Category Archives: Various

Music of splendid isolation

Depending on external conditions, as well as one’s state of mind, listening to music can be a very intimate, self-reflective process. Some pieces of music, partly due to their esoteric nature, work especially well when experienced in private and attentively, with as little distraction as possible.

Below is a list of such works that are very dear to me personally, works I often turn to when seeking comfort and consolation – things particularly precious in days of self-isolation and “social distancing”…

Federico Mompou – Música Callada (Silent Music)

Grandson of a bell maker, Catalan composer Federico Mompou was fond of imitating the meditative sound of bells, something that can be heard in his masterful Musica Callada, a collection of 28 miniature pieces for piano based on the mystical poetry of Saint John of the Cross. Mompou’s magnum opus, this enigmatic work is reminiscent of Eric Satie in its crystalline simplicity and serene beauty.

Max Richter – The Blue Notebooks

Featuring readings from Kafka’s fragmented The Blue Octavo Notebooks and recorded in the aftermath of the protests against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, The Blue Notebooks was described by Richter as “a protest album” and a “meditation on violence”. A work fragile yet powerful and moving, it invites to confront our innermost feelings, doubts, and thoughts.

Arvo Pärt – Spiegel im Spiegel

A magnificent example of Pärt’s uniquely evocative style, Spiegel im Spiegel, like much of his music, seems somehow to make time stand still, offering us a glimpse of the eternal.

George Gurdjieff – Sacred Hymns

Written by Greek-Armenian mystic and philosopher George Gurdjieff in collaboration with Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann, this genuinely spiritual music is better understood as part of Gurdjieff’s greater philosophical system, known as the Fourth Way or “The Work”. According to Gurdjieff’s teachings, musical structures parallel cosmic structures, music being thus able to to significantly affect and benefit individuals.

Keith Jarrett – The Köln and Vienna Concerts

Both of Jarrett’s great recitals (called simply The Köln Concert and Vienna Concert) are wonderful examples of his masterful improvisational skills. Moreover, one gets the impression that during these intriguing performances Jarrett is completely surrendered to the music, inviting us to follow him in his daring excursions as active listeners.  As Jarrett himself (who has also made an excellent recording of Gurdjieff’s music) has claimed, his goal when improvising is to “wake up” and keep listeners “alert”.

In Memoriam: Yiannis Spathas (1950-2019)

A true hero and source of constant inspiration for generations of Greek musicians, Yiannis Spathas was one of the leading electric guitarists in Greece emerging in the late 1960s. Founding member of the legendary Socrates Drank the Conium, he was the driving force behind the band’s electrifying sound and a guitar virtuoso who managed to create a unique and original blend stemming from rock, blues, and traditional Greek music.

Born in 1950 in Paxos in the Ionian Islands, Spathas grew up in Piraeus, where he formed the band Persons (1966-1969) with Antonis Tourkogiorgis and Ilias Asvestopoulos. Together with Tourkogiorgis, they would soon after create Socrates, one of the the most emblematic Greek rock bands of the 1970s and early 1980s.

An early shot of Socrates Drank The Conium [left to right: Elias Boukouvalas, Antonis Tourkogiorgis, Yiannis Spathas]

As the lead guitarist of Socrates, Spathas developed an exceptional guitar technique and created a highly idiosyncratic style that brought together influences from artists like Jimi Hendrix, Ten Years After, John Mayall as well as traditional Greek music, which proved a deep and enduring influence on Spathas, both as performer and composer (according to Spathas, two of his greatest influences were Jimi Hendrix and Greek clarinet player Tassos Chalkias).

Spathas’s guitar playing in Mountains (from the celebrated album Phos, on which the band collaborated with Vangelis Papathanassiou) continues to serve as a testament to his masterful technique and profound musicality.

Following the break-up of Socrates, Spathas pursued a long and successful career as composer, arranger and session guitarist, collaborating with famous Greek artists such as Mikis Theodorakis, Vasilis Lekkas and Haris Alexiou. In 1999 he released the album Street Secrets, featuring several instrumental pieces where Spathas displays his virtuosity and compositional skills, as well as the excellent piece Half the Way with vocals by Haris Alexiou.

Spathas’s legacy as guitarist, arranger and composer remains varied and significant; his virtuoso guitar skills, iconic compositions such as Mountains and Starvation, as well as his overall contribution to modern Greek popular music are all facets of his immense talent and generous spirit.

Yiannis Spathas may not be with us, but there is little doubt his music and spirit will live on. The following words by Rainer Maria Rilke (written about the death of Socrates) may also serve as a fitting eulogy for the great musician:

His soul was thirsty for music. And with such premonition he put his lips, dry from the wind of words, on the cup of sounds. And perhaps the strength with which he faced death did not come from his past life and work,  but from that new anticipation; he thus marched towards death as if a new day was about to dawn with the feeling that would be the day of music.

Yiannis Spathas (1950-2019)

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

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.”

 

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.