Crafting a unique artistic aesthetic -- one's undeniably personal "stamp" -- is perhaps the ultimate goal for any serious musician. The essence of such an aesthetic is something I've thought about for a very long time, as it seems to transcend the quality of one's instrument (ever heard the "s/he would sound like themselves even if they played a cardboard box!" sentiment?) or even one's technique. For musicians, some have described it as a unique "touch"... otherwise call it playing with "soul"... but I think it has more to do with an almost spiritual surrender to music and acceptance of a gift that is as intangible as it is real. What I'm talking about is grace.
After years spent mastering one's instrument and learning the art of other musicians, which involves both mechanistic/repetitive learning and truly listening to the artistry of others, one may in fact begin to develop a sound all their own, an unmistakable sound that can be analyzed cerebrally ad nauseam, which does it an incredible disservice. I could write a PhD dissertation on the unique sounds of Paco de Lucia, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astor Piazzolla, or any number of timeless musicians, replete with terminology that only makes sense to the most seasoned musicologist... and ultimately fail to capture what can be transmitted by just listening to what these incredible artists had to say. Within seconds, one can hear so many things in the music of the great artists -- a sort of distillation of their life story. And even that does not entirely capture what it means to have a unique artistic aesthetic.
There are many who struggle with this idea because they have seemingly checked all the boxes, such as decades of practice and an encyclopedic knowledge of their art-form, and yet still cannot distinguish their playing from that of others. In the end, grace may never come. However, I'd like to invoke the words of the famous Swiss-German author Hermann Hesse to get at another crucial element of what underlies a unique artistic aesthetic:
"I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace."
Perhaps then it is not so surprising that we are faced with a generation of artists who seem to revel in vapidity, expressing privilege through the most banal "art". I do not intend to make sweeping generalizations -- but one look at the pop music of today, as compared to that of the generation prior, is enough to make my point. We live in an era of relative privilege, where music is a hobby at best or an extraneous distraction at worst. This conception is far removed from the experiences of musical vassals through the centuries, who suffered for their art and attained musical grace through their struggles. Of course, one does not need to live in poverty or endure cataclysmic trauma to become a good musician. But grace cannot penetrate the musical ivory tower; it demands that its seeker live life: laugh, love, endure heartbreak, make meaningful connections with others, ponder their simultaneous transience and permanence, etc...
In the end, where there isn't grace, there cannot be art. Then, how is grace related to art? Once again, Hesse put it simply and incredibly eloquently.
"Art is contemplation of the world in a state of grace."
May the artists reading this never cease to aspire to contemplate the world in a state of grace.
I recently gave a concert at The Cedar Cultural Center, joined by many great artists. It was a wonderful night and we had a fantastic turnout, especially considering that the show was on Super Bowl Sunday! Below are a few highlights from the show -- a solo to honor the memory of the departed Paco de Lucia, a traditional flamenco duet with the great El Payo Humberto, and a modern flamenco original composition with multi-instrumentalist Adrian Volovets.
Greetings and happy almost-autumn!
Since the release of my album "Wistful Tendrils" in June, I've given a number of very gratifying performances throughout the Twin Cities. It's been a blast sharing my music with the community, and also a fun challenge to balance life as a musician -- whether performing or teaching -- with medical school. I am only a few months into my studies at the University of Minnesota, but it's already proven to be a balancing act!
I'd like to share with you some details about a few musical projects I am working on!
Since giving a solo recital at the Museum of Russian Art in July, I've been in the studio to record parts of that program for an all-Russian album. So far, I have about half an hour of solo guitar material, and will collaborate with Nataliya Ishkova in the coming months to record another half hour of new vocal / guitar duets. Talented illustrator Jessica "Sieskja" Albert will be painting several original works for the front cover, back cover, inside booklet, etc. I've already seen sketches of the cover and it is beautiful! I hope to share it with you guys sometime soon. The release date for this album is still up in the air -- more updates on that soon. :)
Aside from the Russian album, I've been going through my performing repertoire and realized that I have yet to record a majority of my flamenco (and flamenco-inspired) material. Over the next few months, I'll be recording pieces for an all-flamenco album. Once again, it's difficult to estimate a release date, but my hope is wrap up recording of both albums by the end of the year or sometime during the beginning of next.
