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Zen Sounds 058: Nuno Canavarro
The enigmatic Portuguese composer has created an early masterpiece of glitchy electronic music
(Ama Romanta, 1988 / Moikai, 1998)
Working from London this week, I wandered around the city’s streets for hours in the evenings, listening to “Plux Quba” on repeat. I had found out about it through Kenyan sound artist KMRU’s guest column in First Floor, and got immediately enchanted by its magical glitches, bleeps and swooshes.
It seems as if Nuno Canavarro, the Portuguese composer who wrote this album when he was 26, tried everything to make it seem as obscure as possible to anyone that would discover it. The music alone sounds completely alien, but the cryptic title and subtitle “Música Para 70 Serpentes” (“Music for 70 Serpents”), as well as the fact that half of the tracks on the album remained untitled won’t exactly help curious listeners in understanding what this is about.
Released on a private press label in a capacity of 500 copies in 1988, “Plux Quba” wasn’t heard beyond the Portuguese avant-garde music community, but somehow found its way into the right ears. German experimental musician Christoph Heemann (of legendary outfit Hirsche Nicht Aufs Sofa) had obtained a copy of the album directly from the small Ama Romanta label and decided to bring it to a private listening session in Cologne with friends and musicians like Jim O’Rourke, Jan St. Werner, Carsten Schulz and Frank Dommert in 1991 – they all left dumbfounded, as they’d never heard anything like it before.
O’Rourke had been visiting Heemann in his hometown of Aachen, West Germany, at the time. Heemann, being five years his senior, already owned a legendary record collection at this point. “He had all those records that supposedly don’t even exist”, O’Rourke said in an interview with Tone Glow founder Joshua Minsoo Kim. A few years after that legendary listening session, O’Rourke would meet Portuguese musician Rafael Toral, and together they would decide to track down Canavarro and license “Plux Quba” for a re-issue on O’Rourke’s Drag City sublabel Moikai. Since that first re-release in 1998, it has been repressed several times.
It’s now widely recognized how massively the album influenced postmodern electronic music, namely the subgenres of clicks’n’cuts, glitch and micro-house – acts like Mouse On Mars, Oval, Jan Jelinek, Fennesz and, of course, Jim O’Rourke himself were deeply inspired by it, with Sam Prekob of The Sea & Cake once calling it “the high-water mark of electronic music” and “a really delicate, beautiful, and really weird record.” In 2001, Scott Herren alias Prefuse 73 wrote a track called “Nuno” for his debut album “Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives”, heavily drawing on samples from Canavarros track “Wask”.
While “Plux Quba” came seemingly out of the blue when it was first released, electronic and electroacoustic music had already existed for years, even decades if you will. Still, the way Canavarro treated and manipulated pre-recorded samples of instruments and vocals was truly unheard of. For many years, little was known about how he had actually produced the music. In recent years, reacting to the growing interest in the obscure album, he has given certain hints on his techniques and provided a bit of biographical information in a few interviews, mainly for Portuguese magazines and newspapers.
Born in 1962, Canavarro grew up in Lisbon, learned piano at an early age and played keyboards in post-punk and New Wave bands from the early to mid-1980’s. He first studied architecture in Lisbon and Porto before leaving for the Netherlands to work at the Institute of Sonology in The Hague, an academic research and education center for electronic music. Coming back to his hometown after two years with a lot of ideas and inspiration, he composed “Plux Quba” completely on his own in his home studio, using extremely simple equipment like an 8-track tape recorder and an Ensoniq 8-bit sampling keyboard. Sample sources ranged from amples of television programs and radio voices to snippets from ethnic music tapes and a recorded melodica.
“I got to use its own defects”, Canavarro said in one of the interviews about the sampler he employed to create the album. “It was a very unstable apparatus, there were some beastly things that, when forcing it to work hard, responded somewhat unpredictably.” In that sense, the album remains a great example of how limitation – in this case mostly on a technical level – can sometimes lead to an unexpected disbursement of creativity. It’s exactly the resulting lucky accidents and beautiful imperfections that lend the album its emotional foundation.
Previewing the material at a music contest in Portugal, Pop Dell’Arte singer and independent label owner João Peste got interested immediately and offered Canavarro to release it through his Ama Romanta imprint. The composer agreed, adding liner notes in Portuguese to the record sleeve that stated:
This record must be heard:
Through speakers that are as much as possible separated from each other
At a low volume starting from A-5 [Wask + Side 2]
I dare say that he probably included these rather esoteric listening instructions mainly to puzzle potential listeners.
Even if listened to on regular headphones or speakers, “Plux Quba” hasn’t lost any of its fascination over the last 35 years. One of the most outstanding aspects to me is how Canavarro processed and manipulated human voices here; “Bruma” (the song that KMRU singled out in First Floor) actually reminds me of that otherworldly Roberto Musci song I recommended last week.
Canavarro never recorded another album, aside from a collaboration with fellow experimental musician Carlos Maria Trindade, “Mr. Wollogallu”, in 1991. That record is actually amazing in its own right, but it sounds completely different. It reminds me more of ambient jazz and Japanese furniture music, with some ethnic New Age and avant-garde influences woven in. As weird as that sounds, I find it to be more accessible than his masterpiece “Plux Quba”.
Much stronger music writers than me, people like Andy Beta or Mark Richardson, have tried to condense the essence of “Plux Quba” into words, and they have all failed. It seems almost impossible – the more you try to describe it, the more it resists any type of classification. If anything, it’s a meticulously crafted kaleidoscope of skips and glitches, shimmering and sparkling, dialing into snapshots of ambiguous emotions and atmospheres. I realize that doesn’t say much as well, so I guess you really need to listen for yourself to find out.
So how and why did Nuno Canavarro disappear from the music scene after releasing this album? Well, he didn’t change careers completely, he just moved on to compose for films and directing movies, both of which he’s apparently doing until this very day to some success.
© 2023 Stephan Kunze