Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Now that's what I call World Music

Photo was taken in the serendipitously named Bob Music in Essaouira, Morocco. Jimi Hendrix has a local connection, while Karl Munchinger's Bach is naughty but nice. Posts now become intermittent while I travel.

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Your cat is a music therapist

A recent post told how a cat crossed my path at the Sufi shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. Cats are cherished in Islam, and in response to my post a friend who is an adept of the Naqshbandi Sufi Order sent me a link to an article on a Sufi resource. This is about the healing power of cats, and I thought it worth sharing an edited and annotated extract with my readers. The article can be read at two levels. At one level it can be taken as an amusing mix of fuzzy science and New Age babble, as indeed can this whole and many other Overgrown Paths. But drilling down further reveals another level. The power of music to nourish and heal the human spirit and body has been conveniently forgotten in the headlong rush to turn classical music into just another tawdry entertainment. Classical music is not about snackable access, celebrity maestros, live tweeting, self-promotion, free streaming, and all those other big new idea. It is about only one thing - sound. Ancient wisdom tells us that Nada Brahma - sound is god. And both science and visionaries such as the Sufi master and musician Hazrayt Inayat Khan tell us that sound is about only one thing - vibrations.

The article explains how medical research has identified that low frequencies can trigger changes in the human body. This takes us on to themes that will be familiar to Overgrown Path readers, including the overlooked importance of infrasound (very low frequencies), the damaging effect on music of limiting frequency range, the role of bass in connecting with new audiences, and above all the healing power of music. The opening reference to the healing power of trance rituals such as the Sufi dhikr (and also the Gnawa lila) is also relevant to classical music. One of the most popular and enduring Western classical compositions is Ravel's Bolero, and this is thought to have been inspired by a Sufi dhikr that Ravel attended in Tunisia (Claudio Naranjo). Research has shown that the frequency of brain waves determines our moods, and trance and other beneficial moods are induced by low frequency Theta waves; while the the theory of auditory driving postulates that rhythmic low frequencies can 'drive' brainwave frequencies down.

That classical music must change has become a mantra. But to date the change has been no more than ineffectual cosmetic surgery aimed at enhancing the art form's mass market appeal. The article's conclusion that if you are recovering from an injury you should hug a purring cat may be pure whimsy, but recognising the power of great music to nourish and heal the human spirit and body is not. Now here is the article:

A cat's purr is often compared to the dhikr, the rhythmic chanting of the Sufis, which was also used in early Islamic hospitals as a healing process. Research has identified the healing powers of a cats' purr, specifically how the sound frequency of the purr has as an anabolic effect which stimulates growth and maintenance of the human body. Dr. Clinton T. Rubin of the SUNY Department of Biomedical Engineering is an authority on the use of vibration for non-invasive, non-pharmacological treatment of bone injuries. His research has confirmed that exposure to frequencies between 20-50 Hz* (at low dB) assists healing and increases bone density.

The frequency of a cat's purr falls well within this optimum range for bone growth and fracture healing, and extends up to 140 hertz. Which confirms the old veterinary saying that is still repeated in veterinary schools: " If you put a cat and a bunch of broken bones in the same room, the bones will heal." (Research in China independently corroborates the beneficial effects of low frequencies on fracture healing, and biomechanical stimulation using frequencies between 18 - 35 Hz is widely used in sports medicine to relax strained muscles and increases the stretching ability of tendons.) Other research shows that low frequencies can alleviate pain and speed the healing of soft tissue injuries in tendons and muscles. Exposure to frequencies between 50-150 Hz has been found to relieve suffering in 82% of persons suffering from acute and chronic pain. The non-profit Fauna Communications provides an online resource drawing together the studies of the cat's purr as a bio-mechanical healing mechanism.
Vibrations at frequencies between 20 and 140 Hz are therapeutic for bone growth, fracture healing, pain relief, swelling reduction, wound healing, muscle and tendon repair, increasing mobility of joints and the relief of dyspnoea. Research has identified that the dominant frequency of a cat's purr lies within this range, while prominent harmonics enhance and extend the therapeutic effect. In summary there is powerful evidence that the cat's purr is a healing mechanism - so if you are recovering from an injury, you should hug a purring cat.
* Frequencies of low register instruments: Piano - A0 (28 Hz) to C8 (4,186 Hz or 4.1 KHz), Cello - C2 (65 Hz) to B5 (988 Hz), Double Bass - E1 (41 Hz) to B3 (247 Hz), Drums (Timpani) - 90Hz to 180Hz, Tuba (Bass) - F1 (44 Hz) to F4 (349 Hz), Trombone (Tenor) - E2 (82 Hz) to D5 (587 Hz) Organ - C0 (16 Hz) to A9 (7,040 KHz).

