Thursday, May 25, 2017

How about an experimental plugged-in Prom?

Alex Ross' typically astute chronicle of his visits to the Elbphilharmonie and Pierre Boulez Saal is notable for two particular reasons. The first is that Alex professes to finding the sound in the Elbphilharmonie "a mild disappointment". This view contradicts the acclaim elsewhere for - and I quote - "the world’s first 'acoustically perfect' concert hall", but concurs with the opinion expressed to me privately by a musician whose ears, like Alex's, I trust implicitly. The Elbphilharmonie is undoubtedly an architectural miracle, but there is also some informed feedback that 10,000 unique acoustic panels do not guarantee sonic perfection. The second striking point about Alex's article is its headline 'Germany's new concert temples'. Now temples are places where rituals of worship are enacted, and those rituals are often arcane and rooted in antiquity. One viewpoint is that the Elbphilharmonie and Pierre Boulez Saal are state-of-the-art classical music venues; but another is that they are places where arcane musical rituals rooted in antiquity are enacted. And in view of the continuing preoccupation with finding a new young classical music audience, the second viewpoint should at least be explored.

My header photo* shows a typical recital of Indian classical music. Evident in the photo and evident in virtually every contemporary recital of Indian music are the microphones for amplification. Instruments such as the sitar produce a beautiful sound, but one that is limited in volume. To adapt to larger venues and also to adapt to young ears conditioned by louder popular music, the Indian classical tradition accepted amplification as a sine qua non years ago. Now here is the important point: not only did amplification not drive away the core audience, but Indian musician friends tell me that their classical tradition - unlike its Western equivalent - is undergoing something of a revival with young audiences.

Western classical music has always come down heavily on the 'listener to music' side in the 'music to listener' or 'listener to music' debate. Which means making token concessions such as applause between movements and dispensing with formal attire. But it also means 'pure concert hall sound' is absolutely non-negotiable, despite concert hall sound being an entirely artificial historical construct. As explained in a 2015 post, the pure sound of an orchestra is what we would hear if it played in an anechoic chamber. An anechoic chamber is an acoustically dead space, and anyone who has spent time in one - as I have in the now demolished EMI Research anechoic chamber at Hayes - will know that the thin, dry and dead sound would be unacceptable to any audience, purist or otherwise. The sound of an orchestra in iconic concert halls such as the the Concertguebouw in Amsterdam and the Musikverein in Vienna is determined by the acoustic of the hall; the acoustic is the unique character that is added as the sound reverberates. These halls date from the late-19th century and their signature sound - which remains the reference for concert halls - was subjectively optimised for the bass-lite pre-Romantic orchestra.

If classical music wants a new younger audience it must accept that its target listeners like their music loud and visceral. But the convergence of 2000+ audience capacity halls - the Elbphilharmonie seats 2100 - and leaner more musicologically-informed performance styles means today's listening experience is often visceral-lite, particularly in the cheaper seats favoured by classical music newbies. As explained in another earlier post, if a listener is played the same piece of music twice on identical replay equipment at two different levels (volumes), he/she will judge the louder of the two auditions to be “better” quality. The explanation lies in the non-linear frequency response of the human ear which is plotted on the diagram above (source J.Crabbe Hi Fi in the Home). The curved shape of the lower line in the diagram marked ‘Threshold of hearing’ shows how the replay level increases as the range of the human ear increases. This means that extreme highs and lows become audible, giving the music more impact and makes it sound “better” - particularly to a new and uninitiated audience.

Back in 2010 Jonathan Harvey - another person whose ears I was happy to defer to - caused considerable controversy by opining that "The future must bring things which are considered blasphemous like amplifying classical music... nobody should be deprived of classical music, least of all by silly conventions". It was unfortunate that Jonathan turned the spotlight on the very specific solution of amplification, rather than on the problem of relative loudness. However, seven years later classical music remains in denial that the 19th century convention of 'concert hall sound' may be a significant obstacle to attracting a new younger audience. I am not suggesting stacking bass bins on the Elbphilharmonie platform. But I am suggesting that it is time for the music to meet the listener at some mid-point using the latest digital sound-shaping technologies. Just one example of how this could be done is by experimenting sparingly in the concert hall - a one-off 'plugged-in' Prom perhaps? - with the latest non-intrusive tools such as Meyer Sound's Constellation variable acoustic technology used in the highly-acclaimed San Francisco Symphony Soundbox performance space. Giving the new young audience what they actually want in the form of a more involving sonic experience, may well prove more productive than the tired old chestnuts such as classical gigs in pubs that are still doing the rounds after so many years.

* Photo shows Florian Schiertz (tabla), Mohammed Aslam Khan (sarangi), Pandurang Mutalik (sitar) and Shankar (violin) playing at the Hyderabad Western Music Foundation. 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.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The art of the American record label

It was during those endless trawls up and down the motorway spine of the United Kingdom that Fairport came up with the title of their third album. Unhalfbricking is not the name of some traditional rural custom like 'beating the bounds', but a word which Sandy made up and contributed to a word game called Ghosts which the group played in the back of their van.

