Let’s continue our exploration on Barcelona’s independent musical panorama. This time we have decided to interview Alfredo Costa Monteiro, Portuguese musician living in this town since almost twenty years and enriching it with his artistic practices.
It is reductive to define him as a musician: it has been only a few years since Alfredo is devoted to sound, and yet his background is much more eclectic and deeply rooted in the visual arts. He completed his studies at the Fine Arts School of Paris and his artistic productions range from culture and installations (in which sound was anyway ever present), to visual poetry and musical experimentation. His works are based on the manipulation of objects and matter (sound and word included) through instable procedures and low-fi constantly absorbed by research.
In his past he has been member of independent collective groups such as 22a and IBA col.lectiu d’improvisaciò (we talked about that in our interview with Ruth Barberán (http://www.digicult.it/digimag/article.asp?id=1939). He is now playing regularly solo or with international musicians (the likes of Pascal Battus and Michel Doneda), video artists and choreographers. He is working with many musical formations, such as Cremaster (with Ferran Fages), I treni inerti (with Ruth Barberàn), Ocatante (with Ferran Fages, Ruth Barberàn and Margarida Garcia), Atolòn (with Ferran Fages and Ruth Barberàn), Tellus (with Pilar Subirà) and Monolith (with Juan Matos Capote). He can play accordion, electric guitar, electro acoustic devices and sound objects.
Barbara Sansone: Would you please tell me something about your formation and your studies in the music field?
Alfredo Costa: When I was 10 years old my father gave me an accordion and I had lessons from a friend of mine. Some years later I joined the conservatory, where I studied classic guitar for two years, but then I quit. It was such a hard discipline: during the first year one could not even touch the instrument; only theory was studied and when one is 13 his only wish is to play. But while I was there, my teacher, despite he was rather severe, introduced me to electro acoustics. There was a hall nearby where one could listen to it. It was a very small hall, yet provided with ten speakers and very comfortable armchairs. I went there, turned off the light and listened. A new world was revealed to me.
Then, as a teenager, I began playing guitar and singing in rock bands (or rather punk bands). After my adolescence I began to carry out some technical studies, but I did not like them very much and so I decided to join Fine Arts. To prepare myself and enter the faculty I studied plastic arts at the Paris 8 University, that was the continuation of Vincennes, where in May of 1968 were born the first students communities. That was one of the first universities to ever be really leftist and the environment was completely different. It had been a lucky case for me, for I did not know what I could find there: I joined it only for I lived nearby, yet when I entered it I saw clearly what I wanted.
At that time, that university was a breath of fresh air in the public school panorama. It had very particular dynamics: some people practically were living inside it, there were no marks, there were labs everywhere and the lessons were like open forums and debates. Moreover, one was obliged to study some other matters in other departments (as it has always been in France, but here the ratio was even higher), an aspect that allowed one to discover unknown activities and topics. It created a peerless education. Among the professors there were also important people like philosophers Jean-François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze (who unfortunately went away two years before I entered). A place of total creation, though much chaotic too. The will to learn reigned supreme, but maybe a little more strictness was needed.
Barbara Sansone: And yet despite that, it helped you very much, didn’t you?
Alfredo Costa: Absolutely. It let me discover a lot of things. When I entered I did not know very well what I wanted to study: I was interested in art, but I did not know whether to head for history or criticism. A year later I clearly understood I was interested in practice and not theory. Then I began preparing myself for the contest, in order to be admitted to Fine Arts, and that happened three years later. I stayed three years in there. The standard duration was five years, but one could ask for an advance conclusion and I thought three years were sufficient. I had my work analyzed by a commission that grant me a degree. Then I moved to Barcelona.
Barbara Sansone: When you moved to Barcelona, you soon found a suitable environment for you…
Alfredo Costa: That’s right, for in Barcelona the world of art was tiny at that time (and now too, to be honest) and so all became real soon enough. They were the times when the first open labs began to appear, above all in the Raval hotel. All the artists lived in that neighborhood (someone also in the Poblenou), especially in Calle Riereta, where I found a lab as well.
Barbara Sansone: And what did your work consist in?
Alfredo Costa: At the beginning I was working a lot with images and photos. My works were very delicate: I worked with tiny object, lights, images and sound of course. They were conceptual works, yet tangible too. I liked to mix these two aspects very much, that is to base the work on a concept without taking away too much importance from the form. Form is just as constant as concept in my works. The objects of my installations made reference to memory.