My thanks go to Yahya Lequeux of the Naqshbandi Haqqani Order for the heads up on the article and for his continuing wisdom. All the Sufi cats were photographed by me in Essaouira, Morocco; the cat in the header photo was one of three resident on the roof terrace of our rented apartment. 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, May 13, 2016

There are two sides to every argument

Yesterday the European Union Youth Orchestra announced it was to cease operations from September 2016 due to the termination of funding from the European Union. That is truly terrible news and everything possible must be done to allow that fine orchestra to continue its invaluable work. But the EUYO's case is not being helped by the classical music establishment. For example, Norman Lebrecht led with the hysterical headline that the European Union had "abolished the orchestra". Which is simply not true. The EU chose not to continue their funding; which may be a very bad decision. However the decision to cease operations was made by the orchestra itself, and the circumstances leading up to that decision deserve closer examination.

Funding in roughly three equal parts from box office income, sponsorship, and public sources has been the model in other music institutions - see my article on Aldeburgh Music. Public subsidy for classical music is being reduced, and audience numbers are not increasing. Which means - whether we like it or not - commercial sponsorship has become a vital source of income for orchestras. But available information shows that although the EUYO is supported by a number of trusts and charitable foundations, its first and only 'multiannual corporate partner' did not come on board until spring 2015. However the orchestra's longstanding EU funding stream ended early in 2014, since when it has have survived on interim EU funding which "could not sustain the Orchestra". Which means the financial crisis must have been on the horizon since 2013.

The orchestra states that it "has been in regular contact with the EU to attempt to find alternative funding from the EU", but makes no mention of other attempts to restructure its finances and become less dependent on the frangible EU subsidy. The EU has directly financed the EUYO for 38 years, which makes the ending of funding particularly unbearable. But can the EU, which faces catastrophic change triggered by the Middle Eastern humanitarian tragedy, and which is under schismatic pressure to reduce its own expenditure, really justify funding an orchestra in these very different and difficult times?

For every complex problem there is an answer that is simple and wrong. And, quite predictably, the classical music establishment led by Norman Lebrecht has come up with the simple and wrong answer of launching a vitriolic personal attack on the EU commissioners. These, incidentally, are the same commissioners who are responsible for the policies that allow music students to move freely within the European Union, a policy that Lebrecht and others have praised lavishly recently.

The EU is wrong to end the orchestra's funding in this way. But from the available facts - and I welcome clarification and correction - it appears that both the EU and EUYO could have done a much better job of managing the transition to a different funding structure. If classical music is to be taken seriously in Brussels and elsewhere it needs advocates who can argue its case persuasively while recognising that the geopolitical and financial landscapes are undergoing seismic change. We need the European Youth Orchestra. But we also need music advocacy that is both convincing and balanced. Information on how to support the European Union Youth Orchestra in its fight for survival is available via this link.

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Has Edmund Rubbra's time finally come?

Will the directive in today's government White Paper that the BBC must put "distinctive content" at its heart means less Mahler and more Rubbra at the BBC Proms?

Banging the drum for oppressed women musicians

Quite rightly the gender balance in classical music is being corrected. But too much emphasis is being placed on the women musicians who achieve celebrity status in an art form eviscerated by celebrity fixation, and too little attention is paid to the less fortunate women who are at last being given the opportunity to make music.

While in Morocco recently I attended one of the music workshops that Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb has been running for local women in Essaouira for five years. That is Ahmed in my photo above; he is an adept of the Derkawa Sufi Order, and as a musician has performed extensively in Europe. His workshops have a particular importance because although they are not repressed in the same way as their counterparts in the Gulf States, women still play a subordinate role in Moroccan society and suffer from low levels of literacy.

Unlike more orthodox branches of Islam, Sufism has an enlightened attitude to women, and the mystic and poet Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya who lived in the the 8th century was the first female Sufi saint. In Essaouira there is a unique variation of the celebrated Gnawa lila trance ritual known as the hadra which is performed exclusively by women - Les Haddarates Souiriyattes. Falling numbers threaten the tradition of the hadra, and Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb hopes to keep this threatened tradition alive through his workshops. He is also an artistic advisor to the town's Festival Joudour, and this year the festival's female strand - Festival Hadra Féminine et Musiques de Transe - is showcasing no less than twelve ensembles of women musicians representing mystical traditions from as far afield as France, Algeria, Tunisia and Senegal; a video of the 2015 festival can be viewed here. Trance music - of which Gnawa from Marrakech and Essaouira is the most celebrated form - is performed in healing ceremonies, and Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb is also a music therapy practitioner. His latest album Parfum d'Amour is a collaboration with French classical cellist and transpersonal therapist Emmanuelle Robert which combines musical improvisation and Sufi verse - sample the fusion of a Bach Cello Suite and a transcendental text via this link.

My time with the women musicians of Essaouira reminded me of the wise words of Percy Grainger that I quoted when I wrote about Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb's transcultural collaboration Shore to Shore last year:
I firmly believe that music will someday become a 'universal language'. But it will not become so as long as our musical vision is limited to the output of four European countries between 1700 and 1900. The first step in the right direction is to view the music of all peoples and periods without prejudice of any kind, and strive to put the world's known and available best music into circulation. Only then shall we be justified in calling music a 'universal language.

Thanks go to Ahmed Abdelhak Kaâb for his time and wisdom. My Moroccan travels and accommodation were self-funded. Photos were all taken by me and are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2016. 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.