Category Archives: Film & Music

Conversations on music

When people from different disciplines interact and engage in dialogue, novel and stimulating perspectives often emerge. This is the case with the following fascinating exchanges between world-class musicians and prominent representatives from other fields, who also happen to share a deep passion and interest in music.

Haruki Murakami – Seiji Ozawa: The writer and the conductor

An ex-owner of a small jazz bar in Tokyo, Murakami is known for his love and appreciation of music, which is evident throughout his oeuvre. In Absolutely on Music (2011), he exchanges views with acclaimed Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa on a variety of topics, ranging from Beethoven and Brahms to opera, Chicago blues, and the joys of teaching.

These conversations, dating from 2010 – 2011, unravel while the two men listen to various recordings from Murakami’s record collection and exchange views on various artists and music genres. They offer a unique insight into Ozawa’s approach to conducting, memories of his mentors such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, was well as his educational activities and work with the prestigious Saito Kinen Orchestra.

Moreover, Murakami provides some very interesting remarks about the relationship between writing and music. “You can’t write well if you don’t have an ear for music”, he says, referring to his own beginnings as a writer:  “How did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm.”

Edward Said – Daniel Barenboim: The intellectual and the maestro

A highly compelling exchange between cultural critic Edward Said and pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim, Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society (2002) features conversations between the two men centered on music, but touching upon many themes such as the nature of sound, religion, antisemitism, politics and identity.

Full of captivating ideas and insights, the book offers a glimpse of the two men’s philosophical pondering and the great significance they attribute to music. For Said, “music, in some profound way, is perhaps the final resistance to the acculturation and the commodification of everything”, while Barenboim, who subscribes to Ferruccio Busoni’s definition of music as “sonorous air”, says: “Whenever we talk about music, we talk about how we are affected by it, not about it itself. In this respect, it is like God.”

In 1999,  Barenboim and Said (who was an accomplished pianist) founded the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, a youth orchestra consisting of Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab musicians, with the aim to promote understanding and enable intercultural dialogue. As Barenboim has put it: “The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it.”

Bruno Monsaingeon – Glenn Gould: The director and the virtuoso

French filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon has made several documentaries about prominent musicians, while his interviews with Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter and French composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger have also been published separately as books (Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations, and Mademoiselle: Conversations With Nadia Boulanger, respectively).

One of the artists that most fascinated Monsaingeon was Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. On hearing Gould performing J.S. Bach for the first time, Monsaingeon later wrote: I don’t think I was less inflamed that night than Blaise Pascal during his night of fire. “Joy, joy, tears of joy!!!” In July 1972, Monsaingeon traveled to Toronto to meet Gould, who by then had already stopped giving public recitals. The two would develop a lasting friendship and work on various projects that included the films Glenn Gould, the Alchemist (1974) and Glenn Gould, hereafter (2006).

A conversation between Gould and Monsaingeon is included in The Glenn Gould Reader (ed. Tim Page, 1984), a compilation of Gould’s writings that offers an abundance of original and highly unconventional ideas with regards to performance and music making. When Monsaingeon asks Gould  why he doesn’t want to record Mozart’s concertos, he replies: “Well, you see, Bruno, I don’t really enjoy playing any concertos very much. What bothers me most is the competitive, comparative ambience in which the the concerto operates. I happen to believe that competition rather than money is the root of all evil, and in the concerto we have a perfect musical analogy of the competitive spirit.”

Brimming with thought-provoking and stimulating remarks, Gould’s words were as unique as the notes he played. Whether one agrees with him or not, there’s little doubt he had some very interesting, and often profound, things to say – both on paper and at the piano.

Advertisements

Going underground behind the Iron Curtain

I recently came across the very interesting book “X-Ray Audio” – The Strange Story of Soviet Music on the Bone by Stephen Coates. Focusing on the underground culture of Roentgenizdat, also known as “music on ribs” or “jazz on bones”, it tells the fascinating story of bootleg and pirated X-ray music discs that were circulated illegally in Soviet Russia during the immediate post-war era through the 1960s.

Made from medical X-rays that were subsequently cut into 7-inch discs with the aid of special machines, these discs featured music by officially censored artists such as the “King of Russian Tango” Pyotr Leshchenko or Western jazz and rock’n’roll musicians like Bill Haley, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Beatles.

A sort of musical parallel to the samizdat (the underground publication and distribution of dissident literature), the history of these Soviet bone discs is truly incredible as well as illuminating: it reveals how far people were willing to go in order to obtain, enjoy and share the forbidden fruit of inaccessible music. The risks involved were serious: Sound engineer Ruslan Bogoslovsky (1928-2005), a true hero of Soviet underground record production, was sent to prison camps no less than three times throughout his life for cutting Western music onto records that originally contained speeches of Soviet leaders.

