Smetak and his Instruments
Tuzé de Abreu – [email protected]
Universidade Federal da Bahia
translated by Denice Maria Figueiredo Santos
Anton Walter Smetak was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on February 12, 1913 and died in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil on May 30, 1984. Very early, he began studying music in his country, having entered the Professional School of the Zurich Conservatory in 1929. His main subject was the cello, but he also studied theoretical subjects, piano and orchestra practice. At the same time, during his study of music, he attended luthier workshops and got a good background in the construction and repair of string instruments that became very important to him. He specialized in violoncello at the Mozarteum Academy in Salzburg, Austria and in 1934 he got the revalidation of his diploma of violoncellist from the New Conservatory of Vienna, also in Austria. Still in Europe, he produced some compositions in the tonal system. He came to Brazil in 1937, having worked as a cellist and professor in Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro and in São Paulo. During that time, he composed some more audacious pieces, having made experiments with electrification of the piano by means of a contact microphone invented by him.
About 1945/46, he got to know, maybe in São Paulo, “professor” Henrique José de Souza, founder of the Brazilian Society of Eubiosis of which he became a participant and that changed his life radically. In 1957, he moved to Salvador, Bahia, to play and teach violoncello at UFBA (Federal University of Bahia), still acting as a luthier.
He constituted a family and changed drastically his way of thinking and performing music. He wrote books, poems, theater and dance plays, created and built about 150 “unconventional” musical instruments, he made many sculptures and drawings and projects for an instrument studio (The Egg), and for a university; he also recorded two discs, wrote many musicals (all of them nonconventional), besides having developed a lot of experimental work with improvisation groups, of which there are 40 registered recorded hours in CD, under his daughter Barbara’s custody. It is worthy mentioning that many famous artists like Gereba, Gilberto Gil, Rogério Duarte, Caetano Veloso, Marco Antônio Guimarães, Tom-Zé, and Tuzé de Abreu, among others, participated in some of these groups.
1. Choris (family of string instruments, played by means of arcs built by Smetak himself, with bamboo and horse hair, or pizzicato. The Chori Sol e Lua, the Chori Baixo and the Chori Pagode are the best known among them) — this is Smetak’s string family. Created in different years, all of them are played like the cello. They go from soprano to bass, almost always with four strings, tuned in several ways, even in microtones. They all have a calabash under them; and some others are placed above too. Many display a mast crossed below. Some have mystic-decorative details that give them distinct names like the Chori-Pagode and the Chori Sol e Lua. Generally they are classified as choris violins, choris violoncellos and choris basses. They are played with arcs, pizzicato, or percussion on the strings.
2. The Vau — 1969 — Sixth Blade of the Tarot, also from the harp family. It is an instrument, like many others, rich in eubiotic symbolism. It is a wood resonance box over four metallic feet, having on its resounding boards the symbols of the sun and the moon. From the middle of these boards a metallic mast projects itself upwards, which mast supports a metallic triangular frame, the color of bronze, filled with strings fixed on it by pins, capable of being tuned by pliers. The strings are disposed in the same way as a harp. The triangle is equilateral and its vertex points downward, having also a mast (rod) that links one of its superior angles to the middle of the opposite side. The mast rises upwards over this triangle, and near its top there are two half calabashes, similar to the ones of the House of Congress in Brasília. At the top of the mast, the inscription JHS is written in red letters on a white rectangle. In the Roman Catholic mystique, it stands for Jesus Man and Savior. Smetak, however, always mentioned that it was just a coincidence because the founder of the Eubiose, his teacher, was called Henrique José de Souza, almost but not quite JHS.
3. Vina — 1969. Undoubtedly the maximum creation in terms of instrument, created by Smetak. About the Vina, Smetak wrote from page 89 to 102 (such is the amount of its acoustic and musical eubiotic symbology) of the only edition of the Symbology of Instruments. It is an instrument basically made of strings, which is played like a cello; however, it is propped on three metal feet. It is made of two big half calabashes on its ends, the superior one with unpainted concavity turned backwards and the inferior one with the concavity turned forward, having a wood brown top, with striped borders (black and white), and a hole for the exit of the sound. Between the calabashes, there are two arms: one is hollow and the other has a mirror under the strings to be played like a violoncello; in the lower calabash, there is a rack and fixation points for three main strings, fixed on top by pegs. The calabashes are lacquered. The Vina also has small coupled bells, a mouthpiece with transparent hose for blowing and two small harps. It is played with arc, pizzicato, wind, and percussion. There is a track in the first disc dedicated exclusively to this instrument.
