecture that music and poetry have in common. You studied with Carlos Isamitt and with Pedro Humberto Allende, you have rated "the greatest composer of South America." Did they leave traces in your music? Your poetry?
When Pedro Humberto Allende, my teacher of composition, harmony, and counterpoint, tried to convince me that I had to dedicate myself solely to music, I told him: "I study poetry for music's sake, and music for poetry's sake." It was a way of showing him that I wasn't going to abandon either of the two. A correct answer would have been to tell him that I studied astronomy and physics and botany for music's sake, and studied music for the sake of astronomy, physics, and botany - because everything is a unity. It is also a way, the least fragmentary possible, of studying myself.
To speak of poetry and music is, for me, didactic. In me, they are not separate things. Since I've had the ability to reason, what I've wanted is to understand why I am here, what is this that I am. The ideal: to know everything. I have always had that attitude: the dream that I could manage to learn everything, and even more. Knowledge is infinite, but the more of it, the better. The only real entertainment, in a profound sense, is to arrive at relatively exact information: to learn. Music and poetry are ways of self-expression. Any art, when it is really art, always informs. It depends on the preparation and honesty of the creator. In my understanding, art is such, in any language - musical or plastic, banal, exquisite or mathematical - when the individual expresses something experienced. Otherwise, what's expressed is irrelevant. If one really knows, one finds the way to make oneself understood. We're surrounded by an enormous tendency to lie. It's the first thing I realized I needed to know: how to recognize the truth in the middle of so many lies. At least, not to lie to myself.
To really be an artist is to create silence in order to be able to hear oneself, and in that way to succeed, with internal perspective, to listen to the exterior world. I contemplate reality as if it were a language: reality speaks to me, and I have to attend to and understand its language. How do I transmit it? Through music, poetry, and drawings. The more I investigate, the more I perfect that. In spite of life's limitations, when I would stake my life on something that I've realized, I have the irresistible impulse to express it, seeking the most precise way: that which doesn't betray what I know. If I am making the portrait of a person or an event, the only thing that matters to me is the person or the event, to be able to affirm: "I am." Faithfulness to the subject and the object. Consistent with the substance: in a poem, a musical composition, or a drawing.
I admire Pedro Humberto Allende because he wanted to give me tools, so that I could use them as I saw fit. He knew that I was going to study everything that he was going to teach me. What mattered to him was that I mastered what was conventional, established, and academic, using it the way I needed to in order to say what I wanted to say. What he wanted was for me to know what I was doing, conscious of tradition as being just another element. From that sprang his enthusiasm for my compositions and his wish that I dedicate myself exclusively to music. What he wanted most was to be surprised - positively, of course. Carlos Isamitt was also a very skilled teacher. He wanted, before intervening, for me to investigate as much as possible. I am enormously indebted to Andrée Haas. She, for example, made me keep time, with my left hand, in 3/4 time; with the right hand, in 4/4, and, with my feet, in 6/4; and then, using various accents: in adagio and then abruptly, in presto: all that simultaneously. Her classes were very useful to me. That is, her classes were artistic.
You have said: "Every time I have shown my works to pianists, they have told me they find them extremely difficult. Claudio Arrau, in Santiago, rehearsing in the house of Zita Miller, listened to some of my works, found them extremely difficult and insisted that I record them myself." Why do you believe your poetic work has been more recognized than your work as a composer?
Some of my books have been published throughout my life. But I began recording my music only relatively few years ago, and it is only now being published. I have been dedicated to my poetry, my music, my drawings, and my human relationships. I haven't had time to dedicate to the dissemination of my works. What I consider essential to my creative work is to be the defendant, jury, and judge of what I am creating. Art, in order to be art, requires not doing things by halves. In general, life, with its comings and goings and responsibilities, obliges one to do things 'more or less.' In art, it's the opposite. It cannot be 'more or less.' Either it is or it isn't. If the grade is from one to seven, it needs to be an eight. What grade to give the forty-eight Preludes and Fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach, to the Lyric Suite of Alban Berg, to the Child with the Top of Chardin? A seven? They are well beyond that.
