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Luiz Tatit

Luiz Tatit: Getting the song just right

With a long career in popular music, linguist gives priority to academic research into how melodies arise from the spoken word

Entrevista_01_290Leo RamosEven though he thinks of himself as “more of an academic than a musician” – his life is hardly bohemian nor does he fit the profile of creative types – Luiz Tatit has never stopped heeding the call to a life in the arts. He recorded six records, a DVD and put on several shows with the group Rumo, which he founded in 1974. When the band decided to break up in 1991, Tatit thought his musical career was over. Still, there were offers to partner with other musicians that he could not refuse, and the professor returned to the stage and then in 1997 to the studio to record the CD Felicidade [Happiness] (1997), the first of seven CDs he has recorded to date. The most recent, Palavras e sonhos [Words and Dreams], debuted in 2016.

“I have always been caught in a paradox,” wrote the musician and linguist in an autobiographical chapter in the second edition of Todos entoam [All Join In] (Atêlie Editorial, 2014). “I write songs full of colloquial language and write texts that are informed by the dry tradition of French semiotic theory.” Included in his work – which is the result of knowledge acquired over the course of an academic career from which he retired two years ago – are books like Semiótica da canção: Melodia e letra [The Semiotics of Songwriting: Melody and Lyrics] (Escuta, 1994), Musicando a semiótica [Making Music of Semiotics] (Annablume, 1997) and Análise semiótica através das letras [Semiotic Analysis of Verse] (Ateliê, 2001), along with other works that try to reach a broader public even though they are also steeped in research, like O cancionista: Composição de canções no Brasil [The songwriter: Composing songs in Brazil] (Edusp, 1995) and O século da canção [The century of song] (Ateliê, 2014). “My challenge is how to explain creativity, and artists don’t usually take that on,” says Tatit.

Today, the researcher teaches only at the graduate level in the Department of Linguistics at University of São Paulo’s School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP), where he was an undergraduate at almost the same time as he was studying music at the School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP). Tatit allowed himself some slack only in one aspect of his work. “I can’t stand all the bureaucratic duties related to leadership, coordination, oversight, etc.” he says. “But the department was always understanding about this. At the time, they would say: ‘Don’t worry about it, he’s an artist.’”

When you began at ECA, did you already know you wanted to study music?
No, there wasn’t even a music program. It was established during my second year there, in 1971. I opted to go to ECA to delay a decision about what I was going to do. I knew that I wanted to study the humanities, but I didn’t want to study law like my father had. I knew that I would be taking introductory courses in the beginning. I thought I would choose a profession after my first year. I was considering advertising, journalism, even film studies because I had attended classes given by Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes, which I loved. But I didn’t really have any direction. That was when I discovered the music program.

Did the program provide a solution?
Before I started the music program, I hadn’t had any contact with music theory. My brother [Paulo Tatit, founder of the duo Palavra Cantada, with Sandra Peres] and I were given a guitar when we were 11 or 12. We started learning a few things, but it was all by ear. I thought that what I was doing was music, because I was already composing and performing, but it was all connected to song writing. When I started the program, I realized music was something else. I set out to fit in because I needed some kind of program that I could be interested in – music was one possibility, at least in theory. And ECA needed students who were already at the university, because it was a program available only to students who had already completed their first-year requirements. I studied hard for three months. They even helped me. Maestro Olivier Toni, who was head of the Music Department, gave me the name of a professor who could teach me some of the information I needed to take the aptitude test, even if it was a bit cobbled together. I ended up passing, and I completed the entire program. Usually, students stopped halfway through because, like me, they assumed at the outset that it had to do with songwriting. I completed the program but ended up concluding that it wasn’t what I wanted.

Semiotics and songwriting
Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics (1978) and Music (1979), University of São Paulo; master’s, doctorate and associate professorship at the University of São Paulo’s School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP), where he is currently a full professor
Scientific production
34 articles, 29 chapters in books, 11 books authored alone and 2 co-authored. Supervised 26 master’s theses and 20 doctoral dissertations (3 currently underway)

There was no program that would give you what you wanted?
My trajectory, which began with playing by ear, is more or less the trajectory of anyone who has anything to do with songwriting. They don’t have formal musical training, which isn’t even necessary. I don’t know any composers who have had musical training and write better songs as a result.

