Friday, September 19, 2014

What is the sound of no audience clapping?

Of the Akhmatova Requiem of 1979, I certainly thought when I wrote it, 'this is the best of me' (as Elgar said about The Dream of Gerontius). I do not think that now, but I still think it's a key piece... The Akhmatova Requiem is extremely monumental in character. It lasts an hour, with soprano singing almost uninterruptedly throughout, with the exception of the bass solo intonings of Orthodox prayers for the dead... Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducted it superbly at the première... He chose to perform it for his last concert as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, first at Edinburgh on 20 August 1981 and then seven days later at his farewell concert at the Proms in London. In the event the tomblike structure of the piece was just too much for the audience and there was a mass walk-out. I was sitting there beside Father Sergei Hackel [who collaborated on the text] feeling extremely uncomfortable as many of the audience walked past me. Curiously, although it was unpopular with the audience, it was very popular with the critics.
That reminiscence comes from The Music of Silence: A Composer's Testament by John Tavener. The good old days when Proms audiences stormed out may have passed, but a new CD means you can relive them. On Sept 23rd NMC are releasing the BBC recording of that 1981 Prom performance of the Akhmatova Requiem, and it will be interesting to hear whether the microphones picked up the mass walk-out from the Royal Albert Hall. John Tavener's comment that although the Akhmatova Requiem was unpopular with the audience it was very popular with the critics, is revealing. In the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, koans are given to practitioners; koans are questions that seem rational, but which have no rational answer, and they can only be solved by meditation. The practitioner has to reflect on the question for extended periods, and - most importantly - posing the question is more important than answering it.

Classical music practitioners can learn a lot from meditating on the koan 'What is the sound of no audience clapping?' Immediately there may seem to be no logical answer: because if there is no audience there can be no clapping. But meditate further. The sound of no audience clapping could be the sound of ethically compromised sponsors interested only in self-aggrandisement heading for the exits. It could be the sound of celebrity musicians returning their limited edition super cars. It could be the sound of embedded cultural commentators throwing their clickbait back into the murky water. It could be the sound of avaricious media corporations returning to the rock music they came from. It could be the sound of all those tiresome funding applications fixated with audience numbers and digital reach going through the shredding machine. It could be the sound of musicians making music because they love to, rather than because they are earning £20,000 a gig. It could be the sound of pure music - Nada Brahma. Could that really be so bad?

The concept of making music without an audience present should not be dismissed out of hand. Western art music developed from liturgical music that had no audience, madrigals were secular compositions sung for pleasure rather than an audience, and chamber music originated as communal music and not as a spectator sport. In modern times John Tavener composed liturgical music for the Russian Orthodox Church, while Benjamin Britten challenged the forbidding boundary between audience and performers with the communal hymns in his cantata St Nicholas. Speaking in a 2006 newspaper interview, Simon Rattle said:
Everybody can make music. Everybody can compose, somehow. When you want to teach children sports, they play football, or get given a tennis racket, they don't simply watch. But when we want them to be involved in music, we ask them to sit passively. This is surely not the right concept.
Engagement with audiences is the buzz phrase, yet in its frantic search for new markets, classical music has consciously disengaged. From its origins in liturgical music, where the audience actively made the music, classical music has progressed (?) to passive digital platforms, where Apple load music onto your mobile device whether you want it or not. Such is the power of the audience today that new music is exorcised from TV broadcast Proms, lest if precipitate a virtual walk-out. Such is the power of the audience today, that repeating that 1981 programme - Beethoven's Pastoral in the first half followed by John Tavener's "tomblike" Requiem - in the main evening BBC Proms slot would be unthinkable. The Akhmatova Requiem did not even make it into the Proms' late night new music ghetto this year. Yes, it is being given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on October 5th in a BBC SO Total Immersion concert as part of the Barbican's John Tavener Remembered event. But, admirable though they are, the BBC's Total Immersion concerts are just another way to lock new music away in a safe place where it cannot turn round and bite (aka wake-up) the audience.

