Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Classical music needs wider as well as younger audiences

Arguments continue to rage as to whether classical music is elitist. If the commonly accepted definition of elitist as an offensive air of superiority is applied, classical music has little to answer for. However, if the alternative definition of control by a select and powerful group is used, the defence is much weaker. Classical music remains a predominantly white, Judaeo-Christian, Euro-centric, corporate-controlled, male dominated art form, and, even in the 21st century, attitudes such as ’I don't believe in Negro symphony conductors’ still persist. This ethnocultural hegemony extends to the repertoire, which remains rooted in the white, Judaeo-Christian tradition. This means that the term 'classical music' is automatically assumed to refer to Western classical music, despite there being an equally strong tradition of classical music in non-Western countries. Western society is now ethnically and culturally diverse; yet, despite this, virtually every attempt to expand the market for classical music has centred on reaching a younger segment within the existing culturally exclusive audience. This strategy inevitably perpetuates the ethnocultural elitism seen in the photo* above, which was taken in the Avery Fisher Hall, New York.

However, there are some noteworthy initiatives that challenge the white, Judaeo-Christian hegemony of classical music. One such challenge comes from the Salzburg Summer Festival, a historically conservative institution that was co-founded by Richard Strauss in 1920, and which over the years has hosted legendary musicians including Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan. The 1930s were a dark period in the history of the Salzburg festival, when elitism of the most vile kind desecrated the music. But much more recently Salzburg has challenged tradition with the introduction of the Ouverture Spirituelle festival-within-a-festival. Launched in 2012, each year this trans-cultural festival brings together sacred music from Christianity and one of the other great perennial traditions. In 2014 the Ouverture Spirituelle brought together music from Christianity and Islam, and earlier this year I was delighted to be invited to write three essays for the Festival programme books. Delighted, because not only did this commission show that an alternative voice can also be an authoritative voice, but, additionally, it provided an opportunity to develop some of the themes that have preoccupied me On An Overgrown Path over the last ten years.

Quick fixes of overturning concert hall conventions such as formal dress and clinical lighting will not revitalise classical music on their own. The solution is far more complex and longer term: we need wider as well as younger and - don't forget - older audiences, and we also need to retain and value the current core audience. Salzburg's Ouverture Spirituelle is just one component in what is, hopefully, an emerging multi-faceted long term solution, and over the coming weeks I will be publishing my three programme essays here. The first is reproduced below; it complemented an iconoclastic concert by the choir of Bayerischen Rundfunks and instrumental soloists directed by Rupert Huber. In the concert sacred Christian music from Anton Bruckner and Hildegard von Bingen was coupled with the world premiere of a choral work by the Palestinian-Israeli composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi celebrating the 9th century Sufi martyr Manṣūr Al-Ḥallāǵ.

Intoxicated by a love for God

Bob Shingleton

Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179)
O Jerusalem aurea civitas (Hymn to St Rupert)

Anton Bruckner (1824–96)
Mass No. 2 in E minor WAB 27

Samir Odeh-Tamimi (b. 1970)

The Spanish scholar of Islamic studies and Catholic priest Miguel Asín Palacios described Sufism as ‘Christianized Islam’. He argued that Sufism is notable for reconciling Islam and Christianity by identifying Jesus, Isa in Arabic, as a messenger of divine love. This year’s Ouverture spirituelle celebrates the music of Christianity and Islam, with tonight’s concert bringing together those two monotheistic faiths, with the world premiere of a composition celebrating one of the leading figures in Sufism coupled with two acknowledged masterpieces from the Western Christian tradition.

Manṣūr Al-Ḥallāǵ was born in southern Persia in 857CE. He became a pupil of Junayd of Baghdad, who was an early proponent of the ‘sober’ school of Muslim mysticism. But in complete contrast to his teacher, Al-Ḥallāǵ followed the path of ‘intoxicated’ Sufism with an unrestrained love for God. (It was this path that another great Sufi master, the founder of the Mevlana order, Jalāluddin Rūmī, followed 400 years later.) Al-Ḥallāǵ is celebrated among the intoxicated Sufis for advocating total integration with God and the complete obliteration of the ego. He wrote a number of influential texts including The Book of Justice and Unity and he was a prolific poet. His cerebral and passionate verse is best known for its advocacy of union with God, but it also ventures into opaque and abstract meditations on Sufi psychology and obscure Arabic riddles. An active missionary for Islam, Al-Ḥallāǵ travelled to Turkestan and on to China via India. In common with many Christian mystics of the period, Al-Ḥallāǵ enjoyed a reputation as an alchemist, not in the sense of converting base metals, but rather the transmutation of human souls to attain true wisdom in the form of sophic gold, a goal that looks back to the primeval Egyptian tradition of Hermeticism.

