Tag Archives: music

In Memoriam: Yiannis Spathas (1950-2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yiannis Spathas (1950-2019)

Psychedelic geometry: Kikagaku Moyo in concert

A few years ago in Tokyo, following an intensive all-night jam, various patterns of geometric nature began to form on the back of Go Kurosawa’s eyelids. That’s what gave the young drummer the idea for a band name: Kikagaku Moyo, Japanese for “geometric patterns”.

The Tokyo-based psychedelic band, originally formed by Go Kurosawa (drums/vocals) and Tomo Katsurada (guitar/vocals) in the summer of 2012, gradually morphed into its current extended line-up, which includes three more members: Daoud Popal (guitar), Kotsu Guy (bass), and Go’s brother Ryu (sitar), who joined the band after studying with acclaimed classical sitar player Manilal Nag in India.

The band recently released its fourth album Masana Temples, recorded in Lisbon and produced by jazz musician Bruno Pernadas, in a conscious effort on behalf of the group to work with someone from a different background and challenge their own perceptions and ideas about psychedelic music.

An exotic -and at times explosive- blend of krautrock, folk, and Indian music, Kikagaku Moyo’s largely Improvisational music is an attempt to liberate both mind and body and create a “bridge between the supernatural and the present”.

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In their highly energetic live performance in Athens (which took place just a few weeks after another excellent concert by fellow Tokyo post-rockers MONO), the band brought successfully together all these diverse elements, rewarding their Greek fans through creating their very own kind of peculiar psychedelic geometry.

Underwater checkMAtE: electronic sounds from Thessaloniki

Edgy meetings

Originally formed in 2011 by Adam Siagas (live electronics) and Thomas Kostoulas (drums), M.A.t.E [Meetings Along the Edge] have been established as one of the foremost electronic ensembles originating from Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city and a historically vibrant musical  and cultural hub.

M.A.t.E’s line-up took its definitive form when vocalist Maria-Elisavet Kotini joined the band during the recording of their self-titled debut. A follow-up album called Transitions was released In March 2016. As already signified by the band’s name, their music represents a meeting point of several diverse influences, styles and genres, ranging from drum’n’bass and dubstep to trip hop and electronica.

An eclectic and sonically rich album, Transitions stands at the crossroads between analog and digital, acoustic and electronic, while also balancing between Western tech frenzy and Eastern meditative sounds (see, for example, the Indian influences in Surya).

Along with drums, synthesizers, samples and Maria-Elisavet’s enchanting presence,  M.A.t.E also enhance their live performances with visuals in order to engage audiences and create a more interactive atmosphere. Their strong visual identity is also apparent in their excellent video clips, such as the video for RedruM (directed by Sideris Nanoudis), where sound and image blend artfully to tell a story in a powerful, engaging way.

Along the edge and underwater

Also hailing from Thessaloniki, electro-acoustic duo Underwater Chess (PP – guitars, bass, cymbals, programming / MV – violins, vocals) started out in the early 2000s by playing covers from artists such as Butthole Surfers and Björk, but soon turned to improvisation and began developing their own distinctive sound.

Following their debut In Joy Your Fear (2011), a kind of sonic collage of various improvisational recordings, their latest album Seriality (released early last year) is in many ways a remarkable achievement. A unique amalgam of electronic, ambient, rock, and dance elements, their sound is characterized by atmospheric and recurring motifs, rich dynamics, and rhytmic intensity.

Featuring imaginative guitars, loops, violin and vocal parts, Seriality is an impressive record not only musically but also in terms of production. Even from a simple hearing, it becomes apparent that a lot of time and effort have been devoted to the programming, mixing and sound engineering in order to produce such a well-polished and carefully crafted record.

Perhaps it is only natural that in a city like Thessaloniki, standing along the edge and next to the water, bands with fresh ideas and edgy sound constantly emerge, competing with each other like in a game οf musical chess – where, of course, there can only be one winner: music lovers, both from their hometown and beyond!

“A true miracle”: Metamorphosis by Alexia Chrysomalli

Introducing Alexia

Born in 1984 in Thessaloniki, Alexia Chrysomalli took her first music lessons at the age of 8, when she came in contact with Byzantine music. She went on to study the clarinet and classical singing, and has been a professional singer since the age of 19.

Alexia is a founding member of all-female vocal ensemble Stringless and has also been a member of Greek ethnic band Namaste. She has been steeped in traditional Greek music, mostly from Thrace and Macedonia, and has been singing in village feasts and playing with several distinguished traditional musicians in order to learn and delve into the traditional songs she loves so dearly.

