A few moments with Igor Santos

Riot’s 2020 starts with a rush with two concerts featuring world premieres from last year’s Call for Scores commissionees. Come and hear them, and us, at the CLF Art Cafe in Peckham on 31 January and 1 February. Alongside scenes from GOLD, the new opera by the amazing Laura Bowler, we will be playing brand new pieces by the Brazilian-American composer Igor Santos and the Australian Peggy Polias. Details of both concerts can be found here and here.

Peggy and Igor were kind enough to share some thoughts with us about their music. Peggy’s interview can be found here. Here is what Igor had to say.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Igor, we’re really excited at Riot to be playing your music for the first time. Let’s start with your background as a composer. How did you start, who have been your teachers, and who are your inspirations?

Igor Santos: I started music as a self-taught classical guitarist, in my native town of Curitiba in Brazil, and was composing almost from the outset. I couldn’t read music in the first few years, so I wrote and played my own guitar pieces, and also composed a large amount of orchestral music on the computer (all in MIDI – either through digital piano rolls or guitar tablature notation). I recall heavily imitating video-game music (mainly the Japanese orchestral stuff), and a lot of Tchaikovsky.

For a few years I was also quite serious about becoming a guitar virtuoso (furiously practising Villa-Lobos and Tárrega), but completely gave up on the idea after seeing Yamandu Costa perform a solo concert. His musicianship, groove, and energy in performance (which overcame his incredibly fast but – at the time – very messy shredding) were all too overwhelming. I knew I didn’t have it in me: neither the training nor the temperament to become that kind of performer. It was a transformative moment, and from then on I started practising piano (as a clean slate!), and mainly thought about composition.

During my undergraduate studies I learnt tremendously from Paul Reller, a generally funny personality who was tyrannical about discipline in composition – discipline in one’s personal work schedule and discipline in thinking lucidly about the compositional process. Paul was zealous about the act of composition – in an almost spiritual way – which was always inspiring. At the Eastman School I had a lot of emotional and artistic encouragement from my teachers (Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez and Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon), and at the University of Chicago it was all about solidifying different skills: a focus on craft with Augusta Read Thomas, gaining a practical, up-to-date, and lively approach to electronic music from Sam Pluta, and learning to think carefully about a composer’s influences and musico-historical context, with Anthony Cheung.

As far as inspirations are concerned, there are probably too many artists to list, but in contemporary music I admire the music of Salvatore Sciarrino, Simon Steen-Andersen, Hildegard Westerkamp, and Enno Poppe. Sciarrino for the sensuality, imaginative instrumental writing, pacing, and use of variegated repetitions (which had a great effect on me early on); Steen-Andersen for the conceptual rigour, humour, and his use of ‘real-world’ sounds and images, and Poppe for his approach to microtonal keyboards, and for his combination of sharp musicality with wild abandon. Westerkamp’s music is inspiring to me for its meta-awareness, sensuousness, and general non-elitist approach to sound – works like Kits Beach Soundwalk,the Breathing Room series,and Für Dich are quite remarkable (and refreshing).

TR-J: I really enjoyed discovering your piece suggested affinities through our Call for Scores this year. One of the things that struck me from that piece is your use of little loops and repetitions. What is the role of repetition in your music? You’re obviously not starting from a minimalist standpoint; I’m reminded more of the repetitions Lachenmann writes in towards the end of Kontrakadenz, for example. Would that be right?

IS: Repetition has played key role in my music for the last four years, expressed through loops, loops within loops (asymmetrical superpositions), and different kinds of refrains.

I think it started as a need to create more dynamic forms. My music is generally concerned with transformations and arrival points, and inserting loops is one way in which I interrupt constant linear motion (which can get exhausting), and become more playful when creating and breaking expectations.

Kontrakadenz is one of my favorite orchestral works of the 70s, and definitely a huge influence on me, although I wasn’t actively thinking about it while writing suggested affinities. The main similarity, perhaps, is that my piece uses loops cumulatively (building and reaching the longest loop before the pianist’s solo cadenza), and Kontrakadenz (no pun intended) also builds its climax in a similar way. The main lesson I always took from that piece, and from all my favourite Lachenmann works, has to do with creating different points of accessibility. Repetition in Lachenmann provides a kind of anchor to the music’s hyper-refined and sometimes elusive timbres – it allows you to listen to the sounds closely and differently each time. The ‘real-world’ sounds in Kontrakadenz (e.g. the radios and meta-commentary) serve a similar function in that they give a different angle to the music, making everything less abstract and creating a complex and rich listening environment.

