What do the Brazilians think of Caetano Veloso

Re-Inventing Smetak
Sound revolutionary, experimenter, "witcher"

José Miguel Wisnik, Tom Zé, Marco Antônio Guimarães and Marco Scarassati talk about the importance of Walter Smetak for Brazilian music. Concert and discussion event commemorate the legacy of the musician.

In the early 1970s, Walter Smetak (1913-1984) undertook a musical experiment in the São Francisco Church in Ouro Preto (Minas Gerais state). Legend has it that the sounds that the multi-instrumentalist elicited from an electric organ with the help of his hands, nose and tongue caused the crystal chandelier to go into circles and even hit the walls of the church, which is considered one of the masterpieces of the Minas Baroque wobbled. “Almost everyone left the church in a hurry. Only a few hippies who had nothing more to lose stayed, and me, ”said Smetak at the time. "They called me a witcher, and it was just a physical reaction."

The episode says a lot about the composer, musician, philosopher, poet, visual artist, scientist and playwright who was born in Switzerland in 1937 and came to Brazil on the run from Nazism. After he settled in Salvador da Bahia in the 1950s, he was supposed to create more than 100 instruments from materials such as calabashes and plastic tubes in his workshop in the basement under the music department of the University of Bahia. His creative, innovative work attracted the attention of names such as Tom Zé, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Marco Antônio Guimarães from the Uakti group (1977-2016).

Now the Swiss-Brazilian inspires the concert “Re-Inventing Smetak” by the German Ensemble Modern (with specially composed works by the Brazilians Arthur Kampela, Daniel Moreira and Paulo Rios Filho as well as the Australian Liza Lim) and is the subject of a discussion under the title Invenções de Smetak: o multiculturalismo do compositor e inventor de instrumentos, da música clássica à vanguarda baiana, (Smetak's inventions: the multiculturalism of the composer and instrument inventor from classical music to the avant-garde of Bahia) with the sound artist Marco Scarassatti, the musician, composer and essayist José Miguel Wisnik and the artistic director of Ensemble Modern, Christian Fausch. Wisnik, Scarassatti, Tom Zé and Guimarães talk about the "witcher".

A new musical order

Tom Zé: Smetak's work is a journey outside the parameters of Western music, a nucleus in which the new in syntax and form is given new strength.

José Miguel Wisnik: By leaving the tonal order on which practically all Western music has been based since the 18th century, the Cartesian division into equal semitones, which supports the tone system and its atonal, dodecaphonic and serial modifications, Smetak is by no means simply undertaking a return to modal patterns and traditions, but seeks to invent a new place for the musical experience that is open to the non-domesticated forces of sound. This gesture sounds Pythagorean and progressive at the same time, and his invented instruments, the “sound sculptures” and sculptures, which in their form themselves have a concave and convex relationship to the sound, which is centered and decentered, epicenter of cosmogonies and plays a crucial role in it a point of cosmic dispersion.

Reinventing Smetak

Marco Scarassatti: Reinventing Smetak today also means making a Brazil appear almost in the sense of Thomas More ’" Utopia "(1516). Smetak's Brazil is mythical, the cradle of a new civilization that was heralded and had to be prepared in order to usher in a new cycle of existence in the world. For us Brazilians in the current political moment, this initiative has failed because we are facing dark times, as the writer Raduan Nassar recently said. In any case, the power of this Brazil lies much more in the modus operandi of the Amerindian and African patterns, the power of ritual, the seemingly precarious craftsmanship, what our environment offers us as a possibility of creativity, invention and reinvention Handicrafts, botched, intuition, spirituality, improvisation, just like Smetak did.

  • © Familia Smetak

    Photo with Smetak

  • © Familia Smetak


  • © Familia Smetak


  • © Família Smetak

The legacy of the "witcher"

José Miguel Wisnik: In the specific case of music, Smetak certainly contributed to an opening of the mind, that is, to a non-conventional conception not only of the repertoire and the possibilities of music, but even more, to an internal revolution in the underlying musical experience Systems. His major contribution is not limited to a work conceived as a series of specific products, but rather lies in pointing out possibilities and directions that undermine the linear, progressive path of music history.

