Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Mystical Flame of Alexander Scriabin

The era into which Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin lived was rife with waves of political discontent, social unrest, and rapid industrial change. A feverish period experienced in most parts of Europe that summarily reflects the fire of Alexander's music.

Scholars have given Scriabin two birthdays. Most sources indicate he was born on Christmas of 1871 in Moscow, Russia. A date which was based on the Julian calendar. Its modern equivalent though is January 6, 1872.

The young Scriabin was very shy and unsociable. His connection with music on the other hand, was the opposite. "A love for music was born with him in the cradle", his aunt recounts. Three year old Alexander would spend long hours in front of an instrument with keys he could hardly reach. Its mechanism fascinated him so that he built his own miniature pianos. Years later, he took lessons under Nikolai Zverev. An outstanding piano teacher whose czar-like methods mentored Russia's young prodigies that included a kid named Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Alexander's body was always frail and had small hands that made playing ninth chords difficult. Despite this handicap, Scriabin became an exceptional student. He received a gold medal from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 through his performance of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 109. In addition, he held a unique distinction of having his name inscribed alongside Rachmaninoff on a marble plaque planted at the conservatory's hall.

Often labeled as egocentric, the music that only mattered to Scriabin was his own. While he cited Chopin, Liszt, and Wagner as his influences, he side stepped prevailing conventions of  tonality and rhythm as his style developed. Soon after, he crafted his own musical idiom anchored on the Mystic (Prometheus) chord. A set of pitch classes formed by  notes C, F#, Bb, E, A, D, G. This also served as backbone for Alexander's bold melodic and harmonic explorations. In his latter compositions, Scriabin began to incorporate irregular time signatures and allowed notes to be played at random. An approach prescient to Arnold Schoenberg's revolutionary system of serial tonality.

Hearing the Third symphony (The Divine Poem) in its nascent stages, Nobel laureate Boris Pasternak described his neighbor's music :

Oh God, what music it was! The symphony was crashing and collapsing again and again, like a town under artillery fire, and then it built up and grew out of the wreckage and ruins. It was brimming an with essence chiseled out to the point of insanity, and as new as the forest was new, full of life and breathing freshness.

Scriabin saw himself as a messiah whose vision was to unite all humankind. He sank his teeth into interests aside from music, ranging from literature, eastern philosophy, metaphysics and theosophy. Learnings from these various subjects found their way into his music as evidenced in his enormously ambitious work entitled Mysterium. Though unfinished, it was conceived as a week long interactive multimedia show of the grandest scale, performed by thousands of artists and audience as well. It showcases the synthesis of music, scents, choruses, light, literature, dance, architecture, and natural landscape of the Himalayas. Alexander believed that combining these elements would bring civilization to a close and herald the birth of a new world inhabited by nobler beings.

During his time, Alexander was regarded as Russia's own version of Chopin and was esteemed highly by his peers. In a letter to Scriabin, Alexander Glazunov on  February 1905 writes, "I played the Fourth Sonata a great deal and admired it a great deal as well... full of ravishing beauty, and the thoughts in it are expressed with extreme clarity and conciseness".

On the 7th of April 1915, Alexander fell severely ill. Seven days later, at the age of 43, he died of massive blood poisoning. His funeral was flocked by  intellectuals, artists, and members of the academic community. Russia's leading literary figures expressed their grief through poetry while preeminent musicians paid tribute by organizing series of nationwide concerts. This included thundering  recitals  of Scriabin's work by the inimitable Rachmaninoff.

The untimely death of Alexander left the world with few completed works. Majority of them were for his favorite instrument -- the piano. Unlike the well known composers in classical music, Scriabin had no opera or chamber music to speak of. The ground breaking sophistication and mysticism of his compositions, however, is of indissoluble value. A fellow composer Dmitri Shostakovitch notes in retrospect: "..After several decades we clearly see his innovation is deeply rooted in tradition... We are grateful to Scriabin for extending the boundaries of our art... We also Cherish him for his faith in the transformative power of art, in its ability to ennoble the human soul, to bring harmony to peoples lives..".

Given his limited output, Scriabin's significant imprint to contemporary music is somewhat difficult to outline. However, musicians and specially pianists of critical acclaim have already recognized the genius behind his work. Competitions and international societies dedicated to Scriabin exist up to this day. Furthermore, his torrid influence continues to extend beyond the boundaries of earth, when in 1988, an asteroid was named after him: 6549 Skryabin.  A fitting recognition to Alexander's cataclysmic legacy.

