*From the collection of excellent interviews and reports by Marcelo Pinheiro!
Less than a month away from completing nine decades of an intense life, composer Gilberto Mendes receives our report, in Santos. Aerated by the wind that rips through the front windows, the small and pleasant penthouse where he lives is two blocks from one of the beaches of the coastal city that gave the world the football club that immortalized King Pelé. Gentle, Gilberto waits on the doorstep. He exudes lucidity, cunning and good humor. Attributes that have never abandoned him, in the more than 70 years that he has been acting as a luminary figure in his art.
Author of central works, pioneer of random experimental music in the country and inventor of musical theater plays - with dramatic interventions, often combined with singing, almost happenings –, Gilberto is also artistic director of the Música Nova festival and one of the signatories of the manifesto of the same name, launched in 1963. Letter of intentions of the movement, the text was published in the magazine Invention, by the concretist poets Décio Pignatari and the brothers Augusto and Haroldo de Campos.
Created by Gilberto a year before the publication of the manifesto, the festival defended a break with nationalist music, with a strong folkloric accent, and has just completed 50 years since its first edition. When remembering those days, the composer opens a parenthesis to clarify his relationship with the greatest name in our classical music: “Until today, Brazil has not been able to measure the importance of Villa-Lobos. He is associated with the nationalism thing, but what matters is the modernity of the music he made and not the fact that he has Brazilian rhythms in his work. If he was born in Finland, obviously, he would use Finnish rhythms. The modern organization of his language is what really matters and Brazilians still don't understand that. Something natural, because for a long time it was in the hands of nationalists, backwards, who wanted music based on folklore. Inventiveness is what interests Villa-Lobos”.
Aware of the avant-garde manifestations of the Post-War period, Gilberto was part of a group of conductors and composers attuned to the modernist impetus that permeated the arts from the 1950s onwards. Among them, Régis and his brother Rogério Duprat, Willy Corrêa de Oliveira, Júlio Medaglia and Damiano Cozzella. Recurring names among the best productions of classical and popular music released in Brazil from the second half of the 20th century onwards. While Willy and Gilberto, supported by the radical experiences of concrete poetry, subverted classical languages, Rogério and Júlio gave an aesthetic package to tropicalism and MPB, in the daring arrangements they wrote for young artists such as Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Chico Buarque, Jorge Ben Jor and Ronnie Von who, under Cozzella's baton, released, in 1968, an unrecognizable album of the same name, psychedelic and full of of experimentation, worshiped, today, by collectors.
Born in Santos in 1922, Gilberto is the son of doctor Odorico Mendes, who died when he was just 5 years old, and primary school teacher Ana Garcia Mendes. He grew up seduced by the charms of the sea, which flowed into the shore next to his house, but he spent brief periods out of the country. He lived in Prague, in the extinct Czechoslovakia, where he did in-depth research and witnessed the events of 1968 (the Prague Spring). In the United States, he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in the state of Wisconsin, between 1978 and 1979. Four years later, he returned to the country to teach at the University of Texas at Austin. Gilberto accumulates more than 30 international trips to promote his music, but reveals that he would never leave his hometown. He lives with Eliane, his partner for over 30 years, and the dog Mel. He says, smiling, that he stopped traveling abroad with his wife some time ago, so as not to leave the faithful squire alone at home: “I won't leave her close, even if the Berlin Philharmonic invites me to perform a piece of mine! ”, he jokes, while he showers the animal with cuddles.
Cinema, sea and music
From childhood memories, Gilberto recalls the frequent trips with his mother to the cinema and the fascination of the first talkies. In 1992, when he retired and defended his doctorate at USP, where he began teaching in 1980, he gave a speech in which he said he was passionate about cinema, to the point of thinking he would become a filmmaker instead of a musician. But what kind of director would he have been? Experimental? True to the classic narrative? Meditatively, he replies: “Antonioni, At night”. Then it is silent, wanders and diverges. He says he really wanted to be a writer. “I wrote stories and did the design for the cover of my books. He gathered the neighborhood gang to tell stories and invented them on the spot. Most of the time, detective plots. If they suspected who the murderer was, I found a way to change the outcome”, he laughs.
But in the three hours that follow, he again demonstrates an obsession with the power of cinema to tell beautiful stories. He talks about German musicals of the 1930s, Hollywood's invention of Hawaiian imagery, hums successive songs with an explicit passion for them, and even enthusiastically imitates Chaplin's Charlie over and over again. He changes the subject and then recalls that furtive walks by the sea, in his adolescence, were also recurrent: “Santos was an invitation to loitering. There were two canoes belonging to my family on the beach and there was no shortage of bums to put them in the sea with me. My musical progress could have been different…”.
For someone who has built a trajectory like his, the comment seems out of place. It does not match the reputation of the composer of cult works, such as Motet in D Minor (song for choir, based on a poem by Décio Pignatari, originally titled drink coke, which includes a burp and was renamed to avoid legal problems), Santos FootballMusic (which proposes unusual interventions by the audience and musicians, such as shouts of goal, emission of vowels and a soccer match with refereeing rights and mini-beams on the stage) and born-die (random music based on concrete poetry by Haroldo de Campos).