The couple featured on the cover of Unhalfbricking are Sandy Denny's parents [above], photographed in the garden of their Wimbledon home while the group take their tea in the background. Fairport's American label A & M considered the image too weird for a potential US audience and replaced the offending shot with a troupe of performing elephants [below].
Quote is from Patrick Humphries' biography of Fairport Convention's Richard Thompson. More on Richard Thompson in I am not from east or west. 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, May 23, 2017

Another book in the wall

While the music industry continues to bet the farm on digital delivery the publishing industry is experiencing a young demographic-driven resurgence in the physical book market. This difference in approach - daring to be different versus fearing to be different - is currently reflected in the output of the music and publishing industries; which means recently I have derived far more gratification from reading new books than listening to new music releases. Nathan Hill's novel The Nix has proved particularly rewarding. Music including a cassette of John Cage's 4'33" figures in the plot, and this exposition by one of the book's protagonists is relevant to the thread:
"You know there used to be a difference between authentic and sellout music. I'm talking about when I was young, in the sixties. Back then we knew there was a soullessness to the sellouts, and we wanted to be on the side of the artists. But now? Being a sellout is the authentic thing... The only fundamental truth is greed, and the only question is who is up front about this. That's the new authenticity.
More arcane but equally rewarding is Sufism and Politics in Morocco: Activism and Dissent by Abdelilah Bouasria. In it Abdelilah Bouasria recounts how he had to ponder for a long time before fully understanding a statement by his economics supervisor at Sussex University John McLean. It is an aphorism that all of would do well to ponder on at the present time:
"What people do does not explain what people do; what people do needs to be explained."
No review samples used in this post. The Nix was in fact a chance buy in Holland at Delft railway station en route to Delft University (TUDelft) where the header photo was taken in the University library. My thanks go to Avradeep Pal who was my host in Delft. 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, May 22, 2017

It makes you want to weep

In Berliner Morgenpost Simon Rattle tells how there were London Symphony Orchestra musicians weeping after the Brexit vote and goes on to say about the post-Brexit visa process "People simply don’t know how complicated it’s going to be". Earlier this year the same LSO musicians with conductor Daniel Harding toured Korea and China. A description of the convoluted visa application process for China begins: "A work visa is required for persons wanting to work in China for pay. It is also issued to aliens who come to China for commercial entertainment performance. It is only granted if you and the employer meet certain requirements..." I have searched in vain for reports of LSO musicians weeping about the complications of non-nationals performing in China. But I did note that like Simon Rattle, Daniel Harding is managed by Askonas Holt. This agency also managed the LSO's Asian tour, and, as previously explained, has more than one finger in the anti-Brexit pie.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Can you ask for a louder voice than this?

Latest statistics show that the average Internet user spends nearly two hours on social media every day. Over a lifetime this amounts to a total of three years and four months on social networks, with Facebook accounting for 35% of the total. To put that into perspective, in a typical week internet users spend four times as much time on social media as they devote to face-to-face social activities, and each day a netizen devotes more time to social media than to meeting the basic human need of eating. Around 100 million selfies are uploaded every day, and our obsession with social media - which is actually an addiction - is very big business. Facebook, which has annual profits of $10.2 billion, sells the personal data it gleans from status updates - remember that one about a relative's illness? - to Acxiom. This data warehousing giant uses 23,000 servers and 750 billion personal data fields to hold and analyse the intimate profiles of 500 million people. Acxiom then sells that personal information on to rapacious advertisers to generate profits of £362 million. Facebook is not the only culprit: On An Overgrown Path is hosted by Google's free Blogger platform. But it is actually not free: it is funded by the revenue Google generates by harvesting and selling the personal data of users, as are 'free' services from Apple and Microsoft. In an age where the virtual is rapidly displacing the experiential, we must seek out and cherish real world experiences. As a small contribution to this I am now posting some notes on my recent listening and travelling.

My recent listening has included Mala Punica which is composed by James Weeks and sets texts from the Song of Songs. In his introductory essay James Weeks explains that he was attracted to the ancient biblical text by "its mysterious ordering, the entangling of male and female voices, its echoes and symmetries..." The new music vocal ensemble Exaudi of which James Weeks is a co-founder has featured here in projects including John Cage's Songbooks and the infrasound-enhanced performance of Antoine Brumel Earthquake Mass. In the premiere recording of Mala Punica on the Winter & Winter label the choral settings sung by Exaudi are framed by three pieces titled Walled Garden for string and flute trios played by the Hortus Ensemble. In Mala Punica James Weeks explores the outer limits of the prodigious technical and musical capabilities of Exaudi, both as composer and conductor. In his Guardian review of a Spitalfields festival performance George Hall described Mala Punica as "intricate, subtle and often sonically ravishing" and the same description applies to this recording which was captured in the sonically auspicious acoustic of Orford Church, Suffolk where Benjamin Britten recorded The Burning Fiery Furnace in 1967. Hortus Conclusus from Mala Punica can be auditioned via this link.

