Friday, December 16, 2011

Professor Andre de Quadros talks about his varied professional life and ideas

On November 5th 2011, I talked to André de Quadros, who was back in Boston, where he lives, after working with young Jewish and Arab singers from Emek Hefer and Shefar’am and holding a conducting workshop in Jerusalem for young Jewish and Arab musicians in Jerusalem. De Quadros is one of the most prominent activist musicians in human rights in the world today. He is professor of Music and Music Education at Boston University and a member of the African Studies Center, the Center for the Study of Asia and the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations.

PH: Professor de Quadros, are you from a musical family?

André de Quadros: I come from Goa, India. Goan communities are very family- and culture oriented. Everyone is expected to sing and dance. My father was a physician, but he was also a champion ballroom dancer. My mother was one of five children, each of whom played the piano or sang. My maternal grandfather was a violinist. My earliest musical memory is probably of my mother playing the piano, with us standing around her, singing.

PH: When did you start learning an instrument?

AdQ: I was sent to learn the violin at age four. In those days in India, sheet music was too expensive to buy. I remember my violin teacher writing out a piece for me every week – a movement from “Dido and Aeneas” or a minuet, for example.

PH: So you had your musical education in India.

AdQ: Yes. I learned the violin for a number of years and then I started conducting. Actually, I began conducting totally by accident and then discovered I had a passion for it. I was studying for a degree in Economics and Statistics at the University of Bombay. One of my friends there was a very fine pianist and he invited me to go with him to a choir rehearsal. He was the choir pianist and needed someone to turn his pages. So I went along as his page-turner! It so turned out that the conductor would not be able to be able to be present at the choir’s next concert. None of the singers agreed to fill in for him and my friend was needed at the piano. They then turned to me. I said I could read a single line of music but had never conducted. The choir members assured me it would be fine; they would just need me to start them off. That was the beginning of my conducting career!

PH: What interests you about conducting?

AdQ: I had never seen conducting earlier on but became fascinated by it as means of communicating, as a unifying gestural language.

PH: Did you then study conducting?

AdQ: Fortunately for me, there was a very distinguished German conductor – Joachim Buehler - on an assignment in India; he took me on as his protégé. I was very happy working with him, soaking up so much knowledge and experience from him. This was one of the most important learning experiences I have had. He really nurtured my passion for conducting and did a lot to develop me pedagogically and artistically.

PH: Where did you take higher studies?

AdQ: After working in India in industrial chemistry, I went to Australia. In Australia, I worked in computing, retail and economic research. There, I decided to study music and took composition and musicology at La Trobe University, Melbourne. After that, I earned a degree in movement and dance; this interested me a lot as a language of gestures and the body. I went on to study at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg on a German government scholarship; following that, an artist’s diploma in conducting from the Victorian College of the Arts of Melbourne…you could say I did 14 years of university studies.

PH: Would you like to talk more about your involvement with dance?

AdQ: I taught dance for a number of years and still have some contact with it. Before teaching the recent course in Jerusalem, I did a project in Emek Hefer with a youth choir – the Efroni Choir- and an Arab choir from Shefar’am. I have been incorporating dance into workshop activities. (My own choir in Indonesia works with traditional dance and choreography.)

PH: You certainly have a wide range of disciplines.

AdQ: I was doing much more orchestral work in Australia. I have worked with choirs all over the world, not only as a guest conductor; I had my own choirs in Australia. I am now the conductor and musical director of the Manado State University Choir in Indonesia. I do a lot of travel, giving courses and master classes, mostly in conducting. This year, for example, I have given a master class/conducting courses in China, Norway, Indonesia and Jerusalem. In February, I am giving a master class in France. Most of the people taking my classes happen to be conductors or, at least, accomplished musicians, as are the people I worked with at the Jerusalem workshop. There is more demand for my work than I have time for. Actually, I go where it interests me to be; there is no routine arrangement.

PH: On what does your teaching work in Boston focus?

AdQ: In Boston, I only work with graduate students who are doing masters- and doctoral degrees in music education. The students are doing various projects in the USA and further afield: one is finishing a doctorate on an American band organization and another one is working on some kind of project in Indonesia; two are writing dissertations on choral music. And I am also in the middle of a lot of my own projects: editing and writing chapters for the Cambridge Companion to Choral Music (to be published by Cambridge University Press) and finishing a book on music education.

