EG = mc2

There seem to be no horizons for composer and multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti as he crosses another threshold with his latest release, Meeting Point.

Bruce Gilman

All great works of music reflect and reveal their composers. We need no biography to tell us that the personality and environment of Bach differed from that of Debussy, or that the habits, thoughts, and desires of John Cage were different from those of Villa-Lobos. The extraordinary piece of music has not been written which did not reveal something of its composer, something of his experiences, personality, and attitude toward life. When a composer has so clearly indicated his instincts, we can surely say we know something about him. Still, it is extremely difficult to describe the extraordinary Egberto Gismonti.

A sage figure in Brazilian music with an intense concern for questions of color and sonority, Gismonti's technique is as significant as that which he knows by nature, and his genius rests primarily upon his ability to use his natural gifts. His virtuosity as well as the remarkable innovations he has made to enhance the expressive capabilities of the guitar are well known, and these kinds of breakthroughs can only come about as a result of a player's compulsion to express something which was heretofore not considered part of the technical and or emotional spectrum of the instrument. Gismonti is a multi-instrumentalist (piano, cello, guitars, vocals, percussion, flute, the orchestra) who can coax incomparable loveliness from what would be, in lesser hands, impersonal instruments.

Accordingly, when we listen to Gismonti we meet his experiences and are seized by phrases or orchestral voicings that wholly express faith, exultation, or hopeless longing. We are gripped by a turn of phrase or a rhythmic figure that conjures the festive mood of samba, a Carnaval frevo, or the melancholy of the sertão (backlands). We are awed by melodic lines and splashes of tone color that capture the dignity, grandeur, and energy of the Amazon. That Egberto Gismonti has the talent, technique, and artistic maturity to do almost anything he wants is apparent from the scope of his musical explorations, which range from solos and duets to jazz ensembles and from film and ballet scores to full orchestral works.

Gismonti is one of those comparatively rare artists who can claim to have achieved commercial success without any sacrifice of musical integrity. Each new recording has brought the unforeseen, something a little beyond the edge of our hearing. But as the range of our own experiences widen, so it seems that Egberto Gismonti's breadth widens so that we understand his music and ourselves better. His work overall possesses an enduring vitality, a quality called universality, and will be understood and appreciated for generations to come. It follows that a man who can touch so many in so large a range of emotional experience must himself have a full life.

Gismonti's mother was born in Catania, Sicily. His father was born in Beirut, Lebanon. Egberto Gismonti was born in December 1947 in the small town of Carmo in Rio de Janeiro state. It was a musical family and by the age of six Egberto was studying piano at Conservatório Brasileiro de Música. After 15 years of studying the classical repertoire in Brazil, the young virtuoso went to Paris to immerse himself in modern music. He was accepted as a student by composer Jean Barraqué, a disciple of Anton Webern and Schoenberg. Gismonti also studied with the foremost musical analyst of this century, Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), a magnet who drew most of the young composers of the time including Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzolla, and Philip Glass to Paris to study with her. Perhaps the greatest teacher of her day, Mme. Boulanger encouraged Gismonti to write the collective Brazilian experience into his music.

When Gismonti returned to Brazil, he became absorbed in choro and taught himself how to play guitar by listening to the solo recordings of Baden Powell and by transcribing sections of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. Accustomed to the wider range of the piano and constricted by the conventional six string instrument, Gismonti designed guitars with 8, 10, 12, and 14 strings, thereby expanding the intervalic and harmonic potential of the instrument. Approaching the fretboard as if it were a keyboard, Gismonti gives listeners the impression that there is more than a single guitar player. Gismonti's sojourn in the Xingu region of the Amazon basin with the Yualapeti Indian tribe and his relationship with Yualapeti shaman, Sapain, an experience that has had lasting affects on Gismonti's approach to life and music, is well documented musically in tunes like "Yualapeti" and "Sapain" and in the recordings Danças das Cabeças (Dances of the Heads), Sol de Meio Dia (Mid-day Sun), which he dedicated to the Xingu, and Duas Vozes (Two Voices).

