Author Archives: The Muser

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An early example can be found in one of his unpublished poems, which Marx wrote as a teenager and dedicated to his father.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.

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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.

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.

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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.