beginning to seem like all the pacesetters in Brazilian music
die young. Guitar virtuoso Rafael Rabelo was lost to drugs in
1995; Chico Science, creator of mangue-beat, perished in an
automobile accident in 1997; and only five months ago, a predawn
apartment fire took the life of Mitar Subotic (Suba), Brazil's
vanguard producer and a musician who had been leading a new
generation in the development of electronic music. Suba was
the first professional sound engineer to come to Brazil with
an understanding of how to match his vision with the concepts
of Brazilian artists, regardless of style. "The year 2000 was
going to be big for Suba," says producer and A&R man Béco
Dranoff. "He was finally coming to the surface and out of the
São Paulo underground, becoming recognized as the hot, new mainstream
Exceptionally sensitive to nuances of mood and color, Suba created
fiercely expressive musico-dramatic environments by superimposing
and synthesizing a wide range of dense and interweaving electronic
textures, his quick mind enabling him to open and build heterogeneous
collages in the studio exactly as an artist wanted. Says Béco
Dranoff, "Suba had created such an innovative sound and was
so far ahead of the curve that everybody wanted him. He opened
a whole new door."
At the time of his death, Suba had produced tens of CD's, composed
music for over 25 theater pieces and dance companies, written
sound tracks for more than 15 films as well as for Yugoslavian,
French, and Brazilian television, including original scores
for ESSO (an affiliate of Exxon Corporation), BMW, and Philip
Morris. In addition, he was negotiating with Natasha Records
for the release of his solo CD, finishing production on Bebel
Gilberto's, and working with Daniela Mercury and Skank on their
Outstanding among his numerous theater works in Brazil are his
sound tracks for Oswald de Andrade, Os 12 Trabalhos de Hércules,
Sáfara, and Bonita Lampião, which received the São Paulo Association
of Art Critics' award for best theater sound track.
Suba's story began on June 23, 1961, in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia,
a melting pot of Serbians, Croats, Hungarians, Romanians, Slovaks,
Bosnians, Russians, and Gypsies. He grew up in a home where
both parents were journalists. His father, a well-known TV journalist,
received the Villa-Lobos Award for promotion of Brazilian culture,
hence Suba's early ties with Brazil. Suba became interested
in music at an early age and studied music theory, accordion,
and piano from 1966 until 1980 then composition and orchestration
from 1980 until 1985 with professors Rudolf Bruci and Dusan
Radic at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad.
During a visit to Novi Sad last year, Suba joked that the Danube
(due to the NATO bombing campaign) was the only river that flows
over its bridges. Between 1982 and 1984, Suba specialized in
electronic music at the Radio Belgrade Electronic Studio and
also researched Eastern European ethnic music and jazz, working
closely with electro-acoustic composer Paul Pignon.
He began his professional career in Novi Sad under the pseudonym
Rex Ilusivii (King of Illusions)
by brilliantly creating and recording a mix of new wave, electronic/ambient,
and sophisticated funk. There is still Rex Ilusivii graffiti
on some buildings around Novi Sad, reminding his fans of the
period between 1982 and 1986 when Yugoslav radio played countless
hits by this mysterious artist whose material was always at
the top of radio station play lists and was being covered by
the scene's best groups. Remaining anonymous for years, Rex
Ilusivii ultimately revealed to both press and his admiring
public that the true identity of the man hidden behind the persona
was their own Mitar Subotic.
Ahead of his time, Suba constructed sound installations in open
spaces, made extensive research in electronic minimalistic music,
evolved compositional procedures, and wrote articles about jazz
styles, the relationships between philosophy and music, and
musical cultures in non-European countries. He moved to Paris
in 1986 where he composed music for theater, ballet, elite fashion
shows, film and television, and produced numerous radio broadcasts
and recordings, including his CD Dreambird and the first volume
of his project Angel's Breath.
