An Interview with Victor Lazzarini

Brazilian-born electro-acoustic composerVictor Lazzarini talks to Jonathan Grimes about his work with the EAR Ensemble, teaching computer music in NUI Maynooth, and the connection between his composing, researching and teaching.

Jonathan Grimes: Victor, you’ve got a performance of a piece by your own EAR Ensemble coming up in November as part of the Composers’ Choice Festival in the National Concert Hall. Perhaps you might tell me a little bit about this work.

JG: So the electronics informs the instrumental writing as well?Victor Lazzarini: It’s a piece for small ensemble with two woodwinds, four strings and live processing of the audio by computer. This piece is based on the traditional development of motifs. What I have tried to do was to expand this motive exploration to also incorporate electronics. So in a way I’m extending the traditional techniques of composing into the electronic domain, which is something I’m really interested in. For instance, a recording of the motif is played and then it’s stretched apart and the partials that make up this sonic gesture are split and then they create a different sort of melodic shape again. So that’s a way of exploring which takes advantage of the electronics as an extension of what you can do with instrumental forces.

VL: That’s it. Also my point is to make the electronics do what it does best and to have the instrumental parts to do what they do best. So I’m not trying to use extended [instrumental] techniques that are outside normal, traditional instrumental playing. I’m using instrumental parts traditionally because that’s their strength -- to play within the framework that people learn their instrument. On top of that the electronics complement that by doing all the extended things that you can’t do [on an instrument], or that you can't do very well with the instrumental parts.

JG: So you’re not like some composers who almost try and replicate electronic sounds on an acoustic instrument?

VL: No, I’m not interested in that and there are reasons why I’m not interested. First of all [I do this] to help the player so that he/she can play without having to learn all these new things. Personally, I don’t think that the strength of instrumental music relies on extended playing. A violin is designed to do a certain type of job and if you try to pervert that you’re not really using the violin at its strongest -- you’re using a violin for something that it wasn’t designed for.

JG: I talked to Fergal Dowling -- another member of the EAR Ensemble -- a couple of months back about the importance of this group to his music. How important is it for you to be involved in this type of ensemble?

‘A violin is designed to do a certain type of job and if you try to pervert that you’re not really using the violin at its strongest.’

VL: Well I think it’s important to have an outlet. One of the problems I had when I moved to Ireland was that, for many years, getting pieces out there was a struggle. I came from a situation where I had pieces performed[in Brazil]. When I moved to Ireland suddenly everything stopped and I was in this limbo situation. That existed for a number of years and in the past couple of years I’ve been having some more performances. EAR is a great outlet because we can discuss what we’re going to be doing and develop a certain sound identity for the group. There are many very good contemporary music ensembles in Ireland. The only reason for having another ensemble is to add diversity. I can class the existing groups: the traditional contemporary music ensemble such as Concorde, which has a certain repertoire; then you have the alternative version, which is the Crash Ensemble. I feel that there’s an alternative space that we can fit into and provide interesting music, mainly with the use of electronics which is what we specialise in. We share a sound ideal between us, which is an open-ended idea. I think that’s where the importance of EAR lies in terms of my music and also contemporary music of Ireland.

JG: So does the fact that you are part of this group of like-minded composers and performers give you scope to be more experimental than if you were composing for another ensemble or group that you didn’t really have any close connections with?

VL: Yes, I think there is a bigger freedom to explore certain things and even be unsuccessful at times. Whereas when you write for an ensemble you try to be professionally successful and have a finished product that will fit the bill, so the opportunity for experimentation is a little bit limited.

JG: You mentioned earlier that you were born in Brazil. How did you end up coming to live in Ireland?

VL: Well I suppose the short answer is I applied for a job [at NUI Maynooth]. I had finished my PhD and was finishing a post-doc position. I was interviewed and they offered me the job. It was very exciting to come [to Ireland] because it was a job for me to shape.

JG: This is the NUI Maynooth?

JG: How long have you been in Ireland for?

VL: Yes. There was a composition element, whichMartin O’Leary developed, but there was nothing in terms of electronic music or computer music, which is my main area. So I came to develop this area and that was very exciting.

VL: I came in 1998, so it’s been eight years.

JG: And from your perspective of having come to Ireland in 1998, have you seen many changes in terms of the music scene?