Humbly, Gilberto suggests that his late initiation into musical studies may have limited his potential. Something difficult to agree, but it is a fact that before embarking on music, for two years he insisted that he would be a lawyer. He studied at the Law School of Largo São Francisco, at USP, until he was summoned by Miroel, married to his sister Míriam, to question the direction he was taking: “I put my hand on the piano for the first time when I was 20 years old. I started old. My brother-in-law was the one who said: 'What are you doing studying law? Didn't you realize you're a musician?' He recommended that I join the Santos Conservatory and also the regatta club, to swim and treat my asthma. I came here and got involved with politics, with the old party. I did work on the dissemination of culture, but underneath the culture there was a certain Marxist poison. I wasted a lot of time, until Erasmo, my older brother, scolded me again: 'You stopped studying law, dropped out of college halfway and got involved in it. Weren't you going to be a composer?' That hurt me. I had just seen the movie the seven samurai, of Kurosawa, and was in awe of the mastery of the craft of those extraordinary swordsmen. I kept thinking that I, unlike them, had no dominion over me.”
The brother's summons had immediate effect. The path that consecrated him has been pursued since then, for seven decades, and Gilberto is still in full swing. Author of two books dedicated to music – Musical Odyssey – From the South Seas to Pop/Art Deco Elegance (1994), who records his doctoral thesis, and Living Your Music: With Stravinsky in My Ears, Towards Nevskiy Avenue (2007), both published by Edusp – he has two other works up his sleeve. A collection of articles published in newspapers, which will be released in 2013 by Editora Perspectiva, and a first novel, still untitled, which has just been given carte blanche by Editora Algol to be published. Gilberto is also in the final stretch of a filming marathon he is doing with his son Carlos Mendes, a filmmaker, who in 2005 released the documentary Gilberto Mendes, a Musical Odyssey. Carlos decided to take advantage of the interview and left São Paulo to visit his father. He reveals that he decided to compose the series of 90 microfilms out of concern to perpetuate his father's work for future generations. The films have been released, chapter by chapter, and will all be available on YouTube, starting on October 13, when Gilberto turns 90.
Multidirectional like the wind, open like the ocean
During the meeting, Gilberto recalls many of the stories narrated in the seven hours of interviews recorded by Carlos. Meetings with Olivier Toni and Claudio Santoro, conductors who exerted a great influence on his career, come to the fore, seminars with Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, in Darmstadt, Germany, cradle of new music, who crossed the Atlantic with him and gained Brazilian accents here, under the name, literally, Música Nova. But these are stories to be discovered, in detail, in the dozens of films made by Carlos.
Asked about his relationship with popular music, Gilberto (who during the interview insists that he is a multiple composer, capable of writing even bad music), makes delicious revelations of his first contacts with two names that would revolutionize music in Brazil and in the world: "I heard Chega de saudade, for the first time, on the radio. I was intrigued, because it was a very beautiful song and completely outside of what was done at the time. On the same day, I went to buy the compact I had out of tune on the other side. I was as excited about João Gilberto as I was about the Beatles. Who brought their first album was Carlos, the compact of I Wanna Hold Your Hand. I heard and thought that was as beautiful as hearing Chega de saudade, something very new in terms of samba and there was something new in terms of rock, which for me was crap, a misrepresentation of blues and boogie-woogie. I was terrified of the sound of the guitar in Elvis Presley's days. When I heard the Beatles, I thought: 'How weird, are they able to do this wonder with a guitar?!'”.
When discussing bossa nova, Gilberto defends Tom Jobim, attributing to him the formal invention of the genre: “Jobim attended that little group of the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra linked to Claudio Santoro, who wanted new music for Brazil, and that included a song renewal. Santoro has typically bossa nova pieces, but they are erudite. Bossa was directly influenced by jazz, but indirectly it inherited the French harmony of Debussy. Some of my first songs also had this characteristic and people come to ask me if I was influenced by bossa, but it didn't even exist when I made these songs. Theoretically speaking, bossa is 100% Jobim”.
Minutes before our departure, the last question asks Gilberto Mendes to define, on the eve of his 90th birthday, who Gilberto Mendes is. He notes that the wind has just changed direction and explains that the new gusts are coming from the southwest. He says that it is a bit like the wind, multidirectional, as much as the sea, open to the world, and concludes: “Gilberto Mendes, citizen of Santos. Son of a doctor and a primary school teacher. A person marked by the place where he lives. I've always had this oceanic thing, the seas, because the sea is also an opening to the world. I dreamed of Hawaii and even fulfilled my wish to go there. In my childhood, there were at least two ships a week that went to Europe. The Spanish lines were the cheapest and you could still go third class as that was where the intellectual side of the ship was. Poor students and professors, who were going to do their undergraduate or master's degrees in Europe. The ship's fine was third class. The newspapers here had the last two pages full of advertisements from international travel agencies. One of them, Japanese, was called Osaka, and I was fascinated just thinking about Japan. Others led to Finland, England. I also remember an Italian shipping company called the Blue Star Line, which, to me, sounded like a beautiful song name.”
A natural perception for someone like Gilberto, who sees life through the sensorial lens of music. We said goodbye, with the promise to return to celebrate its centenary. He smiles, shyly, and says: “Agreed!”.