Discourses in Music: Volume 6 Number 2 (Spring-Summer 2007)

Perception, Reception, and All That Popular Music: An Interview with Alejandro Viñao

By Sean Bellaviti

The following interview took place on February 1, 2007, while Alejandro Viñao ( was visiting the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music as the Roger D. Moore Distinguished Visitor in Composition for the New Music Festival. Viñao had just finished giving a lecture titled Children of Nancarrow and had two hours to spare before having to rush off to oversee the final preparations for a concert of his music later that evening. The location for our interview was a busy restaurant off campus, which, in addition to providing some well-made espressi, contributed to the relaxed and somewhat informal discussion that followed.

For an ethnomusicologist with an interest in popular performance practices, the prospect of interviewing a composer of contemporary art music was initially somewhat daunting and I wondered if I could survive forty-five minutes of intelligent discussion. My apprehension, however, was soon allayed when it became clear that much of the discourse surrounding Viñao's work has more than a cursory connection to issues of broad enthnomusicological interest. Ideas of perception, in particular, are essential to understanding his work and compositional approach, and are recurring themes throughout this interview. For various reasons, Viñao's music is often linked to musical forms of Latin America in general and his native country of Argentina in particular. Given this connection, I was interested in learning about the nature of the reception of his work in Argentina and Viñao was generous enough to share his views and feelings on the topic. Finally, in addition to contributing to a growing discourse surrounding his work, Viñao's insightful and often no-nonsense commentary offers an exciting glimpse into the everyday realities of today's contemporary art composers.

Interview with Alejandro Viñao

Bellaviti: I have noticed that people often ask you to discuss the influence of Argentinean music on your compositions. Today I would like to turn that question around and ask you how you feel your music has been received in your native country of Argentina?

Viñao: Well, I'm not really played in Argentina very much. […] I've not been back very often, the last time was in 1999 and previous to that was in 1990. In the beginning when I left Argentina in the 70s, I was coming back every year or every second year […] I have come back and given concerts or presentations, but if over a period of thirty years you just show up one year and do something, then the next generation doesn't even hear about that.

I think many composers know of my work because they've come across it with their teachers or they've seen my name around. I won a few international prizes and people follow that or they just see my name and figure this guy is possibly Argentinean, he gets played a lot, has publications, and does a lot of PR; or your name appears in the big festivals, for example, Musica in Strasbourg or Ultima [Festival] in Oslo-the usual circuit. So you get played, but I don't think that being aware that somebody's played and therefore must have some kind of reputation or whatever, means that they know my music. It means simply that they know that I exist, which is a very different thing.

However, I do get e-mails every now and then on a sort of fairly regular basis from people from Argentina, not necessarily composers but sometimes percussion players. I have written a lot of percussion music in the last ten years or so, which has become very big in some places with percussion players-not with people who organize concerts or with audiences. Percussion players-especially in the United States, but also in all sorts of places-have all of a sudden gone crazy about these pieces, including students who may have played a piece of mine for their graduation exam or people who have won competitions playing these pieces, or whatever. So I do get percussion players who send me e-mails saying, "Oh, that piece of wonderful, etc.", and also I sell my music directly from a website. So occasionally [I receive correspondence from Argentina], but it's not especially so because I am Argentinean. I think [it is because] they come across that piece that all the percussion players happen to be playing or talking about, and that's a different phenomenon.

When they [i.e., composers] do contact me, it is perhaps because they want to leave Argentina and they want some advice-they know this guy's out there and he's been there for thirty years-and [eventually] you become to some extent part of the furniture. In the sense that [Mauricio] Kagel is part of the Argentinean furniture abroad, I'm sort of part of the furniture abroad. However, I don't think or I don't really know, to answer the question, if my music has influence on many people [in Argentina]. I know it has influence on maybe three or four people because they talk about it or they play it or maybe some of them run a radio program and they keep playing it. You have some idea, but it's very difficult to keep track of that. If I think of places where my music has had some influence... I can pinpoint places that I am aware of because I have direct contact and people contact me, or I find out that a student is writing an essay or a chapter of his Ph.D. about some work or some aspect of a work of mine. So I realize that in Scandinavia, for example, there has been a lot of interest in my music over the last thirty years. I am not aware of the same happening in Buenos Aires, but on the other hand in Argentina there has always been this saying that Argentineans never listen to their own people until maybe after they're dead, or something. So... I don't know.