Not even Tom Jobim?
He is an exception, maybe along with Edu Lobo, who learned music later in life. Jobim is one of the few cases of a musician who writes good songs. Usually musicians aren’t good at songwriting or they take a long time to write something interesting. A real songwriter produces hundreds of good songs. It took time for me to appreciate this.

Was there anything you retained from your time in the Music Department?
The program focused on classical music – and avant garde music, at that. I stayed with it because it was a challenge. Of course, classical music is also delightful in its own right. I got involved in analyzing operas and Mozart symphonies and even a study of dodecaphonics. But I could see that this had nothing to do with the kind of music I would write, and it wouldn’t lend much to my endeavors. It was only culturally enriching.

What were the professors like in your department?
I made a lot of friends among my colleagues, professors and members of the orchestra, but the professors who really mattered in ideological terms were Willy Corrêa de Oliveira and Olivier Toni. It was a very elitist program. Toni liked to poke fun at what I was doing, but he liked me personally. We had an ongoing argument, but it was on friendly terms. And he taught excellent classes on opera and harmony. Even today, whenever I analyze harmony, I use what I learned in his class. Willy Corrêa de Oliveira was something else — he was a very orthodox composer of classical music. At the time, he loved avant garde music, which set the ideological tone for the department. He made a big impression on all of his students because he saw music as his mission in life. He composed only “pure” music that could be explained in a logical way – to the point that he later wrote a book called Beethoven proprietário de um cérebro [Beethoven, owner of a brain]. When there were strikes, Corrêa de Oliveira invited students to come to his house for class. He had such a visceral passion for what he was doing.

How did you get interested in linguistics?
Music became both a subject of reflection and composition. I started linguistics in 1973. At the time, you could study in two programs at the same time at USP. I decided to follow the path of creating a songwriting model, and I needed to separate the goal of songwriting from the music. I could see that they were very different phenomena, and I wondered why all the songwriters I knew and liked did not know how to read music. This needed an explanation. Songwriting is not the same as composing music. I have 11 books that lay out this argument. I know they are not easy to understand. They have a semiotic basis, a requirement that tends to turn off readers. But the issue is to shed light on or at least attempt to explain the reason for the difference between songwriting and musical composition, which usually goes unappreciated, not just in Brazil but around the world. There are programs for popular music but not songwriting. Not even in the United States, with a very significant tradition of songwriting, which is completely original and deep.

When did you perceive this difference?
It was in 1974, when we first founded Rumo, which by the way was an attempt to explain the difference. At first, it was a rather odd band. We performed, and then we discussed the show with the audience. Initially, the big concern was theoretical. Everyone in the group was in search of the same thing. We started rehearsing and at the same time studying the great sambas of the radio era, specifically from the 1920s and 1930s. I was working with the idea that those sambistas probably composed based on something else that had very little to do with musical theory. Their melodies arose from spoken language, after which they took their own shape. It worked best when the melody was created and then stabilized so that it could be repeated in exactly the same way each time. That’s the songwriter’s challenge. He adjusted the notes a bit and then brought the composition to the singer, who turned it over to the conductor, who translated it into the score with a few corrections, and then wrote the arrangements for the orchestra. They had the ability to transform the rhythms of speech into a song melody. They had almost no musical resources, whether we’re talking about Noel Rosa, Ismael Silva, Assis Valente, João de Barro, Lamartine Babo or Cartola, or those who came after, like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Paulinho da Viola etc.

