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Musical Interlude 3: “Pensamento Positivo”

 

      I want to look in depth at one particular som da aura piece, “Pensamento Positivo,” (Positive thinking) from Hermeto’s 1992 CD, Festa de Deuses. This track, which is created from a sample of a 1989 speech by then President Fernando Collor de Mello, is part of a series of compositions that Hermeto calls “Som da Aura,” or Sound of the Aura. Each som da aura piece is a musical miniature, ranging in length from a few seconds to two minutes, yet they seem to sum up Hermeto’s musical philosophy—that music exists “everywhere in the air,” embedded in the webs of everyday life. Hermeto has always used natural sounds in his compositions, from the squealing pigs on “Slaves Mass” (from Slaves Mass) to the cry of his parrot Floriano on “Papagaio Alegre” (from Lagoa da Canoa Município da Arapiraca). In addition he had also recorded two earlier som da aura pieces, “Tiruliruli” and “Vai Mais Garotinho,” both of which were taken from soccer broadcasts.[30]

      The creation of each Som da Aura piece begins when Hermeto hears a sound event that seems musical to him; soccer announcers, swim instructors, poets, Amazonian birds, Japanese fish vendors, and the pope, are just a few of the sounds that have caught Hermeto’s ear. Hermeto, says Jovino Santos Neto, “has such an unprejudiced ear. [He] can apply musical intention to a sound and make it become part of music [piece]. The whole world becomes the sound of the aura and human speech becomes music” (J. Neto 1997). The sound event is first sampled and looped to aid the transcription process, which Jovino describes as painstaking, “it’s like a mining process to find the notes. . . . it’s almost like a meditation where you have to focus so much and look inside of the sound until you find the notes. Often [you find that] it’s two or three notes together” (Neto 1997). Every nuance and vocal inflection is faithfully transcribed and set to melodic and harmonic accompaniment. After the music is transcribed it is then re-recorded in its arranged form, usually by Hermeto or Jovino accompanying the “singer” on keyboards, adding percussion on occasion. In its final form, each piece is first presented in its original form and then repeated in its som da aura arrangement. Thus soccer announcer Osmar Santos finds himself singing along with Hermeto’s dissonant, dirge–like harmonium on “Tiriuliruli,” and the poet and actor Mário Lago performs backed by an ensemble of synthesizer, surdo (bass drum) and triangle on “Três Coisas.” Finally, in each case, Hermeto views himself as simply the arranger of the piece. Every som da aura composition is credited to the “singers” themselves, and formal permission was always obtained from the composers (Collor, Santos, Lago, etc.) prior to the release of the recordings.

      “Pensamento Positivo” is notable both for its subject and timing. When this recording was released in August 1992, president Collor was caught up in a massive corruption scandal that would bring about his resignation just a few months later. Collor had been elected on an anti–corruption platform, so his own transgressions, which dominated the headlines for months, were all the more troubling to Brazilians accustomed to corrupt politics. The speech that Hermeto chose actually came from a radio broadcast early in Collor’s presidency, long before the scandal broke.[31] Here is a translation of the Collor’s text:

 

Exactly this my people,
Negative thinking attracts negative thinking.
Positive thinking is what the English call “Wishful Thinking,” eh?
Think positive, think positive,
Wanting to think positive attracts good vibes.
I know the exact tools that we need to reach this goal.
Moreover, I have inside me an enormous faith in God and an ideal.
I have an ideal.
I am an idealistic person.[32]

 

      Collor’s delivery is forceful and exceptionally musical. The melodic line rises and falls, increasing in intensity until reaching a peak both in volume and in rhythmic complexity in the sixth line. This musical quality is not immediately obvious the first time we hear the speech performed alone. As it is repeated, this time accompanied by Santos Neto on keyboard, the effect is startling. Speech is transformed into music. Indeed, on repeated listenings, it is impossible to listen to Collor the same way again. So how do we interpret this work? Is it a composed piece, a gimmick, a humorous diversion, a political act, a deliberate transgression of accepted norms of music making, an example of cultural cannibalism, performance art, musique concrete, or is it just a nice melody?

