Cart 0

Sinfonia do Alto Ribeira


      In May 1985, Hermeto was invited by two filmmakers, who were fans of his music, to compose a score for their film, Sinfonia do Alto Ribeira, a documentary made to draw attention to the plight of Parque Estadual do Alto da Ribeira (High Creek State Park), a park near the southern border of São Paulo state. The park represented some of the last wild remnants of the Atlantic rain forest in the south. As with the Amazon forest in northern Brazil, the park’s boundaries were under constant pressure from the steady encroachment of civilization. Hermeto loved the idea and, in his usual manner, decided to compose and perform all the music within the park itself.

      Arriving home from a tour of Spain, Hermeto and the group headed for the forest. Hermeto describes the equipment that accompanied them:


We brought a church harmonium, bamboo and metal flutes, saxophones, accordions, two antique sewing machines, thirty tuned bottles of water, a ram's horn, six scythes, ten old saws, four hub caps, four automobile springs, whistles, pots and pans, shakers with clappers . . . the paraphernalia of a percussionist. I collected instruments that would make a great orchestra and, thanks to the energy of the place, the themes began to flow naturally. . . . I made it a challenge to not have any preconceived ideas before arriving in each place. (n.a., Manchete 1985:76)


      The process was so remarkable that the filmmakers decided to make a parallel documentary featuring Hermeto and his band. Composing everything on the spot, the finished film contains some of the most remarkable sequences of environmental art ever recorded. In one segment, the group spent an entire day inside a cave experimenting with sound of the natural formations. “The endlessly dripping stalactites produced a thousand variations of sound,” Hermeto later said. “I asked Jovino to notate it because I couldn't stop playing. It was an indescribable thing, a vibration that came from inside” (ibid.). Márcio Bahia says that Hermeto chose each sound carefully, note by note, ever fearful of breaking a stalactite “because each piece you broke was more or less tens of thousands of years old” (Bahia interview 1999). In the film, Márcio himself is seen suspended from the ceiling in order to play one set of stalactites while Pernambuco hits a large stalagmite with his fist as if it were a large surdo drum. The rest of the musicians play on other natural cave formations, transforming the cavern into a giant marimba while Hermeto blasts away on a ram’s horn. He remarked later that “when I blew the ram's horn, it was frightening. Everyone was paralyzed as the sound echoed through the galleries” (n.a., Manchete 1985:76).

      Another segment was filmed in a mill, using the repetitive sound of a manioc flour grinder as rhythmic base over which he arranged an ensemble of harmonium, flutes, and tuba. The film’s centerpiece, however, was a segment filmed in a mountain pool. The entire band, dressed in bathing suits, blows on tuned bottles of water while Hermeto improvises on bamboo flute. As the music reaches a peak, Hermeto dives underwater, still playing. As he emerges, water runs out the end of the flute, producing two tones which glissando in opposite directions. In the end, as everyone improvises freely, clinking the bottles together, Hermeto is seen rubbing the flute, blowing in both ends while diving in and out of the water, as if, as one friend suggested, he was trying to get every possible drop of music out of the instrument. Jovino told me that much of what Hermeto composed never made it into the completed film because the crew could not keep up with the rate of Hermeto’s creativity, missing much of it as they set up their equipment. “Vale da Ribeira” (Ribeira Valley) for example, was composed one morning at dawn and eventually made its way into the band’s repertoire.[25]


We did this beautiful piece as the sun rose. We got up at five in the morning and went out to this road—we set up our stuff in the middle of the road—and played right there. Everything was acoustic, there was no electricity. We brought instruments like harmonium, tuba, percussion, and flutes. We were doing it right then, [but] the film crew was late and so they did not film it. (J. Neto interview 1997)


      The completed film consists of two parts, the first part following Hermeto and the band as they composed and performed the soundtrack in the natural setting, the second part a documentary about the park itself, using the recordings of the group as a soundtrack. Unfortunately, after a showing at a festival in Rio de Janeiro, the filmmakers had a falling out, leaving the film in limbo. Since then it has been locked up in litigation and has not been available in general release.

            By the late 1980s, as the group had become accustomed to Hermeto’s musical conception, he began to leave the group to rehearse on their own. Once Hermeto had composed and arranged a particular composition with the band, he would leave them to work out details of dynamics, tempo, and so on. As they continued rehearsing upstairs, Hermeto remained downstairs, listening and composing, inspired by what the band was playing above him. Visitors were common and were always welcome. I have spoken with many musicians who have made the journey out to Hermeto’s house, many on a regular basis, to observe rehearsals, and as was often the case, to jam with the group (as I did on my first visit in 1992) or with Hermeto himself. It was not uncommon for Hermeto to even dash off a composition on the spot and present it as a gift for his visitors.[26]


Hermeto Pascoal Rehearsal

Figure 8: O Grupo in rehearsal, 1992. Two unidentified observers, Jovino Santos Netoand Carlos Malta. Photo by Andrew Connell


    1    ...    10    11    12    13    14    ...    17    


[25] While Hermeto never included this piece on any of his own commercially released recordings, “Vale da Ribeira” was recorded by Sergio Mendes on his CD Oceano [Verve 1996].

[26] Paulo Brandão, bassist for Aquarela Carioca, told me that Ceú da Boca, a vocal group with whom he performed in the early 1980s, once made a trip out to Hermeto’s house. After listening to the group perform one of their arrangements, Hermeto became inspired and quickly composed a vocal composition for them on the spot, arranging it for thirteen independent voices to match the group’s formation.