But Al-Ḥallāǵ’s metaphysical intoxication was his downfall: his commitment to total integration with God led him to make the heretical declaration ‘Ana al-Haqq’ (I am the truth as a manifestation of God). A fatwa was issued and Al-Ḥallāǵ was imprisoned in Baghdad for eight years before being tried. He was defended by a prominent Islamic jurist who argued that metaphysics were beyond the control of Sharia Law, but despite this, Al-Hallaj was found guilty and his teacher Junayd, the ‘sober’ Sufi, acquiesced to his execution. The condemned mystic was taken to a public square in Baghdad where he was given 500 lashes before his hands and feet were amputated. The next day he was beheaded by decree of the Caliph and his body burnt; this last act was a final gesture of humiliation, as Islam teaches that the dead will be raised in the form in which they died.

The miracles that the Persian Sufi poet Attār reports as occurring at the time of the execution resonate with biblical accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. Three days before Al-Ḥallāǵ’s death his followers found his cell empty; when asked, on his return the next day, what had happened, the Sufi explained that he had been away with God. It is reported that when, as a final punishment, his ashes were scattered in the Tigris River, they recited, ‘I am the truth’, and the waters then started to rise, threatening to flood Baghdad. Although Al-Ḥallāǵ is still viewed by some orthodox Muslims as a heretic, he is revered among Sufis for his teachings and as a martyr who retained a compassionate attitude towards his executioners. In the West he, together with 
Rūmī and Ibn Arabi, is celebrated as the mystical and liberal face of Islam.

This evening’s concert features the premiere of the Palestinian-Israeli composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi’s settings of texts by and about Manṣūr Al-Ḥallāǵ. Odeh-Tamimi was born in Israel in 1970. Having established a reputation playing percussion and keyboards in ensembles specializing in traditional Arab music, he moved to Germany in 1992, where he studied at Kiel University and was influenced by contemporary composers such as Lutosławski, Nono and Xenakis. He has since developed a unique composing style, blending Islamic mysticism and the discipline of Quar’anic recitation with European instrumentation and avant-garde influences.

Settling in Berlin, Odeh-Tamimi met the Tunisian writer Ali Mosbah, who had translated Nietzsche’s Ecce homo and Also sprach Zarathustra into Arabic. Their conversations would often turn to the subject of Al-Ḥallāǵ, though Odeh-Tamimi stresses that his interest was not religiously motivated. ‘When I say I’m not motivated by religion, I mean not in the traditional sense. I’m a spiritual person, but not necessarily associated with a particular religion.’ ‘The message of Al-Ḥallāǵ’, he says, ‘is beyond the scope of a specific religious community. The central idea behind my new piece is that man is defined by his understanding whereas God defies definition.’ Odeh-Tamimi is fascinated by Al-Ḥallāǵ’s personality as well as his poetry and his new composition celebrates Al-Ḥallāǵ the mystical deviant, as well as Al-Ḥallāǵ the great Sufi teacher.

Elements of Sufi ritual inform Odeh-Tamimi’s work, recalling the secret nightly worship of his grandfather, a well-known Arab Sufi healer. ‘I am truly fascinated not only by the words’, he says, ‘but also by the whole world of music that stands behind them’. Samā, for instance, is the Sufi practice of moving meditation; the word literally means audition or listening. Witnessing the rituals of his grandfather’s community, in which he would sometimes be allowed to play the drums, Odeh-Tamimi was captivated by the group as it became completely dissolved in the prayers’ rhythmic oscillations. Repetitive chant therefore features prominently in Manṣūr, which is scored for large choir, as well as four brass players and two percussionists, exploiting the spatial possibilities of the Kollegienkirche.

