Thursday, February 23, 2017

Self-display: no way to shine

On tiptoe: no way to stand.
Clambering: no way to walk.
Self-display: no way to shine.
Self-assertion: no way to succeed.
Self-praise: no way to flourish.
Complacency: no way to endure.

According to TAO,
Excessive food,
Extraneous activity
Inspire disgust.

Therefore, the follower of TAO
Moves on.
That wisdom comes from Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo's purist translation of Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching, a slim and sagacious volume which is a salutary reminder that quality is more important than quantity. This copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner. The photo was taken by me at New Delhi railway station.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Two roads diverged and I took the one less travelled

Éliane Radigue's electronic paeans to Tibetan Buddhism, Trilogie de la Mort and Jetsun Mila featured heavily in my iPod playlist for this road trip from Kalka to Leh in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir in the north of India. As my photos show, the road climbs from Kalka on the edge of the Ganges plain over the western end of the Himalayas to reach the alpine desert of Ladakh - 'Little Tibet' - seen in the final photo below. En route the road crosses some of the highest passes in the world: three are over 15,000 feet with the highest, the Taglang La pass reaching 17,480 feet. The 500 mile drive took three long days on the road plus one rest day to acclimatise. For the final 300 miles between Manali and Leh the average altitude of the road is 11,000 feet, and it is only passable between May and October. Due to the altitude there is no permanent habitation for 200 miles from Jispa until the road enters Ladakh; the only services are temporary dhaba - road side eateries - such as the one seen in photo 9. This is the only overland route into Ladakh; it carries a continuous stream of petrol tankers and military vehicles as the region is of strategic importance because it borders both Pakistan and China. Many glacial streams cross the road - see photo 3 - and for much of the last 300 miles the road is unsurfaced and just one-and-a-half carriageways wide - see photo 17 - with no barriers to stop errant vehicles plunging down the mountainside.

For anyone who, like me, suffers from vertigo and dislikes being driven, the distraction of a well-stocked iPod is highly recommended for this journey. Unfortunately the only alternative way to travel in and out of Ladakh, which is a narrow plateau between the Himalaya and Karakoram mountains, is flying. This is how I returned and it is only slightly less nail biting than the overland journey. At an altitude of 11,500 feet Leh is one of the highest airports in the world and, because of nearby mountains, has one of the very few unidirectional runways. This means planes can only take-off and land in one direction irrespective of the wind direction. This compromises even further the ability of aircraft to climb quickly in the very thin air. Which is somewhat disconcerting when taking off from an airport surrounded by the world's highest mountains, and as a safety precaution the airport can only be used in the morning due to the strong mountains winds later in the day. Thankfully Leh airport has an excellent safety record; perhaps because there is no room for aircrews to relax - video via this link.

Frequent rusting wrecks below the road are salutary reminders that altitude sickness is not the only health risk on the overland route into Ladakh. 150,000 people die every year on India's roads and the Kalka to Leh route is largely inaccessible to ambulance crews. Kailasha, the second section of Éliane Radigue Trilogie de la Mort, was written following the death of her son Yves Arman (her husband was the sculptor Arman) in - ironically - a car crash in Spain in 1989*. The work is a homage to Mount Kilash, the sacred mountain that in Tibetan cosmology is at the centre of the universe; pilgrims to Kailash are said to be able to enter the Buddhist 'pure land' of Shambala from the holy mountain. The Tibetan saint Milarepa who inspired Jetsun Mila described how in the vast empty spaces of the Himalayas the vortex of everyday life can be exchanged for boundless bliss. I travelled to Ladakh to experience the Kalachakra teaching by the Dalai Lama; this is a Tantric initiation that uses visualisation and meditation to plant the seeds for practitioner to achieve enlightenment by being reborn in Shambala. For those unable to make a pilgrimage to this magical and mythical region great art - including great music and great poetry - can be the route to fleeting, if not boundless, bliss. But as Robert Frost told us, it means taking the path less travelled:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

* Those wishing to experience the fleeting glimpse of enlightenment offered by Éliane Radigue Trilogie de la Mort and Jetsun Mila will find samples online. Of particular interest is a short video of an al fresco performance of Trilogie de la Mort in 2011 at the Villa Arson contemporary art museum in France which is an excellent illustration of how classical music can attract new audiences by taking the road less travelled.

