Chronicle 13. PROFESSIONALS OR AMATEURS?
“IF I CANNOT CHANGE A SITUATION, I ACCEPT IT,” B.B. King confessed, clarifying the reason why he changed his style of blues.(a) His statement raises openly the problem of accepting every situation or not, whether one can create obeying to the dictates of companies, or of the public – which is already a conditioned element. Certainly, the room for creation becomes more limited. Even those who can cope with adversities would produce an infinitely more important work if they had a free hand. Those who manage not to debase their art under such strict control are really few. That’s why the ethos of music is already a concept unknown to musicians – something so hard to get that we are under the illusion we can find it among amateurs…
Well, professionals or amateurs? We need to elaborate on this issue because, in the field of the arts, the former are burdened with all the sins of the world (the junk that’s for sale), while no one dares to call into question the noble intentions of those enveloped in the halo of an “art lover”; and this mentality has already imbued even professionals! We have arrived to the point where we… boast of our amateurism, considering professionalism to be hubris, in the land of the Homeric epics, i.e. the work of a professional rhapsode, where other, equally professional bards of the Odyssey era (sometime between 1250 and 1170 BCE) are also mentioned, namely Phemius and Demodocus. We are talking about a tradition we know for sure it’s been going on for at least three millennia – let alone that professional musicians existed well before the fall of Troy.
So, what is a professional? Generally speaking on any kind of work, because the situation around music is rather confusing, we can say that he/she is someone who: a) knows well how to do a job – has been specially trained, or skilled as an apprentice of an older artisan – and b) out of this job he/she can at least make a living.
Anyone who does not meet the above requirements cannot be considered a professional and, moreover, if he/she doesn’t meet the first requirement, it’s (normally) impossible to get a job. Of course, the professionals may be good or bad depending on the degree they can meet such requirements. Thus a good professional is someone who cares for both the material he’s working on, and the material aspect of his profession – his earnings. Otherwise his craftsmanship would be degraded and could be easily replaced. Bertolt Brecht talked about this need in his time, but who listened to him then, and who remembers him now? “When you have something to say, to express,” said Pablo Picasso, “any submission becomes unbearable in the long run. One must have the courage of one’s vocation and the courage to make a living from one’s vocation… without compromise.”
The professional musicians’ denigration may be linked to the Europeanization epidemic that’s been sweeping the Hellenic state already since its establishment. The Ionian and Athenian serenades, operettas, various retros, and European light music in general, constituted the “scope of action par excellence” of the literate Europeanist super-professionals,(b) while local traditional music was abandoned in the care of semi-professional, or even amateur, self-taught musicians, who were treated disparagingly by the music establishment. The result was that they felt inferior, as they could not even read music, among many other things.
Here’s the “root of evil”: at best, the state left local music to the mercy of fate; at worst, it was hostile against it. Several posts, public or not (teachers, directors, producers, interpreters of music), were surely occupied by these Europeanists. Under such circumstances, Hellenic music and its practitioners barely survived. They were obliged to do other jobs to survive – of course at the expense of their art that was degraded more and more, along with public taste. This profession “offered” so much insecurity that the locals (throughout the Balkans) handed it over to the “exclusive competence” of the Roma, the gypsies.
The dramatic improvement of the conditions of Hellenic
music came with a… tragedy: the Asia Minor Catastrophe.
THE SITUATION IMPROVED when and where the Greeks achieved economic prosperity that allowed them to support “full time” musicians. But the dramatic improvement of the conditions of Hellenic music came with a… tragedy: the Asia Minor Catastrophe. History shows again and again how much she can appreciate irony! Those uprooted from their ancestral homes moved in thousands into Greece (around 1.3 million people) and, together with their scanty belongings, carried with them the Anatolian sound and lifestyle – which evolved into a struggle for survival: they brought their songs and feasts, just in case they could alleviate their plight…
The Anatolian musicians were truly professionals, with excellent knowledge of both the Mediterranean and European traditions. But they were also refugees – thus, on the margins. It would take some time until they occupied responsible positions in the newly founded phonographic companies. Until then – as long as their equally marginalized public was still there – they would keep on playing their familiar repertoire of Constantinople, Smyrna and Asia Minor at large, with songs and tunes that enjoyed widespread approval in Anatolia; not in Greece, where they were not universally embraced, had a rather limited scope, for their sound was quite “unfamiliar” – let alone they were so difficult to sing and play, especially when the composers engaged in the art of modulation. These tunes could become the “yeast” to “ferment” a kind of indigenous erudite music. But their fate was similar to that of their creators and they were in turn marginalized. Another historical irony was that the so-called Smyrnaic songs were replaced by those of the hitherto marginalized and far simpler Piraeotic rebétiko.