VL: I think there has been a great development and the CMC is part of it in terms of supporting the composers. When I came to Ireland there were some things happening but I’d say it was more the traditional ensemble type of contemporary music. Whereas with the development of these courses in computer music and electro-acoustic music in places like [NUI] Maynooth and elsewhere, the area of electronic music has really flourished.

JG: So it’s quite a healthy state for electronic composers?

VL: It is. In the past if you wanted to study this [electro-acoustic composition] there were only a few places around the world that had studios that could do this thing. So there was a major change in the late 1990s and now it’s developing a lot.

JG: You studied music in Brazil. At what point did you begin to take an interest in electronic music?

VL: Well I was very interested even before I went to university. I first came into contact with electronic music in my teens through some compositional courses I took before going to university. The craft of electronic music has always interested me. In those days it was about cutting tape and putting things together. I really got involved [with electronic music]when I went to England. While I was there I mainly worked with computer music, so this became my main work.

JG: Going back in time, at what point did you begin to take an interest in composing?

VL: That happened very early on. I had a late start in music in terms of formal training and started to learn an instrument when I was about ten. When I was 14 I took a course in music composition and orchestration. That was a revelation for me because I got thrown into the deep end with all the students that could compose. And so when I got to university I did a compositional course in the first year and it just went from there.

JG: And is there a vibrant new music scene in Brazil?

VL: There is. I’d say it’s even comparable to Ireland. Being a big country with a larger population than Ireland, you would expect the new music scene to be much bigger than Ireland but I’d say the scene is probably the same size as Ireland, which just shows that in relative terms, it’s a small scene. There were some very interesting things happening. I’m not really sure about now but at the time there were several contemporary music festivals [when I lived there]. In my university there was a climate that strongly favoured contemporary music. We had student concerts and also premiered pieces by other composers. It’s quite university-based but there is some interest [for new music] outside of the university as well.

JG: Just going back to your approach to electronics, which you described at the start of the interview. Your other role is as a lecturer in music technology in NUI Maynooth. To what extent does your research into this whole area affect your approach to writing for electronics?

[When you have your own group], I think there is a bigger freedom to explore certain things and even be unsuccessful at times.’

VL: Well teaching technical things, such as programming and synthesis, informs me in the sense that I’m always learning new things. It happens in situations where you ask the question and you have to think about it, and that gives rise to some new information that can then filter out into your composing. For instance, the stuff that I’m using in the piece I mentioned earlier on [and through the rhythm of moving slowly] is very much linked to the things I’d researched. So the two things[composition and research] are very related. Also, when I'm teaching or approaching a subject in class, ideas about a piece start to develop in the back of my mind. For instance, in one of my pieces the main principle behind it came out of a situation in class when I was showing an example of synthesis and I said, ‘What if we changed this parameter and look at this other thing?' We changed it and played back and I thought, 'This is an interesting sound'. A few months later I thought, 'Let’s explore that idea I had in class', and that developed into a piece. So things like that happen and I think it’s great that I can have a continuum between teaching and researching and composing.

JG: So you don't keep them separate like some composers?

VL: No. I don’t have an interest in things that might not have an influence in composition. Sometimes if the research is very technical then it might become detached from composition in the sense that it’s so complex that you forget the composition at that moment and you have to solve a problem. But once that’s sorted then it’s a tool I can use in composition.

JG: Do you compose every day?

VL: No, not at all. I have very organised sessions for composing. There used to be a time when I was doing my PhD that I was composing every day, but that’s because I didn't have anything else to do and I had a lot to compose. But these days the time for composition is limited so you have to really be concentrated and organise your time so that you can actually deliver a piece. But once I get into composing I generally compose quite quickly; it doesn’t take long for me to get started and finish a piece.

JG: So you’re quite strict with your time -- you have set periods in which you compose?

VL: Yes. It’s almost like having a day job in a way, but it just happens that the day job is connected with my compositional activity as well.

JG: Do you find that there’s a tension between your teaching and composing?

VL: Well there is a tension in the sense that I don’t have all the time in the world to compose; I have the commitments of preparing and delivering classes and doing bits of research. But if I have a commission then I will reserve time for that. That’s the only way I have been able to keep on composing.

JG: In terms of the composing process itself, do you have a particular approach or way of working?

