New World Sonority
Setting a new standard for technical mastery and imagination, São Paulo Confessions unveils exhilarating frontiers of highly coloristic textures and percussive interplays. 


Bruce Gilman 


It's 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 producer." 

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 latest projects. 

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 rhythms.

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, and unique." 

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 thing." 

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 his ideas." 

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. 


Bruce Gillman: Suba - The Work of an Avangardist - (original)

Petar Janjatovic: Rex Ilusivii - taken from "Ilustrated YU Rock Encyclopedia" (Geopoetika, 2001,)

Zvonko Ninkov: Odlazak Kralja

Lee Gardner: A Taste of Brasil (Bebel Gilberto Review) - (original)

Petar Janjatovic - "The Street Of Illusions" (magazine "Rock", 1987.)

Petar Lukovic - "Angel's Breath Review" (magazine "Vreme zabave", 1994.)
Goran Tarlac - Mitar Subotic Suba - Prica o kralju (Reporter, 2002)

































































































































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