The Western Christian tradition is represented in this concert by the music of Hildegard von Bingen and Anton Bruckner. Hildegard, who was born at the end of the 11th century in the Rhineland town of Bingen, is celebrated both as a pioneering composer and an influential mystic. From the age of three she experienced visions that she believed were direct communications from God. She became a nun at a very young age and in 1150 she established the monastery of St Rupertsberg. Like Al-Ḥallāǵ, she wrote influential theological treatises, but she also composed a number of major liturgical works and a musical morality play. It is suggested that her sequence, O Jerusalem aurea civitas (Hymn to St Rupert), may have been composed for the rededication of St Rupertsberg, which had been rebuilt following its levelling by Viking invaders.

That context of the construction of a scared building links Hildegard’s O Jerusalem aurea civitas to Bruckner’s Mass No. 2 in E minor, composed to celebrate the building of the Mariendom in Linz. It was given its first performance in the Votive Chapel in 1869, though the Cathedral was not completed in its entirety until after Bruckner’s death, in 1924. Bruckner, who was born in 1824, received his early musical training as a choirboy in the Abbey of St Florian in Upper Austria. His monastic upbringing led him to become intensely religious; it has been said that Bruckner ‘prayed his music’. His Catholic faith, which rivalled Al-Ḥallāǵ’s unrestrained love for God, permeated all of his compositions. This performance of his Mass forms part of a wider celebration of Bruckner’s music at this year’s Festival, including a complete cycle of the symphonies, in which we find quotations from two of the masses and from the Te Deum; Bruckner scholar Hans Ferdinand Redlich speaks of an ‘affinity of mass and symphony’.

All three works in tonight’s concert are, then, intoxicated by a love for God. Mirroring Al-Ḥallāǵ’s metaphysical fervour, Hildegard spoke of being ‘encircled by the arms of the mystery of God’, while Bruckner dedicated his Ninth Symphony, his last, ‘to beloved God’. Musicologist Denis Raisin Dadre has drawn attention to the similarities between the laude sung by the 16th-century Christian confraternities and the rituals celebrated by Sufi brotherhoods. The convergence of the two monotheistic faiths has likewise attracted the attention of many scholars, including the Trappist monk, Catholic author and peace activist Thomas Merton who wrote that ‘Sufis are after what we’re after: the dissolution of one’s present status in order to be reintegrated on a new level.’ By bringing together three examples of music intoxicated by a love for God, this concert shows how the dissolution of present statuses can lead to musical and cultural reintegration at a new and higher level.

After graduating, Bob Shingleton worked for the BBC and EMI Records. During the 1970s he was professionally involved with the Salzburg Festival where his responsibilities included ensuring that photos of Herbert von Karajan were displayed prominently throughout the city. Since retiring Bob has pursued his interest in the more esoteric aspects of music and he writes the arts and music blog On An Overgrown Path.

* Header photo is from a New York Times article titled Classical Music is Not Dead and is credited to Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images. Second photo was taken by me at the shrine of the shrine of the thirteenth century Sufi Shaykh Yusuf Abu al-Hajjaj in Luxor, Egypt, the third at the Catholic L'Abbaye La Lucerne in Normandy. My thanks go to Gavin Plumley, the commissioning editor of English-language programme notes for the Salzburg Festival for his generous support. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Which version of the truth do you want?

On August 27th 2014 BBC Two TV screened the first of a four part documentary Hotel India billed as "A look behind the scenes of India's oldest and most famous hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai". On November 26th 2008 the Afghanistan based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked a five-star hotel in Mumbai in a city wide terror campaign that left at least 167 people dead. Anyone without prior knowledge watching the BBC's Hotel India, which the Guardian reviewer described as "PR puff", would not have connected the terror of 2008 with the hedonistic paradise of 2014 portrayed in the BBC documentary, yet alone realised that the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel was at the centre of the attacks. Thirty-one of the dead were killed in the hotel which is seen under attack in the photo above.

It may be that the remaining three episodes will correct the blatant editorial imbalance - described by the Guardian reviewer as "one of the more extreme cases of amnesia" - and cover the atrocities that took place in Hotel India. It may be that these episodes will address the allegation made in the meticulously researched The Siege: Three Days of Terror Inside the Taj* (p, 90) that many of the security steps recommended by the Indian police and implemented by the Taj Mahal Palace management following reliable warnings of a possible terrorist attack had been dismantled, because the luxury hotel argued "it could not be expected to sustain a war footing". Or it may be that the newly-appointed BBC Trust Chairwoman Rona Fairhead will inject a healthy dose of truth into future BBC programmes. I do not want to pre-judge Ms Fairhead, and, of course, there is no suggestion that she had any influence on Hotel India. But the following is an illustration of the tensions that can arise when a corporate high-flyer is appointed to a senior position on the governing body of an editorially independent broadcaster.