This photo essay is a revision of one originally published in July 2014. All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2017. Any other copyrighted material n these pages is included for review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). My travel arrangements in India were made by the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery UK Trust, but any views expressed in this post are strictly my own. Also reluctantly on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Only what changes remains

Everything changes, the only truth.
Time invokes change,
not to change deliberately.
Only what changes remains.
Phoenix or harpy, the cutting edge of simplicity,
the gift of being simple.
The only truth: change.
That is Martha Graham in the photo and the stanza above is from the Catalan poet Mario Lucarda's Homenaje a Martha Graham. Contemporary Catalan composer Ramón Humet, who was championed by Jonathan Harvey, has set Mario Lucarda's homage to Martha Graham as nine songs. These settings are most definitely high-maintenance music, and Humet realised that the emotional intensity of his settings for soprano and piano militated against consecutive performance. So he composed ten complimentary Interludis Meditatius scored for Japanese shakuhachi flute and a percussion ensemble including xylophones, marimbas, bongos, crotales, temple block and wood chimes. The Interludis reflect Ramón Humet's deep interest in Japanese aesthetics and philosophy, and are stylistically linked to his percussion suites Four Zen Gardens and Garden of Haikus which were recorded in 2012 by the London Sinfonietta conducted by Nicholas Conlon for Neu Records, an innovative new independent label based in Barcelona.

Now Neu Records has recorded Ramon Humet's Homenaje a Martha Graham with soprano Claron McFadden. Previous Overgrown Path posts have discussed the Catalan label's commitment to literally expanding the boundaries of recorded sound, and this lovingly packaged new 2 CD set captures Humet's shimmering sonic world in demonstration quality sound - listen here - with the bonus of downloads in HD FLAC Stereo and Surround 5.1. Mario Lucarda's poem resonates with Zen Buddhist doctrines, and a lineage extends from Martha Graham through her pupil Merce Cunningham to John Cage, whose music embraced change and impermanence. As Mario Lucarda points out, only what changes remains. Yet so much of the classical music industry's energy is devoted to resisting change and maintaining legacy business and creative practices. There is a smokescreen of change which is no more than tinkering with cosmetics, while the fundamental problems of celebrity culture, oversupply and a grossly imbalanced reward structure are tacitly protected. This outstanding new release by Ramon Humet, Mario Lucarda and Neu Records reminds us that the only truth is change. The classical music industry should take note.

Ramón Humet's Homenaje a Martha Graham was a requested review sample. 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 29, 2017

In search of nothingness

In the photo above I have just arrived at the Coptic monastery of Dayr al-Salib (Monastery of the Cross) on the East Bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt. The Trappist monk, mystic and author Thomas Merton wrote of le point vierge - the virgin point - and described how there is "at the center of our being a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth... which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will". Le point vierge is found in different forms in the great wisdom traditions including the esoteric strand of Islam known as Sufism, and it is from this tradition that Thomas Merton developed his vision of a point of pure truth. In Zen Buddhism the vision is manifested in what Shunryu Suzuki famously described as 'beginner's mind'. This vision is also found in popular culture: for instance in John Lennon's Imagine, which - in an unashamed hymn to le point vierge - implores us to "imagine there is no heaven.. no religion... no countries.. no possessions". My personal search for this elusive point where something approaching pure truth can be glimpsed if only momentarily took me late in 2014 to the Coptic monasteries of Dayr al-Salib (Monastery of the Cross) on the East Bank of the Nile and Dayr Mar Girgis (Monastery of St George) on the West Bank in Upper Egypt, where I took the photos.

