Sunday, August 28, 2011
Tristeza não tem fim
Though the samba has ended, I know in the sound
Of your voice, your piano, your flute, you are found,
And the music within you continues to flow
Sadly, lost Antonio.
-Michael Franks, "Abandoned Garden"
Nothing has more power to restore me to myself than music. Yet the origin of this power is a mystery. E.M. Cioran, whom one critic called the "last philosopher of Europe" (one can only hope) wondered if we will ever discover what music appeals to in each of us, since even the insane respond to it. It has even been suggested - somewhat unconvincingly - that music has an effect on fetuses in their mothers' wombs. The popular Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto has composed works exclusively for them, filling concert halls with pregnant women. Of course, Sakamoto may only be taking advantage of his listeners' inability to vote with their feet. So I suppose it is fortunate that there is enough music around to make one feel more sophisticated than a lunatic or a fetus. There is more than enough to make me wish sometimes that I were deaf as a post.
Twenty years ago a friend of mine, who didn't share my taste in music, labelled what I was listening to "lite" music. I listened to jazz, even though I also listened (because there was no escape from it) to what he liked. He listened to hard rock - Kiss, AC/DC, Guns & Roses. Brought up in a world in which "lite" music distinguished itself as music without singing, or what David Sanborn called "instrumental pop", he told me that the music I listened to gave him the feeling that he was riding in an elevator. When I asked him to define it for me, he said that music was "lite" if it didn't threaten the listener. I didn't bother him at the time with my own definition of rock and roll. But even if I had, it wouldn't have mattered.
Music always raises problems for anyone who wants to belong to his own age. There is always what is generally - and mistakenly - called "classical" music, but nearly all of it, glorious as it is, was created long before one's birth. There is the all-American idiom of jazz, which is sometimes splendid, and much of it created in one's lifetime. But, as I mentioned before, jazz is more about the musicians than the music. It is brilliant when the horn or piano player is inspired and his improvisations give new life to old standards. This has happened often enough, and luckily in front of a microphone. But since the 1980s, jazz has got itself stuck in a bop or post-bop rut.
Rock was originally called rhythm and blues, and since the 1950s has become - for better or worse - the music of rebellion. Part of the rebellion was against music and musicianship itself, against established norms of beauty and virtuosity. For listeners (teenagers) it was a rebellion against one's parents, against society and the status quo, against all the rules with which life is riddled. The disorder of rock is its greatest strength - its jagged edges and avoidance of structure and proportion. But it becomes a problem as soon as one is past the rebellious stage, what sociologists call the "age of maximum risk". One simply cannot go on rebelling indefinitely. It's like being decadent: "decadence means falling and one can only be said to be falling if one is going to reach the bottom reasonably soon."(1) Most of the people still living who helped to create rock in the 50s and 60s are old men. Unless one is simply expressing nostalgia for one's youth, watching these withered rockers perform provokes either laughter or sorrow, in equal portion. Once one has lived a little, the clumsy and forced emotions of rock music no longer satisfy. What is left then for someone who wants to hear the voice of a musical intelligence that responds to the same age in which he lives? Searching for such a voice can be a lonely pastime.
Visiting Brazil in 1949, Albert Camus attended a party at which a popular singer performed. Never far from the sensualism that pervaded his writings, Camus was moved to write in his journal of "Kaimi" and of the songs he heard that evening: "Of all songs, these are the most beautiful, songs of love and the sea."(2) The singer was Dorival Caymmi, and the music he performed was the samba, a Brazilian form based on both African and Native South American rhythms.(3) That same rhythm became the foundation of a popular musical form called bossa nova, whose greatest practitioner was the composer and performer Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994).
In 1959, Sacha Gordine produced the film Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), based on the play Orfeu da conceição by the poet Vinicius de Moraes. Shot in glorious Eastmancolor entirely in Rio de Janeiro during that city's legendary Carnaval, the film featured an all-black Brazilian cast and a soundtrack with original music and songs by Luiz Bonfa and Jobim. The film caused a sensation, but not because it was a good film. It is watchable today for the beautiful photography of the Rio locations and for the music that it introduced to the world. While there have been other songwriters in Brazil and quite a number of great singers and musicians, Jobim was the reason that bossa nova captured the world's imagination.
With Vinicius de Moraes, Jobim wrote some of his most famous songs, including "Girl from Ipanema", "Insensitive", "Chega de Saudade", and "A Felicidade". Innumerable American jazz performers wanted to perform and record these and other songs, "Agua de Beber", "One Note Samba", "Desafinado", "Dindi", "Corcovado", "Dreamer", etc. In 1962 guitarist Charlie Byrd released the album Jazz Samba, along with saxophonist Stan Getz. Getz enjoyed performing on the album so much that he invited Jobim himself and singer/guitarist João Gilberto to New York in 1963 to record Getz/Gilberto. On the recording of "Girl from Ipanema", Getz persuaded Gilberto's wife Astrud to sing the lyrics in English. The song was such a hit in America as a single that it sold over one million copies.
Jobim then recorded an album of his own in 1963 on the legendary Verve label, The Composer of Desafinado, Plays, with orchestrations by Claus Ogerman, of many of his songs. Jobim performed on guitar, piano, and flute on the album. He recorded with Frank Sinatra four times, and Ella Fitzgerald recorded the Jobim songbook, Ella Abraça Jobim, in 1981. If this is elevator music, the elevator is on its way to heaven.
Probably my favorite of all his songs is called "Fotografia", whose English lyrics were written by Ray Gilbert:
You and I, we two, alone here
In this terrace by the sea.
The sun is going down
And in your eyes
I see the changing colors of the sea.
It's time for you to go,
The day is done.
And shadows stretch their arms to bring the night.
The sun falls in the sea
And down below a window light we see,
Just you and me.
You and I, we two, alone
Here in this bar with dimming lights.
A full and rising moon comes from the sea,
And soon the bar will close for you and me.
But there will always be a song
To tell, a story you and I cannot dismiss,
The same old simple story of desire
And suddenly that kiss, that kiss.
Jobim loved the world and his place in it, and I am quite certain that the portion of it that he enjoyed was not enough. Some people say that too much of anything can kill you. Jobim's music asks how much is too much?
The circumstances of Jobim's death were shockingly sad. He was diagnosed in 1994 with a bladder tumor, but for several months sought spiritual healing. Finally requesting surgery in December 1994, he died four days later of a heart attack brought on by a pulmonary embolism. Three days later, his last album, Antonio Brasileiro, was released.(4) He was 67.
One of his first recorded songs, "A Felicidade", which was featured in Black Orpheus, begins with the words quoted above. In English, they mean, "Sadness has no end. Happiness please." Joy was Jobim's greatest legacy.
(1) George Orwell, "T.S. Eliot", October 1942.
(2) Albert Camus, American Journals, Hugh Levick, translator, New York: Spear Marlowe & Company, 1995.
(3) New York Times Obit of Dorival Caymmi.
(4) Jobim's full name is Antônio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim.