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”.

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“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.”

Nigel Kennedy meets Bach and Gershwin in Athens

From child prodigy to -super- stardom

Born in 1956 into a family of distinguished musicians, Nigel Kennedy started out his remarkable career in music as a boy prodigy (he became a pupil at the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music at the age of 7), and soon developed a highly individual style along with an unconventional approach that made him one of the truly unique -and controversial- violinists of his generation.

Yehudi Menuhin teaching young Nigel Kennedy

While still 16 years old, Kennedy was invited by legendary jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli to play with him at Carnegie Hall in New York (which he did, successfully, against the advice of his classical teachers). His debut record featured Elgar’s Violin Concerto, while his 1989 recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra became one of the best-selling classical recordings in history, with total sales of over three million units.

Fusing classical, jazz and rock

Over the last decades, Kennedy has made a name as one of classical music’s most (in)famous mavericks, regularly crossing over different music genres while developing his signature, unorthodox performing style and idiosyncratic playing. His tastes and influences vary from baroque and classical to jazz and rock (he has recorded an album with improvisational covers of Jimi Hendrix), and next to many of the world’s leading orchestras he has also collaborated with musicians such as Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, Robert Plant and The Who.

Regarding his departure from classical “orthodoxy” and standard practices,  Kennedy’s response has been revealing: ‘I suppose I took a bit of flak for taking the jazz attitude into the classical world. But so many people from the classical establishment are stuck in closets on top of their ivory towers.’

It was Kennedy’s acquaintance and apprenticeship with Grappelli that led him to a deeper appreciation and understanding of Gershwin’s music, which features in his latest album Kennedy Meets Gershwin.

A Greek premiere

Kennedy’s first live appearance in Greece took place earlier this week at the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus stone theater in Athens. Together with his ensemble (Peter Adams – cello, Yaron Stavi – double bass, Rolf Bussalb – electric guitar, Howard Alden – guitar), the English violinist performed a varied program in front of a warm and enthusiastic crowd.

After opening the concert with an original and absolutely breathtaking interpretation of Bach’s fugue from the first violin sonata in G minor, the highly energetic Kennedy carried on with some recent works by “one of his favorite composers” (i.e. himself), before moving on to a selection from his new album featuring his refreshing and lively arrangements of Gershwin’s classics Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy & Bess.

Nigel Kennedy performing at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus theater in Athens

Kennedy’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and high spirits led to a prolonged (nearly 3-hour-long) concert full of pleasant musical surprises, including Kennedy’s piano playing and an absolutely thrilling performance of the popular Csárdás, showcasing his astonishing virtuosity, improvisational skills, and… sense of humor (there were several moments when his comments caused loud laughter across the theater).

Kennedy’s sensational performance closed with an electrifying rendition of Minor Swing by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli – indeed, a perfect ending to the evening and a testament to the musician’s ability to roam seamlessly through baroque, classical, gypsy, klezmer, and jazz music.

Karl Marx on music: Gluck, Mozart, and the division of labor

It was 200 years ago today when Henriette Pressburg, a Jewish woman from a well-to-do family that would later found Philips Electronics, and Heinrich Marx, distant cousin of German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine, welcomed their third child. His name was Karl, and he would soon become one of the most influential thinkers human history has ever known.

So influential, in fact, that his figure features in the iconic album cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – there he is, squeezed in between American comic actor Oliver Hardy and English writer H. G. Wells (the latter hailed as the “Shakespeare of science fiction”). And since, to quote the German philosopher himself, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”, it is quite fitting that Marx would find his place between a comedian and a tragedian of sorts.

But, cover art and quips aside, what kind of views did Karl Marx have with regards to music?

To begin with, Marx was clearly less versed in the inner workings of music than his close collaborator Friedrich Engels, who had studied harmony and even tried his hand at composing during his youth (albeit with no great results). Moreover, Marx’s writings on music are scarce, although some of the relevant fragments can help in giving us a clearer idea as to his attitude and thoughts on the subject.

An early example can be found in one of his unpublished poems, which Marx wrote as a teenager and dedicated to his father. In the poem, inspired by Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Armide and titled Sir (G)luck’s Armide, young Marx recounts how he ostensibly “sat, lost in the music’s spell.”

In his later work, Marx mostly refers to music in the wider context of his economic and sociopolitical analysis. In the economic and philosophical manuscripts written in Paris (1844-45), for example, he refers to “a musical ear” in relation to the cultivation of human senses and the richness of human sensibility.

Furthermore, it appears that Marx nurtured a genuine appreciation for the act of composing, which he considered a serious and laborious activity. In the Grundrisse (1857-58), he refers to musical composition as an example of free, unalienated  labor:

Really free labor, the composing [of music] for example, is at the same time damned serious and demands the greatest effort.  The labor concerned with material production can only have this character if (1) it is of a social nature and (2) it has a scientific character and at the same time is general work, i.e. if it becomes the activity of a subject controlling all the forces of nature in the production process.

Next to such “organic” uses of musical examples, Marx would also occasionally comment on the musical life of his time. In a letter to Engels from Karlsbad in 1876, he makes a sardonic allusion to Wagner: “Everything here is ‘the Future’ since the rumbling of ‘the music of the future’ in Bayreuth.”

One of the most characteristic remarks by Marx in relation to music comes from an account by Wilhelm Liebknecht, principal founder of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and lifelong friend of Marx. In the course of a pub crawl or Bierreise in April 1854, during his stay in London, Marx appears to have reacted to the snobbish comments by some Englishmen with an outburst of musical-nationalist pride. In Liebknecht’s own words:

Marx launched into an enthusiastic eulogy on German science and music — no other country, he said, would have been capable of producing such masters of music as Beethoven, Mozart, Händel and Haydn, and the Englishmen who had no music were in reality far below the Germans who had been prevented hitherto only by the miserable political and economical conditions from accomplishing any great practical work, but who would yet outclass all other nations. (Wilhelm Liebknecht, Karl Marx zum Gedächtnis, Nuremberg, 1896)

28 Dean Street, London. Karl Marx lived there in the 1850s with his family in dire conditions.

Marx had moved to London in 1849 and ended up staying there until the end of his life. During the first half of the 1850s, he lived with his family on 28 Dean Street under very difficult conditions. Incidentally, an 8-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had given a recital at number 21 of that very same street in 1764 during one of his long concert tours as child prodigy.

In The German Ideology (1845-46), Marx had mentioned Mozart in response to Max Stirner’s argument that no one can compose music on behalf of someone else. “It was not Mozart himself”, Marx writes, “but someone else who composed the greater part of Mozart’s Requiem and finished it”. Although this might sound quite unflattering for the Viennese composer, Marx was basically trying to show (employing, along with Mozart, the example of High Renaissance master painter Raphael) that whether an individual artist succeeds in developing his talent “depends wholly on demand, which in turn depends on the division of labor and the conditions of human culture resulting from it”.

Meanwhile, Mozart’s remains have been resting inside a common unmarked grave at the St. Marx Cemetery of Vienna. History, it seems, is not only tragic or comical, but also ironic.

Rain, tears and dreams: Sounds from May 1968

Rain and tear(gase)s

Exactly 50 years ago, in May 1968, promising Greek musicians Vangelis Papathanassiou, Demis Roussos and Lucas Sideras find themselves in Paris, following a failed attempt to relocate to London. There, caught up in the whirlwind of student riots and amid general unrest in the French capital, the group is christened Aphrodite’s Child and releases the single Rain and Tears.

A lyrical composition based on Pachelbel’s Canon in D major, the song became an immediate hit and reached No. 1 in the French charts, thus setting the stage for the band’s hugely successful yet short career (their final album and acclaimed psychedelic masterpiece 666 would be released in 1972).

An unlikely soundtrack to the May 1968 events in France, Rain and Tears became widely popular among those fighting and singing out on the streets of Paris, despite its English and seemingly non-political lyrics. According to Demis Roussos, however, its very title was a veiled reference to the ongoing revolt, with “rain” standing for the May rainfalls in Paris and “tears” alluding to the tear gases thrown in the streets of the French capital.

A dream longer than the night

Vangelis, who would later achieve global fame with his music scores for Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner, revisited the May 1968 events a few years later in his album Fais que ton rêve soit plus long que la nuit (“Make your dream last longer than the night”, a title borrowed by one of the slogans used during the May events), recorded in 1971 and released in 1972.

Only released in France and Greece, this remarkable album (originally subtitled “Poème Symphonique”) is a two-part collage of chants, protest songs, field recordings, sound effects, instrumental passages, as well as news and conversation snippets. Centering on May 1968 and inspired by the French student riots, it can be seen as Vangelis’s personal, highly evocative interpretation and musical reflection on the events.

After all, the spirit of the French May had to do not only with politics, but also the power of imagination and creativity. In the words of prominent film director Costas Ferris, who participated in the street battles in Paris (and would later pen the lyrics for Aphrodite’s Child landmark album 666), the whole May ´68 affair “was not just about street battles, confrontation and politicization. It was poetry”.

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.