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Ricardo Peres Essays

Music Choices 

The Syncopated Flux: The Common Thread of Brazilian Culture 

M. Camargo Guarnieri - a portrait 

Ernesto Nazareth's music: an updated approach 
 

Musical Choices 

In the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes: "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." 

In other words, the value of a work of art is self-contained. What matters is the imagination, knowledge and communicative powers that are found within the work of art, regardless of political or social agenda. 

It seems to me that Art does not necessarily need to be subjected to a moral framework in order to succeed as Art. There are instances where that might be the case, but it all depends on the extent to which moral traits are chosen to be part of the structure of the work of art itself.

Take St. Matthew's Passion by J. S. Bach, for instance. It is a work that  proposes to celebrate a story extracted from the Christian tradition, with all the appropriate set of moral values. Such a work is both wonderful and, yes, moral. Bach proposes to apply his musical genius to speak to those who follow a particular faith. The work has survived the test of time and successfully remains with us.

On the other hand, take a look at Shakespeare's Macbeth and find a fantastic work of art. Like  St. Matthew's Passion, Macbeth has also survived the test of time. Unlike St. Matthew's Passion, it dismisses any and all moral structure. There is no fairness in Macbeth, no attempt to explain anything based on ethical laws. It could be classed as an "amoral tale". In fact, that is arguably true to the vast majority of Shakespeare's work.

It is all right to refer to a work of art as being moral, immoral or even amoral, but such a statement purely indicates a technical facet of the work. It would be like saying "This piece of music is in G-major". So what? Does that define anything other than its key?

Although sometimes applicable, labels are invariably limiting and many times shortsighted because they try to condense too much in too little. Yet, the process of labeling happens all the time these days when attaching a label to an item increases its selling appeal. There are a number of so-called "marketing firms" that focus in developing labels for items which have not even been created yet! A catchy label may be worth a pile of money, if only it finds the right item. 

It is one thing to discuss the current ideologies regarding economic development subscribed by most in this part of the world. Perhaps our western society did, in fact, create fabulous new ways of generating wealth. Getting first-rate money for a label attached to a fourth-rate product is, after all, a considerable attainment. And it seems to be all right if you are talking about tomato paste and the like. But perhaps we ought to try leaving Art out of this labeling deal. For Art, unlike tomato paste, will lose its aesthetical value.

Speaking more specifically about music, it must be stated that the terms pop, folk, classical, jazz, country, rock, funk and so on, are labels that should never be used when discussing the merits of a piece of music, but only to make stylistic references. 

In the example above, Bach composed a "religious work". Its religiosity, however, describes its source of inspiration, or some might even say its "style",  but does not define its quality. Musical works, like books and paintings, are either well composed or not. They either have inventiveness and beauty or they do not. That may occur as much in pop as in jazz or any other kind of music.

Each one of us has the right to develop preferences and should exercise that right. But we miss the real experience when we arbitrarily dismiss a piece of music by subscribing to mere labels.

I much prefer spending time listening to Bill Evans or, say, James Brown than listening to a great portion of Haydn's production. It has nothing to do with whether in one case you have an entire orchestra and in the other a 10 piece funk band playing. It has much less to do with the time period the music was written. These questions are irrelevant and have no implication on the quality of the musical experience. Simply put, I find some works of Haydn, in themselves, to be unimaginative and tedious.

I suppose that the only way we can be really honest about this is to become familiar with all sorts of musical styles and periods so that we can make educated choices. That way we become more secure and authentic as musical beings and, ultimately, able to obtain enough understanding about our own musical tendencies.

Whatever conclusions we end up with, we should outright reject labels and base our choices on the intrinsic value of the musical work. That can only be done by listening with open ears. 
 

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The Syncopated Flux: The Common Thread of Brazilian Culture  
 
In Brazil there are only two other things that could be classed with the guitar in terms of popularity: soccer and carnaval. Everybody  plays soccer, everybody shows up for carnaval and everybody plays the guitar.   

Until industrialization arrived in Brazil with the Vargas Era, most people could not even think of, say, buying a tennis racquet, a piano and much less a well tailored dress to attend a formal party. But anybody could make a ball out of old socks and kick it around in alleys  (believe it or not, that was how Pelé learned to play soccer), anybody could party on the streets and anybody could buy a second hand guitar. As time went by people took ownership of those things, thus making them part of their daily lives.   

Nowadays these habits are deeply ingrained in our culture and share fundamental  environmental factors in the way they  developed to become part of the social fabric.    In all three cases the basic variables came from  abroad and Brazilians formulated unique equations with them. We did not invent soccer.    The English did, but we are the champions...So sorry. We did not start with either rituals or  percussion ensembles. The Africans did, but only the cultural melange resulting in the  Afro-Brazilian could turn those things into the  festivity called Carnaval. Finally, we did not invent the guitar, the Moors introduced its ancestors to Europe first. The guitar repertoire  produced in Brazil, however, is second to none.   

