Monday, March 27, 2017

The art of understanding the ordinary

Understanding the ordinary:
Not understanding the ordinary:
Blindness creates evil.

Understanding the ordinary:
Mind opens.

Mind opening leads to compassion,
Compassion to nobility,
Nobility to heavenliness,
Heavenliness to TAO
There is definitely nothing ordinary about the keyboard music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, which forms an important but too often overlooked bridge between the high baroque of his father's circle and the emerging classicism of Haydn and Mozart. And there is nothing ordinary in the playing of the Croatian pianist Ana-Marija Markovina whose discerning interpretations on a 'modern' Bösendorfer are faithfully captured in Hänssler Classics' 26 CD anthology of C.P.E. Bach's complete works for solo piano. But in an age when the classical promotion machine practises its own nuanced version of 'if it bleeds it leads', I suspect that this admirably bleed-free release will be misguidedly judged ordinary. The TAO tells us* that understanding the ordinary opens the mind. And listening to Ana-Marija Markovina playing C.P.E. Bach also opens the mind.

* Quotation is from Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo's purist translation of Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching. 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.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Belief and beyond belief

In tune with the zeitgeist, the London Philharmonic dedicated yesterday's performance of Mozart's Requiem to the four victims of Wednesday's terrible attack at Westminster. But the orchestra passed on the opportunity to dedicate the other work in their programme, Strauss' Death and Transfiguration, to the 200+ Iraqi civilians killed in the coalition airstrike on Mosul five days before the London atrocity - see photo above. Predictable but ironic: because the concert was a central event in the Southbank Centre's much-trumpeted Belief and Beyond Belief festival, which "looks at the broader questions of what it means to be human... in the 21st century".

Photo via LA Times. 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.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Who needs the Berlin Philharmonic?

A conductor making great music with a first class orchestra is a delight. A conductor making great music with a third class orchestra is a miracle. I will remember Louis Frémaux, who has died aged 95, for the miracles he worked with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In the 1970s when Frémaux was its principal conductor, the CBSO was a third rate and ill-disciplined band: Simon Rattle tells of how at the time if a conductor asked the violin section to play a passage using the same part of the bow the players would laugh and ask why. Given this, Frémaux's recordings with the CBSO such as the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony - still one of the finest interpretations committed to disc - and Massenet's ballet music from Le Cid are nothing short of a miracle.

EMI recorded the Saint-Saëns in the Great Hall of Birmingham University, although the artwork, of course, shows the Cavaillé-Coll instrument in La Madeleine, Paris. In 1978 relations between the CBSO's management and players broke down completely and Frémaux walked out on the orchestra on the same day as the general manager. This left a gap which Simon Rattle filled; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Above and below is my 1973 SQ quadraphonic pressing of the Saint-Saëns Symphony. That year I worked on EMI's SQ demonstration at the Olympia Audio Fair. This involved playing the Allegro moderato - Maestoso - Allegro final movement of the Saint-Saëns repeatedly at very high levels for three days. Louis Frémaux's interpretation is indeed miraculous. But almost half a century I still cannot hear the work without shuddering.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

What is important is to be your own Master

To fresh matters must I now refer, indeed there's much to say.
One night I spent as a passing guest in a friend's house.
Sufficient was the meal, even though today, come what may,
Some men are reluctant to open their doors to visitors.
It takes but little patience to spend the evening together,
Enough time for intentions, worthy and unworthy, to show.
Say what I must, these times are at one good and bad.
As to what fate holds in store, how should we know?
We lack nothing material, yet our minds are in turmoil!
That is the opening stanza of the contemporary Berber ballad Hospitality Betrayed from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco composed by Sheikh Assu of Ishishawn*. The photo is from Cette Lumière by Dominique and Miloudi Nouiga which takes its title from Jiddu Krishnamurti's teaching "L’important c’est d’être à soi-même sa propre lumière, son propre maître et son propre disciple [What is important is to be a light unto yourself, to be your own Master and disciple]". This exquisite French/ Darija book documents life in the village of Ait Hamza in the Atlas Mountains. Paul Bowles documented this region sonically in his 1959 field recordings which have been lovingly remastered for CD release by Dust to Digital. Cette Lumière was purchased on my recent visit to Morocco which included visiting the Middle Atlas - post to follow. Last year I trekked in the High Atlas to a soundtrack of Paul Bowles' recordings and I will return to that region where the magnificent belittles the material later this year.

* Extract is transcribed from the collection Berber Odes by Michael Peyron. No review samples used. 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.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Music the Internet is hiding from you

Recent compelling rail trip listening included the new CD La Voix de la Passion (Voice of Passion) from the young Syrian singer and oud player Waed Bouhassoun. In 2015 I wrote about her previous album L'Âme du luth (Soul of the oud) and on this new disc she juxtaposes settings of Nabataean poetry from southern Syria and Arab poetry from the cultural Indian summer of Al-Andalusia - sample via this link.

In his 2011 book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You Eli Pariser explained the dangers of the little-understood filter bubbles created by the personalisation algorithms used by Facebook, Google and other major Internet players. These algorithms maximise web traffic by personalising - in other words skewing - content to pander to the known likes of individual web users. In very simple terms this means that clicking on or 'liking' Facebook statuses about Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla means your news feed will be skewed to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla-related content, and mentioning Jonas Kaufmann in your Gmail messages will push Jonas Kaufmann-related results to the top of your Google searches . But it also means that as very few readers will have googled Syrian oud music or 'liked' statuses mentioning Waed Bouhassoun, this post about a very fine musician - female to boot - will receive minimal exposure on social media. And this is just one example: because the work of many other deserving musicians from the Western and other traditions is also hidden by the ubiquitous bubble filters. Moreover selective filtering is not confined to the Internet giants.

Eli Pariser describes how "In the filter bubble, there's less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning" and how "Creativity is often sparked by the collision of ideas from different disciplines and cultures". On both sides of the Atlantic there is currently much righteous indignation about restrictions on the movement of populace across borders that helps spark these vital collisions of ideas. Yet we all (yes, this post is bidding for 30 seconds of social media fame) aid and abet a technology that covertly and very profitably suppresses this vital collision of ideas. The $3 million cost of Donald Trump's weekend Mar-a-Lago getaways and uninformed guesses at the cost of Brexit are the lifeblood of social media; but the filter bubble-driven annual profits of Facebook - $10.2 billion - and Google - $6.8 billion - hardly merit a mention. We live in very strange times.

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.