Bach, Pericles, and open culture: Yo-Yo Ma in Athens

The Bach Project

Taking on “Bach’s ability to speak to our common humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division”, celebrated Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma recently launched The Bach Project, which involves live performances and actions in 36 selected locations across the globe.

In the musician’s own words: “I believe that culture – the way we express ourselves and understand each other – is an essential part of building a strong society. My hope is that together we can use Bach’s music to start a bigger conversation about the culture of us.”

Yo-Yo Ma in Kipseli

Prior to his big recital at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Yo-Yo Ma had a busy schedule including various stimulating discussions and actions around Athens. One of these included an impromptu performance at Kanari Square in the neighborhood of Kipseli, where the cello virtuoso shared the stage with local musicians and jammed with them, much to the surprise of an enthusiastic audience.

Ma went on about the influence of Africa on classical music and gave a short history lesson on the origins of the Sarabande, a dance form used widely by Baroque musicians (Bach wrote a Sarabande for each of his 6 cello suites). He then quoted from Thucydides’s famous Funeral Oration of Pericles (ca. 404 B.C.): “We throw open our city to the world and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing”.

After giving an intimate performance of Bach’s Sarabande from his Cello Suite No.3 in C Major, the great musician left the stage addressing the audience with a message of encouragement: “Stay open, stay courageous!”

 

Bach meets Epirus in Herodion

On the last day of June, during a warm summer evening, Ma performed all of Bach’s six cello suites in one go without intermission at the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus under the imposing shadow of the Athenian Acropolis. For about 2,5 hours the crowd stood still listening to the sound of Bach’s timeless music delivered by Ma’s inspired, masterful playing.

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Accompanied at times by singing cicadas, Ma’s performance was moving and powerful. His playing was elegant and spirited, in tune with the surroundings and the special ambience. The concert was concluded with a joint performance by Yo-Yo Ma and a vocal ensemble specialized in polyphonic music from the region of Epirus in northwestern Greece.

Following a sober and reflective instrumental introduction, Ma accompanied the singers on Αλησμονώ και χαίρομαι (“Forgetful, I am truly glad”), a striking example of Epirotic polyphonic song, whose lyrics and melody still resonate with remarkable force to this day:

Forgetful I am truly glad, but mindful I am saddened;
remembering those foreign lands, I want to set out for them.

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Someday in Athens: The 4 Levels of Existence then and now

The band

Mid-1970s, Greece. Following the fall of the military junta, amid difficult circumstances that were however marked by widespread creativity and -hitherto suppressed- artistic activity, a rock band was beginning to take shape through lengthy jams inside improvised music studios somewhere in the western suburbs of Athens. Its name? The 4 Levels of Existence.

The 4 Levels of Existence – top to bottom: Athanasios Alatas, Christos Vlachakis, Marinos Yamalakis, Nikos Grapsas / photo by Vassilis Asimakopoulos

The band’s initial line-up consisted of ex-Frog’s Eye members Athanasios Alatas (rhythm guitar) and Christos Vlachakis (drums), together with Marinos Yamalakis (bass – vocals) and Nikos Dounavis (lead guitar). The group started rehearsing and making live appearances  (mostly in local cinemas as was customary for Greek bands at the time), eventually managing to win third place in a music contest organized by the National Radio and Television Foundation (EIRT) in 1975.

After having Dounavis replaced by Nikos Grapsas (lead guitar – vocals), the band was asked to make an album for Venus Records, a small record label specialized -oddly enough- in Greek folk and popular music. It was, nevertheless, a unique opportunity and the band didn’t miss it: On 5 and 6 January 1976 at the legendary Columbia Studios in Athens, their first -and only- album was recorded. Within just 10 (!) hours in total, the recording was ready after two short sessions: first all instrumental tracks were laid, then the vocals were added.

