Tag Archives: London

The worship of music: Reading David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue

Ever wondered how it would feel to be in a rock band during the summer of love in swinging London? Well, for those of us not around at the time, reading David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue is probably as close as we can get without having to get teleported back to Soho’s music scene in the late 1960s.

As one might expect, the novel deals extensively – yet not exclusively – with topics such as sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll (increasingly so, in this order). However, it builds and extends upon these classic themes, touching upon issues such as gender equality, (hetero)sexuality, emotional dyslexia, mental illness, perception and hallucination, the process of songwriting, as well as the inner workings of music business.

Carnaby Street, London, c. 1968 / H. Grobe

In his latest novel, Mitchell recounts the birth and rise to fame of a fictional four-piece psychedelic-folk-rock band called Utopia Avenue. As the story unfolds, the reader follows the band from their beginnings in Soho, London to their first – and final – tour of America (“an endless, world-class distraction, if nothing else”), with eventful detours in Rome and Amsterdam in between. While getting to know the the band members (and their manager), the reader stumbles upon several famous musicians and artists who interact with the band at various points throughout the book, such as Brian Jones, David Bowie, Syd Barrett, Francis Bacon, Sandy Denny, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Jerry Garcia.

Although the focus is primary musical and cultural, the novel also taps into the politics and activism of the late 1960s. Referencing anti-war demonstrations and debates about the Vietnam War, Mitchell also discusses the nature of radicalism, the demise of hippie culture, and the subsequent commercialization of anti-commercialism.

Still, Utopia Avenue is largely a novel about the mystifying power of music and its ability to enrich, transform and make sense of one’s life. To quote Jasper, the band’s troubled yet supremely gifted guitarist: “How music works is learnable. Why it works, God only knows. Maybe not even God.” While playing in Paradiso, Amsterdam’s hallowed venue, Jasper comes to a realization: “Worship still happens here, worship of music itself. Music frees the soul from the cage of the body. Music transforms the Many to a One.”

Paradiso, Amsterdam, 1979 / Hans van Dijk for Anefo

So can music actually change the world? The answer, once more, is given by Jasper: “Songs, like dandelion seeds, billowing across space and time. Who knows where they’ll land? Or what they’ll bring? […] Often, usually, they land on barren soil and don’t take root. But sometimes, they land in a mind that is ready. Is fertile. What happens then? Feelings and ideas happen. Joy, solace, sympathy. Assurance. Cathartic sorrow. The idea that life could be, should be, better than this.”

From cover to cover, Utopia Avenue is an immense joy to read. Its pages are sure to captivate music enthusiasts, as well as anyone with even a passing interest in the cultural and social upheaval of the late 1960s. An ideal companion would be Joe Boyd’s memoir White Bicycles, which Mitchell also cites as an inspiration. And while you’re at it, you might also want to check out this cool playlist inspired by the novel. Enjoy the ride!

Let it be more Beatles: some notes on the ‘Get Back’ documentary

I recently finished watching the full Get Back documentary, directed and produced by Peter Jackson and released as a miniseries in 3 episodes. With a total running time of nearly 8 hours it may seem a daunting task at first, but true Beatles fans will most likely be craving for more once the viewing is over.

Although it draws material from the 1970 Let It Be documentary, Get Back is a far cry from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s earlier film. Meticulously going through 60 hours of film footage and over 150 hours of audio, Jackson and his team have produced an impressive work that accurately captures the subtleties and nuances of the band’s inner relations and tensions, their interaction with friends and collaborators, as well as the broader cultural climate of the era.

A fly on the studio wall

Following the band through 3 consecutive weeks in January 1969, we are literally being transferred inside the studio with the Beatles, following every little chat between the band members and seeing them unravel their musical and creative ideas. The experience is truly astonishing and, for once, exactly what the film’s trailer promises: unprecedented access to the most intimate footage ever shot of the band.

We get to hear Lennon’s hilarious quips and witticisms, see McCartney doing an impersonation of Elvis, or watch Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman chatting casually in the background. More intriguingly, we overhear the conservation between Lennon and McCartney as they are trying to handle a sudden crisis (caused by Harrison’s temporary resignation) via a hidden microphone planted inside a flower pot. Reality TV has rarely been more culturally meaningful or historically informative.

Breaking up can be fun

As the film goes on, we are gradually being immersed in the developments during the band’s fateful final period. And it’s actually a lively and rather joyous picture full of excitement, sparkly music, contagious laughs and that unmistakable Beatles humor, tied to their innate ability of having fun at all times while simultaneously making fun of pretty much everything – especially of themselves.