While in Paris, his electronic piece based on Yugoslavian folk
lullabies, In the Mooncage, received the International Fund
for Promotion of Culture award from UNESCO, which included a
three month scholarship to research indigenous music and Afro-Brazilian
Classically trained as a pianist and composer with a huge background
in theory and an aesthetic foundation in electronic music, Suba,
planning only to gain first-hand contact with the music and
distinguished musicians of Brazil and enjoy the beauty and spiritual
wealth of the country, became engrossed in Brazilian roots music
and the Brazilian musical chemistry. Commenting last year to
a Yugoslavian journalist, Suba said, "Brazilian music is so
rich that it comprises a unique planet. Every 500 kilometers
there is a new rhythm and musical style, authentic, delightful,
Speaking of his initial reactions he said, "In the beginning,
I could not speak a word of Portuguese, but I found that in
such situations all the antennas are turned on, absorbing the
new smells and sounds. I had a feeling of rediscovering the
world. A year later I had already made friends with excellent
musicians and worked with them. I soaked up their energy, was
in touch with everything that was going on. Initially, it was
culture shock, a strong but pleasant one."
In 1992, Suba met percussionist João Parahyba and forged a partnership
that lasted until his death.3 "The first conversation we had,"
says Parahyba, "was about our musical philosophies and the rhythm
and harmony of the universe. It was a conversation that ended
after seven hours and in which there had been a surprising congruence
of intuitive response. Suba was the first guy I'd met who spoke
about music as the universal language—no labels. His concept
of music was so close to my own, that it was like finding a
mirror that reflected my music with a high-tech image. We started
working together from that first day on a project called Harmonia
Mundi. Using diverse influences from all corners of our planet,
we built some of the most interesting music I've had the pleasure
to work on.
"We would go to the studio in the afternoon and stay until late
at night. Suba would say, `First, we'll make a Frankenstein.'
He was a garbage mind who destroyed to construct, using everything.
He was completely open, so it was easy for us. We were like
two very tight musicians who could just deliver. We'd find a
groove, a melody, or a harmony and transform it into a kind
of colored noise and then start recording. We cut everything,
sampled cells, transformed these, and made other grooves. When
we started doing this, I realized how a simple cell of percussion
could be transformed with flangers into chords and melodies.
He opened my mind to working directly with effects."
Electronic effects and their potential within the context of
popular music have been recognized and considered seriously
as an extension of an ensemble's performance since the 1960's.
(The Beach Boys used a Theremin on "Good Vibrations" and the
Beatles used tape loops and recordings played backwards on Revolver)
And one of the central facts of electronic music is that it
depends on a rapport between musician and technology. "Electronic
effects, for us, are just a different tool," says Parahyba.
"Just like the drum set is a rhythmic tool, like acoustic guitar
and electric guitar are different tools, the computer is one
more tool musicians use to create different sounds, to create
new images. Musicians who have talent can create excellent material
on a computer or they can do this on a small match box. The
musicians do this, not the instruments. These electronic tools,
be it a compressor or a flanger effect, were Suba's instruments,
the tools he used to speak his language. Anything you plug in
could be a new instrument for him. His was an electronic/organic
Effects and samples have assumed an increasingly important role
in the most musically elaborate pop, in many cases eliminating
entire horn sections and ousting the electric guitar as the
center of a group's sound world. As these audio tools are refined,
a new vocabulary of sounds comes into common usage. Limited
possibilities become unlimited, and everything which was imponderable
can be subjected to precise measurement.
With 24-bit digital technology offering greater resolution than
16-bit, digital recording has come even closer to analog quality.
"What's happening," says Béco Dranoff, "is that the technology
is improving and something inside our brains is saying, `Oh,
we can deal with this now on a very different level.' Our ears
have acclimated to the point where electronic effects and sampled
instruments don't jump out at us like they used to. We're getting
used to them. The good electronic music is almost becoming acoustic
music to our ears. Before musicians needed record labels to
pay for their studio time, but many are now working with Pro-Tools
and creating a lot of music cheaper and much faster at home."