Those are two initial ways in which I think about repetition – to make linear forms multi-faceted and to reify the identity of particular timbres and structures. There are multiple answers to this, to be honest, and the more I work with repetition the more possibilities and complexities it presents.

TR-J: The piece you have written for Riot is called clonewheel(s). I presume the title comes from the clonewheel organ? Could you say a little about how that type of instrument has inspired this piece, and how it has shaped the music you have written?

IS: Clonewheel is a term for any digital organ that emulates the tonewheel sound mechanism of antique Hammond organs. I’ve always loved the tone and quality of this instrument, and was inspired to work with it this time after falling into a YouTube wormhole of Cory Henry solo performances.

The keyboard in my piece is a weirded-out digital Hammond organ (i.e. a clonewheel), whose timbral qualities, gestures, and registration changes are reflected (or ‘cloned’)  by other instruments in the ensemble.

TR-J: Quite a lot of your pieces seem to start from the mechanical or physical properties of instruments, and to play with this in some way. What is the source of this approach for you? And how have you explored this idea?

IS: I am interested in defamiliarization – of finding new meanings in things taken for granted – and as a result I have to start pieces from specific and recognizable (i.e. familiar) objects. When choosing the initial source, I aim at sounds, gestures, transcription, or concepts that are concrete, such as the physical property of an instrument, as you mentioned. This is also a personal preference – I like direct and tangible ideas, and do my best to avoid vagueness and mystification.

Instrumental sound is not always the starting or focal point for my pieces, however. In speak through speaking (2017) for example, I open the music with a speech transcription (played by a solo double-bass), which is deconstructed throughout the piece via repetition and re-orchestration. Another example is anima (2019), where the focus is on non-linguistic utterances – vocalized by the performers and constantly imitated and transformed by their instruments (harp and a variety of percussion).

TR-J: And what role do electronics play in your work – in this respect and in others? I am thinking of suggested affinities, as an example, but maybe this is also relevant to the synthesizer part in clonewheel(s)?

Electronics in my music are a tool for estranging acoustic instruments. The electronic sounds are constantly doubling or playing in proximity to the acoustic instruments, and the goal is to slow down the perception of who is sounding, and to become something new in the process (and to hopefully sound like a ‘realistic’ new instrument).

That was the approach for the soloist (a kind of meta-piano) and obbligato parts (meta-harp and meta-vibraphone) in suggested affinities – the electronic sounds are both digital versions of these instruments, and vocal articulations that they constantly imitate.

Lately, I am much less concerned with ‘realistic’ sounding meta-instruments, and embrace the oddities of digital reproductions. In clonewheel(s), for example, there is less of an obsession on doubling instruments with electronics, and more in emphasizing actions that a real Hammond organ cannot perform, such as exaggerated pitch bending or unusually fast drawbar (timbre) changes.

TR-J: Finally, you are a parent as well as a composer, and until recently you were also completing a  PhD. How do you manage your time?! Do you have a special time of day or place for composing?

IS: Managing time is always a challenge, and there were a few moments during my PhD where parenting, composing, teaching, and trying to graduate all felt impossible. In the end it’s just a matter of prioritizing as needed, and getting help when/where possible. I wish I had helpful tips and good pop-psychology notes, but every situation/deadline is different. Being a parent is pretty demanding, but it taught me to be more efficient with time and to brood less – likely a byproduct of necessity and decreased solipsism.

As far as time and place are concerned, I have no sacred rituals. The only consistent habit is that I work mostly at night and reserve a few early mornings for when I get stuck on something (intuition seems less judgmental when half-awake). My instruments and desk are nicely setup in my apartment but it’s not a priority to stay there; for different reasons I always end up split between home and libraries (for composition), and coffee shops (for other work that needs attention).