Eventually the X-ray record production was eclipsed by the emergence of reel-to-reel tape recorders which became available in the early 1960s and soon grew enormously popular. This in turn sparked the process known as magnitizdat, i.e. the re-copying and self-distribution of audio tape recordings that were not available commercially. According to leading Russian music journalist and critic Artemy Troitsky, “the overall quantity of X-ray records ever produced in the Soviet times would not exceed a million, whereas with reel-to-reel tapes we would be talking about tens if not hundreds of millions.”

In his book Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia (first published in 1987, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union), Troitsky provides a compelling account of the evolution of the Soviet rock scene since its birth in the 1960s. An insider, Troitsky offers an abundance of first-hand information and anecdotes related to the foremost Soviet rock musicians and groups that are little, if at all, known in the West, such as Time Machine (the “Russian Beatles”) and their founder Andrey Makarevich, Aquarium and their leader Boris Grebenshchikov, guitarist Alexander Lyapin (“closer to Hendrix than any other Soviet rock guitarist”), or the iconic post-punk band Kino and their singer Viktor Tsoi.

Starting with the crucial influence of The Beatles on the genesis of Soviet rock, Troitsky goes on to describe key events, places and moments of its history, such as  the hippie gatherings in Tallin and Crimea (“something of a Soviet California”), the Leningrad and Moscow scenes, the “intense though fairly isolated” rock culture of Estonia, the 1980 Tbilisi festival, the emergence of home-made albums in the early 1980s, and the “Account 904” concert (organized in 1986 by Troitsky and others to raise funds for the victims of the Chernobyl disaster).

Troitsky’s commentary is at times both funny (“punk rock with us is something exotic, like an avocado – everyone has heard the name, but very few know what it actually is”) and penetrating: “Meanwhile, nothing at all was happening in Lithuania (…) nothing, that is, if we don’t count having the best jazz and the prettiest girls in the country. Perhaps these circumstances hindered the development of rock music there.”

Apart from its purely historical value, Troitsky’s account also offers some stimulating remarks on the nature of Russian culture and its differences from the West. For example, he writes: “[T]he purely literary level of our rock lyrics is higher, on the average, than in the West. Rock lyrics here have a direct tie to our poetic tradition and reflect its lexical and stylistic heritage.” I find this assertion particularly interesting in the light of the recent Nobel award to Bob Dylan and the related discussion on the relationship between music and literature.

Troitsky’s book closes with a somewhat disheartening remark: “[T]oo few rock bands dare to test glasnost (…) And this is sad. It seems that the long-awaited sunlight has blinded most of the creatures crawling out of the underground.” Thirty years on, the Iron Curtain having long been lifted, the question of cultural and political dissent remains as urgent as ever, both in Russia and the rest of the world. And music can play a crucial role in this respect. As cultural critic Edward Said once put it: “Music, in some profound way, is perhaps the final resistance to the acculturation and the commodification of everything.”

Listening to Frank Zappa

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

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

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

Bust of Frank Zappa in Vilnius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The time that slips away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cinematic Orchestra in concert (Apolo, Barcelona)

I first got to know The Cinematic Orchestra through their album Man with a Movie Camera, which served as a soundtrack to a re-released version of the experimental 1929 silent documentary film of the same name by Soviet director Dziga Vertov.

Although they have been around since 1999, The Cinematic Orchestra have only released 3 studio albums (Motion – 1999, Every Day – 2002, Ma Fleur – 2007) next to other projects such as remixes, soundtracks, or live recordings.

I had the chance to watch the British nu-jazz/electronic band perform live in Barcelona’s Apolo venue, and it was quite an experience. Although their studio recordings are perfectly capable of creating a unique atmsophere and setting the mood, watching them on stage felt different and somewhat special.

Cinematic_Orchestra_Apolo

Led by founder Jason Swinscoe, the band was joined by a number of highly skilled instrumentalists including violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, saxophonist Tom Chant, drummer Luke Flowers, as well as vocalists Heidi Vogel and Larry Brown who added an ethereal tone to the performance. Next to more well-known and classic numbers, the setlist also included some pretty impressive new material (such as J Bird), which left me looking forward to their next album release.

The band’s way of combining live jazz improvisation with electronica was a pleasure to watch, and though the show could have been longer, it was nevertheless an excellent performance from a group of truly remarkable musicians.

[As a side note, since this was my first time at Apolo: at times the hall resembled a classroom where the kids had to be shushed by the teacher -in this case the artist- in order to make silence. Not sure yet if this is typical Barcelonan audience behavior, but I suspect so!]

