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”.
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.
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.
Born in 1956 into a family of distinguished musicians, Nigel Kennedy started out his remarkable career in music as a boy prodigy (he became a pupil at the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music at the age of 7), and soon developed a highly individual style along with an unconventional approach that made him one of the truly unique -and controversial- violinists of his generation.
Yehudi Menuhin teaching young Nigel Kennedy
While still 16 years old, Kennedy was invited by legendary jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli to play with him at Carnegie Hall in New York (which he did, successfully, against the advice of his classical teachers). His debut record featured Elgar’s Violin Concerto, while his 1989 recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra became one of the best-selling classical recordings in history, with total sales of over three million units.
Fusing classical, jazz and rock
Over the last decades, Kennedy has made a name as one of classical music’s most (in)famous mavericks, regularly crossing over different music genres while developing his signature, unorthodox performing style and idiosyncratic playing. His tastes and influences vary from baroque and classical to jazz and rock (he has recorded an album with improvisational covers of Jimi Hendrix), and next to many of the world’s leading orchestras he has also collaborated with musicians such as Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, Robert Plant and The Who.
Regarding his departure from classical “orthodoxy” and standard practices, Kennedy’s response has been revealing: ‘I suppose I took a bit of flak for taking the jazz attitude into the classical world. But so many people from the classical establishment are stuck in closets on top of their ivory towers.’
It was Kennedy’s acquaintance and apprenticeship with Grappelli that led him to a deeper appreciation and understanding of Gershwin’s music, which features in his latest album Kennedy Meets Gershwin.
A Greek premiere
Kennedy’s first live appearance in Greece took placeearlier this week at the ancient Odeon of Herodes Atticus stone theater in Athens. Together with his ensemble (Peter Adams – cello, Yaron Stavi – double bass, Rolf Bussalb – electric guitar, Howard Alden – guitar), the English violinist performed a varied program in front of a warm and enthusiastic crowd.
After opening the concert with an original and absolutely breathtaking interpretation of Bach’s fugue from the first violin sonata in G minor, the highly energetic Kennedy carried on with some recent works by “one of his favorite composers” (i.e. himself), before moving on to a selection from his new album featuring his refreshing and lively arrangements of Gershwin’s classics Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy & Bess.
Nigel Kennedy performing at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus theater in Athens
Kennedy’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and high spirits led to a prolonged (nearly 3-hour-long) concert full of pleasant musical surprises, including Kennedy’s piano playing and an absolutely thrilling performance of the popular Csárdás, showcasing his astonishing virtuosity, improvisational skills, and… sense of humor (there were several moments when his comments caused loud laughter across the theater).
Kennedy’s sensational performance closed with an electrifying rendition of Minor Swing by Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli – indeed, a perfect ending to the evening and a testament to the musician’s ability to roam seamlessly through baroque, classical, gypsy, klezmer, and jazz music.
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.
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 ofTime).
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.”
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.