It doesn’t take a lot to make beautiful music—in fact, sometimes all it takes is one single string.
The Afro-Brazilian berimbau is, quite literally, a musical bow: it’s comprised of a long, thin wooden branch strung with a single metal wire and a hollow, open-backed gourd resonator. It’s played with a thin stick, a small basket rattle, and a small coin or stone.
Often used as musical accompaniment for the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira, the instrument arcs like a bow and arrow but plays like—well, nothing you’ve ever heard before. Which raises the question: why haven’t you ever heard it before?
Arcomusical is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the artistic advancement of the berimbau and related musical bows through composition, performance, publication, research, and community. To date, Arcomusical has created over 30 new works for the berimbau—and counting.
Most recent among them is a 12-work chamber music cycle titled MeiaMeia: New Music for Berimbau. Composed by Artistic Director Gregory Beyer and his former student, Alexis C. Lamb, the album’s title is Portuguese for “HalfHalf,” as in “six of one, a half dozen of the other”—six pieces by each composer.
MeiaMeia is brought to life by Beyer and Lamb’s world music sextet Projeto Arcomusical, whose hand-painted instruments sport a Piet Mondrian-esque design created by their bandmate Daniel Eastwood. Clocking in at just over an hour, the chamber cycle makes its way through a wide spread of solos, duos, trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets, each exploring the unique timbral colors and textures of this inimitable instrument.
The result is a collection of pieces which draw on influences ranging from the minimalist musings of Steve Reich to the folk tunes of Béla Bartók, traditional capoeira music to palindromes and numerical patterns. Pieces blend patiently into and out of one another, enfolding the listener in a meditative trance.
And yet, that trancelike soundscape is bursting with color. The musical language is at once playful, rhythmic, buoyant, and beautiful—ostinati bounce energetically from one player to another, pitches bend back and forth, hocketed melodies echo above gentle glissandi, and kaleidoscopic melodies circle and expand in ever-changing patterns.
As a listener, it’s easy to lose yourself in that ever-evolving soundscape—but Projeto Arcomusical doesn’t miss a beat. The sextet is so tuned in to one another that at times it becomes difficult (if not impossible) to tell where one instrument ends and another begins. The players are so precise, so blissfully engaged with their instruments and one another that the individual pieces and the individual players melt away, and you begin to discover the uniquely captivating character of the instrument itself.
Sure, it may only take a single string to make music—but as Projeto Arcomusical demonstrates, it takes also takes a whole lot of patience, passion, and precision.