Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

I had a dream, and I gave it a name…

Way, way back, I wrote about Fat Albert’s in Toronto, and some of the people who passed through there in the past. One of them, Sam Larkin, even dropped by and left a comment or two. Last night I discovered that he’s put up two videos of himself singing, including everyone’s favourite, Mirabeau Bridge.

This sounds exactly like the record, minus Bob Wiseman’s accordion.

Nice seeing you again, Sam.


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Seeing Savina Yannatou

Last Friday we went to see Savina Yannatou, who I’ve blogged about before. She and her band Primavera en Salonico played for two nights in a small club in Nea Smyrni, and we were lucky enough to get the centre front table, right under her while she sang. When she came out for an encore at the end of the night, M., who had seen her perform before, asked her to sing a particular Greek folk song (Γιάννη μου το μαντήλι σου) that she does in Chinese style. Yannatou looked around at the band and said they didn’t have the violin they need for the song, as well as some percussion instrument whose name I didn’t catch. M. told her she had the only instrument she, or any of us, needed: her voice. So she sang it.

She did it in a high-pitch nasally voice, and the band also gave it a Chinese sound. Two things that struck me, and continue to strike me:

1. My first reaction, although there was nothing funny or humorous about the performance, was to laugh. Rather, I wanted to laugh, but managed to control it. I have read that an essential element of humour is the unexpected, and I think sometimes we laugh once this prerequisite is satisfied, even if it’s not funny. We laugh out of shock.

(I remember once, when we were 14, G. and I were singing “A Day in the Life” in the music room at school. He was at the piano, I was on the guitar, and we were taping it. After the words “Somebody spoke and I went into a dream” he and I sang the melody differently, by accident, and the result was a harmony so surprisingly good that every time we played the tape back, I would burst out laughing at the sound of it.)

2. The lyrics and fundamental melody of the Yannatou performance were familiar enough that they had all the usual evocations of time and place, all the things that could make a song — especially a familiar one — moving. But at the same time, it was foreign, a kind of music I cannot really relate to. I don’t have nearly as many of those associations, but there were just enough for me to feel that a window had opened up onto another culture, even another life. I could imagine being Chinese, that the lyrics were Chinese, and that the melody was Chinese. It was as if I were being moved by the familiarity of something which is, in fact, utterly foreign to me.

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Alexander Knaifel

I blogged about Alexander Knaifel a few weeks ago, and his piece Svete Tikhiy, or O Gladsome Light.  The music is so simple, in a manner of speaking, yet I never tire of listening to it. I listen to it on my way to work, if I’m travelling alone. I listen to it in bed. I can listen to it three or four times a day. It puts me in the mood to write. It creates a space around me in which I can imagine and create another world, a space on which the real world does not impinge. It’s a quiet, solemn world, though, perhaps not suitable to all kinds of writing. One would not be able to do humour in that world, for example.

When the music is so-called minimalist (which Knaifel is not, and perhaps no one really is) you can begin to perceive just how complex music can be. Knaifel allows you to contemplate each note and anticipate the next one. And the note that comes never fails to surprise, to be other than what you had expected, to be other than what music most often leads you to expect. In Svete Tikhiy, you can savour each individual note.

In the second half of the piece, the voices begin. Two or three women begin to murmur fervently what I can only assume is a prayer in Russian. What amazed me when I first heard it was just quickly the words were spoken/sung. How did they say them all without ever stumbling? (I must assume they don’t stumble. Even if it’s gibberish, you’d expect some stumbling or hesitation. Probably even more so in that case, since words with recognisable meaning, meaning you can anticipate, would help with the flow.) Then one woman’s voice begins a melody which hovers over the murmured prayer, which is like a drone in eastern music. Later, the voice joins the murmur, which assumes more melody and harmony. When the prayer-like part ends, the instruments begin (a piano and some strings) accompanied by the singers. This part is the haziest in my memory. What I do remember is that I’m never sure when it’s going to end. When I do think it’s going to end, it doesn’t. And when it does end, I never realise it has, and always expect more.