      In a sense, “Pensamento Positivo,” along with many of Hermeto’s works, contains elements of all these interpretations. One of the things I most love about Hermeto’s music is the humor, the way he invokes the carnivalesque by subverting the notions of composer, composition, and performer. In Hermeto’s world, we are all composers. Music can be found in the simplest act such as frying an egg. People, he says, are all “unconscious percussionists” (Roque 1984:71).

      Ultimately, Hermeto is interested in sound and sound is everywhere. Despite the political origins of “Pensamento Positivo,” he claims to have little interest in politics. According to Santos Neto, he and Hermeto were interested solely in the musical qualities inherent in Collor’s speech, not the political message of the text.[33] Besides, they reasoned, at the time the speech took place, Brazilians were feeling fairly positive and hopeful about their new president after twenty years of military dictatorship followed by near economic collapse. Musical sound, though, is a complex act involving cultural, technical, ideological, aesthetic, communicative and emotional choices by both musicians and listeners alike. While “Pensamento Positivo” and other Som da Aura pieces may have their basis in “pure” sound, their meaning is not set, not unitary; but is instead subject to diverse, fluid interpretations. It is this restless quality that ultimately gives the som da aura its power to transform our view of the world.

       We understand that music is made up of a number of elements: tones, pitches, rhythms, timbres, and so on, and that music has to be composed and performed by one or more individuals, that it is temporal in nature, and that the sounds we hear embody certain features that we culturally identify as “music.” In the case of “Pensamento Positivo,” we also understand the idea of political speech in the sense of its semantic and symbolic purpose and, though perhaps to a more limited degree, that it is inherently performative in nature, in that we are often affected as much by the way politicians deliver their message as by the content of their message. Collor’s speech becomes music at the moment of his performance. Hermeto’s arrangment provides a frame through which our ears and our minds have been re–tuned, our concept of music and speech changed forever. Moreover, the performance is processual, an ongoing cycle in which each moment feeds back on itself, each reconfiguration creating new preunderstandings followed by new configurations and reconfigurations and so on throughout the duration of the work.

      So what are we to think? Is this work political commentary or not? Hermeto and Jovino both say no. My conclusion is that it is both. The timing of its release only intensifies the both political nature and the transformational nature of “Pensamento Positivo.”[34] Obviously Hermeto and Collor are still around to influence our understanding of their work. But once a work is freed from its original moorings, when it is “in the air,” so to speak, it becomes open to new and multiple interpretations. The music’s autonomy only increases with time and distance, thus pointing to the fact that all interpretations are historically constructed.

 

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[30] Besides “Pensamento Positivo,” Festa dos Deuses also included three other som da aura pieces: “Aula de Natação,” a recording of a swim lesson given by his daughter Fabíula, “Três Coisas,” a recording of actor Mário Lago, and “Quando as Aves se Encontram, Nasce o Som,” a series of Amazonian bird calls.

[31] I was in Rio in August 1992 and each day seemed to bring new press reports of corruption, sparking massive public protests and calls for Collor’s resignation. For an account of Collor’s rise and fall, see Skidmore (1999).

[32] “Exatamente isso minha gente. Pensamento negativo atrai pensamento negativo. Pensamento positivo é que os Inglese chamam ‘wishful thinking,’ né? Pensar positivo, pensar positivo, querer pensar positivo, atrai bons fluidos. Eu sei exatamente os instrumetos de que nós precisamos dispor para atingiu esse objetivo. Eu tenho sobre tudo dentro de mim uma fé enorme em deus e um ideal. Eu tenho um ideal. Eu sou um pessoa idealista.”

[33] Jovino told me that fans often came backstage to voice their own cultural interpretations of the music. For example, Pernambuco’s use of a reco-reco made from a Volkswagen hubcap was viewed as an example of cultural cannibalism in that it symbolized the displacement  and tranformation of a capitalist multinational product into a tool for Brazilian artistic expression. Jovino said that because Hermeto chose objects and sounds solely for their musical qualities, the band was both amused and fascinated by the variety of symbolic interpretations preferred by their listeners.

[34] Given the fact that Polygram subsequently abandoned the CD, I would surmise that Festa dos Deuses was not widely heard in Brazil and therefore had little effect on the process leading to Collor’s impeachment.