Gil Shaham, Greece and an old Chinese legend

I recently had the chance to meet and talk with American violinist Gil Shaham in Barcelona, on the occasion of his performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto in L’Auditori (you can read the full interview here).

Towards the end of our conversation we talked a bit about Greece and the soloist’s only visit there so far, which he seemed to remember very vividly:

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Gil Shaham with his ‘Countess Polignac’ Stradivarius, backstage in L’Auditori

“I have never been in Athens, but I’ve been in Thessaloniki. I performed there around 10 years ago with a very good Greek orchestra. We played a piece called the Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto. I love this piece. It’s a sort of tone poem, and it tells a traditional story from the Chinese opera, very similar to Romeo and Juliet but in ancient Chinese style.

According to the story, the heroine, Zhu Yingtai, is forced to marry a noble man and she agrees to do so only if the wedding procession passes by the grave of her true love, Liang Shanbo. As the traditional Chinese wedding procession goes by the grave of young Shanbo, the earth shakes and lightning strikes and the earth shallows her up, and she throws herself into the grave of Shanbo. And in the end they are both resurrected as butterflies.

The piece is a symphonic version of a traditional Chinese opera, and it was composed in 1959 by two students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. It became extremely successful; it is the single most often performed symphonic work ever!”

It appears Shaham’s Greek visit was quite special, and he still has fond memories of it:

“So we played this piece in Thessaloniki. It was a very nice experience and and I have a beautiful memory of it. My whole family was with me, including my daughter who was just one year old at the time.”

We also talked about Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, for whom Shaham has a deep appreciation. The two artists also share some common experiences:

“We went to the same music school with Leonidas in New York. He was a little bit older. We live parallel lives so we never see each other, but then around 2 years ago we were in Munich at the same time and we had dinner together. That was very nice. I love his playing.”

Shaham, like Kavakos, has been one of the foremost violinists of his generation and it would be quite an occasion if their parallel routes also intersected in the concert hall – and it would be hard to think of a more fitting location for such a meeting to take place than Greece.

Listening to Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993) was one of these rare geniuses that are simply impossible to classify. Composer, singer, multi-instrumentalist, lyricist, producer, as well as filmmaker and actor, he switched with ease from one genre or style to another, blending various disparate influences into a highly original musical idiom.

An accomplished guitarist, Zappa also left a rich legacy of dazzling guitar work, such as his electrifying solo in Willie the Pimp from his early masterpiece Hot Rats (1969).

His virtuosity aside, it is evident that Zappa’s unique, and constantly evolving, musical language was only one part of his multifaceted artistic expression and creative vision. His often provocative stage presence, caustic -and at times censored- lyrics, as well as controversial role as a public figure were equally important aspects of his artistic persona.

Bust of Frank Zappa in Vilnius

There are, thus, various ways of listening to Frank Zappa. First, through his innovative and unconventional music. Then, through his sharp, sarcastic, and often infuriating lyrics. Last but not least, through his public commentary and interventions.

The latter is the focus of the recent documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Featuring numerous excerpts from interviews and TV appearances, it provides a general overview of Zappa’s ideas and views on a variety of topics such as music, politics, education, religion, drugs, censorship, and freedom of speech.

Not unlike his music, Zappa’s talk and language are playful yet always well structured; his remarks can be humorous and sarcastic, yet extremely serious.

Unsurprisingly, many of his views, such as his stance on American culture and foreign policy, ring the same as timely and poignant today.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Zappa’s influence in Europe has been arguably greater than in his native US. The subversive character of his art had a particularly big impact in the avant-garde and underground scenes of Central and Eastern Europe during the 1970s and 1980s.

Notably, Zappa went to Czechoslovakia following an invitation by president Václav Havel in January 1990. Havel was a fan of Zappa, and would later refer to him as “one of the gods of the Czech underground.” The two men developed a friendship, further consolidating the special connection between Frank Zappa and the Czech Republic that endures to this day.

Another, more tangible, testament to Zappa’s lasting and far-reaching influence can be found in downtown Vilnius, Lithuanian’s capital city. It is a bronze bust of the American musician erected in 1995, which has since become one of the city’s most visited sights (I took a photo of it myself when I visited Vilnius some years ago).

Listening to Frank Zappa, then, has been quite tricky: his attitude towards the status quo and established processes always remained critical, his iconoclastic art causing great provocation all the way from the US (where he fought a long battle against music censorship) to Soviet countries (where his music was banned and his records had to be smuggled illegally).