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O Gladsome Sound

I’d meant to write a few posts earlier this summer, and still plan to write about a trip to Meteora. (I’ve been there several times, but this time I took a lot of pictures, and had a conversation with a nun.) But I’ve been going through one of those periods where you simply lose interest in your blog. Sometimes you just have to throw yourself back into it.

So here goes.

* * * * *

Last year I was listening to the radio and I heard part of a piece of music that struck me as excruciatingly beautiful. There was, perhaps, a cello or two, or perhaps some violins, and then a very slowly played piano. Sometimes the notes were between five and ten seconds apart. I stopped whatever I was doing and sat listening to it, waiting for each crystal-clear note from the piano. It had a strange physical effect. I imagined that my body — my heart, the blood in my veins — that everything in it was slowing down peacefully.

I remember once, when I was a teenager, lying on the couch on a cool summer day, listening to a dog barking somewhere outside. I had closed my eyes and every time the dog barked, I thought I could see a faint burst of light on the inside of my eyelids, like a small fireworks display. I never had this experience again, but listening to this music, I almost had it again.

When the music was over, I got a pen and some paper to write the composer’s name down, but I didn’t catch it. It sounded German, though. I did a search for minimalist music, hoping that I’d see a name that sounded familiar, but nothing came of it.

Another time in my teens I was listening to a radio station in Toronto that played Greek music for a few hours each day. One night they played a song with the most ethereal voice I’d ever heard. I was struck motionless. I had chills. When it was over, they played something else or went to a commercial, and the spell was broken. They never announced who had sung it.

For years, though, it haunted me. I wanted to know so much who had sung it. They actually never played that kind of music on that radio station, so I knew it was very unlikely that I’d hear it again. I thought about it from time to time and resigned myself to the fact that I’d probably never hear it again, that it would remain forever an experience that could never be repeated.

Years later, in university, I was attending a bi-monthly poetry seminar held by Derek Walcott. (One day I should blog about that. It was a great experience.) One of the poets he introduced us to was Edward Thomas. It was, for me, a real discovery. This poem had a particular resonance for me.

The Unknown Bird

Three lovely notes he whistled, too soft to be heard
If others sang; but others never sang
In the great beech-wood all that May and June.
No one saw him: I alone could hear him
Though many listened. Was it but four years
Ago? or five? He never came again.

Oftenest when I heard him I was alone,
Nor could I ever make another hear.
La-la-la! he called, seeming far-off —
As if a cock crowed past the edge of the world,
As if a bird or I were in a dream.
Yet that he travelled through the trees and sometimes
Neared me, was plain, though somehow distant still
He sounded. All the proof is — I told men
What I had heard.

I never knew a voice,
Man, beast, or bird, better than this. I told
The naturalists; but neither had they heard
Anything like the notes that did so haunt me,
I had them clear by heart and have them still.
Four years, or five, have made no difference. Then
As now that La-la-la! was bodiless sweet:
Sad more than joyful it was, if I must say
That it was one or other, but if sad
‘Twas sad only with joy too, too far off
For me to taste it. But I cannot tell
If truly never anything but fair
The days were when he sang, as now they seem.
This surely I know, that I who listened then,
Happy sometimes, sometimes suffering
A heavy body and a heavy heart,
Now straightway, if I think of it, become
Light as that bird wandering beyond my shore.

* * * * *

Then, when I turned 35, and I was twice as old as I had been when I heard the song, N. gave me a CD for my birthday. It was simply called Karyotakis, the surname of the poet whose lyrics had been used for the songs. The music was by Lena Platonos, and the songs were sung by Savina Yannatou. The first track was the song I’d heard and had never forgotten. Often when you revisit an experience many years later, you are disappointed and wish you had stayed away, with your memory intact and unsullied by age. This, however, was not one of them. It was just as beautiful as it had been seventeen years earlier. And it still is now.