So, even though the band’s imminent break up is kind of hanging over Apple Corps headquarters like a specter, the boys are still having a great time and some magical moments are born despite, or -more likely- because of, the underlying tension. We watch them as they literally give birth to some of their finest music, going through sketches of songs like Across the Universe, Get Back, I Me Mine and I Got a Feeling (or ”I got a hard-on” as Lennon jokes), in between endless jams, impromptus, and casual conversations over tea and toast.

A particularly revealing moment comes up when keyboardist Billy Preston comes in and starts jamming with the band in the studio. Seeing the refreshing effect his presence brings to the band’s playing and overall vibes, Lennon says: ”I’d just like him in our band, actually. I’d like a fifth Beatle.” In what closely resembles a family discussion about adoption, Harrison agrees: ”We can do that.” McCartney, however, is quick to end the enthusiasm about getting extra band members: ”I just don’t, cause it’s just bad enough with four” (for a small taste of alternate music history, just listen to the amazing performance of Without a Song by Preston and the band during the end titles of the second episode).

To the (roof)toppermost of the poppermost

Along with a priceless view and uncensored access to the Beatles at work during their final days, the film also offers a unique glimpse of swinging London and the surrounding cultural milieu. We see the band discussing daily news, newspaper articles (often about themselves) and contemporary TV programs, while in the last episode the camera moves out of the studio and on to the rooftop that is about to become the stage for the band’s last public performance.

The film culminates with the famous rooftop concert, a show largely spontaneous and improvised, as can be seen by the band’s relaxed and playful attitude. With the blue-gray London skyline as a backdrop, the Beatles go through some of their new songs for an invisible audience, as people start gathering down the street and around the neighboring rooftops, unaware they are witnessing a landmark event in 20th-century cultural history.

The Beatles rooftop concert (Evening Standard, Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It is hard to miss the irony of the band singing ”Get Back” almost at the face of the police officers who are sent to restore order, ultimately stopping the performance due to complaints for ”breach of the peace”. Indeed, the Beatles had been disturbing musical peace from their early beginnings in Liverpool and Hamburg right up to their final public concert in the heart of London – a fitting epilogue to the band’s cataclysmic career that encapsulates some of the essential traits that made them great: their unique chemistry and charisma on (and off) stage, their unpredictability and unhindered creative spark, and of course an overwhelming sense of the sheer, pure joy of music making.

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.

A Greek composer’s London marathon

Following the premiere of lament-inspired EARTH MINUS by organist Ourania Gassiou at Westminster Abbey about a year ago, the music of London-based composer Dimitrios Skyllas was performed last month in no less than three unique locations across the English capital. Let us follow the 29-year-old composer from Volos in his London marathon throughout its various stages.

At the starting line: Royal Αlbert Hall

On Sunday 18 September in Royal Αlbert Hall’s Elgar Room, acclaimed Greek pianist Konstantinos Destounis gave the English premiere of Nine Miniatures for the Universe, a piece by Skyllas inspired by the planets of our solar system, the NASA Voyager recordings, as well as traditional Greek rhythms and elements.


The event marked the beginning of the collaboration between the two Greek artists. As noted by the composer: “Konstantinos and I worked together on how to deliver my piece and his exceptional technique adds a different quality to my music. It was indeed a unique experience and seeing your piece in the programme of the Royal Albert Hall is fascinating!”

Half-way there: Victoria and Albert Museum

Five days later, Skyllas presented the world premiere of his piece ABYSS for solo piano at the renowned V&A Museum. A collaboration with artist and former V&A ceramics resident Matt Smith, ABYSS is an aural composition in dialogue with Smith’s Spode: A thirty one note love song, a ‘soundscape’ that was created by reassembling old plaster moulds into new forms.

The performance took place inside the Globe, a curved architectural sculpture designed by the Havana-based artist collective Los Carpinteros.

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Dimitrios Skyllas performing at the V&A Museum / Photo: Ryan Evans

As Skyllas remarked about the performance: “Ι always desired to compose music for a museum or a gallery. The V&A is a fantastic and absolutely inspiring environment to perform. I was hugely excited by the fact that my composition and my sound would embrace these walls. My experience with the ceramicist Matt Smith was the key point to this feeling!”

The finish line: Hellenic Centre of London

Last stop in Skyllas’s London marathon was the piano recital organised by ark4art in collaboration with the Hellenic Centre on 29 September, where the composer performed some of his own works alongside and in relation to the music of Giorgos Koumendakis and John Cage, exploring the contrasts and similarities between them.