Hence the reasons for this preference were commercial – as well as political: these elaborate, demanding songs, as artistic products of an advanced culture, were reminiscent of lost homelands. They ought to be removed from collective memory to – supposedly – “heal” the “trauma” of the Asia Minor Catastrophe. Firm was the conviction that this music was inextricably linked with the Turkish language spoken by several refugees. “National interest” dictated some drastic measures to be taken…
Smyrnaic songs on the margins for commercial and political reasons,
as reminiscent of lost homelands… Censorship on music targeted
minor thirds, a feature of the ancient Hellenic chromatic genus…
This task was later taken over by the Metaxás dictatorship, imposing censorship that was not limited to lyrics, but extended to music, too (see Chronicle 9). The musical censors’ main target was minor third intervals (three semitones), the so-called “bemolli”,(c) that is, the distinctive feature of the age-old chromatic genus – one of the three Hellenic genera, together with the diatonic and enharmonic. Even though there are some questions around enharmony, no one has disputed the chromatic genus: we know e.g. it was never used in tragedies – apparently because it did not fit there. Yet, according to Aristides Quintilianus (3rd century CE), Plutarch said that “the cithara, several generations older than tragedy, since its very beginning, used… the sweetest and most plaintive… chroma” (chromatic genus). Besides, the ancient genera can also be found, noticeably remodeled, in the Byzantine music. Yet, the Westerners can appreciate only scales, especially the diatonic, while their chromatic scale has nothing to do with the chromatic genus: Bingo!
“How come that no one informed Metaxás on this problem?”, some naïve person may wonder. Well, if someone did, he must have… disappeared imprisoned or exiled later for “anti-state activities”! Under these abnormal conditions rebétiko turned professional. Persecutions affected everyone – both the Anatolians and the locals – for their music styles were first-degree relatives. Due to its tolerant police authority, Thessalonica then turned into an oasis where many persecuted found refuge. Thus, during its early years, rebétiko influenced the city and was influenced by it. Many most beautiful songs were composed then in (and about) Salonica.
Anyway, Hellenism’s painful shrinkage had also its positive effects, concentrating and condensing in Greece sounds of music born in three peninsulas: the Balkans, Asia Minor, and Italy. No country in this region enjoys such a privilege: it is its geography that determines the sound of its music. This little miracle, however, with Hellenism’s three-dimensional face, collided with the mantra “We belong to the West” and was anything but welcome to the rulers who would do everything for the people to lose orientation – and if possible, they would be ready to sign a presidential decree to impose… “occidentation”!
Sounds from three peninsulas (Balkans, Anatolia, Italy) condensed in
Hellas… Rebétiko’s foes covered all political spectrum (Right to Left).
Nevertheless, rebétiko’s foes covered the entire political spectrum from Right to Left. In late ’46 and early ’47, according to Phoebus Anogeianakis, the musical unions asked the government to intervene and take “appropriate measures” in order to stem the spread of rebétiko:
“This initiative,” he wrote in Rizospastis (Radical), the Communist Party newspaper, on January 28, 1947, “was gradually embraced by our music critics and columnists who, in their discussions and articles, grappled with its ‘moral’ and artistic value, as well as with its effect especially on the younger generation.(d)
“Anathemas ‘in the name’ of morality at risk, or an off-hand evaluation of popular rebétiko song as it is presented – mind you – in a cosmopolitan tavern, prevented a critical assessment of rebétiko creating fuss and confusion.