The manner of maturing, perhaps even  transforming these primary elements was  achieved by continually incorporating local "blood" and attributes in them, which were already present in people's basic nature. For those who have witnessed either Brazilian soccer or carnaval, it is transparent that  the swing, flexibility and the surprise element are  manifestations of that basic nature.   
   
The samba, choro, frevo, pagode and baião are only a few of the many styles of popular music heard across Brazil. In each instance a distinct swing can be noticed, projecting a smooth, surprisingly elastic yet rhythmically irregular flow. I call it the "syncopated flux". It  is the same flux that fooled Pelé's opponents and continues to enchant spectators of carnaval  in Rio every year. It is that attitude that makes Brazilian music, and the use of the country's   "national instrument", distinctive.   
   
The story goes that long ago an English  gentleman was visiting the Northeast region of  Brazil and, upon noticing a vast group of  people singing and dancing on the streets, he  asked:   

"My goodness, what are all these people doing?"   
   
"They are partying, Sir", answered the  guide.   
   
"What do you mean? They are having a  party just like that, in the middle of the street, in the middle of the day, for all to  attend?"   
   
"You see, Sir, this is the way they party  here. Anybody can join in anytime. As  you noticed, this is a party for all".   
   
The gentleman was impressed with the  absolute informality of the party "for all", and   went on to inquire more about it during his trip.  This "for all" sort of party sounded very  intriguing to him who was so exclusive in his own habits, particularly when choosing parties  to attend and parties to avoid! Oh yes, a true gentleman understood he had to know those  things. What he did not know, however, was that he had just created a label that would last   for over a century! To this day, the term  "Forró" is used to identify parties whose music  and dance come from Northeastern Brazil. The term itself has no meaning, except the phonetic translation of what the gentleman called "for  all".   
    
I love this story because it illustrates the  context upon which cultural evolution actually  happens. It is the blending, the consistent  interaction, the "soup" made of human energy  on all levels that creates new cultures and new  ways of doing old things. The freshness of our guitar repertoire is but one result of this fusion.   
   
For many years the most frequent follow up to a friendly soccer match has been getting  together and making some music in a  neighborhood cafe. Then, one of the soccer  players will turn into the guitar player, match  boxes and bottles will turn into a percussion  ensemble and everybody around will either sing  along or dance for the rest of the night. See the  interdependency now?  

  
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M. Camargo Guarnieri - a portrait  

I will never forget the day I met Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993). At the time, I was already living in the United States but was spending holidays in Brazil, my home country.   It was a winter evening of July, 1988 (Brazilian winter, mind you. Nothing to write home about...) and my teacher, Caio Pagano, a long-time friend of the composer, took me along to Guarnieri's São Paulo apartment for a visit. I remember being quite shy upon arriving and shaking hands with the Maestro.  
                
He was then considered the greatest living Brazilian composer and I was merely a young pianist of 22. So, you can imagine, I was very ceremonious about this encounter and figured that the best thing to do was to listen as much as possible. This way I felt I was sure to learn from his insights and ideas about music and performing, in short, sure to increase the understanding of my own craft (I would also run no risk of  making youthful and impertinent remarks...).   
                                                                 
The conversation was quite lively and he was the absolute center of attention amongst the six people gathered there. The problem was, they were talking about everything except music.  Guarnieri was then 81 years old already, and had thousands of stories, anecdotes, jokes, you name it, with which  to entertain his guests. And, let me tell you, could he talk! He  had the energy of a bull  and the enthusiasm of a 20 year old. It was simply impossible not to appreciate his infectious personality. But still, no mention of musical topics, whatsoever.   
                
After one hour of this, I began to feel a bit frustrated. There I was, in his living room, without a chance of learning a single thing related to music, or even about his own works. I thought,  "This is ridiculous. I've got to do something otherwise I will  have wasted the whole evening". So, overcoming my shyness,  I very politely sneaked in a general question about music in an  attempt to shift the conversation to that topic. Guarnieri began his answer with a story as illustration. So far, so good. Then enters this woman he met in the story and..., forget about music!   
                                                                 
Now the topic became women. And never before have I  heard anyone speak about the opposite sex with so much passion and for so long. He went on FOREVER, giving me all  sorts of advice, tips, poetry to read concerning women, etc., etc., ad infinitum! As much as I appreciate the topic, really, that was not the reason I was there.   
                
In any event, it was a long while till a split second of silence came up ( he had to take a breath after passionately discussing women, love and sex for 45 minutes non-stop...). I jumped at the opportunity and, again trying to shift the discussion to musical matters, asked him about his specific impressions of Villa-Lobos treatment of the voice. He then began his answer by singing examples of a few songs, I don't exactly recall which, and speaking of textures of different voices and "by the  way, I once heard  a soprano do this one song, and boy she was beautiful, dark hair, really sexy...", I lost again, and just  when he was really getting into it. I tell you, I was about ready to jump through the window....  
                                                                 
So, he went on and on, all over again, about the innumerable times women inspired him, what marvelous creatures, etc.  At that point, I honestly gave up. I thought to myself, "This is useless. I might as well go along with it...".   
                