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Dimitrios Skyllas at the Hellenic Centre in London

As he put it: “It was one of the most intimate concerts I have ever experienced. Perhaps it was the atmosphere, or the fact that I was playing the music by two composers I really admire, John Cage and Giorgos Koumendakis. Koumendakis’s personality and friendship have been a great influence to the nature of my work, and playing his music I felt warmth and kindness in my heart.”

 New spaces, new horizons

It appears that collaborating with artists from various disciplines and exploring different kinds of performances and new venues has affected the way Skyllas creates music. In his own words:

“In the last two years I have received great generosity towards my work. I have collaborated with great musicians, choreographers and dancers, visual artists, writers and actors. So I ask myself, how is it possible for this experience not to influence my creative decisions? My music is defined by the circumstances as well as the environment it is being performed every time.”

As new experiences continue to expand and shape his creative vision, it becomes clear that the Greek composer’s recent London marathon has only been a small part of a much longer and challenging, yet vastly rewarding, journey: that of ongoing self-development and creative expression through composing, performing, and sharing his music with all of us.

Greek lament meets avant-garde at the Westminster Abbey

The composer

Born in 1987 in Volos, Greece, Dimitrios Skyllas started playing the piano at an early age and went on to study musicology and piano performance at the University of Kingston, London. He has also studied composition and aesthetics at the University of Edinburgh, and holds a second postgraduate degree in composition from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.

Greek composer Dimitrios Skyllas Photo: Luca Bonatti

Greek composer Dimitrios Skyllas
Photo: Luca Bonatti

Currently based in London, Skyllas is a collaborator (composer in residence) with KYKLOS ENSEMBLE and also performs as a solo pianist next to his compositional and teaching activities.

Earlier this year, the composer’s popularity saw a sharp rise following a successful performance of his piece GRIEF GESTURES by KYKLOS ENSEMBLE in Athens. The work, originally premiered on May 26th 2012 and based on traditional laments from the region of Epirus, was particularly inspired by Greek clarinetist Petroloukas Chalkias, one of the greatest exponents of the Epirotic clarinet tradition.

The premiere

For his new organ piece EARTH MINUS, laments of Epirus (such as “Siko Mariola”) served once again as a source of inspiration for Skyllas, together with two artists who have deeply influenced and enriched his creative viewpoint: Icelandic songwriter Björk and American video artist Bill Viola.

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Dimitrios Skyllas with organist Ourania Gassiou

The world premiere of EARTH MINUS took place on Sunday, September 27th at the Westminster Abbey, where London-based organist Ourania Gassiou performed the organ piece together with works by Johannes Brahms and Pierre Cochereau.

“I met Ourania a few months ago and she showed true interest in the fact that I composed an Epirus lament, especially because she is originally from that area of Greece! After a few discussions, she asked me if I would be interested in composing a lament for organ to be presented at the Westminster Abbey”, says Skyllas, who gladly took on the challenge. “I feel privileged to have met Ourania; she is an extraordinary musician, and I hope we keep our collaboration for future projects. I feel that my piece is absolutely ‘safe’ in her hands!”

From Epirus to the world

As to the influence Greek traditional music has had upon his work, Skyllas explains: “When I started composing, I wanted to prove that I can become what we usually call a ‘European avant-garde composer’ without realising that I was actually much closer to the musical tradition of my country. Our tradition is like our mother tongue: we might choose to speak another language, however we cannot and probably shouldn’t try to escape or ignore it.”

He goes on to analyse his fascination with laments in particular: “I started to become interested in the laments from Epirus because inside their sound I discovered some qualities that expressed in depth my emotional stages. In musical terms, the lament is characterized by quite a distinctive sound, the simplicity of the melodic lines, the dialogue between the instruments, the pedal notes that allow space for improvisation, the pulse and atmosphere of its ritual. Besides, it is music about death… and my own obsession with Death and Time was certainly an important parameter.”

“Our tradition is like our mother tongue: we might choose to speak another language, however we cannot and probably shouldn’t try to escape or ignore it”

Epirus is well-known for its folk songs, polyphonic tradition, and highly virtuosic instrumentalists, while its music has managed to attract international attention in large part due to the unique expressivity and emotional depth of its traditional laments – an expression of the universal practice of dealing with grief through musical means.

The fact that elements of this rich tradition are being incorporated into avant-garde compositions by a young contemporary composer with popular appeal is indeed remarkable. And certainly hopeful, since it helps highlight the unity and continuity of music regardless of labels, as Skyllas’s 21st-century laments so tellingly demonstrate.