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Cultural Movement

Musical challenges

Thesis dissects history of Brazilian atonal composition

If contemporary classical music had a capital, it would be Santos, on the coast of São Paulo. It is there that the Festival of New Music had been happening every year since 1962, with the presence of Brazilian and foreign musicians. It is also in this seaside city where the ambassador of this movement is, the 80-year-old composer Gilberto Mendes. The festival was interrupted last year, precisely when it was to commemorate its fortieth edition. With the absence of the event, New Music became confined to a few public universities.

The work of Gilberto Mendes, though, roams the world: his pieces have now been played even in Polynesia. So as not to let the history of these cultural encounters, which left a mark on their epoch, be forgotten, researcher Antonio Eduardo wrote the thesis for a doctorate The Mis-directions of the Festival of New Music (The original title in Portuguese is Des-caminhos , which can translated as mis-directions or as several ways. This double meaning was intentional by the author of the paper to convey the plurality of the moment), from the Communication and Semiotics Department of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), under the supervision of Professor Maria de Lourdes Sekeff, from the São Paulo State University (Unesp) and support from Fapesp.

The title New Music does justice to what is presented by its followers. Anyone going to a presentation expecting the good old conventional classical music gets, at the least, a surprise. One of the pillars of the movement was to break with tonalism (the dynamics of tension and rest, or tonic and dominant), proper to Western music and very familiar to our ears. The change took place to deny all this, to break with the ruling structures, very much to the taste of the 60’s. The composers incorporated other elements, such as the gestures of the musicians.

To give an example, piece 1’45, by the American composer John Cage, would take place as follows: the musician would play absolutely nothing, and the music produced, according to the composer, would be the sound originated in the audience. There was also the musical theater, exemplified by ópera Aberta [Open Opera] or Ashmatour , both by Gilberto Mendes. Antonio Eduardo explains that one of the objectives of the movement really was to bother people: “They wanted to prompt a sensation of esthetic indisposition, instigating reflection”.

The objective of the doctoral thesis was to show that the festival was the great tableau for spreading the paths of Brazilian contemporary music and a virtual composition school, that introduced Brazil to musical contemporaneity. Antonio Eduardo explains that the Santos presentations were the great source that fostered national erudition. The snippet of time studied by the researcher, from 1962 to 1980, is, according to him, the period of the greatest effervescence of the movement, when experimentalism was in veritable ebullition.

The Brazilian formulators, Willy Correa de Oliveira, Damiano Cozzela, Rogêrio Duprat and Gilberto Mendes himself, went back to the evolutionary line traced by Música Viva [Live Music], in the 40’s, which was led by the German, naturalized Brazilian, Hans-Joachim Koellreutter, a theoretician, composer and flute player, who made Brazil become familiar with the dodecaphonic technique (the system of atonal composition created by the Austrian composer, Arnold Schönberg).

The objective was very clear and daring: to break with the old-fashionedness of Villa-Lobos and Camargo Guarnieri. The group that was formed was also stimulated – and inspired – by all that was most innovative being produced in the other branches of the national culture: the theater of the Oficina, Arena and Opinião groups, the New Cinema and the Marginal Cinema, and concrete literature and poetry. The concretists even took part in the festivals. Dêcio Pignatari was a constant figure on the stage of the theater in Santos.

The proposal for an esthetic rupture also had its political side. The position was one of resistance to the military dictatorship. The instrument used to express non-acceptance was the very music that was produced, in itself an alternative to the status quo. One example of this was the piece Music for the 7 Days, presented by Willy Correa de Oliveira and Gilberto Mendes. The proposal was for the musicians to remain fasting, to see what would happen at the time of the presentation. The result: their hunger and weakness produced contrary manifestations from the regime. Gilberto Mendes told the researcher that the censors would watch the presentations, awaiting the slightest slip-up that would permit the program to be suspended. From 1969 onwards, up until 1983, the city of Santos had a military governor. Oddly enough, it was precisely in this period that the most polemical editions of the Festival of New Music took place.

