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We Love Chopin

We Love Chopin

In Brazilian politics today, it is not the rustic landowner
from Bahia that rises to the universalised scope
of bourgeois culture, it is the cosmopolitan intellectual
from São Paulo that sinks to the scope
of nationalized bourgeois brutality.
By Carlos Palombini

In early April, lecturers, workers and students in the Music Department of the Federal
University of Pernambuco at Recife were invited for a recital by the London based
Brazilian pianist Arnaldo Cohen and requested to RSVP. The invitation was issued by Banco
Sudameris, which is affiliated to Banque Sudameris of Paris and controlled by Grupo Banca
Commerciale Italiana of Milan. Sudameris is opening its campus branch in the recently
inaugurated facilities of the University Convention Centre, where the recital would take
place.

What would become, through a history of rebellions and treasons, the Pernambuco state,
originated from one of the first administrative successes of the young Portuguese colony.
Rich in brazil wood, the region was fought over by Dutchmen, Frenchmen, Spaniards and
English pirates. The city of Recife grew under the view of Olinda—a UNESCO-declared
historic site—as a merchants pendant to the aristocratic old town, gradually taking
over the economic lead and rising to the position of metropolis of the Brazilian
Northeast. In these shores Brazil was discovered by Pinzon and not by Cabral as the
history books teach and the ferocious Caeté Indians devoured the aptly named Bishop
Sardinha (Sardine), anticipating urban anthropophagi. Nowadays, latter-day saints from
North-American missions stroll around, alluring with sanitized blondness mamelucos,
cafusos, mulattos and mestizos.

Pernambuco boasts the oldest aristocracy in the country. Mrs Mayrink Veiga, formerly a
top ten best-dressed lady of Rio society and a beauty, now earns her livelihood here,
telling the lower strata the dos and don’ts of upper class etiquette in the pages of the
local equivalent to the London Sun (devoured as her fortune has been by extortive
interest rates charged on former employees’ social security monies, which she used to
borrow from the Brazilian state): "In those days," she says, "men used to
wear tails… now they complain about wearing a jacket!"

This was my coming out evening and I wished neither to overdo nor understate it: light
brown suede shoes, white sockets (suburban in London but comme il faut in Recife),
beige trousers, best white shirt (with mother of pearl buttons), bespoken terracotta linen
jacket and a silver coated chain hanging from my trousers pocket. For sleazy looks, a bit
of that exquisite Schwarzkopf gel wax that I brought from Dublin and, to round it off, the
woody undertones of Ever, by Applewoods. "Carlos… how beautiful you are!" my
neighbour uttered in wonder as I left.

Those who earn over three hundred Pounds Sterling (450 dollars) a month are not
supposed to take busses in this country. However, I remain convinced that one should not
always go native in the tropical regions. A seat on the left afforded the view of a
beautiful pair of thighs on the right, and with no further ado I took it. Lost in
contemplation, I was awoken by the noises of hit and broken glass, female shrieks and
myriad glass fragments landing onto my face. Ladies crawled, robbery and rape stamped on
their faces. No more discomfited than the first Baron von Palombini in Saxony in the
aftermath of the Napoleonic debacle, I gazed around assessing the likelihood of another
bullet and I pondered the wisdom of surrendering one’s course to the ubiquity of fleshly
gifts. A stone thrown at the bus by one of the countless children who roam the streets of
Recife had crossed a window pane on the right, just behind those thighs, at the
corresponding point to where I was seating on the left, before it went out through a left
window pane, two seats behind myself. I had been saved by the imponderable laws of
relative movement.

One queues for everything in this country. In São Paulo, at the Consolação branch of
the Brazilian Airline, one queues to get information as to whether one should queue. In
Recife, at the campus branch of the Brazilian Bank, one queues for one hour to pay a
check. Those who earn over a hundred Pounds a month qualify as special clients and special
clients queue in special queues. Those who earn over three hundred and fifty Pounds a
month qualify as doubly special clients but doubly special clients queue in simply special
queues. One hour before the concert, the Convention Center offered a double choice of
queues. I took the shortest. It was the slowest.