The album

Although born under such tight time constraints and adverse circumstances (there was essentially no producer or sound engineer), the band’s self-tiled debut album was nevertheless an extraordinary achievement : A guitar-based blend of psychedelia, folk and hard rock that also featured Greek lyrics – something unusual for a rock band at the time.

A highly original mix of diverse elements, the record manages to convey a considerably wide spectrum, both musically and emotionally – from teenage aggression and heavy guitar riffs (“Metamorphic”) to controlled emotional outbursts (“The Fool’s Trumpet”) and melodic passages that exude a nostalgic feeling of youthful melancholy and lyricism (“Untitled”, “Disappointment”).

The album’s original 1976 vinyl release – the cover art was created by Athanasios Alatas, initially conceived for Frog’s Eye

Shortly after the album’s release, the band was dissolved. However, their sole recording would follow its own incredible course, becoming a highly sought-after item among record collectors and considered one of the rarest Greek rock discs ever. Moreover, in an amazing turn of events, US rappers Kanye West and Jay-Z used Alata’s guitar riff from “Someday in Athens” as a sample for their hit song “Run this Town”, which would be sung by Rihanna and win two Grammy Awards in 2010.

Following subsequent releases in both vinyl and CD format, the 4 Levels of Existence album was recently re-released in beautiful 180gr vinyl by Anazitisi Records, a small independent label that specializes in psychedelic/progressive/blues/jazz/rock records from the 1960s and 1970s.

The movie

Just as the band’s music resurfaces once more, becoming available for a new generation of listeners, the story behind the 4 Levels of Existence has been just made into a film documentary. Directed by Iliana Danezi, the film will be having its première next week at the 21st Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

While offering an overview of the band’s history, the film traces the surviving band members (Alatas, Vlachakis and Grapsas) and depicts them in their current whereabouts, painting their individual portraits and highlighting the development of their distinct personalities. What is more, the three musicians are seen together again some -special- day in Athens, chatting, strolling around old hangouts, and jamming for the first time in a very long time…

The band’s surviving members in 2018, during the shooting of the documentary (left to right: Nikos Grapsas, Athanasios Alatas, Christos Vlachakis)

In the end, the band’s story can also be seen as a reflection on changing times and the things that matter most as time flies by: the common aspirations and dreams of youth, the power of friendship, the sense of group solidarity and identity, the fulfillment brought by artistic expression, the feeling that not everything has been futile or wasted…

In the words of the band’s guitarist Athanasios Alatas: “[Our] record is dedicated to all the bands that played in West Attica at the time. All those who didn’t get a chance to record, who broke up, etc. All those who did their best back then, to fulfill their life and dreams through music.”

 

Underwater Chess – OHBTT – Their Methlab in concert

When three of the most outstanding bands the Greek alternative music scene has produced in recent years come together for a joint live show, chances are it is going to be something special.

Indeed, the recent appearance of Underwater Chess, One Hour Before The Trip and Their Methlab at Temple in Athens turned out to be a quite remarkable evening, a unique musical gathering of high standards – and spirits.

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Covering a wide range from post rock and metal to punk and electronica, the bands delivered some exhilarating performances, thus proving that truly authentic and elevating music is still out there, for all those willing to explore and go beyond the fringes of today’s largely commercialized and market-oriented music productions (perhaps ‘products’ would be a better word).

Contemporary music could definitely use more experimentation, innovation, and personal expression – elements found in abundance in all of the aforementioned bands, which will surely continue to entice and entrance audiences both around and -hopefully- beyond Greece.

Psychedelic geometry: Kikagaku Moyo in concert

A few years ago in Tokyo, following an intensive all-night jam, various patterns of geometric nature began to form on the back of Go Kurosawa’s eyelids. That’s what gave the young drummer the idea for a band name: Kikagaku Moyo, Japanese for “geometric patterns”.

The Tokyo-based psychedelic band, originally formed by Go Kurosawa (drums/vocals) and Tomo Katsurada (guitar/vocals) in the summer of 2012, gradually morphed into its current extended line-up, which includes three more members: Daoud Popal (guitar), Kotsu Guy (bass), and Go’s brother Ryu (sitar), who joined the band after studying with acclaimed classical sitar player Manilal Nag in India.

