In encounters in cities from Los Angeles to Helsinki, the mentorship of Finland’s Kaija Saariaho and Portugal’s Vasco Mendonça unfolded smoothly, establishing a joyful professional friendship that was both dynamic and highly productive. Mendonça attended performances of Saariaho’s music around the world – and twice his music was played at the same event as hers. They were able to engage in stimulating intellectual discussions about their work and other artistic matters. Mendonça found the experience of having a “second pair of eyes” on his work invaluable.
At age 36, composer Vasco Mendonça is already establishing a name for himself across Europe. Receiving various commissions, from the Festival d’Aix en Provence to the Gulbenkian Foundation, he also represented Portugal at UNESCO’S International Rostrum of Composers. His mentoring year with Kaija Saariaho promises to reveal a sensitive musical connection.
When I first met Kaija we didn’t actually talk about music very much, it was more about life and how certain events can make you aware of who you are and what you do. Music is quite an abstract art, so, as a composer, it’s important for me to try to find a connection with daily life – and use my work to examine myself and my responses to certain situations. I felt Kaija related to this. We also discussed the importance of going as deep as possible into your own sensitivity and how this relates to the character of your music.
I'm inspired by poetry and people. From an early age, I have always been drawn to poetry and, latterly, to poets such as Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin and T.S. Eliot. I’m not a religious person but there is a sort of transcendence that comes with poetry that fulfils some kind of spiritual need in me.
Touch their sensitivity
I have always been absolutely fascinated by people and their behaviour. This fascination finds its way into my work, particularly my theatre work. It’s important to me to connect with people. I welcome any interpretation of my work – even if my original intention for a piece has been missed, whatever someone perceives of it is still relevant and valuable – and, more importantly, it means I have been able to connect with them and touch their sensitivity.
The composition where my heart is, is always the latest one I am working on. So it’s difficult to know which piece of work I am most proud of. From the latest pieces, I am quite happy with the opera The House Taken Over and the orchestral piece Group Together, Avoid Speech commissioned for the Gulbenkian Orchestra’s 50th anniversary. Curiously enough, both of these were written with tight deadlines.
Recently, I have been working on a percussion piece. I’m experimenting with body percussion, vocalizing, unusual objects Sometimes ideas come from unusual places. One of the sounds I am experimenting with in this piece is the sound of rock hitting rock. This comes from a strange place in my brain, a childhood memory of the shale rock that you find in the north of Portugal, where my family originally comes from.
Somehow that sound forced itself into me and became the source of this particular musical narrative. In the next two years I'll be quite busy with opera, with two new opera commissions.The libretto for one of these should arrive in just a few weeks.
More than composers, I have pieces I'm fond of. Some pieces have been very helpful in suggesting paths for my own development as a composer. Like Birtwistle's Secret Theatre or Donatoni's Spiri, or Britten’s song cycles.
Interestingly, a few years ago I once did a series of programmes for Portugal’s national radio and in each programme I talked about an opera written since the beginning of the 21st century. One of the works I talked about was Kaija’s L’amour de loin. I thought at the time (and still do) it was one of the strongest stage works of the last decade.
La Passion de Simone
My plan for the coming year is to meet Kaija at places and times where her work is being performed. The first occasion will be in Paris at the end of May when I will join her to see a new production of her theatre work La Passion de Simone.
When I first heard I was nominated I was surprised, but once I saw the scope of the initiative and realized what a prestigious programme it was, I was quite honoured to be deemed a candidate.
I expect this programme to help me establish my international career. From an artistic point of view, it’s exciting to know that I will be able to discuss my ideas with such a talented and experienced artist such as Kaija.
The young Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça has been steadily developing his craft since discovering jazz as a teenager. Later, he received a thorough grounding in classical music in Amsterdam, London and Lisbon, where he now lives. Over the past decade, his distinctive music has appeared on increasingly important concert platforms and opera stages, but his career recently received a mighty boost through the Rolex Arts Initiative. Interviewed as his mentoring year with master composer Kaija Saariaho approaches its end, Mendonça revealed how the experience has changed his life.
Rolex Arts Initiative: How has your time with Kaija Saariaho been spent?
Vasco Mendonça: What we’ve done was to set a series of meetings where Kaija was having her pieces performed: Our first mentoring days were in France in May, and we later met in the U.K., Norway and Mexico, and we also met in Finland, Austria and Los Angeles. In Mexico and Finland, I also had pieces being performed. We went for dinner, sometimes with Kaija’s family, and we didn’t even necessarily talk about music. But in each city we also had really nice discussions in which we talked about everything: work, the profession, our lives.
What sort of ground did you cover in those meetings?
It was varied every time we met. The first time, I had just received the libretto for the opera I’m about to begin writing, so we discussed that. The second time, I was just finishing a percussion quintet. And, the following time, I was working on an ensemble piece that I’d just finished. This premiered at the Musica Nova festival in February in Helsinki.
So you take pieces that you’re in the middle of writing, as you would with a teacher?
Actually, I’ve brought her mostly finished pieces to talk about. The first thing she said to me in the beginning was, ‘We really can’t do a teacher/student thing. We will have to come up with something more informal.’
She was very impressed with how fully formed you are artistically.
It’s humbling to me and very generous of her to say, ‘I’m not sure I have that much to teach you, but I think it makes sense to have an ongoing dialogue between a younger and a more seasoned composer.’ And she has also been very keen on helping me with other, more practical aspects of my career.
Every time we met, Kaija took the time to introduce me to people, to help me network. For instance, my Musica Nova commission came through her recommendation. To have such a distinguished advocate help me reach ‘cruising speed’ in those exalted circles is a huge advantage. There are so many good young composers these days, the competition is fierce.
In terms of Saariaho’s specific input on your pieces, what sorts of things can you say you’ve learned from her?
We’ve had some conversations about form that were very interesting. With the Musica Nova commission, we discussed my selection of texts: Should the piece be a setting of one or two poems? Should it be in two movements, two poems connected by something? Or should it be one piece featuring two poems? How can you ‘translate’ the feeling of urgency in one poem and the feeling of abnegation in the other one? And how can you formally link them together? Those were immensely helpful discussions.
Saariaho said that, in choosing you as her protégé, a major factor was your interest in opera, which has been such an important part of her own work.
Absolutely. I’m about to begin working on my second opera. Though I haven’t yet started composing it, my discussions with Kaija about the libretto were helpful. To have a second pair of eyes, and such talented and experienced ones, is invaluable because you have to put a lot of thought into what you want to do with a libretto, what type of opera you want to create. There are so many ways you can go with opera.
Are there other areas in which you feel an affinity with her?
We get along well on a personal level. She has a great sense of humour, and a sense of absurdity I share. I can relate to her sensibility, her sensitivity to the world. I think it takes Kaija a while to get to know people and open up, and I am a bit like that too. She’s also a very honest person, and you always know that anything she says is genuine. She talks about everything, her own experiences, her family.
December 2015 The closing ceremony honouring the mentors and protégés of 2014–2015 capped off a brilliant Rolex Arts Weekend.
December 2015 Brilliant ideas, installations and exciting performances, including two world premieres, marked the Rolex Arts Weekend.