Hammer and Sickle

I have just came back from Tallinn, a gorgeous town located in the northern part of  Estonia, on the shore of the Gulf of Finland of the Baltic Sea. I was there with Chiara, my girlfriend, as she had to work at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre for an event called METRIC (modernizing European higher music education through improvisation). Very briefly, METRIC “is a cooperative project between several European conservatoires and the AEC, which focuses on curriculum development and intensive cooperation in the field of improvisation, with the aim of creating a European Master course for improvisation” (quoted from https://eamt.ee/en/international-relations-and-public-affairs/metric/).

It does sound like a terrific plan, and I hope it comes to completion. I wish there was anything like that when I had started studying music several years ago – although, I have always been a terrible student, not disciplined enough to learn via traditional studies. I’m a very instinctive musician and composer, playing and creating mostly by ear. I do have some basic knowledge of theory, but I rarely (if ever) rely on it. This intuitive, mysterious approach is applied to all aspects in my life: I never read manuals, infact I just mess around with stuff until I get things right. This may lead to frustration, as it tends to be a rather slow working method, but it feels natural to me. Back in the days of junior high school, there was the “musical education” hour. Some teacher would show us how to sightread easy musical phrases (played on a recorder flute). I would simply figure out the melody by ear, but I was too embarassed to let anyone know about my little “secret” (or was it a gift? I don’t know). I would therefore fake my sightreading and just play. It happened many other times, later in my career, that I was too shy to be open about my lack of education (I would often spend the night before a session or rehearsals learning the material at home, or I would figure it out on the spot). It could be limiting, and sometimes I still feel like I’m limited by my ignorance, especially in terms of working opportunities. I have tried to start all over again, wanting to learn more about harmony and how to read well, but I never had the necessary drive to commit to rigorous studying. The problem is, whenever I feel the urge to play or write, I just do it my own way – which some people tend to define unique. Furthermore, how would you define the studying process? That’s another interesting topic. I feel like I’m studying all the time: especially when I get to play with other incredible musicians.

While in Tallinn, me and Chiara would attend the nightly concerts at the Academy, where students and teachers applied concepts investigated during their classes. The shows usually included ten or more different line-ups, each of them performing improvised material (with that many performances every night, the director kept reminding the partecipants to be considerate in their use of time!). I was amazed by some of the students (and teachers alike), with their display of talent and dedication. It was fascinating to witness such an unusual style of performing in an academic setting, with young musicians combining effortlessly with more experienced players. The improvisations varied from free-form to more tonal exploits, and included actors and dancers as well. In my opinion, some of the performances were more inspired than others, and some of them I couldn’t understand; but I was just an external observer, and many factors had to be considered – especially the stress and fatigue derived from working non-stop for several days.

Having just released an album based on non-idiomatic improvisation, together with Emiliano Deferrari, this experience was the proverbial icing on the cake, as I have been investing a lot of energy in becoming a better improviser – granted that I always feel like I’m improvising, having no real idea of what I’m doing 90% of the time! If you wish to dig deeper into the theme of improvisation in music, I’d suggest reading a great book written by renowned English guitarist and improviser Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (he also produced a TV documentary with the same name in the 80s – you can find it on YouTube).

When neither me or Chiara were working (believe it or not, we spent a lot of time in the hotel room on our computers, as we had deadlines to meet), we took the opportunity to wander a bit through the Old Town, admiring the old churches, the cobblestone streets and hints of Soviet architecture, as well as tasting some of the local food and beers. On our last night in town, I got to try the Vana Tallinn – The unique combination of components include rum from Jamaica, enhanced by vanilla bean pods, orange, lemon and bitter orange oils. However, the drink gets its intriguingly bitter flavour and exotic aroma from cinnamon bark (as read on http://www.liviko.ee). I was pleasantly surprised, and a little dizzy afterwards. We had to buy a bottle (a small one) at the airport on our way back. I have also read something about a cocktail called Hammer & Sickle, made from 1/4 Vana Tallinn and 3/4 Champagne – the name is an obvious reference to the political heritage of Estonia, as well as a hint at physical consequences… it hits you on the head and then cuts your legs off. I haven’t tried it.

However, we are now back home in Belgium, safe and sound (and on our legs). I have been active with new music: a couple more exclusive releases were added to the Bandcamp store, but they’re only available to my subscribers. You can always subscribe at http://marcomachera.bandcamp.com/subscribedon’t miss out! More specifically, a special digital EP by The John Porno Funk Extravaganza (along with handwritten Christmas cards), consisting of rearrangements of traditional festive music (I know, we are way past Christmas time…  does it still count?) and a new live set, recorded here in Brussels, on January 9th. My first solo gig in a long time. Yes – I was quite scared! But it went well. A cozy and enjoyable atmosphere; a real good time was had by all (and we had turkish pizza for dinner). The showcase was hosted by Balades Sonores, a neat record store that I visit often. I routed my bass, vocals and backing tracks into my good old trusty Boss Recorder 600, so that I could record the performance. I have played a few tracks from Small Music From Broken Windows, differently than usual. Since I was performing solo, I devised some special backing tracks that I could play along to, with some variations on the original recordings. Especially on Frantic and The Things, you might notice more of an electro feel, while The Glimpse is brought down to essentials – bass and vocals.

The day after the showcase, I was shocked and saddened to learn about the passing of drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. The music he made with Rush was crucial during my formative years – I literally grew up listening to their records, to the point of becoming obsessed. Geddy Lee was a major influence (I would spend hours replicating his basslines), and Alex Lifeson’s imaginative guitar style is so iconic and unique, but Neil’s persona has always fascinated me the most. It goes beyond the outstanding drumming – I would read his lyrics and find relief in those beautifully combined words. I have always been an introvert guy, but a dynamic person deep inside; I could identify with Neil when he wrote about his bicycle and motorbike trips, inspiring me to travel more, connecting with the world in a meaningful way. I deeply respected his thoughts on popularity, his struggle with constant idolisation. The lyrics from the song Limelight opened my eyes. I remember people complaining at how reclusive Neil was. I felt like he owed me nothing. In truth, he was opening his heart and mind to all of us – through his lyrics and everything else he wrote. Suddenly, you were gone – from all the lives, you left your mark upon.

As usual, I will have more to report soon.





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