Making It Heard: A History of Brazilian Sound Art - Rui Chaves & Fernando Iazzetta (eds.). New York: Bloomsbury, 2019
by Igor Reis Reyner
Edited by a Brazilian composer, performer, and researcher and a Portuguese sound artist, performer, and researcher, Making It Heard is the result of numerous fortuitous encounters catalyzed by NuSom – Research Center on Sonology, a research hub funded by the University of São Paulo (USP) and the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), and coordinated by Fernando Iazzetta, Rogério Costa, and Marcelo Queiroz. The publication is part of a larger project that also involved the release of a three-volume online homonymous album by music record label Berro – Músicas e Som and is linked to Nendú, an online platform dedicated to presenting and mapping the work of contemporary Brazilian sound artists. The online album is an invaluable companion to the book for it allows readers to listen to several sound artworks mentioned in the essays, such as Cildo Meireles’s Mebs/Caraxia (1970), Lílian Campesato’s Fedra (2014), Duo N–1 (N minus One)’s Surfing on Turntables, or the interview given by Paulo Bruscky to Rádio Clube de Pernambuco on the occasion of the International Ra(u)dio Art Show in 1979.
The book comprises an introduction, eleven multifarious essays authored by sound artists and researchers, a foreword by artist Ricardo Basbaum, and an afterword by ethnomusicologist Ana María Ochoa Gautier. The essays are grouped into five sections that are named according to spaces (Barracão; Avenida) and aspects (Abre-Alas; Bateria; Batucada) that are related to samba as well as to Brazilian carnival. Though the association between carnival, samba, and Brazilian sound art is only briefly discussed by the editors (p. 33) – despite its relevance, assuming that a fraction of this book’s readership might not be familiar with Brazilian musical genres and festivities – this editorial choice can be construed as a telling nod to a crucial and well-known facet of Brazilian culture, aligning with one of the main aims of this publication, that is, providing “an overview of some of the cultural and social forces that frame the environment in which Brazilian sound art has developed” (p. 11). The overtones of samba and carnival, moreover, reverberate through Giuliano Obici’s and GG Albuquerque’s chapters. The former shows how Brazilian sound art makes fruitful use of gambiarra (the Brazilian fusion of Do-It-Yourself and makeshift devices), which can be understood as a form of “carnivalization” of the technique, since it is a provisional solution that “reverses [or subverts] the order of artifacts” (p. 117) in the same way that carnival, for Mikhail Bakhtin, temporarily rearranges social hierarchy and roles. GG Albuquerque, on the other hand, draws on Humberto Franceschi to claim that the history of samba intersects with the history of Brazilian experimental music and sound art.
Themes such as racism, sexism, and colonialism are as crucial for the essays as the fundamental debates about the nature and characteristics of Brazilian sound art. As Fernando Iazzetta notes, in Part One – Abre-Alas, “a discussion about sound experimentalism in Brazil starts with understanding how the forces that shaped the cultural diversity of this country, marked by miscegenation and the impact of colonialism, were constituted” (p. 11). To address this issue, Iazzetta proposes a set of scenes that converge on or intersect with some of the recurring themes in Brazilian sound art. However, he cautions that they are not to be subsumed under “a linear succession of historical facts, nor to establish a causal connection between artistic-related event” (p. 11). After this caveat, he shows in broad strokes how Brazilian modernism, Música Nova, tropicalism, the Brazilian electroacoustic endeavors, and responses to digital culture have shaped Brazilian sound art. His pronounced enthusiasm for modernist values and his overreliance on São Paulo universities’ protagonism, however, sometimes read as reinforcing hegemonic discourses that the book itself often takes to task. Notwithstanding, Iazzetta convincingly demonstrates how Brazilian experimental music is historically tied to Brazil’s colonial past, arguing that the first recorded event of the genre was a “staged ‘Brazilian party’ during the entrance of Henry II to Rouen in 1550 on the banks of the Senna,” the same event that inspired Michel de Montaigne to write the essay “Of Cannibals.” Iazzetta’s analysis of the formative moments of Brazilian sound art paves the way for Rui Chaves to contextualize in more detail the sound art scene with which this collection engages as well as the political backdrop against which it emerges. The power of Chaves’ chapter lies in the way it addresses the urgent need for establishing conversation and making it, as well as oneself, heard in our present-day political times. In order to do so, we should create the possibility for communities and subjects to find forms of sociability predicated on the “subjects’ ability to be listened to and heard” (p. 48), a demand for which Brazilian sound art would aptly cater. This debate fruitfully returns in Ochoa Gautier’s afterword, where she asks, “but making it heard to whom?” (p. 249), before suggesting that “the central proposal of this publication [is] its optimistic and utopian bet on the possibility of a south to north academic dialogue amid highly unequal international apparati of academic recognition, and in the midst of the polarization of the aural public sphere due to the transnational rise of authoritarianism(s), and in a sphere of predominance of English-language scholarship” (p. 258, her emphasis).
In Part Two – Bateria, Vivian Caccuri and Yuri Bruscky give an insightful overview of nascent Brazilian sound art in the 1960s and 1970s. Interrogating artist Hélio Oiticica’s statement “music is what I make” (p. 72), Caccuri shows how, during those decades, Brazilian visual artists often “incorporat[ed] sound and referenc[ed] big icons from popular music in their work, with attitudes that vary from celebration to criticism” (p. 73). In doing so, they “made the image of music’s myths tangible and malleable” (p. 72). Whilst Caccuri is interested in the impact of the phonographic industry over Brazilian visual artists, Bruscky examines how “tape trading practices among mail-art practitioners during the 1970s established channels of exchange and cooperation, enabling artists to circulate their production” (p. 95). Though the article falls short of giving what it promises, that is, “a sociological approach to processes that culminated in the realization of the two IRAs [International Ra(u)dio Art Shows]” (p. 97), it nonetheless provides the reader with a thorough and well-documented overview of the IRAs that took place in Recife in 1978 and 1979, organized by leading artists Paulo Bruscky and Daniel Santiago.
