Arnaldo Antunes by Eucanaã Ferraz

BOMB 102 Winter 2008
102 Winter 2008 Body
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Arnaldo Antunes. Photo by Marcia Xavier. All photos courtesy of Arnaldo Antunes.

We listen to Arnaldo Antunes on the radio and on CD; we watch Arnaldo Antunes on stage and on TV; we read Arnaldo Antunes in books and magazines; he is in the theaters and art galleries; he is by himself and with a group. His presence is at once quiet and impressive, violent and smooth, refined and pop.

It all began in São Paulo’s underground circuit in the early 1980s. Antunes was a vocalist with the band the Titãs (Titans), and its leading lyricist. The Titãs’ heavy sound, multiple influences, sharp lyrics, and astonishing stage presence turned the band into a rock bastion in Brazil.

But Antunes’s lyrics went well beyond the standard of rock and roll. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the sentimental exploration of certain bands and singers: the emotional overflows, the calculated grief, the love or generational dramas of the messy rocker aesthetic. By contrast, Antunes’s lyrics were sophisticated poems that could be unsettlingly surrealist, dadaist, or minimalist, that were always well constructed, but also capable of releasing the spontaneity of singing and dancing. The violence and power of the songs came, above all, from this conjunction: on one side, a rigorous, intellectually audacious force, in constant dialogue with literature, poetry, cinema, and the tradition of Brazilian song; on the other, the accelerated pulse, irony, and wrath exploding out of the lyrics, the vehemence of either screamed or deliberately contained singing—like a machine’s voice—and the might of the musical instruments, which appeared to want to demolish what they had themselves erected, the references to rock’s universe.

In 1983, a year before the Titãs launched their first record, Antunes published a letterpress edition of OU E (OR AND), his first book of visual poems. His second book, Psia (Psst) appeared in 1986, the same year the band released its record Cabeça dinossauro (Dinosaur Head), a huge success. When Antunes decided to quit the group in 1992, his music, poetry, and visual arts gained momentum. Books, albums, art shows, readings, performances, sound tracks, individual works, collective works—so many projects followed that it would take several pages to try to give a reasonable overview of Antunes’s accomplishments. And while quantity and multiplicity may impress, one is also equally attracted to the quality of everything, and by the existence of a unity that seems to link, subtly but with an undeniable force, the creator’s different sides with those of his creations. Another poet from São Paulo, Mário de Andrade (1893–1945), once wrote, “I am three hundred, I am three hundred and fifty.” Antunes isn’t any less.

In Antunes’s writing, one can glimpse a thread of other writings, which go from the seventeenth century (the satirical baroque of Gregório de Mattos) to the nineteenth (the experimental cosmopolitanism of Sousândrade or the acrid morbidity of Augusto dos Anjos) to the twentieth (the radical synthesis of Oswald de Andrade, the constructivism of João Cabral de Melo Neto, the visuality of Concrete poetry, and Guimarães Rosa’s reconstruction of speech). All that filtered by a singular, contemporary vision, capable of becoming a diction in itself.

Antunes embraces both the legacy of Bossa Nova—in his music, with its structured spontaneity, there are noticeable traces of Vinicius de Moraes’s lyrics and the singing style of João Gilberto, who gave songs intimacy and the spontaneity of speech, valuing emptiness, cuts, montage, and the colloquial—and that of the Tropicalista movement with its radical merging of national and foreign elements, the archaic and contemporary, and high and low culture, as well as its synthesis of all the multiplicity and hybridism of Brazilian cultural miscegenation. As if this weren’t enough, Antunes also embraces the romantic music of the ’50s, and rock and post-rock already merged with reggae and funk.

In all of Antunes’s output there is a flow between poetry and song, book and record, singing and silence. The underlying sign is always the word, which enables the crossings between different languages and which is, without doubt, the element Arnaldo Antunes privileges in everything he does.

Eucanaã Ferraz What was the beginning of your musical career?