Finally, there will be performances to go along with both of these albums as well as several through the rest of the year to promote "Wistful Tendrils." I'll be posting about them on the calendar and on my Facebook/Twitter pages.
You may purchase "Wistful Tendrils" here: http://www.danielvolovets.com/wistful-tendrils-2015.html
On October 17th, 2014, I got one of the most important phone calls of my life -- I was accepted to the University of Minnesota Medical School! After years spent imagining how -- if! -- music and medicine would come together in my life, I am finally about to take the first big step in making this future a reality. Although there are countless people who have inspired me along the way, there are two musician-doctors whose careers I can only aspire to emulate.
Denny Zeitlin is an American jazz pianist and clinical psychiatrist. While in medical school in the mid 1960s, he performed and recorded extensively, collaborating with many famous musicians, including flutist Jeremy Steig, bassist Charlie Haden, and all-time great jazz pianist Bill Evans, just to name a few. A cool tidbit -- Bill Evans frequently performed the piece "Quiet Now," which was written by Zeitlin. Upon graduation from medical school, Denny Zeitlin became a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California and opened his own private practice. Through it all, he continued to engage in the music community and concertized all over the world, recording over 30 albums. He has said numerous times that his passions for music and medicine are equal -- he could not possibly choose one over the other.
Another influence is Krzysztof Komeda, a titan of Polish avant-garde jazz. Dabbling in the avant-garde at a time when it was hugely frowned upon (and, in fact, against the law), Komeda also studied medicine and became an otolaryngologist. He recorded highly influential albums such as Astigmatic and had a long-standing collaboration with Polish filmmaker Roman Polanksi, scoring movies such as Knife in the Water. Despite his prominence in the world of music, he was a doctor by profession; these two passions were never in conflict. Today, Komeda's name is mentioned in reverent whispers among jazz lovers; his contributions to the medical field cannot be forgotten, either!
This piece, which is a duet featuring my brother Adrian (violin), is dedicated to one particular Knight, who is one of my greatest friends and mentors. In addition to actually being a member of the Knights Templar, a secret order that was at its peak during the Middle Ages and later served as the inspiration for organizations such as the Freemasons, this person is also a Knight of the Flamenco Roundtable. Not only is he an amazing musician, but as a personality, he is truly ‘timeless’. Those of you who know me personally have probably already figured out who I’m talking about.
El Payo Humberto, an accomplished flamenco guitarist hailing from the Netherlands, lived in Minnesota for several years. During his time here, he was my musical and life mentor – an incredible privilege – where our lessons focused equally on an exploration of traditional flamenco, philosophy, politics, and humor. El Payo introduced me to Nino Ricardo, an important figure in the sphere of traditional flamenco and one of Humberto’s mentors when he studied in Spain during the 60s and 70s. He also reinforced my interests in existential philosophy and analytical psychology; many a lesson were spent discussing Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Gerard Reve, and many others…
The Knights Templar is not flamenco, strictly speaking, but rather an amalgamation of influences – a sort of jazz-inspired Renaissance/baroque composition, somewhat in the vein of the improvised chamber music of Rolf Lislevand and Jordi Savall, but also with a distinctly flamenco flavor. I wrote the main theme (what you hear in the sample) in April 2012, with the entire piece coming together in the subsequent months. It was initially a solo piece, however, but an impromptu jam session during which Adrian came up with a second voice changed that…
Upon hearing the final version of the piece, Humberto’s reaction: “¡Muy bien! The return of the Knights Templars.”