Aspects of cinematic love (and their soundtrack)

There are of course countless films that deal with love, romantic or otherwise. Some, however, have managed to capture this so popular and overused of themes in a completely new light, utilizing both image and sound in an original and captivating way.

Here are some of my favorites:

I. Silent love: Kubrick meets Schubert

Never has the art of seduction been so skillfully delivered on the big screen as in this scene from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Barry Lyndon. Shot by using actual candlelight, not a single word is exchanged between the two lovers throughout the whole scene – some meaningful looks are enough for the romance to be born. And no other music could fit the sequence more perfectly than Schubert’s sublime piano trio with its haunting theme.

Film: Barry Lyndon (1975), directed by Stanley Kubrick
Music: Franz Schubert, Piano Trio in E-Flat, Op. 100 – II. Andante con moto

II. Wise love: The rabbi meets the airplane

There are many brilliant moments to be found in the Coen brothers film A Serious Man, however the scene where Danny meets senior rabbi Marshak is by far my favorite. It has suspense, philosophical and religious undertones, pop culture references, subtle irony as well as that unmistakable, dark Coen humor. When 60s hippie idealism meets disillusioned religious skepticism, you better find somebody to love!

Film: A Serious Man (2009), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Music: Jefferson Airplane, Somebody to Love

III. Religious love: St. Paul meets Beethoven

I kept the best for last. Anyone who has watched Sono’s 4-hour long epic Love Exposure knows that this is no ordinary film. And this scene is perhaps the best proof: Two Japanese youngsters on a remote shore grappling with each other, releasing their sexual frustration while arguing about metaphysics. A truly explosive mix of religious fervour, existential agony and adolescent tension building up to a dramatic climax masterfully synced to Beethoven’s awe-inspiring music.

Film: Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi, 2008), directed by Sion Sono
Music: Ludwig van Beethoven,  Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 – II. Allegretto

The geniuses behind the hits

In the history of popular music there have been certain groups of musicians with a profound impact on the making and recording of hit records. They consist of the session players largely responsible for the sound of many great songs we all know and love, but never cared to look beyond the names of the star performers they’re usually associated with.  So let’s get to know some of these unsung heroes…

Hidden in the shadows

Known as The Funk Brothers, the Detroit-based session musicians who performed on Motown recordings from 1959 to 1972 played on more No.1 hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined! Despite this astonishing feat, they were essentially uncredited  as Motown did not list session musician credits on their releases until 1971.

Consisting of phenomenal talents such as bass player James Jamerson and drummer Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin, The Funk Brothers played on a long string of classic recordings including I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone and Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. Their extraordinary story is told in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002).

Looking back at their list of achievements, one indeed understands why they have been called “the greatest hit machine in the history of pop music.”

Meet The Wrecking Crew

Another group of session musicians that played a big part in how American pop music sounded during the 1960s was The Wrecking Crew. This assembly of highly skilled and versatile musicians, many of whom were formally trained in jazz or classical music, recorded practically every style of pop music in existence and worked with artists such as Nat King Cole, Nancy Sinatra, The Mamas & the Papas, The Carpenters and Simon & Garfunkel.

Moreover, The Wrecking Crew was used by legendary producer Phil Spector for his trademark “Wall of Sound”, while songwriter Brian Wilson also worked with the Crew to materialize many of his sonic visions during the 1960s, including the album Pet Sounds and songs such as Good Vibrations and California Girls.

The remarkable story of The Wrecking Crew was also made into a film, which can serve as a great introduction to the musicians responsible for the sound of some of the most successful pop music the world has ever known (such as guitarist Tommy Tedesco, drummer Hal Blaine, and bassist/guitarist Carol Kaye – one of the few female session players of that period).

The secret of Muscle Shoals

There are some special places where the conditions for making great music seem to be just right. One such place is Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

The musicians largely responsible for what came to be known as the “Muscle Shoals Sound” were The Swampers (aka The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section), a group of soul, R&B, and country studio musicians based in Muscle Shoals who have appeared on more than 75 gold and platinum hits in total.

The Swampers worked originally at the legendary FAME Studios, established by American record producer Rick Hall. Some of the artists they recorded with at FAME were Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Duane Allman, Paul Anka and Tom Jones.

FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals

Immortalized in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic Sweet Home Alabama (“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers / And they’ve been known to pick a song or two”), The Swampers left FAME in 1969 to form The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, becoming first time rhythm section -consisting of Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass)- to own a studio they could use for recording and production purposes.

Several rock and pop artists arrived to record at the new studio, including The Rolling Stones, Traffic, Elton John, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. The incredible story of  Rick Hall, The Swampers and a small town that would become the mecca of America’s most celebrated recording artists  is the theme of the recent documentary Muscle Shoals.