All images were re-shot and cropped from the book Scriabin: His Life and Times by Ye. Rudakova and A.I. Kandinsky, Paganiniana Publications.(pp.8,46,58,64,101) 
1. Scriabin 1909, signed portrait with passages from his Sonata No. 4. (original photographer unknown)
2. Young Scriabin 1879 portrait (original photographer unknown)
3. Scriabin 1901 portrait (original photographer unknown)
4. Scriabin 1894 portrait in the village of Zenino (original photographer unknown)
5. Scriabin 1910 moments before completing Prometheus. Photo by his friend A.E. Mozer.

Clip from youtube by arciduca31. Verse La Flamme, Op. 72; performed by Vladimir Horowitz from the video, Vladimir Horowitz " A reminescence".

Special thanks to Mr. Thiago Gasparino for the thematic inspiration of this post.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Hey, Ho! Christmas

Nineteen hundred seventy four. Year zero that marks the birth of rock and roll's bad seed -- punk -- by its forefathers: The Ramones.

Originally a trio from Forest Hills, New York, comprised of Douglas Colvin (Dee Dee) and John Cummings (Johnny) both on guitars and Jeffrey Hyman (Joey) on drums. The group later christened themselves with surnames of Ramone whom they have taken after Sir Paul McCartney's alias Paul Ramon.

Hyman had difficulties keeping pace with their tune's fast tempos while singing. This prompted their manager Thomas Erdelyi (Tommy) to sit on drums -- moving Hyman in front as the quartet's vocalist.

The Ramones at the onset was the record industry's undisputed bĂȘte noire. Not a single member was technically proficient with his instrument. As a group, they learned music as they played it. Their songs' lyrics were criticised as senseless; often touching on juvenile issues like boredom, alienation, and rejection. To top it all off, they sported a threatening image owing much to street alley hoodlums.

Despite the group's apparent limitations, a handful of people noticed the raw energy and dark twisted humor that came with their unembellished music. These sophisticated few understood Ramones' overall simplicity as the ultimate expression of rebellion.

Through uncompromising persistence, the group gained critical acclaim in the underground scene earning regular gigs at CBGB's and eventually striking a deal with Sire Records. The succession of favorable events helped establish Ramones as an upcoming band that played loud, fast, and catchy bubble gum tunes.

A typical Ramones live set or album were all blink-you-miss deals. Twenty songs in 25 minutes or less -- including gaps in between. Full speed ahead like thoroughbreds off from the starting gate. All with 3-4 barre chords of chainsaw guitar plus grinding bass and thundering drums clocking at an average of two minutes per song. Their music, in short, was similar to that of The Beach Boys when they run amok.

NYC's punk quartet have set themselves as models for rock bands of the future.  In the words of Spin magazine editor-in-chief Alan Light, "All the better-known punk groups that followed - The Sex Pistols, The Clash, whoever - would be the first one to say that without The Ramones, the whole punk movement never would have happened." The Ramones, without a shadow of doubt had reinvented rock and roll.

The new melodic noise was so infectious that even presidential daughter Amy Carter, who could not catch an actual show, had to contend with the group's sound check under the watchful eye of eight secret service agents.

What was once thought as threatening outlaw gang of four image has been finally accepted as radical fashion statement. Jim Bessman, author of the book Ramones An American Band, asserts "Black leather jackets, sneakers, frayed jeans, cartoon T-shirts, dark sunglasses. Over the next few years the Stones, Queen and even Billy Joel would steal their look".

Despite all the success and recognition, the band never reaped commercial rewards they have hoped for. Their legacy, however, forges ahead well into the 21st century, gaining more fans and inspiring new artists. A museum dedicated solely to the group sits at Germany's historic city of Berlin. The Ramones was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 2002.

In total: they logged 2,263 live performances, released 21 studio, live, and compilation albums over a tireless two decade stretch.The super group Ramones, in their own inventive primal way, administered rock and roll's successful shock treatment.


  Update 07 May 2010: Alternate site for the music video (low res)... Long live The Ramones!!!!