The artistic career of Egberto Gismonti spans three decades, its major phases distinguished by the company he recorded for, the ensemble format he wrote for, and the players he worked with. Two of Gismonti's quintessential ensembles from the late 1970's and early 1980's were his Brazilian group Academia de Danças: Mauro Senise (saxophone and flutes), Zeca Assumpção (bass) and Nene (drums and percussion); and the trio with bassist Charlie Haden and saxophonist Jan Garbarek. A casual listening to the harmonic language and instrumental textures of "Palhaço" from the Mágico recording, or to the ritardando at the conclusion of "Loro" from the double album Sanfona/Solo, will convince even the most indiscriminate ears that these ensembles were thoroughly integrated units comprised of outstanding musicians who, although playing from their own powerful centers, spoke with one voice. Interestingly, in concert the ending of "Loro" was often performed by Academia de Danças accelerando.

With the release of Meeting Point, Mestre Gismonti has crossed the threshold that was anticipated with his 1993 release Música de Sobrevivência (Music of Survival). Binding together philosophy, knowledge, passion, and humor, Meeting Point is an orchestral work that juxtaposes dramatically dense textures with quiet passages of austere beauty and clarity. It is a work that empowers the listener to detach from the commonplace and see himself as part of universal life. The string writing is intense and lyrical, percussion and woodwind parts pointed and impetuous, the brass is aggressive, bringing to mind the work of both Stravinsky and Edgar Varèse. Yet the music is beautiful, sometimes extraordinarily so.

For the recording of Meeting Point, Gismonti persuaded Manfred Eicher of ECM to build a special studio in Vilnius, Lithuania, specifically so the composer could work with the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra, an exhilarating ensemble that displays awesome fearlessness in the presence of challenging new music. The seven pieces for piano and orchestra convey the composer's concern for a peaceful co-existence and also pay homage to sixteenth century Italian composer Don Carlo Gesualdo, to master of modern music Igor Stravinsky, and to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Harry Zeitlin's arresting "black and white" cover photo adds more impassioned humility with a shot that parallels his contribution to Música de Sobrevivência. In many ways Zeitlin's photos are reminiscent of works by American Ansel Adams. Without a doubt, Meeting Point unveils in the refined brilliance of its orchestration the true musical value and genuine intuition of a master. There seem to be no horizons for Egberto Gismonti.

Before his USA/Canada tour Mestre Gismonti had to prepare scores and rehearse not only his trio but also three different Brazilian orchestras for eight concerts at home. In addition, he was preparing for three chamber orchestra concerts in Barcelona, Spain. This schedule kept our interview brief, yet it allowed time enough to reveal something of the personality and attitude toward life of this master of Brazilian music.

Brazzil—Mestre, can you tell me a little about your orchestral performances in Brazil prior to your tour in the United States and Canada?

Egberto—Yes, this will be the second time that I'll be doing an orchestral tour in Brazil. As on the first tour, the sponsor is Banco do Brasil. The concerts have a dual purpose: first, to play the music; and second, to present to the Brazilian people the "European instrument" (the orchestra) playing Brazilian music. As you know, Brazilian culture is very open and full of different influences, but symphonic music is not really popular and is rarely heard on the radio and TV stations. Before trying to communicate any ideas I'm going to concentrate on giving my audience the opportunity to get to know a little more about Brazilian music through the symphony orchestra.

Brazzil—Do you feel that it is important to establish a Brazilian symphonic repertoire distinct and separate from the European tradition?

Egberto—It's important to develop Brazilian music in general, but especially with regard to the symphony orchestra. I have a large interest in Brazilian culture, and I have been preoccupied with its development for a long time. To the world, Brazil represents a real mixing of races. I'm not talking about living together but about breeding together—Brazilians, Indians, Europeans, Africans. Because of this merging we are closer to the broader picture of life and to a more aesthetic horizon.

