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Questionnaire: Alfredo Costa Monteiro (2007)

1. Have you got any formal musical training, and what do you draw from it now?

When I was ten, I took some accordion classes, but it didn’t last for long… And some years later I studied acoustic guitar at the conservatory for a couple of years. There, I had the possibility to listen to some electro-acoustic pieces that set a different approach to what I thought music was. This was a big contrast with the teaching program, but finally I got bored.
From these days, I think I’ve kept a kind of resistance towards the instrument that leads me to play against it, or better said, against the standard forms of playing it.

2. What kind of equipment/instrument do you use, and what is you relationship towards it? What do you think lies behind your choice of the equipment/instrument?

I use different equipment or instrument, depending on the project.
For me, it’s not only the music that should mark a difference between different projects, but also the instrument or equipment itself.
I use the accordion in acoustic contexts, but also prepared electric guitar or turntable. I’ve always been attracted by apparent simplicity, that leads me to go directly to what the purpose is. This means that I’m pretty much interested in low-fi devices or equipment not only for the particularity of the sound but also to make the music more direct. The use of objects, as an instrumental extended technique, leads me to reproduce some gestures that are not so different from a context to another, it’s the particularity of each context that makes them sound different. I’m not searching a form that could give me an identity mark, but rather a way of doing that could construct this identity.

3. What is it that attracts you towards musical experimentation?

Experimentation means to me, re-inventing reality, escape from pre-established forms or rules of understanding the world…
We have the capacity to pervert the order of things, to transfigure them, so according to music, experimentation should be part of any creative process…
In Portuguese, my mother tongue, the verb to try is commonly translated by to experiment. This has to do with curiosity that keeps in itself the capacity to take you to new experiences. And for me, curiosity is one of the most important virtues. It’s a global behaviour or relationship, not only in music…

4. Why are you involved in improvisation, and how do you perceive it?

I started to get seriously involved in improvisation around 2001.
For me, it’s a way to achieve some statements that are hidden or simply not considered by our society, giving a value to the present, focusing much more in the moment we’re acting…
It’s also pretty much an ephemeral act, that goes against permanence…
I like the fact that I’m able (or at least, like to think that I’m able) to take decisions and assume them; and these decisions can’t be taken apart from a more general context which is always in process.
Also, this kind of music is focused on individuality, but not as it’s commonly perceived or understood; it’s rather the fact of being conscious of your difference to be able to fit in a larger group, and then to be able to recognize and accept others’ differences. This is very important to me, because it refers to a general way of being in life. And also because economical benefit is not a reason strong enough to stop doing it.

5. How do you perceive the relation between planning and spontaneity in improvisation?

I do not believe in total improvisation, I think it really happens at any starting point; but then, once I get to know my sound source well, improvisation is just a means, not an end, even when it’s intentional. I mean that it’s part of a general attitude towards what I’m playing. Of course, I use some sounds I already know, but I wouldn’t call it “planning”, because it sounds too systematic to me; the fact is that we have to deal with memory, the memory of the brain, but also the memory of the fingers (or body), which is more spontaneous. During a performance, I find myself going from known to unknown gestures. For me, it’s the use of these two possibilities that give first, a meaning one to the other, and then to the music.

6. Do you “practise” for an improvisation, and what are your general thoughts on the idea of “practising” for improvisation?
When you improvise, do you use sounds that you’ve already “tried out”, and how much room is there for actual sound experimentation?

I sometimes practise but not for “an improvisation” as you say. I don’t play improvisation: this way of playing is part of my music, a mix of improvised and more or less fixed materials.
If I have to play in a special context, I may work previously, but I still believe in the fact that, by playing too much, I would lose some kind of spontaneity. Of course, a performance is not a simple isolated act, it comes after a certain experience acquired by work, so, in my case, it is composed of learned and improvised or even accidental sounds. A live act is also an occasion to show what we’ve learned, so for every sound I tried out previously, there’s always a possibility that it escapes from what I expected, and this is improvisation too. I don’t believe in total control of what I’m doing either.
Improvisation is also what you do with what you have (whether it’s fixed or improvised) how you can take it to a different point, even taking the risk of things going badly.

7. How do you evaluate an improvisation? What is it, according to you, that makes one improvisation better than another?

As a musician, it’s very difficult to evaluate a concert I’ve done. I just keep in mind my mood, my feeling and my perception of things. It is almost impossible for me, immediately after a concert, to say if it was good or bad. It’s something that I prefer to hear coming from the audience. To clarify things, I need the recording.
And if I have to say the truth, I would say that good or bad, doesn’t mean anything when you’re dealing with impermanent and unstable materials; or at least it’s how it should be; but we all know that, even in improvised music, there are some statements that lead us to think in terms of value judgements, and judgement only exists if there’s comparison.
It happens to me very frequently while listening to a recording: depending on my mood, it’s sometimes difficult to be sure of my thought. But it’s precisely this fluctuation that creates the attraction in me.

8. When you are recording for a release, does the awareness of being recorded influence your playing, and in what way?

I think that every single studio recording has to be done in a different way than a concert; the first point is that we’re not playing for any audience but for ourselves. The audience comes later, so there should be no tension about any kind of immediate value of the music. We are our own and immediate judge. And as I’m being recorded I have to think of the quality of this recording, what I can make audible and would be impossible during a concert.
A studio recording is also part of what I am as a musician: I’m not just a performer, and I’m still a musician when I’m not performing. In a studio recording I can use many possibilities that are not generally offered in concert; one of them is a temporality divided in three parts: recording, listening and editing. The decisions are very different according to that statement, and are not less “risky” as many people seem to think.
But because this music is mainly unstable, a studio recording makes sense if it’s perceived as a stage in a more global context.