Part Three – Barracão features two articles devoted to the instrument-making that lies at the core of the varied forms of experimentation between sound and technology in Brazil. In one of the most insightful essays of this collection, Obici explores how “certain modes of artistic production in a Brazilian context characterized by an improvisational method of working with materials, devices, technology, and institutions” (p. 115) can be better accounted for by means of the notion of gambiarra, that is, “a popular Brazilian expression that describes an improvised and informal way of solving an everyday problem when adequate tools and resources are not available” (p. 115). He shows how gambiarra negotiates with other more canonical practices in the field, such as circuit-bending and hardware picking, whilst representing a creative and innovative way of “overcoming moments of crisis, or sociocultural endemic precariousness” (p. 118). Commenting on the work of Bruno Palazzo, Gabriela Mureb, and Gustavo Torres, André Damião addresses “the relationship between sound, object, and technological mediation in Brazilian sound art” (p. 133). Through a vivid description of shops that repair and resell second-hand audio equipment or dismantle electronics to salvage and resell individual parts, Damião provides an entryway into the links between forms of consumption and circulation of goods in peripheral capitalism and hardware-hacking practices.
In Part Four – Avenida, Paulo Dantas discusses how Brazilian artists Thelmo Cristovam and Alexandre Fenerich expressively play with the inevitable presence of the subject who makes the field recordings, while Thaís Aragão provides an overview of the literature on sound mapping before adopting what she describes as “a post-representational approach to cartography – cartography is to create maps, and maps are practices” (p. 167). As a solution to a few of the issues regarding sound mapping, Aragão presents Mapa Sonoro CWB, a project led by artist Lílian Nakahodo that consists of “an online collaborative platform for storing, sharing, and listening to field recordings made in Curitiba” (p. 173). For Aragão, the ground-breaking dimension of Nakahodo’s map lies in the fact that, “from a patrimonial point of view, in order to preserve the typical sounds of the city, the artist turned to the relationship of its inhabitants with their environment’s sound” (p. 173).
Finally, Part Five – Batucada clusters together three essays that are very similar in their politically engaged tone. Lílian Campesato’s and Tânia Mello Neiva’s chapters broach the notions of gender embedded in Brazilian women’s sound artworks, whereas GG Albuquerque collates a set of different instances of Brazilian black music and sound art so as to substantiate the thesis that black culture should be seen as avant-gardist and experimental rather than referred to patronizingly as examples of tradition or folklore. Campesato’s study is based primarily on interviews and her personal relationship with artists Marie Carange, Paula Garcia, and Sofia Cesar. Their artistic trajectories are analyzed according to a decolonial perspective interested in “reconfiguring what we do from other bases, from other angles of understanding,” rather than in “breaking with the hegemonic traits offered to us by other cultures” (p. 191). GG Albuquerque also rehearses a decolonial stance in his attempt to counter the hegemony of Brazilian modernism in avant-garde historical and narrative production. He shows, therefore, that innovation and experimentalism are widespread principles of black culture in Brazil by mapping out “a complex and plural network of black experimentalist creation” (p. 222), which comprises the samba do Estácio – the samba recorded in the 1930s and produced in the Estácio neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro – as well as a number of black artists, such as Tantão e os Fita, God Pussy, Leo Negro, Juçara Marçal, Bongar, Nelson da Rabeca, Samba de Coco Raízes de Arcoverde, Dj Polyvox, and Iasmin Turbininha, among others. Drawing on Afrofuturism and Renato Nogueira’s concept of afro-perspectivism, Albuquerque makes a strong case about how black experimentalism challenges ossified notions of time and linearity in musical typology by proposing instead spiral and cyclical temporalities and a form of “incorporated philosophy” (p. 219) or “body-thinking” (p. 217). However, in his attempt to grant black experimentalism a place of pride, he encounters a pitfall. Keen to overcome colonial and racist thinking, he ends up not being radical enough; instead of debunking the colonial discursive framework, he champions the inclusion of a dimension of Brazilian culture silenced by racism into an inherently colonial discourse, that of the avant-garde – as Baudelaire wrote in the 19th century: “Poets of combat. Avant-garde writers. This habit of using military metaphors does not denote militant minds, but those made for discipline, that is, for conformity, minds born of servitude.” In the last essay of this collection, Neiva briefly comments on the works of Lílian Campesato and Leandra Lambert before focusing her analysis on the works of Vanessa De Michelis, as she believes the latter’s “praxis […] is more representative of a political approach to sound art” (p. 229). As De Michelis “plays a role in deconstructing stereotypes that link, for example, technology to masculinity and men, allowing women also to imprint their characteristics on the medium” (p. 236), her work is exemplary of how “women […] have been impelled, through their art and associated creative methodology, to question or try to break with some of the norms that symbolize and reproduce, patriarchy and hegemonic values in the fields of experimental music and sound art” (p. 229).
The narratives gathered in this book provide a significant yet “contingent description of a national sound-based contemporary art scene” (p. 54). Together they address issues of production, recording, distribution, and sharing of Brazilian sound art and experimental music. Though intersected by a few theoretical blind spots – possibly a consequence of some of the authors’ desires to restrict their theoretical frameworks to what can exclusively be gleaned locally – this rich collection of essays ultimately seeks to start a conversation that should be continued. As with any conversation, reticence and gaps are crucial so people can engage and respond.