[Astor] Piazzolla spent fifteen years in the cold before Argentineans really started listening to him and he resented that enormously. He lived in Italy for a while and France for a while. Eventually, of course, he became all the rage all over the planet and then Argentineans, too, accepted him. For me he was always my idol, but when I was a kid the tango crowd had disowned him. They said, "That's not tango", and he replied, "Okay, it's not tango, it's the music of Buenos Aires", but since tango was supposed to be the music of Buenos Aires he was smuggling it in through the back door. [In effect] he was saying, "Tango is no longer the music of Buenos Aires, what I'm doing is the music if Buenos Aires, so you better co-opt it as tango or your dead", which is what actually happened.

Because no one was bringing forward the tango discourse he was alone. It's not like jazz where you have Miles Davis, Coltrane, and a variety of people-Mingus and so on-all of them actualizing jazz and developing it in a new direction; there was Piazzolla and the other guys were just simply playing stuff from twenty years back. He was very resentful of the fact that he was ostracized for a while. Well, I am in no way a musician of Piazzolla's caliber and I am not comparing myself to his situation, but it's...

Also, in Argentina there are factions and if you are with one faction or you are seen to be with that faction, then you are not supposed to be in speaking terms with the other one. I mean, it's Italy multiplied by some factor. You know what it is like in Italy with composers?

B: Yes.

V: Well, imagine much worse than that.

B: And by "factions" you are talking about more than just music; you are talking about political and geographical relationships that translate into music as well?

V: Yes, but in Argentina it is not a geographical thing because the scene is Buenos Aires and that's more or less all there is. I mean, yes, there's a little bit in Mar del Plata and other places, but they are close to Buenos Aires. It's a question of "your either with me or against me" kind of thing.

I remember on one occasion, during the only time I spent some time in Buenos Aires-I was there for ten months because my father was very ill and eventually died-one of the factions put on a concert of my music in the Centro Cultural de Buenos Aires-which has since been replaced, but at the time had just opened-and the other factions said, "Oh no, no. You shouldn't have that concert, you should let us put on a concert of your music. You shouldn't even be with them." Openly, they would say that openly! However, I don't know what's going on there [at the moment] and it's not that I don't care, but it's almost impossible to…

B: That would lead me to my second question, which is kind of an open-ended question and may not necessarily apply to Argentina, but I'll ask it anyway. Do you think at some point your music could be received on a national level, sort of as a national music?

V: You mean in Argentina?

B: In Argentina.

V: Well, that is a question that applies to all contemporary music. I would reply to this in a very oblique way, which is as follows: if we, meaning the community of composers and especially the young generation of today-composers who are twenty today, twenty-two, twenty-five, early twenties, just becoming professional-if this generation doesn't change the course of serious art music dramatically, within this generation we will cease to exist. We will cease to have a social relevance or presence. I have discussed this with some composers who (especially in France) are more cynical and they say, "What do you mean? We have already ceased to have a social relevance. It's not like it's going to happen." Perhaps I am exaggerating, but I think we are coming to the point where we will have to envisage for the very first time in our history that we will cease to exist socially speaking. Of course there is always going to be people playing music at home or in a center of learning, such as a faculty of music, but socially we will [cease to exist].

In the few places like in France and Germany where there is still some kind of real contact with at least the intelligentsia if you will, even the intelligentsia has now deserted the contemporary music concert. Because the intelligentsia-that is, the young intelligentsia, educated people, university students, the guy who gets a degree in semiotics-these people, when they want to listen to something experimental they no longer say, "What is [Pierre] Boulez doing?" they say, "What is that experimental DJ from the south of France doing?" So, we have ceased to be the music that they go to when they want to be adventurous. In other words, we have or we are about to loose what's left of what I would define as our "natural audience". Not any audience, because we cannot aspire to any audience; we have to define what would be a natural audience.

