The Brazilian composer Gilberto Mendes passed away on Friday, January 1st 2016. He was one of these composers who always sought new directions for his music, who always challenged himself with new concepts and actions. Gilberto had a great impact on many generations of composers and musicians from Brazil and other countries including myself. He lived a long and happy life close to the Atlantic ocean in his beloved city of Santos, which was at the same time his safe haven and springboard for many endeavors in Brazil and around the world. As a self-taught composer, he grew up watching Hollywood movies, which was one of his great passions and constitutes a reference to understand his music. In the early 1960s he traveled to Europe and attended the composition summer courses in Darmstadt, Germany, which at the time was the mecca of the post World War II avant-garde music. There, Mendes had the opportunity to meet cutting-edge composers of the "New Music" such as Pierre Boulez, Henri Pousseur, and Karlheinz Stockhausen who, like him, where looking for new ways to express sounds and music. He assimilated and introduced in his own work some aesthetic trends of the New Music that played a crucial role in the music of second half of 20th century music such as integral serialism, aleatoric music, graphic music, Musique Concrète, and Elektronische Musik.
But Gilberto Mendes was not someone who just incorporated other's thoughts; he constantly generated his own conceptions and, above all, he put in practice his ideas in different contexts. Furthermore, his innovative attitude contributed to the development of Brazilian music and society. A significant initiative was the “Manifesto Música Nova” [New Music Manifest] that Gilberto released 1963 in collaboration with other composers and musicians. They swore the "total commitment to the contemporary world", which means accepting the economic reality of the mass media and the changing status of the artist in the society. The manifest points to the necessity to explore the new possibilities of electronic media and information technologies in a globalized world. They wanted new forms for a new society: Gilberto Mendes and his colleagues contributed to overcome the limitation of the nationalistic approach that shaped Brazilian music in the first half of the 20th century with the following message: if you pretend to be a Brazilian composer and create genuine Brazilian music, you have to look into the whole world and create music that reflects the issues of the time.
In 1962 Gilberto Mendes founded the "Festival Música Nova" [New Music Festival] and remained its artistic director and/or mentor until his death. The festival, which is considered one of the oldest of its kind in the world, has been an important platform of national and international exchanging and collaboration, a real bridge connecting Brazilian and musicians from all over the world. Gilberto commissioned new works, gave opportunity to emerging composers and invited prestigious musicians from Europe and North America to perform in the festival. For a composer as myself living since 1980 outside Brazil, the “Festival Música Nova” has been a great opportunity to connect with the Brazilian community and audience of contemporary music. For example, in 2008 I had the privilege to present in the festival my work Orbital Studies for piano and live-electronics (with a 8-channel sound spatialization system) in cooperation with the great Brazilian pianist Caio Pagano. Gilberto Mendes' musical openness provided the pluralistic vision that shaped the festival. His charismatic personality was crucial to ensure the continuity of this event, which has always fought against financial difficulties and the mediocre vision of Brazilian cultural institutions.
It is not easy to highlight the myriad of accomplishments by Gilberto Mendes. His compositions draw inspiration from many difference sources and have been performed worldwide. His works from the 1960's are particularly successful, such as the orchestral piece "Santos Football Music", a work conceived as a musical happening in which Gilberto critically reflects on the Brazilian passion for the soccer game and its idols such as “Pelé”, the greatest soccer player of all time who played in his hometown team Santos Footfall Club. His pieces for choir, mostly written for the "Madrigal Ars Viva" from Santos and using texts by Brazilian concrete poets, reveal an amazing deal of originality. For example, the madrigal "Beba Coca-Cola" [Drink Coca-Cola] with poetry by Décio Pignatari, a composition that explores the advertising appeal of the coke beverage and the disgusting effect it causes in our body (the singers burp on stage). When Gilberto Mendes started an academic activity he was already an accomplished composer. He was Visiting Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwauke (1978-9) and Professor of Composition at the University of São Paulo in the 1980s. But he was far away from being a typical academic composer. Besides composing, he was a passionate writer and journalist. For example, in 2009 he published the book "Viver Sua Música” [Living Your Music], which is autobiographic account of his life and music.
Gilberto Mendes lived an intense life, even in his later years. He never lost his curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit, which brought him to explore new cultures and musical horizons. His personality overflowed freedom and a great sense of humor. He embraced both the libertarian ideals of social justice and individual expression. As a former member of the Brazilian Communist Party, he nourished a great respect for the 20th century socialist revolutions, but critically recognized the harmful consequences of totalitarian ideologies. I visited Gilberto Mendes many times in his apartment in Santos and had the privilege to engage long conversations with him and his delightful spouse Eliane. We talked of course about music and composition—he was always interested in knowing what other composers were doing— but also a lot about politics, which was a subject of common interest. I could sense the great admiration he had for the American culture, Jazz music and especially Hollywood cinema, which seems to capture his extraordinary imagination. His mind was steadily grounded in the reality but continuously producing new insights and original thoughts. Sharing Gilbert's company was a real pleasure. He always surprised me with his impressive sense of humor and the ability to overcome the difficulties of life. He kept moving things around him and revealing the inconsistence of absolute truths; he had this incredible capacity of perceiving the absurd and comic that makes the essence of human. As I said above, Santos was for him a save haven. He never wanted to leave the city. His small apartment was located close to the beach in a dense urban environment. It had a balcony from which one could barely see the sea among the surrounding buildings that hinder vision. But one could feel the strong symbolic presence of the sea in Gilberto's live. It invaded his apartment and propelled his fantasy. Gilberto kept sailing in the ocean of creativity.