Saturday, January 06, 2007

Caetano Veloso on Avantgarde

Varèse/Xénakis/Le Corbusier: 'Poeme Électronique' (1958)

Caetano Veloso -- one of the most important names behind the late-60s Brazilian musical movement Tropicalismo (a.k.a. Tropicália) -- writes in his 2002 autobiography Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil (originally Verdade Tropical, 1997) about avantgarde and its problematic connection with popular music:

"In 1968, Augusto [de Campos, a 'concretist' poet friend of Veloso since the 1960s] was impressed with Paul McCartney's declared enthusiasm for Stockhausen. Yet in the years that followed, as he was listening to the sweet and spineless pop produced by Paul -- music whose transgression was totally programmatic and digestible following the spectacular growth of the pop market after the Beatles -- a man like Augusto, one can only imagine, must have been filled with boredom and distaste. He must have felt the same toward pop music, MPB, and the tropicalistas. Sooner or later we, the tropicalistas, in more or less noble ways, depending on the individual case, would show signs of the essence of our chosen activity, which has always consisted in producing banal songs to compete in the market. (And in Brazil the growth of this market means an advance on the national scale.) Augusto keeps on fighting for unpopular music: Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Varèse, and Cage -- and also Giacinto Scelsi, Luigi Nono, Ustvolskaya, etc. The stubborn unpopularity of the most inventive contemporary music is truly a mystery. Augusto's flash of euphoria when he heard of McCartney's (ultimately undeveloped) interest in Stockhausen in 1968 represented a fleeting hope of deciphering this enigma. Produssumo, as I said earlier, was a word invented by another concretist poet, Décio Pignatari, to define a period in which avant-garde ideas had a place at the top of the pop-rock charts. One of the most stimulating problems of the avant-garde, and a problem that makes some of the most stimulating artists run from it like the Devil from the cross -- is its dubious position with regard to its intrinsic ambition to become the norm. I have recently heard Arto Lindsay say that the musicians and producers of the trendiest vogue in dance music (techno) are voracious consumers of precisely the kind of music heroically defended by Augusto. These young people are listening to Varèse and Cage, to Boulez and Berio. And, says Arto, they don't talk about anything else. What should we make of this? In the seventies, there was already an outcry of very conservative (and very useful) voices protesting 'modernism in the streets.' But will the collective ear adjust itself to postserialist or postdodecaphonic music? And what kind of world will it be, when such music sounds like music to 'everyone's' ears? I myself can't say exactly why Webern's music (especially the most radical pieces) has always seemed to me indisputably beautiful. Might the techno-dance kids be an embryonic minority? What will happen to the tonal ear as we know it if unpopular music's failure with the public at large is overcome? When I first saw MTV in New York, I wrote an article entitled 'Vendo canções' (See and Sell Things), in which I ask more or less superficial questions but still point in the same direction. The procedures of avant-garde film, which were trashed by serious and commercial cinema alike, had finally found refuge in those snippets of rock 'n' roll film, which were at once erratic illustrations of the songs and ads for the corresponding records. Now I can't stand to watch rock videos for very long: the excess of images labouring to seem bizarre bores me, especially at the speed the editing presents them. But the question remains: don't the references to Un chien andalou, to Metropolis -- and the undying kinship with Cocteau's Blood of a Poet -- appear in a rock video exactly as Mondrian's designs flash across the skirt of a prostitute? Are 'modernisms' and 'avantgardes' only now beginning to lose their right to such labels?"

  • Caetano Veloso search results @ YouTube
  • Tropicália article, info & video links @ pHinnWeb