Listen to the song.

* * * * *

Last week I was listening to the radio and I heard the music again, with strings and the very slow piano. But this time I caught the composer’s name. It’s Alexander Knaifel. The piece is called Svete Tikhiy, which means “O Gladsome Light”. I’ve found the piece, as well as another one called The Eighth Chapter. I wish I could play it for you. I wish you could hear it.

Here is part of it on YouTube.

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Angel of Starbucks

Back in 1998, my girlfriend at the time went to Atsitsa in Skyros, and while she was there, somebody gave her a tape of Madeleine Peyroux. When I first heard it, I said, as countless others have and countless more will, “Wow — she sounds like Billie Holiday!”

On her site, it says, “All the initial reviews that greeted Dreamland [her first album] focused on the Billie Holiday resemblance. But perceptive reviewers noted that Peyroux wasn’t imitating Lady Day. As acclaimed pianist Cyrus Chestnut, who played on Dreamland, put it: ‘[Peyroux] has her own story to tell: with her voice, her heart, her spirit.'”

There is no shortage of good singers in the world, but the ones who become successful these days have to offer something more. Either it’s looks, or some gimmick, or the fact that they’re also great performers, or their material (usually original) is very good as well. One would have to be very naive to think that Peyroux would be where she is now if she didn’t sound almost exactly like Billie Holiday. Dreamland struck me as only somewhat catchy. It was cute Billie Holiday, Lady Day for Starbucks.

A couple of things interest me about this. One is the idea that a singer who sounds like someone who’s been dead for half a century can also be a novelty. The Peyroux experience allows you to imagine what it would be like if Billie Holiday were still alive today and singing like a young woman. It allows you to hear what it would be like if Billie Holiday were around to sing Leonard Cohen. It’s kind of like the interest GCIs had when Forrest Gump first came out. We got to find out what it would be like if a retarded Tom Hanks had met JFK.

I remember a band in the late 80s or early 90s — I don’t remember their name — whose singer sounded exactly like Bono. They can’t have done more than one album. He was imitating someone still alive and active, so they weren’t a novelty, unless people just wanted to ask, “What would it sound like if Bono were in a really mediocre rock band?” I also remember the Canadian band Tea Party, which was more successful because their singer was ripping off a dead singer: Jim Morisson. The stuff you can hear at their website suggests that the singer has dropped the act, which also means he had been putting it on all along.

But what really interests me is how Peyroux, in her heart of hearts, feels about all this. I can only imagine how many times she’s had to hear, “You know, you really sound like Billie Holiday!” I’m sure she’s sick of it, but does she realise that’s what’s got her where she is? Does lie awake in the wee hours and tell herself, “What an existential oddity I am!”

Now that the mechanism of fate has started working, there must be a lot of people who listen to her and don’t know who Billie Holiday is, but most, I’m sure, do.

How long will Peyroux remain successful? Will the novelty wear off, so that she will have to search for other material, in case someone somewhere asks, “I wonder what it would sound like if Billie Holiday had lived to sing Iron Maiden.”

What will happen when Peyroux is dust with the dust of Billie Holiday? Will we have computer generated voices by then, so we can choose which singer will sing what song?

Enrico Caruso does Talking Heads! Tiny Tim sings Megadeath! Elvis does Nirvana!

And what if Madeleine Peyroux did “Don’t Explain” or “Lover Man” or “No Detour Ahead”? It would probably sound pretty cute. But it definitely wouldn’t ache.

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Μιά μέρα μου τηλεφώνησε ο Μαλαμόπουλος. Ένας επιχειρηματίας, που είχε μιά από τις καλύτερες ταβέρνες της Αθήνας. Την “Εμπατή”. Με δυό τζάκια, με φλοκάτες και χαλιά. Με ρώτησε αν ήθελα να δουλέψω στην ταβέρνα του. Δέχτηκα και κλείσαμε μια συνάντηση για την άλλη μέρα στη Φωκίωνος Νέγρη, σ’ένα ουζερί, για να μιλήσουμε σχετικά με τη δουλειά.