Classical music without an audience may be unthinkable. But the crucial balance between what the audience wants and what the music demands has swung dangerously in favour of the audience. Posing the question 'What is the sound of no audience clapping?' is far more important than coming up with the answer. A little more time meditating and a little less time chasing new audiences would do classical music a power of good.

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ravi Shankar's embryonic opera is surprise success

Our tradition teaches us that sound is God- Nada Brahma. That is, musical sound and the musical experience are steps to the realisation of the self. We view music as a kind of spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to divine peacefulness and bliss.
An auspicious coincidence meant that after writing about the teaching of Nada Brahma a few days ago, I heard Ravi Shankar speaking the words above yesterday evening in an archive film. The footage was part of David Murphy's introduction to excerpts from Ravi Shankar's unfinished opera Sukanya. David Murphy was a pupil of Leon Barzin, assistant to Sir Charles Mackerras at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and English National Opera, and a longtime collaborator with Ravi Shankar. His technical credentials in both Eastern and Western music may be impeccable, but David Murphy's involvement with Eastern traditions has stll earned him the sobriquet of the 'yogic conductor'.

In 2010 David Murphy conducted the premiere of Ravi Shankar's Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The collaboration between composer and conductor developed from the Symphony into the realisation of Ravi Shankar's vision for an opera that would unite Eastern and Western musical traditions while also communicating the Indian spirituality that was so important to him. At the time of his death aged 92, Shankar had sketched the melodic shape of the whole opera, and knowing that his time was limited, left instructions for its completions. David Murphy is working on the completion, together with the librettist Amit Chaudhuri, and the pandit's daughter Anoushka Shankar and wife Sukanya Shankar.

As well as being the name of the composer's wife, Sukanya is a heroine in the Mahabharata, and Amit Chaudhuri's libretto is based on a story from the Sanskrit epic poem. Among the organisations backing the completion and staging of Sukanya are the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 59 Productions, who contributed to the multi-media sequence for the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, and the Bagri Foundation, a charity that supports Asian cultures. Two leading provincial arts venues are also backing the project, Norwich Arts Centre where last night's pre-premiere performance took place, and the Curve Theatre in Leicester where the performance is repeated on 1st October.

At this point I have to confess I approached Ravi Shankar's embryonic opera with some trepidation. Readers will know I have huge admiration for Shankar's work with Indian classical music. But I find his Western-style compositions, the three Sitar Concertos and Symphony, less successful. In these, limited Indian forces - the Symphony also uses a sitar - are forced somewhat uncomfortably into dialogue with a Western orchestra. Ravi Shankar seemed to struggle with the Western concept of thematic development and resolution, which contrast strongly with the Eastern concept of non-linear exposition of which he was a master. As a result, the thematic development in his orchestral works sometimes verges on cliché. Also adding to the trepidation was my increasing disaffection with East/West musical fusions, which all too often end up as global muzak.

But it is great to be proved wrong, and proved wrong I certainly was yesterday evening. Sukanya is, in accordance with Ravi Shankar's direction, being prepared in two performing versions; an opera house version with a Mozart sized orchestra, and the chamber/touring version that was pre-premiered at the Norwich Arts Centre. In last night's performance in the intimate acoustic of a deconsecrated church, a core of four Indian instrumentalists - sitar, shehnai (Indian oboe) tabla and ghatam (clay percussion) - was paired with nine Western string and woodwind players, with the vocal parts being taken by soprano Susanna Hurrell as Sukanya and tenor Amar Muchhala as Chyavana. The result is a genuine dialogue between East and West, rather than the shouting match that occurs when small Indian forces are matched against a full-sized Western orchestra. In fact I would go as far to say that, judging by the preview last night, Sukanya is not an East-West opera as billed, but an Eastern opera that uses sparing Western forces to justify its categorisation. In fairness credit must go to David Murphy as well as Ravi Shankar. Someone who prepared Mozart under Mackerras is going to be very experienced in balancing the voices - instrumental as well as vocal - in opera, and that experience certainly shows in Sukanya. A video sampler of a preview at the Linbury Theatre of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden can be seen here.