Be it Zappa’s groundbreaking music or thought-provoking commentary on society and culture, it is a listen most definitely worth having.

Electronic music artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Despite its name, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inducted several musicians that are not exclusively tied to the genre. Rappers such as Run-D.M.C. and the rap-rock act Beastie Boys to name a few, with Compton group N.W.A. to be added next year.

As such, it appears the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is finally embracing electronic music. Kraftwerk, widely considered pioneers in the field of electronic music, are nominated once again, while Depeche Mode with their synthpop electronic sound have been nominated for the fist time.

A lot of electronic artists have given their time and talent to the genre. Even though mostly riddled with male artists, the genre has also known pioneers such as Suzanne Ciani, who has acquired a somewhat legendary status within electronic music circles.

There are many more talented DJs from the past who have promoted electronic music, while even big names from other genres have clearly benefitted from it. There is an almost innumerable quantity of pop songs that have used electronic sounds, and it can also be said that pop icons like Madonna and Tina Turner owe a lot to the genre.

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Furthermore, electronic music has been around for decades. Its importance has also impacted other industries too, most notable movies. This year saw the release of various titles that display the use of electronic music, which shows how the genre is blended into visual mediums. Additionally, electronic music is also evident in video games and, as shown in this infographic about music and games, the sounds produced by electronic machines help keep players engaged and liven up the gaming experience. This means that not only is electronic music a purely auditory aspect, it also contributes towards heightening the stimulation of feelings and emotions.

Considering, thus, electronic music’s various redeeming qualities, it wouldn’t be out of place to see artists who have dedicated themselves to the genre be acknowledged by award-giving bodies like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Following the inclusion of other genres in the past, it could well open it up to electronic music this time around.

A Nobel Prize for music

Earlier this week the Swedish Academy announced that American songwriter Bob Dylan was the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. It was the first time a musician was awarded the prestigious prize. Naturally, certain questions pop up: What qualifies as literature? And where exactly does it intersect with music? Moreover, is Dylan primarily a musician or a poet? And does he deserve a Nobel Prize? I’ll try and tackle these one by one.

What is literature?

Not only books, apparently. Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America, published in 2009, contains a brave new and surprisingly inclusive definition of literature: “literary means not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form.” Apart from focusing exclusively on the written word, the massive anthology also deals with subjects such as comic strips, film, radio, photography, and, well, music (as a matter of fact, its index contains numerous references to Dylan, as do many other literary studies).

To be sure, not everyone has been in agreement. In an article for Harper’s Magazine in March 2014, American essayist Arthur Krystal defends the traditional literary canon, concluding that:

The truth is we want from poetry and prose what Bob Dylan and advertisements and even many well written commercial novels cannot provide. We want important writing (…) to explore the human condition, and we want our writers to function, as T.S. Eliot said of the metaphysical poets, as “curious explorers of the soul.

Now this is an interesting statement. In my view, the simple fact that Krystal feels the need to mention Dylan by name in his defense of “important writing” is already a sign of defeat and a direct acknowledgment of the latter’s significance and influence on contemporary culture.

But more importantly, it is hard to see how someone could seriously argue that Dylan’s work does not “explore the human condition”. If to be part of the literary world one should have a typewriter, a publishing contract and a membership in the Writers’ Union, then probably gifted lyricists like Dylan do not fit the bill. But to say that the man has not been a “curious explorer of the soul” is simply inaccurate, if not depreciating or spiteful.

The music of words

Literature, in fact, has quite a lot in common with music. To begin with, the works of classics such as Homer or Hesiod that feature in every literary canon were meant to be recited to musical accompaniment rather than simply “read” in the modern sense of the word. Besides, some of the main aesthetic characteristics of both prose and poetry such as textual rhythm, pace, or sound (e.g. the use of alliteration or assonance) are essentially musical qualities – hence the term musicality as applied to literary works.

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There can be, thus, no literature without music. From Homer to experimental post-modern fiction the musical element has always been intrinsic to literary creation.

Bob Dylan: Poet or songwriter?

By this point, I hope it’s clear that the above question should sound quite irrelevant, if not misleading. The high literary quality of Dylan’s lyrics is obvious to anyone who has seriously concerned himself with his work (it is no coincidence that many acclaimed writers share this view). Although always considered a songwriter, articles and essays centering on the poetic dimension of Dylan’s work had appeared early on in his career, while literary scholars have been citing him extensively over the last 50 years (notably, Cambridge University Press released The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan in 2009).

Dylan, wearing a hat and leather coat, plays guitar and sings, seated. Crouched next to him is a bearded man, listening to him with head bent.

