Thursday 10 December 2015

OPUS2016 shortlisted composer - Gonçalo Gato

Full Name: Gonçalo Alves Gato Lopes (artistic name: Gonçalo Gato)
Age: 36

Where are you from? Where do you live now? Do you think this is relevant to understanding your music?

I’m from Lisbon, Portugal, but I currently live in London. Moving to London had a great impact on my personal and artistic life, which is in some way codified by my music. So, although I can’t quite define how it affected the compositions, I’m sure the influences are there. London has allowed me to benefit from a great variety of events related to the arts in general. Particularly important was the attendance of concerts by great orchestras such as the LSO, the BBC Symphony or the LPO.

How will you approach writing your OPUS2016 composition for Britten Sinfonia?

First of all I’d like to say that it is a great honour to be able to work with Britten Sinfonia. I will approach the writing with both audacity and a sense of discovery. Although I’ve relied on very intense planning in the past — whereby I would pre-define the materials, lengths, formal sections, etc., that would feature in a given piece — now it seems to make more sense to actually go through a discovery phase: I assume I do not really know everything about how the piece will end up before I begin writing it. This way I can take care of the actual building process, assessing at every moment the materials and compositional steps and avoiding the effect of what one could call artificial initial assumptions. Of course there is always some degree of planning and strategy devising, but all is rendered flexible after I begin composing. Philosophically, it is a matter of allowing the process of knowing to take place: although one has to rely on previous experience and acquired technique, a space should be left for new things to happen so that one can become aware of their impact, study and integrate them.

Who have you worked with previously? What ensembles/orchestras/organisations?

As a composer I’ve worked with many different groups of instrumentalists. Particularly important was an ensemble (NOL) I founded back in Portugal when I was completing my composition honours degree. Knowing first hand how musicians and maestros work, what they need, and how to make concerts happen — from producing to stage preparation — had a huge impact. Working with professional groups — such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Chroma ensemble or the Ligeti quartet — on the other hand, had a different impact: it enabled me to take bolder steps but also to refine my writing. Working with experienced, gifted musicians, but who are also open to experimentation, is really something I look forward to in the future.

Describe your growth as a composer to this point. What were the pivotal points?

I guess the first pivotal point occurred when I started learning harmony and counterpoint with a composer called Eurico Carrapatoso, my first master. His classes were very enjoyable but also very, very clearly articulated. Every subject was presented as clearly as possible and as pedagogically as possible, always with a sense of intellectual honesty and elevation. At the time I was finishing my Chemistry degree, which I completed and which gave me a sense of rationality but also of how knowledge is always evolving through research. And if artistic knowledge is quite different from scientific knowledge, it also progresses through research.

The second pivotal point occurred when, after having pursued higher formal training, I saw my music being appreciated and valued as I got selected to some competitions, some of which I won. This made me realize that my life could be devoted to making music. So I kept going until I progressed to the third pivotal point: starting doctoral studies in London, a vibrant musical city. I was ready to take an important step towards refining my craft and I couldn’t ask for a better supervisor than Prof. Julian Anderson.

How do you start a new work/ what is your composing method? 

To start a new work I usually spend some time just thinking. I ask: what aspects of music are most fascinating for me at this time? I take text notes and let imagination come up with possibilities and strategies. At the same time, I usually listen to other composers’ works written for the same instrumentation. I have the conviction that music is always a bit about acknowledging other composers’ work and progress. This contextualizes things but also raises concerns that point me to creative research and originality. Therefore, I start experimenting with material I’m curious or passionate about, usually at the computer using compositional algorithms (mostly through OpenMusic software). They work as a kind of musical laboratory, exceeding by far the piano’s limited playback capabilities (quarter-tones or polyphony, for instance) and allow me to devise new sonorities and techniques. Nevertheless, sometimes I use the piano because it provides me with an organic, living sound and poses constraints that can render my music more simple and effective. I then progress to musical sketching, usually directly on notation software. I tend to save different initial ideas, along with various versions of work-in-progress scores. Then I develop the ones I like the most and start taking more and more definite decisions regarding form and consistency. So, form usually comes late in the process after I have the materials I want and have sketched some of their developments and transformations. So, as I said before, I try to avoid taking too many initial assumptions, which can later prove artificial. I try to let the materials develop and show me the way.