Smetak playing the Amém
4. Amém — 1969. An instrument inspired in the Indian’s bow and arrow, mainly because of its colors, rich in eubiotic symbols. It is made of a blue wooden base, from which a metal mast rises upward. At the end of this mast, there is a calabash cut in half, with its opening turned upwards. Under this calabash, there is a metallic arc with a concavity turned upwards. The extremities of this arc are connected to a rope that passes over the calabash. Also, from the extremities of this arc, there are four straps, two at each side, on which a very small board, parallel to the blue wood but much smaller and painted in red, is hanging. On this board, there is a central hole where the mast comes out. From one of the ends of this small board, there is a yellow rod (the arrow), with the superior end painted in blue, parallel to the mast, but passing way up above it. In the lower part of the calabash, there is a piece, also connected to the mast, from where two strings come out, which are fixed to the pieces that are placed on the lateral ends of the base. The instrument functions by fingering the strings. When the small red board is pressed, one can hear glissandos.
5. IEAOU — 1969. This is a wood structure about 170 cm high, having as a base a box painted in orange. From the four corners of this box, four wooden poles come out, which support another box of the same size painted yellow, having in the front, among red waves, the handwritten small letters: i (red), e (blue), a (green), o (yellow), (only visible because among the waves the yellow background becomes clearer) and u (gold). Over the box at the top, there a calabash cut in half with its concavity turned forward, and a multicolor face drawn on it. The eyes are like crosses (blue on the right and red on the left), the mouth is red. There is a blue contour on the border of the calabash and colored contours on the face, without nose or ears, over which a blue diagonal line going down towards the left. There is a string of a musical instrument that goes inside the structure, from one box to the other, tied by brackets tunable with pliers. At the top, this string crosses a calabash with a cut tip that is used as a resonance box. At the bottom this rope is tied, not directly to the box, but to a dark colored wooden pedal, after passing through three weights of non-identified mass, two of them miniscule and the other one almost the size of a tennis ball. This pedal, which forms an acute angle with the box, has its free extremity hung to the bigger weight. When the string is played (pizzicato, arc, or percussion) and this weight is pressed, a glissando sounds. There is also a wire tied diagonally to the wooden rods, at the level of the greater weight in order to fix it laterally.
6. Vidas (s) I. II, and III — 1969. They are string instruments similar to the Mundo. Broomstick rods, except in Vida I, which have a curved rod, with calabashes cut longitudinally on top, like resonance boxes. In Vida II, this superior calabash is substituted by a bowl of cheese cut in half metallic and golden painted. Vidas I and III have two strings. Vida I has one string and a wax candle, small and white in the bulge of the calabash and there is another calabash somewhat below the middle of its curved rod, also cut longitudinally, with the concavity turned frontward, from where two red plastic tubes come out from the sides, like a concertina, inside which one can sing or make sounds like in an instrument nozzle In Vida II, there are two more calabashes, one in the middle of the rod, cut longitudinally, with the bulge turned backwards, and another one on the base through the rod, with strings passing in front of it, pressing it. From the superior calabash of Vida II, a dark plastic tube in the shape of a concertina also comes out. Vida III also has a golden painted rod. Vida I has a red base. Vida II has a yellow base and Vida III a golden one. Colloquium – 1969. The same Theme of Space and Clouds with the difference that it is a string instrument, mounted on a solid wooden brown base. Form it, an iron rebar shaped like an X comes out, having on each free extremity a ceramic (or of another material) head with a small neck. The heads face each other. The one on the right side is brown and the one on the left is golden. Both have their mouths open and each piece of the neck is fastened to one of the X’s extreme, but also to flexible metallic rods that go down towards the base. The heads are joined horizontally by an instrumental string and from each neck three strings come out, which will be fixed to the base of the instrument by tunable pieces. These strings can be played by arc, pizzicato, or percussion and by moving the heads a little bit one can hear glissandos.
7. Colloquium — 1969. The same Theme of Space and Clouds with the difference that it is a string instrument, mounted on a solid wooden brown base. Form it, an iron rebar shaped like an X comes out, having on each free extremity a ceramic (or of another material) head with a small neck. The heads face each other. The one on the right side is brown and the one on the left is golden. Both have their mouths open and each piece of the neck is fastened to one of the X’s extreme, but also to flexible metallic rods that go down towards the base. The heads are joined horizontally by an instrumental string and from each neck three strings come out, which will be fixed to the base of the instrument by tunable pieces. These strings can be played by arc, pizzicato, or percussion and by moving the heads a little bit one can hear glissandos.
Vir a Ser
8. Vir a Ser — 1969. String instrument that can be rubbed or played by pizzicato, similar to a football goalpost, mounted on a solid wooden base painted in a greenish blue color, 1.50m high. A small short board painted in green with yellow extremities crosses perpendicularly the middle of this base. Parallel to the dash, there is a string that supports in its middle a clay head with a face on each side, fused on their backs. On one side, a silver face and on the other side a golden one. This head is suspended, linked by a thick metallic wire to a plastic white sheave that runs on the string parallel to the dash. This double head can be displaced to the sides, so that the string changes its sound, producing the sound during the sliding. In the middle of the dash, there is a curved wire rising upward, supporting a very small calabash cut in half, with its concavity turned upward and painted white with dark rays and edges, from inside which a thinner wire comes out with a little red ball on the superior extremity. It looks like a flower or a parabolic antenna.