Brazzil—Is there a future for orchestral music today outside the film industry?

Egberto—I have never used the orchestra for any of my film scores. On the other hand, I have written many pieces for orchestras all over the world. Actually, according to my information and cultural point of view, the orchestra has no relation to the film industry. It is possible to see these two "media" or "languages" living together, but they are completely independent.

Brazzil—Have you been writing any string quartets?

Egberto—Yes, and I’m doing various chamber orchestra compositions. The Emerson String Quartet has five pieces called Música para Quarteto de Cordas and has been working on them for the past two years. The Elektra String Quartet from London has already performed three of my string quartets.

Brazzil—Are you still planning to record the poems of Manoel de Barros with orchestral accompaniment?

Egberto—Yes, the music is already written and the actress Cassia Kiss is preparing her part. We have plans to perform the premiere in Portugal next September with the Orquestra Metropolitana de Lisboa conducted by Mr. Miguel Graça Moura.

Brazzil—Would you like to conduct the orchestra?

Egberto—As you know, I’m a composer, and I still feel the need to develop myself. I have been writing without stopping. Also, I know what it means to be conductor. Because of that, I would have to say that I’m not prepared.

Brazzil—Your work before ECM seems like one stage in your career, and the ECM recordings up to Meeting Point another stage. Do you feel that Meeting Point marks the beginning of a new stage in your recording career?

Egberto—Maybe. This is a difficult question. I’m not able to talk about the future. I would prefer to say that Meeting Point represents one more window on my music.

Brazzil—Why did you decide on Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra?

Egberto—They have a fresh feeling, thorough technique, an open heart for the music of different cultures, plus a certain humility in the face of demanding new music.

Brazzil—Did they have any difficulty reading the music?

Egberto—Not at all. This is a very high level symphonic orchestra full of tradition. They had no difficulty reading the music at all. They received the music two months before the recording dates. I have no idea how long they spent rehearsing, but I’m emphatic about their performance.

Brazzil—Hearing "Frevo" in an orchestral format is an incredible experience. Have you orchestrated other earlier compositions?

Egberto—I have already orchestrated "Infância" and "Forrobodó" among others.

Brazzil—Are you planning to record more of your symphonic repertoire with Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra?

Egberto—Our complicity during the first close contact gave me a lot of hope for new projects. Any new project with them, however, will need the "understanding" of ECM or any other company.

Brazzil—You were once offered a substantial contract with a record company in the United States. Why did you turn it down?

Egberto—Yes, Atlantic Records in 1975 or ‘76, when Nesuhi Ertegun, one of the founder/owners, was president of the company. The main problem was making a decision between Atlantic’s very substantial contract versus ECM’s very artistic purpose. As you know, I decided for ECM.

Brazzil—In 1984 you started the Carmo record label to record more experimental works and to provide a record company for Brazilian musicians who had few opportunities to be recorded. Is the Carmo record label still active?

Egberto—Yes, Carmo is still active. The main problem has been finding a way to survive with all the German taxes. That’s the reason we have released so few albums.

Brazzil—Many ballet companies in Brazil have commissioned your work. What about North American and European companies?

Egberto—Beside the many Brazilian companies, I have written works for Tans-Forum, Cologne’s Opera Ballet, Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians, and the Tubing Dancers. I love to write for ballet and I hope to get more and more commissions.

Brazzil—You have written in so many different genres. You travel, perform, and record so much. How do you find the time for everything?

Egberto—I have been working professionally for 30 years. When you divide the number of records, concerts, and film scores by this number, it appears more manageable.

Brazzil—What inspires you?

Egberto—Again, I must go back to the Brazilian culture. This is the basic fountain or source that drives my music.

Brazzil—Are there any plans to publish your music?

Egberto—Actually there was a songbook released a few years ago in Europe. At this time I’m studying the possibility of putting on the Web, for free, all scores—including the orchestral, chamber music, and solos.

