A Conversation with David Byrne

“It’s enough to play it, and any listener… gets immediately absorbed by it just for the pleasure of hearing, without requiring any accessory or theoretical babble. It was like returning children and joy to the earth again.”
Two characterizations of the sonata as a principle of composition:
An amusement
A form of slavery
by Tom Zé
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

A Conversation with David Byrne

“It’s enough to play it, and any listener… gets immediately absorbed by it just for the pleasure of hearing, without requiring any accessory or theoretical babble. It was like returning children and joy to the earth again.”
Two characterizations of the sonata as a principle of composition:
An amusement
A form of slavery
by Tom Zé
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

A Conversation with David Byrne

Tom Zé
18 Snaps

I stumbled upon the music of Tom Zé accidentally. On my first trip to Brazil, in 1986, I went to Salvador (Bahia) and Rio, and in the latter city I did a little record shopping. Some artists had been recommended to me, but largely I was buying blind, as there were no guides to Brazilian music available and finding it on the internet wasn’t possible yet. I came upon one disc (these were all vinyl) that had the word samba in the title, but instead of a girl in a bikini on the cover, there was coiled barbed wire. Something must be different about this one—so I threw that in as well.

When I listened to it back in New York, I was shocked. The record, Estudando o Samba, was more akin to some New York downtown experimental work than the lilting melodies and sexy rhythms of the more well-known Brazilian artists, or of the popular samba recordings. Who was this guy? Where did this record come from, and how did it come about?

I asked Arto Lindsay, a New York no-wave musician (of the band DNA) who grew up in Brazil and who has gone on to a successful career producing records there. He said Tom was part of the Tropicália cultural movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, though while some of the others involved in that scene went on to greater success (Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso), Zé never became as popular as they did. He also continued to make more probing and experimental music, while they managed to find a way to meld their innovations with more accessible popular songs. When I bought his record, he was on the verge of being forgotten, or being considered a historical footnote at best.

What was unique about Tom’s music is that, while radical, it was also rooted in popular music. This wasn’t noise or intentionally difficult music—it had roots in the traditional music and instrumentation of the Brazilian Northeast (what we might compare to our rural South), while simultaneously referencing Cage, Stockhausen, Reich, Glass, and other “serious” new music composers. Maybe you could even compare him to Captain Beefheart in that way—in that artist’s unique combination of deep rural blues, dada, and serious composition.

I received some complaints from Brazilians asking why my North American label was releasing Tom Zé of all people, and why didn’t I pick some more beautiful and popular artist instead of this half-forgotten weirdo? Well, after a while, a mainly younger generation of Brazilians came to know Tom’s music and his incredibly innovative performances that sometimes incorporated grinders and floor polishers as instruments! They saw him as a kindred spirit to what they were doing, as many of us in North America and in Europe did as well. As a result, Tom is now well known and respected in Brazil, and he can make a living from his music.

Tom came from a very small town in rural Bahia, a state that included the town of Salvador, from which Caetano and Gil and others emerged. His town didn’t have electricity during his childhood. (He wrote in one song about everyone coming to marvel and stare at a light bulb.) He eventually studied music at the University of Bahia, just when some innovative teachers were being brought in to teach there. This formative moment was what I focused on in this interview. I see this as a moment in our culture where funds to music in schools have been cut, and attitudes toward the teaching of music are sometimes becoming ossified and not as creative as they could be. I myself didn’t have a formal musical education, so this all fascinates me—the effect this period had on Tom (and on many others) was profound.

Thanks to Christopher Dunn (check out his own work!) for translating and helping clarify a lot of issues. Thanks to Tom’s wife, Neusa, who is patient and helpful as always, and, of course, thanks to Tom, who continues to be a huge source of hope, optimism, and inspiration.

—David Byrne


DAVID BYRNE: Is music taught in secondary schools in Brazil? What kind of music is taught?

TOM ZÉ: Music education has not been a requirement in Brazilian schools for many years. This year it will be reinstated. Some schools already included music in their curricula. For example, the Colégio Construarte, here in São Paulo, has an elementary curriculum for students up to nine years old who receive musical education. They learn about the use of one’s own body to make sound, voice as an instrument, the practice and recognition of rhythms, the identification of rhythms with corporal movement, and the recognition of sounds produced in nature and by instruments. In 2011, musical education will be restored in all schools.