Bob Dylan with Allen Ginsberg in 1975 / Photo: Elsa Dorfman

After all, Dylan has always been a resourceful and multifaceted artist capable of reinventing himself constantly, and any effort to categorize or label him is essentially doomed to fail (“he not busy being born is busy dying”, as the song goes). He is both poet and songwriter, lyricist and singer, guitarist and harmonicist, folk and rock, acoustic and electric, joker and prophet. A troubadour of troubled times.

Songs and books

This is not the first time the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to a non-conventional literary figure (notable examples include Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill, who won the prize in 1950 and 1953 respectively). It is, however, the first time that it goes to a musician and this has some significant repercussions.

First, it reflects a general shift in ideas as to what exactly is considered literature. This also applies to last year’s winner, Belarusian journalist and non-fiction writer Svetlana Alexievich, whose work many consider non-literary. It appears, then, that the term literature can –and, indeed, should– encompass a larger variety of expression, content, form, and style.

Moreover, the committee’s decision further goes to show how the long-held distinction between high and low (i.e. “commercial” or “popular”) art is becoming increasingly irrelevant. A rock star winning the Nobel Prize is truly exceptional, and bound to have profound implications in the discussion about both the definition and boundaries of literature.

So is Bob Dylan worth the award? In answering this, I turn to the role music, and song lyrics in particular, have played in my development as a person from childhood to the present. And I imagine I am not alone in finding that certain lyrics have marked me irreversibly, profoundly shaping my way of thinking and seeing the world.

Now, there are not many people who could claim a Nobel Prize for their lyrics, and no doubt Dylan was the most obvious candidate (another one would be Leonard Cohen, but there’s always room for more). In this sense, this year’s choice was refreshing in that it acknowledged the importance and formative role of lyrics while elevating popular song to the level of literature.

Indeed, the words of the songs we love are often the same as precious as the books we hold most dear.

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A Greek composer’s London marathon

Following the premiere of lament-inspired EARTH MINUS by organist Ourania Gassiou at Westminster Abbey about a year ago, the music of London-based composer Dimitrios Skyllas was performed last month in no less than three unique locations across the English capital. Let us follow the 29-year-old composer from Volos in his London marathon throughout its various stages.

At the starting line: Royal Αlbert Hall

On Sunday 18 September in Royal Αlbert Hall’s Elgar Room, acclaimed Greek pianist Konstantinos Destounis gave the English premiere of Nine Miniatures for the Universe, a piece by Skyllas inspired by the planets of our solar system, the NASA Voyager recordings, as well as traditional Greek rhythms and elements.


The event marked the beginning of the collaboration between the two Greek artists. As noted by the composer: “Konstantinos and I worked together on how to deliver my piece and his exceptional technique adds a different quality to my music. It was indeed a unique experience and seeing your piece in the programme of the Royal Albert Hall is fascinating!”

Half-way there: Victoria and Albert Museum

Five days later, Skyllas presented the world premiere of his piece ABYSS for solo piano at the renowned V&A Museum. A collaboration with artist and former V&A ceramics resident Matt Smith, ABYSS is an aural composition in dialogue with Smith’s Spode: A thirty one note love song, a ‘soundscape’ that was created by reassembling old plaster moulds into new forms.

The performance took place inside the Globe, a curved architectural sculpture designed by the Havana-based artist collective Los Carpinteros.

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Dimitrios Skyllas performing at the V&A Museum / Photo: Ryan Evans

As Skyllas remarked about the performance: “Ι always desired to compose music for a museum or a gallery. The V&A is a fantastic and absolutely inspiring environment to perform. I was hugely excited by the fact that my composition and my sound would embrace these walls. My experience with the ceramicist Matt Smith was the key point to this feeling!”

The finish line: Hellenic Centre of London

Last stop in Skyllas’s London marathon was the piano recital organised by ark4art in collaboration with the Hellenic Centre on 29 September, where the composer performed some of his own works alongside and in relation to the music of Giorgos Koumendakis and John Cage, exploring the contrasts and similarities between them.

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Dimitrios Skyllas at the Hellenic Centre in London

As he put it: “It was one of the most intimate concerts I have ever experienced. Perhaps it was the atmosphere, or the fact that I was playing the music by two composers I really admire, John Cage and Giorgos Koumendakis. Koumendakis’s personality and friendship have been a great influence to the nature of my work, and playing his music I felt warmth and kindness in my heart.”