The Copts, who are the indigenous Christians of Egypt, believe that they are the direct descendants of the first pharaoh King Narmer, who ruled around the 31st century BCE. The Coptic lineage is remarkably resilient and St Mark, who founded the Coptic church in 42 CE, was the first of an unbroken succession of one hundred and seventeen Coptic popes and patriarchs. Elements of Coptic culture predate Christianity, and the Coptic language, which today survives only in the liturgy of the Coptic Church, evolved out of Ancient Egyptian, and once used the pictorial writing system of hieroglyphics. Coptic theologians have also pointed to parallels between the monotheism of the pharaohs - le point vierge of all the great wisdom traditions - and Christianity, and the Coptic Cross - seen below - is derived from the hieroglyph ankh symbol.

The inherent conservatism of the Coptic Church means that its music tradition has remained virtually unchanged over the centuries. It is generally accepted that the Coptic Church practices not only the oldest form of Christian music, but also the oldest form of any music in the world. It is also thought that Coptic music predates Christianity and has its origins in the Ancient Egyptian religious ceremonies, with the distinguished Egyptologist Étienne Drioton explaining that “the key to the secret of the music of the pharaohs can be found in a good, modern-day rendition of Coptic liturgical music. In an impressive but overlooked exercise in speculative musicology the composer and musicologist Dr. Rafael Pérez Arroyo reimagined Egyptian music from the Old Kingdom (c3000BC) based on studying the iconography and hieroglyphics of the period, instruments of the period conserved in museums and the Coptic litany. One result of this project was the 2001 CD Ancient Egypt: Music in the Age of the Pyramids which used reconstructed period instruments including a seven-string curved harp and with musicians including Jordi Savall' percussionist extraordinaire Pedro Estevan. The sound is impressive with the choral sections recorded in the famous Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos where many great recordings of Gregorian Chant have ben made. Although the CD is deleted it lives on as a download.

Sadly There has been a long history of persecution of Coptic Christians, starting with a pogrom by the Roman emperor Diocletian in the third century. In 639 CE the Muslims conquered Egypt, but the transition from a majority Christian to majority Muslim country took another eight hundred years. There are no accurate statistics on the number of Copts in Egypt today, and the alleged manipulation of data by the theoretically secular but actually Muslim biased government has generated considerable controversy. However it is generally accepted that an estimate of eight million Christians (10% of the population) is reasonably accurate. Persecution of Copts became widespread during the reign of the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in the eleventh century and has continued to this day. In July 2013 Salafist mobs killed five Coptic Christians in the area we visited recently.

Monasticism is the most important contribution of the Copts to history. Cenobitic (communal) monasticism originated in Egypt, and Saint Anthony of Egypt (251-356 CE) is known as "the father of the monks". An early monastic rule was developed by Saint Pachom in the third century; this was subsequently translated into Latin and taken by travellers to Europe where the rule was adapted to form the basis of the great Catholic monastic orders including the Benedictine. Today there are twelve inhabited Coptic monasteries in Egypt at which more than six hundred monks lead a cenobitic life.

My pilgrimage predated the destruction of the Russian Metrojet over the Sinai desert on a flight from Egypt, which made Upper Egypt a virtual no go areas for foreigners. But during my visit Egypt's already beleaguered tourist industry was totally focussed on its pharaonic heritage: if I had wanted to visit the famous temples at Luxor and Karnak, or the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, that was not a problem at all. But engaging with the rich Coptic heritage was really a struggle. When it comes to the Coptic tradition, collective amnesia afflicts the Muslim population. For instance, the generously staffed Luxor tourist office, which had absolutely no clients other than me, was unable to offer any advice or information about travelling to the nearby Coptic monasteries. You will search in vain on the internet for any information about the two monasteries that I visited - thankfully this is a TripAdvisor free zone! - and thanks go to the Coptic staff of the Gaddis Bookshop in Luxor for their valuable assistance. When I reached the Coptic monasteries there was the inescapable feeling of stepping into a war zone. Because of the continuing attacks on Copts, their monasteries have become fortified communities with massive gates and protecting walls - see photo below. In fact the entrance to Dayr Mar Girgis was protected by an armed soldier when I arrived, and I was the only visitor of any ethnicity at both monasteries.