Images from top to bottom:
(1) The Ramones first self-titled album [L-R Cummings/Johnny, Erdelyi/Tommy, Hyman/Joey, Colvin/Dee-Dee]. LP cover from Mental Defective League.. Original Photo by Roberta Bayley.
(2) The Ramones Gabba-Gabba Hey group shot. Reshot, cropped and reprocessed from the book, Punk An A-Z by Barry Lazell p. 112 (Hamlyn, ISBN 0600586359). Original Photo by Ian Dickinson.
(3) The Ramones live performance group photo from Ickmusic [Front: L-R Johnny, Joey, Dee-Dee Back: Tommy]
(4) The Ramones car group photo from The Bacchanals. [L-R  Marky/Mark Bell, Dee-Dee, Johhny, Joey]
(5) The Ramones stairs group photo from Risky Business. [L-R Tommy, Dee-Dee, Johnny, Joey]
(6) The Ramones colored pose group photo from Untossed Coin. [L-R Dee-Dee, Marky/Mark Bell, Johhny, Joey].

(7) Ramones video from youtube by FKostas. Merry Christmas Baby (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight). ( Joey on vocals, Johhny on guitars, Marky on drums and C.J./ Christopher Joseph Ward on bass)  
(8) Alternate Ramones video from by elapetocho. Personnel same as above.

Cultchas crew will appreciate those who could help name original photographer/director/artist included in this post. All credit goes to them. Merry Christmas !!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Jan Steen: Master painter of fun and rowdy times

Among the painters of the Dutch Golden Age, no artist had masterfully captured the lives of common people in their jovial state as Jan  Steen did.

Jan Havickszoon Steen, son of a brewer was born in 1626 at Leiden where he spent his formative years.  An unknown artist from Germany named Nicolaes Knupfer was his first art teacher. He then sought work and lessons outside his hometown moving from Haarlem, The Hague and Delft. While in Hague, Steen studied under the landscape artist Jan van Goyen whose daughter, Margriet, he later married.

Customarily placed next in rank to his contemporary Jan Vermeer, the vibrant portrayal of subjects in Steen's works, however, are still unparalleled.  His well known pieces are bizarre during their time: Holland then was largely a puritan society, and in contrast, Steen's works were mostly comical, festive and on occasion -- raucous.

It could be assumed without difficulty that compositions of Steen's paintings were mostly improvised and never planned in detail. The scenes are usually cluttered and disorderly that an unkempt Dutch home is now regarded as a Jan Steen household.

The charm of Steen's works lie in their genteel ambiance. Subjects are rendered with precise and  elaborate skill showing each individual's character. He is also known for his paintings of children and fine detail for textiles. His mastery of light is highly distinctive as his skill in handling colors specially rose, salmon red, pale yellow, and blue green.

Steen was often perceived as a wanton drunkard because of graphic themes in his paintings. While he owned and operated taverns on separate occasions at Delft in 1654 and Leiden in 1672; Jan remained prolific in his craft throughout his career.

The widely imitated Dutch master had produced around 800 paintings. He died in 1679 at the age of 53 where his remains were laid to rest in Pieterskerk, Leiden.

Images from top to bottom: 

(1) Jan Steen Self-Portrait, 1670,  from Carolus
(2) The Rhetorcians, 1668, from Gallery of Baroque Paintings
(3) The Row During Gambling, shot and cropped from The Story of Painting by Anna C. Krause, ISBN 3-89508-083-7 Konemann Verlagsgesellschaft. Original Photo by Jorg P. Anders
(4) Jan Steen, the dissolute Household, 1668,  from Persephone
(5) The Family Concert, 1666, shot and cropped from Museum Cafes and Arts Vol. XVII by Sharon O' Connor, ISBN 1-883914-34-5 Menus and Music Productions Inc.. Posted with kind permission from The Art Institute of Chicago
(6) The Village School, 1670 from Gallery of Baroque Paintings
(7) Jan Steen Self-Portrait as a Lutenist, 1663,  The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by Direct Media Publishing GmbH.


(8) Video from Youtube with kind permission from meesterschilders.
Music by Peter Tchaikovsky, The Waltz of the Flowers.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Goodbye Sirone

Gone is another jazz artist for year 2009. Bassist and composer Sirone died last October 21 at his second home, in Berlin, Germany.

Norris "Sirone" Jones  was born on September 28, 1940. He got into music by playing trombone and eventually switched to bass in the late fifties after being expelled from his high school band. A decision that would lead him to a life-long career in jazz beginning with George Adams in their hometown Atlanta, Georgia.

Sirone was always on the move. Like most prodigious jazz artists, he was drawn to the big apple relocating there in 1965. He established himself as a leading contributor to 70's avant-garde jazz movement with the Revolutionary Ensemble. A reed-less trio with AACM's Leroy Jenkins on violin, and Jerome Cooper on percussion. Their group was among the first to meld contemporary classical music to avant-garde jazz. Favoring color, tone, abstraction of rhythm, and intense musical interaction now known to many as chamber jazz.