PH: I have read that you are doing work on Muslim music.

AdQ: Yes, I do. I am fascinated by music from the pan-Muslim world. One genre that interests me, for example, is the muwashah style, a choral song that originated in the 13th- and 14th centuries in the Muslim Spanish tradition. Indonesia interests me greatly. There are some very interesting song forms that have spread all over the Moslem world; for example, the Sufi tradition, a pan-Islamic tradition (which has connections with Jewish tradition) is both traditional and intensely spiritual.

When I was in Israel, I had the opportunity to interview a Muslim imam.

PH: How do your views on music connect with community concerns?

AdQ: The question is – what are the cultural values of music education? In conservatories we prepare people for the professional world, even where the professional world is diminishing in its capacity to absorb graduates into it and to offer work. We prepare students for a world that is completely modernized. Music conservatories do not prepare their students to work with those who are homeless, with the dying, with people in extreme poverty, etc. If we do see music as having power, we are certainly not carrying that vision into the larger frame. I think that we should be using music to bring people together as communities, to change people, to humanize people, to make them gentle, and more. I have become very interested in community development and community mobilization of the arts. A couple of years ago, I worked with a prison choir in Bangkok; I was both inspired and touched by the inmates’ engagement with music and their need – no, their hunger - for it. So now, together with one of my colleagues, I am starting a choir in a prison in Boston.

PH: And your work in public health?

AdQ: I have been involved in this field for two or three years now, and for the last year, I have been co-developing a project in a shanty town in Lima, Peru. It is a research project to improve the community’s health, working within it through the arts – music, theatre and dance. That is a big part of my work at the moment.

PH: We met recently in Jerusalem. Was this your first visit to Israel?

AdQ: Oh, no. I have been here quite a few times.

PH: What thoughts and aims do you have about being here in Israel and making music here?

AdQ: First of all, I am not an Israeli and not a Palestinian, so I have no vested interests here. Of course, I do have my political sympathies. It was interesting to work with the Efroni Choir from Emek Hefer (Maya Shavit, conductor) and the Sawa Choir (Sawa means “together”) from Shefar’am (conductors: Rahib Hadad, Eva de Majo) and to hear them talking about their thoughts on our work – socially, culturally, politically. One person claimed it was very easy for me to be doing this as I am an outsider and “not here, you are not from the United States and not really from anywhere but you belong everywhere!” Well, I have been an immigrant for all of my life and can communicate in many languages. I am not like a tree that is rooted in one particular location. I am movable and relocatable.

Back to making music here, there are a number of arguments. One is the deceptive view that music can solve the problems of any community. Music can not bring peace to the Middle East (and music can not solve the problems of Sri Lanka, where I will be in three weeks’ time.). However, bringing people together to work together, sing together, play together, to make poetry together, to experience interaction on the human level allows us to appreciate who the other person might be. On the choir workshop day, the young Jewish and Arab participants claimed that “they are like us” and that they did not want the problems the older generation had handed down to given them. In this encounter, we took things further than just singing together: we sang a piece from the opera “Rinaldo” treating it as not just as a piece of classical music, but as a musical activity that gave the young people an opportunity of bringing in their own feelings and emotions. Everyone sang a Sufi song in Arabic and then we created a kind of accompaniment in which these young people improvised, some of them singing a solo of even just a few seconds – for example, one was based on a quotation from the Hebrew Bible; there was quite a lot of interesting experimentation. One young Arab sang a long song in Arabic. The Emek Hefer singers did not understand the words, but that did not matter. The important thing was that all felt safe to use the musical endeavor as a platform for personal expression.

In the Jerusalem conducting workshop, we had seventeen students, five of whom were Arabs. All were either Music Academy students or graduates.

PH: What are your interests outside of music?

AdQ: All my interests, philosophy and lifestyle are integrated: the way I live, the way I eat and work artistically all fit into my entire view of the world, of the environment and art. I am, indeed, very interested in the environment. I read a huge amount – fiction, about science, about the arts. I am interested in politics. I am interested in acquiring languages and would very much like to learn Hebrew, but I do not see I will do it in this lifetime!

PH: Professor de Quadros, thank you for your time. And, many thanks for sharing so many interesting thoughts and ideas.

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