Saturday, December 10, 2016

Imagine what listening to the wrong music can do to you


That photo shows me putting my body where my mouth is and experiencing Nāda yoga - sound yoga - at the hands of radiesthenia practitioner Heidrun Kimm on Crete. Radiesthesia is the interaction between the vibrational fields of the human body and external objects, and the photo first appeared in a post last year which discussed what John Luther Adams describes as ""the strange power of noise". An earlier post had highlighted the little-understood importance of ultrasound, the sound at frequencies above the upper frequency limit of the ear, while another post described how medical research has shown that audiences become what they listen to. On the same path, my tribute to Jonathan Harvey last week touched on quantum field theory and postulated that the vibrating energy of music can transform the brain and, as a result, can transform lives. Just five days later the BBC ran a story reporting that doctors at a leading London hospital have used non-invasive ultrasound to operate deep inside the brain. In that story a leading neurosurgeon stated that ultrasound brain surgery had an "enormous future" and could be used to treat other movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease. I am indebted to Winnipeg Classic FM presenter Paul von Wichert for prompting this post, and for his Facebook comment of 'Imagine what listening to the "wrong" kind of music can do to you!'

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Thursday, December 08, 2016

Classical music cannot ignore these 140 characters


Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, Jordi Savall and Joyce DiDonato are among the leading musicians who have performed in the Gulf States in recent years, and the the inaugural BBC Proms Dubai festival takes place in March 2017. So, given classical music's ongoing love affair with social media, the launch of the 140 Characters website deserves a heads up. This is the work of Human Rights Watch, and in recognition of Twitter’s 140-character limit, the interactive website profiles 140 prominent Bahraini, Kuwaiti, Omani, Qatari, Saudi, and Emirati social and political rights activists and dissidents - see images above - and describes their struggles to resist government efforts to silence them. All 140 have faced government retaliation for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and many have been arrested, tried, and sentenced to fines or prison.

Dubai, which is hosting the BBC Proms, is the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, and Abu Dhabi, which has a high profile classical music festival, is the capital of the Emirates. Seventeen of the activists are from the UAE; the profile on 140 Characters of just one of them says it all:
Osama al-Najer is a social media activist and the son of the political detainee Hussain Ali al-Najer al-Hammadi. Al-Najer used Twitter to campaign for the release of his father and other political detainees in Abu Dhabi and to criticize the conviction of 69 Emirati nationals in the "UAE 94" trial in July 2013. In September 2012 al-Najer was quoted in a Human Rights Watch news release that contained credible allegations that detainees had been tortured during interrogations. Authorities arrested al-Najer on March 17, 2014 and in November 2014 the Federal Supreme Court sentenced him to three years in prison under the 2012 cybercrimes law on charges including "damaging institutions" and "communicating with external organizations to provide misleading information." Authorities also fined him 500,000 AED ($US 136,127), confiscated his electronic devices, and ordered the closure of his Twitter account.
Classical music at celebrity level is cash hungry, and it is unrealistic to expect a boycott of the cash rich but ethically tainted Gulf States. But in these days when Twitter is the communication channel of choice of even the US president-elect, is it too much to ask that Gustavo Dudamel, Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, Jordi Savall, Joyce DiDonato and the BBC put the 140 Characters website in their pipe and tweet it?

Before any clever clogs points out that there are 119 and not 140 faces in the header image, the reason is that photos of the other 21 activists are not available. 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.

And now for some genuinely new music


Catalonia is a creative powerhouse: Pau Casals*, Joan Miró, Antoni Gaudí, and Salvador Dalí were all proud Catalans, and today Barcelona is a vibrant centre of the arts. Jordi Savall is just one of the contemporary Catalan musicians who has had a global impact, and modern modal master Ross Daly's Crete-based music co-operative has an annual Labyrinth in Catalunya outreach workshop.

My recent plea for the composers in the photo above taken at the summer workshop of the National Youth Orchestra of Catalonia in 2000 to be identified has been answered by Santi Barguñó of Neu Records with help from Ramón Humet who is in the photo. They are from left to right: Benet Casablancas (bio & music), Marcos Bosch (bio & music), Josep Maria Guix (bio & music), Carles Tort, Moisés Bertran (bio & music), Ramón Humet (bio & music), Enric Riu (bio & music), Joan Guinjoan (bio & music) and Jonathan Harvey.

