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Off the shelves, and onto the stage

Fucine Mute meets Alexandre Cortez and Pedro D’Orey of Wordsong, the Portuguese band presenting a very innovative project of poetry in music on the stage at Absolute Poetry, an interesting experiment mixing music and the words of Al Berto and Fernando Pessoa.

Wordsong sul palco

Beatrice Biggio (BB): You will perform at Absolute Poetry a very innovative project of poetry in music, where did the idea of this project come from, and why did you choose to use both Pessoa’s and Al Berto’s poetry?

Alexandre Cortez (AC): You see, I was a close friend of Al Berto, who is a contemporary poet. He died unfortunately in 1995, and I was a great fan of his poetry. He was one of the most important names in Portuguese XXth century poetry, so when he died I thought: “why not doing something with his work?”. I asked Pedro to join the project, and when we started working on his words we thought it would be great to mix his poetry with video and music, and that was the beginning. I must say that we did not exactly use the words as they were written by him, we took his poetry and mixed it up our own way. Actually, we didn’t show any respect for his work, really! It was very experimental work, then we decided to take it on stage and we thought it would be a great idea to record it and realize the project to show our vision of his work. This is how it all started, in 2001-2002. After a few years, we decided to make a book and a CD out of it, we presented it live many times in Portugal, where its experimental nature has proven to be very successful. Therefore we decided to work with Pessoa’s poetry, which of course was a big challenge and quite a difficult task. So that’s the story, I think this project has been a good idea, and the proof is we’re here tonight, and if we’re here at Absolute Poetry, that means people are enjoying our work.

Alexandre Cortez

BB: We’ve had a look at the book and the CD, it’s quite impressive to note how the graphic style and the poetry are perfectly blended. Also, we’ve seen you rehearse and we were quite surprised of the incredible strength of your performance. I suppose it’s a stereotype that poetry performances cannot be as striking and emotionally charged as music can be… Do you think the mixing of different media is the formula that makes poetry come out so strong and become so appealing for the audience, maybe not just for young people as many would say? And is it this way that you think you’re going with your future work, or are you going to go back to just making music?

Pedro D’Orey (PD): Actually, that’s a question we still have to answer… We wanted to use music and multimedia in general to make a modern version of the poetry that is usually hidden on the shelves of museums and libraries, we wanted to take it off those shelves and take the dust off it, so that it feels as if these poets are born today, as if they’re twenty years old now and writing their first poems, we tried to bring out the feeling of freshness in their poetry. After all, if they were here today they themselves would use today’s media, wouldn’t they? So that’s what we were looking for, and that’s the idea be’ind our project. That’s what we mean when we say that we did not respect their poems, of course we did, we just took them to our times, we wanted to do it the way we thought they would do it themselves if they were around. Of course this is just our feeling, they would probably not do it the same way, but they would use the same media and that’s what we did too. I think they would appreciate it… they’re not here now, of course, we are not able to knock at their door and ask them whether it’s ok, but we believe they would be happy about their poems being taken off the shelves. We are not poetry experts, but we know Pessoa well as we have all studied his work in school. We did not know Al Berto’s poetry from school as he still didn’t have a history, he was still an outsider, but in Pessoa’s case we felt it was connected to a very institutional education, and so we felt we had to free ourselves from that old and square image of literature all by itself. So we are discovering what we’re doing along the way, I must say we really don’t know what we’re doing… Although Alex has a better idea of what we’re doing I myself don’t know much, I’m trying to find a way, basically doing it first and thinking about it afterwards…

Pedro D'Orey

BB: Looking at your videos and other productions apart from this project, you appear to be quite strong visually and really careful on the effect of music through clips and other media. So, being such a visual band and having started with music projects before you got down to poetry in music, we would like to ask you where you think music is going in Portugal these days, is there anything new happening and, if so, what is your contribution going to be at home and abroad in this field?

PD: I’ll let Alex answer and then I would also like to say something on this.

AC: Well, I think the way technology becomes democratic and more accessible to everyone makes things happen. Now you don’t necessarily have to use a professional studio, you can do your stuff yourself, at home, you can experiment without needing much money. I think we can talk about music as a global thing in Portugal and Europe, the only difference will be in words, in what you are saying, because structurally I think you can find the same features in Portugal and in the rest of Europe, with different nuances of course. The most important thing you can do today is you can easily show your work outside the borders of the country you’re living in, which makes everything much more interesting. The language, too, is becoming more international, even if a band’s lyrics are in Portuguese and another’s in Italian, for instance. So it’s really much easier to show what you’re doing out of your own country, even if you go out without going out, by using the Internet, for example. We have a lot of reactions to our music on our website, even from people from Spain, France, Italy, that’s very interesting. We are here today because I found out about the Absolute Poetry festival on the Internet, I saw very interesting projects being performed here, and I decided to send in our work to see whether they’d appreciated it. It’s a way to contact people and other artists, too, even if we hadn’t been invited here, we would have been just as happy for them to be able to look at what we do. We’ve been very lucky because Lello Voce really liked our work and invited us to perform here. That means that our language works, and not only in Portugal, but even outside our own country. For me, this is the most important aspect of technology, it gives us the chance to show our work outside the borders of our country.

