Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Pulling the rug from under boring new CDs


Abrash is the term that describes the minute colour variations in handmade rugs from the Near and Middle East. These variations result from dyes being made in small batches; abrash is prized as the minor inconsistencies confirm the imperfection of man as opposed to the perfection of the Almighty. Rugs with abrash exhibit a shimmering quality which enhances their appeal and value; these subtle variations can be seen in the red fields of the Persian Qashqai rug seen above. The shimmering is caused by the slightly different frequencies of light waves generated by the minutely varying colours beating together. Sound, like light, is vibrating energy and the composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987), who was an authority on Near and Middle Eastern rugs, deployed the sonic equivalent of abrash in his late piano work Palais de Mari. This uses microtonal differences in pitch to produce a sonic shimmering from the resulting beat frequencies. Steven Osborne has recorded Morton Feldman's Palais de Mari in a coupling with other Feldman pieces and George Crumb's Processional and A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 on an audacious new release from Hyperion which has been lamentably overlooked by the mainstream classical media.

No review samples used in this post. Image of Qashqai rug via Dingo Gallery. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, January 23, 2017

And through a woman came forth the better things


In his plea for more imaginative concert planning conductor Warren Cohen lamented the ubiquity of the Emperor Concerto. So staying with the theme of unfamiliar music, today's post features music with connections to another Emperor. Chroniclers from the 9th century recount that when the young and beautiful Kassia (also known as Kassiani) was told by her suitor the Emperor Theophilos that "Through a woman came forth the baser things" she retorted "And through a woman came forth the better things". After rejecting the Emperor's ill-judged advances the proto-feminist Kassia went on to become an influential abbess, poet and composer. So, given the high profile of Hildegard of Bingen's music, it is surprising that Kassia is not better known today; particularly as she predates Hildegard by almost three centuries and is usually awarded the highly marketable title of the first woman composer.

This puzzling neglect may be explained by two factors. One is that Kassia (c810-865AD) was born in Constantinople and spent most of her life in the city, which at the time was the capital of the Roman/Byzantine Empire. Constantinople (now Istanbul) stood at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, so in our euro-centric culture Kassia is perceived as being on the margins of the Western classical music tradition. This marginalisation is compounded by her membership of the Eastern Orthodox Church in which she is venerated as Saint Kassiani, so she lies outside the great Catholic tradition of sacred music. The second possible reason for her obscurity is her small oeuvre: although more than 50 liturgical works are attributed to her, the provenance of more than half of these is disputed.

Kassia's neglect is reflected in the record catalogue, and to my knowledge the only full length album devoted to her music was recorded in 2009 by the VocaMe early music ensemble*. Fortunately VocaMe's album Kassia - seen above - on the German Christophorus label* provides a very cogent argument for giving the Byzantine hymnographer the attention she deserves. Sequentia, with its mix of voices led by Barbara Thornton and the subtle sound of early instruments, played an important role in the Hildegard revival, and similarly the four female voices of VocaMe are complemented by early music multi-instrumentalist Michael Popp and - looking eastwards from Constantinople - Johann Bengen on santur. VocaMe's persuasive advocacy confirms Kassia's assertion that through a woman came forth the better things. If you don't know her music this album is well worth seeking out.

* A Naxos CD juxtaposes Kassiani's original Troparion for Holy Wednesday with settings by Mikis Theodorakis, Ivan Moody and others.
** The recording of Coptic liturgy featured in a 2013 post was also on the Christophorus label.
No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Reluctantly also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

There is a time for many words and there is a time for sleep

That headline quote comes from Book XI of Homer's The Odyssey which chronicles Odysseus' descent into hell. In my view a second helping of cat bait is justified to counterbalance the gathering global gloom. I took the photo in Essaouira, Morocco where a resilient mystical, musical and feline culture has reassuringly survived the never-ending foolishness of man. An observation by John Tavener is relevant to this image:
There is something deeply mysterious about cats. I think they 'know' things we don't have access to.
Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Reluctantly also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The circle game


What is the source of the mysterious power of this image? Ginger is on a pouffe from Morocco decorated with a pattern typical of Islamic art. Cats are cherished by Muslims; so does the circular symmetry suggest the whirling of the Mevlâna Sufis - the mystics of Islam? Or maybe the image reflects the circular symbolism of the Christian Canterbury Cross or the circinate variants of the Tree of Life found in the Kabbalah? (The Kabbalah is in Abraham ibn Musa's reading a Jewish parallel to Sufism.) Or perchance the powerful visual energy come from further afield - from the Far East and the circular mandalas of Hinduism and Buddhism. Perhaps all these traditions combine in this syncretic orb? On the other hand it may be an uncomfortable reminder of the skeptical Krishnamurti's observation that "We are afraid to leave our own little circle and discover the circle, the barrier, around another". Or was my camera simply in the right place at the right time? Does any of this matter? Because as Joni Mitchell explains:
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game
Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Reluctantly also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Audiences are not backward children


Among those who shared the post expressing Warren Cohen's frustration at myopic concert planning was violinist Johannes Pramsohler. His Facebook share elicited a comment from baritone Stéphane Degout who is seen above. Stéphane is a big hitter in the operatic world and his comment contains an important message for all those who capitulate to the tyranny of programme planners and marketing experts; so I have posted it below in translation*. As Virgil Thomson told us, never underestimate the public's intelligence, baby, and never overestimate its information.
Forty minutes of Debussy's songs last year, forty minutes of Poulenc/Apollinaire plus a trio of contemporary works in the same programme this year. Programme planners sometimes tell me that my recitals are too rarified, too intellectual, and that no one will come. But the rooms are full and the audience loves it. The tastes of audiences are often misjudged: the public are not backward children who only like what they know, and who have no appetite for the new or willingness to adapt. Quite the contrary! I was often told my programmes “will not interest anyone” and was asked for programmes mixing opera arias and more popular pieces. But I always refused; because I believe one must first acknowledge the audience's intelligence instead of acceding to the wishes of a programme planner who has a narrow outlook and an inbuilt fear of risk.
* Stéphane Degout's comment was in French; I take full responsibility for the loose translation. Photo is via IMG Artists. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.