Emmanuel Nunes interviewed

Emmanuel Nunes

"It is more important for me to know what I do not want, than to know what I want."

Born in Lisbon in 1941, Emmanuel Nunes is perhaps less well known in the UK than on the continent, an oversight due in part to the fact that few recordings of his music are currently available on CD. At hcmf 2009, three concerts featuring pieces spanning his five-decade career provide both an introduction and a celebration of his work.

“My very early experiences were rather of sound than of music,” the composer recalls. “As far as I remember – I should be between four and seven years old – I used to construct a kind of percussion set with different kitchen utensils and kick it around for a long time. My mother and my maid did not interfere…”

The young Nunes later acquired a piano, on which he would pick out melodies he had heard. By the age of 17 he had decided to become a composer. “My decision was as strong as my ignorance in musical matters and craftsmanship,” he notes.

Such childhood freedom to explore music would not last, however. Nunes’s studies of harmony and counterpoint at Lisbon Music Academy between 1959 and 1963 were overshadowed by the country’s dictatorial Estado Novo regime. 1962 saw the government crack down on left-wing student organisations, leading to demonstrations, strikes and violence.

During this time, he took private composition lessons from Fernando Lopes-Graça, who was banned from lecturing due to his Communist Party membership. How did such a repressive climate affect his own burgeoning musical creativity?

“Any dictatorship does impose its brand upon the whole human activity,” he replies. “Trying to answer the question, I come to the following paradox: although painters and writers seem a priori to be more vulnerable – and they were! – to these kind of restrictions, they seem at that time to me much more irradiating and universal than the composers. The conservatory was of an incredibly low level, and the few ones that might have improved the teaching were forbidden to teach. I did not experience any restrictions upon my work, because I still did not have any…”

“But nobody could teach me anymore what I wanted to learn. So I left my country. My political status also made me unsure and I spent seven years without coming back.”

Nunes moved to Paris in 1964, then to Cologne the following year, undertaking studies with Henri Pousseur and Karlheinz Stockhausen. He also attended summer courses at Darmstadt between 1963 and 1965, eagerly purchasing scores by Schönberg, Berg and Webern, but remaining detached from some of the more fashionable approaches to composition of the time:

“I learned quite a lot from the courses by Pousseur, Ligeti, and Boulez. At that time Stockhausen did not come to Darmstadt, and among the crowd of composers having a subscription to Darmstadt, two extremes were in: either the so-called sérialisme intégral, or the graphic scores tendency proclaiming their illusion of liberty. Quite often the acoustical result was nearly the same,” he says.

“During those years I still did not compose really, my knowledge in terms of musical technique was more than incipient, but I did have a kind of internal compass, which detained me from stepping into such paths. As I used to say to my students: It is more important for me to know what I do not want, than to know what I want.”

Some impression of the process by which Nunes worked out what he did want can be found in the two solo piano pieces to be performed by Noriko Kawai at hcmf 2009, Litanies du fer et de la mer (Litanies of Fire and Sea) I and II. Dating from 1969 and 1971 respectively, the works arose from a time when the composer would improvise on the piano for long periods.


“I can never feel for myself a real state of having matured, not because I do not mature – I certainly do – but for the simple reason of a lifelong feeling of incompleteness, a sterile self-consciousness,” he reflects, when asked how he now views his earlier work.

He continues, “Listening back to my earlier pieces, either I consider them finished, and they are regularly performed independently of their composition year, or I would like to improve them, which sometimes I do, not only on my earlier pieces…But I never feel stranger to them; it is rather a certain involuntary, unintentional psychological distance.”

In the 1970s, Nunes started to incorporate electronic music into his composition. One example is the 1977-8 work Nachtmusik I (which will be performed at hcmf 2009 by Remix Ensemble), where pairs of pitches in the chamber instruments parallel the ring modulation effect in its electronic element.

António Jorge Pacheco is artistic director of Casa da Música, the modern concert venue in Porto, Portugal which is home to Remix Ensemble. “Emmanuel Nunes’s music succeeds in many areas, but one of the most notable has been his use of electronics,” he says. “The role of electronics has been sometimes criticised as superficial in other composers’ output, but Nunes creates works in which electronics are integrated and evidently necessary to the sound picture.”

Nunes himself relates his interest back to the influence of Stockhausen: “Following Stockhausen’s teaching in the early sixties, one could hardly ignore the strong impact of electronic music. Works like Gesang der Jünglinge, Kontakte, Telemusik or even Hymnen belong to the greatest electronic works I ever heard. Excepting Berio’s Omaggio a Joyce and Visages, Stockhausen was the only one able to bring electronic music composition up to the same musical requirement as instrumental one.”

Later pieces used technology to explore the possibilities of spatialisation, such as Wandlungen, for orchestra and live electronics, which Nunes created at the Experimental Studio Freiburg. He then harnessed the electroacoustic brainpower of Paris’s IRCAM researchers to develop further works in which sound would be free to fly around the concert space.

“I started working regularly at IRCAM in 1991. I wanted to develop my conception of spatialisation, which I had already begun and realised for orchestra. In short, the main difference is the possibility to design rhythmically (up to a very high speed) all kinds of sound trajectories and localisations, all kinds of output profiles having as a unique source the instrumental score. Even without any other electronic transformation, such movements do originate a different perception of the score orchestration.”

Pacheco pays tribute to the composer’s longstanding influence upon Casa da Música’s contemporary music residents: “Remix Ensemble has been performing the works of Emmanuel Nunes throughout its existence, for nearly ten years. Though it has performed pieces by countless Portuguese composers and of course many others from outside the country, Nunes’s music – its style and its great demands on interpreters – has been a constant form of stimulation to the Ensemble,” he says.

In September Remix Ensemble premiered Emmanuel Nunes’s latest work, the musical theatre piece La Douce. Based upon the tragic Dostoevsky short story A Gentle Creature, its score is closely related to five chamber ‘improvisations’ composed by Nunes, including Improvisation IV – L'électricité de la pensée humaine, which will receive its British premiere as part of Quatuor Diotima’s hcmf concert.

Although Nunes still lives in Paris, these days he is as welcome in his birth country as elsewhere, with his honours including the Portuguese Order of St James of the Sword in 1991 and the Prémio Pessoa in 2000 in addition to accolades won internationally.

According to Pacheco, however, acceptance by the establishment does not necessarily mean that Nunes has lost his hunger for innovation: “Although Nunes is unquestionably the doyen of Portuguese composers, he has not lost the capacity to surprise and even shock,” he says. “He is not afraid to be controversial or unconventional, and to see through his ideas to a logical end. Living outside the country means that his numerous visits for performances and other collaborations are especially savoured.”

Emmanuel Nunes events at hcmf
Noriko Kawai: Nunes, Thu 26 November
Quatuor Diotima, Sat 28 November
Remix Ensemble 1, Sat 28 November