ENTREVUE / INTERVIEW
Ars Pro Vita
With: Paulo Venegas
ALBUM REVIEW HERE
Serge Marcoux - February 2021
Profilprog (PP): Hello Paulo and thank you very much for giving us time to answer our questions.
Paulo Venegas (PV): Salut à tous et à toutes ! Hi, Serge. It’s great to be here today. Very honored!
PP: From a musical historical perspective ARS PRO VITA is a young project. Still, you are a making music since the 70’s. Let us explore a little of the past if you please. When did you start making music and what was or were your instruments of predilection?
PV: I started composing in 1975 when I formed my first band - Pendulum. At this time, I played acoustic and 12-string guitar and composed music with my bass partner Daltro Garcia, all by ear, recording my voice and instruments on cassette recorders. Rick Wakeman with his ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ aroused my desire to explore other horizons and compose for various instruments. In 79, I started to play piano and transverse flute, also by ear, and compose still using the cassettes and writing now with chord names. Then I met Marcus Jones who played the violin and had a classical background. We started composing together. It was the time when I started Aleph, my second band, with him and Daltro. The songs started to get more complex, longer. But I still had a lot of difficulty in passing things on to the group, because sometimes I couldn’t remember what a certain passage I had written was like. So I started to study music theory. It was a big leap: I learned solfeggio. Soon after, I learned to write, and everything became easier. I wrote the scores in lined notebooks that I took on the bus, or anywhere I went when an inspiration aroused.
In 82 I bought my first synthesizer - a Prophet 5 - the very first original (pentaphonique!) keyboard from Sequential Circuits. Then came a Fender Rhodes 73, an Ibanez 6/12 double-neck guitar, an Ovation 6-string guitar, a Roland CR-78 drum machine, a Roland GR500 guitar.
PP: It is always interesting to learn what are the musicians and bands that influenced or still have an actual influence on musicians. In your case, what are those influences and inspirations?
PV: The inspiration came mainly from progressive bands of the time - Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd, Renaissance, Jethro Tull, Triumvirat, ELP, Greenslade, Procol Harum, Gentle Giant. Another important influence were the classical and romantic composers such as Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff and still there was the jazz and jazz-fusion - Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jean-Luc Ponty, Pat Metheny.
PP: Tell us more about the band you were involved in the seventies, ALEPH. Did the band recorded some music and/or performed live?
PV: We performed shows in university auditoriums and we composed the soundtrack for a play called ‘Enigma’. Even some themes that make up the recently released Cords album are from this era. Unfortunately, we have no recorded material from this period.
PP: Prog rock is now fifty years old, in that length of time can we talk, even a little, about a Brazilian progressive scene? And how would you compare the situation when you began with today?
PV: It may seem strange, but I never had any close contact with Brazilian progressive music groups. When I started to compose, there were Mutantes, Terço, Som Imaginário, Moto Perpétuo, Bacamarte, Sagrado Coração da Terra, Terreno Baldio - these groups composed many instrumental songs, and their lyrics were in Portuguese. I always thought that the Portuguese language is - inadequate - for the style - besides that I always feel much more comfortable composing / thinking in English. Maybe that's why I never felt connected to what is done in progressive rock in Brazil. Indeed, I really think that Brazilian progressive rock was never very well-known abroad because of the language. And today it still persists. At Ars, since the very beginning my brother and I decided to compose in English for two reasons: the first has to do with our mission, which consists of carrying out projects that reflect our views on life, human nature and its idiosyncrasies. And idiosyncrasies imply cultural diversity. So, we look at the world and what do we see? many cultures, many different languages. And which language is better understood today? I mean globally, English, right? So, using English, we guarantee that there will always be the greatest probability that our lyrics will be understood in most parts of the Earth. The second reason is historical: progressive rock was born in England, right? Nothing personal...! But nothing more natural than singing in English to maintain tradition and also to better communicate the global message. The lyrics are very important to us because in addition to promoting people's communication with our ideas, they are the best source of inspiration for the atmospheres, for the music we create. So lyrics and music – one helps the other.
PP: What was your musical life between ALEPH and ARS PRO VITA?
PV: My journey in music as a composer during this period includes several different composers and styles. When I left my city, Porto Alegre, and lived in São Paulo, I spent some years composing instrumental Brazilian music influenced by excellent Brazilian musicians known worldwide, such as Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Paschoal. These compositions were never aired (just another drawer), but for me they brought a great experience from the harmonic point of view. At this time, I also participated in some records of Brazilian musicians as an arranger.
PP: What led to the creation of ARS PRO VITA?
