Thursday, September 22, 2016

A dog is a musician's best friend


That photo shows Cretan music legend and contemporary modal master Ross Daly with some of his five dogs. All are former street dogs that Ross and his partner in music and life Kelly Thoma have taken into their home – there is an ex-street cat as well. I took the photo a few days ago in the grounds of Ross' Labyrinth music co-operative in Houdetsi, Crete. At the beginning of October Ross and Kelly are playing a concert in aid of the street dogs of Heraklion. Two musicians at the top of their game play a fund-raiser for stray animals; it's a different world here on Crete, and sorry, but I think it's a better one.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

I design gardens with music

Zen has cast its influences on figures as different as John Cage and Toru Takemitsu. Takemitsu was working in a Western musical language, but, like a Japanese novel translated into English, his compositions contain something different. Takemitsu said he only uttered 80 per cent of any idea, in what could be construed as powerful understatement; the rest is silence, the pregnancy of the unsaid, ma. Ma, a profoundly important concept in Japanese culture, is the silent understanding when friends are together, or when one is contemplating nature or art - when meaning is intense but nothing is expressed.

That is Jonathan Harvey writing in his book In Quest of Spirit: Thoughts on Music. In Japan the silent contemplation of nature reaches its apogee in the art of Zen gardens. Buddhism came to Japan from China via Korea in the 7th century, and the first known garden designed on Buddhist principles was created in 618 by a Korean immigrant Roji-no-Takumi. In this pioneering garden Mount Semeru (the mountain at the centre of the Buddhist universe supporting the heavens) was represented by a mound linked to a viewing point by a connecting bridge, and this established the principle of the Zen garden as a visual haiku,. Over the subsequent centuries the art of the Zen garden has been refined, but their function as visual haikus remains their raison d'être. Much of Japan is mountainous, so 94% of the 126 million population is crowded into urban areas where space is at a premium, and the Zen garden allows nature and spiritual symbolism to be brought into urban areas where space is at a premium.


As Jonathan Harvey recounts, Zen was a major influence on Toru Takemitsu. Zen gardens were a particular influence on the composer, and he once explained that 'I design gardens with music'. The Saiho-ji Temple in Kyoto designed by the 14th century Zen priest Muso Soseki inspired Takemitsu's Dream/Window for orchestra. Another work that reflects the composer's preoccupation with Zen gardens is his Spirit Garden; this uses a twelve note row to generate three chords each of four notes, with these sound 'objects' being heard in a sonic garden from different perspectives. This preoccupation is reflected in the numerous botanical references in the titles of Takemitsu's music, including In an Autumn Garden, A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden, Tree Line, Garden Rain and Music of Trees.

William Glock's discrimination against certain composers in the 1960s and early 1970s is a cause célèbre. The current more nuanced neglect of other composers receives insufficient attention. Takemitsu is an important figure in late-20th century music whose oeuvre is progressive yet accessible. Despite this the last time his music was played at the BBC Proms was in 2010 and his works have only featured in thirteen Proms. It is a pithy comment on the priorities within classical music that in the last six years Paddington Bear has made more appearances at the Proms than Toru Takemtisu's music. For those who have not experienced Takemitsu's exquisite sonic gardens, the low-priced 2 CD Brilliant Classics overview of his music - which includes Spirit Garden - goes where the Proms planners fear to go.



Buddhist author and teacher Stephen Batchelor explains that "A Zen garden can say as much about what the Buddha taught as the most erudite treatise on emptiness". When I first visited Japan in the 1980s I spent time in the famous Zen garden at Ryoan-Ji temple in Kyoto. Since then it become a tradition to create a Zen garden at each of our homes. The accompanying photos show the garden designed and built by my wife and me in our current home in Norfolk. This visual haiku represents the Buddha striving to reach enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya. The barriers to enlightenment are represented by the cluster of rocks seen in the photo above, and enlightenment is depicted by the yukimi-gata (snow-viewing) lantern seen below. Contemplating our spirit garden helps me to understand what Toru Takemitsu meant when he wrote:
...I wish to search out that single sound which is itself so strong that it confronts silence. It is then that my own personal insignificance will cease to trouble me.