 New spaces, new horizons

It appears that collaborating with artists from various disciplines and exploring different kinds of performances and new venues has affected the way Skyllas creates music. In his own words:

“In the last two years I have received great generosity towards my work. I have collaborated with great musicians, choreographers and dancers, visual artists, writers and actors. So I ask myself, how is it possible for this experience not to influence my creative decisions? My music is defined by the circumstances as well as the environment it is being performed every time.”

As new experiences continue to expand and shape his creative vision, it becomes clear that the Greek composer’s recent London marathon has only been a small part of a much longer and challenging, yet vastly rewarding, journey: that of ongoing self-development and creative expression through composing, performing, and sharing his music with all of us.

The time that slips away

One of the things that struck me most when a few months ago I watched The Lobster, the latest film by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, was its varied and highly eclectic soundtrack, which features music from Beethoven and Stravinsky to Schnittke and Nick Cave.

The piece, however, that left the strongest impression on me was Apo mesa pethamenos (“Dead from the inside”),  a Greek tune from the 1920s which accompanies what I think is the most beautiful scene in the entire film:

The song, with its melancholy mood and words (alluding to loss and the ensuing pain of past love), was written by Attik (artistic pseudonym of Kleon Triantafyllou), a prominent composer of popular music in Greece in the beginning of the last century, and sang by Danai Stratigopoulou, widely acclaimed for her interpretation of several tunes by Attik.

In fact, the fleeting nature of love and the passing of time are recurring themes in Attik’s songs, as suggested by titles like My Wasted Youth, The Passenger of Life, or Love is a Chimera. Another piece from that era with similar theme is the 1938 valse Poso Lypamai (“How sorry I feel”), written by composer, conductor and pianist Kostas Giannidis, an important figure in Greek art music at the time.  The interpretation by singer and actress Sophia Vembo (who retains legendary status in Greece due to her performances of patriotic songs during World War II) remains an absolute treasure and a personal favorite from that era.

Some years ago, the song  was given a new life through a remix by Imam Baildi, a band that has become famous for its renditions and remixes of old classic Greek tunes, thus contributing to a wider revival of of rebetiko and assorted musical styles (much like Gotan Project and Argentinean tango).

The reemergence of this unique music and its use in new media, as in the case of soundtracks or remixes, is a welcome opportunity to revisit Greek music (as well as social) history and try to familiarize ourselves with the sounds that accompanied the struggles and aspirations of the  generations preceding and following the outbreak of WWII.

And perhaps it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that songs from that troubled era still deal with the same timeless and most human of themes: love, loss, and the time that slips away…

Drawing the line of a new horizon

It all began two years ago, when Ewelina Chiu and Daniel Vlček first met as participants of DaDa Festival in June 2014. Following an impromptu performance with Dan on electronics and Ewelina on the mic, the two Prague-based artists decided to collaborate under the name ba:zel doing various acts such as exhibitions, “soundtrack” performances, and other conceptual projects .

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The Prague-based duo ba:zel (Ewelina Chiu & Daniel Vlček)

After a productive 4-month residency in the Dutch city of Arnhem (where they worked in isolation inside an old 1980s army complex) the electroacoustic duo focused on making music and laid down six tracks, keeping the name ba:zel. Their debut album eye draw(s) the line, released earlier this summer, is the result of a 2-year process and the first release for both of them.

Vocals, piano, and flute parts were recorded at Faust Studios in Prague, while the album’s electronic parts were recorded at home by Daniel himself. The whole album was mixed by Slovenian producer Gasper Šantl, and mastered by Andreas “Lupo” Lubich at Calyx Mastering in Berlin.

The sound of ba:zel bears a wide array of influences ranging from free techno and hardcore electronica (drawing from Dan’s background as a DJ in the Czech underground techno scene) to classical music, which finds expression in Ewelina’s melodic vocal lines and piano playing. As the vocalist herself puts it:

I’ve never sung before, so when I write melodies and lyrics I’m influenced by classical forms like the sonata, waltz, nocturne, etc. Afterwards I end up deconstructing the melody when Dan and I put the whole thing together. When I write lyrics I’m influenced by literature and poetry, specifically the poet E.E. Cummings and authors of the beat generation, and also Czech authors such as Kundera and Hrabal. The texts play with language, are coded, and invite the listener to decrypt.

The combination of Daniel’s imaginative use of electronic sounds and Ewelina’s delicate, fragile vocals (which, at times, bring to mind Icelandic songwriter Sóley) makes eye draw(s) the line an absorbing, atmospheric album that indeed appears to draw the line of a promising new horizon for the two Czech artists.