I wrote this piece in summer 2011, dedicating it to the Brazilian guitarist Yamandu Costa. I discovered Yamandu’s music a few years prior, and he has been a huge influence ever since I first heard him play. Not only is he a brilliant composer, arranger, and interpreter of Brazilian music (and beyond), his technique ranks as one of the best in the world. Many of his pieces are tour-de-forces, featuring dizzying, tastefully executed passages and harmonic progressions that firmly cement him as one of the most influential modern Brazilian guitarists. His approach to the guitar is informed most immediately by his predecessor, the Brazilian guitarist Raphael Rabello, who passed away at the young age of 32 but left an incredible legacy of flamenco-inspired, yet distinctly Brazilian arrangements and compositions with a style all his own. Although it is difficult to compare such proficient guitarists, it can be said that Yamandu has gone a few steps further in his approach, engaging in a variety of unique musical contexts such as a jazz trio framework and duets with accordion (Dominguinhos) and mandolin (Hamilton de Holanda). However, Last Dance was inspired most by Yamandu’s solo work, particularly the pieces on his Mafuá album (released in 2008).
Last Dance begins with an ad libitum introduction (featuring my attempt at percussion!) to set the tone of the piece – and of the album as a while – Last Dance jumps right into the samba rhythm, which serves as a segue into a brief solo/improv section with a flamenco-inspired rhythmic accompaniment. The subsequent call-and-response chords and passages transition into the second part (the main theme), which I overdubbed with a second guitar part (random note: the overdub was recorded a year after the original track!). The piece concludes with a recapitulation of the first part that ends on an unexpectedly dissonant chord – a Yamandu trademark.
Also, it turns out that living in Minnesota isn’t all bad (although the recent weather forecasts might lead you to believe otherwise). We have a very active music community that attracts many world-class musicians. Two years ago, a very special musician performed here...
A little less than a year after writing Last Dance, I was able to perform it for Yamandu… luckily, he liked it!
On September 16th, my mentor El Payo Humberto and I appeared on a program called Radio Duende, hosted by flamenco and music lover Emel Sherzad. Good conversation, classic flamenco recordings, and a few solos and duets... check out the following link and click "Listen Now" to stream it from the KFAI archive!
The great American guitarist and composer Frank Zappa once asked: "Does humor belong in music?" The answer to that question was, according to Zappa, a resounding yes. As someone who primarily focused on rock music, particularly as a form of social/political commentary, he incorporated humor into his music at almost every opportunity. Many of the songs he played with his band The Mothers of Invention are incredibly funny; using humor as a way to catch the audience's attention was a brilliant move on his part since it also had the consequence of people paying more attention to the lyrics and noticing the underlying message.
But does musical humor exist outside of lyrics?
As you guys will find out with the coming blog posts, I am a huge fan of the ECM record label. They release a lot of very high quality European jazz, and their back catalog features some of the greatest recordings of all time (more on those later). Several years ago, I came across a recording by the Italian pianist Stefano Bollani called Stone In the Water, a pretty serious and musically mature work (P.S. Check out who wrote the top rated review on Amazon!). Shortly afterward, I bought a few of his other records... one of which surprised me in how not serious it was (in a good way). And, with one track in particular, how funny it was!
Tico-Tico No Fuba is one of the most famous Brazilian songs of all time, having been covered by artists from across the world. Unfortunately, with so many covers out there, a lot of them tend to sound the same. However, this particular cover, which I first heard on Bollani's album called Carioca, is anything but orthodox. The theme kicks in at 2:07, and Bollani has done something very clever with it. Every couple of measures, he changes the key by half a step. I literally laughed out loud when I first heard it just because of how utterly bizarre it sounded. But, oddly enough, it works. And what's especially ridiculous is that Bollani is able to improvise on the reworked theme, a testament to his incredible musicianship.
So, to return to Zappa's original question, does humor belong in music? Do experiments like Bollani's key-shifting Tico-Tico have musical merit, or are they nothing more than gimmicks? Share your thoughts in the comments below!