Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jordi Savall's bold gesture leaves me puzzled

Jordi Savall has refused Spain's national music award the prestigious Premio Nacional de Música - which is worth 30,000 euros - because of his objections to the Spanish government's arts policies. Readers will know that I am a huge fan of Jordi Savall, both as a musician and a humanitarian. But his refusal of the Premio Nacional de Música leaves me puzzled as well as pleased. In a few weeks time - as seen above - Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI present a specially commissioned musical tribute to the 14th century traveller and diarist - "voyager of Islam" - Ibn Battuta in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi. Jordi's concert is promoted by Abu Dhabi Classics, and his musical depiction of Ibn Battuta's from Morocco (where the traveller was born) to Afghanistan is being given just one gala performance at the Emirates Palace on November 20th. There appears to be an exclusivity agreement with Abu Dhabi Classics as Hespèrion XXI's schedule shows no further performances of the Ibn Battuta project elsewhere. But in 2015 a second concert of specially commissioned music will be given by Jordi Savall in Abu Dhabi depicting Ibn Battuta's further travels from Afghanistan to the Far East.

Readers will know that as well as praising Jordi Savall, I have, on more than one occasion, drawn attention to the unacceptable human rights record of the United Arab Emirates, and the following assessment from Human Rights Watch was quoted here last year:

The human rights situation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) worsened in 2012 as authorities arbitrarily detained and deported civil society activists, and harassed and intimidated their lawyers. In September, an independent monitor found significant problems in the treatment of migrant workers on the high-profile Saadiyat Island project in Abu Dhabi, identifying the payment of illegal recruitment fees as a key concern.
My same post also drew attention to the repressive treatment of gays in the Gulf States, and to the inhuman conditions endured by the foreign underclass workers who built the Emirates Palace where the concert is being given. Prior to the performance on November 20th, Jordi is participating in a conference at Abu Dhabi's Zayed University, from where an American academic who called for greater press freedom and protection for journalists in the Gulf States, was recently dismissed. Jordi Savall is just the latest in a succession of high profile musicians who have been tempted to the United Arab Emirates. However, I am puzzled as to how he finds the Spanish government's money unacceptable, but the Abu Dhabi government's money acceptable.

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Listening with the ear of the heart

Mysticism is older than religion; in fact it is as old as mankind. Listening to music can provide a range of experiences from the entertaining to the ineffable, and at the highest level listening to music can be a mystical - which is very different to religious - experience. There are many great traditions of mystical music, and the music performed at Sufi rituals is one of those great traditions. In recent years there has been a revival of interest in mystical art music, possibly as a reaction against the attempted annexation of Western classical music by the entertainment industry. Sufi music ranging from the chants of brotherhoods from al-Ándalus, through electro-Rumi in Istanbul and esoterically inspired jazz in Aleppo, to Qawwali at the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi has featured On An Overgrown Path over the years. I was therefore delighted to be commissioned to write the programme essay accompanying two performances of Sufi chants by an Egyptian brotherhood at the Ouverture Spirituelle sacred music festival that formed part of the 2014 Salzburg Summer Festival. The accompanying photos show the Sufi brotherhood Al-Tarīqah al Gazoulia led by Sheikh Salem Algazouly in the Catholic Kollegienkirche during their Salzburg performances. My essay is reproduced below and the companion piece written for the premiere of a work by the Palestinian-Israeli composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi celebrating the 9th century Sufi martyr Manṣūr Al-Ḥallāǵ can be read here.

Listening with the ear of the heart

Bob Shingleton

The Ouverture spirituelle at this year’s Salzburg Festival celebrates the sacred music of Islam, including two evenings of Sufi chants by Al-Tarīqah al Gazoulia. Yet resonances of the universal tradition of Sufism can also be found in several other concerts within the Festival. Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra perform Act II of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and while the influence of the Eastern esoteric tradition of Buddhism on Wagner is now acknowledged, less attention is paid to the echoes of Sufism also present in his music dramas. In 1921 the Sufi master and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote that ‘Wagner did but repeat the teachings of the mystics of the East when he said that he who knows the law of vibrations knows the whole secret of life’. Another notable concert this summer features Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing the first book of Bach’s Das wohltemperierte Klavier and both Bach’s music and Sufism are notable for challenging fixed and widely accepted propositions.