Arnaldo Antunes My father playing piano at home on weekends. The first singles on the portable turntable. Roberto Carlos, The Beatles. Saving money to buy records, walking from school to the store, listening at the store booth, choosing. Chuck Berry, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, the Rolling Stones. Taping radio programming on cassettes. The classical music coming through my father; Yes and Led Zeppelin coming through my middle brother; and João Gilberto, Vinicius de Moraes, and Toquinho through my eldest brother. The first acoustic guitar lessons, already with a desire to write songs. Buying magazines with chord charts for the guitar. The first collaborations with Paulo Miklos, who was from my class, and with other future members of the Titãs in high school. I learn that a good song can be simple. Many compositions, many rehearsals. I quit my literature major in college to devote myself to all this. Two years performing in shows with the Titãs. Bars, theaters, clubs, punk houses, gay nightclubs. A historical booing in Rio de Janeiro. A brawl in Santos. Several demos, until we are able to record our first album. With one song playing on the radio, there’s an explosion of shows all over Brazil. We become a constant presence on TV variety shows. And so it went.

EF The Titãs were giants of Brazilian rock. Give us a brief overview of the band’s work.

AA We started in the ’80s, a period that was very favorable to emerging rock bands. There was a marketing move toward rock that existed in Brazil a few decades before, but never in such a hegemonic way. It was always a little marginalized. In spite of belonging to this wave, we never felt we were part of an aesthetic movement, such as, for instance, the Jovem Guarda, Bossa Nova, or Tropicália. What each band did was very different. In our case, though we were labeled as a rock band, we combined rock, reggae, and funk. And we were also strongly influenced by Brazilian popular songs, something that would be revealed in our way of composing. With the Titãs, for instance, information from the brega working-class universe coexisted with information from the punk universe. However paradoxical it may seem, for us it was natural. Besides, we differentiated ourselves by being a large band, with eight members, five vocalists who took turns, all songwriters. We didn’t start as a cover band; we learned to play together so that we could perform our own songs.

EF To what extent does your individual work give continuity to your work with the Titãs? What are the most notable differences?

AA The Titãs were like a school. With them I learned how to project the voice, to act on stage, to write songs with a collaborator, among other things. I was in the band since its creation in 1982 until 1992. I recorded seven albums with them. I left the Titãs because I needed to express other musical forms for which there wasn’t room within that consensus of eight people. To work with a band where everyone is a writer, everyone sings, makes arrangements together, was an enriching exercise in internal democracy. One ends up becoming a little like the critical parameter and the creative stimulus to the other. But I began to miss a more individual path, where I could work with a wider variety of genres, timbres, instrumental settings, and ways of interpreting. Besides that, I wanted space to show the songs I was creating, by myself or with other collaborators, that didn’t seem to have the adequate profile to belong with the repertoire of the Titãs.

EF You started as a poet, composer, and singer at a time when the communication and contamination between the so-called high and low cultures were already an undeniable reality, with excellent results. How did this scenario influence your sensibility and your intellectual formation?

AA At a very early stage I felt passionate about cutting-edge productions. On one side, I was attracted by the expressions of artistic avant-gardes, experimentalism, formal innovation, estrangement, and the alteration of meanings. On the other side, I liked the vitality of popular manifestations considered cultural trash—music on AM stations, variety shows on TV, cartoons, graphic novels, kitsch in general. I saw a link between these different edges: they all rejected the mediocrity of good taste that I found insipid. Of course this was an explicit heritage of the Tropicalistas. But I found echoes of that in Augusto de Campos’s poem Luxo/Lixo (Luxury/Trash) and Popcrete poems, in Julio Bressane’s cinema, José Agrippino de Paula’s books, Duchamp’s fountain, John Cage, in carnival and Hélio Oiticica’s parangolés, in Dada, rock, counterculture, Luiz Gonzaga, Dorival Caymmi, Lupicínio Rodrigues, Cartola, and the tradition of the Brazilian popular song, which can be facile but deals with sophistication, innovation, and immediate communication.

