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Tracks Unwrapped

The Marsyas Suite



Apollo and Marsyas by Jane Pack

Marsyas and Apollo by Jane Morris Pack


A new recording from Leo Records reflects the terrible story from Greek legend of the shepherd Marsyas. Marsyas was a mythological character connected with the earliest period of Greek music. Some make him a satyr, others a peasant, a shepherd in Phrygia. The story goes that the goddess Athena seeing herself reflected in water playing the flute, disliked the way her cheeks puffed out and threw away the flute in disgust, placing a curse on it. It was found by Marsyas, who began to blow through it and finding it was endowed with the breath of a goddess, played the most beautiful sounds. Marsyas thought he played so wonderfully that he challenged Apollo to a musical contest. They Titian The Flaying Of Marsyasagreed that whoever won could do as he pleased to the loser. The Muses, or, according to others, the Nysaeans, were agreed to be the umpires.

Apollo played the cithara, a stringed musical instrument similar to the lyre and Marsyas the flute. Some say that Apollo won the contest because he included a challenge to play the instruments upside down, others that Apollo outdid Maryas by adding his voice to his playing.

Apollo had been outraged that someone should challenge his musical skill in the first place and as retribution, decreed that Marsyas, as the loser of the contest should be bound to a tree and flayed alive. Apollo hung up Marsyas’s skin in a cave and the river that flowed out of the cave was named after the shepherd. His double flutes were carried by the river Marsyas into the Maeander, and emerging in the Asopus, were thrown on land by it in the Sicyonian territory, and were dedicated to Apollo in his temple at Sicyon. The imagery of Titian's painting of the story is unsettling.

Titian - The Flaying Of Marsyas


It is said that the fable evidently refers to the struggle between the citharoedic and auloedic styles of music. The former was connected with the worship of Apollo among the Dorians, and the latter with the orgiastic rites of Cybele in Phrygia.





In 1907, classical composer Alfonso Castaldi wrote this musical symphonic poem, Marsyas.





Is there a moral to the story? I suspect there are several, and for us all, not just for musicians.


Steve Day helps us to unwrap the story and two significant jazz recordings based on the tale.

The Leo Records release of The Marsyas Suite features Tom Unwin (piano); Roz Harding (alto saxophone), Janna Bulmer (cello); Lucy Welsman (cello) and Marcus Vergette (double bass).

I picked up on the story of Marsyas a couple of years ago.  The unlikely entry was via the work of Evan Parker, the saxophone Evan Parker and Jacquemyn Marsyas Suite‘transformer’ extraordinaire.  The sound sculptor had brought his tenor and soprano horns to a recording called Marsyas Suite on the El Negocito label, along with bass player Peter Jacquemyn.  I’d recommend it to your ears; literally a carving out of music against a backdrop of a Greek myth concerning the physical flaying of a shepherd called Marsyas.

Greek myth, Greek legend, Greek literature, I am no expert on the subject and I find Titian’s painting of The Flaying of The Marsyas hard to look at even in its stylised form.  Beautiful torture; it is undoubtedly a magnificent painting depicting the literal skinning of a man by the god of music, Apollo.  Titian’s late sixteenth century masterwork is a slaughterhouse of humanity, made more terrible by how exquisite the brushwork is formed against the detail.  How do you explain it?  A beautifying of torture as a form of shock and awe, the stripping of skin with blades or a fire bomb?  Lighten our darkness with a crucifixion cut into the flesh. 

A couple of years on and Leo Records release an album with almost an identical title, this time by a quintet led by Marcus Vergette.  To play the Parker/Jacquemyn session and the Marcus Vergette album back to back is an interesting experience.  The first is totally improvised whilst the latter is written through composition albeit with improvised passages.  Both take the story of Apollo’s bloody revenge upon the shepherd Marsyas, who dared to challenge the Greek god to a musical dual playing a ‘flute’ (or maybe a double ‘reed’ flute). 

Whilst the Parker album is four duos, plus Jacuemyn and Parker each taking a solo track featuring full-on improv techniques, the Vergette recording is almost in the form of ‘chamber jazz’, albeit with hints of be-bop and Mingus.  I guess if Gunther Schuller were Marcus Vergette The Marsyas Suitealive I’d be describing this as ‘Third Stream Music’ (check him out).  I’m rattling on about this comparison because:

(a) These two recordings have quite independently taken inspiration from the same source yet arrived at totally different sound palettes. (Although Evan Parker has since indicated to me that he wasn't aware at the time of recording the improvisation that the Marsyas theme was going to be used with it.) 

(b)  The subject matter is disturbing because we are dealing with extreme violence literally cut into art.  Aural art, predetermined, at least in the subject matter, yet improvised (Parker/Jacuemyn), part improvised (Vergette).

Marcus Vergette’s The Marsyas Suite is a lovely thing, it gradually unfolds over 70 minutes.  The opening Mount Olympus is a swirl of strings played by Janna Bulmer and Lucy Welsman, the two bowed cellos offering glancing blows which could have come from Messian’s End Of Time.  Slice the shimmer, the strings are turned over by pianist Tom Unwin’s boppish chord frame and Roz Harding’s eager alto saxophone.  And it’s jazz I’m hearing; the chords and the rudeness of crude swing.  Welcomed like a familiar friend.  In places Harding sounds as if she’s just blown in from Brooklyn instead of the West Coast (of England).   Then there’s Mr Vergette’s double bass, as authoritative as a horn, (the 60 second solo introduction to Day feels as if this is a musician preparing to lay down the law). Night follows Day giving emphasis to this habit of throwing the skeletons of standards into a soundpool.  Disarming, yet at the same time strangely engrossing. Started I Can’t Get is literally an inside-out version of its American standard source material. 


Here's a a video from a live performance of part of the Suite.




By the 12th track, Flaying, Unwin and Harding are cauterizing an elegy; that is until the alto reed is given over to blowing against Mr Vergette’s bass strings which smack against the neck of his instrument.  They are bowed off into Poor Old Marsyas, and we know it is carnage.  Piano and cellos hold it slow with an episodic sympathy of symphony. I appear to be talking individual tracks because the album gives you that option, but The Marsyas Suite is structured as one continuous performance.  Having heard it half a dozen times, that is how I prefer to come to it too.  Until the final moment, cut away like an edit.


Here's a second video from the live performance of the Suite.




This album is engrossing.  My interest is in the music, yet the power of the subject matter draws you back.  What Marcus Vergette’s ensemble has achieved with this recording is to evoke a terrible catharsis.  Even as they modulate between an aural encounter close to ‘jazz’ form and a tantalising rondo which escapes me, something far, far away from such considerations, the Evan Parker/Peter Jacuemyn recording is not like that at all.  The intense rapture of the duo is visceral, a circular breathing gasp grasping for life.  Form is in the action. 

So, to Marcus Vergette; I find a certain solace in these strings, a power present in a music that carries the weight of the jealously of terror.  I keep returning to it as if it won’t let me go.  I have to hear it yet again, as if checking my own equilibrium.  How strange, listening to a music which almost hides its hurt.  This is a recording for our turbulent times.  Hear it. 

Steve Day 


There are a number of videos discussing the story of Marsyas. This one is an interesting discussion about Titian's painting.




Click here for Marcus Vergette's Marsyas Suite on Leo Records. Click here to sample Evan Parker & Peter Jacquemyn Marsyas Suite on El Negocito Records (2015).


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More Tracks Unwrapped:

Fables Of Faubus
I'm In The Seventh Heaven
Rose Room
St James Infirmary

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