Gal Costa – the limits of silence



Considerations about the musical style of the Bahian singer

From Elizeth Cardoso to Mônica Salmaso, from Aracy de Almeida to Roberta Sá, from Doris Monteiro to Marisa Monte, female singing occupies a prominent place in the musical history of the country.[I] This prodigality of female singers in popular music of the 1945th century and part of the 2022st reveals a continuous work of building the singing voice in Brazil. The work of Gal Costa (XNUMX-XNUMX) represents, in this universe, a parameter of modern Brazilian singing, both for the dialogue it establishes with tradition and for the rupture it promotes in relation to the consecrated styles of the Radio Era.

Attentive to the concise singing of João Gilberto – who, upon hearing her, still in Bahia, considered her “the greatest singer in Brazil”, Maria da Graça Costa Penna Burgos, since Sunday (1967), used bossa nova principles to create a song stripped of the vocal resources present in voices sung with more volume, which is why they are called “voiceirões” (Ângela Maria, Cauby Peixoto, Nelson Gonçalves). In a culture prone to prolixity such as Brazil's, the singer knew how to hone her style until she reached the maximum required for each song, in a rigorous exercise in technique and interpretation that would find a parallel only in the work of her master.

But what, effectively, makes Gal Costa's singing so unique? In its emission, for anatomical reasons, there is already a gain in natural amplitude, which allows it, among other resources, to minimize vibratos that made other singers famous, bringing singing closer to speech. Obviously, several factors contribute to the installation of a singing voice style: one of them is the technology in favor of an increasingly powerful amplification through microphones and their outputs, the loudspeakers – or, as musicians call them and audio technicians, the PAs (public address). In the case of Gal Costa, this gain in natural amplitude does not mean that she did not know how to use a more voluminous singing style, as required by the song, as we can hear in “Vaca profana” (Caetano Veloso) or “Brasil” (Cazuza/George Israel/Nilo Romero).

In addition to amplitude, the continuous search for a free emission of the characteristics of erudite singing (erudite traits present in voices such as Linda Batista, Carmem Miranda and Dalva de Oliveira), which seems to concentrate the intention from the minimum, can be perceived in all the extensive work of Gal. Even in her maturity, the singer still said that she was “getting close” to her ultimate goal: “complete and pure” singing, always pursued, which we can understand as the search for a continuous and difficult vocal detachment. This was how Brazil was able to witness, over five decades, the patient work of an aesthete who freed his readings from the sentimental outbursts that made the interpretations of the “faith sister” Maria Bethânia and her colleague Elis Regina famous.

And, even with all the critical recognition, Gal Costa never seemed satisfied with her work. That is how, in 1995, the veteran singer declared to journalist Luís Antônio Giron that she wanted to “pass soap in style”,[ii] as if his primary quest was still to rescue Gracinha's voice, stripped of the vocal resources learned over time. Getting to the essentials was her vocation, as in João Gilberto, João Cabral or Graciliano Ramos.

Examples of Gal Costa's constant restlessness can be found at will within her work. When she sings “Desalento” (1995), in the show “Mina d'água do meu canto”, the voice in pianissimo it progressively loses volume, a sonorous gesture that alludes to the end of the love affair; in João Valentão (1981/1994), he emulates the bass of Dorival Caymmi and extends the notes like the character lying on the beach, “as far as the eye cannot reach”; when he takes from Dalva’s repertoire os “Olhos Verdes” (1978), he makes high-pitched vocalizes in the vowel “i”, featuring the slender palm trees of the lyrics and amending, in countermelo, the homage to one of his favorite singers, however without the vibratos so characteristic of the “Nightingale of Brazil”. In none of these cases does the gesture remain: the interpretation seems to have as a principle the respect for the musical note both in its duration and in its resonances, revealing full mastery of the craft of singing and a peculiar way of dealing with the songs.

Listening more attentively to “Olhos Verdes”, by Vicente Paiva, recorded by Dalva de Oliveira in 1950 and by Gal Costa in 1978, we can glimpse the vocal influences between singers from different generations. A more objective way of dealing with influence is to infer the vocal instrument from the sound. Such an inference may reveal the relationship between Gal Costa's spectacular voice and what should be the anatomical design of her resonators.

First, let us take as a reference the voice of Dalva de Oliveira, who brought the fundamental marks of his time. The singing voice style of the radio singers seems to present the same articulatory configuration performed by all of them. When vocal style is mentioned, we are talking about voice quality, which is the technical term used to designate particularities of timbre and acoustic details that come from how articulation is produced, which are also dependent on the individual anatomy of each singer.

In the recording of “Olhos Verdes”, Dalva uses what we can call a metallic voice, a timbre resource whose basic articulation is to raise the back of the tongue further in the oral cavity, while maintaining an important mouth opening. This articulation of the tongue probably raises the larynx, which implies a configuration of the mouth that makes the resonances more acute.[iii]. We understand such articulation as typical of that time, as well as the resources of the belcanto, which the singers used with the main aim of ensuring the volume and pitch of the voice. In a time when electrical amplification was not so powerful and there were no electronic tuners, the technique proved to be quite useful.

For the listener, Dalva's metallic voice is easily identified in the words “batucada” and “marcada” at the beginning of the song (“Comes from a remote batucada/a well-marked cadence”), in which the tonic vowels are intoned in long notes. . The most common perception we have in relation to these vowels is that they sound “narrower”[iv] and nasal5 . In the same recording, it is also worth paying attention to the very high end – this one, printed with an erudite vocal color. Thus, in terms of singing style, if Dalva's voice may be out of line with what we consider beautiful today, his dedication to sound according to the musical requirements of his time is undeniable, as well as his contribution to the Brazilian songbook in notable recordings such as “The flowers are returning” (Paulo Soledade) and “Bandeira Branca” (Laércio Alves/Max Nunes), among others.

Gal Costa's voice, which has a musical aesthetic completely different from that of live radio programs, comes purified from the unnatural metal of the singers of the 1940s and 1950s and from the articulatory maneuver to obtain more volume. Therefore, what our auditory memory has printed of Gal Costa's voice is a singing pattern in which, especially in the vowels (which are the sounds that carry the musical note and the typical resonances of speech), the articulators are exactly in greater conformity with spoken speech. Hence the impression of naturalness and better intelligibility of the sung text. No wonder, in 1995, music critic John Pareles compared Gal Costa's singing to a "sunlit lagoon", thanks to her ability to "sing softly" and, like Frank Sinatra, "pronounce words clearly".[v]

It should also be noted that the proposal of Gal Costa's singing in “Olhos Verdes”, as well as in the entire album Jellyfish (1978), is the search for a timbre balance between the bass and treble regions. In the track “A Mulher” (Caetano Veloso), there are several examples of how the singer balances the low-bass timbre well – for her voice – from the first note in the word “lá” (“lá vai ela”) to a high in which the voice sounds clear, with head resonances7 when chanting the verse “on tiptoe”. It looks like a staccato, impression given by the voiceless consonants in that sentence.

And why does this issue sound like a song that we can call “modern”, in relation to its predecessor Dalva? Because, perspicaciously, Gal Costa knew how to attribute traits of a more natural voice to these trebles — without which, many times, we would end up perceiving this voice as a voice with a rounded emission, as in lyrical singing. Opera singing and opera singing can be substitutive terms to designate the style in which uniformity in the vocal tract is created.

Without exhaustively detailing the precise movements of the organs of speech that serve the different articulatory adjustments also in the corner, we explain the following: the uniformity in question is achieved by elongating the tract, as if it were a tube, through protrusion and labial rounding ; at the same time, it aims to guarantee space for the vertical movement of the larynx. The purpose of such positioning of the articulators of the sung speech is to obtain a tuned voice with intensity capable of “piercing” an orchestra.

As more or less attentive listeners (it doesn't matter), we were contemplated with Gal Costa's crystalline voice, but it's good to remember that she also had an excellent anatomical design of her vocal apparatus for singing: a great oral opening, which indicated great anterior region of the vocal tract; an important pharyngeal space and light vocal folds that ensured the highs and highs of his voice. The generous opening of the mouth was related to the amplitude of the vocal sound signal and a good pharyngeal space ensured medium and severe resonances of good intensity. This vocal apparatus, as we inferred, gave Gal Costa's voice completeness, with light bass, medium and full-bodied highs, while ensuring power in the middle and high regions, as can be seen in the recording of “Língua” (1995). ), by Caetano Veloso.

It is known that the singer, in the 1980s, had engraved the design of her mouth at the bottom of a swimming pool. The anecdote seems to us to reveal Gal Costa's own fetish for one of her most iconic signs, which, together with the vast amount of hair, made up a person unmistakable. And the image also ends up becoming a symbol of the importance of Gal Costa's mouth as part of a privileged vocal apparatus that, combined with technique, would transform her into one of the most important Brazilian interpreters.

A muse of the counterculture, Gal Costa has always been open to new things, from “Divine, wonderful” to recent incursions into electronic music. Over the decades, he inscribed his name in history with his unique, persistently crafted voice. For this reason, the synthesis character of his work is perhaps explained by the ability, in dialogue with the Brazilian tradition, to reach the interpretation through an elementary song, as if it were going to be left with a sound that coincided, at the limit, with silence. Was there much to do after that?

*Beatriz Raposo de Medeiros Professor at the Department of Linguistics at the University of São Paulo (USP).

*Fabio Cesar Alves Professor of Brazilian Literature at USP. Author, among other books, of Paper Weapons: Graciliano Ramos, Prison Memories and the Brazilian Communist Party (Publisher 34).


[I] Maestro Julio Medaglia states about this phenomenon: “But it is the same America that provides us with two examples in which the predominance of female singing is almost total: jazz and Brazilian popular music. Similar to what happens in music made by instruments, in which the highest notes are the most agile, when a type of creation allows a more diversified use of vocal resources and even virtuosity, it seems that the register of the female voice becomes more adequate”. “Divas of musical matriarchy”. Folha de S. Paul, December 22, 1996.

[ii] “Gal passes soap in style in new work”. Folha de S. Paul, May 6, 1995.

[iii] The settings or settings of the vocal tract have many details about the positioning, relaxation or tensioning of various regions of this tract and explain its format responsible for a certain vocal quality. We will not provide here an exhaustive description of these settings , which would be needed in a technical text.

[iv] In fact, the “narrow” metaphor makes sense, because by raising the back of the tongue, the oral cavity is narrowed. 5 Although impressionistic perception is voice nasal       , it may be that there is no air flow through the nasal cavity in this type of joint.

[v] “Gentle voice from Brazil casts a spell of serenity”. The New York Times. July 3, 1995, p. 9.

 7 The resonance mechanism of the high female voice commonly called “head voice” is the one in which the larynx is elevated and the folds are more extended and thinned.

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