Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Does Facebook really have to be this dire?

Social media and its inherent dangers are forensically analysed by Jacob Silverman in Terms of Service. This book should be required reading for all social media users; even for those who already understand how Facebook manipulates news feed and sells their personal data to all and sundry to boost its $523 million profit. It makes for very frightening reading, but the fact remains that there are 1.5 billion Facebook users. Which means social media offers a powerful free (if the cost of losing control of personal data is ignored) communication platform for classical music, an artform that is struggling to widen its reach. So why is classical music's use of Facebook and other social media so dire?

Classical music's Facebook users fall into two categories: those who need to sell themselves and those who don't. Those who don't need to sell themselves conform to the social media convention of circulating stories from the Guardian, BBC and New York Times that everyone has already read, supplemented by photos of their dinner and videos of the cat; while those who do need to sell themselves follow the convention of the hard sell. Let me give one example of that hard sell: John Luther Adams is a composer and visionary who I have great respect for, and I have shared that respect with readers. Because I admire his work, Facebook updates from JLA are - or rather were - among the few I read regularly. But the updates have become a non-stop torrent of publicity for performances of his music interspersed with relentlessly positive reviews; in fact the sell is so remorseless that I will give JLA the benefit of the doubt and suggest that his Facebook account is controlled by an intern at his publisher. However, who writes the updates is not important; what is important is that social media has become commercial media, and in that transition something important has been lost. It is unfair to single out just one fine musician for the sin of using social media for self-promotion, because so many are doing it; with Joyce DiDonato's Twitter feed being one of the most blatant examples. Presumably the intention is that these promotional blitzkreigs should impress. But, speaking for a sample of one, it has the opposite effect on me - I have simply stopped reading them.

Blogs were one of the earliest forms of social media, and the blogosphere was for a short while an idealistic community of ideas. But that was a decade ago, and one of the tragedies of the digital age is that both in the arts and elsewhere, the strong have become stronger, and the weak have become weaker. At a time when classical music struggles both to retain its established audience and to engage with new audiences, a community of ideas would be of immense value. We need to widen artistic horizons; not narrow them by handing social media platforms over to the strong who do not need the exposure. But where on Facebook and Twitter is the coverage from the edge of the network? Where is the excitement about new discoveries? Where is the counterbalance to the hegemony of the corporate music machine? Where is anything being pursued other than 'likes' and 'retweets'? Where is the infallibility of new technology being questioned? Where is the collegiality by which the strong helped the weak grow stronger in the early days. Where are the alternative views? Where is there anything other than self-interest? Where has all the idealism gone?

In 2007 Jonathan Harvey sent me an email in response to my early advocacy of his music on this blog, saying: "I was delighted to find such a passionate advocate of my and other contemporary music forging his own path (not so overgrown!) clearly in opposition to most current trends. I've always felt that it is and will be strong enthusiasm that will change the world!" Call me a hopeless idealist, but I still believe that strong enthusiasm is more powerful than self-promotion. So let me counter the seemingly pessimistic tone of this post by sharing my enthusiasm for some music that has been lamentably ignored on social media..

John Luther Adams was a friend and admirer of the composer Lou Harrison, and he has expressed that admiration in his composition 'For Lou Harrison'. Lou Harrison is celebrated for his syncretic music, and a number of his works reference Indian styles. Six of these have been transcribed by Barry Phillips as the suite 'Jahla Journey' and recorded by the West Coast based Lux Musica Ensemble. These transcriptions are more than opportunism, because Ravi Shankar knew Lou Harrison when they both lived in California.

'Jahla Journey' is on the CD 'Raga & Raj' released on East Meets West Music, the record label of the Ravi Shankar Foundation. As a cellist Barry Phillips has toured with the Anoushka Shankar Project, and on the CD are 'Eight Ragas' composed by him and played by Lux Musica. Barry Phillips had a long association with Ravi Shankar which dated from the George Harrison produced 'Chants of India' released in 1997, and the 'Eight Raga's are very much in the mould of the George Harrison produced 'Shankar Family & Friends' album which dates from the same period. Also on 'Raga & Raj' are transcriptions of four of William Hamilton Bird's 1789 'Hindoostanee Airs'. (These curiosities were written for harpsichord, and a recent CD on Signum of all the Airs far outstays its welcome despite the determined advocacy of the hugely talented Jane Chapman). Concluding 'Raga & Raj' is a moving instrumental transcription by Barry Phillips of the Hindu Bhajan (devotional song) Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram.

