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Interview with Marlos Nobre, Brazilian Composer

Acoustic composers also need to know about electronic music

Interview conducted via email 24–25 October 2006.

Marlos Nobre’s (b. 1939) prolific compositional career was launched by his prize-winning Concertino Opus 1 for piano and strings, crafted when he was only 19. His work has become known for its Brazilian cultural roots and modernist æsthetic. An educator and conductor, Nobre has served as composer-in-residence at numerous colleges and universities, and as Music Director of the Recife Symphony Orchestra. Nobre has also maintained active organizational involvements, including his election as President of the Brazilian National Foundation of Music and of the International Music Council of UNESCO.

[Bob Gluck] How would you assess the value of your time studying in the United States, in 1969?

[Marlos Nobre] The summer that I spent at the Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival and then at Columbia-Princeton had a great impact on my development as a composer then and into the future.

How did you first come to Tanglewood?

In 1969, I was invited to spend the three-month summer season at Tanglewood, with a grant from Margaret Lee Crofts. It was there that I wrote my piece Ludus Instrumentalis, for chamber orchestra (woodwinds, brasses, percussion, piano and strings). It was premiered at Tanglewood by the Contemporary Music Ensemble, conducted by Alvaro Cassutto.

How did you learn about the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center?

It was alcides lanza who invited me to study electronic music at the Electronic Music Studio of Columbia-Princeton, which I did that year, after Tanglewood. I came to Columbia-Princeton as a visiting composer. I knew alcides lanza from Buenos Aires, where we were composers at the Center for Advanced Composition Studies at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, where I studied with Alberto Ginastera, Olivier Messiaen, Luigi Dallapiccola and Giovanni Malipiero. Margaret Lee Croft was kind enough to provide me with a grant to study there, too.

Tell us about what you learned at Columbia-Princeton?

My experience at the Electronic Music Lab at Columbia-Princeton was important to me. I found it to be a revelation. It was clear to me, while I was there, that I did not like to work with this medium, and that I would never compose an electronic work. But as a composer, it was important to know about electronic music.

Are there ways that your experience influenced your future work as a composer?

In 1970, I wrote an orchestral work, Mosaico, 16 minutes in duration. In the first movement, “Densidades” (Densities), the blocks of sound in the wind instruments and strings were indirectly affected by my experience in the field of electronic music at Columbia-Princeton.

How come you haven’t composed any specifically electronic works?

I do not like pure electronic sound. It is a problem of my perception of electronic sound. I do not like it, really. I’ve listened to many different electronic works and I can say that I stay completely away from that, I do not get any interesting message and my brain does not react in a positive way. In public concerts of electronic music, I have not been able to stay in the hall for the whole programme. In some ways, I find pure electronic music irritating. I definitively did not like to work with those sounds. I am fundamentally an acoustic composer.

What did you learn at Tanglewood? With whom did you study?

At Tanglewood, I was fortunate to begin what became permanent connections with Gunther Schuller, Alexander Goehr, Luciano Berio and Leonard Bernstein. Each of them was there that season, giving master classes and informal meetings. One fascinating experience was the chance to hear Berio analyze his new work, Sinfonia. He spoke about the process of the composition and his quotation of Mahler. What that showed to me was that avant-garde music was beginning to take new steps towards pluralism — this was an immensely significant experience for me.

The meetings with Leonard Bernstein of course provided fantastic experiences. Pierre Boulez was also there and I watched him conduct the Boston Symphony, as they rehearsed Debussy’s La Mer. Boulez corrected (!) their rhythmic mistakes. It was a great thing. Gunther Schuller conducted the Contemporary Music Ensemble, teaching us young composers how important it is to write very clearly for orchestral musicians, in order to not waste time in rehearsal. Erich Leinsdorf, the conductor of the Boston Symphony offered an analysis of the opera Wozzeck and we were present at the rehearsals of this work. At that time, Michael Tilson Thomas was also an advanced conducting student and we developed a strong friendship and collaboration.

Indeed, 1969 at Tanglewood and Columbia-Princeton were both very important to my development as a composer.

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