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Arnaldo Antunes. Photo by Marcia Xavier.

EF Has the fact that you were born in São Paulo influenced your work? Or, better yet, to what extent was the cosmopolitanism of São Paulo responsible for a kind of openness to other places (or to no place) that one notices in your work?

AA São Paulo is a city of cities. Each neighborhood looks like a different town. Here the mestizo foundation of the Brazilians has multiplied itself with the presence of many immigrants from other regions of Brazil and the rest of the world. I believe the experience with this ethnic, cultural, linguistic, architectural, religious, culinary, and behavioral multiplicity allows a certain detachment in relation to notions like homeland or cultural roots. I have expressed this idea in the lyrics of a few songs, such as “Não sou brasileiro, não sou estrangeiro / Não sou de nenhum lugar, sou de lugar nenhum, sou de lugar nenhum” (I’m not Brazilian, I’m not a foreigner / I’m not from anywhere, I’m from nowhere, I’m from nowhere), or “Riquezas são diferenças” (Richnesses are differences), or “Here we are mestizos mulattoes cafuzos pardos mamelucos sararás creoles guaranisseis and judárabes / Orientupis orientupis / Iberibarbarians indo ciganagôs / We are what we are, we are what we are / Unclassifiable, unclassifiable”—where words like cafuzos and pardos and neologisms like ameriquítalos, orientupis and ciganagôs refer to the many different forms of cultural, racial and ethnic miscegenation present in Brazilian society. At the same time, that huge mix of references perhaps represents, in itself, a form of identity, with which I could recognize and express myself.

EF You work with music, poetry, fine arts, performances, and you make one language go through the other, creating slips and superimpositions. This crossing of boundaries, is it a starting point for your creative process?

AA We live in a period that favors attrition and contamination between languages. Technological prowess and modernity in general brought us this condition. Just by working with music nowadays, for instance, you are inserted in a multimedia dimension; you have to think about the video clip, the website, the album’s graphic concept, the set design for the show, the dance, the wardrobe and accessories you use on stage. You may do the sound track for a movie, for a dance show, for an art installation, et cetera. Now, if I were to think about the starting point for everything I do, I’d say it’s the word. Everything I create involves words (or, at least, the exercise of poetic signification). That is, there can be poetry without words—made of images or sounds—but not without a play on poetic signification. I’ve done visual poems and also sound pieces in which my voice emits fragments, mumblings, loose syllables that suggest some meanings, for instance. Also sound poems in which various words are superimposed simultaneously, in such a saturated manner that the poems become either incomprehensible or only partially understandable. I do this in some of the pieces in my 1993 video Nome (rereleased as a DVD by Sony/BMG Brasil in 2006) and in some moments of the sound track I composed for the band Corpo in 1999. In any case, the starting point is the word, be it sung, read in a graphic object, viewed and heard on a video screen, viewed in calligraphy, a performance, or in other material supports. I don’t create instrumental music, but songs. Neither do I see myself specifically as a visual artist; I make visual poems. It’s as if the word were a springboard off of which I project myself toward other codes.

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Arnaldo Antunes with the Titãs, 1985. Photo by Avani Stein.

EF Although you work in a postmodernist perspective that updates Tropicalismo’s iconoclastic attitude—the critique of the ideals of purity and authenticity, the deconstruction of hierarchies—your music resists the traits of Brazilianness that so interested the Tropicalistas. Likewise, what one could call the national kitsch—represented, nowadays, by genres such as pagode, a subgenre of samba, and sertaneja, or a kind of Brazilian country music—is not part of your mix. What interests you and what doesn’t? Why?