Ironically, when I wrote that sound is God a few days ago, I also said that "It may be my age, but those moments when a piece of music really hits me in the solar plexus seem to get rarer and rarer". I went to the preview of Sukanya with trepidation; but not only was I surprised by what I heard, I was also surprisingly moved. Completing the opera as a performing edition is a long term project. The Royal Opera House has made a shrewd decision to back David Murphy and his collaborators. Sukanya, with its trans-cultural pedigree and message that there is life beyond Western materialism, may be just the opera to show that Anna Nicole is not the only way to attract new audiences.

My ticket for Sukanya was bought at the Norwich Arts Centre box office. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Spare us Lebrecht's Scottish fantasia

John Purser's book seen above tells the story of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBCSSO) from 1935 to 1987, and covers in detail the attempt in 1980 by the BBC's London management to disband the orchestra. The story of how that decision was overturned following a strike by all the BBC orchestras and support from leading musicians including Colin Davis, Pierre Boulez and Carlo Maria Giulini has been told here before. Over the years I have also recounted how, when I lived in Scotland during the 1980s, the BBCSSO played its heart out for its Stirling audiences at the Macrobert Arts Centre. Among the memorable performances I heard there was a Sibelius Sixth Symphony with Charles Groves, a Walton Viola Concert with a very young Nigel Kennedy and Mahler's First Symphony, conducted, if my memory is correct, by Jerzy Maksymiuk. More recently, as readers will know, I have spent much time with the BBCSSO recordings of music they commissioned from Jonathan Harvey, including Speakings and Body Mandala, and, in fact, Jonathan played in the back desk of the orchestra's cellos whe he was a post-graduate in Glasgow.

In a 2008 post written after a incandescent BBCSSO Rachmaninov Second Symphony at Snape, I asked Is this the best British orchestra? In that post I explained how "the orchestra's Scottish location has been a positive help... it gives them a wide geographic canvas to work on in contrast to the London orchestras who work in a claustrophobic, ego-ridden and often politically toxic atmosphere". An example of that ego-ridden and politically toxic atmosphere is a piece by Norman Lebrecht titled 'Scotland will lose an orchestra ‘the morning after independence’', written, quite unashamedly, to opportunistically exploit tomorrow's Scottish independence referendum. In a forensically precise riposte to Lebrecht's Scottish fantasia, Gavin Dixon points out that: "The text that follows doesn’t mention a source for this [headline], suggesting [Lebrecht] is quoting himself". While in a comment on Gavin Dixon's Facebook page another music journalist Andrew Mellor talks about "Norman's traffic-orientated tabloid pessimism". The latter comment is supported by my Google search which reveals that there have only ever been three mentions of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on Slipped Disc, two in connection with the Scottish referendum and one when the orchestra cancelled a concert following the 2013 Glasgow helicopter tragedy.

My family has wonderful memories of the years we spent in Scotland, and our daughter was born there. But Doctor Who actor David Tennant had it absolutely right when he said: "As I chose to leave Scotland many years ago, I forfeited my right to tell Scottish residents how to run the country". My respect for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is boundless, and I wish it the very best for the future. I am quite certain the orchestra will continue to flourish whatever the outcome of the referendum; because it will still have that priceless advantage of being hundreds of miles away from the claustrophobic, ego-ridden and politically toxic atmosphere of the London music establishment.

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Not much clickbait in this post

A footnote in the newly published Resonances of the Raj: India in the English Musical Imagination,1897-1947 refers to my anecdote about Alex Ross broadcasting Kaikhosru Sorabji's monumental Opus Clavicembalisticum on Harvard's student radio station WHRB shortly after the composer's death in 1988. The anecdote appeared in a post titled Talk about immortal masterpieces is rather ridiculous, and the book's author Nalini Ghuman deserve praise for shunning immortal masterpieces and, instead, devoting a scholarly but readable volume to dispelling the myth that Indian music was 'discovered' in the post-colonial era. In support of her thesis Nalini Ghuman shows how four composers - Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Kaikhosru Sorabji and John Foulds - were influenced by the culture of the pre-colonial subcontinent. I am certain that Resonances of the Raj will not be trending on Twitter, and recommendations do not come any higher than that.