Coptic churches are celebrated for their art and architecture; below is the interior of the church at Dayr Mar Girgis.

But these are also functional places where believers worship under constant threat of attack and in harsh physical - temperatures stay above 40 degrees celsius in the summer months. So sacred art mixes with defensive walls, air conditioners, and cooling fans. And some of the art is a little less sacred, as can be seen in the photo below advertising the monastic shop at Dayr al-Salib.

The monastery of Dayr Mar Girgis is just one of four in Egypt that venerate Saint George (Girgis = George). Saint George was a Roman soldier and Christian martyr who never visited England and who has absolutely no connection with the country other than being adopted at its patron saint. In the photo below taken at Dayr Mar Girgis the representation of Saint George could have been taken staight from an English pub sign. Saint George is venerated in many other countries including Romania, Lithuania, Iraq and the Ukraine, and is respected by Muslims as a manifestation of the mystical figure al-Khidr in the Qaran.

In 431 CE a dispute over the Monophysite doctrine (the belief that the human and divine natures of Christ were fused into a single nature) caused the Coptic Curch and other Oriental Orthodox Churches (Armenian, Syriac, Goan and Eritrean) to split from the established churches of Rome and Constantinople.

Despite this split there are clear visual links between the Coptic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

These can be seen from the photos above and below taken at Dayr al-Salib and Dayr Mar Girgis.

In her book Sufism, Mystics and Saints in Modern Egypt Valerie J. Hoffman describes how the liberal Sufi mysticism of Islam has much in common with Christian Coptic spirituality. Examples of this common ground include the mosque built by monks for local Bedouins in the precints of one of the oldest continuously occupied monastery in the world, the Coptic monastery of Saint Catherine's on Mount Sinai. Another example is that the first spiritual master of the celebrated early Sufi saint Ibrahim ibn Adham was a Christian monk called Simeon. The visual common ground between Islamic Sufism and Coptic Christianity can be seen in the following photos. Look at the geometric decoration around the figure of Christ on this gate at Dayr al-Salib.

Then compare it with this decoration at the shrine of the thirteenth century Sufi saint Sufi Shaykh Yusuf Abu al-Hajjaj in nearby Luxor.

The representation of living beings is, of course, forbidden in Islam. When the figure is removed the commonality between Islam and the Coptic tradition becomes even more striking. The photo below shows a doorway in a recent addition to the monastery at Dayr Mar Girgis.

Compare it with the photo below taken by me the Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech, Morocco 3500 miles to the west.

Central to the visual language of both Sufi and Coptic architecture is the dome. The photo below shows the exterior of the church at Dayr Mar Girgis.

Below is the eponymous Sufi shrine in Sidi Ifni on the western margin of Islam in Morocco.

If such le point vierge exists it must be somewhere close to the heavens, and there is a striking resemblance between the minarets of Islam and the bell towers of the Coptic Church, both of which point towards the heavens. This mosque was photographed from the luxuriant gardens of the Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor.

While the photo below shows the entrance of the Coptic monastery of Dayr al-Salib.

My Egyptian search for a point of common truth uncovered some surprising common ground between Coptic Christianity and mystical Islam. Some of this commonality may well be tentative. But at a time of escalating tension between extreme elements in both traditions, any path that leading to the point that Thomas Merton described as "inaccessible to... the brutalities of our own will" demands exploration. Because as Hazrat Inayat Khan, who created an ecumenical Sufi order as his contribution to the search for le point vierge' told us: "“If people but knew their own religion, how tolerant they would become, and how free from any grudge against the religion of others”.