I have added links to biographies and music samples for the composers**. These are contemporary composers with something new to say. So why not take a break from the depressingly predictable albums of the year and Grammy nominee listicles, and instead explore some genuinely new music.

* One item of little-known music trivia is that Pau Casals - typically stereotyped as being rather po-faced - was a close friend of the Russian composer Thomas De Hartmann who is best known for collaborating with the controversial mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. Although Hartmann is remembered for his joint compositions with Gurdjieff he was a prolific composer in his own right, and Casals performed Hartmann's Cello Concerto opus 57 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1935. Pianist Elan Sicroff has recently masterminded a 7 CD overview of Hartmann's previously unrecorded chamber music.
** I could trace no information on Carles Tort. If anyone can supply links to a biography of him and music samples I will add them.

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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Tao of arts criticism

The demise of professional arts criticism is, quite rightly, receiving the attention it deserves. But its murder by what is known in the media industry as user-generated content is receiving less attention. Prime examples - in more ways than one - are the user-generated reviews on Amazon. The authority of a professional critic is determined by the number of reviews written by her/him, and their subject matter and critical perceptiveness. With professional critics being axed as user-generated contributions replace paid for content, there is no reason why the same criteria should not be used to judge the authority of user-generated reviews.

Here is an example. A classical music related book was recently promoted on social media by drawing attention to its seven five star Amazon reviews. The identity of the book is not relevant to this discussion; but the authority of the reviewers as measured by number of reviews, and their subject matter and critical perceptiveness - all of which is in the public domain and easily accessible - is relevant. The seven Amazon reviewers of the book in question have contributed a total of just 29 reviews. For one reviewer the five-star review is the only one they have contributed. Another reviewer has written only two reviews, the other one a five star accolade for a title from the same publisher. While another reviewer has contributed a total of six reviews, all five star - one is for the subject book and two others for books by the same author. Of the 29 reviews none are for classical music recordings, but one is for Thomas the Tank Engine stories.

It is good that seven readers have enjoyed the five star book and I wish it every success. Amazon reviews have their uses as a quick and dirty guide. But user-generated content needs to be treated with caution. Because not only are these reviews notoriously unreliable - that leading exponent of user-created content TripAdvisor is a good example of this unreliability - but user-generated content is hastening the death of irreplaceable professional arts criticism. I will let the Taoist text Chuang Tzu, Book XII Part II Section V Thien Ti (Heaven and Earth) provide the last word on user-created content:
Tell a man that he is merely following (the opinions) of another, or that he is a flatterer of others, and at once he flushes with anger. And yet all his life he is merely following others, and flattering them. His illustrations are made to agree with theirs; his phrases are glossed:-- to win the approbation of the multitudes. From first to last, from beginning to end, he finds no fault with their views. He will let his robes hang down, display the colours on them, and arrange his movements and bearing, so as to win the favour of his age, and yet not call himself a flatterer. He is but a follower of those others, approving and disapproving as they do, and yet he will not say that he is one of them. This is the height of stupidity.
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Tuesday, December 06, 2016

How new music can appeal to a wider audience


Jonathan Harvey's daughter Anna has posted via Twitter the new to me photo above of Jonathan outside IRCAM where he created among other seminal pieces Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. In the Music Machine electronic music anthology Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco is highlighted, together with Désintegrations by Tristan Murail and Digital Moonscapes by Wendy Carlos, as an outstanding example of a composition using spectral analysis, and Jonathan's composition is cited as - and here comes the money quote - evidence that esoteric technology can produce music that appeals to a wider audience. There is a valuable spoken introduction in French to Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco from Pierre Boulez and others at IRCAM on YouTube.

My 2013 post 'Britten looking forward' told how Jonathan met the young composer Ramón Humet at a summer workshop for young composers organised by the National Youth Orchestra of Catalonia, and how Jonathan went on to endorse the 2007 recording of Humet's piano cycle Escenas del bosc. The Catalan composer and musicologist Benet Casablancas - sample his music via this link - recently posted the photo below on Twitter. That is Jonathan on the extreme right and Benet Casablancas on the extreme left. Presumably it was taken at the 2000 summer workshop in Catalonia. Is that Ramón Humet in the centre of the back row? Can any readers identify the other composers and provide links to their music? Writing in 2000 Jonathan described Ramón Humet as "A hope for the future; he has a fine ear, and a spirit full of light". Microludis fractals by Ramón Humet can be heard via this link.



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