DB: This is great news! Sorry if it is a surprise to be asking about music education—it fascinates me at the moment. Art and writing and other creative endeavors seem to be getting let go of here and in the U.S. at the moment; there are big cutbacks going on. I think it’s particularly sad, as I think it turns us into a nation of art, music, and writing consumers, as opposed to creators. It turns us into passive beings who accept the assumption that others can always make better stuff than you can. Encouraging students to flex their creative muscles doesn’t mean they necessarily have to be artists or musicians, but it opens up new neurological pathways—ways of thinking that are useful for all sorts of careers. That’s not a question, I know, it’s a rant. I’m glad to see Brazil is more enlightened in that respect.

TZ: I talk a lot with Renato Lellis, the son of Lauro Lellis, both of whom play in my band. Renato is enrolled in the music program of the Faculdade Santa Marcelina here in São Paulo. In addition to composition, perception, and instruments, there are other classes related directly to music, like anthropology; they read books like R. Murray Schafer’s The Thinking Ear: Complete Writings on Music Education. There are also courses on the history of music, and computer courses that teach students about soundediting software for recording and mixing. When I was in high school, in the 1950s, we had music in the curriculum, but the classes were poorly taught. For the next several decades, this subject wasn’t taught. Today I have little information about what is taught in high school. I was passionate about my musical training in the Free Seminars of Music at the University of Bahia.1 In the 1950s, Hans Joachim Koellreutter was reluctant to accept the invitation of the university president, Edgard Santos, to come to Bahia, due to the ridiculous music curriculum imposed by the Ministry of Education. The president told him to disregard the official curriculum and establish the kind of musical instruction that he thought was best. The school had the most competent professors from Europe, like Ernst Widmer, Walter Smetak, Piero Bastianelli, as well as the Brazilian Yulo Brandão. They transformed my life and those of my classmates into real passion for work. We studied all week, even on Sundays, until 10 p.m

DB: Can you describe some of their work? I’ve heard of Smetak and Widmer—what was it like? And how did they teach? What were their methods that so inspired you?

TZ: Ernst Widmer was the founder, together with his students, of the Bahian Composers Group, and he was the director of the School of Music at the university. Smetak was my cello professor when I first started the program, but soon thereafter I started to work with Piero Bastianelli. This was during Smetak’s most important phase, when he was building instruments.

DB: Ah, what kind of instruments did he build? Were these in any way an influence on your own mechanical instruments?

TZ: There were two main things. He used materials from the region around Salvador, like coconuts, calabashes, local beads, and seeds, the same kind of wood used to make berimbaus [one-stringed instruments that look like a bow with a gourd attached to one end, often associated with the dance/martial art capoeira]. As far as his influence on me, I think that there was one, but if someone says the opposite, I won’t deny it. My contact with him was more in passing. My contact with Widmer was closer. Under his direction, the school was under the sway of Schoenberg during the period after Pierrot Lunaire. With Pierrot, Schoenberg freed us from the prison of tonality only to create, with twelve-tone composition, a more complex and blander prison that was alleviated to some extent by serialism (involving tonal series that were smaller than twelvetone, thereby allowing greater freedom for the composer), which produced results with little intensity.3 Widmer and the other professors respected those methods known as “integral serialism,” but struggled to make sure that we learned the method without becoming slaves to it. In this and other ways, they wanted us to learn the technique while maintaining a spirit of rebellion, which gave us great joy and excitement for our work.

DB: I love your prison metaphors! “Escaping the prison of tonality only to be locked into the blander and more complex prison of twelve-tone”—as if these utopian musical ideologies are like any ideology, liberating but just as confining. I didn’t receive formal music education myself—my North American experience was learning the plastic flute as a child, then home violin lessons and the choir in secondary school (which I was asked to leave). There was no discussion about music, theory, or what it was or could be. I taught myself guitar on my own, and I have to say the newspapers and magazines of the time were informative. One newspaper, for example, might mention that the composer Iannis Xenakis had constructed a special building to play his composition in: who could imagine such a thing! And then, luckily, there was a public library nearby where I could find a record, not of that piece, but of others by that composer. The same was true with what was called “folk music” at the time: one would hear or read about some composer, and often recordings could be found at the library. I heard blues and early jazz and Indian ragas…. I began to realize that music was hard to define. It covered such a wide area of styles and approaches that almost anything could be music if it was “organized.” Were there ways for you to hear foreign music, music from São Paulo, even, when you were in school? Either recordings or performances? Also, can you explain “integral serialism”—how that could be more liberating? How specifically could this approach encourage the spirit of rebellion within a prescribed technique?

TZ: It was created by Pierre Boulez and Stockhausen to radicalize the twelve-tone method such that not only the sounds, but the timbre, dynamics, tempo, and all other musical elements were serialized. Integral serialism was more confining. As for the spirit of the school, it can be summed up in this way: we will teach you what developed through tradition and/or modernity. In proposing exercises, however, there were clear incentives to invent different solutions. For example, the irreverent treatment of certain sertanejo [rural backland] folklore was the starting point for many works by the Bahian Composers Group.