This is how I usually work nowadays, which does not mean I’ll keep this process in the future. There are various methods — some of them I’ve tried before — and all of them surely have advantages as well as disadvantages.

The last concert you saw?

Actually it was an opera: ‘Morgen und Abend’ by Georg Friedrich Haas at the Royal Opera House.

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?

Just recently I was having fun with friends asking this question, which I’ll try and take as lightly as possible. If there is guilt, it means I feel guilty because in someway I like it. In that sense, I’m afraid I have no musical guilty pleasure. On the other hand, there is music that is in some way pleasurable to listen to, even though I do not hold it in high regard. Mostly it boils down to pop music I heard on TV/radio during my childhood or adolescence — or to which I danced to in discos in happy moments — but that I do not consider artistically profound. It’s mostly entertaining. There are many examples, one of which is the song ‘Material Girl’ by Madonna (I hope I’m not being unfair). I still find this song quite fun… in a funny way! And it brings to mind the format of the so-called ‘pop hit’, together with its social impact. Furthermore, it can be considered an icon of mass-consumption culture of the 80s in the form of easy‑listening music, which raises other questions…

What instrument do you play?

Guitar. I can play both classical and electric guitar. Right now I’m playing more the electric as I love jazz improvisation: both challenging and very rewarding. And I love to improvise with other musicians. I have an ongoing obsession with electric guitars, their timbre and playability.

How do you feel about the opportunities that are available to composers?

The ‘contemporary classical’ music world is very peculiar and demanding. Although, no doubt, it is the area I naturally gravitate to and aesthetically feel most comfortable in, its not without its challenges and problems. Composers still face several difficulties in trying to get their works performed and trying to build a career. There is so much one has to prove and so many connections one has to make… Everything that can be made to provide composers with more opportunities is welcome, of course, although the situation now is better compared to decades ago. Some teachers I had told me that one could easily go through a whole 3-year degree without a single performance opportunity!

In terms of professional performances, there is the issue of aesthetics, which still means that some currents/tendencies are favoured in some locations and by some commissioning institutions/individuals. This does not always correspond to artistic quality, I’m afraid. Add to this the very nature of being an ‘emerging’ composer (if you’re lucky to be considered as such), not fully knowing how the medium works (agents, publishers, venues, etc), and things can get really complicated. But I think even some renowned composers have a hard time making a living out of just composition. The situation is strikingly different for a number of other professions, as we know. And composition is usually as hard a task as, say, computer engineering. I wish this situation could be changed and that composers would be called more often to contribute to cultural supply — whether through pure music or through combinations such as opera, dance, musical theatre, installation, etc. — and that the arts would gain prominence in a society that is too much centred on just getting work and getting paid. I firmly believe that one of the promising areas of economy in the future lies in the cultural sector. Culture too can generate profit, and together with education is indispensable to create developed and balanced societies based on tolerance, interchange, reflection and creativity.

What does the future hold for you? What are your next steps going to be as a composer?

Well, I have to say that the future holds a continued development of my compositional technique in general, and my orchestral writing skills in particular. I want to be able to take more and more challenging projects and hope to work with great musicians, ensembles, orchestras and maestros. Right now I’m trying to find an opportunity to get an orchestral piece premiered and will soon start to collaborate with Ensemble Recherche (Germany) towards developing a piece for flute. I have some other parallel projects, which, unfortunately, I can’t yet disclose.

You can join Gonçalo and the other OPUS2016 shortlisted composers on 22 & 23 January 2016 for two days of workshops at the Barbican in London, with discussions and performances of the pieces these composers have been working on. Find out more and how to reserve your place here.

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