Barbara Sansone: Unless I am wrong, you studied with Christian Boltanski. Did he influence you?
Alfredo Costa: I did studied with him, but when I entered Fine Arts and knew him I was already working on this topic. I actually did not study with him directly, but with Polish artist Piotr Kowalski, who was using particular materials like dynamite and neon lights. I began my activity in his lab, but I did not like the environment for it was too competitive, and so I moved into Boltanski’s. When I got information about him I discovered our works had much in common, but his reference to memory was unilateral (he works on the memory of the Holocaust), while my path was more autobiographical. I liked it very much too because in a step of his path he too worked on his past. My topic was nomadism, with references to the history of my family that moved from Portugal to France.
Then here in Barcelona I began working less and less with image: the objects became lighter and lighter, almost inexistent. I have always worked with poor and simple objects, and little by little my works were becoming more characterized by sound and less by objects. The ones remaining had a less and less autobiographical meaning. Then in 2006 I quit with the installations and dedicated only to music, that had overcome the objects by far in my interests.
Barbara Sansone: And in the meantime, did you keep on working on exclusively musical works?
Alfredo Costa: Yes, I did. I never quit with music. After my experiences with some bands in my adolescence I kept on playing and recording home (I still have lots of recording tapes!). And I kept a musical activity while I was working with installations: in the 80s for example I worked for various dancing companies writing melodies for them. From 1995 until the formation dissolved, I played in a group of experimental music, called Superelvis, that was important then. Their CDs were conventional, they had rhythm and melody, while live the singer chanted a psalmody of four sentences and the other three musicians tried to intone something to prevent him from singing. It was a very curious group. When it dissolved in 2000 I entered little by little the experimentation scenario.
Barbara Sansone: Let’s talking about one of the most important instruments for you, the accordion…
Alfredo Costa: Yes, the accordion has always been the most important instrument for me. I played it in contexts of folk and traditional music. Then for some time I put it to rest because I had discovered other kinds of expression (punk, for instance) and I retook it later when I was studying Fine Arts, but still in classical and folkloristic fields. I played with some friends in bars: they did not pay us but we drank for free and we played French traditional music. We passed from bar to bar and we reduced ourselves to a pitiful state [he laughs], but we had a lot of fun. Then I quit again and I reused the instrument here in Barcelona, with Superelvis. I did a lot of tonal improvisations with them: I did not play accordion as I do now, of course not, but I used tonalities that often clashed, came and went away; they were like suspended…
Barbara Sansone: And when did this new approach to the instrument come?
Alfredo Costa: Later. I began attending IBA collective’s concerts at Jazz Sì, every Monday. I made the musicians’ acquaintance, I got closer to that world and they invited me to join them. From that day on I developed a far more personal language with that instrument.
Barbara Sansone: Languages are not totally new to your creative activities, given the fact that you, being a poet, work with language as well…
Alfredo Costa: Yes, there is a link between them. I teach languages and exploit them into poetry, that in turn works with sound and sometimes has to do with plastic arts. Everything is linked. As for poetry, I recently put it aside a little and it is a shame because I have been very prolific for many years, but like I said, it’s complicated. It is even a tinier world that experimental music’s: it is difficult to enter and there is much competition. Moreover, the kind of poetry I write is not easy to classify, it depends on the circumstances and my work places me in a sort of “no man’s land”. This tires you out too. I keep on writing on my own. I have plenty of works at home but I do not expose them since a long time. I collaborated for years with Leos Ator, a French poet living here in Barcelona, but in many places people could not understand what we were doing. It was a strange form of sound poetry: much physical and powerful on a sound level when performed live. It was musical experimentation, too much for the places were poetry is recited on stage, and if you insert the words in the context of musical experimentation it does not work either. Some festivals care about this but there are really few of them. And I lack the energy to go and search for opportunities now. Here in Barcelona I made only one performance of sound poetry, and not because they put me in the schedule: I made it myself, for that work should have been existed and I thought it was right people knew it, but in France it could have worked. Not here. Maybe because I work much with French.
Barbara Sansone: What do you think when you are playing? What do you imagine? How do you reason and make your decisions?
