Composer Recalls Experience of Torture in Brazil

“The Refrigerator” by Paulo C. Chagas premieres in São Paulo on 50th anniversary of military coup

Photo of Paulo C. Chagas

A new composition by Paulo C. Chagas recalls the torture he endured as a teen living under military rule in Brazil.

Torture is cruel,
inhuman and degrading.
causes permanent damage.
The refrigerator house-prison
celebrates the darkness of ignorance:
darkness, cold and noise.
Neither in nor out
neither victim nor executioner
we have to be

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Paulo C. Chagas cannot forget the terror and pain suffered more than 40 years ago at the hands of Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship. He has shared little with colleagues at the University of California, Riverside, where he chairs the Department of Music, about the torture he experienced at age 17 that profoundly shaped his life.

But in a new musical composition commissioned by the Cultural Center in São Paulo on the 50th anniversary of the coup that overthrew Brazil’s democratically elected government, Chagas both recalls the brutality he survived and explores opportunities for a life lived in love and peace.

That composition, “The Refrigerator” — named for the torture device he endured — premieres in São Paulo today.

Chagas said the lyrics reflect both the experience of torture and his attempts to make sense of the experience that left him isolated and distrustful of others.

“After 43 years this is the first time I have addressed it at all,” he said. “Composing this music has helped me a lot. It’s a major change in my life to address this experience.

Image of festival

Scenes of everyday life in Brazil such as this festival are featured in the multimedia element of “The Refrigerator.”Courtesy of Paula Sacchetta. May not be reproduced without permission.

Known for compositions that feature electronic sounds and multimedia components, Chagas wrote “The Refrigerator” for mezzo-soprano and baritone voices, violin, viola, violoncello, piano, percussion, and electronic sounds. The 40-minute piece includes video with dozens of photos of prisons, images of torture, and scenes of people in daily life. The Nucleo Hesperides, an ensemble specializing in the music of South and North America, will perform the work.

“The music starts very dark, very scary, then attempts to elevate the spirit,” he explained. “The point is to not cultivate anger and negative feelings, rather to transmutate into something more positive and light. The only way to overcome this suffering and torture is to see in a more elevated, human, spiritual way.”

Chagas was a young teenager living in Rio de Janeiro when he became very involved in politics at a high school where teachers encouraged political protests against the military regime. At age 16 he left Brazil to live with an uncle who was exiled in Paris, but returned to his homeland a year later. Although he was no longer involved in student protests, he was arrested by the military.

His captors placed him in a windowless, ice-cold metal box known as a “refrigerator” that made it impossible for prisoners to sit or stand up straight, where he was bombarded with loud sounds and noise. When he was removed three days later, he was savagely beaten.

“It was much more violent than I expected,” he recalled. “Sound can destroy people, both the body and the mind, especially when it is very loud. But I was lucky. I didn’t have electric shocks, and they didn’t remove my fingernails.”

image of man counting beans

Everyday life suggests opportunities for a life lived in love and peace in a new composition by Paulo C. Chagas. Courtesy of Paula Sacchetta. May not be reproduced without permission.

News reports say hundreds of Brazilians were killed and thousands more tortured during the 21-year military dictatorship.

For the first few years after his release from prison, Chagas said, he was lost. Then he discovered music, and “my life turned into something more productive.”

He learned how to play the guitar, focusing on pop music, but quickly turned to experimental music, particularly electronic music, which is especially popular in Europe.

“Music gave me the possibility to be very free,” he explained. “When you’re composing music you can do whatever you want. It is more abstract than language. It is more transparent. You don’t have to explain it. You experience it.”

The concert in which “The Refrigerator” will premiere is the first musical event in Brazil that addresses the atrocities of the military regime that came to power 50 years ago, Chagas said.

“I hope people will understand how bad it was, the amount of suffering,” he said. “I call this a state of ignorance, the darkness of ignorance, the political persecution, and the corruption that continues today. The way to overcome that is to develop knowledge, insight and human understanding. That’s the message I want. It’s not a political message. We need to see how as humans we interact with each other. It’s a more humanistic position.”

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