Artists: Festival Symphony Orchestra, Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa, Antonio Victorino D’Almeida
Composer: António Victorino D’Almeida
A portrait of António Victorino D’Almeida (with Jean Cocteau in the background)
“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”
When I first encountered this quotation, it was attributed to Jean Cocteau. Since then, I have seen it ascribed to a different person nearly every time I encounter it. (And if we were to confer with the nearly infinite source of disinformation the Internet is quickly evolving to become, I’m certain we could find the same quotation attached to any number of luminaries). Whatever the case, the universality of the attribution speaks both to the inherent veracity of the statement as well as to the proclivity of culture to borrow and integrate good ideas. It is not perchance then, that I have chosen this particular sentence to frame a small portrait of the music of António Victorino D’Almeida.
First, the choice of this quote by Cocteau raises a question about historical proximity. The music of António Victorino D’Almeida included on this CD, although not literally contemporary with the modernism of Cocteau (the works recorded here were written after the French author’s death), immediately conjures the sound world associated with the Paris inhabited by Cocteau in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Any listener familiar with music from the French capital during the fist half of the twentieth century will no doubt share the composer’s sardonic grin as she encounters reminiscences of Debussy, Gershwin, Stravinsky, Ravel, Honegger, Prokofiev, Auric and maybe even Satie. Such “reminiscences” are not mere quotation, but rather, the evocation of a style (or styles) and all the associated trappings. It’s as though the composer clothes himself in the costumes and customs of a given stylistic world and then writes at least a few phrases of well-behaved music in it before moving onto his next stylistic “target.”
Then there is a line of thought centered around borrowing – Cocteau as the creative plunderer of Greek drama in La Machine Infernal, for instance. (In fact, the mechanical bubbling conjured by Cocteau’s title might seem a rather appropriate metaphor for the orchestral “factory” encountered on the current recording, as the musicians toil away to make the high number of character changes take place so seamlessly). Perhaps plunderer is too harsh a term, although it is difficult to resist the image of the French dramaturge as some sort of surrealist Giovanni Belzoni, penning his initials on the pyramids of Greek drama. And Belzoni brings us back to the thread of cultural appropriation and borrowing – after all, where would the British Museum be without its obelisks? That is to say, why shouldn’t António Victorino D’Almeida be able to export the styles of musical monuments from their original contexts and shape them to achieve his own creative ends? In fact, the plurality of the composer’s borrowings is what drives his musical discourse.
Before the so-called post-modernist period, one typically spoke of collage or pastiche, and it seems that the satire implicit in the latter term (with all its echoes of Cocteau) is at the heart of D’Almeida’s endeavors. How else could a “stinger” (the most crassly “closed” of closing gestures) seeming to come from a film of the Golden Era of Hollywood elide so smoothly with a continuation in the form of a gossamer texture evoking the “impressionist” aether? How does “Gershwin-like” Americana commingle so easily with Viennese waltzing? (Although I have latched onto Cocteau, it is clear that D’Almeida’s frame extends well beyond France). The satire results from the new continuity created by these seeming mismatches.
Here we strike on another ray, one that stretches from Cocteau to António Victorino D’Almeida via that most double-edged of dramatic tools, parody. Of course when we think of Cocteau, we mean dramatic parody. But with D’Almeida, we have two kinds of parody to deal with: musical and comedic parody (and with so many sharp edges, it’s unlikely that someone won’t get hurt…). Musical parody refers to the very old practice of borrowing pre-existing music and composing with it, in order to create a new composition. Employed extensively by late-Medieval and Renaissance composers, many times this sort of borrowing involved the innocuous use of a four-part (sacred) motet to generate a 5-voice mass, for example. But at times it played with the more flagrant integration of a popular chanson into the polyphonic texture of liturgical music, projecting the profane onto the sacred in a manner that bordered on sacrilege. Of course, such a loaded technique was enthusiastically revived in the last century by the theatrical surrealists and musical “neo-classicists” working in Cocteau’s Paris, and continues to be echoed in D’Almeida’s music.
But D’almeida’s parody is not literally concerned with embedding known tunes into his textures, rather, his rapid-fire evocations of “profane” situations challenge the canonic form of the symphony as erudite concert music, in the vein of his modernist predecessors. But in the Portuguese composer’s music, the challenge is not one to be taken lightly – in fact humor can be quite a serious matter.
At this junction with parody and humor, our train of thought must detour briefly towards another composer – one, no doubt, very close in spirit to D’Almeida – the American Charles Ives. In Ives’s musical parodies (here the term applies in its literal sense), the religious hymn tunes that are set in counterpoint with patriotic numbers (at times quite comically) are done so, not to belittle the component sources, but in order to throw them into a new dialogue – a result akin to the effect of the juxtapositions in the music of António Victorino D’Almeida.
Yet another fleeting thought: we are struck by the multi-faceted approach to art in his vast output. Here is a man who writes both original pieces as well as histories and criticism, makes films and retains the role of a personality in the story of his nation’s culture. It is an observation that could apply equally to Cocteau as well as D’Almeida.
Still, the reader may protest, charging that I haven’t spoken directly about the music on this CD. But that probably won’t bother the composer too much. The main reason Cocteau’s provocative quote came to mind in the first place was a question of appropriateness (and here, the echoes of Igor Stravinsky, a great collaborator of Cocteau, are quite loud ), or rather, the lack of appropriateness of verbosity in the face of music whose discourse relies on experiencing the voyage of unexpected twists and turns into and out of nearly as many styles, speeds, keys and characters as the pieces have minutes.
And after saying all of this, what if I am mistaken – what if the incipit wasn’t even by Cocteau at all?