The two performances by Al-Tarīqah al Gazoulia of Sufi chants within the Ouverture spirituelle are evidence of the rejuvenation of a spiritual tradition that dates back to the ninth century. In recent years Western interest in Sufism has focussed primarily on the founder of the Mevlana Brotherhood, Jalaluddin Rūmī. Members of the Mevlana Brotherhood from Konya in Turkey are famous as the Whirling Dervishes and the popularity of Rūmī’s vibrant poetry has propelled him to the unlikely position of America’s bestselling poet. But Rūmī and the Whirling Dervishes are just one aspect of a multifaceted tradition that the West still struggles to define and understand. In fact Sufism transcends Western mindsets and the Syrian poet and essayist Adonis has expressed the view that the movement towards Sufism came about because religious orthodoxy and science were unable to answer many of the profound questions posed by man. Sufism rejects the notion of God as a separate entity, instead seeing Him as a presence in every human heart. The goal of Sufism is to make its followers absent from themselves and present with the Infinite, with music and ritual playing an important role in this transformation.

The enigmatic nature of the tradition is illustrated by the Sufi saying, ‘in the beginning Sufism was a reality without a name; today it is a name without a reality’. Western scholars have long pondered over the name Sufi. They have suggested several possible meanings based on the corruption of various words: these include the Arab for wool, ṣūf, in a reference to the white woollen cloaks worn by early adepts; the Greek, sophia, referring to the adept’s wisdom; and the Hebrew, ein sof, suggesting the adept’s path ‘without end’. But it has to be accepted that there is no neat definition of Sufism to suit empirical Western outlooks and, equally problematically, it must be accepted that there is no definitive source for the Sufi vision.

Uniquely for a religion, Sufism lacks both founder and dogma, allowing for widely varying interpretations of the tradition. The Sufi vision is not definitively articulated in the Qur’an or in the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. However Sufism is most widely known as a mystical form of Islam with its roots in an esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an, with Islam and Sufism being inextricably linked in the many brotherhoods that are active from Morocco to Indonesia. Sufism – or Taṣawwuf as it is known in the Muslim world – is seen as a liberal expression of Islam and this has resulted in the persecution of its adepts by fundamentalist factions over the centuries. In 922CE the Sufi mystic and teacher Mansur al-Hallaj was publicly executed in Baghdad for his heretical beliefs; his martyrdom is commemorated in two works performed as part of this year’s Ouverture spirituelle. Conversely, Turkish Sufis, including members of the Mevlana Order, were persecuted by Kemal Atatürk’s secular regime.

Although Sufism is usually linked with Islam, there are also more unconventional interpretations of the tradition. These include the ecumenical strand founded in the West in the early 20th century by Hazrat Inayat Khan, known as Universal Sufism. This has its roots in the traditional Chishti Sufi order, but is now a separate tradition noted for its inclusive approach to other religions. Sufism’s preference for process over doctrine and dogma means the tradition has a history of attracting believers from other faiths. One of the most notable of these was 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.’

Central to the wide appeal of Sufism are its rich cultural traditions, notably in the areas of literature and music. Rūmī is the best-known Sufi poet, but the poetry of Farid-ud-Din Attar, Saadi, Hafiz and Omar Khayyám has also reached wide audiences in the West. Islamic orthodoxy preaches that music has no place in its liturgy and some branches of the Naqshbandi and Qadiri Sufi orders frown upon music. But, as Hazrat Inayat Khan, who was an expert player of the Indian stringed instrument known as the vina, explains: ‘of all the arts, music has a particular spiritual value and meaning [...] this is why music has always played an important role in Sufism.’

To understand the spiritual link between Sufism and music it is necessary to understand the structure of a Sufi ritual. The journey from the visible material world to the divine and invisible inner world takes place during a ceremony known as a zikr, which translates as ‘remembrance of God’. The zikr generates the state of spiritual ecstasy or trance known as wajd, with fanā being the ultimate goal. Fanā literally means to be dissolved or annihilated and it refers to the negation of the self that is required to achieve union with the Infinite. The form of the zikr varies between brotherhoods, but in most, including the performances by Al-Tarīqah al Gazoulia, both chanted and instrumental music play an important role. Just as there are many definitions of Sufism, so there are many types of Sufi music. Most familiar to Western audiences are the sounds of the ney, tanbur, kemenche, oud and qanun that accompany the Turkish Whirling Dervishes, as well as the ecstatic singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and other great qawwali singers from Pakistan. Less familiar is the more nuanced music found in the rituals such as those of Al-Tarīqah al Gazoulia. In these, the order (tariqa) is led by a spiritually empowered master (sheikh) in a rhythmic sequence of chants of increasing intensity that build towards the spiritual ecstasy of wajd. Rūmī summed up this Sufi goal when he declared ‘be drunk on love, for love is all that exists’.