PV: When I returned to Porto Alegre in 2013, I began playing again cover performances in bars with my old colleagues from Aleph and after two years at a certain moment I wanted to compose again. Then my brother Luis Fernando showed me some poems and texts. He had already written a lot on topics related to various subjects of human nature. I already had a lot of musical material composed and then between us emerged the idea of joining forces and this led us to the advent of Ars Pro Vita.
A very important thing that guides all our work is that we consider the lyrics more important than the music. Music is the means; the lyrics are the ends. Although music has the property of enlivening the spirit, opening horizons within the soul and making people imagine their own sensations, it often fails to materialize a deep discussion between two people about the subject the author wants to emphasize. I mean listening to the overture of Beethoven's Fifth, if you don't know that this is the symphony of destiny, according to the author's conception, people can think anything - those four opening notes may express terror, suspense, or Jack the Ripper in a dark corner. Human beings fantasize about music. This is not at all bad. The lyrics yes, directly connect the most basic sense of human communication – the words, in spite of sometimes they can be metaphorical, allegorical, fictional, but certainly the duo: letter + music makes people to get closer to the more integrated sense of the work's intention as one. Tchaikowsky's Nutcracker ballet is much better understood when you see the whole production on stage, integrated with the music that was composed for him.
PP: The two first records were done with your brother LUIS FERNANDO. Please tell us why it is different with « Cords »?
PV: In the first two albums – ‘Minor’ and ‘Peace’ and the single ‘The Blow Against The Storm’, from the 21st century, we worked together. ‘Cords’ was composed by me and my Aleph partners 'in the last century' in 75. To tell you the truth once it was sequenced on the computer in 95. Since then, I have been waiting for an opportunity to remix with more performing hardware and software, in such a way that the final quality would be coherent with the atmospheres of the songs in which the work was conceived in 75.
PP: Was the production of the double album « Peace » and six months later « Cords » a “positive” effect of Covid-19 and how did it affected you?
PV: 18 and 19 were the years of our deep research on topics related to war and peace, throughout history and to the present day, which culminated in ‘Peace’ in June 20. Oddly, I can say that the arrival of the pandemic had somehow a ‘positive’ effect, in the sense that, after the release of Peace, I found time enough to reorganize all the ‘Cords’ material that was kept in the drawer. I was lucky to find the two sopranos Anna Paz, which had already participated on ‘Peace’ and Andrea Kaiser to sing on two tracks.
In three months, I remixed, mastered and launched the digital version at the end of 20, more precisely on December 31.
PP: When I read the information, you sent me; I was struck by the fact that the project was conceived in 1975. Tell us about the birth of Cords and what it is about?
PV: The project was conceived more precisely in 75 when I started writing with my Aleph partners. In short, those were the days when it was impossible to put everything together in a way that the music could sound like we wanted. We were teenagers and there were all the genuinely progressive English bands of the seventies at the top of their career, the golden decade: Genesis had just released ‘The Lamb’, Pink Floyd released ‘Wish You Were Here’, Yes would take a three-year break until ‘Going for the One’, Emerson, Lake and Palmer had ‘Welcome Back my Friends’, Gentle Giant with ‘Free Hand’, Jethro Tull with ‘Minstrel in the Gallery’, Triumvirat with ‘Spartacus’ ... what a year!
As I said in the beginning, I learned music theory and started playing the piano at 19. The flute came at 20. From 75 to 80, the themes were all ready, but there was still no conception that everything would turn into a whole record.
PP: As you said the project was put in a drawer. What are the reasons for that?
PV: See, at that time there were insurmountable obstacles:
… good instruments were scarce in Brazil (guitars, basses, keyboards, etc.), that meant spending a considerable amount of money and finding ways to import (not many…),
also ... the orchestrated parts should be played by ... an orchestra, (right? more money ...),
... besides that, how about finding a studio to record with an orchestra and a band in the same place?
We designed so many environments when describing the environments and situations where and when the stories should occur, so we decided to put everything in the drawer ... and wait for the right moment to realize that dream.
All this time, something told me it would happen, as Sondheim, in West Side Story, had written: "Someday, ... somehow, ... somewhere ..."
New technologies in the field of electronics were gradually being incorporated into the music scene. The advent of analog synthesizers, the MIDI protocol, and then the arrival of samplers opened an even greater world of possibilities. And man created the computer!
Then, in the late 1980s, I moved to São Paulo and continued composing alone, already using the computer. I have transcribed all the existing Aleph stuff. It was the era of MIDI-powered modules and keyboards. I had an EMU Proformance acoustic piano module, an EMU Vintage Keys module and a Korg X3 keyboard. Running on Windows XP, Passport Designs' Encore was my first Digital Audio Workstation.