9. Constellation — 1969. String instrument played in pizzicato. Rectangular (93 x 51 cm). It is a green painted board with twenty-three nails painted in yellow, displayed as if the board were a night sky and the nails the stars. Musical strings link these nails forming constellations. Parallel to its length, on one of the edges, there is a string on which fourteen small metal pieces, transversal, straight are irregularly disposed like in a guitar.
10. Fish — 1969. String instrument that can be played by percussion or by pizzicato, measuring 93 x 51 cm. It is a board painted inside small multicolored waves, where a fish with dark contours is drawn, with eyes, gills, fins, and tail. Inside this fish, there is a smaller fish painted in yellow with details in black, and positioned opposite to the other fish. Next to the bigger tail, there is an eye apparently human, painted with the sclerotic, a dark iris, and an eyebrow downside. A strong wire is fixed from the head to the tail of the bigger fish. This wire is crossed perpendicularly by fifteen thin musical strings, which are wrapped on it. They have different sizes according to the shape of the fish. They are like ribs, spines. Near the fish tail, coupled to two holes in the board, there is a small silver chain that can also be played. The strings can sideslip if we manipulate the thick central wire: the spine of the fish.
11. Ronda — 1969. One of the most important and most widely used instruments, out of which more replicas were made. Two calabashes ingeniously coupled by their bottlenecks (one of them partially painted in gold), in such a way as to lie down similarly to the tridimensional infinite symbol. They have on their free extremes rather thick wooden golden discs. In the perimeter of those discs, from one side to the other, guitar strings are fixed. These calabashes are crossed by a brown wooden axle that also crosses two wooden brown pieces that are placed after the discs and the calabashes. All those pieces are mounted on a brown wooden base. At the sides of this axle, outside one of the pieces there is a handle of the same material that makes the calabashes spin. On the disc placed at the opposite side of the handle, the strings are fastened to pieces that produce sound. The most common way of playing the Ronda is by placing an arc in contact with the strings and turning it at variable speeds. Smetak used to say that the Ronda proves that rhythm and harmony are the same thing and the only difference between them is just the speed.
12. Tympanum (3) — 1970. Three big metallic pans, of three different sizes, in which openings pieces of leather were placed and tied in the same manner as in a drum. They have a hole near the end, from where plastic hoses that, when blown, make the tension of the pieces of leather vary, thus changing the sound. They are tied by one of their handles with strong synthetic threads to a brown wooden beam, mounted on two perpendicular solid feet. The biggest pan is painted yellow, the medium-sized in blue, and the smallest one in red. The three lids of the big pans are also tied to this beam and they function as percussion plates, and three small drums made of cut coconut shell also having hoses for modifying the sound when blown. There is also an instrument called Potes (Pots) – No date of its creation. They are based on instruments of the “candomblé” - religious rites of the African religion . They are clay pots of several sizes used to carry water and very peculiar to the culture of the “Recôncavo” region in Bahia. They function not only as percussion instruments but also as a device to to sing inside and, depending on the amount of water they carry, the sound can change,
Two views of the Três Sóis: standing still and in movement
13. Três Sóis — 1971. An extremely important instrument symbolically speaking and widely used. A big base of brown wood on which there is a beam, the traverse of which is an axle of the same material. The verticals are formed by two trivets (one on each side) to support the action. In this axle, is mounted a big wooden frame painted white that spins around. There is also a big Styrofoam cylinder lying down with the axle transfixing it longitudinally. Coupled to the inner base of this Styrofoam, there is a big wooden disc, painted in several colors, with predominantly triangular figures, having rays made by strings fixed to tunable pieces and fixed in the center. In front of this disc, there is another smaller disc with the same characteristics. Both the frame and the back of the smaller discs have little wire springs that “hurt” the strings of the neighboring disc. Both the discs and the frame can be turned independently, varying the senses and the speed. Symbolically, the discs represent the sun, the sun as the center of the Earth and the inner sun of each one of us that can be harmonized.
Máquina de Silêncio
Two views of the Selvadura
Smetak playing one of the Grandes Bores
A Grande Virgem
This is just a small sample of the many instruments (150 in all) created by Smetak, the Alchemist of sound, a genius behind a simple man who believed in renovation: renovation in music, in the sounds of music, in culture, in education. And that is what he really was: a renovator and an innovator.
We would like to thank Lia Sfoggia for the digital treatment of Smetak’s images