Brazzil—I know that you analyzed modern composers with Nadia Boulanger, but what did you study with Jean Barraqué?

Egberto—I studied twelve-tone music with Mr. Barraqué. He showed me the vertical and horizontal dimensions of serial music and the various ways to go through them. After my studies, I came back to Brazil and realized my culture’s distance from twelve-tone music.

Brazzil—You play an 8, 10, 12, and 14-string guitar. Why so many strings?

Egberto—Basically, I’m a piano player that plays guitar. Because of the piano’s range I have tuned my ears to bigger intervals than the guitar’s intervals. That’s the main reason I use more strings. The tunings are different for each guitar, but all of them have high strings on the 7th and 9th.

Brazzil—Do you feel that choro is now an outdated genre?

EgbertoChoro represents the foundation of our music. To play, to understand, to be, to think Brazilian music, everyone must cross by the concept and the music of choro.

Brazzil—You have recorded the music of Villa-Lobos. Why not Pixinguinha?

Egberto—I have been thinking about exactly that for a long time. This could be my next CD project.

Brazzil—Mestre, the Duo Assad and jazz trumpet player Wallace Roney, among so many others, have recorded your music. Are there recordings of your compositions by other musicians that you particularly like or dislike?

Egberto—There are a lot of good versions of my music by different musicians. I’m very open to new experiences, and I used to be very attentive to all these different interpretations. Gil Goldstein and group did a beautiful "Loro." John McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia a beautiful "Frevo." Marcos Pereira and Ulisses Rocha recorded "Infância" and "Loro." Leny Andrade, "Prum Samba." Elis Regina, "Sonho." Wayne Shorter and also Airto Moreira recorded "Café." Marlui Miranda did "Calipso." Hermeto Pascoal and Flora Purim, "Sonho." Quaternaglia, "Forró." There are so many friends developing my music that I prefer to thank everyone.

Brazzil—The album you made with Paul Horn, Altura do Sol, was produced by Teo Macero, who produced many recordings by Miles Davis. Ron Carter, who was a member of the famous Miles quintet, was also on the date. And it was recorded on Columbia, the label Miles recorded for. Did you ever have the desire to play with Miles?

Egberto—As a Brazilian, living in Rio de Janeiro, involved with Brazilian culture, playing with Brazilian musicians most of the time, I had no time to dream of playing with Miles. But I always got good vibrations and had really good experiences from playing with Ron Carter, Paul Horn, Wayne Shorter, Charlie Haden, Herbie Hancock, and other North American musicians. For sure, with Miles, the experience would have been equally enjoyable.

Brazzil—In July 1989 you played the International Jazz Festival of Montreal with Charlie Haden. Will there be a CD released of the concert?

Egberto—The negotiations between our labels have been very difficult. I love this concert and have my own homemade CD from that date.

Brazzil—Is the group Academia de Danças part of the past or would you consider working with this ensemble and in this format again?

Egberto—Not in the same format or with the same musicians. Life is change, music is change, desire is change.

Brazzil—Can you tell me a little about the chemistry between the players of the trio and the music you will be playing when you come to California?

Egberto—I’ll leave that for you to write about.

Bruce Gilman, music editor for Brazzil, received his Masters degree in music from California Institute of the Arts. He leads the Brazilian jazz ensemble Axé and plays cuíca for escola de samba MILA. You can reach him through his e-mail: 

The official Gismonti Website is at:

Egberto’s discography is vast, both as leader and sideman. Thus, I have included only a handful of my personal favorites.