Sources include:
* The Churches of Egypt by Gawdat Gabra and Gertrud J.M. van Loon
* Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture by Gawdat Gabra
* Sufism, Mystics and Saints in Modern Egypt by Valerie by J. Hoffman
* Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East edited by James S. Cutsinger
* Egyptian Mystics: Seekers of the Way by Moustafa Gadalla
* Western Sufism by Mark Sedgwick
* Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
* Who are the Copts? by H.P. Rev. Fr. Shenouda Hanna
* Ancient Egypt: Music in the Age of the Pyramids - CD
* Liturgy of the Coptic Orthodox Church - CD

This post is a revised version of one first published in December 2014. All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2017. My trip to Egypt was entirely self-funded. 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.

Friday, January 27, 2017

We are musicians and our model is sound

That photo shows from left to right Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Tristan Murail and George Benjamin listening to a playback of their world premiere recording of Murail's piano concerto Le Désenchantement du monde (The demystification of the World). The concerto is one of three works on a new NEOS CD, the others are György Ligeti's Lontano for large orchestra and George Benjamin's Palimpsests for orchestra.

Tristan Murail was together with Gérard Grisey a pioneer of the spectralist movement, and it was Grisey who reminded his peers that "We are musicians and our model is sound not literature, sound not mathematics, sound not theatre, visual arts, quantum physics, geology, astrology or acupuncture". Andrew Clement's Guardian review of this new disc does full justice to the music. So in this post I want to focus on the sound captured on it; because just a few minutes of listening provides literally resounding confirmation that the musicians' model is indeed first and foremost sound. George Benjamin conducts all three works, and the orchestra is the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks playing in their primary concert venue, the acoustically blessed Herkulessaal in Munich's Residenz. NEOS is one of the few independent labels which have persevered with the SACD format - another is Jordi Savall's Alia Vox - and auditioning the SACD layer through my high-end system provided a timely reminder of just how good recorded sound can be if managed correctly.

Despite Gérard Grisey's assertion that we are musicians and our model is sound, classical music has always had a schizophrenic approach to sound. In the concert hall sound quality is god, to the extent that more than £300 million may be spent building an acoustically state of the art concert hall in London a few hundred yards from the acoustically imperfect but nevertheless sonically perfectly serviceable Barbican Hall. But many of those clamouring for a new hall delivering acoustic nirvana are record reviewers, and as recounted in an earlier post my past experience has been that some critics audition recordings on less than optimal audio systems. In fact a recent selfie on social media from a record reviewer included a glimpse of what looked suspiciously like a definitely sub-Barbican sound system. Which amused me as that writer is a staunch advocate of the new Rattle Hall. Sound quality, as opposed to performance quality, has become the Cinderella of record reviewing. Would a critic write a concert review without telling us where the performance took place? So how about the critics revealing the replay systems they use? Of course every critic cannot afford a high-end audio system; but it would be illuminating to at least know where the goal posts are.

The truly visceral SACD sound of this new NEOS disc does raise the important question of what is actually wrong with the compact disc format. The resurgence in vinyl sales is put down to a rejection of virtual formats and a return to physical media and collectability. But the CD is also a tactile and collectable format which avoids the problem of fragility that blights the LP. It is not a coincidence that in Japan, a country with a strong aesthetic sensibility and a canny approach to technology, 85% of recorded music sales are CDs compared with a global figure of 39%, and Japan has 6000 record stores compared with 1900 in the U.S.. Portability is the current must-have; but a digital file can be ripped from a CD for personal use in 90 seconds, thereby covering both physical and virtual bases. It should also be said however that the SACD encoding is definitely not the only reason for the sonic impact of Tristan Murail's Piano Concerto and the other works. Ripping the CD to AAC files provided an equally stunning but different sonic experience when replayed via the reductionist solution of my iPod Classic and AKG 451 headphones.

The three works by Tristan Murail, György Ligeti and George Benjamin were recorded at concerts given in 2012 as part of the venerable and esteemed Musica Viva - living music - series in Munich. Several threads link the music on this immensely rewarding new disc. One is that all three composers are in their unique ways more interested in sound than meaning. Another is that all three works provide much-needed reminders that neither the orchestra, nor superlative quality recorded sound, nor classical music itself is dead.

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). Also reluctantly on Facebook and Twitter.