“Just the criteria of our Western music education are certainly not enough to approach and study rebétiko, when indeed they are accompanied by the ‘current’ perception of morality. Many of its aspects naturally seem strange to us. We’ve strayed away so far from its sources following our paths that sometimes we find ourselves with difficulty.
“The tradition of demotic [folk traditional] song and, to a somewhat lesser extent, of Byzantine music, even though some would be surprised, continues in these songs that constitute a genuine form of today’s popular music.”
A week later, on February 4, Rizospastis published a reply letter to Anogeianakis, signed by his co-fighter in the ranks of the National Liberation Front (EAM), namely Alekos Xenos, also a musician. Noting that in the newspaper Ethnos (Nation), the composer Manoles Kalomoires adopted a similar position with Anogeianakis (this concurrence seemed rather… incriminating!), he outlined his diametrically opposite view:
“Rebétiko,” he wrote, “is one of the inherent contradictions of the bourgeoisie in decline. It appears in an embryonic form before the wars. It takes shape from melodic remnants of the Turkish conquerors and those melodies brought here by ship crews coming from Turkish ports. It is sung by the most lumpen strata created by the pauperizing economic tactics of capitalism.(e) It carries the most reactionary traditions, in the degradation of a segment of the bourgeoisie.
“I think that we cannot find ourselves going back to rebetiko but to the few songs of our people’s latest Resistance and those that will be composed about it in the future.”
This fossilized thinking, which the party leadership – unfortunately – espoused, was disputed on the 23rd of the same month by Linos Polites with another letter to Rizospastis. After calling Xenos back to… Marxist order (“how come that the lumpen is a degraded segment of the bourgeoisie?”), he censured the domestic production of tangos, concluding as follows:
“I cannot believe that A. Xenos accepts there is popular tradition and style in the music of the Resistance songs since we know both their composers – he is one of them – and the clearly Western measures in the structures of their compositions.(f) In addition, we know that during such a short time, individual creation can far easier give its fruits.
“Today, after the great lesson of the Resistance, the gap that separates us in matters of art from the people became more than obvious, and there is a clear need to find a point of contact. This point will be found in contemporary popular activities, if we examine them with less superficiality and more serious characterizations.”
The controversy around rebétiko necessarily stopped, since another conflict had broken out – with live ammunition: it was the Civil War… Two years later, with the Left heading for defeat because of their own “mistakes” and betrayals (not because of the superior adversary firepower), another composer, also coming from the ranks of EAM, but disappointed and having turned around, undertook rebétiko’s defense. It was the highly penetrating Manos Hadjidakis, who gave a lecture about this urban folk song, describing also the prevailing atmosphere in the late 40s:
“Our times are hard and our popular song, which is not made by people of the fugue and counterpoint, so as to care for sanitation and makeshift hygienic make-ups, sings the truth and nothing but the truth.
“Our era is neither heroic nor epic and the end of the 2nd World War left almost all problems unresolved and up in the air…
“Furthermore, our homeland follows through with a war, almost uninterruptedly, with perseverance and faith in the final victory, but always – especially today – arduously and painfully. Consider now under these relentless conditions the virginal idiosyncrasy of our people; virginal because just one hundred years of free life could neither make it mature nor leave room for the latest European trends to take root. Imagine all this piled up vitality and beauty at the same time of a people like ours asking for an outlet, expression, contact with the outside world, and facing everything mentioned above as the main features of the era. Moreover, think of the extremely harsh realities in our country. Vitality is burned out, idiosyncrasy falls sick, beauty remains. This is rebétiko. And hence its thematology arises…
“Consider the virginal idiosyncrasy of our people. Imagine all this piled
up vitality and beauty of a people asking for an outlet, expression,
contact with the outside world… Vitality is burned out, idiosyncrasy
falls sick, beauty remains. This is rebétiko”. (Manos Hadjidakis)
“Rebétiko manages to combine speech, music and motion in an admirable unity. From composition to interpretation, the conditions are instinctively created for this triple expressive coexistence that sometimes, when it reaches the limits of perfection, is morphologically reminiscent of ancient tragedy…
