Amsterdam’s Pianola Museum, a unique piece of musical heritage

I first discovered the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam several years ago during an adventurous museum-hoping on the annual Museum Night, when tens of the city’s museums open their doors to visitors for special late night visits.

I was immediately captivated by the museum’s special atmosphere and unique aura. Watching a performance of automatic piano inside the museum’s intimate setting, surrounded by player pianos and hundreds of collectible music rolls, was an unforgettable, magical experience.

The interior of the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam

Nestled in the scenic Jordaan quarter, the Pianola Museum has remained at its current address for 25 years now. One of Amsterdam’s smallest and most unusual museums, it boasts a collection of historic pianolas as well as more than 30.000 music rolls in its archive.

Amsterdam’s City Council is apparently planning to sell the building that houses this unique cultural institution. The museum has expressed the wish to purchase the property but, being a small non-profit organization, it cannot outbid the property developers in the open market.

The danger of the Pianola Museum being forced to close down is thus imminent. An online petition to save the museum has reached almost 20,000 signatures at the time of writing. I would urge anyone who is interested in preserving  this unique part of Amsterdam’s musical heritage to show their support and sign the petition, so that the City Council might reconsider its decision and give the museum a chance to keep its current home and the rest of us the opportunity to continue enjoying its musical offerings at this very special location.


At the meeting point of Greek cinema and music: Notes on a remarkable collaboration

A pivotal figure at the intersection of Greek cinema and music, Costas Ferris is mostly known as the director of the award-winning film Rembetiko, and -to a lesser extent- for having penned the lyrics for Aphrodite’s Child’s psychedelic masterpiece 666.

Probably less known has been the collaboration between Ferris and musician Stavros Logaridis, member of the famous Greek pop group Poll and founder of the progressive rock ensemble Akritas, whose debut (and sole) self-titled album still ranks as one of the very peaks of its genre.

Described as a “dance suite for quartet and play back”, Akritas (1973) features a highly original blend of rock, electronic, classical as well as folk elements. Ferris, who had first met Logaridis in London in late 1972, wrote the lyrics for this truly outstanding album, which (like Aphrodite’s Child 666) contains biblical references and allusions to the Book of Revelation in particular.

The two men would soon collaborate again for Ferris’s film The Murderess (1974), based on a well-known Greek novel by Alexandros Papadiamantis. A visually stunning and innovative film, The Murderess also stands out for its unique soundtrack, consisting solely of instrumental electronic music. Composed by Logaridis, who was only 21 years old at the time, the music is largely experimental and abstract, yet closely following the film’s narrative and complementing the various themes and motifs so effectively it soon becomes itself one of the movie’s major components.

Ferris and Logaridis would form a close friendship and collaborate again on various occasions, including the music for the TV series Violet City in 1975 (which would actually lead to a legal battle against Vangelis concerning the famous theme from his Oscar-winning score for Chariots of Fire).

Although Logaridis never quite achieved the level of fame or international success of artists like Vangelis or Aphrodite’s Child, his singular talent remains indisputable. Not unlike Ferris’s seminal role in the evolution of modern Greek cinema, Logaridis’s work has been crucial -if somewhat understated- for the development of the Greek music scene in the 1970s and 1980s.

Indeed, as testified by such groundbreaking works as The Murderess and Akritas, the collaboration between the two Greek artists bore some very special fruit, both on screen and on record.

Soundtrack to a revolution: Russian music in times of revolt

Drag pianos out into the streets
Drums with boat hooks from windows dash.
Smash pianos and drums to smithereens
Let there be thunder –

Vladimir Mayakovsky, ‘An Order to the Art Army’

One hundred years have passed since the October Revolution, one of the last century’s defining events with profound repercussions that can still be felt to this day. Its far-reaching social and political implications aside, the revolution also had a powerful impact on Russian culture and art. Music, in particular, would play an important role both emotionally and ideologically in this tumultuous new chapter of Russian history.

Folklore and ideology

In the decades directly preceding the revolution, the writings of thinkers like Nikolay Chernyshevsky and Leo Tolstoy had a considerable influence on the debate surrounding the meaning and purpose of art.