Please comment on why poetry is an oral phenomenon. Also comment on how poetry, just as much as music, "are arts in which Time is transformed into Space", in contrast to painting and sculpture, in which Space is transformed into Time.
Poetry is not only an oral phenomenon. One of the elements that contributes to the meaning is orality, but everything is there for the sake of the meaning. There is a visual aspect to a poem, the graphical aspect, the sequence of the elements. And the silence. Even in music: the sonority of silence. Just as rhythm and movement are fundamental to sculpture, painting, and architecture, one can speak of the musicality of certain paintings of Monet, or of the plasticity in Debussy. Equilibrium is at the center of all the arts.
You have said that authors don't interest you, that only their work matters. Is there a dialogue between your work and Chile? A dialogue of coming and going? What does Chile say to you, as the creator of your work?
My work occurs on this planet and Chile is on this planet. My spatial awareness came to me in Chile. In Santiago, the horizon marked by the Andes gave me the measure of limitation. It was a powerful experience to be on the beach in Cartagena and contemplate the farewell of the sun. The sun disappeared, but the image of the sun, disappearing, has not disappeared in me. The things that matter to me do not abandon me. If I love a person and no longer see him or her, I don't cease loving. If you wish to call that a conversation, I have been conversing with Chile all my life.
How did you find (make out, guess, intuit, confirm, remember, to the extent it had occurred) your truth? Is there a particular moment – or perhaps repeated a thousand times – in which you guess what you must, can, and wish to foresee? To construct a bridge between your artistic approximation to the truth and the intuitions of readers, in such a way that the individual would be universal and the universal yours, mine, or ours?
I don't know if I found something or if that something found me. Art and science are fundamentally the same: an agreement between the object and the observer: a real marriage: I want to learn from the other, and the other wants to inform me, or the other wants me to struggle until I break his resistance. The center of the multiverse is everywhere: if you brush against your center, you brush against the center of the multiverse.
You ask me: "Is there a particular moment – or perhaps repeated a thousand times – in which you guess what you must, can, and wish to foresee?" It is not a matter of foreseeing; it's a matter of investigating. What is guessed does not belong to me until I have realized it for myself. If I had guessed, I would have the greatest mistrust of what I had obtained. To guess is to improvise: a frivolous way to make contact. To guess, often, is to assume. The result is not mine. The attitude of taking the responsibility to make it mine is indispensable to me in my work. Intuition is a preliminary way to approach something, but it isn't enough. Intuition is a tool that corroborates, but does not take us to the goal. It is a tool that should be mistrusted as much as it is trusted: it is a point of departure. To arrive at conclusions through guessing, intuiting? Risky and not very serious. Those are tools we can use, provided we have others. Intuition, certainly, provokes. I prefer experience. If I am going to speak about something, I have to be an expert on it. What value do my intuitions have? Life is short, even to embrace a little of the truth. And the door of truth doesn't open with the key of my intuitions alone. Intuitions help me, but they don't offer me certainty. The same is true of the reader.
Perhaps it will be clearer if I give the following example: if I am reading a book of scientific data, it is not so that it will give me intuitions. I need to absorb it. If the researcher is serious, I obtain information. If I give a formula in physics or mathematics, it is not so that the reader will use his intuition. The work of the reader is to absorb and comprehend what I am saying. It's not forbidden for the reader to use his intuitions. It is a matter, in essence, of something practical: to resolve a fragment of the enigma it is to be here.
You have been able, if I'm not mistaken, to live for what is. Tell me, please, how many synonyms pass through your mind in each verse? How many times do you change the order of a phrase? I ask in order to know if you feel yourself to be a hunter of reality, if you have to corner the Truth, frighten it, reassure it, pamper it, and reduce it. Because the vital pulse of your work, its ironies, sweetness, images and naked phonemes, each manipulation of what is worthwhile to you, configure a precise, multicolored poetry, rich in meaning and ingenuity. And in spite of the fact that truth, like blood, flows as I read, many times I'm left with a strange sensation of having heard the steps of an elf. And that subtle trace of the contrast between revealed truth and artifice is many times what is called genius in poetry. Is that, for you too, the vocation of poet?
