L’Italiano in Atene (a.k.a. The Greek Bailout)

"All I know is there’s a reason musicians and composers shouldn’t talk." 


How an Italian virtuoso living in Greece humored Eugene Birman by recording the most difficult sax piece in history.

Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas.

I have it on good authority that in Holland there’s a popular football commentator who knows nothing about football. He is famously gay and devotes his on-air remarks to the players' colorful uniforms or their attractive calves. His name is Roeland. I am a librettist – not a musician – so when I comment on modern music it may be helpful to think of Roeland.

I have known Eugene Birman for five years now and, full disclosure, worked as his pencil carrier on four occasions. That said, if I’m ever dictator of the world, in addition to outlawing organ music and destroying every accordion on earth, I will make Eugene’s music an obligatory element of every classical concert. It is the antidote to the classical Hit Parade that often pollutes elevators and many concert halls. But his music is contemporary, which means it comes with some challenges.

Recording of Eugene Birman's “One Sun, 1 Moon”: [[{"attributes":{},"fields":{}}]]

In addition to real musical virtuosity in “One Sun, 1 Moon,” I could swear I hear a fly trying to pass through a window (0:03), a scampering squirrel with a bag of nuts (3:42), and gagged hostages (3:52).

Of course, this will lead anyone to wonder why you’d want to make these sounds with an instrument. What is the point of playing the soprano sax with the mouthpiece off to make it sound like a Turkish ney? Why not just get a ney player? I asked the performer, Guido de Flaviis.

“Exploring an instrument in non-conventional ways does seem to make composers happy,” he politely concedes. “I always warn them [composers] to use all the effects only if they need them for a musical reason.”

Whether Eugene has a reason is up to the listener to judge.

I’ve been asked if Eugene is serious about his music. I’ve been asked whether it’s just some “elite school thing,” an insiders’ affair where composers write primarily to impress their former classmates. I’ve been asked if he’s making fun of contemporary music. I suppose it’s a fair question to pose about any urban, over-educated 20-something who’s quick with a quip. But I always answer that if he’s making a joke, then he hasn’t let me in on it.

“One Sun, 1 Moon” takes its name from the poet Pak Tu-jin’s “April."

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The music Eugene has attached to this Korean poem has echos of Japanese shakuhachi music. But unlike with shakuhachi music, nobody’s going to meditate to this.

When I reawakend at about minute 10:00 into Eugene’s piece, I noticed a death march (10:40). In the music I can also see accepting one’s fate and the embrace of the edge of pleasure and pain. But as an avid reader I tend to look for meaning in places where it perhaps isn’t meant to be found.

“I’ve written out what some deranged person might improvise,” Eugene has said about this piece, and I certainly have no problem agreeing there. And given that the soprano sax is usually more of a jazz instrument than a classical one, I felt like Guido was improvising and wanted very much to cut loose. (He said he was tempted to give up and improvise, but that it would have been too easy. And, of course, then what’s the point of the composer?)

If Eugene is skirting the boundary of pleasure and pain, he’s also dancing between classical and jazz – and you have to admit this piece might have some debt to Evan Parker improvisations. De Flaviis says there’s no longer any clear border between classical and contemporary.

All I know is there’s a reason musicians and composers shouldn’t talk. They say things that seem plausible and help us like them and their music. But, in the end, they’re all going to die and only the music will remain.

What do I conclude? Well, there’s plenty of hypocrisy in this. It’s setting a Korean poem in a mildly orientalist way for a jazz instrument played by a Greco-Italian sax player written by a New York Jew and the recording paid for by the British taxpayer. So what’s in it for England? 

[[{"fid":"10019","view_mode":"default","type":"media","link_text":null,"field_deltas":{"1":{}},"fields":{},"attributes":{"height":493,"width":620,"style":"width: 620px; height: 493px;","class":"media-element file-default","data-delta":"1"}}]]Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas.


Scott Diel is an American writer based in Tallinn, Estonia. He’s written four libretti for composer Eugene Birman. Birman's opera, "State of the Union," based on Diel's libretto, toured the United States in October 2016.