A Shy Peasant (1877), by Ilya Repin

According to Chernyshevsky, “the true function of art is to explain and comment on life”, an idea that lies behind many depictions of peasantry and everyday life in Russian realist art of this period.

Furthermore, the views expressed by Tolstoy in his book What is Art? (1897), wherein he stresses the moral as well as social function of art, would remain highly influential well into the Soviet years. For Tolstoy, art is not about emotionalism, pleasure or entertainment; it is, rather, “a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.”

Despite Tolstoy’s stated preference for the simplicity and sincerity of folk music, he was far from indifferent or knowledgeable regarding more refined forms. He admired Chopin and also liked listening to Mozart and Haydn. His more ambivalent relationship with Beethoven is reflected in some of his writings, such as his famous novella The Kreutzer Sonata (named after Beethoven’s violin sonata of the same name).

An amateur pianist himself, Tolstoy also knew personally several distinguished musicians who at times visited and played for him, including seminal figures of Russian classical music such as Anton Rubinstein, Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Tolstoy playing

Leo Tolstoy at the piano

Meanwhile, the late 19th century saw the rise of folk music ensembles. Folk choirs, in particular, were extremely popular and song was thus turned into a powerful ideological force. Favorites included several revolutionary songs, and a musical collection of Russian Revolutionary Songs was even printed in Berlin prior to 1905. In Soviet times, the distinction between folk and art music would play a crucial role, along with the demarcation of “the people’s” or “proletarian” art as opposed to “bourgeois” and “formalist” tendencies.

“Art belongs to the people”

Although Lenin considered himself a “barbarian” with regards to new tendencies in art, he took a keen interest in cultural affairs. He admired much of Beethoven’s music, as well as pieces by Chopin, Bizet, Gounod, and Tchaikovsky.

In a characteristic incident related by Maxim Gorky (which was dramatized for Soviet television in the 1960s), the famous writer records Lenin’s reaction after listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata: “I know the Appassionata inside out and yet I am willing to listen to it every day. It is wonderful, ethereal music. On hearing it I proudly, maybe somewhat naively, think: See! people are able to produce such marvels!”

According to Gorky, however, Lenin continued on a somewhat darker tone: “But I cannot listen to music too often, it affects one’s nerves, makes one want to say kind, stupid things and stroke the heads of those who, living in such a foul hell, can create such beauty. Nowadays if one strokes someone’s head, he’ll get his hand bitten off! Better to beat the person unmercifully over the head, although ideally we oppose the use of force in human relations. Hm, hm, our task is infernally hard!”

Above all, Lenin was concerned with the ideological and educational aspects of art. As he put it: “Art belongs to the people. It must penetrate with its deepest roots into the very midst of the broad working masses. It must unite the feeling, thought and will of these masses, must elevate them. It must awaken the artists among them and stimulate them.”

Following the October Revolution of 1917, Lenin appointed Anatoly Lunacharsky as People’s Commissariat for Education, responsible for cultural and educational affairs. An art connoisseur and prolific critic, Lunacharsky shared Lenin’s admiration for Beethoven. Stressing the revolutionary and heroic aspects of Beethoven’s music and -with the notable exception of the 9th Symphony- centering on the works of his middle period (thus excluding the more “difficult” late works), this led to the appropriation and glorification of the German composer as one of the pillars of Soviet musical culture.

The rise of the avant-garde

The period following the revolution was an extraordinary one for Russian culture. It was during this time that the groundbreaking Russian avant-garde would reach both its creative peak and widest appeal. While many musicians left Russia after the revolution (including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz, Feodor Chaliapin, and Jascha Heifetz) or were already working abroad (like Igor Stravinsky),  a new wave of avant-garde composers was emerging, mirroring the revolutionary developments in Russian art and literature as expressed in the works of Kandinsky, Goncharova, Rodchenko, Malevich, Mayakovsky, Blok and many others.