Το σπίτι μας ήταν δέκα λεπτά με τα πόδια πιο πάνω από τη Φωκίωνος Νέγρη. Την άλλη μέρα, καθώς κατέβαινα για τη συνάντησή μας, σκεφτόμουν τι να του ζητήσω για μεροκάματο. Συνήθως έπαιρνα σαν πιανίστας διακόσιες δραχμές τότε, παρόλο που είχα κι ένα μικρό όνομα σαν συνθέτης. Έλεγα λοιπόν να του ζητήσω 250 δραχμές, γιατί και οι απαιτήσεις της δουλειάς ήταν περισσότερες σε μια τέτοια ταβέρνα, αλλά και κάτι ακόμα. Με τις συμφωνίες για το μεροκάματο δεν τα κατάφερνα, ντρεπόμουν και όλο ριγμένος ήμουν.

Έτσι έφτασα στο ουζερί, με την απόφαση να διεκδικήσω ένα καλό μεροκάματο. Καθήσαμε και ο Ηλίας παράγγειλε ούζο και μεζεδάκια. Ήταν μεσημεράκι κι αρχίσαμε να συζητάμε. Λέγαμε πόσους μουσικούς θά ‘παιρνα ακόμα, πόσους τραγουδιστές κτλ.

Μέσα σε μιά ώρα, και καθώς ήμουν αμάθητος με το ποτό, το ούζο με χτύπησε κατευθείαν στο κεφάλι. Έπι πλέον μού ‘φερε και μιά ευεξία και, καθώς πλησίαζε η ώρα για την αμοιβή μου, εγώ από μέσα μου ανέβαζε το ποσόν. Έλεγα, θα του ζητήσω 300 δραχμές. Σε λίγο η ευεξία μου ανέβηκε πιο πολύ, κι εγώ ανέβασα πάλι το ποσό. Θα του πω 350 δραχμές κι ό,τι βρέξει ας κατεβάσει. Στο κάτω-κάτω, μιά ζωή όλο ριγμένος θά ‘μαι;

Έτσι, όταν ήρθε η ώρα που με ρώτησε για την αμοιβή μου, πήρα μιά βαθιά ανάσα και του είπα. “Η αμοιβή μου, Ηλία, είναι τετρακόσιες δραχμές”. “Εντάξει, Σταύρο”, μου είπε και δώσαμε τα χέρια.

Εκείνη τη μέρα είχαμε γιορτή με την Αιμιλία. Τέτοιο μεροκάματο ούτε στον ύπνο μου το είδα.

Σε δέκα μέρες κάναμε έναρξη με επιτυχία και μετά από ένα μήνα έπρεπε να κλείσεις μιά βδομάδα πιο μπροστά, για να βρεις τραπέζι.

Ήταν και η εποχή που κυκλοφορούσε το “Εικοσιένα”.

Πέρασαν δυό-τρεις μήνες και μιά μέρα συνάντησα έναν τραγουδιστή που δούλευε σ’ένα από τα καλά μαγαζιά, σαν δεύτερο όνομα. Καθώς μιλούσαμε, κάποια στιγμή μου λέει: “Τη μέρα που έκλεισες στην ‘Εμπατή’, το βράδυ πέρασε ο Ηλίας από το μαγαζί μας και, πάνω στην κουβέντα, μας είπε, ‘Έκλεισα τον Κουγιουμτζή, αλλά, αν ξέρετε, με ποσό;’ Εμείς απαντήσαμε περίπου. Κανένα χιλιάρικο; ‘Ρε σεις, με τετρακόσιες δραχμές τον έκλεισα’, μας είπε, τρίβοντας τα χέρια του χαρούμενος”. Τότε κατάλαβα πως με τα οικονομικά ήμουν μανούλα. Γι’ αυτό θα σας πω ακόμα ένα παρόμοιο περιστατικό, που είναι πολύ αστείο.

