CD Pedra Mística

Celso Loureiro Chaves

The Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Borges Cunha was born in 1952 and is one of the most active recent composers of Brazilian music. He began his studies with Armando Albuquerque in Porto Alegre, Brazil, then proceeded with Hans Joachim Koellreutter in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Robert Cogan, in Boston (USA), and Roger Reynolds, Harvey Sollberger and Bryan Ferneyhough in San Diego, California. Cunha started composing during the 1980’s. The compositions presented here represent ten years of his work, from “Fonocromia”, in 1986, to “Pedra Mística”, in 1995. All his musical production during this period seems to present the answer to only one question: “After becoming familiar and having identified myself with avant-garde music through Koellreutter, I started questioning: ‘How could I conquer an identity as a composer? How could I compose music reflecting my own identity as a whole?”.

The four works present here are four possible answers to this self-formulated question and the comments follow their chronological order, although their sequence in this CD was envisaged so as to enhance their dramatic arch.

FONOCROMIA (“Phonochromy”)

Instruments: Choir
Composition: 1986
Premiere: August 14, 1987
Coral da UFRGS; Cláudio Ribeiro, conductor

The composer makes the following comments about Phonochromy: “This work, written for a cappella choir, represents one of my first experiments in the pursuit of an aesthetic identity, carried out through the integration of an avant-garde compositional thought with impressions forthcoming from the nature and the music of Brazilian Indians. Phonochromy was commissioned by conductor Cláudio Ribeiro for the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul Choir and I believe that the title of this work is extremely technical when compared to the affective characteristics of the piece.

To say that Phonochromy is a choral piece is to diminish its immense timbre variety which herein presents the distinctive streak of the composer: the absence of melody. In Phonochromy, the enigma of composing a vocal piece without using great melodic arches is resolved when the composer turns to an unexpected variety of resources which surpass the foreseeability of choral music. Whether choosing timbres in the vocal texture or adopting external solutions to voice itself, or even in the subtle electronic manipulation of voices, Phonochromy widens choral music, enriching its dramatic action.

The melodic fragment sung by female voices and which divides the piece in half, herein presents a ritualistic function which will be found in other works by Cunha. Like the InstalaSom, the final sonorities make the piece disappear in thick fog as if it had never existed. Thus, Cunha’s music for voices partakes from the same rhetorical resources which characterize and individualize his instrumental music, bringing his compositional style to a coherent whole.


Instruments: three native Brazilian flutes, ocarines, two flutes, clarinet, two trombones, piano and percussion.
Composition: 1982 / 1989
Premiere: 1989

This is what the composer gas to say about InstalaSom: “This piece was requested by composer Tato Taborda in 1982. However, the score never reached him. InstalaSom was finished in 1989 due to the incentive of Brazilian artist Maia Mena Barreto. In the catalogue to Maia’s exhibit, I wrote that ‘the piece represents more than the integration between music and visual arts. It concerns mainly the integration of apparently opposed cultural values, where the musical instruments of an European tradition meet the primitive culture presented through indigenous Brazilian instruments’. InstalaSom was the last of my pieces written in Brazil under the supervision of H. J. Koellreutter, just before my leaving for the United States to work towards my master and doctorate degrees in composition.

The visual origin of InstalaSom manifests itself through a great serenity of development, resulting in a long duration in which events unfold according to their own particular timing. If InstalaSom represents two cultures, the Western and the native Brazilian, it is the first that gets closer to the latter through the denaturalization of instruments and by sonic vistas full of reptiles.

InstalaSom is an episodic piece in which melodic and harmonic fragments rarely appear, since the integrity of the dramatic arch is guaranteed by interjections and quirks. The estrangement of cultures finds itself projected eventually in the use of water as an expressive element. InstalaSom may be summarized as the abstract evocation of nature through idyllic landscapes that hide sadness and tension.