Sources include:
In Quest of Spirit: Thoughts on Music by Jonathan Harvey
The Art of Zen Gardens by A.K. Davidson
A Japanese Touch for Your Garden by Kiyoshi Seiko, Masanobu Kudō & David. H. Engel
Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor

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Monday, September 12, 2016

The music we write about deserves a wider audience


It is ironic that my recent post on the decline of music blogging attracted a record readership. Unsurprisingly my trenchant post was assiduously ignored by the high profile blogs, despite generating so much interest elsewhere. But others ventured where the grandees feared to go. Cambridge University Library houses among its many riches the papers and manuscripts of William Alwyn, one of numerous neglected composers who have been championed On An Overgrown Path over the years. Writing on the Cambridge University Library blog MusiCB3 Margaret Jones observes that: "Blogging is dead? Well, perhaps not just yet. It can be an unexpected way into academia for music that is not mainstream, or is even considered 'dangerous'”, and Margaret punctuates her typically astute post with links to many useful and little-known music blogs.

On Facebook world music maven Joshua Cheek agreed that my pessimistic assessment of music blogging "sadly hits it on the mark". Significantly one of the most thoughtful responses to my post came from a blog covering music outside the Western classical tradition. The Free Jazz Collective and On An Overgrown Path share a passion for 'dangerous' music such as the album seen above - Jazz Meets India from the iconoclastic Swiss free jazz group the Irène Schweizer Trio. To be meaningful blogging must be passionate, and the dividing line between passion and self-aggrandisement is fuzzy. But the response of Stef writing on The Free Jazz Collective blog spells out very eloquently the reasons why I have blogged for eleven years:

The music we write about deserves a wider audience, and often we write for the converted, but at the same time listening and writing about it has widened my musical horizons, and together with the evolution of the music itself, our readership has gradually expanded too, reaching more people.

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Composer offers sound advice


The Last Night of the Proms shenanigans presided over by Sakari - "the Proms should not be dumbed down" - Oramo brought to mind the following declaration by Gérard Grisey:
'We are musicians and our model is sound not literature, sound not mathematics, sound not theatre, visual arts, quantum physics, geology, astrology or acupuncture'
That is Gérard Grisey (1946-98) in the photo above. Together with Tristan Murail he was a pioneer of the spectralist movement which used as its raw material the DNA of music - sound. Spectralism creates sound colours by exploiting the harmonics produced by combination of tones - sample via this link. Art music has evolved over the centuries through the combination of tones, starting in the East with the Vedic belief in the sacred power of the harmonically complex chanted OM, and in the West with the move from the monody of plainsong to the harmonic complexity of polyphony. Because spectralism has been central to the development of music its exact definition is a movable feast. But evidence of it can be found in the music of, inter alia, Debussy, Varèse, Messiaen, Claude Vivier, and Jonathan Harvey.

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Last Night thoughts on the future of music

Culturally, humanity is presently living through an extremely important transitional period. A process is in motion which slowly but surely is bringing together the different cultures of the world to find one terrestrial culture. It seems that this movement is headed more towards an impoverishment than an enrichment. More and more the non-Western cultures are literally being drowned by Western culture without any exchange of culture which would have been desirable for human thought. What we want is the conscious man, who carries with him all the traditions that the earth has brought us. We want a human being who by his/her uniqueness can truly unify the rest of humanity. The future of music cannot be seen without the essential contribution of other cultures. The human spirit can only be cosmic when implementing the whole of its cultural heritage.
I offer that wisdom on the day when Hubert Parry's inspired setting of William Blake will once again be torn out of its context at the Last Night of the Proms. The quotation comes from Claude Vivier (1948-1983) who is seen above, and is taken from his 1977 article in Musicanada titled 'Letter from Bali: Islands of Dreams for Composers'. Vivier's orchestral work Siddhartha was written before the composer's extended visit to Asia. But in his monograph 'Claude Vivier, Siddhartha, Karlheinz Stockhausen, la nouvelle simplicité et le râga' composer and musicologist Jean Lesage draws attention to the similarities between the use of melodic cells in Siddhartha and the raga form of Indian music. It is a sign of encroaching cultural impoverishment that Claude Vivier's music has only had one Proms performance and is all but absent from the current CD catalogue - the excellent 2006 Kairos recording of Siddhartha and other orchestral works is now deleted.

This post draws on the invaluable Claude Vivier: A Composer's Life by the late Bob Gilmore. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). No review samples used in the post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.