The birth of “Metamorphosis”

All those songs had a major influence on Alexia’s compositions and singing and, along with an “internal sense and path of self inquiry”, are elements that found their way in her debut album Metamorphosis, which has just been released independently. In Alexia’s own words, the album is “a united concept and every song is a stage or level that a soul can experience during a deep transformative period”.

Although there was practically zero budget for the project, there was nevertheless a strong need and determination to make it happen. As Alexia puts it, the album’s creation was “a true miracle”, becoming possible largely due to the devotion and the open heart of all those who worked on it, including her friend and manager Helen Kontos, producer Kostas Kontos, sound engineer Kriton Kiourtis, and all the musicians who took part in the recording: Kyriakos Gouventas, Giannis Karakalpakidis, Thanasis Kleopas, Panagiotis Alepidis, Vangelis Maramis, Vasilis Karakousis, Anastassia Zachariadou, Kostas Chanis and Ermis Savvantoglou. Kudos also go to Daphni Kontou for the graphic design and Michalis Vlavianos for the cover photo.

The album features Alexia’s own compositions, with her magnificently rich and soulful voice radiating throughout. Metamorphosis is full of beautiful moments such as the vocal parts in the opening track Calling or the seductive melodic lines in Source. Another highlight is the album’s closer Helios, an ode to the greatness of life-giving Sun.

“New artists, fresh sound, open-minded audience”

Regarding the contemporary Greek music scene, Alexia feels that it needs “some refreshment from the side of the artists but also from the side of the audience. We need new artists with fresh sound and a more open-minded audience. During these times of crisis we do not invest a lot of money in culture. One of the results is that every year most Greek music festivals feature the same artists again and again. So there is not much space for the new, wonderful musicians who want to share their work with the audience.”

There are, however, alternatives: “Like an independent artist, I think is quit easy to make yourself heard through social media. People who resonate and get inspired by your work can easily follow you.”

Photo by Michalis Vlavianos

What if Alexia’s music library was set on fire? The first records she would run to rescue would be the albums of Dead Can Dance, Amália Rodrigues, Evros from the group Methorios (“a piece of art for the traditional music of Thrace”), as well as recordings from jam sessions she had with people she met over the last years.

As for the future, Alexia aims to give as many concerts as possible both in Greece and abroad. “I want to share my music with people that it means something to their heart and soul”, she says. “The last year I composed 14 news songs and I am looking forward to start recording again.”

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.

At the meeting point of Greek cinema and music: Notes on a remarkable collaboration

A pivotal figure at the intersection of Greek cinema and music, Costas Ferris is mostly known as the director of the award-winning film Rembetiko, and -to a lesser extent- for having penned the lyrics for Aphrodite’s Child’s psychedelic masterpiece 666.

Probably less known has been the collaboration between Ferris and musician Stavros Logaridis, member of the famous Greek pop group Poll and founder of the progressive rock ensemble Akritas, whose debut (and sole) self-titled album still ranks as one of the very peaks of its genre.

Described as a “dance suite for quartet and play back”, Akritas (1973) features a highly original blend of rock, electronic, classical as well as folk elements. Ferris, who had first met Logaridis in London in late 1972, wrote the lyrics for this truly outstanding album, which (like Aphrodite’s Child 666) contains biblical references and allusions to the Book of Revelation in particular.

The two men would soon collaborate again for Ferris’s film The Murderess (1974), based on a well-known Greek novel by Alexandros Papadiamantis. A visually stunning and innovative film, The Murderess also stands out for its unique soundtrack, consisting solely of instrumental electronic music. Composed by Logaridis, who was only 21 years old at the time, the music is largely experimental and abstract, yet closely following the film’s narrative and complementing the various themes and motifs so effectively it soon becomes itself one of the movie’s major components.

Ferris and Logaridis would form a close friendship and collaborate again on various occasions, including the music for the TV series Violet City in 1975 (which would actually lead to a legal battle against Vangelis concerning the famous theme from his Oscar-winning score for Chariots of Fire).

Although Logaridis never quite achieved the level of fame or international success of artists like Vangelis or Aphrodite’s Child, his singular talent remains indisputable. Not unlike Ferris’s seminal role in the evolution of modern Greek cinema, Logaridis’s work has been crucial -if somewhat understated- for the development of the Greek music scene in the 1970s and 1980s.

Indeed, as testified by such groundbreaking works as The Murderess and Akritas, the collaboration between the two Greek artists bore some very special fruit, both on screen and on record.

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.”