Given the celebrity that Ravi Shankar achieved in both the East and West, it is puzzling that the work of East Meets West Music is so far off the social media radar. The label's crowning achievement to date has been the release of Ravi Shankar: The Living Room Sessions, Parts 1 and 2. These Living Room Sessions capture exquisite valedictory performances by the 91 year old sitar master at his home in Encinitas, California; their producer was Barry Phillips, with the first album quite rightly winning a Grammy in 2013, and the second earning a Grammy nomination a year later. But also noteworthy is Ashwini Bhide Deshpande's recording of six vocal ragas by Ravi Shankar on a CD titled 'Arghyam: The Offering'. Although Ravi Shankar converted the West to Indian instrumental music, he did not manage to do the same for the higher art of Indian vocal music. However, the vocal tradition had a significant impact on contemporary Western music as it influenced the minimalist pioneers La Monte Young and Terry Riley. All the releases from East Meets West Music deserve to reach a wide audience. If this post brings a new discovery to just one reader it will have done its job. And if John Luther Adams does not 'unfriend' me, that will be even better.

No review samples were used in this post. Header graphic comes from Facebook page of 'Classical Music Humor'. No specific criticism is intended of this Facebook page, it simply provides a relevant graphic. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A musician supreme

It is interesting to consider what makes music devotional, where the fine line is. The first time I felt very strongly about this was when I went to hear John Coltrane at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. When Coltrane came on stage, you were suddenly involved in a ritual. It wasn't a jazz concert anymore, it was a very powerful transformative experience. You weren't the same person leaving that place as you were when you walked in. To experience that, especially in a jazz club where there was normally drinking and smoking, was extraordinary. There was power in the music that kept the audience from getting noisy or rowdy. That's one example of devotional music happening in an atmosphere that is never considered a place of worship - even though it could be.
That is Terry Riley speaking in an interview with Peter Lavezzoli in The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, which must be one of the most important and most overlooked music books published in recent years. The current newsletter of the Institute of Composing has republished an article by me titled, quite appropriately, 'What classical music can learn from John Coltrane'.

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 on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Many dangers hedge around the unfortunate composer

The red phone box seen above has been turned into a "virtual reality concert hall" at Snape Maltings, the concert venue created by Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears. Aldeburgh Music has equipped the phone box with a headset - see below - showing a viewer-controlled video of a performance in the Maltings. Aldeburgh Music's digital manager Matt Jolly explains that the project aims to provide "a fun and immersive introduction" to the concert hall. Yes, classical music does need to experiment,and the good news is that the audio/video programme is a performance of Frank Bridge's The Sea - the impressive 360 degree 'virtual reality' video can be watched via this link. But I suggest that the following quote from Britten's 1964 Aspen Award acceptance speech is prominently displayed in the digital phone box:
There are many dangers which hedge around the unfortunate composer: pressure groups which demand true proletarian music, snobs who demand the latest avant-garde tricks ... He may find himself writing more and more for machines, in conditions dictated by machines, and not for humanity: or of course he may end by creating grandiose clap-trap when his real talent is for dance tunes or children's piano pieces.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Photos via Aldeburgh Music. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Sunday, October 04, 2015

How not to stand out

Currently riding high in the non-fiction charts is How to Stand Out: Proven Tactics for Getting Noticed by psychologist, motovational speaker and TV talking head Rob Yeung, a book that has been acclaimed as the definitive guide on how to sell yourself. As the blurb for the book tells us: "we all need to sell ourselves", and this explains why today Klout scores are more important than CVs and success is measured by Facebook 'likes', and why some music journalists never let the facts get in the way of a good tweet. But the insidious need to stand out in music and elsewhere is nothing new, as the story of George Onslow tells us.

