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.


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 someone not widely regarded as novelist (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.


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.

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…

Drawing the line of a new horizon

It all began two years ago, when Ewelina Chiu and Daniel Vlček first met as participants of DaDa Festival in June 2014. Following an impromptu performance with Dan on electronics and Ewelina on the mic, the two Prague-based artists decided to collaborate under the name ba:zel doing various acts such as exhibitions, “soundtrack” performances, and other conceptual projects .


The Prague-based duo ba:zel (Ewelina Chiu & Daniel Vlček)

After a productive 4-month residency in the Dutch city of Arnhem (where they worked in isolation inside an old 1980s army complex) the electroacoustic duo focused on making music and laid down six tracks, keeping the name ba:zel. Their debut album eye draw(s) the line, released earlier this summer, is the result of a 2-year process and the first release for both of them.

Vocals, piano, and flute parts were recorded at Faust Studios in Prague, while the album’s electronic parts were recorded at home by Daniel himself. The whole album was mixed by Slovenian producer Gasper Šantl, and mastered by Andreas “Lupo” Lubich at Calyx Mastering in Berlin.

The sound of ba:zel bears a wide array of influences ranging from free techno and hardcore electronica (drawing from Dan’s background as a DJ in the Czech underground techno scene) to classical music, which finds expression in Ewelina’s melodic vocal lines and piano playing. As the vocalist herself puts it:

I’ve never sung before, so when I write melodies and lyrics I’m influenced by classical forms like the sonata, waltz, nocturne, etc. Afterwards I end up deconstructing the melody when Dan and I put the whole thing together. When I write lyrics I’m influenced by literature and poetry, specifically the poet E.E. Cummings and authors of the beat generation, and also Czech authors such as Kundera and Hrabal. The texts play with language, are coded, and invite the listener to decrypt.

The combination of Daniel’s imaginative use of electronic sounds and Ewelina’s delicate, fragile vocals (which, at times, bring to mind Icelandic songwriter Sóley) makes eye draw(s) the line an absorbing, atmospheric album that indeed appears to draw the line of a promising new horizon for the two Czech artists.

Whole lotta shakin’ – A day at Barcelona’s Cruïlla Festival

Following the incredible experience of Primavera Sound, I find myself heading back to Barcelona’s Parc del Fòrum for the high point of this summer’s Cruïlla Festival. Robert Plant, Alabama Shakes, James, and many more feature in this year’s diverse and promising lineup. 

For the s(h)ake of music

First up come Snarky Puppy, a Brooklyn-based jazz-fusion collective led by bassist Michael League. Their funky tunes get everyone groovin’ as the band’s eclectic mix of styles takes us to a musical trip with such diverse references as Balkan and African sounds to Stevie Wonder and Radiohead.

English rockers James are next, and they start right away with Getting Away with It (All Messed Up) as I am still rushing toward the stage. Singer Tim Booth proceeds with stage diving and as he mingles with the audience I suddenly realize he is literally in front of me, so I keep cool and take the opportunity for an extreme close-up shot!

The evening sky is getting dark and the Cruïlla stage is graced with the presence of Alabama Shakes and their charismatic lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard. Howard’s distinctive vocal style and guitar playing make for a truly captivating and emotionally charged performance. Along with other talented upcoming artists such as Leon Bridges, Alabama Shakes are no doubt one of the most original bands in the current revival of American gospel, blues, and soul music.

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Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on

Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters are about to take the stage, and the atmosphere is electrified. A living rock legend, Plant has shown time and again his restless nature and tendency for experimentation. His remarkable last album is another stop in his constant musical exploration and a highly seductive mix of classic rock with African, bluegrass, and Celtic elements.

Even though he is surrounded by a group of excellent instrumentalists and highly accomplished musicians, it is nevertheless Plant’s imposing, majestic stage presence that immediately grasps everyone’s attention. His voice has matured gracefully and, together with the Sensational Space Shifters, he delivers a fascinating set comprising of both new and old numbers, including classics such as Whole Lotta LoveBabe I’m Gonna Leave You, and no less than three songs from Led Zeppelin’s classic fourth album (Black Dog, Rock and Roll, Going to California).

Still under the spell of Plant’s mesmerizing performance, I stick around to check some more of the festival’s acts, such as Fermin Muguruza & New Orleans Basque Orkestra, Shantel, and Skunk Anansie. It has been a full day and a whole lotta shakin’ with groovy, soulful, and exhilarating music.