“Zeibekiko is the purest modern Greek rhythm; while hasapiko has assimilated a pure Hellenic peculiarity. Rebétiko is built on these rhythms; observing the melodic line of the song we can clearly discern the influence or, better, the extension of Byzantine chant. Not just examining the scales that are kept intact out of the folk musicians’ instinct, but also observing the cadences, intervals and mode of execution. Everything reveals the source, which is none other than the strict, austere ecclesiastical hymn…
“Who knows what new life the leisurely and pessimistic 9/8 hold for us in the future. But, in the meantime, we would have felt their strength for good. We will listen to them, very naturally and properly, raising their voice in our immediate surroundings and living in order to interpret our inner selves”…
Until the Civil War wounds healed up, many years had passed. The debate on rebétiko was rekindled in the dawn of the 60s because of Mikis Theodorakis’ Epitaph. But it was too late: the debate of the 60s seemed more like a… rebétiko epitaph – meaning it was post mortem – for its creative period, its breath, was already over…
“Persistent were the attacks on rebétiko, even after it was dead for many years,” said Dinos Christianópoulos. “Hostile was the attitude by nationalists and governments (especially by Metaxás, and more moderately by the Tsaldares government, that outlawed and persecuted it), considering it as a stigma of Graeco-Christian culture;(g) religious organizations and the Church in general, that dealt with it as immoral; fanatic communists (among them even Várnales, although he frequented in taverns), who rejected it as an expression of bourgeois decay and decadence; a part of the bourgeois press, expressing the prejudice and respectability of high society; demotic song fans (mainly schoolteachers and provincial scholars); the conservatories’ people, who faced it with disgust and contempt; university folklorists, who considered it as an abortion of our popular culture; and a lot of little folks, who were emasculated by light songs.”
Noteworthy is an essay by Costas Takhtsēs on Zeybékiko – written with ypsilon because of a theory “that the etymology of the word comes from Zeus and bekos (bread in Phrygian)”. This incisive text of 1964, rather lengthy to quote it here, deserves to be read in whole, inter alia, for its important reflections, such as:
“Contrary to classical Hellenic culture that modern Greeks aspired to resurrect after the War of Independence in mainland Hellas, the Byzantine world was clearly ‘oriental’. The Turks borrowed and imitated this ‘oriental’ civilization, giving to it, over time, a heavier, Turkish character, and exactly this secondary product was what generations of Greeks of servitude experienced, and brought with them when they came, as refugees, to old Hellas.”
“The ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army) guerrillas,” he also wrote referring to the years of Resistance, and dissolving the embellished picture Xenos tried to create, “along with some demotic songs, depending on the area, sang Hellenized versions of Russian, and – how tragicomic! – even of… German songs and paeans.”
It is useful and didactic to see in outline the distressing finale of the story about the rebétiko zeybékiko as narrated by Takhtsēs:
“The bourgeois resisted [the zeybékiko songs]; but they soon realized the futility of the effort. Thus, using the well-known method of rationalization or the equally well-known tactic of neutralization through containment, they embraced and adopted them. It’s always the best way to castrate a ‘revolution’ – cheap, safe, and bloodless. They started going on nightly treks to various taverns with bouzouki bands, the menu prices went up, the bouzouki players showed off, were flattered, saw that they had discovered a goldmine, buttoned up, even wore tuxedos, started varying their repertoire ever more with the softer, empty of any message or thought, but more tantalizing, tsifteteli, the prices went up again, the simple people got scared, withdrew to unknown taverns with still unknown bands, the eccentrics and the bourgeois discovered them, they occupied the tables there, as well, until the people, finding no place to sit, were compelled to gather on the outside, staring at the bands, the Americans and the bourgeois, in order to listen to the songs that were born out of them, but were far too expensive for their pockets. Thus a paranoid situation prevailed with the tourists and the bourgeois who went to see the people, and the people who went to see the tourists. Admiring products of economic misery that they were not willing to share except only aesthetically and from afar, the tourists flattered the people, for whom they became both a spectacle and objects of wonder.
