Thursday, November 27, 2014

Is retro really so sad?

Composer Ivan Moody shared yesterday's post about the renaissance of vinyl on Facebook with the exhortation to "Discuss". To which fellow composer Dennis Báthory-Kitsz responded: "Discuss which? The excellent picture or the sad article? Retro makes me sad, but I like the pretty picture -- a kind of museum". So today I am posting another pretty picture taken on my visit to Holland showing the bike park at Leiden central station. Some may dismiss the scene as a sad museum. Others will see it as impressive evidence of how visionary support for a retro technology - the bicycle - by the Dutch government and populace has resulted in a massive improvement in quality of life. This morning BBC News has run the following story:
More than one million vinyl records have been sold in the UK so far this year - the first time the milestone has been achieved since 1996. The figures mark a largely unexpected resurgence in an industry now considered to be dominated by digital.Speaking to BBC Radio 5 live's Wake Up to Money, Martin Talbot, managing director of the Official Charts Company said: "It's really remarkable. We're seeing it come back as a significant earner for the music industry as well.
How sad is that? - remember that streaming is not a "significant earner" for musicians. Classical music needs to think outside the box - in more ways than one. Classical music also needs to realise that all new technologies - internal combustion engines and digital platforms - are guilty until proven innocent.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Orchestras need to wake up and smell the coffee

That photo was taken in Concerto Records - a candidate for the best record store in the world - in Amsterdam on Monday. It shows part of the extensive range of new and reconditioned (Thorens etc) turntables on sale in the store, a range that is complemented by a wide selection of vinyl LPs. High end audio stores have majored on turntables for some time, but their appearance in mass market outlets is significant. The resurgence of vinyl can no longer be dismissed as a fashion fad. No one is suggesting that digital formats will be replaced by analogue LPs. But, as reported here recently, vinyl sales increased by the same percentage (40%) in the first half of 2014 as streaming, and vinyl presses are currently at maximum capacity to keep up with demand. Of course vinyl is fragile and non-portable. But let's drill down below the obvious. Consumers are embracing (re-embracing actually) a music format that defies the 'music to go' movement. They are voting with their wallets for a format that demands, to quote Britten, "some preparation", or, to quote Copland, requires the listener "to pay attention and to give the music [their] concentrated effort as an active listener". But it is the rock/alternative sectors that are capitalising on this trend, while orchestras and classical labels continue, lemming-like, to give their music away as effortless sonically-challenged digital streams.

There is no clearer confirmation of this lemming-like behaviour than the forthcoming annual conference of the Association of British Orchestras. At the January 2015 conference the keynote speaker will be Helen Boaden, director of BBC Radio. Ms Boaden has absolutely no track record of winning new audiences for classical music. Her rise in the BBC was in current affairs and business programming. As head of news she was criticised by the BBC commissioned Pollard report over her involvement in the Jimmy Savile fiasco: the following is a quote from the Guardian: 'The Pollard report also said she failed to take responsibility or act decisively even as her news division was in "virtual meltdown" in October"'. Despite this Ms Boaden was promoted to director of BBC Radio in February 2013 by new director general Tony Hall, who had been appointed following his predecessor's resignation in the wake of the Savile scandal.

In the twenty-two months since Ms Boaden became director of BBC Radio the audience for classical network Radio 3 has continued to shrink and Proms attendances have dropped 5%. During her reign the controller of Radio 3 has departed in opaque circumstances, and a successor has been appointed with zero broadcasting experience, and, to judge by his first pronouncements, zero understanding of classical radio. But I may be doing the Association of British Orchestras and Helen Boaden a disservice. Perhaps the theme of her conference keynote speech will be "How not to win new audiences for classical music".

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Never mind the music, feel the algorithms

That header photo shows pianist Valentina Lisitsa performing at the 2014 Bristol Proms - yes, there is a piano in there somewhere. As the caption on the Classic FM website explains: "There ain't no party like a Valentina party! Chopin, Beethoven, a crowd-sourced programme, YouTube clips, a Classic FM live blog projected onto the back wall - it was all happening at the Bristol Proms".