Wearing all the appearances of clients of a distinctively selective European bank, a
stocky gentleman, his plump wife and their marriageable daughter arrived, in full swing.
The gentleman shouted abuse at a pair of ladies who exchanged ideas with the ticket
collector at too slow a pace. His wife attempted to grab my place. Having set the queue
going with his yelling, the gentleman set about propelling it further with his belly.

Thus, at the drop of a hat, I was rubbing shoulders and private parts with the upper
echelons of financial society. Inside the concert hall, conversation ranged from basic
Italian (`a scherzo?’) to real estate (`my holiday homes’). At nine o’clock sharp a
pair of attendants approached two young ladies who, for half an hour, had been seating in
the front row. The ladies were removed. Reservation labels were stuck to their seats. The
Vice Chancellor was ushered in. Backs were slapped. He was offered those seats. A video
screen unfolded. Sudameris had us know it was one and the same with the struggles of the
Brazilian people. The local representative took the stage. He repeated it.

Mr Cohen was sight for sore eyes. The dramatic contrasts and manifold transitions of
Chopin’s set of Ballades were brought to life with uncompromising technique and
variegated hues. Halfway though the Third Ballade, a fortissimo passage sent me
away from the hall and deep into the music. I resurfaced. Refreshments were served. Soft
drinks circulated freely. Italian white was the preserve of the fittest. Guests were
invited to return to their seats. Procrastinators were gently pushed in. The Vice
Chancellor climbed the stage. Sudameris was thanked and "a public and high-quality
university" was cheered. With a Debussy-like performance of the Second Nocturne
Mr Cohen rose to the rarefied heights of Dinu Lipatti’s historic Nocturne in D Flat
interpretation. Fantaisie-impromptu, the Third Étude Op. 10,
the First and Twelfth Études Op. 25, the First and Second
Scherzi followed. Having made his way through terminal coughing, wristwatch beeps
and mobile-phone calls "in the way of a man who accepts all things, and accepts them
in the spirit of cool bravery", Mr Cohen was awarded a standing ovation. He retorted
with a finely crafted, superbly phrased and unbelievably fresh Minute Waltz. At
half past twelve, Scriabin’s Étude Pathétique drew the evening to a close.

"To synthesize and to stabilize a musical expression of popular base, as a means
to conquer a language that reconciles the country in the horizontality of its territory
and the verticality of its classes (raising the rustic culture to the universalised scope
of bourgeois culture, and giving the bourgeois musical production a social base that it
lacks)", thus Wisnik summarizes the programme of the modernist cycle of musical
nationalism in Brazil (O coro dos contrários, 1977, cited by Béhague in Heitor
Villa-Lobos, 1994). The middle classes like Chopin. The violence that, for centuries,
the owner perpetrated against the slave was democratised by decades of military
dictatorship and has been sanctioned by the democratic regime (Page, The Brazilians,
1995). In Brazilian politics today, it is not the rustic landowner from Bahia that rises
to the universalised scope of bourgeois culture, it is the cosmopolitan intellectual from
São Paulo that sinks to the scope of nationalized bourgeois brutality. Like the famous
fur coat with which the Finance Minister, Miss Cardoso de Mello, has sought to impress
Their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales in a Rio gala evening, the fabric
of Brazilian society is moth-eaten beyond repair. Slaughtered or ostracized, the Indians
alone remain unsullied. They enshrine the nationhood that might have been. Ena
mokocê-cê-maká (the boy is sleeping in the hammock).

This article was originally published by Leonardo Digital Reviews.

Carlos Palombini currently lives in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, and
holds a PhD in Music from the University of Durham, UK. His articles and reviews appear in
scholarly journals as the Computer Music Journal (Cambridge: MIT Press), Music
and Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press), Organised Sound (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press), the Electronic Musicological Review (Curitiba:
Universidade Federal do Paraná) and the Leonardo group of publications (Cambridge:
MIT Press). He has written contributions to Música y nuevas tecnologías: pespectivas
para el siglo XXI (Barcelona: L’Angelot, 1999) and The Twentieth Century Music
Avant-Garde: a Biocritical Sourcebook (New York: Greenwood, forthcoming). You can
e-mail him at Palombini@usa.net 

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