Alfredo Costa: That’s a mystery for me. I can tell you that my approach changes depending on the context. It is not the same when I play solo or in a formation, with people I barely know or others I knew since many years. It is very difficult to reason for basically my music is very intuitive, being improvised. And yet even the term “improvisation” can be deceiving. After so many years…I would not say I am an improviser and it seems to me that to call someone with that word is like to call him as he is the suspect in a process, it sounds absurd to me. In my music there is much improvisation, this is sure as hell.
Barbara Sansone: It would not be conceived a priori, but there is code, a language of your own, or many languages like that, depending on the context…
Alfredo Costa: Yes, that’s right, yet I must ask myself up to what point I am improvising. I am not worried about that, but I think I am not improvising any longer. The act of improvising should be pure, it should not have memory and undoubtedly a memory has remained after many years. Even your body has reminiscences: when you are playing, it precedes you in a certain sense.
Barbara Sansone: Do you think you are repetitive?
Alfredo Costa: Yes, I do. I am repetitive. And this is the great question of improvisation: how can you reach the point of no repeating? We are human, we cannot reach it. Nonetheless, I do not care much about the fact I am repetitive: I am worried more about the context in which it happens. If the context is the same the repetition does not make sense, but when the context changes, the repetition could work the same because it is like a “trademark”. Yet this music should be a constant research of something new and different. This is our task, though we are not always capable of accomplishing it. When I attend to a concert as a spectator, I do not go there in search of something new. That’s very difficult to find. All is the transformation of something else and often we lack the historic perspective in order to know whether something we are listening is new or not.
Barbara Sansone: Are there any musician you like and never disappoint you whatever they do? In other words, if you are not searching for something new, what are you searching for? What do you expect to find?
Alfredo Costa: I do not know, maybe it is emotion I pursue. Generally speaking, in this music there are not criteria, or at least there should not be any. I try not to be conditioned by prejudices when I am attending to a concert. For instance, I have listened to Francisco Lopez‘s music many times and personally I do not like too much how he works, he does not surprise me, he does not excite me, but in a hour we will go to his concert and I intend to go there with a new and different attitude, though I already know him. I believe that at a certain point, if you have listened to a musician many times and you never liked him, perhaps you should come to the conclusion that you do not like him very much.
But in disciplines like this, and especially in the case of improvised music, I think good and bad should not exist. I actually try and shut up when I find myself judging, because in this field judging does not make sense. All is very subjective. Even when I realize that the level of sound is technically low, I soon enough think that maybe it is the musician’s will and thus it has a sense. Rather than talking about quality, I prefer to say whether a performance reaches me or not. Sometimes it happens that something about quality escapes my mouth, but soon I bite my tongue. It is neither good nor bad, it is what it is, and that’s the important thing in this music.
Barbara Sansone: Don’t you think that this lack of criteria, this sort of opening, in a certain sense leads to the proliferation of productions that are not based on a tradition however existing, or to the reasonable breaking of rules that we are willing to overcome? Many people claim this music is all about making noise, and within anyone’s reach too. Don’t you think that this way the musician’s professionalism ends up being ignored??
Alfredo Costa: What you say is true, but it is true as well that often novice musicians are involved, and they need and deserve time to develop a language of their own, just like it happened to me many years ago. The public has the right to judge in the end. If it understands the artist has not changed through time (unless it is a stylistic choice or a concept) it is not going to listen to him any longer.
Barbara Sansone: Do you think public has the necessary instruments to judge or should it been educated by offering quality contents to it? We can see this in commercial music: according to you many musicians should not exist anymore for a long time and yet people keep on buying their discs and paying high prices for their concerts. It is however true the public in question is another. Your music is characterized by a more specialized and maybe more exigent public…
Alfredo Costa: Public is an interesting topic: I see it as a sum of many individuals, and then as a mysterious entity in the end. Save for friends, you do not know who comes and listen to you playing. Therefore, I am not trying to please someone in my works, for I do not know whom I should please. And however, if I thought like that I would not do what I do. But I do respect very much the public, this “unknown factor”, because I think that if a person, tired after a hard day of work, comes and listen to me, he is making a considerable effort and this action deserves great respect. To have respect not necessarily means to play something he likes, but I cannot forget those people came on purpose to listen to my music: it is not like playing home or at the rehearsals. My approach is always different, specific for each concert, and this is a ritual where the artist has to sacrifice himself in a certain sense. Without this ethical and human criterion there is nothing. The public is what sustains me, without it I would not even exist as an artist. And yet I cannot please it, or adapt my music on the base of a set of preferences I do not know.