DB: Are most popular composers more or less self-taught?

TZ: Up to my generation, popular musicians were mostly self-taught. Today there is a larger percentage of graduates of universities and other schools. Here in São Paulo, there is an institution called Oficinas de Música [Music Workshops], sponsored by the state government, whose courses are administered by musicians, both popular and erudite. In the 1970s, I taught several of these courses.

DB: What was your teaching method?

TZ: In certain circles in Brazil, the study of guitar is extremely sophisticated. The bossa nova group regarded it as a symbol and as a method, with João Gilberto elevating the study of guitar to its most sophisticated extreme. I used the “Bandeirantes” method by the guitarist and composer Aníbal Augusto Sardinh. I explained it in order to make it easy for each student to learn and develop. I didn’t teach how to harmonize melodies. I showed the student that there was always a tendency to leave the tonic home and make a leap to the subdominant, and through the attraction to the dominant to return to the tonic. T-S-D. So I would teach a series of intermediary chords between T and S and ask the student, while trying to harmonize the melody, to choose the most adequate chords. In this way, he would learn how to harmonize.

DB: Do you think these courses are successful? Are the contemporary students as inspired as you were in Bahia?

TZ: In Bahia, all of my colleagues had brilliant careers.

DB: Do you think the graduates of these institutions approach music differently? More academically? More theoretically? With more love?

TZ: Although Widmer encouraged aesthetic experimentation, we all, rather curiously, maintained a close connection to the sertão and worked with a musical aesthetic that came from that region.

DB: Wow, this is interesting! Of course I hear that connection to “country music” in your work, always, but I didn’t know it was widespread. It’s interesting that Widmer, coming from a somewhat European tradition, didn’t disdain the local folk and popular music. Often, here in the U.S., the institutes regard popular music as being low-class and of little value. Vulgar. And then there is the simultaneous impulse: to revere deep popular traditions— folk songs absorbed by Bartók and Berio, blues by Gershwin…. What was the attitude toward popular music in the university—both popular dance music and music of the sertão?

TZ: Using his work with northeastern music as a starting point, Widmer would talk to us and sometimes demonstrated live. For example, there was a person who used to come to the school to pick up a colleague and would sound the car horn with a certain rhythm, which became very popular among the students: pá-papapá-papá. One day, Widmer was there at the piano, playing these using wide, dissonant chords, as if he was testing the possibility of creating a composition. These things impressed me very much.

DB: Does studying music (or art) kill some of the innocent sense of discovery? Or does it open up more pathways and opportunities?

TZ: My lord! As you know, David, that is one of the most bizarre and unfair prejudices that swirl around the study of art in general. For us, studying music meant the opening of imaginative horizons.

DB: How does one balance what is lost and what is gained?

TZ: There were absolutely no losses whatsoever, only advances.


DB: What place does music have in Brazilian society? For example, is music considered a form of culture? Is it respected like literature or architecture? Or is it considered primarily a form of escape and entertainment? Or all of the above?

TZ: In Brazilian society, music is all of this at once: culture, escape, entertainment. Nevertheless, music is as respected as architecture and literature, with interesting research about it, such as the work of Luiz Tatit, who has several books about popular music, studied on different levels, using the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce in addition to semiotics from France, Russia, and other European centers.

DB: Is that respect given to popular music a new development, or has it always been that way in Brazil, for as long as you remember? Here there was a change in the mid-’70s. Before that, the mainstream journals didn’t write about popular music much. I remember the British newspapers didn’t review popular music at all until fairly recently—they viewed it as something not serious. No doubt your music and some others are taken seriously, but do the journals write about popular music from the Northeast, or funk or other forms? Assuming some of their songs are not all about guns, sex, and partying, are there the equivalent of narcocorridos, the Mexican popular ballads glorifying drug dealers and outlaws, in Brazil? What approach do the composers take?

TZ: It is precisely the opposite here in Brazil. In the past, there was more attention paid to experimental popular music. But the artists who sold the most records and had the biggest audiences always got a lot more attention. In relation to funk and the music of the Northeast, they got more recognition when they attracted the attention of academics or were praised by a prestigious writer. But now, in the struggle to attract an audience, I see a lot of groups trying anything to increase the promise of a wider public. Brazilian funk is also linked to violence and misogyny. I’ll confess I do not know how the press has examined this aspect. I discovered a kind of jewel lost in the mire of violence in the refrain “Tô ficando atoladinha” [“I’m getting jammed up”], which ends up being a microtonal, plurisemiotic metarefrain in addition to producing, oddly enough, the most piercing cry of women against the sexual and social segregation that they suffer in any class of Brazilian society.