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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.”

The Sound of Primavera

I am not really a fan of big festivals. But when I saw the spectacular line-up for this year’s Primavera Sound in Barcelona, I knew I had to book early. And thankfully I did – tickets sold out in record time, faster than ever before in the event’s history (it first took place in 2001).

Sure enough, experiencing Primavera Sound included all the necessary ingredients of a grand festival: ping pong between stages, losing friends along the way, rushing for beer, fighting for a good spot, finding your friends only to lose them again. But the most important ingredient of all came in abundance:  an overdose of uplifting, inspiring music, much more that one man alone can handle (I still tried my best!).

But let’s take it one day at a time…

Day 1: Taking off

It’s only fitting that the music journey about to begin kicks off with names such as Explosions In The Sky and Air. As the Barcelona sky is gradually being painted in shades of purple, the air is filled with the sound of miniature instrumental symphonies and electronic art pop from the Texas post-rock band and the French duo respectively.

Once everyone’s mood and spirits are lifted, Australian psychedelic rockers Tame Impala take the stage. With a set comprising mostly of tunes from their excellent last two albums Lonerism and Currents, they give a dynamic performance marked by colorful, trippy visuals and Parker’s precise delivery of the vocal and guitar parts (almost identical to the actual recordings – perhaps a more relaxed take would be even more effective).

The night goes on with LCD Soundsystem and smaller electronic/dance acts that keep the audience going until the early morning hours. But not me: I feel like I only want to go backwards (toward the exit, that is) and charge my batteries for the following days.

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Day 2: Losing one’s self

I arrive in time for Beirut, whose Balkan folk feel and sound gets the blood flowing. It’s already getting dark and I rush to the main stage to secure a decent spot and get a glimpse of Radiohead, the festival’s biggest name and arguably the most important rock group of our times.

The experience is thrilling. It’s been almost a decade since I had last watched them in Amsterdam, and their sound has evolved significantly in the meantime. I know it’s not just me who waits in great anticipation: a deafening silence hovers over the huge crowd that has gahered to watch the revered band from Oxfordshire. And mind you, silence here in Barcelona is not exactly normal during rock concerts.

The first notes of Burn the Witch finally break through, followed by the first half of the band’s  acclaimed new album A Moon Shaped Pool. Radiohead proceed to cover their entire catalogue, including tracks from Kid A, The King of Limbs, and In Rainbows. But it’s with the opening melody of No Surprises that the audience’s silent, reflective mood suddenly changes to open endorsement and unrestrained excitemet. And it’s the spontaneous reaction to Karma Police, another track from OK Computer, that marks the concert’s perhaps most memorable moment, as a sea of people keeps singing “for a minute there… I lost myself, I lost myself…” well after the song is over.

Impossible as it seems to follow such an act, the show must go on and The Last Shadow Puppets are next on the bill. Not knowing quite what to expect,  I am delighted to see the band accompanied by a string quartet on stage. Alex Turner takes the lead and together with Miles Kane, they give a quite remarkable performance which ends with nothing less than a lengthy jam over the Beatles guitar-heavy dynamite I Want You (She’s So Heavy). That’s a good time to call it a night, and by this point I am pretty exhausted anyway.

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Day 3: The witching hour

Today I have a date with pop history: Songwriting genius Brian Wilson performs the entire Pet Sounds album together with a band of seasoned veteran musicians. His voice has lost its old sparkle (and much of its range) and his stage presence can only be described as ‘static’, but somehow the brilliance of his music makes up for all this. And when Good Vibrations comes up as an encore, I just don’t need I could ask for anything more.

But of course there’s more. I pass by indie rockers Deerhunter before moving on to another stage to catch English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey. Her presence is captivating and she delivers an atmospheric performance that blends well with the surroundings as the Barcelona sky turns dark.

The clock strikes midnight and instead of demons and witches, a different kind of supernatural beings appear on stage. It is the Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Rós with their otherwordly, transcendental sound. It seems impossible to grasp how this kind of music is made by human beings; frontman Jónsi Birgisson’s hunting falsetto, ethereal bowed guitar, and the bewitching background visuals resemble more some strange magic ritual than a music show.

Still mesmerized, I stick around for a little longer to explore some more of the festival’s vast territory. As dawn breaks, I am on my way home full of images, impressions and a music playing constantly in my head: I cannot quite pin it down, but I know it is the sound of Primavera.

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