Sunday, March 01, 2015

Think on these things

Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with some else’s ability or with the thought 'The monk is our teacher'. When you know in yourselves: 'These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness', then you should practice and abide in them.
With those words of the Buddha from the Kalama Sutta and a photo from my travels on the the Manali to Leh highway in Jammu and Kashmir I leave you to spin again on the wheel of life. Take care but also take risks.

Translation of Kalama Sutta is taken from Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs. 'Think on these things' is both a Biblical quote and the title of a book by Krishnamurti. Photo (c) On An Overgrown Path 2015. Any other 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, February 27, 2015

If there is a paradise, it is here, it is here

The area of experience that 'mystical' and 'spiritual' refer to is often not empirically verifiable, that is, a camera can't photograph it, a scale can't weigh it, nor can words do much to describe it. It is not physical, emotional or mental, though it may partake of those three areas. Like the depths of our loving, mystical experience can be neither proven, nor denied
That quote comes from Coleman Barks' introduction to his book The Soul of Rumi. I bought my copy last year in the estimable Full Circle Bookstore that is part of Café Turtle in Nizamuddin East Market near the shrine of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya in New Delhi. But that header photo was not taken in New Delhi; it was taken in Clare Hall, Cambridge last Saturday during an evening of ragas played by the Cambridge Hindustani Trio. It is self-evident that the Hindustani music of Northern India, of which the mystical raga is the apogee, is rooted in Hinduism. But Hindustani music also contains Muslim influences: the dominant Khyal genre absorbed influences from the Qawwali music of the subcontinent's Sufis, and both the sitar and sarod seen in the photo originate from Muslim Afghanistan. In his celebration of the Sufi saint Rumi, Coleman Barks describes how mystical experiences cannot be captured by a camera or in words. Similarly the experience of hearing and seeing the prodigiously talented young musicians of the Cambridge Hindustani Trio* selflessly serving the spiritual music of India cannot be captured in a photograph or words, or in a stream of binary digits. Western classical music should stop chasing impossible dreams of miracle maestros, new concert halls, and thaumaturgic technologies. As the Persian poem inscribed on the wall of the Red Fort in Delhi tells us in an echo of the Sufi fable The Conference of the Birds: "If there is a paradise, it is here, it is here".

* Members of the Cambridge Hindustani Trio are: Left of photo Avradeep Pal playing sarod - Avradeep began playing the sarod at a very young age. He was trained in the Senia Mihar Gharana (lineage) by the late Pandit Kamal Mallick and Gopi Mohan Basu, and has also received training from Shrimati Amina Perera (daughter of the legendary Ustad Ali Abar Khan), Pandit Kartik Kumar and Pandit Nayan Gosh. Centre of photo Parth Gharfalkar playing tabla: Parth has studied the tabla since the age of six, first with Pandit Pankaj Naik of the Punjab Gharana, then from Pandit Rajkumar Misra of the Jaipur Gharana after Parth moved to London at the age of eight. Right of photo Angelina Morelos playing sitar - Angelina has been playing the sitar for more than fifteen years with her teacher the sitar maestro Pandit Manilal Nag. She is a national scholar and gold medal winner in Indian music. My ticket for their concert was bought at the Clare Hall box office. Photo is by Arijita Pal. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). This post is also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

There could be worse ways to start a career

In Amati magazine Jessica Duchen interviews the prodigiously talented young composer and conductor Duncan Ward. In the interview much is made of how Duncan Ward was "appointed as the first conducting scholar of the Berliner Philharmoniker Orchester-Akademie on the recommendation of Sir Simon Rattle", how he is working as assistant to Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic, and how the young composer is writing a piece for Rattle and his wife the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená to perform. The interview comprehensively documents Duncan Ward's very impressive career to date but omits one fact: he is managed by Askonas Holt - see above - as are Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic, Magdalena Kožená and others namechecked in the interview. If the buzz that is building around Duncan Ward induces déjà vu, it may well be because another young conductor called Gustavo Dudamel was managed by Askonas Holt early in his career, and received similar coverage, including endorsement from Simon Rattle. As Jessica Duchen says on Facebook, there could be worse ways to start a career. Duncan Ward is clearly a huge talent and is certain to go far. When Sir Simon is appointed music director of the Askonas Holt represented London Symphony Orchestra, I expect to see Duncan Ward guest conducting them in the new London concert hall.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Unsurpassed Haydn

The recent sad death of John McCabe cannot be allowed to pass without a mention of his recording of the complete Haydn Piano Sonatas for Decca in the 1970s. His account has never been surpassed and probably never will be surpassed. If somebody had told me ten years ago that I would now listen to more Haydn than any other composer I would have laughed at them. Which just goes to show that my world and my music are never one and the same.

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.

How the long tail is being priced out of the market

Mode Records is a New York label specialising in contemporary music. Their distributor in the UK is Harmonia Mundi, who. like several other distributors, sells direct via Amazon marketplace. When the Mode CD of John Luther Adams' Strange and Sacred Noise reaches Harmonia Mundi in the UK they sell it direct to the public for £16.25 (£14.99 + £1.26 delivery) - see screen grab below - and must be making an acceptable margin in the process. But when the CD makes the short journey to one of Amazon UK's distribution centres, the price increases to £23.18 as in the screen grab above. (Both prices applied on Feb 22, 2015). This represents a 43% (£6.93) price hike by Amazon. This inflated pricing by Amazon is an increasingly common occurrence on long tail titles, and is, presumably, a function of the online retailer's increasingly dominant market position as independent retailers are forced out of business. The large differential between the CD at £23.18 and the MP3 download at £8.99 should also be noted. Yes, this reflects a difference in distribution and stockholding costs. (Although as I write Amazon only holds two copies of Strange and Sacred Noise in stock). But as independent retailers cannot offer the download version, it conveniently hastens the collapse of long tail distribution by independent retailers. Amazon's strategy of using digital content as a route to not only control distribution but also become the owners of intellectual property - more than 500,000 books are available only on the Kindle eBook platform - is a disruptive development that is receiving too little attention. Apple's ambition "to be the music business", which may mean iTunes owning as well as distributing content also has major ramifications for the long tail.