DB: Do you view your live performances as connected to your CDs, or is a live performance a completely different form?

TZ: My performances onstage completely transform the recordings, because I try my best to liberate the topic of the lyrics from the words, and show it with the body

DB: Beautifully put. Speaking of the body and music— you did some music for Grupo Corpo, the dance company that has a tradition of commissioning important artists to do scores. Can you describe that experience?

TZ: The first piece I did was Parabelo, in collaboration with José Miguel Wisnik. Since that northeastern quality runs through all of my work, this music was also much appreciated by traditionalists. You know part of the composition because two songs from it were included on Fabrication Defect. One was “Xiquexique,” which is successful in dance clubs dedicated to northeastern music, the forró clubs. I had all those themes stored in a kind of assembly line, on which I could tinker with ostinatos [repetitive melodic figures, almost like a loop] on guitar and bass, and another very sharp ostinato on the cavaquinho [a small steel four-stringed instrument the size of a ukulele]. When I called Zé Miguel to compose, I showed him these provisional ideas, and he was very excited. Then we went to the studio, where he made invaluable contributions.

DB: Did the dance company or the choreographer make any musical suggestions? Were they in any way instrumental in shaping your composition?

TZ: Those Mineiros—people from the state of Minas Gerais—are very interesting. They do not mince words. When I was doing Santagustin, I spent a month working on an idea. Paulo Pederneiras came to listen, and immediately said: “This is all wrong.” And since I had no attachment to it, I just threw it away and began developing the ideas that now everyone can hear on the record. This record features those horns with whistles that you have commented on before. In the case of the composition Parabelo, at one point the choreographer Rodrigo Pederneiras sent someone to tell us, “I am with the whole cast onstage for over half an hour. For god’s sake, send me something that can be used as a pas de deux, or else I will drown the group in sweat and exhaustion!”

DB: What are you reading now?

TZ: I am reading The Masks of God: Creative Mythology by Joseph Campbell, a long study about the presence of myth in life and in Eastern and Western societies. In this case, “music” is mythology. I can also say that I “hear” the books by Harold Bloom about poetry. He advises us to repeat poems until we memorize them, which ends up being more like listening than like introspective reading.

DB: Such great books! I read them years ago. I think Campbell was influenced a lot by Jung, and also by Heinrich Zimmer, who wrote a nice little book called Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (I’m not sure if there is a Portuguese version). I read Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques recently, and found it very poetic (his passage on sunsets), but also somewhat upsetting. He tramped into small villages with a huge entourage, which must have overwhelmed everyone in those remote places, and describes giving the villagers guns in trade for carvings and other artifacts. Guns! Campbell discusses contemporary myths—I believe he mentions Joyce quite a bit as an example—which I can appreciate, but now we tend to view Hollywood films (especially of the twentieth century) as the contemporary myths of our time. They were more popular than Joyce, and being in a movie theater is often compared to entering into a dream state.

TZ: Yes, incidentally, I have read Heinrich Zimmer in Portuguese: Myths and Symbols, Filosofias da Índia, The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil—this one, you know, has very good stories, also organized by Joseph Campbell. Neusa (my wife) had to read (twice) the whole Filosofias da Índia aloud to me over more than a year. She worked in a publishing house and indicated Campbell’s The Power of Myth to publish, in the 1980s. It is a coincidence you have told me about Campbell and Zimmer— I was surprised and glad because of this coincidence. There is little time left for Lévi-Strauss, after this enthusiasm. I agree that movies display the present myths nowadays.


DB: Are there books, songs, films, or literature you might nominate as being Brazilian myths of our time?

TZ: It’s been weak. There was a popularization of myths written by important writers via the soap operas, like, for example, Dias Gomes, who wrote, among others, O Bem Amado [The Beloved]. Jorge Amado’s works have also been broadcast on television in soap operas, in interesting adaptations by good screenwriters. They had a lot of popular success.

DB: What are you listening to now?

TZ: The Brazilian artist who impresses me at present is Fernanda Takai, a woman of Japanese descent from Minas Gerais, who sings with great subtlety and greatly values the lyrics. In fact, for many months I have been listening to the late quartets of Beethoven. I also have a passion for the work of Philip Glass, which represents one of the few moments in the history of Western music in which the composer became free from the sonata form—that amusement that entertained people starting in the eighteenth century and continued ad aeternum, like a form of slavery.

DB: I think Glass will be pleased to hear this, if he reads the Believer. Can you tell us more about the sonata form? How it is an amusement and also a form of slavery?