Still Life with Instruments (1916), by Lyubov Popova

A major influence among many of these upcoming composers was Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), whose highly innovative and dissonant music featured overtones of mysticism and theosophy. Some of the composers who followed in Scriabin’s footsteps include Nikolai Roslavets (sometimes referred to as “the Russian Schoenberg”), Samuil Feinberg, Sergei Protopopov, and Alexander Mosolov.

Radical political developments notwithstanding, 1917 was a very productive year for the young Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), who was fast becoming one of the era’s major composers. In that same year, he completed his “Classical” Symphony, the Third and Fourth Piano Sonatas, as well as the Visions Fugitives for piano. Prokofiev, who left Russia in 1918 with the blessings of Lunacharsky, would eventually return to USSR 18 years later (he died on 5 March 1953, the same day as Joseph Stalin).

A champion of musical modernism and known as “the musical conscience of Moscow”, Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950) would become a prominent figure in Soviet musical life in the 1920s and the 1930s. The son of an ex-Tsarist general who was murdered by Red Army soldiers, Myaskovsky himself served in the Red Army from 1917 to 1921 and was inspired by the revolutionary events for his Sixth Symphony (composed during 1921–1923), the only choral symphony and the longest of his 27 symphonies. The work’s finale contains two French revolutionary songs (La carmagnole and Ah ça ira), along with the Dies Irae and a Russian Orthodox burial hymn on the parting of body and soul.

Technology and experimentation

Next to the earth-shattering sociopolitical developments, the revolution taking place in the arts often employed the use of newly developed technology. In October 1920, Russian physicist Léon Theremin invented the first mass-produced musical electronic instrument, the theremin (also known as termenvox). Theremin demonstrated his invention to Lenin, who was impressed and sent Theremin across the country in order to display this new fascinating instrument (and promote the progress of electrification which was under way in Russia).

In 1922, the Persimfans conductorless orchestra was founded in Moscow by violinist Lev Zeitlin.  A bold experiment that aspired to apply egalitarian concepts to music performance, Persimfans operated for ten years and, according to Prokofiev, “coped splendidly with difficult programs and accompanied soloists as competently as any conducted orchestra”.

A sketch depicting the Persimfans conductorless orchestra with its cyclical sitting arrangement

The orchestra, which performed on stage in a circle so that each musician was visible to the rest of the group, achieved worldwide acclaim during the 1920s. As historian Richard Stites put it: “Persimfans and its seventy musicians was a Utopia in miniature, a tiny republic, and a model workshop for the communist future. Like many practicing Utopias of the 1920s, it was an island in the midst of persistent inequality, a laboratory of communism, a beacon of early idealism, an inspiration for the future, and a graphic demonstration of how egalitarian mechanisms could actually work if given the opportunity.”

Shostakovich, Stalin and the whisper of history

Throughout the 1920s, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) rose to prominence as the indisputable star among the younger generation of Soviet composers. At the age of 18 he had completed his First Symphony, which became hugely successful. His Second Symphony, subtitled To October and written in 1927 as a commission for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, was a patriotic -yet experimental- piece with a pro-Soviet choral finale that praised Lenin and the revolution. Many years later, Shostakovich would revisit the revolutionary events in his Twelfth Symphony (subtitled The Year 1917).

Following the tightening of control regarding cultural matters and the official endorsement of “socialist realism” in the early 1930s, Russian art would enter a long and troubled new era as the revolutionary ideals would be increasingly left behind. Perhaps more than any other, the case of Shostakovich represents the complicated and problematic relationship between individual creative freedom and official state censorship that would develop under Stalin’s rule (and described brilliantly in Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time).

Today, much of Shostakovich’s music remains extremely popular, his oeuvre representing a whisper of Soviet history that time has bestowed upon all those eager to listen. As Barnes puts it in his novel:

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”

A brief history of Greek rock: Spyridoula’s special birthday concert

Some forty years ago, in November 1977, the band Spyridoula is formed in Athens by brothers Nikos and Vasilis Spyropoulos. It was a decisive moment that would forever change the face of rock music in Greece.

Following in the footsteps of Greek rock bands with English lyrics that first emerged through the 1960s (such as MGC, Socrates Drank the Conium, and Aphrodite’s Child), Spyridoula started out with live gigs playing guitar-based rock and doing covers by American blues and rock bands such as The Doors and The Velvet Underground.