Skill and imagination are needed to create sounds which retain
a sense of wonder, as most of our music makes use of only a
narrowly defined spectrum from the enormous range of sounds
we can hear. In the hands of a sensitive musician, these devices
give rise to that sense of new discovery, but they have also
encouraged amateurs, who lack discretion, to create works that
are limited and that tend to sound the same. The electronic
medium, after all, makes it only too easy to indulge in trick
effects: bizarre juxtapositions of unrelated ideas, sudden shifts
from the familiar to the unfamiliar, gradual disruptions of
everyday sounds. When Suba was asked about this trend last year
he said, "A person can have a computer at home without knowing
how to play and still make music, provided, of course, that
he has some musical taste. This democratization in music is
phenomenal, but nothing will happen without talent. You may
have the most advanced studio, all the education you need, but
all will be in vain if there is no trace of that lunacy in your
head, which we call talent or inspiration."
Says singer Cibelle Cavalli, "Suba would develop the foundation
of a piece, and then we would get together and jam at his place.
He had the sound table, everything there, all his computers,
filters, and effects in a case that he went around with. We
called it the Suba-móvel. Suba would start mixing textures,
filtering, looping, working with the table, and I would hear
a sound, which felt like it was right in front of me, and another
sound at the back of my head, and another sound spinning over
my head, and another sound inside my right ear. He made the
music come alive. Once we had a song nearly ready, we would
go to Wah Wah Studios, his studio, to finish it. Suba could
respond to every expression of thought in the realization of
Recalling their work together on "Sereia" Cavalli says, "One
night we got together at Suba's apartment, and listened to some
acoustic bass loops that he had recorded cut, and pasted. After
picking up on one, Suba started filtering and stretching the
sound, creating all kinds of effects. He kept doing that to
the sound, creating another and another. We went on into the
night cutting and pasting sounds that we were creating right
there. Actually, Suba was doing the creating. I could only describe
the sounds I felt I needed to hear and say `Yes' or `I don't
think so,' because I can't deal with effects yet. Remember,
I came from the acoustic bossa/MPB/jazz school. Finally, I went
to take a nap and when I woke up, I heard this looped melody
that sounded just like a poem I had written before I met Suba.
That's the lyric you hear throughout "Sereia." The funny thing
is, when I wrote it, I had a particular melody in my head, like
a drifting thought. And that night, out of the blue, Suba played
the same melody. I rushed into the other room, got my poetry
notebook, found the poem, and sang it along with the loop. I
just couldn't believe how perfectly it fit."
Suba's live electronic ensembles had the same freedom to use
any conceivable sound, as the composer had in his studio, with
the advantage that human subtleties were immediately involved.
Combining live instrumental playing with electronics enabled
Suba to relate his work directly to a common musical experience
and to extend the capabilities of conventional instruments.
Additionally, this medium lent itself well to performance in
spectacular locations, where the visual environment could match
the strangeness and often the grandeur of the music.
"A few years ago," says Parahyba, "I went to the studio and
recorded twelve percussion tracks, just rhythms. Afterward,
Suba destroyed these twelve pieces, and we rebuilt them again
in electronic reprocessed samples. He made a playback of these
that we took to a theater with all of our instruments and we
played on top of this again, live. I played all percussion and
Suba rebuilt live on top of this with effects. It was an extraordinarily
successful balance of live electronic music and conscientious
ensemble playing. Everything live again on top of this! The
results and breakthroughs were exhilarating.
"We toured the universities with these pieces for four months
in 1997. I remember students sitting on the grass at night under
a very big, full moon. It was completely magic and crazy. Hermeto
(Pascoal) worked with us on that tour, which was funny, because
in the beginning, Hermeto just looked at us like he was wondering
what was going on with these two guys. And then when he realized
that this was a language very close to his own, one that liberated
the composer and made it possible for him to use any sound whatsoever,
he started to do amazing things together with us, always funny
things. He and Suba became very, very good friends."
Electronic music is unusually dependent on the means accessible
at the time. That is the natural evolution of electronics, and
that evolution in the last ten years has been fast and far-reaching.
