At this year’s MaerzMusik festival in Berlin, Arthur Kampela will present his research on Walter Smetak, an obscure Brazilian composer and inventor of instruments. Smetak is one artist featured in this playlist of radical, searching music by Kampela, himself a Brazilian composer and guitarist currently living in New York. These are intense sounds—our recommendation is to listen to them in small yet concentrated doses.

Arrigo Barnabé – “Sabor de Veneno” (“Taste of Poison”) from “Clara Crocodilo”

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Barnabé is one of the most important composers to emerge in 1980s Brazil. His work mixes popular music with twelve-tone techniques, absurdist theater, Dadaism, and more. His two albums, “Clara Crocodilo” and “Tubarões Voadores,” narrate concrete and surreal realities in a gray city like São Paulo, depicting its prostitutes and marginalized beings. “Clara Crocodilo” is almost like an opera or album-length cabaret: it tells the story of Clara Crocodilo, a person who is turned into a monster by scientists and terrorizes the city. Finally he escapes prison, enters the 21st century, and dances to a 7/4-meter atonal, minimalist music. Crocodilo is a metaphor for life in a proto-“porno-terrorized” society that resembles our own. Fasten your seat belts: this music is like injecting the city of São Paulo straight into your veins or in your ass.

Brian Ferneyhough – “La terre est un Homme”; Martyn Brabbins (Conductor), BBC Symphony Orchestra

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This is a formidable take on orchestral writing; an explosion with exhilarating consequences. The title comes from a painting by the Chilean artist Roberto da Matta and translates roughly to “The earth is a man.” This piece is clearly about boundaries and thresholds, as it explores each musician in the orchestra as an independent source of sonic “debris.” It creates a multilayered surface with polyrhythms and timbral shifts so abrupt that they almost seem to contain all possible kinds of polyphony and timbral mutation at once. Your mind is put in this strange place where you are hearing the sounds and at the same time trying to remember what you’ve just heard. It’s almost like you can see the sounds. The present mingles with the immediate past as the materials clash with energy against each other; therefore, different people listening to this piece at the same time and in almost the same place can hear wildly different outputs.

Krzysztof Penderecki – “String Quartet No. 1”; LaSalle Quartet

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In this piece, the form lies in the display of archetypical 1960s sonorities: the extremes of texture are its thematic material. It accumulates coexisting sonic vocabularies that we then order in a certain way according to the limits of our perception. It can be seen as a never-ending machine; it doesn’t “conclude,” but rather simply dissolves, hinting at the concept of an open form.

Luciano Berio – “Sequenza III”; Laura Catrani (Voice)

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In his “Sequenza III,” Berio invokes Samuel Beckett by exploring the point at which music and language intersect. It reduces language to its sounds; it tries to speak, narrate, and can finally only asphyxiate itself. The piece is dedicated to Berio’s wife and creative partner of the time, Cathy Barbarian. Hearing it results in the strange sensation of listening to a discourse that is merely implied, not stated, and it recalls the essential questions: Is this music? What is music? And why do we we express ourselves?

Magnus Lindberg – “Action – Situation – Signification,” I.; Toimii Ensemble

Link to full album

This is one of Lindberg’s most enigmatic works. It’s a mix between highly determined and improvisational writing, and deals with the raw elements of nature like water, fire, wind, and earth. Throughout the piece, he explores concrete musical materials and the sounds of the primordial. For me, this music is about questioning the nature of listening—it renews interest in self-evident sounds like water rushing by having us listen to them through a musical perspective.

Caetano Veloso – “Araçá Azul”

This phenomenal disc by Veloso from 1973 was the leading avant-pop album created in that time. Like John Cage or Earle Brown, Veloso embraced the idea of musical collage. But unlike, say, Frank Zappa, where elements from Western classical and new music clash with pop tunes, Veloso goes for a utopian mixture that cuts across aesthetic boundaries. It’s like watching a movie with abruptly shifting scenes or simply flipping through the channels on your TV—the focus is on the cognitive displacement.

Walter Smetak – “Indiferenciações”

YouTube video

Smetak was a wizard of improvised music. A Brazilian Harry Partch, his aesthetic philosophy was focused on the idea of rupture with Western aesthetics. He lived in Bahia, in the northeastern part of the country, where he was an obscure inventor of new instruments of a precarious nature. This imperfection is what draws me to the sound world he created.

Kaikhosru Sorabji – “Opus Clavicembalisticum,” Adagio; John Ogdon (Piano)

Sorabji was writing extremely complex music, full of superimposed ratios, way back in 1932. (Way before Ferneyhough!) Rhythmically, he was far beyond anyone writing at the time, including Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Structurally he was very conservative, almost a classicist. This friction is what makes his work so enticing and enduring. ¶

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