Their collaboration with legendary frontman, lyricist and composer Pavlos Sidiropoulos in the late 1970s resulted in the use of Greek lyrics, and their landmark debut album with Sidiropoulos as vocalist has been widely regarded as one of the most important rock albums with Greek lyrics ever recorded. In the ensuing decades, Spyridoula would further collaborate with several important Greek musicians and, despite many adversities, continue with both live performances and studio recording.

With a little help from its -many and distinguished- friends, the band celebrated its 40th birthday with a special live concert that took place at Gagarin 205 Live Music Space in central Athens.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Featuring an epic set lasting nearly 4 (!) hours and spanning almost 4 decades of music, Spyridoula and their notable guests (including seminal figures of the Greek rock scene such as Dimitris Poulikakos and Giannis Aggelakas) gave a truly memorable appearance, effectively presenting the audience with a brief history of Greek rock from its early days to its current state. A history full of hopes and dreams, anger and pain, illusions and disenchantment – but, above all, full of music that reverberates across today’s empty streets and lonely hearts, forever shaking and moving us.

Soul, jazz, and punks: A selection from this year’s In-Edit festival

It all started in 2003 in Barcelona with the first version of In-Edit festival, when the once neglected genre of music documentary came to the fore. Ever since, a steady increase in interest from audiences worldwide has ensured a great selection of music docs are screened each year from Chile and Colombia to Germany, Spain and Greece.

As I find myself sitting through various screenings during the first chilly and cloudy November days in the Greek capital, here’s my picks from this year’s Athens edition.

Charles Bradley: Soul of America

A moving and heart-warming documentary about American soul singer Charles Bradley (1948 – 2017), who sadly passed away in Brooklyn earlier this year. Tracking the events that led up to the release of his debut album No Time for Dreaming, the film follows Bradley’s remarkable life story through his early childhood in Florida and Brooklyn, his years as James Brown impersonator in California, and finally his return to New York and his recording with Daptone Records.

Through a series of endless hardships and constant struggles, there emerges a portrait of a man who, against all odds, managed to realize his biggest dream, releasing his first and widely successful album at the age of 62! Not unlike the excellent Searching for Sugar Man, which also relates an inspirational story of an unlikely revival, the film is ultimately about the unwillingness to compromise and the triumph of will in the face of adversity.

Bill Evans: Time Remembered

A key figure in the history of jazz, American pianist and composer Bill Evans (1929 – 1980) was one of the most influential jazz musicians to emerge in the second half of the 20th century. This documentary portrays Evans both as musician and person, following chronologically his life through his childhood in New Jersey, his musical development and collaborations (most notably with legendary trumpeter Miles Davis), to his drug addiction and untimely death at the age of 51.

Highlighting Evan’s musical genius while also showing his darker, less attractive side, the film (which took producer Bruce Spiegel 8 years to make) provides valuable insights into the music and -often troubled- life of Bill Evans, while offering a comprehensive overview of his career by bringing together the testimonies of various ex-collaborators of Evans, such as Tony Bennett, Jack DeJohnette, and Paul Motian.

B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West Berlin 1979-1989

If there ever was an epicenter of alternative culture throughout the turbulent 1980s, it must have been the western half of the -still divided by then- city of Berlin. The film takes us through a fascinating tour of West Berlin’s alternative music scene through the eyes of musician and producer Mark Reeder, who traveled from Manchester to Berlin as a teenager in order to get a first-hand experience of the city’s vibe.

Featuring rare footage from the city’s underground hubs as well as clips, interviews and performances by key artists that lived and worked in Berlin around that time (such as Einstürzende Neubauten, Die Toten Hosen, Die Ärzte, Nena, and Nick Cave), the film gives us a good idea of what it was like to be living and creating in 1980s West Berlin, while also providing the soundtrack for one of Europe’s most vibrant cultural scenes during the Cold War era.


Summer in (and around) the city: Checking out Barcelona’s summer music festivals

So far it has been an eventful summer for the concert goers of Barcelona. From the plethora of music festivals and events that take place every year in and around the Catalan capital, one can only check out so many; it is simply impossible to be everywhere at the same time, so -sometimes tough- choices have to be made.

