Interview: How to deal with memory, silence and history – Sara Serpa presents Recognition

As a fiction writer, I’ve always been drawn to projects with an interesting story. Often times, the context of a particular work is just as compelling as the end result.

Recently, I’ve come across an Indiegogo campaign set up to fund the recording of Sara Serpa’s upcoming album, a complex, interdisciplinary production with a particularly intriguing premise. Composed to accompany a silent film directed by the multifaceted artist, Recognition expands a repertoire that increasingly ventures into the sphere of socio-political commitment.

From collaborations with pianist Ran Blake and guitarist André Matos, to her stint in John Zorn’s acclaimed a cappella quartet, Mycale, and her recent album featuring Erik Friendlander and Ingrid Laubrock, the New-York based vocalist, composer and improviser has built an impressively varied body of work revolving around a polished voice, wordless improvisation and an inclination toward projects with a deep emotional significance.  

In what feels like her most personal statement to date, the Lisbon-born musician aims to shed light on the colonial history of her native Portugal, specifically the country’s colonization of Angola and its treatment of African people.

Combining music, film and text by African revolutionary Amílcar Cabral, Recognition is meant to question the collective amnesia of Europe’s colonial past“. Featuring Zeena Parkins on harp, Mark Turner on saxophone and David Virelles on piano, the album is set for release in December 2019.

I caught up with Sara over Skype, during her recent visit to Portugal, to talk about her ongoing projects, the fascinating story behind Recognition and the socio-political relevance of art in the modern world. 

Before we get to Recognition, please tell me a bit about some of the other projects you have going on at the moment. I noticed on your website that your quintet is no longer listed. 

I have Intimate Strangers, which is the most recent creation. Then, I have my duo projects with André Matos (guitar) and Ran Blake (piano) and my trio with Ingrid Laubrock (saxophone) and Erik Friendlander (cello). Those are the ongoing things.

The quintet was great but sometimes there is limited budget to do stuff with a quintet, like being able to tour or perform. Creating smaller groups was more of a natural tendency caused, in part, by these economic constrictions. But it’s been great. And each project is different. Each has a very different repertoire, so…

I think your particular style works well with a smaller ensemble. Recently, you’ve expanded your music to incorporate text, images and film. How did this come about?  

You know, it’s very easy for me to feel inspired by literature and things that I read, especially because I’m not a very good lyricist. Writing lyrics was never something I felt drawn to. Whenever I had to include lyrics in my music, my approach was to look at a poem or text that I connected with. It’s an interesting compositional exercise also, to work with words, to understand their meaning and then try to figure out what would work with a certain rhythm and the emotional message of the text.

I’ve always been inspired by other art forms. I attended an art college for two years. I graduated in social work and then I did social work for a time. Only afterwards did I move to the United States, to study music full time. I think there have always been these different interests in my life. It has been great to bring them together through music. 

Your projects often focus on social and political issues. How do you choose the topics?

Each project has a different reason to exist. With Recognition, for example, there was an invitation by John Zorn to present something combining film and music at the Drawing Center in New York. First, I thought I could use someone else’s film and compose music for that. Then I thought, “Maybe I can create my own film.”

This issue of Portugal’s colonial period has been on my mind for a long time, so it was kind of an excuse to go into these things. My idea, at first, was to create a short film using just photoraphs. I wanted to go through my family’s albums and see what would create an interesting narrative. But then my mother discovered these Super-8 films that she had never watched. They had been recorded by my grandfather in the 1960s, in Angola and Portugal. It changed the whole direction of the project. I digitalized these silent films and spent almost a month watching them, trying to make sense of what I was seeing.

There was a lot of historical research. I was trying to understand what was going on during this period, why my family was there, trying to understand these waves of white settlements in Angola. That’s how Recognition was created. It’s connected also with Intimate Stragers.

While I was doing this research on visual archives, I came across the work of Nigerian writer Emmanuel Iduma. A lot of his Instagram posts are about what a photograph means. I started communicating with him about that and he sent me his book. I was again commissioned by Zorn to premiere a piece last year and I thought, “Why not use this opportunity again to do something I’ve never done before?”

So, Intimate Strangers came after Recognition

Yes. Intimate Strangers was created last year. The project features Matt Mitchell on piano and Qasim Naqvi on modular synth, as well as vocalists Sofía Rei and Aubrey Johnson.  

Emmanuel’s book was released last September, I think, or in the fall of 2018. It kind of fell in the same period of release. Again, I spent a lot of time reading his book, trying to understand the parts that really resonated with me, trying to create a narrative. Not a literal narrative, but some kind of coherence. The cool thing is that this book has a lot of photographs, so we created an interactive performance. We had projection of images and some of the text. Then I wrote music for some parts of the book. Sometimes he’s a narrator and sometimes we’re singing his words. Other times it’s just a wordless piece inspired by the text. It has different components.

Do you plan to record this too?

Yes, I plan to record it. I’m not sure when, because it’s still a developing project. We have a few performances this fall, which will kind of make the group a little bit tighter. Then there’s always a financial issue with these projects.

Tell me a bit about Recognition. What state is the project in right now?

We did the studio session in July. Now we have to do the mixing and mastering, which will be ready by the end of this month. It’s still up in the air whether it’s going to be released this year or at the beginning of next year. There are still marketing things that I need to take care of, which have nothing to do with the music, but the music itself will be ready by the end of September.

What are some of the challenges of recording a project that is so performance-oriented?