The resources available ten or fifteen years ago were primitive
when compared with the elaborate advanced technical knowledge
which composers now have at their disposal. Thus, any judgment
made about new music must take into account the efficiency and
imagination with which a musician has used what was at hand,
in terms both of apparatus and of theoretical knowledge. Because
there has always been a lag between the creation of powerful
original music and its public appreciation, all we can draw
from when judging a work's relative merits, is our listening
experience within the particular idiom. When the sound images
are completely new, however, there is little help from the memory
in recognizing the genius, originality, and beauty of a work
that, at first, appears alien.
Suba was a pioneer in the discovery of new possibilities, and
his achievements, in terms of both technical innovation as well
as his radically new contribution to the Brazilian musical experience,
can be heard and felt—first bar to last—on São
Paulo Confessions. "The mark of this recording," says Béco
Dranoff, "is that it is really a bridge to the millennium, something
that is going to be heard and studied for years to come. This
album is far ahead of its time, really ahead of the curve."
Entirely a work of the new generation, rich in imagery, and
powerfully atmospheric, São Paulo Confessions
takes the listener into realms of the unknown and the mysterious
where he is thrown headlong into an angular and complex world
that both shocks and charms the ear, where he is obliged to
suspend expectations and to follow, every moment, a path unfolded
amid changing soundscapes.
"Sereia" (Mermaid) is a completely different sensation from
the ordinary listening experience. Cibelle Cavalli elicits a
world of mystery and essential solitude where the sound of her
words are as important as their literal sense. Providing not
an accompaniment, but a parallel dimension enmeshed with voice,
Suba layers Cavalli's lyrics atop an electronically generated
baião/coco groove that is punctuated with deep cuíca-like accents
and laced with ambient traces of jungle and trip-hop. Reverberation
and a wide spectrum of filtered sonorities exploit tone-color,
extending rather than contrasting with Cavalli's exotic voice.
This powerfully atmospheric alliance of allusion, both musical
and linguistic, creates a dreamlike ambience.
With enhanced surrealistic images of highly colored electronic
effects and unusual juxtapositions of timbre, register, and
rhythmic forms, "Segredo," a Bahian samba-marcha, displays Suba's
finesse in handling the technique of timbre composition. His
attention not only to the tune's expressive effect but also
to the more delicate properties of rhythm and color is stunning.
Functioning like a liaison between a delicate web of percussion
and a luxurious ambient sonority, Katia Bronstein's voice, like
some celestial hybrid that crawls over your eardrum in drifting
clouds of sound, tickles a part of the brain that has been sleeping.
In a wave of prolonged musical motion, "Samba do Gringo Paulista"
(Samba for Our Gringo) sets blocks of musical material against
one another in flat, multi-layered planes. The metallic resonance
of the cavaquinho and the percussive foundation created by João
Parahyba from an array of samba school instruments function
like traffic signs in the unlimited space of this electronic
sound world. Says Parahyba, "In a very, very good samba school,
like all live music, you appreciate a certain delay from the
musicians. But with samples, you need to be more mathematical.
You need a hundred beats, and every one has to be together."
Here it all adds up. What is electronic and what is instrumental
remains open to the innocent ear. Suba perfected a way to make
electronic music sound organic, not chopped up or recycled,
in which only the physiological sensitivity of the listener's
ear and Suba's artistic sensitivity prescribe borders possible.
"Abraço" (Embrace), is simply mesmeric; the listener can sense
Suba's joy in creating atmospheric strokes as well as his almost
boyish enthusiasm for pursuing the potentialities of the electronic
medium. Parahyba plays perpetual repetitions of an African rhythm
on congas and a Firchie snare above an implied trip-hop pulse
while Edgard Scandurra's guitar pierces the ceiling. A background
canvas of voices—Joanna Jones and Arnaldo Antunes—appears and
submerges, alternating between quasi-declamation and rhythmically
articulated spoken lines. And all these references are woven
into a fabric of largely intuitive playing.