This summer I decide to skip some of the major (and typically over-crowded) events such as Primavera Sound or Sónar, and I head out to Vida Festival at the port city of Vilanova i la Geltrú, just outside of Barcelona. Although I certainly enjoy the likes of Venezuelan American singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart and American psych-rockers Flaming Lips (the festival seems to attract increasingly bigger names each year), I am mostly drawn to the the overall relaxed vibe, scenic surroundings, and holiday/summer camp mood that emanates throughout. I think I’ll be also coming back next year.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A week later I find myself back back in Barcelona’s boiling-hot Forum for this year’s edition of Cruïlla Summer Festival. I arrive early in order to see the charismatic Benjamin Clementine, one of the most promising singers-songwriters that have emerged in recent years. His performance is indeed exhilarating and his stage presence memorable – there’s little doubt we will be hearing more about him in times to come. Next up is Ryan Adams whose performance is lit by an incredible moon, followed by a lively and groovy set by Parov Stelar and his excellent live band.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Last one on my list for this summer’s musical events is Pedralbes Festival, which takes place at the lush gardens of the Pedralbes Palace along Barcelona’s Diagonal avenue. I am there to see Yann Tiersen’s solo concert, a sort of mini retrospective of his remarkable career. Tiersen gets on the stage quietly, sits on the piano, and proceeds to reconstruct his intimate minimalist musical universe he’s become well-known for. Accompanied only by pre-recorded ambient sounds reproduced on stage on reel-to-reel tape, he gives a solemn, reflective performance that seems to sit well with the venue’s elegant character and stately environment, further enhancing the beautiful, moonlit summer night.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Cannibalism, alchemy, and flying saucers: The ’70s Brazilian music scene

I recently had the good fortune to indulge myself in 1970s Brazilian music, after a small treasure ended up in my home: a box full of vinyl records with the very best of the Brazilian music scene of the time, featuring an explosive mix of samba, bossa nova, folk, soul, funk, psychedelia, and experimental rock.

Listening to these records one after another, I started putting together the pieces of a scene incredibly rich and colorful, encompassing artists so diverse and yet characteristically Brazilian as Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, seminal composers João Gilberto and Tom Jobim, influential poet and lyricist Vinícius de Moraes, as well as gifted guitarists and songwriters such as Luiz Bonfá, Toquinho, and Baden Powell.

A true gem I was delighted to discover was Tecnicolor (1970), an album originally intended to serve as the introduction of the legendary psych-rock group Os Mutantes to the English-speaking world. However, the tapes were lost and the album was only released in 2000 (with artwork by Sean Lennon). It is an absolutely thrilling record, showcasing the group’s talent and creative blend of disparate influences – a signature trait of the Tropicália movement known as antropofagia: a sort of “cultural cannibalism” aspiring to bring together different – often contrasting – elements in order to form a new synthesis.

Other records that left a deep impression on me included the brilliant self-titled debut album by glam rockers Secos & Molhados (released in 1973), as well as the fusion masterpiece Acabou Chorare (1972) by the psych-folk group Novos Baianos (voted first in the 100 Greatest Brazilian Music Records list published by Rolling Stone in October 2007).

Furthermore, I was fascinated by the transcendental dimension of certain seminal works of the era, such as Jorge Ben’s A Tábua de Esmeralda (1974), a unique album that illustrates Ben’s interest in theosophy, mysticism, and alchemy. Another example is Tim Maia’s Racional, Vols. 1 & 2 (1975-76), two albums that were recorded when Maia read the book Universe in Disenchantment and decided to convert to the cult of Rational Culture, spending a lot of his time watching the sky for extraterrestrials and flying saucers.

Although in the end Maia abandoned the cult and went back to his previous lifestyle, his fascinating excursion into Rational Culture provided the inspiration for these incredible soul-funk albums, which, along with the music of the tropicalistas and several subsequent artists and songwriters, became part of the ever vibrant, groovy, and at times transcendental, Brazilian music scene.