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 .

ba:zel

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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Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil in concert

A piece of history

Few artists have occupied such a prominent place in the history of modern Brazilian music as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Guitarists, singers and composers, the two musicians (both born in 1942) were also key figures in the popular tropicália movement in the 1960s, and have been close friends  and collaborators ever since.

Apart from being widely acclaimed as composers and singers, both Veloso and Gil were also involved in various ways with the political developments in Brazil during the second half of the 20th century. They were both arrested and exiled from Brazil in 1969, as the Brazilian military regime viewed their music and political action as a threat. They eventually returned to Brazil in the early 1970s and, in an interesting turn of events, Gil would even serve as Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2008.

It is hard to overestimate Veloso’s and Gil’s contribution to Brazilian music and culture in general. They have had an immense influence upon subsequent musicians and songwriters at home, while they have also been active ambassadors of Brazilian music abroad, introducing it to large audiences worldwide through their recordings and live performances over the years.

Parallel paths, complementary voices

Earlier this week, Veloso and Gil came to Barcelona for a joint concert at the Palau de la Música Catalana. Opening with the cheerful Desde que o Samba é Samba, the two artists went on to present an eclectic mixture of songs covering several decades of Brazilian music, including many popular tunes such as Drão, Terra, Super Homem, A luz de Tieta, and Tres palabras.

Their simple, modest appearance and basic setup (two chairs and two guitars) were a striking contrast to the flamboyant and richly decorated interior of the Palau’s concert hall. But their beautiful melodies, excellent musicianship, delicate singing, and tuneful guitar playing were more than enough to compensate for the absence of fancy costumes or large backing bands.

Caetano_Gil

Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil at the Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona (2 May 2016)

Gil’s voice may have lost some of its older sparkle and tonal range, and Veloso may not be quite as active on stage as in the past (although he did try a little dance at some point). However, with both of them well into their seventies, these are just details of minor importance. Their brilliant performance proved that they are still perfectly capable of captivating their audience and creating that unique, magical atmosphere that Brazilian music seems to evoke when played by such exceptional performers.

My only thought (and wish) after leaving the concert was that hopefully Veloso and Gil will continue to share their gifts for many years to come. Having been on parallel paths for more than half a century, the chemistry between them is simply astounding, while their playing and unique voices continue to perfectly complement one another.

The seasons they are a changin’

Earlier this month I visited the beautiful Palau de la Música Catalana for a performance of Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni (“The Four Seasons”) by German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and her ensemble. It was an excellent concert and soon after the last notes of Vivaldi’s “Winter” were heard, the audience burst into a grand, extended applause anticipating Mutter’s return to the stage.

Sure enough, the famous virtuoso and her select group of skilled instrumentalists were soon back for a bis – a treatment of the thunderous Presto from Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto. Although this could well have been sufficient, the crowd’s enthusiastic response and continuous cheering resulted in yet another encore. This was when things started to get slightly, ehmm, metamodern.

As soon as Mutter and her ensemble started playing (the piece was an arrangement of Bach’s famous Air from his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major), I found myself surrounded by people reaching out to their mobile phones, cameras and tablets, struggling to capture as best they could every single second of that final performance. And there I was, hopeless and helpless, utterly incapable of enjoying the beauty of such sublime music and the unique setting.

I know what you are thinking: “This is happening in nearly every concert nowadays, so what’s the big deal?” And yes, I (as I am sure you too, dear reader) have also indulged in similar practices on one occasion or another. But here’s the thing: It’s quite different taking a photo (or video) during a rock gig or a large pop concert than doing the same during an intimate performance where music (classical or otherwise) is played on acoustic instruments and all its color, subtleties, and nuances are of the essence.

As Bach’s Air was about to end, I couldn’t help but think that the uplifting qualities of such magnificent music had somehow been suspended, the atmosphere irreversibly ruined; in short, the magic had been lost.

photo

Thinking back on the incident, an excerpt from Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise came to mind, where the author relates a visit to a tourist attraction known as “the most photographed barn in America”:

People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image. We’re here to maintain one. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

Although sightseeing is not identical to a concert hall visit, there are certainly some eerie resemblances on how more and more people are experiencing the two. I would like to believe that taking pictures, making selfies or videos, buying postcards and seeing “only what the others see” have not yet displaced the essence of attending a music performance, i.e. nurturing one’s mind and soul with sounds that please, excite and stimulate.

The seasons are changing, and mobile devices have invariably made their way into the concert hall. Still, as much as it is about entertainment, a gig (regardless of music genre) can also be an opportunity for contemplation or the cause of life-changing insights. It can be indeed a religious experience, where one willingly becomes part of a collective perception, to use DeLillo’s words. My hope is that it doesn’t degenerate into “spiritual surrender” or any short of mindless “tourism.”