Monday, June 27, 2016

Listening to music attentively is meditation

As I grow older and as the world grows more insane - both of which seem to be happening at an accelerating rate - I find more and more wisdom in the thinking of Jiddu Krishnamurti, who is seen above. His teachings are very relevant to our current predicament, particularly his sentiment that "We are human beings, not labels". Writing in the introduction to the anthology of his teachings Freedom from the Known, his biographer and editor Mary Lutyens - mother of the still-neglected composer Elisabeth Lutyens - explains:
A major obstacle, [Krishnamurti] says, is when we misapply thought based on past experiences to a completely new challenge that demands to be looked at totally anew. Avoiding action that is wrongly dictated by the past is clearly often a problem for our political leaders.
Freedom from the Known was compiled at the request of Krishnamurti and its title was given by him to its editor Mary Lutyens. During its editing Krishnamurti said to her that "If you have read this book for a whole hour attentively, that is meditation". At the risk of being accused of misparaphrasing Krishnamurti, I suggest that, similarly, listening to music attentively for an hour is meditation. Which resonates with my recent musings about repositioning classical music as a rejuvenating, as opposed to entertaining, experience.

But the keywords in Krishnamurti's teaching, whether applied to music or reading, are for a whole hour attentively. The current obsession with accessibility dictates that virtual experiences take precedence over flesh and blood engagement. Which means masterworks are dissected to provide " snackable access to classical content", and music is now listened to inattentively - on the move via mobile devices, or in concerts where live tweeting and other distractions are encouraged. A reader commented on an earlier post that: " Listening to music, and I mean listening hard, alters the music, and preparing to listen makes it twice as strange. And wonderful". We don't need to change sartorial conventions, lighting, concert venues, or any other fashionable target. We just need to revive the lost art of listening.

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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Social media and the Brexit autumn

The Arab Spring in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt was dubbed the 'Twitter revolution' because of the role played by social media, and social media activity is now central to political strategies. Following the Leave victory in the UK EU referendum, considerable attention is being paid to the role of age, education and other demographics in the split between Leave and Remain. But to my knowledge there has been no attempt to correlate propensity to vote Leave with social media usage. Analysis shows that those over 60 were most likely to vote Leave, and, those with a higher level of education were more likely to vote Remain. So in the absence of empirical data I am proposing that as social media usage is highest among the young, well-educated and socially mobile, it is highly likely that Leave voters have a materially lower usage of social media.

It is acknowledged that phenomenological as opposed to virtual events provided the tipping points in the referendum; notably the now apparently disowned promise that £350million a week would be spent on the NHS if the UK backed a Brexit vote, and Remain's misguided highly negative 'campaign of fear' strategy based on the message that a vote for Leave would trigger a recession and cost UK households an average £4300 a year. It is also acknowledged that old-school media in the form of personal appearances, TV interviews and tabloid press coverage played a pivotal role in the Leave victory; a victory after which Sun editor Tony Gallagher commented: “So much for the waning power of the print media.”

Which leads me to contend that social media did not play a decisive role in the EU referendum. But moreover I propose that the inflated view of social media's ability to trigger change is both misleading and dangerous. That proposition is relevant both to classical music's ongoing digital fixation, particularly as the age profile of its core audience mirrors that for Leave voters, But far more importantly, my proposition is very relevant to the forthcoming US presidential election. The chattering classes have been replaced on both sides of the Atlantic by the twittering classes, who have failed to notice that the only audience for their twittering is fellow social media addicts. An apocryphal definition states that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet with Brexit almost a done deal, the twittering classes continue to repeat the same thing over and over again in the hope of a different result - see header graphic. All those on Facebook and Twitter who are similarly reprising rants againt Donald Trump et al hundreds, if not thousands of times, should learn the Brexit lesson of the voting power of the social media-lite cohort before is too late.

Yes, Brexit is insane. But the social media lamenters should heed Daniel Barenboim's wise words: "There are now two possible reactions. To lament Brexit and watch extremist movements in other countries such as France and the Netherlands seeking to follow the example of Great Britain. Or, to think about necessary improvements for the EU and to work together towards a true spirit of unity and collaboration, especially in finding a global solution for the refugee crisis and not an exclusively European one".

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Saturday, June 25, 2016

We reap what we sow

'... the EU Commission has been dysfunctional throughout the process and unfit for purpose. What needs to be done to make these time-servers democratically accountable?' - Slipped Disc: 31/5/2016

'This EU press release has just landed. It’s an instant fudge that admits no error and patches over the recent chaos. An appalling piece of misgovernance from start to finish' - ibid: 1/6/2016
Those are just two of the public attacks made by Norman Lebrecht on the EU during his coverage of the recent European Union Youth Orchestra funding crisis. It is bad enough that this is the same 'cultural commentator' who tweeted yesterday that "Turkey just voted for Christmas" and "All things considered, we're screwed". But what is worse is that none of classical music's great and good have the balls to disassociate themselves from Lebrecht's cynical opportunism. Readers will know that I am passionately pro-inclusivity, and it goes without saying I believe that the UK EU referendum arrived at the wrong decision. But we need to understand that the 'leave' vote was not just prompted by misguided views on immigration. It was also an understandable but wrong-headed rejection of the cynical opportunism of our politicians and other opinion formers. Krishnamurti told us that leaders destroy followers and followers destroy leaders. Unless we stop behaving like sheep and following without question David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Norman Lebrecht and others, all things considered, we're screwed

