a column by
Stuart Broomer

Marco Scarassatti                                                                                      © 2019 Alexandre Amaral

“Half-intellectually and half sentimentally, when the war came along, I decided to use only quiet sounds. There seemed to be no truth, no good, in anything big in society. But quiet sounds were like loneliness, or love or friendship. Permanent, I thought, values, independent at least from Life, Time and Coca-Cola.” – John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing,” Silence

Once in a while, one comes across a musician whose perspective is particularly fresh, one that suggests an adjustment. Marco Scarassatti is one of those musicians. A Brazilian sound artist, improviser, composer and instrument builder, he frequently reflects an intense sense of place in his work, an ideal of presence, at the same time that he works within an increasingly globalized musical community that depends to a significant degree on social media, Youtube, etc., to get the word out and share developments, to get heard. Whether that’s ironic or something else, whether it treasures immediacy as loss or seeks to restore it, it increasingly reflects the dichotomies of our individual and shared experiences. If Scarassatti seems to be having his art in two distinctly different ways, it may be because it is the only way it can exist.

There’s much about his specific homeland that colors his work. He often plays the viola de cocho, a vernacular lute that he has modified to expand its possibilities in improvisation. He has been significantly influenced by Walter Smetak, a composer and sound sculptor little known outside Brazil. Scarassatti also explores soundscapes specific to his home environment, while in the past decade, he has become increasingly active in free improvisation circles in Europe, playing a host of self-made instruments including the “kraiser,” a box-like structure that houses sound devices from percussion to wind instruments. To say that Scarassatti wears many musical hats is literally true: he has made some musical helmets, based on construction workers’ hard hats with sound tubes hanging from the sides.

The Daily Life of Music

Where does one begin? Perhaps anywhere. My initial encounter with Scarassatti’s music was with an international quartet recorded in Lisbon, Rumor (Creative Sources; reviewed in Issue 54). The group has Scarassatti on sound sculptures and self-made instruments, with the Austrian Gloria Damijan on piano and toy piano, and two Lisboan trombonist Eduardo Chagas and Abdul Moimême playing prepared electric guitar. All of them used various unidentified “objects.” The ensemble’s unusual instrumentation and advanced listening skills break down individual identities into a collective one, something that’s a frequent characteristic of Scarassatti’s work: he improvises sonic environments, whether as musician or sculptor.

The next encounter was much more specifically with Scarassatti himself, his Casa Acústica (Fragments from an Improvisation Diary) released by Creative Sources in 2017. I ended up writing a lengthy review of it for freejazzblog.org, material I won’t reconstruct here. The essential document is Scarassatti’s liner note describing his process:

“Between the years of 2014 and 2016 I maintained a regular routine of daily improvisations using objects, conventional musical instruments, as well as instruments invented by myself. This daily gesture coincided with the desire to register these improvisations in the form of a diary. During this time, approximately 100 hours of improvisation were recorded, which reveal aspects of this daily gesture, in the form of snapshots: listening to the environment, choosing the instruments, microphone positioning within the context of improvisational performance. The spontaneous visits and meetings of fellow musicians were also an integral part of the recordings; and an important characteristic of the diaries is that they reflect the daily occurrences and events that happened to parallel them, such as the improvisation on the day of Ornette Coleman’s death.”

What is striking about the record is the immediate relationship to improvisation as daily discipline, as an index of a life and a consciousness as well as a music, as persistent as breath yet also a conscious on-going activity. People drop by, they play different music, there are different codes at work in their musical relationships. Sometimes, as on the day of Ornette’s passing, it’s almost jazz. At other times, they’re primeval forest meditations on an instrument, the viola de cocho, that sounds and looks like it might still sprout leaves. Before it’s over, Scarassatti will have walked around his home blindfolded playing percussion instruments as well as mimicking panning for gold. For that homage to Coleman, he plays saxophone, his own first instrument.

Scarassatti’s most recent recording is another collective quartet, harkening back in some ways to Rumor: it’s called Psychogeography: An Improvisational Derive (Not Two), and the recording comes from a visit to São Paolo by Otomo Yoshihide for Improfest, who here plays electric guitar, bass and turntables. Scarassatti plays viola do cocho and instruments of his own construction: Kraiser, pássaro cocho and Tromp Kirk Roland, the last a kind of trombone. Completing the group are percussionist Antonio Panda Gianfratti and Paulo Hartmann, whose instruments include prepared 3rd bridge guitar, fretless prepared chiquita, gambelão and effects. While it possesses the kind of collective identity achieved by Rumor, the instrumentation gives it a strong identity of its own, frequently leading to dense textures of swirling and overlapping plucked strings, a free band for the forest primeval.

A particularly nice touch is the titling of the six improvisations: each is the latitude and longitude of a place relative to the quartet, thus track 1 is -23.555884, -46.6374735, the “location of a market in the Japanese neighborhood in São Paulo, where we took Otomo and he was thrilled”; track 2, -23.6027967,-46.6619298, is Hartmann’s house; track 3, -23.5681348,-46.522029, Gianfrati’s; track 4, -19.8708043,-43.9667332,  the University of Minas Gerais, where Scarassatti teaches and where he and Yoshihide played together for the first time; track 5, -23.5496581,-46.6389519, the Red Bull studio where the Improfest took place; and track 6, -19.9359989,-43.9201107, Scarassatti’s own home. The naming stems from a sense of place that is specific to the musical act as it is to the detail of latitude and longitude, a naming that extends a specific unity of time, space and consciousness outward in the collective creative act through a kind of alchemical process.