In a planning meeting for the 1969 Woodstock Festival the festival's co-ordinator of underground advertising Bert Cohen proclaimed: "It's got to be prevalent in your advertising; you're gonna hafta take some of the emphasis off the music and place it on the vibes". Woodstock became a legend, and the emphasis on vibes defined the direction of rock music for decades. Universal Music, which is led by ex-rock band manager Max Hole, is the driving force behind the Bristol Proms, and Valentina Lisitsa's concert (happening?) is an attempt to add rock vibes to classical music. Thankfully only a few Universal Music senior executives with fading Woodstock posters on their office walls are taking classical music with added balloons seriously. But there is a more insidious shift in emphasis happening in classical music which demands closer study.

A recent BBC news story told how a viral YouTube video that purports to show a young boy rescuing a little girl under gunfire in Syria was actually shot on a film set in Malta using professional actors. Forget about the ethics, or lack thereof, of the deception, and forget the frightening evidence of how social media can turn fiction into reality. In the BBC report there is this alarming paragraph:
So once the film was made, how did it go viral? "It was posted to our YouTube account a few weeks ago but the algorithm told us it was not going to trend," [director Klaus Klevberg] said. "So we deleted that and re-posted it." The filmmakers say they added the word "hero" to the new headline and tried to send it out to people on Twitter to start a conversation. It was then picked up by Shaam Network, a channel that features material from the Middle East, which posted it on YouTube. Then it began to attract international attention.
This is just one example of how social media is controlled by algorithms; it is not the content that matters, it is whether the headline triggers the algorithms. Headlines such as 'Mozart’s brothel opera goes topless for Turkey' are more than journalistic taste crimes; they are a crude - in more ways than one - way of pandering to the algorithms that control social media news feeds. And it works: because the great and good of the classical music establishment fall over themselves to be featured on the algorithm whoring websites.

But the problem comes when the well-whored audience is tempted into the concert hall or opera house. This is where expectation meets reality and one of Mozart's more popular operas turns out not only to be fully clothed, but an abstruse three hour journey through the outer reaches of Freemasonry. At which point the pressure builds for the algorithms to start influencing the music itself. In fact the algorithms have started to influence the music. An example of how concert planning is pandering to social media algorithms is the uncomfortable mix of the Pet Shop Boys and Mozart that is now found at the BBC Proms. And they are influencing the music in a more transparent way at the University of Malaga, where researchers have composed "coherent symphonies" - their words not mine - using computer algorithms. We cannot stand in the way of progress and Max Hole is almost certainly right when he says that classical music must shed its traditions. The problem is it seems that the music itself will be one of the traditions that is shed.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Now we rise and we are everywhere

Blake's poems were a great influence for Nick's lyrics, and the music of J.S. Bach inspired some of his songs. Nick loved the music of Bach, I used to play the 'Badinerie' on flute for him, but he also loved Mozart (the Clarinet Concert was one of his favourites and also the Piano Sonatas KV 331 and 333) and other composers like Schubert, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Strawinsky and Grieg. Apart from classic music we listened to John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis, The Band (The Big Pink) amongst many others.
That eclectic mix of influences* is the crucible in which Nick Drake's music was forged, and an LP of the Brandenburgs was on the turntable in his bedroom when he died on 24th November 1974 aged 26. That is Nick in the photo above; he was born a year before me, and our paths may have crossed in St. Tropez in 1967. His music has been a constant in my life for many years: I first posted about him in 2005 and five years later made the pilgrimage to his resting place at Tanworth-in-Arden. The epitaph Now we rise and we are everywhere inscribed on his headstone is taken from the lyrics of the last track on Nick's 1971 album Pink Moon. For me that final album eclipses all his other work. Gone are the cloying Joe Boyd commissioned arrangement, and the tautness of the lyrics transcend the And at the chime of the city clock/Put up your road block un-Blakeian doggerel sometimes found on his earlier albums.