Much solace during difficult times has come from Alia Vox's reissue of Jordi Savall's interpretation of the Eroica Symphony. The performance by the early instrument Le Concert des Nations was captured during an all-night session in 1994, and in remastered SACD sound it blazes even more passionately than in the original release. It's current relevance is enhanced by Beethoven's redaction of its dedication to a contemporary leader. No review samples involved 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.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

How we shot the messenger

Yesterday brought the shocking news of the murder in Karachi of the great Pakistani qawwal singer Amjad Farid Sabri, killed according to early reports by the Taliban. News media has focussed on the circumstances of his death, with minimal coverage of his art other than via the easy option of embedded YouTube clips. But Amjad Farid Sabri deserves to be remembered for more than being a famous Sufi singer who was allegedly murdered by the Taliban; both because he was part of a musical dynasty that built pioneering cultural bridges between the East and West, and because his backstory provides a valuable perspective on the sectarian violence that continues to blight the Indian subcontinent.

Amjad Farid Sabri - seen above - was born in 1976. He was the son of Ghulam Farid Sabri (1930-1994), who was one of the two musicians - the other was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan - responsible for popularising the genre of Sufi devotional music known as qawwali. Ghulam Farid Sabri came from a celebrated family of musicians that stretched back to the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great (1542-1605). In contrast to the cultural dualism of the 21st century, Ghulam Farid Sabri was trained in both qawwali and Hindustani classical music; the latter being a product of the Hindu culture of Northern India.

Their involvement with Hindustani music reflected the Sabri family's roots in the part of the Punjab that is now in India. Following Partition in 1947 into the Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan sectarian violence erupted in the Punjab; so the Muslim Sabri family relocated to a squalid refugee camp outside Karachi in the new state of Pakistan where they lived for two years. The Partition of India, which was no more than a fatally flawed but expedient exit strategy for colonial Britain, prompted a conveniently forgotten humanitarian tragedy. In the first two years of Partition more than fifteen million people were uprooted; the final death toll is unknown but conservative estimates put it at more than one million. Writing in his history of Partition Midnight’s Furies, Nisid Hajari reports how "Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.”

Ghulam Farid Sabri survived the post-Partition horrors and established a reputation as an outstanding exponent of Qawwali. In 1956 he formed the Sabri Brothers qawwali party with his brother Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, and he started his recording career with EMI Pakistan in 1958. The Sabri Brothers played a seminal role in the evolution of qawwali as we know it today. They fused popular ragas associated with the Mughal court of Akbar the Great with Middle Eastern rhythms driven by the dholak and tabla which invoked the heartland of Islam. The arrival of television in Pakistan in 1967 with weekly qawwali programmes boosted the popularity of the Sabri Brothers in their homeland. In 1975 the Sabri Brothers undertook a pioneering American tour and performed at Carnegie Hall. During a second American tour in 1978 they recorded the album for Nonesuch's Explorer Series seen below, a disc which introduced many Western listeners - including this writer - to qawwali. Amjad Farid Sabri had been taught by his father since a young age, and in 1982 at the age of twelve he joined his father's qawwali party. Following the deaths of his father in 1994 and uncle Maqbool Ahmed in 2011 he became a leading exponent of qawwali, and his genre-bending performances with ensembles such as the Chicago-based hip-hop band FEW connected with a new young audience.

There is absolutely no debate that the Taliban should be condemned for the murder of Amjad Farid Sabri, if they were indeed responsible. But as H.L. Mencken told us, for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. And it is clear, simple, and wrong to blame the Taliban alone for his death. As William Dalrymple explained in a thoughtful New Yorker article: "Today, both India and Pakistan remain crippled by the narratives built around memories of the crimes of Partition, as politicians (particularly in India) and the military (particularly in Pakistan) continue to stoke the hatreds of 1947 for their own ends". The Taliban and their inexcusable atrocities are part of the monstrous legacy from British colonial ambitions in India and American political ambitions in Afghanistan and elsewhere. So it can be argued that we are all in some way responsible for the murder of Amjad Farid Sabri. But let us avoid the trap that has ensnared other commentators of allocating blame. Tragic though his death is, we must remember Amjad Farid Sabri for his music which brought a venerable spiritual tradition to 21st century audiences.

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Riches brew

The revelation that the music director of an American orchestra received more than $5 million US dollars in remuneration in 2013/14 reminds me of a quote from Miles Davis, whose wise words explain many of classical music's current problems:

'Anybody can play. The note is only 20 percent. The attitude of the motherfucker who plays it is 80 percent'.

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