“Well: with the collaboration of some well-meaning, and many dishonest or foolish people, an amazing robbery has taken place before our eyes: the people’s right to, at least, lament their fate. The zeybékiko songs have become the status quo, established themselves, lost their edge, their meaning, and have become, in turn, the occupational tangos of our time. More Greek, of course, than the tangos but, mind you, they no longer speak of social injustice, nor about the bitterness of life, they don’t protest, they consent. They speak about bourgeois pseudo-pleasures and pseudo-worries, and now and then about the bitterness of migration, which is absolutely crucial, since migration means not to face reality, but to flee from it – the only kind of flight that is still allowed, when it’s not imposed.
“Let me conclude: Those songs that managed for a while to become the means of expression of a people’s protest against their exploiters of all kinds, are now composed according to ‘plutocratic’ methods of mass production by the exploiters themselves, or they are just financed by them, for consumption by the people, and the people, who do not understand, or pretend not to understand, who have had some food to eat after the war, and, because of this little food, imagined they’ve become rich – sing them!
“I am somehow fit to judge the aesthetic result of all this unprecedented farce; and it’s lamentable”…
After such a text, silence is golden. Even Donn Pohren’s crucial conclusion that “once a minority’s authentic musical expression becomes fashionable, it fades”, pales into insignificance. The same applies to Anogeianakis’ characterization in 1961 that “certain current rebétiko song features correspond to commercial jazz (stylized super production, exaggerated performance through microphones and loudspeakers, showing off of silly virtuosity).”
“Once a minority’s authentic musical expression
becomes fashionable, it fades”. (Donn Pohren)
HERE’S THEN WHERE WE HAVE ENDED up: musicians “executing” every night, all the time, the same repertoire with no substantial changes, and bored as hell, just like their customers. When the musicians do not enjoy their art, when pathos or joys of life have been replaced by bathos or superficial revels, then “merriment” and “happiness” come by artificial means – drinking at best. When the musicians fail to engage creatively and freely in improvisations, having in mind just an outline, a sketch of the repertoire, leaving everything else on the spur of the moment, when they avoid – because they are afraid – to be carried away by their imagination, and prefer to be on sure ground, then at best they may provide entertainment – for the people to forget their troubles, to be fooled away – though they should provide (at least sometimes) edutainment, “soul therapy”.(h) When the musicians act dictatorially, playing at full volume, and forgetting that music has pianissimo and fortissimo, and a plethora of modes and rhythms, the people go out to blow off some steam, get drunk and break loose, making more noise than the amplifiers and behaving like a horde of barbarians. Then – I’ll say it again – the musicians have lost their best allies: the aficionados, the music lovers.
But – you’re bound to ask – aren’t professionals like that? Why should I support them? Well, these are the bad professionals, I would answer – regardless if they make up the majority now. Willy-nilly, they’ve fallen into the trap where other professionals, such as journalists, have also been caught, thinking that they are… coffee men and, consequently, they make coffee according to the customers’ preferences!(i) They do not seem to bother at all that the order for… “light-sweet” music or news is not given by some “clients” but by their bosses. On the other hand, let’s not forget that if there was no public well-disposed to junk “music” or “news”, the bosses would willy-nilly have second thoughts. Hence, when we… shoot the piano player without looking in the mirror, chances are we’ll be finally left without a piano player!
When we shoot the piano player without looking in the mirror,
chances are we’ll be finally left without a piano player!
Music is no joking matter. It’s an art requiring years of study, either with sheet music and books or next to another musician – but always on the instrument. It takes persistent and consistent effort and study to master the technique of a single instrument and, moreover, to decipher the secrets of a single musical “language”. The same applies to a singer: not everything depends on a “divine charisma”. How is it possible to consider this verbiage of “cold” professionals and “sensitive” amateurs as well-grounded? How can a lyricist e.g. pose as a composer when he is musically “illiterate”? What would this rhymer say, indeed, if someone, who had never sat down to work on language and metrics, declared to be a “poet”? You’ll tell me that I forget a very important parameter: in Hellas, you are whatever you declare to be!