So I relaxed and just listened for a while when, suddenly, a miracle happened and he actually started talking about great pianists of the past. Something related to music after all! He  had heard many legendary pianists in concert and was commenting on performance styles, technique, pedaling, all things that were going to make - or so I thought - my evening worthwhile. Then he mentioned the great Alfred Cortot, for  whom I had, and continue to have, infinite admiration. So I asked if he had actually met Cortot. He said, "Oh, yes, many  times. We got along great. You know, once we were at a reception after one of his concerts and I sat at the piano to show him a piece of mine. He was very impressed with my playing in the pianissimo passages and asked how did I  manage to get such subtle and delicate sounds out of the piano. So I told him, 'Well, I close my eyes and imagine I am caressing the legs of a beautiful girl...' ".   
                                                                 
As it turned out, Cortot's comment was "C'est pas possible!"  And, frankly, that was my feeling as well. The evening ended shortly after the Cortot's story and all I managed to get was 5 minutes of music conversation out of a 4 hour visit!   
                
I never saw Guarnieri again. I returned to the United States and he died a few years later, in 1993. But as time went by and I began to really investigate Guarnieri's works, I came to  realize how important for me our meeting had truly been.  Granted, we barely talked about music. But think about it: does music itself talk about music?   
                                                                 
Music is an expression, a consequence if you will, of  something else. A language capable of extremely high levels of  abstraction and magnificent powers of communication. But, surely, the message of music is not music itself. Music for  music's sake would not make of music a necessity. The need comes from having to communicate a universe of sentiments, ideas, psychological and emotional states, in short, of humanity, that simply cannot be expressed through any other medium.   
                
The language of music is not of a linear, cartesian nature. It is a much more all-embracing medium. It is universal,  paradoxical and of a dionysian nature. It does not explain; it  intoxicates. And it intoxicates us with the entirety of those individuals who wrote it and who make of Art an autobiographical statement and of music the language capableof  presenting all facets, even if contradictory ones, of the autobiography. It is a complex idiom that serves complex  purposes, it is about ideas that go beyond mere intellectual ones. It is another ball game altogether.   
                                                      
The music of Guarnieri seems to exemplify the above points very well. It is a collection of his stories, moments and perceptions; it speak about some of the women he loved. It is inherently autobiographical and, therefore, rich of vitality, enthusiasm, colors and sensuality. It is his portrait.   

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Ernesto Nazareth's music: an updated approach  

Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934) made a living playing the piano in cafes, at parties and in  waiting rooms of movie theatres. In general, his works depict those situations quite well, in particular the one  referring to movie theatres. His popular choro "Odeon", for instance,  was a piece he wrote in homage to his work place, Odeon Cinema, where he was employed for four years. As well, many musical ideas  were inspired by images of films from those days, as the attentive listener who is acquainted with early 20th century films will probably agree.   

There are also those pieces which are related to aspects of his own daily life. Nazareth was a "street musician", so to speak, and could  not have avoided realizing the impact that the newly arrived automobiles had, going around honking their horns: "F"n-f"n" ! Then  there is the sort of piece that one wonders whether it comes from watching people or from Nazareth's own personal experience, but still relating to his contemporary scene. It is the case of "Escorregando", which literally means "losing balance" while walking.  Considering that in Brazil there is neither snow nor ice, the title in fact    suggests someone losing balance for another reason...like a few extra  beers, for example. Something tells me that this is precisely the case.... Regardless, his works are fun, full of swing and charm.  

There is much musicological debate on whether these works should be called "Brazilian tangos" or "choros". The difference being, essentially, one regarding the pace in which the pieces are played, whereas the "Brazilian tango" is supposed to be played slower than the "choro".   

Personally I prefer to call them "choros" because such a name has  more of a Brazilian flavor, while a tango is an Argentine entity and  Nazareth's music surely does not belong to the Argentine culture.   Besides, to a great extent, the pace used when performing a work is not indicative of style, but has much more to do with one's  temperament and audience.   

 The style of music called "choro" comes from an interesting origin.   Around the turn of the century, both in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo,  young men used to hire street musicians to play serenades. These "concerts" took place under the balconies of young ladies and had the aim of moving the girls to tears. "Chorar" in Portuguese means "to weep" and it seems that the musicians often outdid themselves as they ended with the nickname "choroes", and the music they played, "choro".   

From balconies to society parties, to cafes and finally, to the concert hall. I think that decisions such as pace and the like should be  made according to the audience one is addressing and never according to stagnant musicological concepts that attempt to freeze the way performers and listeners naturally evolve through time.  

 Everything suffers change - from the way we make coffee to the way we get to work. Why should our approach to music performance remain the same? The fact that a certain idea began in a certain way does not dictate that it should remain that way forever.  You are no longer in a balcony with a performer under it. Rather, the performer is inside your CD player while you  comfortably sit in your living room. Let's define our own terms when dealing with music performance, taking into account our own, updated settings.   

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