Header image is original vinyl LP release of Sir Adrian Boult's 1976 recording of Elgar's Second Symphony, and the artwork reproduces William Logsdail's The Lord Mayor's Show in 1888. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use" for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Assume all technology 'guilty until proven innocent'

The photo above generated quite a bit of interest when it first appeared here a couple of months age. It was taken at 15,000 feet on one of the highest roads in the world and shows the Tibetan Buddhist monk Kenrap-la listening to Jonathan Harvey's Body Mandala. When I took the photo we were approaching Kenrap-la's monastery at Thiksay at the end of the 800 km drive across the Himalayas from the Gangetic Plain of northern India to Ladakh on the border of Tibet. Body Mandala was playing on my iPod Classic, and it had been ripped from an NMC CD bought in independent retail store Prelude Records. As regular readers will know, my listening model is a large CD/vinyl collection that is selectively ripped to portable media for mobile listening. It is a hybrid model that is used by a lot of people, and the listener is not the only winner, because the musicians get a fair royalty, independent record stores stay in business, and the listeners have control over the music they listen to, and how they listen to it.

But it is a model that may not be around much longer. In May Apple purchased leading music streaming service Beats, and just last week the iPod Classic, with its 160GB of storage capacity, was quietly discontinued as part of Apple's strategy of moving from stored to streamed music. Speaking in defence of streaming, Spotify's vice president of product Frederic Vinna has argued that "Streaming is about access versus ownership." An alternative view is that streaming is about sweat equity investors versus financial speculators. Benjamin Britten identified the holy triangle of composer, performer and listener, and at the heart of the streaming debate, and also at the centre of almost every other debate in classical music, is the shift of control from sweat equity investors - composers, performers and listeners - to powerful financial speculators who want to grab control of the music we listen to and how we listen to it. The agenda of those speculators is dictated by nothing other than short term financial gain, as the profile of investors backing the Groovebug streaming service, the technology partner behind Universal Music's new DG Discovery streaming app, reveals.

I continue to be surprised that many otherwise knowledgeable classical music listeners have little understanding of the dramatically different business model behind streamed music, with many thinking that downloaded and streamed music share very similar business models. This debate is not about new versus old technology, and it is not about CDs versus the classical cloud. It is about who controls the music. Virgil Thomson once wisely said: "Never underestimate the public's intelligence, baby, and never overestimate its information". A major problem with music streaming is the one-sided information about it. The next time you read a press release from Apple, Deutsche Grammophon, Groovebug or any of the other champions of music streaming, work your way through the following ten point checklist. It was compiled by Jerry Mander in 1991 when the digital age was just dawning, but, if anything, it is even more relevant today.

1. Since most of what we are told about new technology comes from its proponents, be deeply skeptical of all claims.

2. Assume all technology 'guilty until proven innocent'.

3. Eshew the idea that technology is neutral or 'value free'. Every technology has inherent and identifiable social, political, and environmental consequences.

4. The fact that technology has a natural flash and appeal is meaningless. Negative attributes are slow to emerge.

5. Never judge a technology by the way it benefits you personally. Seek a holistic view of its impacts. The operative question in not whether it benefits you, but who benefits most? And to what end?

6. Keep in mind that an individual technology is only one piece of a larger web of technologies, 'megatechnology'. The operative question here is how the individual technology fits the larger one.

7. Make distinctions between technologies that primarily serve the individual or small community and those that operate on a scale outside of community control. The latter is the major problem of the day.

8. When it is argued that the benefits of the technological lifestyle are worthwhile despite harmful outcomes, recall that Lewis Mumford referred to these alleged benefits as 'bribery'.

9. Do not accept the homily that 'once the genie is out of the bottle you cannot put it back', or that rejecting a technology is impossible. Such attitudes induce passivity and confirm victimization.

10. In thinking about technology within the present climate of technological worship, emphasize the negative. This brings balance. Negativity is positive.

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