Popular songs, they say, are simple. Yes, but they are not simplistic! The great difficulty in their composition lies in this very simplicity. Especially if you have studied theory of music, it is rather easy to compose something complicated. If you attempt to simplify it later, if you leave just the basic melodic line, then the substance, the quality of your inspiration, reveals itself.
Let’s suppose that divine inspiration strikes a musically “illiterate”: he will not be able to elaborate on that because he lacks proper knowledge. If this elaboration is taken over by someone else: the end result will be different from what he had in mind. Even if he “hits it big” and becomes a “star”: he will have capitalized on the erudition of third persons, who will, unfortunately, in most cases, remain unknown. Additionally, if he wishes to sing his creation, as it has become trendy lately: he will fail, as well, because, even if he doesn’t sing out of tune (if…), he has not worked his vocal chords, ignores completely the vocal techniques, he doesn’t know the secrets of breathing, articulating and singing, and much more.
Of course, one may refer as an example to the Beatles, who composed brilliant music being musically “illiterate”. Apart from the fact that they, too, capitalized on the erudition of their outstanding producer, George Martin, I have to stress I don’t mean by any means those musicians who are theoretically “illiterate”: the Beatles were professional musicians, since the time they played – completely unknown – in Hamburg.
Liszt “trembled at the idea of some self-taught virtuoso studying music,
so as to keep the impulsive power of his musical instinct virginal.”
It’s obvious I don’t refer to autodidacts, or self-taught musicians, who do not have only disadvantages but also advantages against their theoretically erudite colleagues. Let alone that a conservatory may destroy a natural talent. Liszt e.g. admired so much a self-taught virtuoso that “he trembled at the idea of him studying music, so as to keep the impulsive power of his musical instinct virginal and unchanged”, as Sophia Spanoudes wrote in 1952 in her well-known column in favour of Tsitsanes. As to the strong advantages of autodidacts compared to erudite artists, Giorgos Papadakis explained why such musicians have been the salt of the earth:
“A self-taught instrumentalist is obviously required to solve many difficult technical problems alone. He is obliged to improvise solutions to problems already solved, since a teacher or a method would have significantly shortened the time required to do it… That’s why many times he needs to re-invent the wheel. The price can be high, but he may reap a reward that many musicians would envy: a quite personal style derived from personal improvised ways of addressing technical problems. This is evident in the way of playing of those musicians who have learned out of commitment and play with commitment.”
The musically “illiterate”, however, are also sly: they declare they are “popular composers”, instead of “popular musicians”, because otherwise the trick would have been exposed at once. So let’s have a brief look at this category, as well:
“A popular composer”, according to Phoebus Anogeianakis:
“a) is an uneducated person, endowed by nature with musical gifts, someone who has not studied music (whatever knowledge he has is due to his extensive experience as a professional, especially… because of his contact-collaboration with musicians of light music);
“b) ‘composes’ mainly songs or short instrumental pieces (of a dance or free rhythmical type) usually with the help of a popular instrument;
“c) ‘bases’ his work on Greek popular music tradition; but at the same time he is under certain influences (from foreign popular music or also… from local or foreign popular-like art light music).”
It’s obvious that a popular composer according to Anogeianakis also needs to combine the qualities of a self-taught musician according to Papadakis, if he is to acquire a quite personal style – and vice versa: an autodidact must be gifted by nature with musical talents and have extensive experience in order to re-invent the wheel…
One more thing: the term “art music”, prevailing in the 60s when Anogeianakis’ text was written, is, of course, completely inappropriate, because it implies that popular music is probably… “artless”! Clearly annoyed and in a sarcastic mood, as well, Tsitsanes once commented that the difference between popular and “art” composers is that between eyewitnesses to a crime and some others who… just heard about it!
And what about the… “illiterate”? Where can we group all those who surely have nothing in common with either Tsitsanes or the Beatles? No need to ask: they are the… perpetrators of the crime!
Next Chronicle 14. MUSIC MADE OF BODY AND SOUL ● Man: a Musical Being ● Music, Nature and Language ● Singing Neanderthals ● Baby Talk ● Talent ● Art of Soul vs. Art of Beauty ● Ecstasy and Catharsis ● Ritual Music and Dance ● Ethos of Music