Ένα βράδυ, μου λέει ο Ηλίας. Ήταν Μάιος και σε καμιά εβδομάδα τελείωνε η χειμερινή σαιζόν. “Σταύρο, ένας φίλος μου, πολύ καλό παιδί, πατριωτάκι σου, έχει ένα καλοκαιρινό μαγαζί στη Θεσσαλονίκη και θά ‘θελε να κάνεις εκεί κάθε Κυριακή μια συναυλία, τι λες;” Δε θέλω, ρε Ηλία, του είπα. Θέλω να κάτσω να γράψω. Και περισσότερο για να ξεμπερδέψω παρά για να πάω, του είπα ένα υπερβολικό ποσό. Εκτός, του λέω, αν δίνει πέντε χιλιάδες για κάθε συναυλία, έ τότε πάω. “Τι λες, ρε μαλάκα,” μου λέει ο Ηλίας, “αυτός με παρακάλεσε να σε πείσω να δεχτείς με δέκα χιλιάδες και συ μου μιλάς για πέντε;” Ρε γαμώτο, είπα από μέσα μου, δεν μπορώ να τα βγάλω πέρα μ’αυτούς τους ανθρώπους.

* * * * *

Άφησα τα παλιά και του είπα: “Μάρκο, γεράσαμε.” Ήταν κάπως συνεσταλμένος, γιατί με περνούσε για ανώτερό του, όπως σας είπα. Τώρα μάλιστα που έγραφα και τραγούδια, σαν να με ντρεπόταν λιγάκι. Όταν όμως είδε τη δική μου φιλική διάθεση, σιγά-σιγά άλλαξε κι αυτός διάθεση. Άρχισε να μου μιλάει για διάφορα. Δούλευε σ’ένα καμπαρέ στο Βαρδάμι, μου είπε. Η γυναίκα του τον είχε χωρίσει. Ύστερα άρχισε να μου λέει για τα τραγούδια μου, ποια του αρέσουν και ποια δεν του αρέσουν. Ιδιαίτερα αγαπούσε το “Κάπου Νυχτώνει”. Αφού είπαμε κι άλλα πολλά, πριν χωρίσουμε μου έκανε πάλι, όπως παλιά, μιά ερώτηση. “Άραγες πονάει η ψυχή, όταν βγαίνει;” “Πού να ξέρω, ρε Μάρκο,” του είπα, και σέ λίγο χωρίσαμε. Τις προάλλες, τον είδα στον ύπνο μου. Με κοίταξε αμίλητος. Τώρα, Μάρκο, εσύ πρέπει να ξέρεις αν πονάει η ψυχή, όταν βγαίνει.

από Ανοιχτά Παράθυρα με Κλειστά Παντζούρια του Σταύρου Κουγιουμτζή, εκδόσεις ΕΝΤΕΥΚΤΗΡΙΟΥ

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Ron Sexsmith

Earlier I wrote about meeting Ron Sexsmith. One of the reasons I decided to follow him and catch up to him was that on his first record he says, at the beginning of one of his songs, “Is it rolling? Oh, OK. Sorry.” He says it in one of the most unassuming voices that I knew he’d be approachable. He used the same voice when we spoke.

My friend Alice, who lives in Luneburg Nova Scotia, wrote to tell me about seeing him in concert, probably in Halifax.

We went to see Ron Sexsmith play and he was great!
Really good show, songs spanned a long time, great
backup band. It was a real treat. He looks like a
giant baby, and he says “Thank you!” in a high quick
voice, sort of like a muppet. This all adds to his
charm. Some chick named Sarah Slean opened for him,
and she was a bit of a drag. Sort of torch-songy and
head-rolling, a bit like Kate Bush with more guitars.
Nice voice though, and other people seemed to really
like her schtick (saying things like, oh what a sweet
town, maybe I’ll move here, yadda yadda).

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