“Fuck!” was, somewhat surprisingly, the first thing Ólafur Arnalds said once he stepped on the stage of The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the ancient Roman stone theater right beneath the Acropolis in Athens. “It’s the first time we play live after almost 2 years, and this place is beautiful”, he continued.
It was a hot summer night, and the Icelandic composer quickly made it clear this was not his preferred climate: “It is too warm here, thank God the sun went down!” Having taken his seat at the grand piano, he went on to perform some of the music from his latest work Some Kind of Peace together with a string quartet comprised of Petur Björnsson and Viktor Orri Arnason (violins), Unnur Jonsdottir (cello), and Karl James Pestka (viola).
Ólafur’s delicate harmonies and elegant melodic lines were in tune with the serenity of the surroundings, and the sporadic singing of the cicadas complemented the music perfectly. The blend of piano, strings, loops and beats created a special ambience that captivated the audience, which responded enthusiastically throughout the evening.
The Icelandic musician and producer has had an exciting journey so far, marked by collaborations with artists such as Nils Frahm and pianist Alice Sera Ott. His latest album is a personal statement, a way for him to express his creative development amid a rapid-changing and chaotic world.
A way, as its title implies, to create some kind of peace – both for him and the listeners who find solace in his delightful, meditative music.
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”.
I first discovered the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam several years ago during an adventurous museum-hoping on the annual Museum Night, when tens of the city’s museums open their doors to visitors for special late night visits.
I was immediately captivated by the museum’s special atmosphere and unique aura. Watching a performance of automatic piano inside the museum’s intimate setting, surrounded by player pianos and hundreds of collectible music rolls, was an unforgettable, magical experience.
The interior of the Pianola Museum in Amsterdam
Nestled in the scenic Jordaan quarter, the Pianola Museum has remained at its current address for 25 years now. One of Amsterdam’s smallest and most unusual museums, it boasts a collection of historic pianolas as well as more than 30.000 music rolls in its archive.
Amsterdam’s City Council is apparently planning to sell the building that houses this unique cultural institution. The museum has expressed the wish to purchase the property but, being a small non-profit organization, it cannot outbid the property developers in the open market.
The danger of the Pianola Museum being forced to close down is thus imminent. An online petition to save the museum has reached almost 20,000 signatures at the time of writing. I would urge anyone who is interested in preserving this unique part of Amsterdam’s musical heritage to show their support and sign the petition, so that the City Council might reconsider its decision and give the museum a chance to keep its current home and the rest of us the opportunity to continue enjoying its musical offerings at this very special location.
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.
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.
Photo: Ryan Evans
Photo: Ryan Evans
The performance took place inside the Globe, a curved architectural sculpture designed by the Havana-based artist collective Los Carpinteros.
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.
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.