AA If you pay close attention you’ll see many marks of Brazilian popular culture in what I do. A bit of the romantic songs, a little of the regional rhythms, the baião, batucada, xote, carnival, samba-canção, moda de viola, and other things. Not that the use of those references is intentional. They show up, one can’t avoid it, because they are the marks of my education and the fruit of genuine passions. Now, it’s obvious that all this will come in filtered by a very personal way of composing. I’ve always had a certain fear of standardized things. While popular music deals with a certain degree of redundancy (as it is integrated into a process of mass communication), I always feel the need to alter, in some way, the sensibility and the consciousness of people, and not only repeat what they accept as already established. I think this desire is natural to any artist who cares for his calling. I like mixes. And I seek a personal way of doing them. When, for instance, I interpret a song by another writer, I try to leave an original mark that adds something new to what people already know of that song, while still, in my way, remaining faithful to it.

EF Your poetic work is associated with the visual, while your visual experiments could be considered writing. You have said that what one sees transforms what one reads, and that “calligraphy is to writing what voice is to speech.” Describe your work with voice.

AA Calligraphy may work as a visual counterpart to the intonating resources of speech (or of singing). It’s like graphic intonation. Exciting the verbal with suggestions of senses that go beyond it, offering contexts in which it is transformed, generating hybrid codes. You don’t read a street sign the way you read a love note. The use of these features of writing or of voice (depending on the case) constitutes a language, which absorbs the word but amplifies its possibilities of signification.

EF Your musical creations suggest that, for you, singing is a way of speaking. If, on one hand, this refers to the tradition of song, on another it points to a completely different direction, such as rap.

AA I believe that song, in general, crystallizes intonating resources that are present in everyday talk. From Noel Rosa to rap. Luiz Tatit’s work as a creator of songs and as a theorizer of song illustrates this. In reality both sides to which you refer are aspects of the same manifestation of song, in its multiple possibilities. I value adjusting words’ syllables to the musical cadence, as well as melodic intonation, the singing’s intention, and the timbres around it in the aural context to the things that the songs are saying. To surprise, without losing spontaneity.

EF What’s your stance in the debate that argues that we are witnessing the end of the song?

AA I don’t believe that rap, for instance, is a legitimate development of the tradition of song itself. What I see now is a multiplication of ways to make songs, a widening of their possibilities. Digital editing technologies, electronic filters, new tone coloring and sound distortions, the possibilities of superimposing simultaneous voices in counterpoint, all of this ends up suggesting other forms of composition. For me, this stimulates the language of song rather than pointing to its decline.

EF Your work manifests the desire to reach the essential minimum. You work with minimal variations on a phrase, a word, or sometimes even a pair of syllables, and your singing seems to want to carve each syllable into space. At the same time, however, your songs and poems, as well as your appearances on stage, go toward excess. The first tendency points to Bossa Nova, or, specifically, to the singing of João Gilberto, while the second retains the Tropicalista attitude and the whole rock and roll universe. Where do you place your work as composer, singer, and poet within this spectrum that goes from minimalism to excess?

AA I believe these two aspects coexist, without traumas, in what I do. A little infinity.

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Paisagem, visual poem.

EF The album Os Tribalistas—in collaboration with Carlinhos Brown and Marisa Monte—was a great success in Brazil and abroad. What’s the album’s project? Beyond the issue of quality, what deserves credit for its favorable reception? Moreover, what does the album’s success reveal about the market, the musician, and the public in today’s pop music?

AA There was no project. The album made itself in the most spontaneous way possible. I invited Carlinhos Brown to co-produce (along with Alê Siqueira) my album Paradeiro(Station). I went to his Ilha dos Sapos (Isle of Toads) studio, in Bahia, to record, and I invited Marisa to sing a song that was a collaboration between the three of us (the album’s title track). She came to Salvador to record her voice and, when the three of us met, we started composing all those songs together, obsessively. Marisa intended to stay there one or two days, but ended up staying a whole week. Given the repertoire we had composed, we knew that there was no way we would not record it together. It was very strong. And it came to be without our noticing it. One year later, we managed to open spots in our individual schedules to record these songs together. And we tried to do this in the same spirit with which they were born, playing together in the studio (with Dadi and Cezar Mendes), without much planning. I really believe the work’s success owes a lot to the spontaneity with which it was generated.