And in as much as that is about to happen, no one (not just me, no one!) can become national in that sense. It is not going to happen to anybody for the very same reasons that, for example, in the last 60 years no orchestral piece has entered the standard repertoire. So, if you ask me, "Do you think that orchestral piece of yours could enter the standard repertoire?" It doesn't matter, the repertoire is closed. It doesn't matter how good it is, no one has succeeded, neither Boulez nor [Luciano] Berio nor whomever. They maybe did a piece that gets played a lot, but it's still not standard repertoire. Therefore, once a cultural situation or a kind of music closes its repertoire it is because it is so detached from its audience, because audiences don't care about the past. You can only close the repertoire when you do not have a young audience, because audiences do not care about the past, they want the present. And if the present is not exciting they turn around and go somewhere else.

In the thirties the process began where lots of these people were saying, "You know what, I'm not sure I want to go and listen to the latest symphonic piece by [Ernst] Krenek or whomever. I think that actually I'm more interested in the latest Louis Armstrong stuff because it seems to me more adventurous." Of course, we would have it that it is this way because it's simpler, but that's not how they saw it. They thought, "This is the new sound-world!" We would look at it syntactically and we would say, "Oh, but look, the harmonies are not so advanced" or whatever. But the sound-world was completely new whereas the orchestral sound-world is not new. From their point of view Louis Armstrong was much more adventurous and radical.

So, unless people [i.e., contemporary composers] come up with a new sound-world that is radical and can connect with young people in some new way so that we can draw a real audience… For example, in a city like London where you have ten million people, something that really works should draw one thousand or two thousand people, that is the normal thing. And I'm talking about music that is for an elite. An elite is like two thousand people, not fifty people. With fifty people you don't exist. In a metropolis of ten million people, in a highly educated society where people are really very aware of the history of the arts, if you cannot draw two thousand people you don't exist, basically. So unless this happens the answer is (in this very convoluted way) neither I nor anyone will be able to do that. So there has to be a radical change.

B: This leads me to my next series of questions that address the issue of perception, which you mention often in interviews and in your liner notes. I will begin with another open-ended question: why are issues and notions of perception particularly important to you?

V: Well, the issue of perception is essential because we have decoupled the music we write from perception to such an extent that that in my view is one of the reasons why we lost our natural audience; because the natural audience doesn't have time to get involved with the syntactical discussions of every art form. After all, we are just one of the art forms; people are entitled to read books, go to see films, and go to visual exhibitions. They cannot possibly enter the fray and understand that "Oh, syntactically this phrasing by Brian Ferneyhough..." That is not the issue, the issue is: "Here is the event. Can I hear something that changes my Weltanschauung? Something that opens my mind so that when I come out of it I will hear differently?" And so perception is absolutely essential.

After the Second World War we started a process of experimentation where perception was not only not central, but actually was considered suspect. For example, if you said, "Oh, I can't hear that", they would say, "What's wrong with you?"…"What's wrong with me, what's wrong with you? You're insane, I'm normal!" So, people put forward all sorts of syntactical ideas and the issue by and large was one of "my syntax is bigger than yours" kind of thing. You know, metaphorically speaking "my syntax is fancier than yours". Bigger in this context meant more complex. Music, however, is not about syntax; syntax is a tool you use to achieve something, to communicate. If it's not communicating chuck it out the window. But that's not what we have done the last fifty years.

When eventually we got rid of this syntactical discussion (well, got rid of some of it at least) we had lost the habit of referring to our perception. And what followed that was more a question of trying to write stuff that is equally unrelated to how we perceive, but avoids certain things audiences really hate. For instance, "Okay, I'm going to write harmonies that are a little bit less dissonant" or "I'm going to have prettier events." So you have music with prettier events, but that doesn't mean that you are paying attention to how people perceive; because if you paid attention to how people perceive, you would realize that this narrative is irrelevant. Nobody cares about the [i.e., this] narrative, it is not working! It doesn't matter if here or there at a particular point you analyze [a piece] and say, "Oh well, now it's easier to listen to" or "It's not so dense", or perhaps there are tunes or whatever. However, if one is really aware what is happening perceptually, they will see, for example, what the younger generation are focusing on.

