[1 December 2011]
You hear a lot of breathing when you listen to Carlos Paredes. When he leans into some of those bewitching, cascading arpeggios and venerable melodies, it’s already sounding transportive enough. But sometimes, when the music’s sad tension is relieved—often after a particularly long and impressive run—Paredes inhales loudly. What’s left in that half-second—before he leans into it all again—is a feeling of utter conviction in what this person’s doing and why he’s doing it. You start to take the breaths as inadvertent promptings, and in their way they become as entwined in the music as his guitar. After a short while—a few minutes, maybe?—you completely forget about his presence and are left merely with presence—a feeling of human connection through the sound of something strangely learned, a shared experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Carlos Paredes’s first two albums are being reissued this month by Drag City, and that this is a good thing.
Paredes (1925-2004), wasn’t just a “Portuguese guitar player”—he was also a player of the Portuguese guitar. The Portuguese guitar is smaller than a standard classical guitar and looks like a mandolin; its 12 strings are rich for condensed overtones. Sound-wise, it’s closer to a zither than a guitar. Now, the sound itself may be too pre-Renaissanceish for some (assuming it’s not already too pre-Kanye), but Paredes’s masterpiece, Guitarra Portuguesa (1967) holds up as well as any other great ‘67 album—albeit in an less-familiar way for most of us.
Paredes spent years in prison under Portugal’s Fascist dictatorship for identifying himself as a Communist, so it’s probably not coincidental that these first two albums—coming closest on the heels of his release—run far with intimations of violence and sexual energy…which, of course, are not unrelated things. Tension builds and recedes, but hardly at an arbitrary pace. Though these melodies may sound vaguely familiar even if you aren’t huge on Portuguese guitar music, nearly all of them seem spun at-the-moment, unpredictably, thanks to the mystique of Paredes’s own conviction in the material and, by extension, his stellar musicianship.
The guy’s a trickster, too. When you think he’s staying put, as in the back half of “Porto Santo”, he’s usually climbing right in front of you—stellar dynamic control makes it so. The guitars glimmer in the first “Romance”, but confront and scatter in the second with a muted down-the-rabbit-hole transition. He builds blunt melodic suspense while paying just as much attention to subtle slides of harmonic coloring. Carrying the melodies of pieces like “Variações em Ré Maior” or “Romance N° 2” with either a breakneck pacing or a considered escalation, he often stops just shy of cadencing and instead tantalizes you with another melody. If this all sounds sexual, that’s because it’s intended to be - “Canção Verdes Anos” alone is haunting in a more sensual way than Vivaldi ever was. (Side note: because of its structural and melodic resemblances, one can’t help but wonder if John Williams might’ve been listening intently to “Canção Verdes Anos” when he was composing his Schindler’s List score.)
This isn’t to suggest that Paredes is consistently somber or “overly-cerebral”—no. For every bit of sorrow in Guitarra Portuguesa, there’s usually a moment of unadulterated joy: the regal chime of “Pantomima”; the darkening chords in “Divertimento” damn-near neutralized by climbing major intervals; the elated tempo changes in “Dança” (that means “dance”, by the way—you’re welcome); the thoroughly satisfied cadences of “Fantasia” (a song that could pass for American bluegrass if you sampled the right sections). Like a distant memory, Guitarra Portuguesa comes to you in waves, and never all at once.
Paredes took his well-earned time with the follow-up album, releasing Movimento Perpétuo in 1971. Its cover implies more involvement from other players, but only the addition of a flute in two pieces creates any change instrumental palette. The difference is chiefly in mood: Movimento starts out much quicker and lighter than Guitarra, but by a few pieces in, just when you think Paredes might want to calm down and take one of his sad breathers in between all this nimbleness, he does just that…but then holds that tone for most of the album. Generally speaking, the pieces on Movimento lean more toward melancholy anxiousness than melancholy, anxious rapture, which is fine - but ultimately it’s the holding of this tone that makes Movimento just a little lesser than the debut. But still really, really good.
One thing that should be mentioned on the subject of other instrumentalists, is that the guitar accompaniment is often superb. If one were to listen to said accompaniment by itself—it’s the guitar in the right channel, or whichever one sounds less like “Flight of the Bumblebee”—it would sound disconnected, even clumsy. Yet when you’re enveloped by both at once, what comes out sounds ineffably whole, with the just-slightly-syncopated timing of the harmony being alert but utterly assured (the trailing in “Melodia N° 2” is sublime).
All the pieces on Movimento have very discernible charm, but those ever-looming cadences—especially in the more uptempo tracks like “Danças Portuguesas N° 2”—arrive a bit less enticingly. The timing is brisk and impressive, but lacks the offhand quality that came so easily and seductively on Guitarra. In terms of progressions, many of these songs are more of an adept series of patterns than any kind of “journey.” And the addition of a flute in the two “Mudar de Vida” pieces sounds mystic and coolly ambiguous in the second, but kinda ineffectual in the first. Still, it’s a rare treat to hear Paredes simply oscillating his chords in descending or ascending progressions; once again, it’s clear that he believes in the material, and so we do too. In closer “Canção”, he takes some of his heaviest breaths, even though the song’s neither quick nor loud—he just feels it.
And after all, it’s not like the musicianship has diminished. Paredes’s mastery of timing is on full display in the excellent “Variações em Ré Menor”, with tempo shifts that could offset even the most practiced theorist. The final minute of that song, with a celebratory key change before Paredes lifts the melody to the sky, is outright gorgeous. Witness how he replays the same four notes in “Música de Fundo” like a skipping record; the way the melody in “Valsa” seems like it’s crawling out of itself; the delightful and celebratory instrumental chant in the middle of “Variações Sob Uma Dança Popular”. Or perhaps most rewardingly, observe the phenomenal breakout of “Variações em Mi Menor” (that’s Mi Menor), around the two-thirds mark: Paredes paces up and down for a bit until hitting a fleeting high note. But he doesn’t milk that high note for effect, instead leaping right back down again as if it hardly mattered; as if this music was just happened upon by accident. And then he hits it again 20 seconds later.
Paredes would make music well into his 70s, but these first two albums are recognized as his best for reasons other than “firsties”: coming after what was surely a hellish time in prison (is any time in a Fascist prison not hellish?), Guitarra and Movimento are distinctly enraptured. Whether enraptured in newfound freedom, sadness in the recent past, or persistent romantic and sexual longing…well, that’s up to us. But “enraptured” is surely the word.
And hey: since this stuff owes nothing to the hippies, there’s even less audible foreshadowing of contemporary decadence! Huzzah!