The band recently released its fourth album Masana Temples, recorded in Lisbon and produced by jazz musician Bruno Pernadas, in a conscious effort on behalf of the group to work with someone from a different background and challenge their own perceptions and ideas about psychedelic music.

An exotic -and at times explosive- blend of krautrock, folk, and Indian music, Kikagaku Moyo’s largely Improvisational music is an attempt to liberate both mind and body and create a “bridge between the supernatural and the present”.

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In their highly energetic live performance in Athens (which took place just a few weeks after another excellent concert by fellow Tokyo post-rockers MONO), the band brought successfully together all these diverse elements, rewarding their Greek fans through creating their very own kind of peculiar psychedelic geometry.

Underwater checkMAtE: electronic sounds from Thessaloniki

Edgy meetings

Originally formed in 2011 by Adam Siagas (live electronics) and Thomas Kostoulas (drums), M.A.t.E [Meetings Along the Edge] have been established as one of the foremost electronic ensembles originating from Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city and a historically vibrant musical  and cultural hub.

M.A.t.E’s line-up took its definitive form when vocalist Maria-Elisavet Kotini joined the band during the recording of their self-titled debut. A follow-up album called Transitions was released In March 2016. As already signified by the band’s name, their music represents a meeting point of several diverse influences, styles and genres, ranging from drum’n’bass and dubstep to trip hop and electronica.

An eclectic and sonically rich album, Transitions stands at the crossroads between analog and digital, acoustic and electronic, while also balancing between Western tech frenzy and Eastern meditative sounds (see, for example, the Indian influences in Surya).

Along with drums, synthesizers, samples and Maria-Elisavet’s enchanting presence,  M.A.t.E also enhance their live performances with visuals in order to engage audiences and create a more interactive atmosphere. Their strong visual identity is also apparent in their excellent video clips, such as the video for RedruM (directed by Sideris Nanoudis), where sound and image blend artfully to tell a story in a powerful, engaging way.

Along the edge and underwater

Also hailing from Thessaloniki, electro-acoustic duo Underwater Chess (PP – guitars, bass, cymbals, programming / MV – violins, vocals) started out in the early 2000s by playing covers from artists such as Butthole Surfers and Björk, but soon turned to improvisation and began developing their own distinctive sound.

Following their debut In Joy Your Fear (2011), a kind of sonic collage of various improvisational recordings, their latest album Seriality (released early last year) is in many ways a remarkable achievement. A unique amalgam of electronic, ambient, rock, and dance elements, their sound is characterized by atmospheric and recurring motifs, rich dynamics, and rhytmic intensity.

Featuring imaginative guitars, loops, violin and vocal parts, Seriality is an impressive record not only musically but also in terms of production. Even from a simple hearing, it becomes apparent that a lot of time and effort have been devoted to the programming, mixing and sound engineering in order to produce such a well-polished and carefully crafted record.

Perhaps it is only natural that in a city like Thessaloniki, standing along the edge and next to the water, bands with fresh ideas and edgy sound constantly emerge, competing with each other like in a game οf musical chess – where, of course, there can only be one winner: music lovers, both from their hometown and beyond!

Music of transcendence: MONO in concert

Formed in 1999 in Tokyo, Mono developed into one of the most prominent names in post-rock music, releasing 9 much acclaimed albums over the last couple of decades, with their 10th studio album scheduled to be released early next year.

Post-rock, however, is too vague and restrictive a term to fully do justice to Mono’s unique soundscapes, which seem to spring from a different dimension, taking their audiences to hitherto unexplored worlds.  As an enthusiastic NME reviewer once put it: “Screw ‘Music For The People’, this is music for the gods.”