A story he often told with both amusement and rancor, was their trio held a badge of notoriety for drawing displeasure to Quincy Jones. When their album The People's Republic was played by Herb Alpert at a party, A&M's artistic director Jones dismissed it as "not music". The album was released under Alpert & Moss' ill-fated subsidiary label Harmony.

In 1989, a grant received from the German Academic Exchange Service allowed Sirone to teach in Europe. While in Germany, he was able to express himself on various forms of media -- composing and playing music for film and television. Aside from doing live performances and studio work, he also has theater to his credit, collaborating with his spouse Veronika and Pulitzer prize winner Samuel Sheppard.

Sixty nine year old Sirone has recorded three albums under his name. He also appeared on numerous free jazz albums of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown, Sonny Sharrock, and The Jazz Composers Orchestra.

He is survived by his wife Veronika Nowag-Jones.

Together with colleagues, friends, and us fans of Sirone, Cultchas crew expresses its sincerest sympathy to his family for the loss of a remarkable artist. Goodbye Sirone.


(1) Sirone portrait was shot and cropped from Pharoah Sanders LP cover, Izipho Zam (My Gifts), released under Strata East Label. Original photo by Martin Bough.

(2) Video and audio by Robert O'Haire at straw2gold pictures. Posted with kind permssion from Mr. O'Haire. Project L'Afrique Garde: Michael Wimberly (drums & percussion), Nioka Workman (cello), Abdoulaye N'Diaye (saxophones), and Sirone (bass) Ras Moshe's MUSIC NOW at The Brecht Forum, NYC June 28th, 2008.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Vioncello's Fireman Emanuel Feuermann

With four strings tuned C, G, D, and A; the Vioncello or simply Cello has been a mainstay of classical music since the 16th century.

It is difficult to fathom chamber music without the sound of Cello in its spectrum. However, on a larger setting, its sound is easily engulfed by an orchestra during solo passages. Chief reason why this instrument has fewer concertos over its smaller sibling, the violin.

By the same token, there are only a handful of string artists who belong to the Pantheon of great cellists. There is Pablo Casals; his former student, Jacqueline Du Pre; and of course, Emanuel "Munio" Feuermann.

Born 22nd of Novermber 1902 in Kolomyia, Galicia. Emanuel belonged to a household  exceptionally predisposed to music. His parents were both amateur musicians while his elder brother Zigmund was a violin prodigy.

Emmanuel was destined to be a cellist. At four, tutored by his father, he insisted to play the violin  they way Antonio Stradivari redesigned the cello -- upright.

He made his concert debut playing Haydn's Cello Concerto in 1914. A few years later, barely seventeen years of age, he became a professor at Cologne Conservatory until 1923.

An unrelenting perfectionist who despised compliments and the instrument itself; he lamented cello as monstrous beast, difficult and  impossible. Words hard to reconcile against his performances' facile elegance.

Feuermann was well respected by his peers. "Feuermann is the true fireman of cello!", once exclaimed by his friend, violin virtuoso, Jascha Heifetz. Even his idol Casals, who is considered by many as history's finest on the instrument, regarded him as the greatest living cellist.

Word has it that Feuermann could play the original score of Mendelssohn's violin concerto on his cello. Another version of this story is him performing the entire frenetic third movement by bowing a violin held in vertical position.

His untimely death in 1942 via a routine medical operation is one of the great tragedies in the annals of classical music. A day marked by outpouring of grief, with no less than the great Arturo Toscanini crying "murder!" on Emanuel's funeral.

Cultchas crew now present the volcanic genius of the vioncello, Emanuel Feuermann.

(1) Emanuel Feuermann portrait posted with kind permission from Mr. David Sanders of Montagnana books
(2) Young Emanuel Feuermann portrait posted with kind permission from Ms. Selma Gokcen of Well-Tempered Musician
(3) Emanuel Feuermann performance photo with Jascha Heifetz from the Internet Cello Society
(4) Video from Youtube with kind permission from Marking19. Last known surviving footage of Emanuel in 1939 performing Antonin Dvorak's Rondo Op. 94 and David Popper's Spinnlied with Theodore Saidenberg.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Boss Guitarist George Benson

Growing up during the eighties meant playing, with a lot of imagination, Doctor J vs. Larry Bird on Atari; watching Mr. T and the rest of the gang build DIY anti-bad guy contraptions on A Team; Thriller of Michael Jackson, (yes, I tried to dress, sing, and dance like MJ, not a pretty sight) and of course, the famous ballads of George Benson.