Tatit (with beard) in a photograph at the time his first record came out in 1981: letting go of the didactic focus as his professional career advanced

Personal collection Tatit (with beard) in a photograph at the time his first record came out in 1981: letting go of the didactic focus as his professional career advancedPersonal collection

Why did your research look to the first sambistas?
We went back to the beginning to discover the “secret” of the song. It was at that time that the modern song emerged, associated with recordings and radio, simultaneously in the United States. In the past, there were funny little street songs: the same themes would recur. The kinds of songs we know of today didn’t exist yet, the ones that have a first and second part, which were then repeated. The format took shape only with the advent of the recording, which set the melody to memory since composers at that time did not use scores. That was the format we wanted to understand. At that time, we conducted a huge amount of research with collectors. This is what spawned the record Rumo aos antigos [Path to our forebears], which came out at the same time as the debut album with original songs, which was called merely Rumo, from 1981. But the insight really came from the music of Germano Mathias’ repertoire Minha nega na janela [My dear black woman in the window], recorded by Gilberto Gil. I could almost see the composer crafting the song from spoken language. I decided that they aren’t really aware of this, because it isn’t their role to reflect on the language of the song. It’s akin to our consciousness of a language’s grammar. We speak and write Portuguese, but nobody is really aware of which part is the predicate, genitive construction, etc. Grammar is intrinsic to all languages, but only grammarians can explain it. To study language is to study its internal grammar – the language of music, theater, television, anything and everything. At that time, I was attempting to explain the grammar of song.

How did the study of linguistics help you with this research?
Nobody was writing about this. Since the music program didn’t resolve the song issue, I decided to look elsewhere. From the beginning, I went to literature classes, which had the best professors at the time. Davi Arrigucci Júnior’s classes, for example, blew me away. But they still didn’t resolve the issue. That’s when I found the semiotics program. I was interested in the subject itself, which completely drew me in because I could see that it applied to all languages and narrative structures. I saw that, in terms of furthering my studies, this was the path to follow.

When did you decide to become a professor?
I thought that graduate studies could be right for me because I like research and I had an idea I wanted to pursue. I started my master’s program while I was giving guitar lessons to support myself – I gave about 40 lessons a week. At the time, a master’s thesis was as significant as a doctoral dissertation and as much work. When I reached the point of starting my doctorate, I found out that I could apply for a scholarship – nobody had given me this information earlier. When I completed my doctorate in 1986, I realized that I wasn’t in a lucrative profession, which made 1987 a terrible year. I was able to resolve my financial problems only by writing jingles with my band mates from Rumo. In 1988, I started teaching, which made my life so much easier. My professional path was set. All of my research focused on semiotics and how it applied to songwriting. I won a scholarship from the Vitae Foundation, which is no longer operating. That’s what allowed me to write the book O cancionista. It was a generous scholarship, almost twice my salary at USP.

Did the terms cancionismo and cancionista arise at that time?
I had already used them in 1983, in an article I wrote for Folha de S.Paulo. In that book, I worked really hard to write something that was more readable than books of an academic nature. Although this discipline is critical for me, I know that books on semiotics are practically unreadable. While writing this book, it occurred to me to extend the concept to almost everyone associated with songs – the singer, musician, even the person hearing the song. That’s how the title became O cancionista – Composição de canções no Brasil.

During lean times, didn’t Rumo guarantee you some income?
We were almost at the end of our run, with just our last album to produce, which came out in 1992. But we never earned any money with it. The band had 10 members. If we earned anything at all, it was whatever was left over from ticket sales. And the theaters where we performed, like Lira Paulistana, only held at most 200 people. Nobody talked about money. Rumo lasted only because we all had work on the side.

The critics considered Rumo’s sound original. How did it evolve?
When we started out, the band was called Rumo de Música Popular. It started more as a theoretical proposition than an actual musical band. I was the one mainly interested in research, but everyone ended up buying into the idea. The challenge was to manage to arrange the songs musically when they were put together based on intonation. The instruments couldn’t overcome the inflections that come with spoken language. That’s the reason the music has an explicit intonation – everyone called it “spoken song.” This was precisely the idea: demonstrate the song’s origin in every composition. Sometimes, what we got was even better, but usually the songs were hard, rough, didactic. They were often a little too instructive, but after the first record we started to master the new technique and everything got softer. We had three or four years of some really creative production.