The sound quality of the drums and orchestral instruments of these analog instruments was very poor. In addition, the audio interfaces had a low sample rate to record the voice parts, so the quality was just as poor. I was not at all satisfied with the end result of my effort up to that point, but I knew I was on the right track. At that time, I gave the album a name: ‘Threads’ - which in the end became the name of one of the tracks on the album. Even the cover and booklet art had already been chosen, a beautiful crayon work from a series painted by artist Andrea Regner.
PP: What made the dream come true forty-five years later?
PV: I migrated to the Mac in 2005 and started using Logic as a DAW. The audio / MIDI interfaces have improved considerably along with the increase in sample rates. New plug-ins, everything started to sound better. I was excited to see that the path was closer for the project to become a reality.
Ten years later, I returned to Porto Alegre and joined my brother to form Ars Pro Vita, as I said before.
After the two albums - MINOR and PEACE - the day came ... The legacy of that time came true. In three months, I did a complete review of the plug-ins, I invited the two singers, I sang all the main vocals again, improved the drums, chose better orchestras, re-recorded the acoustic guitar and flute parts, and on the last day of 20, Cords was launched.
This is the story.
In fact, did you notice? All of our CDs are titled with a five-letter word. Why? M-U-S-I-C has five letters and Ars Pro Vita has 10 letters. Since my brother and I make two, 10 divided by 2 makes …5.
PP: The name of the band is in Latin and has a profound signification. What motivated you for that choice?
PV: The band's manifesto explains the name very succinctly:
MUSIC is a form of ART to serve LIFE.
ART FOR LIFE.
ARS PRO VITA.
We envision music as an art, as important as a manifestation of the human creative spirit like any other. Life needs art as a whole. We are not Cartesian, deterministic entities, there is a quantum shift hidden in the apparent Newtonian order also in human relations. And music does not exist by itself. It has roots within the soul itself, where other arts, painting, dance, poetry are also born. The center is the human being, from where all manifestations start. Ars wants to be a carrier of this myriad of events. We want to integrate our music and our ideas with artists from other areas. That is why the project was born and will continue to be open - always inviting many people to participate in the works.
PP: When we exchanged in preparation for this interview, you wrote to me about part of the mission of the band, beside making beautiful music, being to demystify the use of samplers and computers. Would you please elaborate on that?
PV: Excellent question. I had two important phases in my life in the field of music education: one was in Porto Alegre, in the 70s when I taught guitar lessons. During this time, I always wanted to pass on to my students the idea that they needed to develop their musical perception, their musical gift, say. Independence is the word. Years later, the other phase was when I moved to São Paulo and taught at a music school where my students were already using the computer and had the opportunity to use MIDI technology to learn music and eventually even compose.
This illustrates well what has been one of my great goals in my life: opening people's musical horizons to the emerging technologies that provide musicians with additional tools for learning and composing, without the need to hire virtuous musicians or without themselves having to be virtuous.
And speaking of demystification, let's reexamine the path of music before and after the computer age. Before computers: Imagine Maurice Ravel composing Boléro, in 1928. Where was this song born? Inside his head. And how did it get through to other people? He took pencils and paper, wrote the score, published the work. The orchestras bought, rehearsed, performed, as they still do today. The problem here is that until the music reaches the ears of the audience, the effort to set up the orchestra, forces all musicians to rehearse their parts, do the general rehearsals, choose a location, produce the show, all this involves a number of people and a demand an immense cost, logistics to finally perform.
But what if Ravel was born in the age of computers. What could he do? He would take an iMac with Logic and assemble - in much less time, by the way - in his house the complete score of the work using sampled instruments instead of the real instruments, without all that immense logistics. He would choose the plug-ins for each instrument, for example from Native Instruments, he would control the entire dynamics of the work on the computer. It would make the bounce in much less time and make it available as a digital CD. The barrier of the inability to execute some more complex parts, which would require 'virtuosos' or expensive musicians would be discarded. Putting notes on a staff inside the computer is much faster and more accurate, allowing a greater visualization of the work as a whole, greater speed in revising it.
And we go even further: Ravel could make his melodic lines of each instrument available by track so that musicians and apprentices could reconstruct the work for various purposes; personal, and for example, isolate a channel to better hear a group of metals, then the woods, etc.
In short, the world no longer needs great virtuous performers to hear the same music. The effect of music on people's minds is more important than knowing whether the pianist of the Tchaikowsky concert number 1 is Ivo Pogorelitch or Anna Fedorova or Yuja Wang. They’re important but not essential. Let's focus on the music and not on the musician who’s performing it. Let's close our eyes and open our ears.