It started exactly as a perfomance project. I created it in the fall of 2017. Then, in 2018, I had a few opportunities to perform it in different places. Each time I did, I realized different things.

It’s been kind of crazy because I’ve been conducting and performing. In this situation, the performance aspect was overwhelming, because I had to be conducting the band, looking at the film and performing simultaneously. I never got the sense of, like, “What is the perception of the film?” Because I’ve been so busy coordinating everybody.

Writing music for film is very different from a live performance. That’s why I feel the actual recording will be very different from the performance. When it’s accompanying a moving image, things have to match certain movements that you’re watching, or the solo has to end on a specific time or place. It’s not as exploratory. We’re serving the film. It’s a very interesting experience. It has to be very meticulous in some places.

Could you describe to me the creative process of making this music?

It depended on the situation. There are some scenes where it’s improvised and I later added text. Just reciting text from African writers. In other situations, it’s more kind of, “What does the scene evoke? Is it an angry piece? Is it reflective, is it repetitive? What are we watching here? Is it suspenseful, is it mysterious?”

I had to write simple music, because I did not have time to rehearse. Especially with musicians like Zeena, Mark and David, who are always so busy. I had to keep in mind that we’ll have to create something that is easy to read, that is not too complicated, but is not simplistic either. It’s about making it accessible, so that improvising musicians can look at the music and just create something really quickly, without counting bars and such. (laughs)

How did you choose the musicians?

First of all, they are all musicians whose sound and musical identity I really love. I wanted to try it and see how it works. It might work or it might not. There is definitely a particular sound, for example, on the harp. It’s very distinct and very creative. Zeena is such a meticulous artist, very careful about details, which is something I’ve been learning from her and from interactions with her.

Mark has always blown my mind, ever since I started singing jazz. I love his sound and how he improvises. And David also. I love his projects as a leader — really creative projects and very adventurous too. I wanted to make this happen.

There are really beautiful moments in this record. Actually, I spent so much time preparing the album that I had to leave it to rest for a while. I recorded it and then moved on to some other projects, so I can hear it again with fresh ears. That’s going to happen next week.

Recognition deals with Portugal’s colonial period, more precisely with its colonization of Angola. Why was this such an important topic for you?

Basically, my whole family has ties to Africa. My grandfather, mother and father were born there. My grandfather from my father’s side lived there when he was a kid. Now that I look back, all people, they all passed through Africa, either Mozambique or Angola.

When I was growing up, there was a kind of silence around it. They would just mention it occasionally, but it was not something where I had a lot of details and a lot of information. I’m speaking more at a microscopic level. This was my world.

On a macroscopic level, leaving Portugal to move to the United States, I realized the debate that exists there on the topic of race and slave trade. I thought, “Wait a minute, Portugal was also responsible for slave trade, for this mass abuse and exploitation of millions of people!” I was starting to think about it constantly. How did this happen? How is it that nobody is talking about this? Portugal is always this little country that was great, with very brave people, but nobody is talking about all the colonies and the atrocities that were commited against African people. It was not easy. It was never peaceful. It was always a very forceful and abusive relationship.

It culminated with this idea that Europe benefitted a lot from exploiting African countries. With the exception of countries that are now ruled by right-wind governments, there is always this notion that there is no racism in Europe. Yes there is! I grew up in Lisbon, where African descendants were not living in the same places as white people. I think, all this – the macro level and the micro level – kind of blend together into this idea of, “How do we deal with memory, silence and history?”

And responsibility, I guess.

Responsibilty, yes! Nobody asked to be born in a certain situation. You inherit certain things. There has been a lot of questioning on my part of what have been my privileges and how we can re-write history using music and art to bring to people these ideas that they’re usually not confronted with.

I think Recognition is quite brutal, because it doesn’t portray Portugal as a beautiful country. Everybody’s like, “Oh, Portugal, what a beautiful country. And the food is amazing!” (laughs). That’s always the conversation people have about Portugal. I think recognizing mistakes is part of growth. As a society, we need to do that.

Do you plan on bringing the project to Europe?

I would love to. The cool thing about having a film with music is that the film can travel. (laughs) Which is great. It kind of gives it another type of life. But I would love to perform it in Europe. It has to do mostly with invitations and opportunities and having in mind that these musicians with whom I recorded are always extremely busy. Let’s see what happens. I would love to bring it to Europe. It’s really a discussion we need to have, in general.

What comes after Recognition? What other projects are you preparing for the future?  

There are always so many projects in my mind, so many things that I want to do. My trio with Erik and Ingrid will continue. We have work for next year and I’m writing new music for that trio.

I see Recognition and Intimate Strangers as part of a trilogy. The last part of this trilogy is a project that is still under development. I’m Artist-in-Residence now at the Park Avenue Armory, trying to work on this project which focuses on the current situation that is happening at the Mediterranean.

Basically, I see all these projects as rethinking the relationship between Africa and Europe. In the case of Intimate Strangers, Emmanuel traveled through Africa and his book is about the encounters he had with people. Some of them were trying to get to Europe, so there is this meeting with people who are doing the journey. Then there is the end of the journey, which is dramatic. It worries me every day as I read the news about how many people are dying in the Mediterranean and how Europe is really not doing anything about it. The countries are not opening borders to welcome people who are in distress at sea. My idea is to create a performance with voices and images that will revolve around this subject. It’s still a work in progress.

Find out more about Sara’s work at her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter

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