You say: "You have been able, if I'm not mistaken, to live for what is." It is as if you were to tell me: "You have been able, if I'm not mistaken, to breathe." I cannot avoid breathing. To compose, to write, is, for me, to breathe. You ask me: "How many synonyms pass through your mind in each verse?" There are no synonyms in poetry. There has to be an exact fit between the phonic and the conceptual. What is arbitrary in language ceases to be so when it is poetry. It has to adapt to the structure, the rhythm, to sane logic and to crazy logic: and everything at the service of the meaning. You ask me: "How many times do you change the order of a phrase?" It's not a matter of changing the order of a phrase. It's a matter of faithfulness to the thought: like creating a child who has the potential to be perfect: a being who enriches the existence of whoever approaches him.
You say something that I like: "I ask in order to know if you feel yourself to be a hunter of reality, if you have to corner the Truth, frighten it, reassure it, pamper it, and reduce it." The truth does that with me, not I with the truth: it corners me, it frightens me, it gives me trust, it pampers me, reduces me, and seduces me. The truth, sometimes, is not difficult to find. The problem is that at every moment, the lie dresses itself up as the truth. You believe you have the truth, and you are only fighting with lies. One must undress the lies. I will repeat your words: one has to corner them, frighten them, pamper them. It's not a matter of language being rich or poor; it's a matter of being exact. Talent is not sufficient: talent must be used with talent. Genius, in poetry or in anything else, has nothing to do with 'artifice' or with 'revealed truth'. Genius, in my judgment, is a man conscious of his vocation, who puts the best of himself in his vocation. What is more 'revealed truth' than that effort?
Do you feel you have anything unresolved with Chile?
I have nothing unresolved with Chile, because Chile vibrates in me in every moment.
Listen to the interview here:
Collected Interviews by Corda Foundation (2011-2017)
Composition: Points of View
What motivates you to create music?
I have observed that even the best music is composed from only one point of view. I always ask myself, "Why not two or three?" Art is precisely the wish to escape this limited subjectivity. How to be more objectively subjective and more subjectively objective? In the idea of the 'variation' is hidden the wish to say the same thing from another point of view. A novelistic attempt to escape this limitation of subjectivity, to view the same subject from different vantage points, was made by Proust: "Today I am not the same person as I will be tomorrow, and what I think today is not exactly what I thought yesterday." How to approach this truth? I want at least to move around the subject, and not to view it from only one angle. The struggle to achieve this can also be seen in painting; it is very strongly present in Rembrandt's self-portraits, as if he is saying: "The subject of this portrait is changing, not only externally, but internally." This has been one of my motivations.
Can you explain further how this idea of 'point of view' affects your conception of music?
If I listen to a piece by Beethoven, the Appassionata, for instance, I think: "Yes, this holds true for Monday afternoon from three to four. But what happens at five o' clock on that Monday? Would he say it the same way? And what will he think about it a year later?"
One angle, whether big or small, is only one angle. Why not more angles? At least to make the effort! With a sculpture, I can move around it. I don't look at just one angle and that's it. That's not the way to look at a sculpture or at another person. How can I say I know a person if I'm with that person for only one minute? No matter how deep that minute is, I cannot pretend or expect to know the full person. It's a very limited angle, no matter how much strength that angle has. But why not make the effort of being with that person for another minute? And on another day? In recent years, I have been composing music as sculpture in sound, approaching the same subject from many different angles. I haven't seen that anyone else has attempted this.
On Composing for and Playing the Piano
Your music makes extraordinary demands on the pianist. What do you do to prepare yourself to play such works?