We want to end the cult of the guitarist who wins the Guinness World record of performing 330 strums in 10 seconds. Shredders are just sprinters. The media loves them because it convinces musically lay people to worship them to sell them.
PP: What would you answer to people who would have doubts about the artistic or musical values of such technologies?
PV: Do not waste your time. Open your ears to the new world at your feet, now! Forget the live shows where you just feel the heavy drum beat or the loud sound of that shredded guitar solo. Stay at home! Take advantage of pandemic times to learn other ways to listen to music. And don't waste time in a row to sit in a VIP chair next to a smoker, watching the show on a screen 100 meters away. Go home, assemble your Boléro multitrack, learn to work on dynamics interpretation, bounce in 5.1 And then sit back, relax with your customed in-ear 7-way-driver monitor, and you're ready. You will hear music again.
PP: The subjects and texts of the songs on the album are interesting and I would say quite elaborated. Let us start with « Novae Terrae » and what it represents for humanity.
PV: The first track, Novae Terrae, is the one that most represents the mission, say, of the album, which would be talking about the threads of life, the Cords of Life, because it is a recurring discussion in history: the possibility of man living on other planets, in the event of extinction of life on Earth due to the natural course of astronomical events linked to the life of the Sun. It is a science fiction theme that contemplates the possibility in the very distant future of man to leave Earth and live on an exoplanet that shelters conditions for its survival, long before the expansion of the Sun. In reality, the big problem is that the planet closest to the solar system that is in the habitable zone is Proxima B, from the constellation of Centaur, 4 light years from here. And to get there, with current technology, on the fastest rocket, which goes at 40,000 km per hour, it would take 120,000 years. That's right ... But before that, long before, the cosmic rays would have already fried us. Terraforming Mars is far from a solution, as it is on any other planet or satellite in the solar system.
Nevertheless, Novae Terrae is just a kind of fictional allegory about this human dream that, in the very distant future, this will happen, if man can change his way of life and DNA structure.
The Old Man is the old man: he is born, he lives, he dies, he is reborn, he lives he dies, etc. in various places in the Universe, one of the billiards of life forms, in an eternal gerund that is inexplicable to our myopic vision of the whole.
PP: « Banquet in a Middle-age Irish Castle » is the longest piece of music with almost half an hour long and it is almost feel like a kind of small novel. Tell us about it and why did you feel it needed the use of abundant narration?
PV: It's a tale, a little inspired by George Orwell's Animal Farm. Any resemblance to any character is purely coincidental! It starts in a village near Land’s End, a place in Cornwall, in southwest England, where in 1402 it was still thought to be the end of the earth, where there would be no more land, only the sea ahead. This half-hour suite features the saga of Leonard Sampay, an English barber, a character who, transported by a black rooster, takes a journey through deep space. It crosses a black hole and comes out in a parallel universe proving String Theory. He falls naked in a dry well in the garden of a medieval Irish castle, where he passes through twelve rooms and learns for the last time all the things that a human being learns in an existence. When he leaves the last room, he finds himself floating on a large wooden table where animals feed on his dismembered body, holding a banquet, in that universe where animals dominate man. Finally, the creator's voice echoes in space, announcing the end of human experience as the dominator of the animal world.
PP: You dedicated « Threads » to the fathers. What is this song for you?
PV: Threads is an orchestral piece that evokes the need to move on, following the arrow of life. It has two main parts. The first is an almost childish grand piano theme that evolves into an orchestral part that revisits excerpts from themes from other tracks of the album and ‘The March’, from the album ‘Peace’, alluding to the state of resignation that needs to be achieved after so many past experiences throughout life. In the second part, the string orchestra, a small poem, brings in particular an exhortation to this attitude towards life. Burning the bridges is moving on. My father always said this to me: burn the bridges.
PP: The other long suite is «Lazarus and his Beloved ». This time it is and adaptation of a novel and original play. What are your motivations behind that choice and what is about?
PV: This suite is divided into four parts: Hot Sands Of Bethany, an instrumental theme that refers to the desert sands with a narration that introduces the atmosphere and prepares the following, Far From The Grave, an ostinato orchestra that shows Lazarus’ uncertainty before the unknown shortly after his death. Soulmates In Parnassum shows the profound joy, excitement and contentment he experiences when he meets his soulmate in the spiritual world, where a dialogue takes place between the two souls. The Return describes his sadness when he realizes that he needs to resurrect and leave his beloved. But in the end, resigned, he understands that life never ends, that he knows that he can find his beloved in any future. And this goes for any interpersonal relationships we make in our earthly lives, nothing ends, everything continues. Life is a big gerund. The last sentence of the song:
“And the Cords of Life keep weaving forever”.