Today you have people who can recognize five different kinds of kick drums. It's completely insane! There have been times when I've listened to all of them and I think their all the same and some guy says, "No! What are you talking about man? Listen to that one, that's cool, that's…" In some instances their focusing on very specific things and you might say, "That's a trivial thing, because what is impact? Loudness?" and so forth, but it does indicate that people can have a highly sophisticated ability and willingness to focus on something.

So what are you going to do about it? Are you going to take advantage of how their perception works and take it somewhere else, or throw at them what I think they should be listening to and expect them to follow me. Can we recover the state of grace we had before the twentieth century, where composers put their music to the audience and waited to see what the audience had to say, and then if the composers still believed they were right-and that the audience needed to have their ears blasted open-they would insist at their own peril (and hey, why not?). And after insisting either they were canonized as geniuses or they went under and disappeared. That's what you need to save the mess we're in: a lot of people to go under and some people to be canonized by the audience. Instead, the situation we have today is one where no one goes under and no one gets canonized, because what gets played or not is decided by a "mandarin" that controls the purse of subsidy. Some guy who says, "I run this festival and I think this is interesting and that's not interesting, and I apply some kind of…hmm, maybe aesthetic?"-fifteen years ago one applied "aesthetic judgment", today simply some kind of criteria be it opportunism or confusion and so it continues. However, we still have not co-opted our audience into the game-and there is no game unless you co-opt the audience-because we have created this illusion that we write music that is for [a] public.

I mean, on one hand every composer is desperate to get a concert, so any composer who says, "I'm not writing for an audience" is lying. But actually on the other hand he's not exactly lying, because he only needs the audience as props; he doesn't really need the audience because they are not financing anything and they are not deciding anything. He needs the mandarins, that's who he is really writing for. He only needs the audience as props because it doesn't look good if there's no one there. Of course this seems extremely offensive. Most composers would say, "Bullshit, this is not what we do!", however, in practice this is what we do. Just check out who composers hang out with; they hang out with radio producers, concert organizers…that's the truth of it. I've been around this game for a long time-in Europe and the United States-and that's what happens. For example, and if you ask them [i.e., contemporary composers], "How was the audience?", they might say, "Oh great! They clapped." They notice if their ego gets boosted and of course we all like to receive approval; it's great to go on stage and take a bow while everybody is clapping or receive a standing ovation-we all like it, but we are only interested in the audience in as much as we get our egos massaged. We are not interested in terms of feedback.

So, when the audience says, "I don't get it" then you have to make that courageous decision: "They are not getting it, but I am going to challenge them anyway" or "They are not getting it because I got it wrong". Which one is it? Until we go back... That's what [Hector] Berlioz was doing. Have you read his memoirs?

B: No, I haven't.

V: Read them, they are a gem.

First of all, Berlioz invented the orchestra as we know it now-in fact, we still call it the "Berlioz orchestra". So what would this guy do because there were no standard lineups? He would say, "I'm going to hire a two hundred piece orchestra"-because some of his pieces required a choir and everything-and he would borrow the money and then put on a concert in Paris (I mean, you have to choose a sophisticated audience otherwise you are not going to manage). He would hire the audience, get very much in debt, and then maybe he would hit the jackpot. People would love it, they would show up, and his concert would sell out; and he would pay back the money he owed and have a little left over for the next time round. If the next time not enough people showed up then he would accrue big debts. He was always at the verge of bankruptcy. That's what a composer's got to be, on the verge of bankruptcy.

Now imagine if you tried to do this today. You will only be bankrupt the first time and never recover. Forget about a two hundred piece orchestra, if you hire a forty-piece ensemble in London it would cost you 40,000 pounds, and perhaps you will get 150, 200, or even 300 people to show up to your concert who will pay something like 15 pounds each to get in. You do the math; never in your life will you recover. So how would you go about it? This is still addressing the issue of perception.

B: Yes. I see that very well.

V: What did Steve Reich and Phil [i.e., Philip] Glass do? Because in the beginning the establishment was saying, "This is easy music"-especially in Europe. So these composers said, "Okay, we're not going to get the support of the guys running the establishment". So what did they do, they created their own small bands, manageable bands, not 200 piece bands. They asked, "What can I manage today without the big bucks of subsidy behind me?" Okay, employ a seven piece band, use the technology of your time, and use whatever it takes to get a big sound. They put that to the audience (and I don't even like minimalism, so I have the right to say) and they got it right, because that is what the audience wanted to hear. So even if I don't like it, I'm wrong…they're right.

