An Interview with Carlos da Silveira by John Mansell
What would you say is the purpose of music in film?
The purpose of music is to tell what cannot be said in words or visuals, to express the inner feelings of the characters or to communicate directly to the emotions of the public (spectator?). Other times it complements the narrative or propels rhythmically the action.
Where and when were you born?
I was born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1950 but my parents lived in the country, near the town of Tacuarembó, up in the north, almost by the border with Brazil.
Did you come from a family back ground that was musical at all?
Not really, only a cousin of my mother was the director of a band that played in ballrooms. But we were not very close because he lived in the city and we lived in the country. My mother used to listen to zarzuelas and light classical music and my father was an enthusiastic tango dancer and listener.
What musical education did you receive?
In the beginning I’ve learned to play the guitar at school but not in a formal fashion, just learning songs and chords. Later, when I came to Montevideo, to pursue studies in teaching literature, I began to take formal training in classical guitar with Daniel Viglietti (he is also a very popular singer-songwriter until today) and theory with Miguel Marozzi that’s also a great composer of avant-garde academic music. Later on, I studied harmony with Yolanda Rizzardini and composition, musicology, electro acoustic music, music history (with an emphasis in Twentieth Century music) with Coriún Aharonián and Graciela Paraskevaídis. I also assisted at the Latin American Courses on Contemporary Music in Buenos Aires, Uruguay and Brazil (it was an itinerant course held yearly in a different city). I’ve had the opportunity to be taught by some great international composers like Gordon Mumma from the USA, Hans Dietrich Schnebel from Germany, Dieter Kauffman and Wilhelm Zobl from Austria, Oscar Bazán, Eduardo Bértola and Gerardo Gandini from Argentina, Folke Rabe from Sweden, among many others. Those were very turbulent years in Latin American countries and the Universities were practically closed if you wanted to study music in an open way, with no restrictions. I was “soaked” with music coming from all over the world, even from Middle East and Asia. Simultaneously, I performed popular music (that was encouraged also by my teachers that were very open minded) and learned a lot of different genres and styles.
Was it always your intention to write music for film and television?
I don’t know really… In my teens I went to the movies at least five days a week. We lived in a very small town where there were two cinemas. The programme changed almost every day and it was two pictures in a row. So cinema was my main entertainment for many years and I loved it. But composing for audiovisual media came slowly because there wasn’t a steady film production in my country. The output was something like a film every ten years! So becoming a film composer was not a career you had in mind… I began performing music in theatre plays. One day a director asked me to compose music for a play he was staging and, from then on, I began to compose lots of music for theatre. A little later, the Uruguayan Cinematheque was producing a feature film and, because the producers knew me by my popular music and theatre work, the director asked me to be the composer. Until then I didn’t have any idea about composing for films so I had to “invent” what was already invented but nobody knew how to do in our country. It was in 1981 and there were no studios designed to record music for films, no post houses. Synchronization was something that nobody knew how to achieve. Imagine that… I watched the entire movie only once in a projection room, I didn’t have a moviola or something in which I could watch the movie many times. Video was not available. It was a nightmare I was diving in with a smile in my face… But everything went right. The movie was edited in Buenos Aires. So the director’s wife took all the timing of the scenes in which it was supposed to be (?) music and gave them to me. I figured out how to work with the timings and a metronome. I recorded the music with a little chamber group of guitar and a string quartet trying to attach as much as possible to the metronome but trying also that it was musical. To make a long story short: when they synchronized the music with the picture everything went right. But it could’ve been the other way, isn’t it? I think I was lucky.
What would you say have been your musical influences?
Oh, this is a hard one. I like any kind of music, I’ve listened to lots of different music. But regarding film music I was impressed as a child with the main theme of The Magnificent Seven and later by the music of Italian westerns, the likes of Morricone, Nicolai, et al. I’ve also seen many movies by the Nouvelle Vague directors (Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer) and many thrillers of the late 40´s and 50´s (Houston, Hawks), then I think that when I’m composing some of those influences can slip in, but in a very unconscious way. I could say that a great influence were the tango orchestras of the late 40´s (Troilo, Salgán) that my father listened at all times, and Piazzolla whom I was a fan of and performed many times live in Montevideo. I’ve also listened to all kinds of jazz from Satchmo to Coltrane to Miles Davis. And music from distant cultures like Japan, China, Java, India. I find every kind of music interesting. And, of course, I’ve always loved Bartok Satie, Debussy, Ravel but never tried to compose in their styles. Twentieth Century composers I love are Ligeti, Varese, Webern and Nono.
What was your first scoring assignment, and how did you become involved on the project?