What helps me is to practice something much more difficult. In order to jump two meters, there is nothing better than to jump two and a half meters. And if one prepares by jumping three meters, one is very calm when jumping only two. In the case of certain pieces, I take it to the extreme and think like a person who has to jump thirty meters. I sit in my chair, not at the piano, and imagine my hands on the keyboard playing through the piece, but without moving them. That is so extremely difficult that playing the piece on the piano afterwards seems easy. Also, thinking that things are easy or difficult is a habit of mind. To do anything, if you analyze it closely, is very complex; the most insignificant motion represents an enormous number of complicated actions.
What are some unique characteristics of your approach?
One technique that appears in many of my pieces is to play two notes almost, but not quite, together. To do this in a maudlin fashion is one way that bad interpreters murder Chopin. I use it when I need a different kind of expression than can be obtained by sounding two notes together, such as a state of vacillation or insecurity. For example, in Sonatinas de Amistad, it creates an atmosphere where everything seems broken. I also use it to show a certain type of agreement being reached, since one of the things I like in life is that sometimes by a miracle, we do come into accord. In Ontogenia, such an agreement is reached, but haltingly; not with everyone singing at the same time, but instead like a vague disagreement, which at moments becomes an agreement. First, someone says: "Oh, I understand." Then another: "Yes, I understand, too." It is very difficult to play this disagreement, however: the intepreter must express with certainty that state of uncertainty, must describe with confidence the lack of confidence. It's much easier to march in unison like soldiers than to march a little bit in disorder, in an orderly disorder.
What led to your compositions for multiple pianos?
I have always thought of the piano as an autonomous instrument, one that doesn't always mix well with other instruments that also have strong personalities. In general, I don't enjoy piano concertos; they have always seemed to me to be created for the pianist to show off. But combining piano with piano is different; it gives the piano an expanded territory. The sonority of two or more pianos is for me like a new instrument.
What music for piano has had special value for you?
The Well-Tempered Clavier and the English and French Suites of J.S. Bach (on the piano, not the harpsichord), certain sonatas of Haydn and Beethoven, the Nocturnes and Mazurkas of Chopin, the Preludes and Éloge of Debussy, the Ludus Tonalis of Hindemith, the Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich, the Twenty-four Fugues of Hans Gál, the Sonata of Stravinsky, Almería of Albéniz, the Tales of an old Grandmother by Prokofiev.
Poetry and Music
What relation does your music have with your poetry?
Poetry is a written and oral phenomenon. Space, in poetry and music, is transformed into time; in painting and sculpture, time is transformed into space. A sonnet and a sonata occur in sonorous terms. How can one understand a poem without hearing it?
It's a mistake to think that language has only to do with words. The best expression for a theme may be in music or painting or dance. What music, poetry, painting, architecture, and dance have in common is rhythm. Everything breathes in order to, eventually, not breathe.
A thought has its own rhythm. A sentence, by altering the emphasis of its words, gives a different meaning each time. And silence has, in poetry, as much value as it does in music. Changing the duration of silence between certain words can completely alter the sense.
Nature is always expressing something. Unfortunately, we don't always understand what it's saying. If we don't know a language, we cannot understand what is being said in it. Many people freely admit that; however, they assume they understand the language of music. They will acknowledge not being able to speak, say, Chinese, but they are sure they understand music. They affirm: "I like it" or "I don't like it", as if they were speaking about a salad or a dessert. If you ask them what the music is saying, they have no answer. They accept as a given that music says nothing in particular, and look for what flatters their ear. They create categories like "classical," "romantic," "happy," "sad," etc. Much music and literature do not say anything, but there is music and literature which does, sometimes a lot. Of course, the meaning of a work cannot be obtained in a single listening or reading.
Some themes or subjects are easier to express in poetry; others, in music. For example, in the music version of Ontogenia, I wanted to express the fear felt by a person who is going to say something very serious, without wounding his listener. Of course, he hesitates. I think if I were to have written the content of Ontogenia as prose, it would have turned out three times longer than the Recherche of Proust. I put a building into a matchbox.
Poetry is often read without real awareness of its rhythmic sonority. It is impossible to understand poetry – real poetry – that way: sonority, silence, and rhythm are fundamental.