Category Archives: Various

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.”

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Cannibalism, alchemy, and flying saucers: The ’70s Brazilian music scene

I recently had the good fortune to indulge myself in 1970s Brazilian music, after a small treasure ended up in my home: a box full of vinyl records with the very best of the Brazilian music scene of the time, featuring an explosive mix of samba, bossa nova, folk, soul, funk, psychedelia, and experimental rock.

Listening to these records one after another, I started putting together the pieces of a scene incredibly rich and colorful, encompassing artists so diverse and yet characteristically Brazilian as Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, seminal composers João Gilberto and Tom Jobim, influential poet and lyricist Vinícius de Moraes, as well as gifted guitarists and songwriters such as Luiz Bonfá, Toquinho, and Baden Powell.

A true gem I was delighted to discover was Tecnicolor (1970), an album originally intended to serve as the introduction of the legendary psych-rock group Os Mutantes to the English-speaking world. However, the tapes were lost and the album was only released in 2000 (with artwork by Sean Lennon). It is an absolutely thrilling record, showcasing the group’s talent and creative blend of disparate influences – a signature trait of the Tropicália movement known as antropofagia: a sort of “cultural cannibalism” aspiring to bring together different – often contrasting – elements in order to form a new synthesis.

Other records that left a deep impression on me included the brilliant self-titled debut album by glam rockers Secos & Molhados (released in 1973), as well as the fusion masterpiece Acabou Chorare (1972) by the psych-folk group Novos Baianos (voted first in the 100 Greatest Brazilian Music Records list published by Rolling Stone in October 2007).

Furthermore, I was fascinated by the transcendental dimension of certain seminal works of the era, such as Jorge Ben’s A Tábua de Esmeralda (1974), a unique album that illustrates Ben’s interest in theosophy, mysticism, and alchemy. Another example is Tim Maia’s Racional, Vols. 1 & 2 (1975-76), two albums that were recorded when Maia read the book Universe in Disenchantment and decided to convert to the cult of Rational Culture, spending a lot of his time watching the sky for extraterrestrials and flying saucers.

Although in the end Maia abandoned the cult and went back to his previous lifestyle, his fascinating excursion into Rational Culture provided the inspiration for these incredible soul-funk albums, which, along with the music of the tropicalistas and several subsequent artists and songwriters, became part of the ever vibrant, groovy, and at times transcendental, Brazilian music scene.

Defending an identity: An interview with Algerian guitar legend Lotfi Attar

Founding member of the celebrated Algerian band Raïna Raï back in the 1980s, guitarist and composer Lotfi Attar has acquired a somewhat legendary status in Algerian music circles. A multifaceted artist, Attar has done much to revolutionize the folk genre known as raï, extending its musical vocabulary as well as its audience.

Moreover, Attar boasts a broader understanding of North African music and culture, bringing together elements from various regions and experimenting with different styles. Apart from a unique and innovative musician, he is also a man with a deep passion and love for his country and its culture.

I recently had the opportunity to ask him some questions about his music, his development as a guitarist, and his overall career so far (his answers have been translated from French):

When did you first get seriously involved with music?

My brother Kamel also played the guitar. I started playing in 1962 when I was 10 years old, and in 1969 I joined the group Les Aigles Noirs playing western pop music and performing at parties and weddings. This type of music, however, was not very popular in the smaller villages.

Who are the musicians who had the biggest influence on you?

First of all, The Shadows and their distinctive way of guitar playing, but also American jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, Brazilian bossa nova composer Sergio Mendes, The Beatles, Carlos Santana with his song Jingo… And then everything my older brothers would listen to. I particularly like the sound of the Gibson and Fender guitars as played by The Shadows or Jimi Hendrix. The first guitar I bought was a Fender Duo-Sonic Mustang.

Apart from guitar players like Hendrix and Santana, when I was a teenager I would also listen to classical composers such as Strauss or Beethoven, and even played some pieces by Mozart.