Antecedent as Beginning: The local model as object lesson

A crucial influence on Marco Scarassatti’s work is Walter Smetak, a Swiss composer born in 1913 who emigrated to Brazil in 1937 and died there in Salvador in 1984. Smetak’s instruments and sound sculptures include anthropomorphic string and percussion instruments that look like paintings and sculptures by Paul Klee (his own early “local”), as well as transformations of Brazilian vernacular lutes and percussion, with suggestions of fetishes and initiation rituals as well as sheer playfulness.

In Musicworks in 2015, sound artist Neil Leonard wrote, “I left Brazil assuming that Smetak’s work had somehow previously escaped me, while my peers already knew of him. Back in the U.S., I questioned ... sonic artists having an encyclopedic knowledge of the practice: they, too, had never heard of Smetak.” Smetak’s musical philosophy and homemade instruments had influenced a generation of Brazilian musicians (e.g., Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé). (An abridged version of Leonard’s article, with striking images of Smetak’s anthropomorphic sound sculptures, “The Mystical Instruments of Walter Smetak,” is readily available at Musicworks.ca)

As a graduate student, Marco Scarassatti wrote the book on Smetak, Walter Smetak: O Alquimista dos Sons (SESC: Sao Paolo, 2008), his dissertation and the first book devoted to Smetak’s work. The influence of Smetak may be considered central, for it combines interests in instrument building and folk culture, considered multiply as tradition, environment and immediate, personal, cultural, community practice.

The Music of Daily Life

In an on-line interview (on critic Javier Chandía’s Latin Waves on Resonance FM), Scarassatti lists key influences that shaped him as a composer: the third, in order of occurrence, is Walter Smetak. The first, however, is John Cage’s “4’33”.” That interest in sound around us emphasizes certain dimensions in Scarassatti’s work, social and environmental as well as aesthetic. It’s immediately apparent in his Rios Enclausarados (Seminal Records), but it’s also about the dialectics of capture, about the subjugation of nature and the elements in our midst. The “rivers enclosed” are the rivers running under and through the city of Belo Horizonte, which has “... buried rivers which are hidden from the population in underground dungeons, which are only perceptible by the exposed iron bars on the asphalt of the streets, as cages of a prison. These iron bars are everywhere throughout the town. When we approach them, the river’s song timidly exposes the limits of its incarceration, but its sonority is engulfed by the sound of traffic and other urban noises.”

Just as one is drawn to the sound of running water, the taped sounds changing with shifts from one locale to another, one hears the presence of human voices as well, and a listener inevitably adds a social text to the direct experience of the purity of the rivers’ songs, the pressing ballad of environmental decay. Scarassatti would eventually take the work beyond the recording project: “When I started recording the sounds of the river, I positioned the recorder between the bars in the grid: I usually did this alone, and some streets were dangerous. Then in 2012, I started recording with Fernando Ancil, a visual artist friend and we created a sound installation along Avenida Afonso Pena, one of the city’s major thoroughfares. In this installation we created an aerial river using more than 40 speakers arranged at intervals of 350 meters up and down the avenue. The idea was to create an acoustic overflow, to enable the city to once again hear the river.” (Radia.fm, show 534)

A sense of decay, destruction and loss becomes an inevitable component in Scarassatti’s work, embedded in his special valuing of the transitory, the immediate experience of a sonic life, but it also speaks to an awareness and a reclamation in the midst of environmental degradation and the loss of indigenous cultures. Looking for Web traces of Scarassatti’s works, I came across his Memory of the Fire (available in various lengths in both audio and video versions on Youtube and kunstradio.at, website of the original commissioning organization). It’s a work from 2015 with strong ties to both the household music of Casa Acústica and the elemental fascination of Rios Enclausarados. Memory of the Fire is an extended improvisation with a gas range, turning up burners to control the hiss of the gas jets, boiling water, playing with the sizzle of a frying pan. It’s a solo for a household appliance, dramatically filmed in a dark room with circles of blue fire. It’s akin in its domesticity to percussionist Gino Robair’s kitchen concerts, but more concerned with continuous sounds and durations.

It’s in the overlap of Rios Enclausarados and Memory of the Fire that some of the depth of Scarassatti’s work becomes apparent. Each is a work that fixes our attention on a particular element, inviting the kind of depth experience that the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard explored in his studies of the elements as they arose in poetic texts, such as (in translation) The Psychoanalysis of Fire and Water and Dreams. Scarassatti’s works are dynamic objects and processes that insist on both the unfolding in real time and the time of contemplation. It’s in its insistence on temporality, impermanence and the destructive/transformative power of fire that the stove-top composition begins to assume a kind of mythic form, singing out into our experience of fire, just as Rios Enclausarados becomes the prison ballad of waterways.

Scarassatti’s sound art develops its scale and meaning with a radical modesty, the same modesty of means that informs the collectivized free improvisation with home-made instruments in which a funnel, a plastic tube and mouthpiece become a trumpet. It’s that modesty that declares the work’s universality: it speaks to the expanding cultural synthesis that includes all the radical musics that once seemed isolated, including chance, free improvisation and those diverse cultures that are constrained as the subjects of ethnomusicology. It’s art music to a degree, yes, but it’s also a kind of protest song, against all the excesses that clamor for attention, from the foundation-funded, swollen orchestras to formulated pop songs with multiple hooks to capture mass attention. It’s music that says, “do anything,” and it’s music that, in the case of Rios Enclausarados, has already taken it to the streets.

©2019 Stuart Broomer

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