Antonio Eduardo divides the history of the festivals in four phases. The first of them goes from 1962 to 1967, when the event started to take shape, making known its main composers. In this period, the pieces were presented by the São Paulo Chamber Orchestra.The second phases runs from 1968 to 1972, a time in which they were drawing closer to the Ibero-American composers. Works by the Spaniards Luis de Pablo and Ramón Barce, by Uruguayans like Conrado Silva, and by the Portuguese Jorge Peixinho were often played.

The third phase goes from 1972 to 1980. The neue musik (the German movement whose name inspired the Brazilian one) becomes worn out, and the musicians go into a moment of profound discussion of this language. The composers question the directions of the new music and express resistance to the military dictatorship.

The works become more engaged than ever, and there is more drawing close to the public, particularly at the time of the political opening up.In the fourth phase of the history of the movement, which covers from 1990 to 2001, the festival draws close to Belgian music. According to the researcher, there is such a great identification with its musical language that the interchange fosters the publication of a work for piano by Gilberto Mendes by a Belgian publisher, Alain Van Kerckhoven êditeur.

Origin of the movement
The whole of this history began with an invitation from the then Santos Cultural Commission to Gilberto Mendes, in 1962. Gripped by the presentation of the São Paulo Chamber Orchestra during the 5th São Paulo Arts Biennial in the previous year, the organizers asked the composer to organize the first Contemporary Music Week of Santos. It was there that began the history of the festivals of New Music that, in the beginning, did not have a defined venue and took place in music school auditoriums and on the premises of Madrigal Ars Viva. From the 70’s, the Secretariat for Culture and Tourism laid down that they would happen in the Auditorium of the Municipal Theater, then under construction. And in 1984 Santos ceased to be the only city to house the festival. Presentations were also to take place in São Paulo, Campinas and Ribeirão Preto, a practice kept up until 2000.

The composer Gilberto Mendes turned into a synonym for the movement. This citizen of Santos began his musical studies late. He entered the Santos Musical Conservatory only when he was 18 years old, but he was far from building up an academic career (in spite of having been a professor at the University of São Paulo), and developed a very characteristic language. Mendes was much influenced by the American sound produced in 1930 and 1940. The music for the cinema, the big bands, the jazz of Duke Ellington, Dizzie Gillespie and Ted Wilson (Billie Holliday’s arranger).

The sonorous universe of that period is present in his compositions. “This meant that his work had, at one and the same time, and singular dimension and a universal one”, Antonio Eduardo comments. Played in all the continents, Gilberto Mendes stayed in Santos, where he lives to this date, in Boqueirão, making this seaside city his starting point and his finishing line. And it is where he has had a double life: he built a solid career in the savings and loan business, as an officer of the Federal Savings and Loan Association (CEF).

One of the best known pieces by Mendes is his Motet in D minor, or Drink Coca-Cola, created after a poem by Dêcio Pignatari. The composer has always kept intimated linked to concrete poetry. He believed that it set out to seek a new posture between the communicator of the word and the receiver. The objective was a metalanguage between sounds and words, producing a new communication between the artist and the audience. The movement born in Santos identifies itself profoundly with the yearnings of the concretists. “They were the esthetic sponsors of the New Music”, says Antonio Eduardo.

In a rough comparison, the New Music festivals worked like haut couture fashion shows. We would hardly see people in the streets wearing the clothes shown on the catwalks, but the creations are sources of inspiration for the making of other apparel. That is how the music of these Santos-based composers is too. One example is Gilberto Mendes’s work for the piano, far more palatable, says the researcher. “It is a dialectic between the tonal and the atonal”, he explains.

The musical esthetics shown at the festivals have always been in tune with what is done in the urban milieu, that is, with the fast consumption products broadcast by means of mass communications – like jingles. Tropicalism, also from the 60’s, is in a way interlinked to the movement, as concretists like Dêcio Pignatari were a source of inspiration both for Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil and for the new contemporary classical music.

The Project
The Mis-directions of the Festival of New Music
Doctoral scholarship
Maria de Lourdes Sekeff – São Paulo State University (Unesp)
Scholarship holder
Antonio Eduardo – Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo