Waters of March and the Circle of Life

Waters of March

A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
~ Chinese Proverb

Although jazz is not my primary genre to write in, I have always enjoyed singing jazz standards, especially those written by the jazz greats like Cole Porter or George and Ira Gershwin. Brazilian jazz is also a favourite of mine which is why I so love the songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim. Wanting to explore his catalogue was motivation to found the Ipanema Lounge Project in 2012, whose repertoire we are continuously expanding on every live concert.

Last Sunday I enjoyed performing another show with the Ipanema Lounge Project and had one of these rare and very special moments every musician encounters once in a while: Whether live or in the studio, with the interpretation of every tune, we try our best to delve into the essence of each song and take the listener on a musical and emotional journey. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we don’t. But in this case, it was a song we were performing for the very first time and I not only connected with it, but it took me on a journey.

The tune Waters of March (in Portuguese, Águas de Março) had been a song request from a jazz lover in the audience for that very show. Written by Jobim in the early seventies, Águas de Março was first released in 1972. The song incorporates samba and maracutu influences. He wrote the original lyrics in Portuguese and a second version followed in English. Waters of March was named the all-time best Brazilian song in 2001. It was a poll conducted by Brazil’s leading daily newspaper, Folha de São Paulo including more than 200 Brazilian journalists, musicians and other artists.

I was handed a CD with a very nice version by Art Garfunkel from his album Breakaway from 1975. So off I went, listening to not only his version but also to the original by Jobim and some others by contemporary female jazz artists like Cassandra Wilson. Listening to these versions I immediately understood that it was a very magical and philosophical song. But the more I listened, the more impossible it seemed to memorize the lyrics:

The words of both the English and the Portuguese version are neither constructed to create a logical narrative nor are there any recognizable stanza patterns or traceable rhymes. The lyrics consist of strings of free associations, of singular objects broken out of their original context and assembled like in a collage – moreover, since they are in motion, a montage; literally, figuratively and musically. The composer-guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves recalled that Jobim told him that writing in this kind of stream of consciousness was his version of therapy and saved him thousands in psychoanalysis bills. It had indeed been the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who had developed the technique of “free association” at the end of the 19th century as a clinical method for his patients undergoing psychoanalysis.

Nearly every line starts in Portuguese with “É…” (“[It] is…”) and in English with “a”. “It” is a stick, a stone, a sliver of glass, a scratch, a cliff, a knot in the wood, a fish, a pin, the end of the road, and many other things. They reminded me very much of “l’object trouvé” from the Cubist collage movement of Picasso and Duchamp of 1912-1913, also because these items are usually domestic or everyday items like wine glasses, bottles, cups and calling cards. Although, in Cubism “l’object trouvé” was either displayed completely out of context or used to assemble a new environment.

In the Waters of March it is the environment which is dissembled by the storm and gushing waters delivering these fragments and debris.

The song lyrics also made me think of one of the 20th century’s most prominent poems, The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot from 1922. Not only is the poem’s form similarly obscure and untraditional – The Waste Land has many shifts in speaker, location and time – but especially the famous first line, “April is the cruelest month” easily conjures up Jobim’s unusual seeming depiction of March as a destructive and cruel time. The influence is not surprising since Jobim was indeed an avid reader of poetry by Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Bandeira and Eliot, many of whose poems he could recite by heart..

In the Southern hemisphere, March is the rainiest month of the year, which was Jobim’s initial inspiration for Águas de Março. March represents the end of summer and the beginning of the colder season. Especially in the state of Rio de Janeiro, it is typically marked by sudden storms with heavy rains and strong winds that cause violent flooding and landslides in many places around the city, sometimes killing people. The lyrics of the Portuguese version therefore reflect loss and devastation.

Also delivering a more destructive interpretation of spring, another groundbreaking piece comes to mind: Igor Stravinski’s famous ballet and orchestral concert work from 1913, The Rite of Spring which was so challenging at its time that it famously caused a riot at its première. It was in a similar way a piece of work with no specific plot or narrative, consisting of a succession of choreographed episodes. Stravinsky himself described The Rite of Spring as “a musical-choreographic work, [representing] pagan Russia [...] unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring”.

With the goal of providing a more life-affirming and universal perspective in the English version, Jobim – whose music was already being played around the world by the early 60’s – changed a few elements: He intentionally omitted specific references to Brazilian culture (festa da cumeeira, garrafa de cana), to its flora (peroba do campo) and folklore (Matita Pereira). So consciously holding a listener from the Northern hemisphere in mind, he depicted March as the month which marks the beginning of spring, an awakening. The waters are from melting snow, from thawing, and not from the torrential rains as referred to in the original. Although both versions speak of “the promise of life”, the English one allows for these other, more positive interpretations. It contains the additional phrases like “the joy in your heart” and the “promise of spring”, a seasonal reference that would be more relevant to most of the English-speaking world.

Both the lyrics and the music have a constant downward progression much like the water torrent from those rains flowing in the gutters, which typically would carry sticks, stones, bits of glass, and almost everything and anything. The orchestration creates the illusion of the constant descending of notes much like Shepard tones.

Original score in Jobim’s handwriting, published in the Disco the Bolso (Pocket Record), a bonus record included in the weekly magazine O Pasquim, printed in Rio de Janeiro, May 1972

Looking at an original score by Jobim, you can see it becomes apparent that he was meticulous about the voicing, whereas many composers notate the chord symbols and melody, leaving the interpretation and therefore the voicing to the musician.

Shortly before my first performance of the song, I was actually quite nervous. I wanted to do the song justice by being able to convey these sliding kaleidoscope images both lyrically and musically. I also wanted to be able to transport the ambivalence between tension and flow without over dramatization. The Waters of March I think is a challenge for every vocalist who doesn’t want to sound too monotonous when listing these seemingly endless and disconnected objects. Because what matters is not so much the meaning of the individual words – which would according to Freud vary in all of us anyway – but rather the sounds they create when put together in context with the music.

That’s where I felt safe: Greg Porée (the guitarist and one of the founding members of the Ipanema Lounge Project) and I, had worked on our own arrangement of the song. The guitar started with a very unique lick, the piano set in and riding on the groove of bass and percussion, I started singing these strings of words. Very soon, I felt the emotion building up inside me and suddenly realized I had understood the universal meaning of the song: Whether in Portuguese or English, streaming through me were all of these “things”, a stick, a stone, a sliver of glass. I was channelling metaphors and symbols of life flowing by in never ending new constellations, each one laden with its own history – like in the line, “and the river bank talks of the waters of March”, events in the past and promises of things to come. Suddenly, to me even the English version didn’t feel like a calm stream flowing along but like a torrent.

In a similar way to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, even the English version wasn’t a pastoral, Beethoven or Schubert idea of spring, but an explosive one. Hence, without pain there is no joy. Without destruction there is no beginning. Whether it is the end of a cycle or the beginning of one, a cycle means life: No matter which way around, a beginning implies an end and an end implies a beginning of something new that will inevitably come. These were metaphors for events and situations that are chaotic, surprising, sometimes devastating. It made me feel very alive and that for me in that very moment was “the joy in my heart”.

John Constable, Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, circa 1827

John Constable, Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, circa 1827

Franz Marc, In the Rain, 1912

Franz Marc, In the Rain, 1912

Hans Hofmann, Above Deep Waters, 1959

Hans Hofmann, Above Deep Waters, 1959

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Please support the arts! You can purchase my music and spoken word – which I hope you will. If you find joy and inspiration in my words, and would like to provide additional support, please be lovely and consider a donation of your choosing – from anywhere between a coffee and a nice dinner. It will be deeply appreciated.

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  1. Hi Frances. Loved your explanation of the Waters of March. It feels powerful even without hearing it! And where can I hear you sing it? Anything on YouTube? or CD’s?

    Elaine
    (PS. The jewelry designer at Hollywood Farmers Mkt)

    • Frances Livings

      Thank you Elaine! We will be recording at out next show on Sunday, March 10. I’ll keep you posted.
      Loving the bracelet from your collection by the way!

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