The Song of Songs is the last section of the Hebrew Bible and the twenty-third book of the Christian Old Testament. As well as direct scriptural links to Christianity and Judaism the Song has more tenuous links with Islam. It is also known as the Song of Solomon as the authorship was at one time erroneously attributed to the biblical King Solomon. A superscription identifies it misleadingly as "Solomon's", and the Muslim prophet Sulayman (Solomon) is an important figure in Islam who is mentioned seventeen times in the Qur'an. There is another even more tenuous link between Islam and the Song of Songs, with some Muslims claiming that the Song of Songs predicts the coming of Muhammad by citing the consonantal similarity between Muhammad's Arabic name and the Hebrew word Mahammaddim - which translates as 'Altogether lovely' - in the sixteenth verse of the Song. However the provenance of the the Song is unproven; but latest research dates it between the 10th to 2nd centuries BCE. Stylistically it has similarities to Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry from the 1st millennium BCE, while the many ecstatic references to 'my beloved' - "My beloved is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand" - are a precursor to the style of the great Sufi poets such as Rumi and Hafiz.

Mala Punica is one of two settings of the Song of Songs which I have spending time with recently. The second setting takes a more syncretic view of the biblical text. In the sleeve essay for their CD Canticum Canticorum the conductor of the Latvian Radio Choir Kaspars Putniņš expresses the view that the Song is important as a fundamental influence on Christian, Jewish and Muslim culture. He explains that fragments from the Song were chosen to be set in Canticum Canticorum because the text is "an unbeatable masterpiece of love poetry, and it speaks to each and every soul". This view not only reflects that of James Weeks, but also echoes my observation about similarities with Sufi poetry, a theme that is picked up by three Sufi readings for instrumental ensemble by Vladimir Ivanoff which frame the settings of the Song of Songs in Canticum Canticorum.

The Latvian Radio Choir has built an enviable reputation for championing contemporary music and in the past its recordings of the music of Pēteris Vasks, Ēriks Ešenvalds and Bernat Vivancos have featured On An Overgrown Path. Canticum Canticorum originated as a project for the Tenso Days festival of contemporary choral music in Marseille in 2013 and was developed in subsequent festival performances in Riga and Oslo. Five specially commissioned settings of the Song of Songs are linked by Vladimir Ivanoff's three instrumental Sufi readings. Two of the three commissioned composers are women, the British-born Lebanese Bushra El-Turk and the Latvian Santa Ratniece. The other three composers are the Estonian Toivo Tulev, Latvian Mārtiņš Viļums, and the Norwegian Lasse Thoresen. Vladimir Ivanoff contributes the linking Sufi readings and his transcultural early music ensemble Sarband provides instrumental accompaniment.

These contributing composers are a cosmopolitan and eclectic group, with their biographies in the sleeve notes listing influences ranging through Harry Partch, Gregorian Chant, Giacinto Scelsi, Turkish Neva maqam, Olivier Messiaen, Claude Vivier, and Byzantine and Maronite liturgy. Canticum Canticorum is a daring and challenging conflation of different musical styles that reflects the heterogeneous nature of the Song of Songs. It is available in CD and high-resolution download formats from Vladimir Ivanoff's Muse Alliance label website; this is the label which released the Haz'art Trio's Infinite Chase album which featured in a recent post that attracted a large readership. A video excerpt from Canticum Canticorum can be viewed via this link.

My recent travels in Morocco took me to Moulay Idriss at the base of Mount Zerhoun in the Middle Atlas. Moulay Idriss el Akhbar was a great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed; his grandparents were the Mohammed’s daughter Fatima and his cousin and first follower Ali. After the Ummayad victory in the war that split the Muslim world into Shia and Sunni sects in the 7th century Moulay Idriss el Akhbar fled to Morocco, where he founded the town of Moulay Idriss and the city of Fes. Moulay Idriss I married the daughter of the king of the Berber tribe that controlled the region, and this union is viewed as starting a chain of events which resulted in the creation of contemporary Morocco.

As it contains the tomb of Moulay Idriss el Akhbar with his direct lineage to the Prophet, the eponymous town is an important pilgrimage centre which is accepted as an alternative destination for those unable to make the full hajj. It is said in Morocco that six pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss during the annual festival honoring the saint is equivalent to one hajj to Mecca. The town was only fully opened to non-Muslims in 2005; its altitude of 530 metres in the Middle Atlas coupled with streets that, thankfully, cannot accommodate motor traffic mean it still retains its spiritual ambiance. In the accompanying photos taken during my visit the shrine of Moulay Idriss I is the building with the green roof in the foreground of the first photo, while there are other views of the shrine in photos 3, 6 and 7. In photo 12 the madrasa - Qur'anic school - attached to the shrine can be seen. Photo 10 shows the only round minaret in Morocco can be seen; if this looks somewhat anachronistic it is because it was added to an ancient madrasa in 1939 by a wealthy hajji who had seen a similar structure in Mecca.

For me the experiential calls and the virtual palls, so I am off travelling once again. Some people seek God in great works of art and sacred places. Others seek God on social networks; while others seek something other than God. Wherever and whatever you seek, I leave you with this wisdom from Augustine of Hippo's City of God:

'Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead, He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?'

Mala Punica was a requested review sample, Canticum Canticorum was bought online from Muse Alliance. 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.