EF What interests you, today, in pop music?

AA There are certain qualities I see and appreciate in some current pop music. To be commensurate. To not go overboard. Freedom to mix. The pleasure of experimenting. The music studio as a lab. Power. Body awareness. Sweetness made to order. Vitality.

EF You create a musical work that is simultaneously popular and intellectually ambitious, confirming a trend in Brazilian music, which, as we’ve discussed, has Bossa Nova and Tropicalismo as its main marks. But, unlike what happened in those moments, today more than ever music criticism seems to be made in haste, to be unprepared and sometimes even futile. How do you see this tension in broad terms, and how do you experience it as a creator?

AA I take more interest in criticism from the street than from the media. I believe that the public is much less prejudiced, much more open to what’s new than the big media filters want us to believe.

EF What’s your stance in regards to the current state of copyright, hit by such things as new media and Creative Commons?

AA I believe the situation of free access to information has reached a point of no return—sharing music, texts, images, software, and movies via the Internet. At the same time, it’s important to find a way to compensate creators, so that one can continue to produce cultural assets. Digital media imposes a new situation onto the social and financial relationships around artistic creation. To find appropriate means of coexistence is the great challenge.

EF You are regularly called an avant-garde artist. What’s your debt to the historical avant-gardes? Does it make sense, nowadays, to say that someone makes avant-garde art?

AA I don’t see many possibilities in thinking in terms of the avant-garde nowadays. I believe the paths through which the new can happen have multiplied. Neither is there an official, homogeneous context against which one would need to react. This situation is a lot more interesting than the idea of a collective movement pointing the future toward a single direction. Nevertheless, the historical avant-gardes keep feeding us with impulses. And the desire to experiment with new forms, audaciously, is still of undeniable value to the creation.

EF In your preface to the book Todas as letras (All Lyrics) by Gilberto Gil, you write that, while playing the I Ching, he asked the question, “What is it that I am, ultimately?” The oracle responded with hexagram two, formed exclusively by open lines, “The Receptive.” You were impressed by the sharpness of this, as though the image proposed by the oracle was the perfect description of Gil. Are you also a receptor? Do you consult oracles? Do you ask yourself: What is it that I am?

AA I admire in Gil this malleability with which he moves among so many ethical and aesthetic challenges. I identify myself with this a little. And I admired the precision of the response of the I Ching to his courageous question. I often consult the I Ching, in certain periods more than others. The more one plays, the more one feels that its language is becoming comprehensible, as if one were developing intimacy with all those metaphors. I don’t see it as an oracle capable of foreseeing the future. It seems to offer a precise picture of the situation you find yourself in and to point to possible attitudes about it; although it doesn’t see this situation with much sharpness (or in all its amplitude). But I myself never dared to ask the same question that Gil asked.


Translated from the Portuguese by Claudio Brandt.

Eucanaã Ferraz is a poet and essayist. His most recent poetry book, Rua do mundo (Street of the World), was published by Companhia das Letras in 2004. He is editor of Letra Só (Letter Alone), a volume of selected lyrics by Caetano Veloso; Poesia completa e prosa de Vinícius de Moraes (Complete Poetry and Prose of Vinícius de Moraes); and O mundo não é chato (The World Is Not Flat) featuring prose pieces by Veloso. Ferraz teaches Brazilian literature at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Originally published in

BOMB 102, Winter 2008

Featuring interviews with the Campana Brothers, Cao Guimaraes and Marila Dardot, Ernesto Neto, OsGemeos, Bernardo Carvalho, Francisco Alvim, Lygia Fagundes Telles and Manuel Alegre, Karim Ainouz, Arnaldo Antunes, and Paulo Mendes Da Rocha.

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102 Winter 2008 Body