TZ: When I speak of Glass, it is because we have the sad habit of forgetting the participants in many movements. Here I am doing an injustice, not remembering La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and others. Our enslavement to the Viennese School and the methods of Schoenberg “doomed to sadness” all composers of the first part of the century. What Glass and his colleagues did was get rid of those chains. They brought joy to the world again. When you hear a work by them, it is not necessary to understand phasing, linear additive process, additive process block, and textural additive process and overlapping pattern [compositional algorithms and approaches used mainly in European serial classical music, using mathematics as an aid in composition—running a phrase backward, or at double time, or chopped and shuffled, or letting all the permutations of these possibilities play out]. It’s enough to play it, and any listener understands immediately, becomes immediately interested in it, gets immediately absorbed by it just for the pleasure of hearing, without requiring any accessory or theoretical babble. It was like returning children and joy to the earth again.

DB: I just saw the short video Vincent Moon did of you in São Paulo. It’s lovely, and you singing the first song on the balcony of the apartment tower, with other apartment towers surrounding you—singing about a man who wants to “find his cattle”—it seemed like a man who was lamenting more than lost cattle. It seemed you were singing to a planet that had been completely paved over, to a planet on which São Paulo and its towers had covered the entire Earth.

TZ: The sonata became a sort of scapegoat. The truth is that integral serialism obsessively repeated forms of classicism, romanticism, etc., like the fugue, contrasting themes, developments, endless imitations, suites, rondos, and an endless group of old forms. There may be several reasons why the sonata has always attracted great interest: the presence of contrasting themes, for example, which was a common concern among the Greeks, registered the presence of the other, the different, the foreign, to the point of saying that without the other there is no civilization. There is a case of formula repetition that is not part of minimalist technique. For example, the ostinatos I use on bass and cavaquinho, the bass ostinatos of chaconnes and passacaglias [seventeenth-century musical forms featuring repetitive bass lines], some works that use repetition, like Ravel’s Boléro.

DB: I have to say, when I first heard Glass and the others you mention, they were very much using instruments—Farfisa organs, saxophones, drums—that we were all used to hearing in rock and pop music. The way the music was organized was, of course, different, but the sounds were familiar. I sense there is something similar in your music—the sounds of forró and the cavaquinho, for example—whose sounds and sonic world would also not shout “classical,” but are familiar and approachable. What music or show are you working on now? Do you approach each record now as a project?

TZ: I talked to you about mythology, Campbell, etc., because I’m now trying to imitate my left hand. That is to say: My right hand lives in the postmodern age; it can move with the high specialization of time. But my left hand, when I try using the 3/4 rhythm of a waltz, it’s just awkward and unskillful. My left hand gives me an idea of what man was like during the Stone Age. Simply put, I live postmodernity on my right side and the Stone Age on my left. I mean, my left hand knows more about the past of the human brain. I’m trying to compose while imagining the ability to think in a limping sort of way, less specialized in terms of measure, accuracy, tempo, melos….

Wow, I don’t know—sounds like Tom was in the middle of a sentence… but it is definitely intentional. He’s making a nice point in a typical Tom Zé way, describing how we all contain contemporary elements and also elements that link us to the deep past, to the collective unconscious, in Jung’s way of explaining it. Our ancient mythic selves play on one hand while the other (metaphorically) plays with the internet and contemporary gadgets and postmodern philosophies. We contain all of that, and both hands are needed to “play the piano”—I think that is the point Tom is making here. He’s trying to get both his hands involved in contributing to his creative work; he’s asking himself: how does one achieve that balance? It’s a question that, of course, applies to any creative endeavor. How do we balance the power of storytelling with the reality of our fragmented multimedia world? How does one balance the limitless possibilities of digital recording with the power of a song? I hope this interview gave a little peek into Tom Zé’s world. If I had to compare him with someone, it would be the late Robert Rauschenberg, another generous artist who also often spoke in hilarious and beautifully deep metaphors. The interview was also a chance to think about music (and arts and humanities) education in the era of budget cuts, financial meltdowns, and endless super-expensive wars. In my opinion, all of those are related. You can’t wage endless wars and not have to pay at some point, and is paying for wars with our education and our children’s future really our best option? It’s instructive that when Tom went to the University of Bahia there was a utopian feeling in Brazil, certainly until the dictatorship cracked down. There was a feeling of possibility that new ideas could lead to fresh new work. At the same time, Bahia wasn’t and isn’t the wealthiest state in Brazil, but Tom’s experience shows us that innovation and inspiration don’t always require huge budgets and up-to-the-minute technology.

—D.B., sunny Western Chelsea

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