How did we get here?
KB: There’s the theory of early childhood imprinting in psychology and I would argue that there’s also something like a musical imprinting. I grew up mostly in Germany – I have a Greek mother and a German father and I have lived roughly half my life in Greece, half in Germany. For my mother, being a migrant who moved to Germany in the late 1950s, one way of keeping her native musical culture alive – since there was no Greek radio and no Greek TV available in Germany – was by listening to the 45 rpm singles of music she brought over from Greece and singing songs she liked by herself. Although my mother must have sung me lullabies, I can’t say that I have any memory of that. So, my earliest musical memories are of these singles that I too loved to play on a simple, old, portable record player. I clearly remember the sensation of diving into this music, immersing myself in the sound, entertaining myself by playing these records and singing the tunes. Even at that very early age I recall being mesmerized by the melodies, singing them to myself and, as children do, changing the lyrics when I came upon words that I didn’t understand. The music excited me and I lived inside the melodies of these songs, as in a different reality, I’d found a private door to a parallel universe that I could open up by putting a single on a record player. Fortunately, this feeling hasn’t disappeared.
Living in the city of Thessaloniki, the Greek side of my family was bourgeois and that was reflected by their taste, aesthetics, their likes and the dislikes in the choice of music. Almost all of my family were classical philologists with an uncommon obsession with philology, a fact that set them apart. So, I also grew up among a small niche of intellectuals that dealt with language, its origins and structures, something that I personally had no interest in at that time, but nevertheless was in contact with and had access to through my family. While there was some education in classical music (not typical for that generation in Greece) their interest was more with the different kinds of popular Greek music and they made connections between this music and Greece’s high-culture and literature.
In the 1960s Greek popular music began to feature highly developed poetic lyrics. Many very popular songs of this period were based on the work of recognized poets, such as the Greek Nobel laureates of literature Giorgos Seferis and Odysseas Elytis and others such as Yannis Ritsos. A song my mother used to sing and love, typical of this time, is “Arnisi” (denial) with music by Mikis Theodorakis set to a poem by Giorgos Seferis. The most well-known recorded version is sung by Grigoris Bithikotsis, (1964). This was one of the singles in her collection: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHOpgJFc5rw.
On the secret seashore
white like a pigeon
we thirsted at noon;
but the water was brackish.
On the golden sand
we wrote her name;
how beautiful the sea-breeze blew
and the writing vanished.
With what spirit, what heart,
what desire and passion
we lived our life; a mistake!
So we changed our life.
This to me is the spirit or the essence of another generation put into sound and captured in a recording.
* * * * * * * *
SR: In our duo music, when one introduces an idea there’s no compulsion from the other to necessarily follow or complement – we may play something in high contrast, or even not play. This tacit agreement results in the music, the co-composing through improvisation. Your story begins by means of these memories of your encounters with music that suggests a chronology. Do I pick this up as a way of responding? Or do something else? You introduced psychology: do I move this dialogue into academic territory? Or remain closer to home in aiming to address: Why we play what we play?
I don’t have musical memories of my mother who had six children and died of cancer when I was ten years old. However, my father was enthusiastic about classical music and I remember him turning the radio up loudly in the kitchen and miming conducting, throwing his head around with serious intent, performing. But the music didn’t touch me, I found no emotional connection, it seemed somehow fabricated. I felt alienated from what the pompous classical sound represented to me at that time. My father’s enthusiastic display somehow sadly reflecting our lack of connection or emotional warmth. Within the melee created by the sheer numbers of needy children my father was emotionally unavailable. For him, his passion for music was probably a safe-haven of expressivity, yet in a form that I felt estranged from. Nevertheless, my father was a cultured man, and that influence was very present, and while my musical preferences developed quite differently, I had received an important message: music is important.
Unsurprisingly, I subsequently went determinedly against formal music and my disinterest was further fed elsewhere. In the Cubs (junior Scouts) attending monthly Church Parade once a month was compulsory and the earnest stridency of the Church of England hymns led me to further question the musical messages I was being forced to listen to. I recall the chaotic atmosphere of school music lessons, in which the well-meaning teacher hoped to steer the class towards the appreciation of classical music, accompanied by the smell issuing from a bucket of disinfectant in which the descant recorders were kept. Although my musical interest was very keen I followed no formal music education but self-taught on guitar I subsequently began writing songs and singing, forming groups with friends.
Conveyed via our parents, these early experiences of music contribute to our development in a complex manner, feeding the stream, or even providing a source of musical development, informing who we are musically and why we play what we play. In my case I’ve been shaped, in part, by that which I’ve steered away from. And I suspect that due to my mother’s premature death, the absence of any emotional connection with her also fed a personal need for musical activity, meaningful expressivity, to create an emotional space of my own making.
To be continued…