Tag Archives: 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.

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.

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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.

A Nobel Prize for music

Earlier this week the Swedish Academy announced that American songwriter Bob Dylan was the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. It was the first time a musician was awarded the prestigious prize. Naturally, certain questions pop up: What qualifies as literature? And where exactly does it intersect with music? Moreover, is Dylan primarily a musician or a poet? And does he deserve a Nobel Prize? I’ll try and tackle these one by one.

What is literature?

Not only books, apparently. Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors’s A New Literary History of America, published in 2009, contains a brave new and surprisingly inclusive definition of literature: “literary means not only what is written but what is voiced, what is expressed, what is invented, in whatever form.” Apart from focusing exclusively on the written word, the massive anthology also deals with subjects such as comic strips, film, radio, photography, and, well, music (as a matter of fact, its index contains numerous references to Dylan, as do many other literary studies).

To be sure, not everyone has been in agreement. In an article for Harper’s Magazine in March 2014, American essayist Arthur Krystal defends the traditional literary canon, concluding that:

The truth is we want from poetry and prose what Bob Dylan and advertisements and even many well written commercial novels cannot provide. We want important writing (…) to explore the human condition, and we want our writers to function, as T.S. Eliot said of the metaphysical poets, as “curious explorers of the soul.

Now this is an interesting statement. In my view, the simple fact that Krystal feels the need to mention Dylan by name in his defense of “important writing” is already a sign of defeat and a direct acknowledgment of the latter’s significance and influence on contemporary culture.

But more importantly, it is hard to see how someone could seriously argue that Dylan’s work does not “explore the human condition”. If to be part of the literary world one should have a typewriter, a publishing contract and a membership in the Writers’ Union, then probably gifted lyricists like Dylan do not fit the bill. But to say that the man has not been a “curious explorer of the soul” is simply inaccurate, if not depreciating or spiteful.

The music of words

Literature, in fact, has quite a lot in common with music. To begin with, the works of classics such as Homer or Hesiod that feature in every literary canon were meant to be recited to musical accompaniment rather than simply “read” in the modern sense of the word. Besides, some of the main aesthetic characteristics of both prose and poetry such as textual rhythm, pace, or sound (e.g. the use of alliteration or assonance) are essentially musical qualities – hence the term musicality as applied to literary works.

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There can be, thus, no literature without music. From Homer to experimental post-modern fiction the musical element has always been intrinsic to literary creation.

Bob Dylan: Poet or songwriter?

By this point, I hope it’s clear that the above question should sound quite irrelevant, if not misleading. The high literary quality of Dylan’s lyrics is obvious to anyone who has seriously concerned himself with his work (it is no coincidence that many acclaimed writers share this view). Although always considered a songwriter, articles and essays centering on the poetic dimension of Dylan’s work had appeared early on in his career, while literary scholars have been citing him extensively over the last 50 years (notably, Cambridge University Press released The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan in 2009).

Dylan, wearing a hat and leather coat, plays guitar and sings, seated. Crouched next to him is a bearded man, listening to him with head bent.

Bob Dylan with Allen Ginsberg in 1975 / Photo: Elsa Dorfman

After all, Dylan has always been a resourceful and multifaceted artist capable of reinventing himself constantly, and any effort to categorize or label him is essentially doomed to fail (“he not busy being born is busy dying”, as the song goes). He is both poet and songwriter, lyricist and singer, guitarist and harmonicist, folk and rock, acoustic and electric, joker and prophet. A troubadour of troubled times.

Songs and books

This is not the first time the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to a non-conventional literary figure (notable examples include Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill, who won the prize in 1950 and 1953 respectively). It is, however, the first time that it goes to a musician and this has some significant repercussions.

First, it reflects a general shift in ideas as to what exactly is considered literature. This also applies to last year’s winner, Belarusian journalist and non-fiction writer Svetlana Alexievich, whose work many consider non-literary. It appears, then, that the term literature can –and, indeed, should– encompass a larger variety of expression, content, form, and style.

Moreover, the committee’s decision further goes to show how the long-held distinction between high and low (i.e. “commercial” or “popular”) art is becoming increasingly irrelevant. A rock star winning the Nobel Prize is truly exceptional, and bound to have profound implications in the discussion about both the definition and boundaries of literature.

So is Bob Dylan worth the award? In answering this, I turn to the role music, and song lyrics in particular, have played in my development as a person from childhood to the present. And I imagine I am not alone in finding that certain lyrics have marked me irreversibly, profoundly shaping my way of thinking and seeing the world.

Now, there are not many people who could claim a Nobel Prize for their lyrics, and no doubt Dylan was the most obvious candidate (another one would be Leonard Cohen, but there’s always room for more). In this sense, this year’s choice was refreshing in that it acknowledged the importance and formative role of lyrics while elevating popular song to the level of literature.

Indeed, the words of the songs we love are often the same as precious as the books we hold most dear.

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.

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…

Take a sad song and make it better: Led Zeppelin, Bach, and music plagiarism

Last week, one of the most important legal cases of music plagiarism in recent years came to an end when a jury in Los Angeles cleared British musicians Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (authors of the iconic Stairway to Heaven) of stealing the opening riff of one of rock’s most famous and enduring anthems.

The lawsuit had come from the estate of Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California), guitarist of the  LA-based psychedelic band Spirit, on the grounds that Led Zeppelin had used the intro of Taurus (an instrumental composition by Spirit from 1967) for the opening of Stairway to Heaven (released in 1971), pointing at certain similarities between the two passages.

Drawing by Mona Shafer Edwards

A courtroom illustration from the recent trial showing Jimmy Page (right) and Robert Plant (left) / drawing by Mona Shafer Edwards

It is not the first time that Led Zeppelin have been accused of lifting musical passages; other famous examples include claims on behalf of blues masters such as Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon (whose names have subsequently appeared on song credits on some of the band’s reissues), or American songwriter Jake Holmes, whose Dazed and Confused was covered by Led Zeppelin in their debut album without credit (a lawsuit by Holmes was eventually settled out of court in 2012).

News of the latest lawsuit against Led Zeppelin brought to mind some older instances of alleged music plagiarism, such as the copyright infringement suit against George Harrison for his hit song My Sweet Lord in the 1970s (where he was found guilty of ¨subconscious¨plagiarism) or the debate around the similarities between Hotel California and We Used To Know by British rockers Jethro Tull.

As Ian Anderson puts it, ¨it’s not plagiarism, it´s just the same chord sequence… it’s difficult to find a chord sequence that hasn’t been used.¨ Now that’s a very interesting remark because it appears that musical ¨borrowings¨ have actually been around as long as music itself. As  a matter of fact, even Bach himself lifted entire passages or melodies from other composers, a practice that was not uncommon or unknown to musicians before (as well as after) him.

It was only with the advent of modern notions such as intellectual property and copyright infringement that such borrowings came to be considered as violations rather than simply loans. Musicians, not unlike scientists, make advances and breakthroughs by building on previous discoveries. Isaac Newton’s famous maxim “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” might as well have come from Bach or, for that matter, Led Zeppelin.

As with all arts, there can be no parthenogenesis in music. Picasso’s ¨good artists copy, great artists steal¨ remains as valid today for visual artists as for music composers. Building on a previously existing body of work should not be reprehensible; on the contrary, it is necessary, if not inevitable. The important thing is not to avoid borrowing from past masters, but to successfully use and mold the old knowledge into something new that has its own value and significance.

Perhaps the essential difference between imitation and originality is best captured by Ernest Hemingway, who once said: “In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better.”