Tatit during his solo career with invitee Ná Ozzetti, former band member of Rumo

Personal collection Tatit during his solo career with invitee Ná Ozzetti, former band member of RumoPersonal collection

When and how did you decide to call it quits?
We couldn’t find the time anymore to meet for rehearsals and go on tour. I was already at USP, and all the other band members had their own projects. There was no way we could travel. So we decided: “Let’s stop here, since up until now, it’s gone well.” We put on a show in 1992, and launched a new record with all new material, called Rumo ao vivo [Rumo Live]. We came back in 2000 because we missed performing and did another gig in 2004. We came full circle and turned all of our vinyl recordings into CDs. Only our last record from 1992 was made available only on CD.

You participated in the most frenetic phase of the theater Lira Paulistana’s run. They were known as the “vanguard of São Paulo.”
The media came up with that label – we didn’t. Our styles were completely different: Rumo was one thing, and Arrigo Barnabé was another. Premê (the group known as Premeditando o Breque) [Premeditated break] was yet another. We all had the Lira Paulistana in common, which gave us all space to perform. We all ended up accepting the label because we wanted to showcase a new way of composing. We never composed for the market – not because we didn’t value it, but because we didn’t really know how to compose in that way. Only many years later, beginning in 2011, did I make a record with Arrigo on the exact date of our 60th birthday. We partnered up a bit with Itamar Assumpção at the very end of his life. He would call me with the lyrics, and I wrote the melodies – but he was already really sick so he didn’t even give me any feedback on the last melodies I wrote.

You mainly follow the ideas of linguist Algirdas Julien Greimas. Would you be able to explain them briefly in general terms?
Although Greimas was born in Lithuania, he was the creator of French semiotic theory based on a project started by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure [1857-1913]. He came onto the scene in 1966 with the book Semântica estrutural [Structural semantics], which proposed a general model to describe meaning. It has its origins in the narrative theory of Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp, who analyzed several dozen traditional stories and asserted that each of them is a kind of recurring archetype for constructing meaning — in other words, the structure is the same. Greimas took this further. He believed the structure is the same in all narratives, including scientific ones.

And how did you come up with the idea of applying the theory specifically to songs?
Toward the end of the 1980s, another author, the Frenchman Claude Zilberberg appeared on the scene with the idea of tensive semiotics, which ran counter to the then-dominant interpretation that Saussure was talking about static structures. Zilberberg included dynamic and time-related aspects of speech at the heart of his semiotic model, like inflections related to pacing and tone. These ideas inspired me to think of general categories that could support both linguistic and melodic processes. This was the missing element in a coherent presentation of the mechanisms that bring the lyrics and the melody together inferred from the song’s superficial qualities. My post-doc work is entirely focused on this author.

Has the semiotic model that you developed had staying power?
I hope so. From what I can see, for the time being my model and its application to songwriting is unique, but there are a lot of students I supervised who drew on the model for their own work and are now at other universities in Brazil. It is a slow process, but it’s happening. This has become my life’s work. You can’t really be involved with semiotics unless it becomes your life’s work. It’s challenging, but at the same time, when you finally understand it, you want to apply it.

What are the biggest changes you’ve experienced since your early days as an academic?
I still experienced a phase at USP, especially toward the end of the 1980s, which involved a very different view of academic careers. Professors in the humanities usually drew on their ideas to write books, which often took up to 10 years to be written. I am still a little like that, and I feel a bit out of step with life today. Anything of any interest that I produced is contained in a book. Today, the practice is to write short articles, preferably published in international journals, according to the American model. If you don’t follow this path, you don’t earn enough points even to get into graduate school. Under the pretext of making the university more global, a practice that only makes sense in the exact and biological sciences has become widespread because it demonstrates that research has global applications and is sometimes even published directly in technical English. But in the humanities, research is usually more locally applicable. You study a local community, for example, or our language. Semiotics has an explanation for this: there are some things you can understand only in your own language.