This I think I’ve answered before but didn’t mention the title MATARON A VENANCIO FLORES a period film happening in our 19th Century civil war. It was a kind of thriller or suspense movie.
Do you orchestrate and conduct all of your scores for films and TV?
I always orchestrate my scores because I think it’s an integral part of composing. As I always work with small ensembles, due to budgetary reasons, much of the conducting is just marking time to the performers. I always try to use performers with a taste for popular music because I think their sense of timing is more relaxed and, at the same time, they don’t need a director too much. When I score a film I also have to do all the paper work, the production, music contractor, music editor, you name it. It’s a tremendous task but I’ve always managed to accomplish it.
Do you have a favourite score, either of your own or by another composer?
Lots of scores by another composers: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (Bernstein), THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, PER UN PUGNO DI DOLLARI (Morricone), DRACULA (Kilar), AMERICAN BEAUTY, ERIN BROCKOVICH (Newman). In the case of my own work, It’s difficult to chose one of my “children”. I can say I like them all for different reasons, one was the first, the other the younger, you know, their all mine.
What is the largest orchestra you have utilised on a project?
I never could use a large orchestra. Budgets are small, imagine that the most expensive movie made in our country cost 2 million dollars and they were raised mainly abroad (Belgium, Italy, France, Italy). Then there is not much money left for music and performers. The largest group of performers I’ve used, comprised Piano, Double Bass, Cello, Viola, Violin, Bass, Alto and Soprano Flutes and Bandoneón.
Have you ever declined to work on a movie or had a score rejected at all?
Until now it hasn’t happened to me.
When composing for a film, how many times do you like to look at the movie before deciding what kind of music is required and where the music should be placed?
I always have a spotting session with the director talking about how the music should go, where and when, the pathos that should be emphasized, the characters, the story, where is it going and so forth. Later, I watch the movie lots of times, like fifteen or twenty before committing to compose. Sometimes the music comes to my mind in the most unusual situations, generally when I don’t have an instrument at hand… Those are almost epiphanic moments, I enjoy them the most!
Do you have a preference regarding what type of movies you work on, or are you happy working on any kind of genre?
I like any kind of movie. Sometimes I wish I could score a horror film because it could give me the opportunity to experiment more, to come with a more abstract kind of music than in naturalistic movies. But I like movies because you can express feelings, it doesn’t matter the genre.
How do you arrive at your musical solutions, by this I mean how do you work out your musical ideas, on piano, keyboards or maybe computer?
I work with everything at hand. Sometimes it’s pencil and paper, later maybe the piano or guitar and finally the computer. At other moments I work exclusively with the computer. I like to have always my guitar at hand because it’s the instrument that I play best and it’s easier to get ideas out quickly.
What would you say has been the most difficult project to work on?
Every one of them. I always try to remember what Fassbinder said: “Experience makes you stupid” and, accordingly, try to start fresh, as if I don’t have made anything before, leaving room to surprise myself. I’m not saying I can do that easily but I try. I love to surprise myself with music I didn’t know I could come with. When that happens, I listen to it a few months later and, sometimes, I can’t believe I’ve composed that. It’s a weird feeling but a good one at least.
What do you think about the use of temp tracks on films, is it a help or is it at times off putting for you?
I’ve been lucky. Nobody gave me a temp track in the movies I’ve worked in. In advertising it’s usual and it’s also a pain in the neck to get away from them. I understand that they need something to inspire them in the process of editing but most of the time they become so in love with the temp tracks that it’s very difficult to convince them to let you give them fresh ideas or different angles. Nevertheless I can manage to work with a temp track but don’t ask me to copy it or approximate it in some way, just use it as an inspiration regarding maybe tempo or colour.
When a compact disc of one of your scores is being put together, do you have any input at all as to what music will go on the disc?
So far there’s only one of my scores in CD and they gave me all the freedom to assemble it.
What project are you working on at the moment?
I’m finishing a record with my group ‘Desde el alma’ that will be out in October. We play tangos, milongas and waltzes. You could listen to some samples here.
What is your opinion of film music today, as opposed to movie music from the 1960s?
Things have changed. In the 40s all movies had music wall-to-wall. On the other hand, the work in the field of sound was scarce, just what was needed. Today, sound plays an important part in movies and has become another element of the narrative. So, music is gaining a place that I think, in some cases, is better than in the past because they’re using it in the right doses and it becomes more apparent. It’s not anymore some kind of background, pleasing noise but a real complement to the narrative. The most interesting films, these days, use music in this way and you notice it more because it is really necessary. With some films I feel that there is too much, unnecessary music.