Indeed, as testified my Mono’s recent live performance in Athens, the band’s mind-blowing blend of experimental, ambient, and classical elements offers an experience that goes beyond mere musical satisfaction. The band’s dedication, seriousness and intensity signify some sort of musical ritual or initiation rather than just a live show, thus encouraging the audience to partake in a truly uplifting communal experience. Music, thus, seems to become a means to something higher rather than an end in itself.

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Mono’s guitar-based, lengthy instrumental pieces -kind of miniature ambient symphonies with rich dynamics and extensive use of reverb, distortion and delay effects- slowly take you in until you are, slowly but surely, completely absorbed into the magnificent and otherworldly atmosphere they evoke.

In the end, Mono’s music is about evolving, going deeper, and reaching higher. In a word, it’s about transcendence. As Takaakira Goto, the band’s lead guitarist, has put it: “Music is communicating the incommunicable; that means a term like post-rock doesn’t mean much to us, as the music needs to transcend genre to be meaningful”.

“A true miracle”: Metamorphosis by Alexia Chrysomalli

Introducing Alexia

Born in 1984 in Thessaloniki, Alexia Chrysomalli took her first music lessons at the age of 8, when she came in contact with Byzantine music. She went on to study the clarinet and classical singing, and has been a professional singer since the age of 19.

Alexia is a founding member of all-female vocal ensemble Stringless and has also been a member of Greek ethnic band Namaste. She has been steeped in traditional Greek music, mostly from Thrace and Macedonia, and has been singing in village feasts and playing with several distinguished traditional musicians in order to learn and delve into the traditional songs she loves so dearly.

The birth of “Metamorphosis”

All those songs had a major influence on Alexia’s compositions and singing and, along with an “internal sense and path of self inquiry”, are elements that found their way in her debut album Metamorphosis, which has just been released independently. In Alexia’s own words, the album is “a united concept and every song is a stage or level that a soul can experience during a deep transformative period”.

Although there was practically zero budget for the project, there was nevertheless a strong need and determination to make it happen. As Alexia puts it, the album’s creation was “a true miracle”, becoming possible largely due to the devotion and the open heart of all those who worked on it, including her friend and manager Helen Kontos, producer Kostas Kontos, sound engineer Kriton Kiourtis, and all the musicians who took part in the recording: Kyriakos Gouventas, Giannis Karakalpakidis, Thanasis Kleopas, Panagiotis Alepidis, Vangelis Maramis, Vasilis Karakousis, Anastassia Zachariadou, Kostas Chanis and Ermis Savvantoglou. Kudos also go to Daphni Kontou for the graphic design and Michalis Vlavianos for the cover photo.

The album features Alexia’s own compositions, with her magnificently rich and soulful voice radiating throughout. Metamorphosis is full of beautiful moments such as the vocal parts in the opening track Calling or the seductive melodic lines in Source. Another highlight is the album’s closer Helios, an ode to the greatness of life-giving Sun.

“New artists, fresh sound, open-minded audience”

Regarding the contemporary Greek music scene, Alexia feels that it needs “some refreshment from the side of the artists but also from the side of the audience. We need new artists with fresh sound and a more open-minded audience. During these times of crisis we do not invest a lot of money in culture. One of the results is that every year most Greek music festivals feature the same artists again and again. So there is not much space for the new, wonderful musicians who want to share their work with the audience.”

There are, however, alternatives: “Like an independent artist, I think is quit easy to make yourself heard through social media. People who resonate and get inspired by your work can easily follow you.”

Photo by Michalis Vlavianos

What if Alexia’s music library was set on fire? The first records she would run to rescue would be the albums of Dead Can Dance, Amália Rodrigues, Evros from the group Methorios (“a piece of art for the traditional music of Thrace”), as well as recordings from jam sessions she had with people she met over the last years.

As for the future, Alexia aims to give as many concerts as possible both in Greece and abroad. “I want to share my music with people that it means something to their heart and soul”, she says. “The last year I composed 14 news songs and I am looking forward to start recording again.”