PP: With « Cords » your dedication goes to the mothers and you are also going deep within the emotions. Tell us about it please?
PV: The final track - Cords, is a song whose lyrics reflect the moment we find ourselves in the final moments of our physical existence, as if we were in front of the mirror in the 2001 scene Space Odissey, when Dave Bowman faces with his wrinkles. Our consciousness hovers over our inert body that will turn to ashes and prepare for the next stage of the journey. Mothers are the repositories of our most subconscious experiences, deposits of our deepest connections with our current and past lives.
The baton must be passed. In Cendrillon, in the 2005 version, at a certain point, on his deathbed, Cendrillon's mother almost before expiring speaks to her: “have courage and be kind”. Simple. That’s it.
PP: Would you agree that to genuinely appreciate « Cords », the listener must take the time not only to sit back and listen, which is one of the thing prog is about, but also to read the texts while listening?
PV: Totally. You made me remember Peter Gabriel and Mike Rutherford talking in an interview at the backstage, where they say: “We like the people to be sitting and listen to us”. I would add: “and read”. Once again, you got the point: the lyrics. The act of hearing music often can distort, shift our attention into a heavier, or lighter, or more melodic passage, and it also leads to another problem: makes us to classify, to compare, deviating the listener’s attention to less important aspects of the message that’s being transmitted. It is obvious that everyone is influenced by a band, or a style that is embedded in some part of the songs, either because of the instruments we use or because of a rhythmic pattern that resembles one particular song of a particular group. What happens is that sometimes just the appearance of a Mini Moog, or a harmony from a Mellotron string part is enough to remember a song from another band, and so it diverts attention from the lyrics that are being sung. And the listener loses the meaning of the message. Yes, we would like people to discuss more about our lyrics.
PP: Since « Cords » is about preparing for the next journey, do you have something in mind for your next musical journey?
PV: ‘Cords’ will be released in physical version until the middle of 21. In parallel, we are already composing the new album that will be released in 21, in both digital and physical versions. The name is already chosen, the main theme, the lyrics, but the only thing we can say at the moment is that it will have five letters, like our other CDs. So, the name is still a secret.
PP: Talking about future music, what do you think about the decline of CD, the renewed interest for vinyl records, the streaming, and the state of today’s music as an art form?
PV: In the beginning, vinyl was the main responsible for the era of the gold, platinum records, great hits, in which the bands made a lot of money. Even with the logistical limitation of properly storing records in such a way they didn’t bend, frequent changing of needles of the turntables, people were forced to leave the house, go to stores and buy records. For example, I remember a friend who always had three Dark Side of The Moons in his discotheque - one for his everyday listening and the other two were kept. When the first one got bad, he bought another one in order to have always three at home!
Today, I believe that producing a vinyl, besides it’s very expensive (in Brazil, to produce it costs around US$ 15 per unit!), this is a trend that has an inevitable future of turning these products into museum pieces available to some audiophiles only. It would not reach the necessary penetration worldwide speaking, which is one of our goals - to reach the maximum people around the world.
The CD came as an interesting solution in the sense of being compact and reliable, in terms of durability, in addition to being able to contain more recording time than the vinyl. However, the digitization process has serious limitations regarding the quality of the final audio. 16 bits! There is not much to do. After mastering in two channels, there is always a great loss of transients due to the compression/limitation process involved.
Speaking of digital platforms, for each specific one, the material needs to be remastered with the appropriate LUFs, so that the least possible part of the quality of the original material is lost so that it can be executed in each medium - Spotify, YouTube etc. And people, not only the youngest, everyone, are getting used to listening louder, becoming more 'deaf' in the sense that they can no longer perceive those transients that are lost in the massification process, and they just don’t know how music could be more enjoyable to hear.
PP: PAULO, I want to thank you sincerely for that beautiful work of art and do not hesitate to reach in another drawer for us. Take care and the last words are for you.
PV: Serge, this is the first time that we have the opportunity to talk about aspects of the music world that are extremely important to us. My brother and I are building a critical mass of compositions within a line of behavior and universal thinking, inviting artists who share with us these same ideals that I spoke about in the interview. We have a project still in the design phase that will aim to increase the quality of the listeners' hearing and create a new paradigm for the next CD. The concept is still a surprise, as is the name of the record.
Thank you very much to you and everyone for this interview. We look forward to your contacts through the media, through the site. I wish that we would soon regain our freedom and embrace ourselves again after this moment of worldwide anguish.
Long live music!