Instruments: string orchestra, 4 clarinets and 5 percussionists
Composition: 1991-92 (revised between November 1993 and February 1994)
Premiere: February 16, 1994
SONOR – Ensemble of the Music Department of University of California at San Diego
Harvey Sollberger, conductor.

This is what the composer has to say about Ancient Rhythm: “The organization and planning of the great form were my main preoccupations in this composition, my first piece involving a very detailed procedure of pre-composition; form was organized through the Golden Section and the Fibonacci series. My aesthetical preoccupations in this composition involved the simultaneous projection of two apparently antagonic qualities of time: linearity (a gradual thickening of texture controlled by the Fibonacci series) and non-linearity (non-periodic perturbations which occur at pre-calculated moments).

Beginning where Varèse ends, Ancient Rhythm is an interplay of tensions in which percussive sonorities propel the piece, never allowing the strings to find the expressive tone that Stravinsky strove so much to avoid. The orchestration includes clarinets, whose earthy, primitive sonorities direct the piece towards the territory of ritual and ceremony. Even in its final part, as the piece has its drama dissolved into mist and shadows, Ancient Rhythm eschews meditation and reflection. As it ends, the piece is invaded by darkness and immobility, as if no movement, no convulsion or violence ever existed in it.
In Cunha’s works, Ancient Rhythm serves stylistic turning point – its music redolent of the ritual, its sonic violence that disappears in thin air, the musical drama that is conquered through a solidly executed structure, these are all signs of a maturing, personal and well-defined style.

PEDRA MÍSTICA (“Mystic Stone”)

Instruments: symphony orchestra, soloists and choir
Composition: June 1994 to June 1995
Premiere: August 31, 1999
Porto Alegre Symphony Orchestra; Manfredo Schmiedt, conductor

This is what the composer has to say about Pedra Mística: “Pedra Mística was composed in San Diego, California. It is the result of my research aiming toward the conception of the greater forms and the development of methods to generate and organize musical materials at every structural level. Even though the macro and the micro events are organized according to the proportions of the Golden Section and the Fibonacci series, I consider that the function of these compositional tools was to heighten my musical imagination and to suggest possibilities which otherwise would not have been considered. My intention was to create artistic expressions to search for emotional depth instead of simply committing myself to any one compositional system.

The title is taken from the poem “Pedra Mística”, written by the Brazilian poet Liberio Neves. The progression of the text, and its organization in the printed page, are reflected in the musical textures of the piece. Pedra Mística evolves from the simples structures of its beginning to complex contrapuntal and antiphonal passages. The ceremonial strength of the poem elicits the extensive use of brass instruments, and justifies the vertical blocks of timbres and dramatic contrasts that permeate the central portions of the piece. The epigrammatic natures of Neve’s poem is mirrored also in the use of three especially dramatic elements: praying stones, solo voices, and a distant choir.

Pedra Mística is the result of Cunha’s compositional maturity, and it presents the most characteristic traces of his style: the careful organization of the formal proportions, the use of the multiple timbre possibilities of the orchestra, the establishment of an effective relationship between text and music, the construction of dialogues between melodic lines and conflicting speeds, the superposition of vertical and horizontal timbres.

Pedra Mística is an important addition to the Brazilian symphonic repertoire due to its effective interaction with Brazilian poetry, its ritualistic violence, its interplay of textures and timbres, its structural clarity.

Although less than ten years bridge Phonochromy and Pedra Mística, the solidification of Cunha’s style is remarkable, bringing an unmistakable identity to his musical syntax. The composer finds an explanation for the coherence and identity of his musical style in his own life: “When reflecting upon my origins, recalling the almost primitive lifestyle of my early years, it seems that my interest for sound and timbre disconnected of melodic context finds its roots in my daily routine and in my living surrounded by nature and farm animals. As I recall, the sound produced by these “animal choruses” used to impress me deeply, particularly during their feeding and sheltering rituals.”

The pieces included in this CD demonstrate that the composer will be all the more coherent as closer at heart his affective memories are kept. (July 2000).

Translation by Zilda Costa de Souza