It is unlikely that other UK music writers will be covering Amazon's pricing policies, because don't buy their CDs. But there may be an additional reason: several writers have monetised relationships with Universal Music's Sinfini website, which has now spread its tentacles into Holland and Australia. And Sinfini Music has a monetised relationship with Amazon via a range of Universal Classics compilation albums which are sold as downloads via Amazon, but not released on CD and therefore unavailable to independent retailers. Which should be read in conjunction with the news that Apple is currently looking for a music journalist to manage a team of freelancers writing about iTunes content. The next time someone tells you that classical music's biggest problem is the lack of a designer concert hall in London, please correct them.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

London and Dublin - a tale of two cities

John Luther Adams' Become Ocean receives its European premiere on March 6th. The Pulitzer Prize and Grammy winning work is being performed in Dublin by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jamie Phillips in a programme that includes music by Anna Clyne, Irene Buckley and David Lang. In London on the same night both the the Royal Festival Hall and Barbican are dark. If you want to hear classical music in London around March 6th the two principal venues offer Hobson's choice. Two days before in the Royal Festival Hall, the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment offers the distinctly unenlightened programme of Dvorák's New World Symphony and Brahms' Violin Concerto with Iván Fischer and Viktoria Mullova - ironically that header image is being used by the OAE to promote their concert. At the Barbican on the 5th March there is the London Symphony Orchestra in a programme that includes a John Williams movie soundtrack and a second half with a " a unique and dazzling mix of classical, jazz and folk music", while seven days later the LSO and their principal guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas - his salary as music director of the San Francisco Symphony is $2.41 million - offer a little Colin Matthews and a lot of Gershwin and Shostakovich - the latter the war horse Fifth Symphony.

In Dublin a hungry and visionary conductor and orchestra premieres Become Ocean, which is one of the most important and comprehensible pieces of classical music composed in recent years. In London two quite serviceable but not ideal venues are dark on the same Friday night. Yet the London Symphony Orchestra and the classical music establishment is lobbying to bring to London another highly paid celebrity conductor - Simon Rattle's Berlin salary is conservatively estimated at £750,000 - to play over-exposed music in a new £300 million concert hall. This while funding for grass roots music making is being slashed, and when provision of arts facilities is already heavily skewed towards London and other metropolitan centres.

The role of classical music's power brokers, the management agents, in the lobbying for a new London concert hall should not be overlooked. Simon Rattle's agent is Askonas Holt, who also represent the London Symphony Orchestra and its principal guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. At the risk of stating the glaringly obvious, as an agent's commission is a percentage of their client's earnings, Askonas Holt stands to benefit financially if Rattle is appointed to the LSO and a new hall is built. Incidentally, to keep it in the family, Askonas Holt also represent Mrs Rattle, the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená who sung with her husband and the Berlin Philharmonic in their recent performance of Mahler's Second Symphony in London. At the risk of repeating myself, it is also worth pointing out that the other soloist in the Mahler, Kate Royal, is also managed by Askonas Holt, while, yes you guessed it, Askonas Holt represents the Berlin Philharmonic and masterminded their recent London concerts and residency.

Before leaving the subject of a new London concert hall it should be noted that the non-executive chairman of Askonas Holt Michael Cassidy CBE helped prepare the City of London Cultural Strategy 2012-17 in his role as chairman of the board of governors of the Museum of London. Michael Cassidy has been in legal practice for over 40 years, focussing on UK and international investment, mostly for major pension funds. He currently holds the position of chairman of the City of London Property Investment Board, having previously been chairman - policy & resources and chairman planning for the City of London and president of the London Chamber of Commerce, and chairman of the Barbican Centre.

Mr Cassidy is also non-executive director responsible for championing the funded arts programme for Crossrail Ltd, the company that is building an east-west rail link across London. The business interests of Askonas Holt's non-executive chairman extend beyond London, and following Chancellor George Osborne's announcement in the 2014 budget that Ebbsfleet in Kent was to become a new garden city, Michael Cassidy was appointed by the government as chairman designate of the new Ebbsfleet Development Corporation. Outside the UK Mr Cassidy is a non-executive director of the Swiss UBS investment bank; the sponsorship by that bank of the London Symphony Orchestra has featured on An Overgrown Path previously. But I am starting to repeat myself, so let's cut to the chase. In my humble opinion classical music does not need a new concert hall in London. Classical music just needs to wake up to the blindingly obvious.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Whatever happened to the long tail of composers?

Reader Antoine Leboyer writes to point out that the New York Philharmonic has made its programme archive available online and that the archive shows how past programmes were far more varied than those played today. Here are just some of the composers that Antoine highlights from past concerts by the orchestra: Siniaglia, Busoni, Bosi, Chadwick, Stanford, Loeffler, McDowell, Hadley, Goldmark, Pfitzner, Enesco, Vieuxtemps and Grétry. Antoine also remarks on how Webern's music has virtually disappeared from New York concerts in recent years. One of the many confidence tricks of the digital era is how a long tail of cultural riches was promised, but a short head immaculately coiffed by audience whoring celebrities was actually delivered. I suggest that one of the key search criteria for the New York Philharmonic's new music director should be a passion for giving audiences permission to like unfamiliar music.

Graphic is grabbed from the New York Philarmonic archive landing page. Any copyrighted material is included for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.