The zawiya or Sufi lodge of Al-Tarīqah al Gazoulia is in Cairo. Sufism has been practised in Egypt since the earliest days of the tradition and the Sufi saint Dhu’l-Nun al-Misri (796–859CE) from Upper Egypt is credited with creating the first maqāmāt and ahwal; these are the intermediate states that Sufis pass through on their journey along the tariqa to achieve unity with the Divine. Sufi orders are found today in both rural and urban Egypt; it is claimed that 20% of Egyptians practise Sufism and there are more than seventy brotherhoods across the country, with the majority in the metropolitan areas of Cairo and Alexandria. There is a strong tradition of Sufi music in Egypt, including the great exponent of munshidin (sacred song) Saykh Ahmad Al-Tuni and the Nubian oud player, singer and composer Hamza El Din. The latter performed with the Grateful Dead and his iconic 1971 album Esalay (The Water Wheel), recorded for the Nonesuch label, is reputed to have influenced contemporary American minimalist composers.

Sufis have traditionally been tolerant and apolitical, though the Egyptian founder of the revivalist Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, had links with Sufism in his youth and the current turmoil in Egypt has inevitably drawn Sufis into the political arena. However the Sufi order of Al-Tarīqah al Gazoulia affirm that they are committed to love, understanding and tolerance; when approached, their sheikh Salem Algazouly spontaneously agreed to perform zikr in public for the first time at the Salzburg Festival and the ritual is being celebrated during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Joining Al-Tarīqah al Gazoulia for the second of their appearances is the celebrated violinist Frank Stadler, who will improvise on Sufi themes, thereby building a bridge between the brotherhood’s chants and Bach’s music for solo violin. Like Sufism, Bach’s music offers a universal tradition, but it has other links to the path that leads from the visible to the invisible. Recent research by musicologist Helga Thoene suggests that the score of the Chaconne from Bach’s D minor Partita for solo violin (BWV 1004) contains hidden chorale quotations and a recording revealing the quotations proved an unlikely bestseller on the ECM label in 2001. In Sufism sama means listening with the ear of the heart and the audiences at this year’s Festival will be participating, consciously or unconsciously, in a great and universal tradition.

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.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How long can classical music ignore the glaringly obvious?

Celebrated Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csiszentmihalyi argues that flow is a mental state of immersive and exclusive concentration that at the highest level can trigger mystical experiences - the state where nothing else seems to matter. Mihaly Csiszentmihalyi explains that music reduces psychic entropy by organising the mind of the listener, and he defines psychic entropy as the disorder generated by information that conflicts with and distracts from the carrying out of priority intentions. Extending his theory of how music reduces psychic entropy, Csiszentmihalyi proposes that greater rewards are open to those who learn to make music, and that even greater rewards can accrue to the great musicians who extend the harmony they create in sound to "the more general and abstract harmony that underlies the kind of social order we call civilisation".

One of my own modest priority intentions was fulfilled recently when I heard one of the Chemiriani dynasty of Persian musicians live in concert. I took the header photo of Bijan Chemirani during his concert with guitarist Kevin Seddiki at the Conservatoire Olivier Messiaen in Avignon. Bijan's father Djamchid Chemirani learnt to play in Iran with the zarb master Hossein Tehrani before emigrating from Tehran to France in 1961, and later formed the legendary Trio Chemirani with his two sons Keyvan and Bijan. The percussion playing of Bijan Chemirani is an example of how mystical states can be experienced by both performer and listener through immersive and exclusive concentration. But despite Mihaly Csiszentmihalyi citing music in his research, there have been only a few notable attempts to apply the flow theory to Western classical music. In fact the strategies adopted to win new audiences are diametrically opposed to the flow theory, and that paradox demands closer examination.

Immersive and exclusive concentration by both performers and audience - Britten spoke of how music "demands as much effort on the listener's part" - has been central to the development of Western classical music. Mihaly Csiszentmihalyi's flow theory, which has widespread acceptance and support in academic circles, explains, to paraphrase the title of his seminal book, how flow contributes to the psychology of optimal experience. Yet almost every strategy to win new audiences involves interrupting the immersive flow and sub-optimising the experience, with no attention at all paid to reviving the lost art of listening. The disruptive initiatives include dismantling concert hall convention, with the latest proposal being to encourage drinking and mobile phone use during concerts. This love affair with the disruptive extends beyond the concert hall to personal listening; with 'classical music to go' via streaming services - the Matthew Passion in an airport departure lounge - and intrusive linking announcements by radio presenters being prime examples.

Classical music is obsessed with, to use the tacky jargon, optimising the listener experience. The widely referenced theory advanced by a respected academic proposes that a mental state of immersive and exclusive concentration is vital to the psychology of optimal experience. Yet all the fashionable audience development initiatives use contra-flow tactics that generate distractions and sub-optimises the listening experience. How long can classical music ignore the glaringly obvious?

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