George Onslow was born in 1784 in Clermont-Ferrand, France. His father was a wealthy English landowner, and his mother came from a distinguished French family. He showed considerable musical gifts as a child; he first studied piano where he was exposed to the great German keyboard tradition, and then took up the cello as a student in Paris. He started composing in his early twenties, and from 1808 until his death in 1853 Onslow divided his time between his country estates in the Auvergne and Paris; while in Paris he participated in the music season and his music was played in influential salons.He was a prodigious composer and his output included thirty-six string quartets, thirty-four string quintets, ten piano trios, four operas, and four symphonies. During Onslow's lifetime his compositions were acclaimed in Germany and played alongside the Viennese classics, and he was spoken of as "the French Beethoven". But following his death his music quickly fell out of both fashion and favour as a new generation of French composers - Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Franck etc - rose to prominence. The taste-making critics of the nineteenth century - the equivalent of today's digital commentariat - gave Onslow a critical mauling following his death, and the music of 'the German Beethoven' remained unpublished and unplayed until very recently.

In a perceptive essay the French musicologist and Onslow biographer Viviane Niaux has explained why the composer's career followed a boom and bust trajectory. George Onslow clearly hadn't read How to Stand Out: Proven Tactics for Getting Noticed, because he remained based in provincial Clermont-Ferrand rather moving to fashionable Paris, his aristocratic status challenged the French virtues of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, and his Viennese-influenced compositions swum against the tide of emerging French musical nationalism. So, just as still happens today, the merit of Onslow's music was outweighed many times over by non-musical factors. Or, in other words, you don't just need to be a fine musician, you must also know how to sell yourself.

Viviane Niaux's essay is published in the documentation for the first in an outstanding series of recordings of George Onslow's string quartets made by Quatuor Ruggieri. This young and immensely alented quartet is an offshoot from Les Talens Lyriques founded by Christophe Rousset. In an interview discussing the differences between Western and Eastern music, Zubin Mehta explained how in classical music - especially the Viennese school - the bass line is extremely important, because in the Western tradition - unlike in the East - the music is written vertically. As a cellist Onslow wrote superbly for the lower registers, and his skill is emphasised by the Quatuor Ruggieri's use of gut strings - audio sample via this link, video via this link. (The overlooked importance of the bass line is relevant to previous discussions of should classical music turn up the bass, of how 'standard' hall acoustics need to be rethought, of the preference for headphone listening, and - most importantly - the changing sonic expectations of new audiences).

The Quatuor Ruggieri's interpretations of George Onslow's Quartets are being issued by the small and independent French Agogique label. (Two discs are currently available). You only need to listen for a few minutes to appreciate that Onslow's music is scandalously neglected; in addition the performaces are superb, the discs are beautifully presented with excellent documentation, and the sound - particularly in Quartets op. 8 no 1 & 3 and op. 10 no 3 recorded in the Church of Sainte-Pierre, rue Manin, Paris - is demonstration quality. It is quite ridiculous that musicians are judged by their ability to sell themselves rather than their ability to make music. Not only is George Onslow neglected, but I have not seen a single mention of the outstanding advocacy of his music by the Quatuor Ruggieri in the copious online outpourings of the corporate-centric digital commentariat. As has been pointed out here before, classical music's big opportunity is to expand the appetite of its current audience. So, to misquote Carl Nielsen, give us something else, give us something new, indeed for Heaven's sake give us rather the bad, and let us feel that we are still alive, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for those who know how to sell themselves.

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 on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, October 02, 2015

In praise of the unspectacular

The effort to universalize human history has ended with the pursuit of the spectacular to enliven human understanding.
That observation is key to understanding l'affaire Sokolov and much else. It comes from Earle H. Waugh's Memory, Music and Religion, a book that also sparked my post 'Music and memory'.

The full title of Earle H. Waugh's book is Memory, Music, and Religion: Morocco's Mystical Chanters, and the photo was taken by me in Morocco close to the shrine of the Sufi saint Sidi Ali Ifni. Any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). No review samples used. Also on Facebook and Twitter.