Snaring the listener again and again, "A Noite Sem Fim" (Infinite
Night) is a densely patterned bossa nova with transformations
of motif, each growing imperceptibly from a small germinal cell
that works itself out within the tune's tightly formulated gauze
of contrapuntal tissue. By juxtaposing separate, yet ultimately
assimilated elements, including acoustic guitar and timba samples,
and by employing an extremely broad array of coloristic, electronically
processed, looped, and filtered resources, Suba creates a musical
contemplation, or better still, a reflective, playful, yet gently
ironic tone painting.
In technical and musical respects, São
Paulo Confessions is an aural drama of sound effects, rhythms,
and tone color that embraces surreal and extreme counterbalances.
An enormously powerful pulse, references to indigenous music,
and richly complex textures of intricate rhythmic counterpoints
stamp this work and assert its claim as the crown of Suba's
career in tirelessly seeking new sounds and combinations. Suba's
composition and decomposition of timbre as well as his merging
and dividing of complex entities with different degrees of intensity,
is not simply sound manipulation, but an invitation to alter
one's way of perceiving the world. São
Paulo Confessions speaks of energy, integrity, and essences.
"I introduced Suba to a lot of musicians from my popular Brazilian
music area," says Parahyba, "and he always spoke with them like
he was their closest friend. No matter if it was a rock player,
a symphony player, some Indian guy, or an old woman from Rio
de Janeiro. In five minutes they were friends. And he taught
all these people how to shine professionally without losing
their identity. He had an amazingly open mind and made friends
easily. For him, everything was new and good, but he never lost
his sharp European, Oriental focus, regardless of where he was—São
Paulo, Bahia, Rio de Janeiro. In all his contacts with musicians,
he shed new light on how they could give heart to their music
with this new language. What was most important about Suba was
what he did for the new concept of Brazilian music."
Memory and hindsight are unreliable faculties; details fade
in the mist as time and distance change impressions of an event.
Folha de São Paulo and Trombeta do Café reported that around
5:30 a.m. on November 2, 1999, smoke was detected coming from
Suba's apartment, that the building custodian called on the
intercom, and that Suba, who had been sleeping, told him that
he was unable to open his door. The custodian battered down
the door and found Suba on his feet, but disoriented, inside
the burning studio.
Amid the chaos that followed, it appears that Suba reentered
his studio, and his friends believe it was to recover a small
case containing the original audio files and back-ups (safety
copies of computer files) of the new Bebel Gilberto album. Suba
was overcome by smoke and taken to the emergency room where
at 6:32 a.m. he died from smoke asphyxiation. He had planned
to travel to Belgium on November 3, 1999, to promote São
Paulo Confessions and to finish producing the final tracks
of the Bebel Gilberto CD, Tanto Tempo (So Much Time).
On Tuesday, November 23, 1999, a long journey came to its end
as friends, professors, fellow musicians, and notables from
the Yugoslavian cultural scene gathered at the Cultural Center
of Novi Sad to pay homage to the composer, producer, instrumentalist,
and connoisseur of world cultures who explored the electronic
frontiers of music and theater in both Europe and Brazil, the
distant and beautiful land where Suba's concepts of cultural
interaction continue to nurture scores of musicians.
Family and friends remember his life-affirming presence, his
sense of humor, and his generosity of spirit. They tell me that
he loved to paraphrase Kierkegaard: "If I were to wish for something,
I would not wish for either wealth nor power, but for the passion
of possibilities. I would wish for an eye eternally youthful
because it forever yearns to see possibilities." Reflecting
on Suba's work and the terrible loss his passing brings to loved
ones and the music world, I rummaged through my books for a
quote from Kierkegaard that embraced the complexity of the circumstances
and the depth of sorrow that his family and friends have shared
with me: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must
be lived forwards." Suba's ashes were placed in the Municipal
Cemetery's Hall of Serenity, though he lives forever through
his music, his style, and his determination to find new ways
and new modes of expression.