through empty shop windows

They were not beautiful, robust thoroughbreds. They were mules, much hardier for the long difficult journey through the Serra do Mar, departing from Santos to São Paulo. They were not sporting their full regalia. It would not be appropriate, much less comfortable, to cross the dense Atlantic forest dressed like that. It was not the beautiful, idyllic landscape that made them stop. It was diarrhea that forced our future emperor to relieve himself on the banks of the Ipiranga River. Many historians have already pointed out the contradictions present in Independence or Death!, painted by Pedro Américo more than sixty years after the proclamation of Brazil’s independence. In the manner of historical paintings, it does not record reality, but rather reconstructs it in a symbolic way in order to exalt and aggrandize the role played by D. Pedro I. Much of this allegory and reconstruction is present in Desdito, Lais Myrrha’s performance, which dialogues with Pedro Américo’s painting.

While still on the sidewalk in front of the Louvre, we hear a song echoing from inside the building. We are led by it to enter the building, where we come across the initial formation of the musicians/performers in the building’s commercial galleries. What might seem like a poetic attempt to appease the military aspect of Pedro Américo’s painting doesn’t just reinforce its hierarchical structure, but also emphasizes something pathetic that pervades this type of organization. Far from inspiring respect, the solemn attitude of its participants, as artificial as the universe of social media, provokes a certain embarrassment. The same forced pose, here captured not by a painter and his easel, but by the lenses of cameras that, participate in the performance besides the conducted by Pio Figueroa, punctuating the scene with the sounds of camera flashes, calling to mind fireworks, common to grandiose celebrations.

Lais Myrrha recreates the scene portrayed in Independence or Death! in front of the 3rd Notary of São Paulo, a choice that does not strike me as random. During the empire, notary positions were assigned by the Crown, which created the offices through the ordinations of the Kingdom of Portugal in Brazil. From its beginning, notary positions were filled by a tradition of heredity, in which members of the same family would continuously occupy the same office. Currently, notary positions are appointed through open hirings, though they remain surrounded by political interests, which influence the employment of new notaries. When choosing to make her Ipiranga on the banks of a notary, Myrrah elaborates the first one of its allegories, in a procedure that opposes Pedro Américo’s nationalism

Myrrha places the symbols of Brazilian independence celebrated in the painting into discussion. She does not spare the Anthem of Independence, beginning with the choice of brass and percussion band for its performance, which, due to its simpler formation (much smaller than a military band), sheds off some of the anthem’s majesty. With fewer members, the martial beat characteristic to anthems, driving them forward with their thrumming pulsation, presents instead a sense of melancholy and fragility. In Mendonça’s arrangement, the cadence seems to refer more closely to the slow dance of Ravel’s celebrated Bolero, rather than to the march of military troops in combat.

Beginning from the interior of the building, the performance’s route also impacts the musical performance. Functioning as a kind of disarrayed arrangement, the marching band’s sounds transform according to the physical spaces they cover. The ground floor, with a high ceiling, the marble floor, the carpets, the stairs and their metal handrails, the store windows – off each of these surfaces the sound rebounds, provoking a polyphony, adding anew to the cacophony. Returning to the sidewalk, the avenue’s sounds – car horns and buses, batuques, barking dogs, the voices of curious pedestrians – all clash with the brass band. As the performance carries on, the musicians descend to the building’s small parking lot, with a very low ceiling and walls visibly made of concrete, which deadens the sound, making it much harsher and causing it to amplify very quickly, provoking a certain sonic discomfort.

But not only in the physical aspects of sound, the course traced by the brass band alters our perception of music by suggesting further images and meanings. The Louvre building, where Desdito was conceived, was designed by João Artacho Jurado. Lacking academic training, he practiced an imprecise architecture, loaded with decorative elements that bridged many differing architectural styles, never hesitating to mix them in a single project, quite to the displeasure of his modernist contemporaries. It’s difficult not to consider the opposing paths the reputations, variously, of Artacho Jurado and Pedro Américo have taken. If the architect of the Louvre building achieved widespread recognition, however delayed, forever marking the landscape of the city of São Paulo, for the painter of Independence or Death!, in addition to seeming to fall into anachronism, his most celebrated and important work remains far from the public eye, locked away in a museum currently under risk of collapse.

If we were to assign physical aspects to the music arrangement, we can note in its first two movements Introduction – The Court – Solemn, and Part 1 – Hope – Lofty – something of the decorative exaggeration present in Jurado’s baroque/modernist style. They seem to be aware of their own beauty, confident in their more relaxed, unhurried pace. In the next movement, Part 2 – The Empire – Noisy, the musicians advance towards the sidewalk at a slightly more accelerated pace, transforming the dialogue between metals and percussions, altering rhythm and melody, crossed by dissonances that seem to emulate the avenue’s disorderly movement, mimicked by the brass band, and finally invading the building’s below-ground spaces, entering the next movement: Part 3 – The Coup – Rough. The luxury of the building’s richly ornate façade and ground floor gives way to the gloomy surroundings of the garage. The feeling of claustrophobia, common to any below-ground area, is amplified here by the combination of the music’s loud volume, the large number of people occupying a tight space amongst parked cars, and the musty odor of mold, not to mention the odor of the building’s garbage, which is deposited in the parking lot for its later disposal. The audience, who has followed the brass band along the way, now appears to be attending a funeral, their own procession. In direct reference of it or not, one notes a significant similarity between the melody opening this movement and the shout Robert Plant gives out at the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song. Given the similarity, new analogies can be constructed from the lyrics of the song, which deals with a contemporary theme as sensitive as immigration and which, among other things, warns: “So now you’d better stop and rebuild all your ruins/ For peace and trust can win the day, despite of all your losing.”

Leaving the garage behind, we return to the performance’s starting point. The last movement of Ainda Pendência, Part 4 – The Farce – With Awe, melts the anthem completely, undoing its structure to the point where we can hardly identify the melody. On the way, Myrrha and her Desdito seem to want to reveal to us the secret behind Pedro Américo’s painting: the promise of our eternal future dreamed and never attained, now transmuted by the surroundings from where our journey began. In the persistent archaism of an institution such as the notary public, in the decadence of the few physical travel agencies that still hold out in the digital age, and in the many empty windows awaiting new occupants.

One of these stores is still occupied, by a hair dye retailer. As I followed behind the marching band, I remember looking at the window crammed from floor to ceiling with boxes featuring images of seemingly fake women, their photographs so retouched, joyfully displaying their new, colorful locks, and contemplating life’s stubbornness. No matter the size of our current crisis, these boxes will continue to smile back at us. I now think of the always playful way of Brazilian to make fun of themselves, celebrated for years as one of the most recognizable characteristics of our people, now reviewed alongside the many other historical revisions of our time. Even so, I could not help but sing, if just to myself, the parody that we, public school students in the 1970s, forced by the military dictatorship to sing national anthems every day before school began, made of the Anthem of Independence: “the Japanese man has four children, all four lame, one is deaf, the other is mute and the other two are potbellied.” And I smiled back at the brunette in the box, with brown harmony colored hair.

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This text was originally published in the book where is pedro américo? (museu do louvre pau-brazyl, 2018) and revised in June 2021.

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