We can only speculate on the direction that Nick Drake's music would have taken if he had not died so young. But a newly released album gives a tantalising glimpse. On Time of No Reply French jazz guitarist Misja FitzGerald Michel and guests pay homage to Nick in sparse arrangements that discard his complex open tunings and eschew vocals on all the tracks except - significantly - Pink Moon. Nick recorded his Pink Moon album in just two late night sessions, and it plays for only 28 minutes. Misja FitzGerald Michel's Time of No Reply - video sample here - plays for just 38 minutes and is released on the No Format label, a record company that defies the "taste-formatting logic today reigning over the record-industry". Nick Drake blazed like a meteor across the 1960s music scene, and Misja FitzGerald Michel's homage to him blazes like a meteor across the dark skies of contemporary art music.

* Header quote is from an online reminiscence by artist Sonja Wagner. No review samples were used in this post. Any copyrighted material on these pages 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.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent

I am not at all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my pursuit after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things. Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will stop at the dissolution of the flesh. What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment, and therefore when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he has still faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the later of the two on the same subject'
Those words by Mahatma Gandhi prefaced his writings published by the Navijan Trust. I am posting them On An Overgrown Path as I enter what Gandhi called old age, but which I more decorously call becoming a state pensioner. But the call of Truth still beckons, and in a few days I am off travelling on the path of a master musician and spiritual master who met Gandhi in London in 1914. Hazrat Inayat Khan taught that growing inward involved 'unlearning', and explained that "the more wise one becomes, the more one is able to contradict one's own ideas". His book The Mysticism of Sound and Music, which was published in 1923, remains influential to this day. The book's revelations about the fundamental role of vibrations have influenced many great minds including Jonathan Harvey, who in an interview explained how: "We all know about the soprano shattering the wine glass. It’s all vibrations, I mean music and the world, everything is oscillation".

Hazrat Inayat Khan believed that the practice of unlearning - contradicting one's own ideas - is an essential part of inward growth, and this teaching is very relevant not only to musicians but also to audiences. In another wisdom tradition Ostad Elahi, a Persian philosopher (follower of Ahl-e Haqq not Islam), jurist and master of the sacred lute (New Yorkers please note), expounded on the "necessity of antipodal states" in both music and the soul. Antipodal states are what is missing from classical music today, with an unhealthy obsession with consistency complementing, not contradicting, established thinking. Unlearning is another form of the 'beginner's mind' taught by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, who explained that: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few... this is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner". Or, to put it another way: my world and my music are never one and the same.

Photo was taken by me at the deeply moving Gandhi Smriti in New Delhi earlier this year. 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, November 19, 2014

When orchestras used the ash trays on their music stands

That photo shows the composer Doreen Carwithen at a recording of her music. The image is held by Cambridge University as part of the William Alwyn Archive; because as well as being a noted composer in her own right, Doreen Carwithen was the second wife of William Alwyn. The caption provides no further information about the - presumably BBC - session at which the photograph was taken, but the sign on the front of the podium asking the musicians to 'Please use ash trays on music stands' is clearly legible.

There has been much pleading recently for a higher profile for women composers, so it is strange that a new recording of Doreen Carwithen's 1948 Concerto for Piano and Strings has slipped under the radar. A CD from the independent SOMM label couples Doreen Carwithen's Concerto with piano concertos by Gordon Jacob and Malcolm Williamson - the latter a now strangely forgotten composer who achieved some prominence during William Glock's tenure at the BBC. The new recording by pianist Mark Bebbington and the Innovation Chamber Ensemble (players drawn from the CBSO) conducted by Richard Jenkinson is not the first of the Carwithen Concerto: Chandos has recorded it as well as her Violin Sonata and String Quartets. The stature of Doreen Carwithen's Concerto for Piano and Strings is indicated by its appearance in a 1952 Promenade Concert alongside works by Mozart, Haydn and Delius; back in 1952 orchestras may have used the ash trays on their music stands, but there was no late night contemporary music ghetto at the Proms. Sample Doreen Carwithen's Concerto here, and more on smoking during concerts here.

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