The new BBC Trust chairwoman is a former ceo of the Pearson owned Financial Times Group and continues to hold positions as a non-executive director of PepsiCo and HSBC. While over on the Indian sub-continent, multinational conglomerate Tata Group has its headquarters in Mumbai close to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Its subsidiary Tata Interactive Systems numbers Pearson Education among its clients, Tata AIA Life Insurance has a partnership with HSBC, Tata Global Beverages has a joint venture with PepsiCo, and Tata's Indian Hotels Company owns 108 luxury hotels around the world, including the Taj Mahal Palace, otherwise known as Hotel India. I am sure Rona Fairhead will inject a healthy dose of truth into future BBC editorial coverage. But which version of the truth will it be?

* For an objective and thoroughly researched account The Siege: Three Days of Terror Inside the Taj by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark is highly recommended. Header image is via ComingAnarchy. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Social media hysteria will not help new music

I decided to set some of the Vespers texts that Monteverdi had set, but I did not want to write an orthodox Roman Catholic Vespers. Religious music is difficult to write nowadays because most composers (I think it is fair to speak generally) can no longer feel themselves part of established religions; yet the religious impulse is there in all of us, and religious works of some kind are, I think, still needed. So perhaps the only approach one can adopt is as an individual, stating what one can believe and no longer attempting to uphold doctrines that are no longer tenable.
Those refreshingly frank and level-headed thoughts come from David Matthews' note for the new recording of his Vespers and Seventh Symphony. After first immersing himself in the music of Michael Tippett and then spending three years as an assistant to Benjamin Britten, David Matthews (b.1943) emerged as a pioneer of tonal compromise. This important stylistic school avoids academic sterility while also avoiding romantic platitudes; the Seventh Symphony was commissioned from David Matthews to complement Mahler's Seventh, and its post-romantic modernism must surely appeal to the new generation of Mahler-fixated concertgoers.

Convincing performances, from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Carewe in the Seventh Symphony and together with the Bach Choir conducted by David Hill in the Vespers, earn this disc a strong recommendation, as does David Matthews' invocation of the Hindu god of destruction Kali in the Alma Redemptoris Mater of the Vespers. Particular mention should be made of the remarkably lifelike sound - particularly in the expansive climaxes of the Vespers - captured by the Dutton Epoch production team in the Lighthouse Poole. Independent label Dutton have recorded six of David Matthews' seven symphonies, while NMC have completed the cycle to date with a re-issue of a Unicorn Kanchana disc of the Fourth.

As I said in my last post, the BBC's treatment of new music is scandalous. But what is equally scandalous is that the music journalists who are leading the current witch-hunt against BBC Four TV, themselves only champion new music when it suits their opportunistic personal agendas - which means when it provides them with a Sinfini Music splash, a BBC Radio 3 appearance, an exclusive newspaper feature, or Twitter fodder. There is a huge amount of deserving new music out there that does not ever receive a Proms performance, a Sinfini Music splash, a Radio 3 mention, a newspaper feature, or Twitter coverage, yet alone a BBC Four TV broadcast. Spreading the word, even when it does not suit personal agendas, would be a far more productive way to support new music than the current social media hysteria over three minutes of missing Birtwistle.

No review samples, Sinfini Music splashes, BBC Radio 3 appearances, exclusive newspaper features, or Twitter fodder were involved in this post. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

When is dumbing down not dumbing down?

The dumbing down of classical music by the BBC is truly scandalous. However, it it is ironic that Norman Lebrecht and other music journalists are getting so hot under the collar* over the loss of three minutes of Harrison Birtwistle's music from BBC Four TV: because the same journalists have been assiduously ignoring - no, disingenuously denying - that BBC Radio 3 has been dumbed down for years. Is three minutes of missing Birtwistle the straw that has finally broken the camel's back? Or does the fact that BBC Four TV has a far less generous budget than BBC Radio 3 for commissioning music journalists have something to do with it?

* To avoid inflating search engine rankings, links to Slipped Disc are deliberately indirect; the destination of the link should appear at the top of the Google search results. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.