Tom Zé: It is a legacy that is respected, celebrated, discussed and celebrated in verse and prose. There are a large number of references and comments, especially in the university field and in serious music. And there are expressions of popular music that reveal its great influence, as in the case of Marco Antonio Guimarães' group Uakti [1977-2016], to name just one.

Marco Antônio Guimarães: When I studied conducting and cello at the music school of the University of Bahia in Salvador from 1966 to 1971, I was a regular visitor to the instrument workshop that Smetak had there. I remember it as a huge room with different departments in the basement of the school, where we not only talked about music, but also about esoteric things, one of Smetak's favorite subjects. He was well educated, wrote poetry and plays. The encounter with Smetak changed my life! When I returned to Belo Horizonte in 1971, I began to create my own instruments: the first was significantly named "Chori-Smetano", in honor of the master. A few years later, Uakti was created.

Marco Scarassatti: Smetak was a tireless creator who, in his search for a spiritual art, opened up new fronts and outlined far more than what is practiced today in musical experimentalism in Brazil. In addition, he is a forerunner of our sound art, has influenced generations who keep his work, such as free improvisation, the construction of new instruments, kinetic instruments, sound sculpture, collective instruments, the microtonic current. In addition, it must be said that Smetak's work also enabled Brazilian visual artists to approach musical work through the materiality of his objects, machines and apparatus.

Guru of the Tropicália?

Marco Scarassatti: Thanks to his mystical, emblematic figure, Smetak eventually became a kind of guru for many musicians, such as Gilberto Gil. But I see no direct influence of the Swiss-Brazilian on the Tropicália [1967-1968], which in my opinion is more the result of the bubbling cultural mix of the city of Salvador in the 1950s and 1960s, as Antonio Risério in his book “Avant- garde na Bahia ”tells.

José Miguel Wisnik: Smetak was involved in a very bubbling moment in Brazilian culture, the confluence of artists and intellectuals from the most diverse areas to Salvador, inspired by the project of a top cultural education for the rector of the University of Bahia, Edgard Santos, at the end of the 1950s, Early 1960s. In many ways this was fundamental to the emergence of Cinema Novo and Tropicália. At least the inventions and gadgets (in the best sense of the word) by Smetak have left their mark on the wonderful inventions and gadgets of Tom Zé, who is also an inventor of “building blocks”, the household appliance keyboard and multiple sonic explorations. At the “Feira da Bahia” in Anhembi in São Paulo in 1974 I was able to experience an unbelievable and unforgettable improvisation concert between Smetak and Gilberto Gil (the one there “Acontece que eu sou baiano / acontece que ele haben é” [“I happen to be from Bahia / coincidentally it is not ”; after Dorival Caymmi] sang). And in my opinion Caetano Veloso was interested in the inherent reflection in Smetak's sound and did a lot to spread it. A curiosity on the side: I was once a participant in a panel discussion about Smetak with Caetano Veloso on the occasion of an exhibition of his instruments in the Galeria São Paulo in the 1980s. I spoke about the concave and convex nature of his relationship to sound, which gives Smetak a unique place in Western music. For fun, I mentioned Caetano Veloso's origins in the “Recôncavo” region. Inspired by this allusion, he later composed the song "Revonvexo".
Salvador Bahia
Public discussion + film screening O Alquimista do Som (1978)
4.7. (Tuesday), 7pm
Goethe-Institut Salvador-Bahia (Av.Sete de Setembro, 1809 - Corredor da Vitória)

Concert Ensemble Modern
5.7. (Wednesday), 7pm
Sala Principal do Teatro Castro Alves (Praça Dois de Julho, s / n - Campo Grande)

São Paulo
Wednesday 12 July, Sala São Paulo (Praça Júlio Prestes, 16 - Campos Elíseos)

18h30 - Round table “Smetak's inventions: the multiculturalism of the composer and instrument inventor from classical music to the avant-garde of Bahia” / “Invenções de Smetak: o multiculturalismo do compositor e inventor de instrumentos, da musica clássica à vanguarda baiana”. Sala Carlos Gomes. Free admission (tickets can be issued two hours in advance at the Sala São Paulo ticket office).

20h30 - “Reinventing Smetak” concert. Concert hall.