Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Those are my principles, and if you don't like them...


Joyce DiDonato undoubtedly has a peerless vocal technique, but she also has a peerless technique for pushing media hot buttons. At the last night of the 2013 BBC Proms Ms. DiDonato had journalists eating out of her hand when she dedicated a performance of the gay anthem 'Somewhere over the rainbow' to 'voices silenced' over gay rights. Then in February this year her record label Warner Classics carpet bombed journalists with a video of her singing at the Stonewall Inn - see image above. The accompanying press release told how she sang at the birthplace of the gay rights movement as a "tribute to victims of intolerance and injustice". Media hot buttons were not so much pressed as hammered and the video went viral in response. With just one exception, the media assiduously ignored the inconvenient truth that less than three months later - on May 1st to be precise - Joyce DiDonato was taking her own Drama Queens project to the Royal Opera House in Muscat, the capital of Gulf State Oman. It is an inconvenient truth because, as the U.S. State Department travel advisory for Oman explains, "Consensual same-sex sexual conduct is illegal in Oman and is subject to a potential jail term of six months to three years".

That pro-gay protest by Joyce DiDonato at the 2013 BBC Proms was specifically targeted at the Russian government for - to quote her blog - "systematically silencing their own citizens and those of us that support them around the world". These are very worthy sentiments, but the facts need to be made clear. In contrast to Oman, same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults was decriminalized in Russia in 1993. The law passed by the State Duma in June 2013 against which Ms. DiDonato and others protested, did not recriminalize same-sex sexual activity. It banned "the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors, an offence if committed by Russian nationals punishable by a fine and not imprisonment. Such censorship is not confined to Russia, and media monitor Freedom House reports that: "Oman’s 1984 Press and Publications Law is one of the most restrictive statutes of its kind in the Arab world, and serves to create a highly censored and subdued media environment". In 2013 Reporters Without Borders highlighted how two Omani journalists faced judicial proceedings for publishing an article titled “The Outsiders” about gays in Oman. While in March this year Human Rights Watch reported how an activist blogger was imprisoned for three years for for criticizing the Omani government and its policies.

It goes without saying that the Russian government's anti-gay stance is deplorable and should be protested. But prominent classical musicians are conveniently singling out Vladimir Putin's government for protests while continuing to tacitly support other regimes - notably in the Gulf States - with far more repressive anti-LGBT laws. Joyce DiDonato is just a topical and outspoken example: among others whose tour itineraries have included the Gulf are Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, Riccardo Muti, Anne-Sophie, Joshua Bell, Jiří Bělohlávek, Jordi Savall, and Iván Fischer with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. As Groucho Marx once famously explained: "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others".

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

There's a story about a Sufi master who was walking with one of his pupils, near a huge field. In the field there was a man who was digging holes. This man had dug two hundred holes two feet deep. Observing this the pupil, the pupil asked, "O my master, what is he doing?".
"I don't know. Let us ask him," the Sufi answered. They called him over, and asked what was the purpose of digging so many holes just two feet deep.
"I'm looking for water," the man said. The Sufi master told him, "It's unlikely that you will find water by digging two hundred holes that are only two feet deep. You have a better chance of finding water if you dig one hole two hundred feet deep.
That Sufi teaching* came to mind when I read details of the 2015 BBC Proms. Header photo was taken a few days ago outside the Zaouia Moulay Idriss II in Fez, Morocco, where I was attending the Sufi culture festival.

*Sufi tale is adapted from When You Hear Hoofbeats Think of a Zebra: Talks on Sufism by Shems Friedlander. 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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

This rare Bruno Walter recording is a real revelation


A post here a few years ago discussed how the legendary conductor Bruno Walter was a disciple of the Austrian philosopher, educationist and founding figure in the Theosophy movement Rudolf Steiner. Theosophy is a syncretic tradition, but the discovery on Amazon of the recording seen above was still a surprise. Bruno Walter was of course one of the great interpreters of Wagner; which gives a whole new meaning to the question Are we ready for an Islamic interpretation of Wagner?

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Music of things


In 2015 the big new technology trend is the 'internet of things'. In this the focus shifts from software to physical objects, with digital technologies moving from being an end in themselves to a tool that increases the utility of 'things' such as cell phones, coffee makers, washing machines and wearable devices. The internet of things provides an interface between the physical and virtual world, and its emergence sends the important message that no matter how clever the technology, digital solutions can only enhance and not replace physical interactions. This message needs to be taken on board by the classical music industry, where the obsession with virtual content has turned streaming into flooding. Confirmation that the virtual can never replace the physical is also coming from within the music industry: in 2014 9.2 million vinyl records were sold in the US, the best year since the monitoring of vinyl sales by Nielsen restarted in 1991. Received wisdom tells us that vinyl sales are booming because analogue records sound better than digital CDs. But in an article on quartz.com music industry commentator Bob Lefsetz begs to differ, explaining that in his view:
Vinyl is agitation against a disconnected society where we have no way to display our identity. If it were really about sound, people would be gravitating to Deezer Elite and Tidal. But they’re not, because they don’t want to hear better sound, they want to own something.
The money quote is that classical listeners want to own something, whether it is owning a physical CD or LP, or owning the shared experience of hearing great music live in a concert. Classical music must embrace the shift from the virtual to physical by celebrating the music of things in the form of physical recordings and live performances. Quite rightly much attention is paid to the musicians who make live concerts possible, but too little attention is paid to the dedicated retailers who make owning CDs and LPs possible. Saturday April 18th is World Record Store Day, an event that celebrates the culture of independently owned record stores. Without independent record stores On An Overgrown Path would not exist, and there have been many celebrations of these dedicated retailers here over the years. Physical recordings are more than vinyl LPs or polycarbonate CDs: they are also bold visual statements that express agitation against a digitally connected but physically disconnected society. So to celebrate the 2015 World Record Store Day I offer bold visuals from a CD that I discovered recently in one of the world's great record stores, Concerto Records in Amsterdam. Oud virtuoso Haytham Safia was born in Northern Galilee, but is now based in Europe and the artwork is from his CD U'D on the Dutch Loplop label. I will now leave you with those ravishing graphics as I am swapping the virtual world for the music of things and travelling to Fez for the Sufi Culture Festival. As Sufi master Rumi instructs us in the Mathnawi: "Say less, learn more, depart". Back soon insha'Allah.


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