Algerian guitarist Lotfi Attar / Photo: Nadjib Bouznad

What do you consider the most important moments in you career so far?

First of all, the formation of Raïna Raï in 1980 and the release of the album Hagda (1983), which included the song Ya Zina [the group’s biggest success]. Then, the formation of Amarna in the mid-1980s. For the group’s first album I composed the music while Hamida [Lotfi’s wife] wrote the lyrics in the form of lyric poetry. The group’s vocalist was Djillali Rezkallah [better known as Djillali Amarna], a singer with a beautiful voice coming from a rural vocal culture. I tried to create harmonies to accompany the vocal melodies using instruments like bass guitar, drums, and saxophone [the work stands out for its habitual use of unison, and includes the hit song Khalouni Nabki].

In more recent years, I have developed the “Goumb-Guits” style, where I sing a melody and try to approximate the sound of the gumbri [traditional 3-stringed instrument, also known as sintir] with my guitar. The Tuareg people have their proper style, I only adjust and transform it. So in the Goumb-Guits style, we find a mix of modern instruments (drums, bass guitar, piano, electric guitar) and traditional percussion instruments (karkabous, kallouz, guellal).

What have been your latest projects?

I try to evolve in the domain of musical research and bring forth elements from other world cultures that are often not valued, like Asian music for instance, through the use of the guitar. As I said, I have developed the Goumb-Guits style, but I am not limited to that. I also try to play in other styles such as Orient-Guits, Andaluz-Guits, Alaoui-Guits, and Tergui-Guits. I would also like to work with a European pianist, as I am curious to see how he or she would adapt to my style.

How would you describe your way of playing?

I don’t know… It’s natural. I am defending an identity. I am trying to be different from other guitarists. I would say mostly “Algerian.”

In what ways has Algerian music influenced you?

The Algerian musical influence on my style can be seen in the use of traditional instruments such as the reed flute, the ghaita [North African double reed instrument also known as rhaita], and percussion instruments like the bendir, the gallal, and the karkabous. I have also been influenced by the west-Algerian rural folklore we call trab [the word means “soil”], the alaoui style in my rock playing, as well as the rhythm of saf [a women’s dance], the diwan [similar to gospel], and the tergui [Touareg music related to the blues].

I chose to stay in my native Sidi Bel Abbès in Algeria in order to defend the Algerian identity and try to inspire the future generations. What is more, Algeria inspires me; I cannot see myself living in another place.


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Bach Brazil Barcelona

Johann Sebastian Bach and Brazilian music have always enjoyed an intimate relationship. This is evident from the towering figure of Heitor Villa-Lobos and his magnificent Bachianas Brasileiras to subsequent Brazilian musicians (such as guitarist Baden Powell) who also found inspiration in Bach’s music and combined it with their own distinctive style.

Originally scored for soprano and an orchestra of cellos, the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 suite is probably Villa-Lobos’s best-known work. A special rendition of the suite’s famous Aria (which has been also arranged for soprano and guitar by the composer) was recently made by singer Ilona Schneider and guitarist Diego Caicedo. Based in Barcelona, the duo delivers an emotionally charged and delicate performance, which is further enhanced by the atmosphere of the  accompanying video.

In fact, Barcelona claims a very special connection to Bach. This is largely due to legendary Catalan cellist Pablo Casals: In 1890, when he was still 13 years old, Casals chanced upon a copy of Bach’s six Cello Suites in a second-hand sheet music store in Barcelona. Several years later, after having studied them laboriously, Casals would perform Bach’s suites  in public and record them between 1936 and 1939.  They have since been performed and recorded extensively, and are now considered to be among Bach’s most important works.

A highly original take on Bach’s famous Prelude from Cello Suite No.1 can be heard from Armonipiano, a duo formed by harmonicist Rodrigo G Pahlen and pianist Gilles Estoppey. Also based in Barcelona, the two musicians perform a fresh and eclectic blend of jazz, tango, and Brazilian music. And a little bit of Bach, that is.