PD: I agree with everything Alex has just said. I would like to add that I think it’s also very interesting that we are now crossing everything, everything we do becomes transversal, in terms of media, in terms of the age of people playing in the bands… I really think that this experience of crossing ideas, media, ages, cultures is the most interesting thing. It’s a bit like cooking, and each one is adding his own spice. So I don’t think we can talk about Portuguese music anymore, of course we can if we use strongly characterized language or poetry, but I think the way we are working makes even this language become broader, more universal. We believe that using poems as we do, not reading them exactly the way they’re written, or from the end to the beginning, crossing words or cutting out lines that we did not thing would work with the music is a way of transcending meanings that are included in the poetry and transforming language into a broader concept, a sort of phonetic language. That’s the way I see it.

BB: What you said sounds quite revolutionary and made me think about freedom, freedom of expression, which brings me to my next question… Record companies and majors are on the verge of collapsing these days following the new challenges of technology to the music business and the success of music downloads from the Internet. Do you feel you have gained freedom this way, do you feel you can be craftsmen of your own music rather than slaves to business people, having to wait for your demos to be listened to and judged apt to fit the market? I know you have your own label, so is that like reappropriating yourselves of your own instruments and how important it is for you?

PD: I think the business as it was and still is organized doesn’t suit our work. We need a different kind of distribution and what seems to be good for other groups is too outdated for us. I think the whole record industry will have to adapt to this democratic use of music, they will have to find their way, I’m not sure whether they have found it already, but they’ll soon have to. For us as musicians it’s not very important to earn lots of money through record sales. We are trying to find other ways of making money apart from selling records as we are fully aware of what that means at this very moment. And the way we do it is through our own label, we produce ourselves, so we are a major too, in a way. But I’ll let Alex talk about this, as he has a lot of experience in this field. I know that I’m much happier with what we’re doing, because there is no major that we could fit in at this point.

Wordsong sul palco

AC: When we started this project, I worked in another band for a major company, and we showed our work to many record companies. They all said it was very good, very interesting, but it is not commercial. Of course, poetry is not a commercial project, but we wanted a good distribution. So what we did was create our own label and take care of the distribution ourselves, in every possible way, through magazines, concerts… I think the music industry is now like all the other industries: you have the big shops where you find the mainstream products, the leading magazines where you get them reviewed, and then you have more specialized places where you can find poetry, poetry in music, video and music, traditional and ancient instruments. You have your public, the places where you can sell your music… That’s how it’s possible to do your business without interference, without having anyone saying to you:”I don’t like this cover, please change the cover”, or: “I don’t like this song”. You can do exactly what you want to do, in conclusion there is a market and an audience, too, for small, different projects, if they are interesting. All you have to do is find the best way to show your work to the audience. You used to have to do concerts to sell records, now you make records to sell concerts. But if you believe in your project, if you believe in what you’re doing, it’s not so difficult to show it around. You can make a good record at home, using technology that is not too expensive, and produce good material to show your work to people, a good cover for example. There is no need to be afraid, because you don’t need a major to do this, in fact I think it would be a problem for projects like this to be managed by a major. It’s a lot better to do it yourself, you will get more respect from the public and you will certainly respect yourself more, which is the most important thing in poetry, in non commercial music, in video. You can do what Pedro mentioned before, something transversal, and you will find interesting people, lots of different inputs and that’s what makes your final work more interesting and different. That’s what I’m looking for, I want to do something expressing my language, and I think that’s the goal of the whole band, to make our own thing expressing our own language, even if poetry is such delicate material to work with, by using our freedom in our approach to the words we are reaching that goal. We feel we’re totally free to work with poetry without any prejudice or preconception, with no fear of betraying the original style, so we’re just very happy with what we’ve done so far.

D'Orey sul palco

BB: Talking about doing exactly what you want to do, what are you going to do next? Any new project or idea going through your head now, what are we going to see and hear from Wordsong, hopefully in Italy too, in the nearest future?

PD: I think we will continue on the same track, with the same language, we’d rather be doing things and then see what happens. We found out that while we’re doing things the inputs will come to us; what happens with us is that the musicians just start playing, then we listen to what we just played and try to find a way, work on it and while we’re doing that someone comes up with images and we look at the images with the music and that makes us think ok, we’ll do it this way, then maybe I do some vocals on it and we change our mind again and go back to what we’d done before… This is the way we work, we don’t know much about what we’re going to do, and we don’t want to know. That’s the idea. We wait and see what happens, we usually get to know what we were looking for at the end of it all. All I can say is that we don’t want to do the same thing again, we are not going to work like we did with Al Berto and Pessoa, going so deeply into the world of one poet. We would like to mix poetry in a way that gives us even more freedom, for example we may be mixing Pessoa with an unknown Brazilian poet we may have just discovered buying a book, I might bring the idea into rehearsal and then something will happen… Maybe we will start working with other artists as well, not only with Rita Sá and Nuno Franco as we have done so far, maybe we will work on a show where we’ll invite someone to mix and direct things visually. So at the moment we are re-thinking on how to approach what we have already done in a totally new way. The only certainty we have is that we want to mix poets from different areas, different countries and also different levels of recognition. I would also like to put my words into it, we’d just like to keep experimenting in this field, taking things a little bit farther still.

AC: And maybe, who knows, tomorrow we’ll be going around looking for Italian poetry in the libraries… I noticed you have lots of poetry and spoken word festivals, which is an area that interests me a lot, and I also believe we have a certain proximity in poetry, in culture. Up to now we have only worked with one poet at a time, you know, even in the case of Pessoa, who is actually more than one poet…

BB: At least four of them!

AC: Exactly… Now we want to broaden our experience to include more than one poet, for instance, why not using Pedro’s poetry too, so from now on we will be much more open in that sense.


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