It has been years since I've last played George Benson cuts even for casual listening. If it weren't for a recent thread on one of the Internet's biggest online Jazz resource, AAJ, his albums will still remain enclosed and untouched on my inactive shelf of LPs, tapes and CDs.

I first encountered George Benson via his hit tunes Nothing's gonna change my love for you and In your eyes. Apart from those, my knowledge about him was limited to his dandy vocals.

It took me a while to realize he was a "good" guitarist. When I saw him play live on TV , my interest was piqued as he was playing notes from his guitar exactly how he sang them. First time I saw such a feat.

This led to a series of search, starve, and buy missions starting off with a Don Sebesky backed session White Rabbit on CTI records. It wasn't long when I got hold of his releases with Columbia where he was playing serious stuff. At the onset, I could not believe what enormous skill and talent he had put to waste by singing pop tunes. I labeled him a sell-out and at the same time, guitar god.

Benson's guitar work is full of flawless, razor-sharp phrasings and explosive single note runs. It was as normal as breathing. Just when I thought he had run out of gas, he'll put in full- bodied octaves reminiscent of Wes Montgomery during solos. His rhythmic and harmonic sophistication was also something to marvel. While listening, I could not stop thinking him saying, kiss my axe!

Years have passed, I now realize my grave mistake of Mr. Benson's criticism. It was all borne out of ignorance for good musicmanship, and being insensitive to his circumstance.

Along with elite artists like Nat King Cole, George Benson is one of few musicians who have attained critical and commercial success in different genres. It is with greatest love of all that cultchas crew vote him as one of the world's versatile artists and most wicked six string slingers to have walked on this planet. Take it away boss George....


1. Images from George Benson website
2. Video  from Youtube by JazzAudrey. Live cover of Dave Brubeck Quartet's classic hit, Take Five (plus Buck Rogers Nihonggo) with Sadao Watanabe.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Shutter Maestro Roberto Polillo

In a field where names such as Herman Leonard, Lee Tanner, Francis Wolff, William Gottlieb, William Claxton reign supreme; anyone who dabbles into jazz photography is destined to play camera aide. Their works adorned countless jazz publications and albums throughout the years. Each with famous shots marked indelibly into our minds.

It is only a matter of time that lens work of a prodigious youngster be rediscovered forty years after they have been taken. With great pride and pleasure, Cultchas crew now feature a hidden gem in jazz photography, Roberto Polillo.


Roberto, then aged sixteen began to cover important jazz artists for the magazine Musica Jazz. These were taken during concerts in Italy and neighboring countries in Europe from 1962 till 1974. His photographs could never have been caught by luck alone -- they are enough to fill an entire art gallery. In fact, his work has been on exhibit at various cities of his homeland Italy. A book aptly titled Swing, Bop, and, Free showcases jazz legends of the sixties captured by him.

A permanent exhibition of Roberto's masterpieces can be seen at the Centro Studi Fondazione Siena Jazz. A center for jazz studies dedicated to the memory of his father, the late, Arrigo Polillo.

All rendered in striking monochrome, his frames are never drab and unceasingly depict stories. Part of his pictures' dynamic appeal is his ability to capture what underpins an artist, possessing transparent sharpness as though his camera have pierced through their souls.

Like the musicians in his pictures, Roberto has impeccable timing, near-psychic sensitivity, and splendid skill in composition.

It is interesting to note that Roberto was never a professional photographer. He was software entrepreneur and co-founder of Etnoteam. At present, he is a professor of computer science at the University of Milano Bicocca on human-computer interaction. 

Nearly three decades of sabbatical in photography, he is now back capturing images -- no longer on film but digital. Other than Jazz, he is currently into different themes, in particular, street and pictorial arts. 

An online gallery maintained by Roberto himself can be accessed at flickr.

(1) Swing, Bop, and Free; Marco Polillo Editore, Milan
Through the generosity of the Polillo family, Centro Studi Arrigo Polillo was established in 1989. The center now holds all documents and recordings amassed by Arrigo through decades of his involvement in jazz.
(3) The url of Roberto Polillo's flickr photostream:
(4) The url of Centro Studi Arrigo Polillo:
(5) All images are posted by Cultchas with kind permission from Mr. Roberto Polillo.
(6) Images from top to bottom: Eric Dolphy,
John Coltrane, Lester Bowie,  Wayne Shorter,  Lennie Tristano, Horace Silver, Don Cherry with Sonny Rollins,  and Famoudou Don Moye