Now that doesn't mean that Steve Reich is a genius. It means that he created some idea that made perceptual sense, and so did Phil Glass. At this point I would say, "Okay, that worked. Now wouldn't it be great to have a 'Mozart' writing in that style?"-which we never got. We got guys that might be okay, but not great composers; however, the mechanism they followed was-at least for that time-the correct mechanism. It worked. Now, if they only would have stuck to that model, but of course they got big and then they went for the big subsidy too-writing for the BBC Symphony, or whatever-and that music is, according to Steve Reich's own account, the one that works the least well.

B: Still related to the general topic of perception and reception, what do you feel is popular music's greatest strengths when it intersects with contemporary music or contemporary art music?

V: Which is rare.

B: Assuming, of course, that it has some relevance to what you do.

V: Yes. I don't know if it is the great strength now, but what could be the great strength or should be is I think we could recover a state […] where our art form was able to develop a high level of abstraction starting from dance forms which were known to everybody. Today if you say to a composer, "I could start from hip hop and develop large-scale form", either they will think that is opportunism or they cannot see how [it will work] or they will say, "I can do that but the mandarins are not going to like it and I will not get a commission" or, "If I do that, it won't be for orchestra and orchestra is more prestigious", and so forth. They still cling onto many of the things that have not worked for financial reasons. I can understand that, but consider the following example.

Possibly the most abstract period in Western serious musical history was the Baroque or high Baroque period; the forms were the most abstract and yet they were all based on dance forms. So if you take an especially abstract piece, one that is especially hard on the listener like [J. S. Bach's] Chaconne for violin, which I always quote as an example; this piece starts with one of the most basic (and in my opinion, rather daft) dances you can possibly have. The chaconne…[sings the basic accent pattern]. The only thing this dance can claim is, what? The illusion that the accent is on the second beat instead of the downbeat? So what, today we have infinitely more sophisticated dance music. [What is significant is that] Bach could take something so basic and (in my view) so devoid of interest, and within maybe a minute into the piece develop an incredibly abstract and very sophisticated, polyphonic work; and yet within the first few bars a contemporary listener would have recognized that it was a chaconne. Try recalling the first few bars, they are a chaconne, absolutely square. The piece starts and he is not messing around with it: "This is it, you know it and have all danced to it". So anybody who danced in court or educated people, of course, would recognize it and immediately think, "What is happening to the chaconne? Wow, that's exciting, that's crazy!" We can begin with a surface of popular music and take it elsewhere. Why not? After all, that would be in a way what [Igor Stravinsky's] The Rite of Spring does, there's a lot of very, very ethnic tunes there.

Find a way to do that and then there will be an entry point for young people, because they have no entry point into our music now. One of the pieces in tonight's concert is trying to do exactly that [i.e., The World We Know (2003)] [?], it starts with hip hop and takes it somewhere else. Now maybe the piece didn't work, but I think the idea is correct. The execution may be faulty, but that is something else.

There are so many interesting dance forms that could be an entry point and could be developed. The thing is to understand the difference between popular music-especially rock and Western pop music-and art music; and the only thing that really we should be careful to preserve is the fact that popular music is not about large-scale form, it's not about grand narrative. That's the only thing that we have in our arsenal that we can boast about, because to say, "Oh, my harmony is denser than yours" is pathetic. All the things that we think are great about our art form are completely pathetic! The only thing we have achieved in history that is truly great is the grand narrative, that a piece starts and doesn't come back to this thing that it starts from, it transforms, it tells a [story]. It's like a novel, the equivalent of a novel. This is what we're about, so it doesn't matter what the surface of the music is. We should stop being obsessed by the surface [and] we should go back to what matters, which is the grand narrative.

So if you have to communicate this grand narrative and you have to start with hip hop... I chose hip hop because I hate hip hop, not because I like it. I'm sick of it, as far as I'm concerned it's pollution, because anything that is so omnipresent is pollution. By virtue of being everywhere it is pollution; it's in the car, it's in the TV commercials, it's in the cinema, it's in the games arcade. I'm fed up with it, so what can I do with it to some how see if I can exorcise this thing (imagine starting with something you truly love. I could start with tango that I love, for example)...