The following Websites have more comprehensive discographies:

Additionally, there is a terrific song cross reference at:

Selected Discography:

Title                                      Label           Release Date

Meeting Point .....................ECM ...............1997

ZigZag ................................ECM................ 1996

Música de Sobrevivência ...ECM ................1993

Infância.............................. ECM ................1991

Dança dos Escravos ...........ECM................ 1989

Feixe de Luz .......................EMI .................1988

Trem Caipira...................... EMI.................  1987

Duas Vozes .........................ECM .................1985

Sanfona/Solo...................... ECM ................1981

Folk Songs ..........................ECM ................1981

Mágico................................. ECM ................1980

Solo...................................... ECM ................1979

Sol do Meio Dia................... ECM ...............1978

Danças das Cabeças............. ECM ..............1977

Selected recordings as sideman,
composer, arranger,
producer, or conductor:

Leader/Group                         Title                          Label             Release date

Daniel Taubkin.......................Brazsil .........................Blue Jackel ..........1998

Raiz de Pedra .......................Diário de Bordo ..........Enja ......................1996

Os Paralamas do Sucesso ....Severino .......................EMI .....................1994

Robertinho Silva ..................Speak No Evil ...............Milestone .............1991

Maria Bethânia ....................Canto do Pajé ...............Verve ..................1990

Nando Carneiro................... Violão............................ Carmo .................1983

Naná Vasconcelos ...............Saudades ........................ECM ...................1979

Paul Horn ............................Altura do Sol ..................Columbia ..............1976


Gramática Expositiva do Chão

(pages 179-181)

by Manoel de Barros 

Todas as coisas cujos valores podem ser

Disputados no cuspe à distância servem para poesia

O homem que possui um pente e uma árvore

Serve para poesia

As coisas que não levam a nada têm grande importância

Cada coisa ordinária é elemento de estima

Tudo aquilo que nos leva à coisa nenhuma

E que você não pode vender no mercado

Como, por exemplo, o coração verde dos pássaros,

Serve para poesia

Tudo aquilo que a nossa civilização rejeita,

Pisa e mija em cima, serve para poesia 

Pessoas desimportantes dão pra poesia, qualquer pessoa ou escada

Tudo que explique a lagartixa de esteira

E a laminação de sabiás é muito importante para a poesia

Terreno de 10 x 20, sujo de mato—os que nele gorgeiam:

Detritos semoventes, latas servem para poesia

As coisas jogadas fora têm grande importância—

Como um homem jogado fora

Aliás é também objeto de poesia

Saber qual o periodo médio que um homem jogado fora

Pode permanecer na terra sem nascerem

Em sua boca as raízes da escória

O que é bom para o lixo é bom para a poesia

As coisas que não pretendem, como por exemplo:

Pedras que cheiram água, homens que atravessam

Períodos de árvore, se prestam para poesia

As coisas sem importância são bens de poesia

Cada coisa sem préstimo tem seu lugar na poesia ou na geral

The Expositive Grammar of the Floor



Anything that can be won or lost

At a who-spits-the furthest contest is good for poetry

A man who owns a comb and a tree

Is good for poetry

Things that lead to nothing at all are highly important

Each ordinary thing is an element of esteem

Everything that leads to nothing at all,

And that you cannot sell at the market

Such as, for instance, the green heart of birds,

Is good for poetry

Everything that our civilization rejects,

Tramples and pisses on, is good for poetry

Ordinary people are good for poetry, any one person, or ladder

Everything that can explain the small belt-lizards

And the rolling of thrushes, is very important for poetry

A 10 x 20-yard plot of land, full of weeds—whatever warbles on them:

Self-moving debris, cans, is good for poetry

Discarded things are very important—like a discarded man 

By the way, it is also a matter of poetry

To know the average period during which a discarded man

Can remain on the earth without

Having scum roots growing out of his mouth

What is good for garbage is good for poetry

Things that have no claims, such as for instance:

Stones that smell the water, men who go through

Periods as trees, are good for poetry

Things with no importance are poetic assets

Everything that is useless has its place in poetry or in the bleachers

You can order Egberto Gismonti's CDs online at Music Boulevard. This link will take you directly to his discography.  And you will also be able to listen to samples from his music.

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