As shown by such brilliant and novel approaches, the mix of Bach, Brazil and Barcelona makes indeed for an exciting musical cocktail: A sort of baroque-flavored caipirinha, served in the music bars of the Catalan capital.

Gil Shaham, Greece and an old Chinese legend

I recently had the chance to meet and talk with American violinist Gil Shaham in Barcelona, on the occasion of his performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto in L’Auditori (you can read the full interview here).

Towards the end of our conversation we talked a bit about Greece and the soloist’s only visit there so far, which he seemed to remember very vividly:

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Gil Shaham with his ‘Countess Polignac’ Stradivarius, backstage in L’Auditori

“I have never been in Athens, but I’ve been in Thessaloniki. I performed there around 10 years ago with a very good Greek orchestra. We played a piece called the Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto. I love this piece. It’s a sort of tone poem, and it tells a traditional story from the Chinese opera, very similar to Romeo and Juliet but in ancient Chinese style.

According to the story, the heroine, Zhu Yingtai, is forced to marry a noble man and she agrees to do so only if the wedding procession passes by the grave of her true love, Liang Shanbo. As the traditional Chinese wedding procession goes by the grave of young Shanbo, the earth shakes and lightning strikes and the earth shallows her up, and she throws herself into the grave of Shanbo. And in the end they are both resurrected as butterflies.

The piece is a symphonic version of a traditional Chinese opera, and it was composed in 1959 by two students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. It became extremely successful; it is the single most often performed symphonic work ever!”

It appears Shaham’s Greek visit was quite special, and he still has fond memories of it:

“So we played this piece in Thessaloniki. It was a very nice experience and and I have a beautiful memory of it. My whole family was with me, including my daughter who was just one year old at the time.”

We also talked about Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, for whom Shaham has a deep appreciation. The two artists also share some common experiences:

“We went to the same music school with Leonidas in New York. He was a little bit older. We live parallel lives so we never see each other, but then around 2 years ago we were in Munich at the same time and we had dinner together. That was very nice. I love his playing.”

Shaham, like Kavakos, has been one of the foremost violinists of his generation and it would be quite an occasion if their parallel routes also intersected in the concert hall – and it would be hard to think of a more fitting location for such a meeting to take place than Greece.

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.

Electronic music artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Despite its name, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inducted several musicians that are not exclusively tied to the genre. Rappers such as Run-D.M.C. and the rap-rock act Beastie Boys to name a few, with Compton group N.W.A. to be added next year.

As such, it appears the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is finally embracing electronic music. Kraftwerk, widely considered pioneers in the field of electronic music, are nominated once again, while Depeche Mode with their synthpop electronic sound have been nominated for the fist time.

A lot of electronic artists have given their time and talent to the genre. Even though mostly riddled with male artists, the genre has also known pioneers such as Suzanne Ciani, who has acquired a somewhat legendary status within electronic music circles.

There are many more talented DJs from the past who have promoted electronic music, while even big names from other genres have clearly benefitted from it. There is an almost innumerable quantity of pop songs that have used electronic sounds, and it can also be said that pop icons like Madonna and Tina Turner owe a lot to the genre.

dj_electronic_music

Furthermore, electronic music has been around for decades. Its importance has also impacted other industries too, most notable movies. This year saw the release of various titles that display the use of electronic music, which shows how the genre is blended into visual mediums. Additionally, electronic music is also evident in video games and, as shown in this infographic about music and games, the sounds produced by electronic machines help keep players engaged and liven up the gaming experience. This means that not only is electronic music a purely auditory aspect, it also contributes towards heightening the stimulation of feelings and emotions.

Considering, thus, electronic music’s various redeeming qualities, it wouldn’t be out of place to see artists who have dedicated themselves to the genre be acknowledged by award-giving bodies like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Following the inclusion of other genres in the past, it could well open it up to electronic music this time around.