Start with something that will involve people and then go elsewhere, that is where the contact between popular music and serious music could be interesting. However, then we will have to stop being afraid of the things that we need not be afraid of-and on the contrary, that are useful to us-and at the same time never forget that we are not about recursive things. Popular music is recursive and in being recursive actually brings up really beautiful stuff, however, that's not what we do. What we do is start here and through a voyage of transformation end up elsewhere. That is where I think the contact between the two should lie.

B: With the intention of addressing the issue of perception from another angle, which I think may be relevant to your work with computer and live musicians and acoustic instruments, could I get you to comment on your use of a click-track in performance?

V: Well, it's a very long question because my views about that have changed quite a bit over time. In the beginning (and by that I mean twenty-five years ago) there was no other way of doing it and therefore the only thing that mattered to me (and this connects to perception) is what the audience was listening to. The audience doesn't know that there is a click-track, so who cares. The only thing though is that the performer has to take the brunt of the experience, so you're punishing the performer for the benefit of the audience. I think if I have to make a tradeoff, that is my tradeoff, and the performer accepts that if he or she understands the reason why.

The paradox is that I am told time after time (and I am not seeking this), "Your pieces sound like there's live electronics because it seems like things come together naturally and with lots of space to breath. And yet you have this implacable click track." While I do not use a click track in all of my pieces-and I have some pieces where the electronics are being triggered bar-by-bar or beat-by-beat, resulting in true and complete freedom-there is a perception from the point of view of the audience that things meet together, and together create a coherent discourse, and that perception suggests that things are free. [For example], if you have people playing and they come together and they do a crescendo together, for them to do a crescendo together it means that they were able to breath wherever they needed and […] that works best when you have an implacable click-track than when you have live electronics that are unpredictable and usually don't work very well anyway and they are very messy to put together.

Having said that, there are certain lineups that do not lend themselves well to a click-track. Take choir music for example, choirs breath in a certain way and any conductor knows that even if you think that in a rhythmic passage every beat lasts the same, it's not true. If there is an accent the upbeat does not last the same, yet in order to convey the feeling that it does you have to make it slightly longer, because that is the way the instrument speaks-it's not a snare drum. So, when I did a choir piece for a forty-piece choir-which was a piece I did for IRCAM [Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique]… I was working with the New London Chamber Choir, which is a choir conducted by James Wood who is a well-known conductor, and James was saying, "If you could allow us some freedom here it would work best", and I said, "Okay, I am going to use a software [program] that IRCAM uses for this stuff and Boulez uses it in a lot of his music". Basically what happens is that you have an extra player (if you are going to have forty players you can have forty-one, that's not a problem) that sits at a MIDI keyboard and actually triggers the music whenever you want and at whatever pace you want. So he's actually following the conductor like everybody else. That works very well. It requires a bigger infrastructure, but for bigger pieces that's fine, for an orchestral piece as well. For a solo or a duo or a trio then maybe that's a little bit more problematic.

However, with the technology today we can use pedals or other ways of doing things if the music lends itself to that procedure. For example, in the last movement of my string quartet, even if you could do that you wouldn't want to do that, because the players wouldn't like to have the responsibility of having to trigger anything while they're trying to count. Nor would they want somebody to slightly change [the grid]-in this case the grid has to be relentless and when it's relentless then they have that little extra bit of freedom that they wouldn't have if they were concerned about having the freedom. So it can be paradoxical.

Recently, however, I was talking to James Wood, who is also a composer and has used technology, and he was saying, "You know Alejandro, although I am the one who really insisted that you should give us more freedom, recently I am coming full circle back to the thinking that the click-track is not such a bad thing, because there are times when it really works better than having the freedom". You have to assess it on a piece-by-piece and even movement-by-movement basis. Ultimately it is about what works best. I think this whole ideological thing that the click-track is some kind of corset that doesn't allow us freedom...hey, ask the audience, see what they say. They'll say, "Oh, I didn't know there was a click track", so who cares!