VL: Generally I would say that there is a pre-compositional stage [to my composing]. That’s where I prepare the materials which I’m going to be using in the piece. So I prepare all this material and then this becomes something I call a meta-theme, which is a theme of things. So there is a pre-composition stage, especially with electronic music. If you’re talking about tape pieces then there is definitely a process of thinking about the sonic shape of the piece and the materials that you are going to be using. But once you get going there a recursive process whereby you’re composing and generating material as well. So alongside this you might be composing a section of the piece, generating some material and also having a kind of pre-compositional procedure for the next section.


JG: So you’re doing several things at once?

VL: Yes. And it’s not that I preordain what the piece is going to turn out like from the very start -- I’m not composing but actually getting the material I’m going to be using in the piece.

JG: In general, how do you find the composing process? Is it a difficult one for you or a welcome distraction from teaching commitments and other research?

‘I think there has been a great development [in new music since 1998]and the CMC is part of it in terms of supporting the composers.’

VL: It’s not a distraction -- it’s just another thing that I do. There are three things that I do: teaching, research and composing. So it’s one of the three things that I do when I have the time to do it. I wouldn’t stop doing any of them; I might do one thing more than the other. For instance, if I have a commission then I will do more composing than other things. It’s about locating time for different things.

JG: In terms of musical influences, which composers or musicians have influenced you consistently throughout your career?

VL: It’s a difficult thing to say but if I was to point out a composer that has been of some influence it would be Stravinsky, not that my music sounds anything like his. It sounds like a very traditional, mundane thing to say but I think there are very interesting things about his music: his approach to rhythm, his mechanical writing, the way he approaches form, and even his neo-classicism is very interesting. And even his neo-classicism is very interesting. Looking forward, perhaps Ligeti would be a composer that I like a lot but I’m not sure how much influence he has on my music.

If you’re talking about electronic composers, there are so many that I like but I’d say that the English composer Trevor Wishart [would be an influence]. I quite like the idea of sound transformations and the way he explores this by making aural links between different sections and guiding the ear towards these aural links [interests me]. Also, if he decides that he wants to devise a certain sonic method then he will just go and program the computer to do it. Some composers are very intimidated by the electronics side of things and can have the attitude of, ‘All I want is the sonic result and I don’t want to know how we get there.’ I don’t feel that’s the way to do it.

JG: It’s like how it was in the early days of electronic music when composers would have a whole studio at their disposal along with technicians to help them produce the sounds they wanted.

VL: Yes, the situation of the composer choosing the sounds. The technicians show the composers many sounds and they will say, ‘Oh I want this, and I want that’. I don’t see that it works like that. I believe in the craft of composition. So the actual electronic music becomes more your product and you know what you’re doing, rather than just choosing sounds. I was shocked when I saw the scoreRepons by Pierre Boulez. Being a major piece of live electronics you would expect the live electronics to be integral to the composition of the piece. I opened the score and there’s not a single indication of the electronics, not a single thing about how it should be -- it’s just basically the score for the instrumental part. In other words what it says about the piece is that Boulez composed it and someone else came and said, ‘You can get this sound if you put the violin through the microphone and then process it this way. Do you like it?’ ‘Oh yes, I think I like it’. This makes me really angry because it’s just not the way of doing it -- it undermines the whole concept of electronic music.

JG: It’s like painting by numbers.

VL: Just painting by numbers, exactly.

JG: So finally Victor, what projects do you have coming up in the late 2006-2007?

‘The craft of electronic music has always interested me.’

VL: We have the National Concert Hall Composers’ Choice concert that’s coming up on 26 November. Then on 8 and 9 December there is a festival called Ear Plugged, which is being organised by EAR. There will be workshops on electronic music and concerts with pieces by young Irish composers. The concert will also have a number of pieces that came from a call for electronic pieces, so it will be a whole tape concert of pieces from around the world. It should be a very interesting festival.

JG: And where will that be?

VL: It will be at the Lab, which is a new venue run by the Dublin City Arts Centre.

Victor Lazzarini was interviewed on video by Jonathan Grimes in the Contemporary Music Centre, Dublin, on 13 October 2006.

The views expressed in this interview are those of the persons concerned and are not necessarily those of the Contemporary Music Centre.