Thursday, April 24, 2014

An absurd complex of inferiority to the symphony orchestra


Much trumpeting from Sony about a Billboard classical chart number one for Iranian composer Hafez Nazeri's Rumi Symphony which "crosses cultural boundaries through a new universal blending of Eastern and Western classical music". That PR speak sets the alarm bells ringing, because as one of the leading exponents of traditional Middle Eastern music, Julien Jaleddin Weiss, explains:
"European stringed instruments (violin, viola, cello, double bass) were integrated relatively recently into oriental ensembles, to the point where they have acquired a dominant, indeed overwhelming position. I have always taken care to eliminate them as far as possible, for they were designed to play our polyphonic music. In my view their introduction is tainted with an original sin, namely an absurd complex of inferiority to the symphony orchestra. Not to mention, of course, the total incompatibility of the language of the maqām with the equal temperament of the piano, the guitar, and all Western wind instruments.
More alarm bells are sounded by the Huffington Post headline which tells us that Hafez Nazeri is "fighting for world peace". In his book The Other Islam Stephen Schwarz describes how: " In most English-language editions of [Rumi's] writings, Islam and metaphysics have been extracted like internal organs from his verse and it falls to the idiom of the gift card". In his Rumi Symphony Hafez Nazeri commits the double original sin of reducing both a profound teaching and an incomparable music tradition to no more than the idiom of a musical gift card. Listen here, or, even better, buy one of Julien Weiss and Ensemble Al Kindi's albums.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

You can do better than that


"Do you remember the first time you heard classical music" asks a tweet from the Bienen Music School linked to my recent post about Jan Willis. Some years ago I recounted how my parents took me in the early 1960s to hear Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the young Singaporean maestro Choo Hoey. That was one of my music epiphanies, and another is also worth recounting. Sometime in the late 1950s I borrowed a record by Tommy 'Mister Twist' Steele from a schoolfriend to play on our home radiogram. My mother, who was an accomplished pianist, said just one thing when she heard it: "You can do better than that, Bob". I have always remembered those wise words, and classical music can also learn much from them. If it really wants to build a new audience, classical music should forget all the notably unsuccessful nonsense about reinventing itself as entertainment. Instead concert promoters, record companies, music journalists and radio stations should be proclaiming: "You can do better than that entertainment audiences; join us for the ride and we will show you how". As the BBC moves towards appointing a new Radio 3 controller and Proms director, their management should keep in mind that the outgoing BBC classical music supremo Roger Wright will be remembered for sacrificing art on the altar of entertainment, while one of his predecessors, William Glock, is remembered for reinvigorating classical music by giving audiences "what they will like tomorrow".


Photos were taken a few weeks ago in Sidi Ifni, Morocco. The boarded up Twist Club is a relic of the 1950s when the town was a Spanish military garrison; the footer photo is a detail of the facade of the magnificent art deco cinema also built by the Spanish. Striking images but also a striking teaching: they both show places of entertainment that were abandoned half a century following a cultural shift, but are preserved today as artworks. Photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Monday, April 21, 2014

"If life were just, I would become a great conductor"

One of my earliest and fondest memories is of standing in the center of our kitchen at about age four, stick baton in hand, "conducting" symphonies by Dvořák and Rimsky-Korsakov*. My mother had given in to my pleas for the 78 rpm records. She thought the music completely unappealing and constantly yelled at me for turning the volume up, but I loved her without bounds for buying me the ninety-eight cent record.

For days and weeks, I was completely lost in the roaring sonorities of Scheherazade and in the somber strains of the New World Symphony. My head and arms sunk and rose in waves and flurries as the music wholly enveloped me. I thought the New World particularly moving, somehow divinely captivating. Its sound struck a deep, still, soul-place in me, though I did not and could not say why. It was only much later that I learned of Dvořák's interest in black spirituals.

I do not remember when I first heard classical music. Nor do I know how I could have known the names of particular composers. I suspect I first heard the music in movies such as Walt Disney's Fantasia or on television. How I ever claimed to comprehend the intricacies of musical notation and meter I am not sure. Yet I was somehow drawn intensely and irrevocably towards this kind of creativity; and I marveled that in music, as in mathematics, there was a language that was universal. And so, for a time, while my father was toiling away at making steel in the fiery blast furnaces of the Ensley mill, I determined that if life were just, I would become a great conductor.
That is Jan Willis in the photo above, and the extract is from her autobiographical Dreaming Me. She grew up in Docena, Alabama in the 1950s when life was even less just then than it is today. While Jan Willis was discovering classical music, America's leading impresario declared that he didn't believe in male "Negro symphony conductors", yet alone female Negro symphony conductors. Fortunately, classical music's loss was spirituality's gain: after studying with Lama Yeshe - who also influenced Philip Glass - Jan Willis went on to become the first African American scholar-practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. In 2000 she was named one of the six spiritual innovators for the new millennium by Time magazine and today is professor of religion and East Asian studies at Wesleyan University.


* While writing this post I was prompted to put a Rimsky symphony on the CD player; David Zinman's account of the Second Symphony Antar with the Rotterdam Philharmonic just happened to be the one I put my hand on. Listening to it again was a salutary reminder of how classical music's big opportunity is neglected music.

No review samples involved; but dependent arising dictated that the very cheap copy of Dreaming Me that I bought online came signed by Jan Willis. 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.

Friday, April 18, 2014

To cat, or not to cat: that is the question


There was an overwhelming response on Facebook to yesterday's feline photo. It was taken at Sidi Ifni in southern Morocco, as are the two photos in this post. Fishing is the main industry of the town, and the daily fish market is home to many contented moggies as Muslims are taught that cats should be cherished and loved. These images are certainly heartwarming, but I am also aware that cats are a very powerful social media clickbait. However there are strong links between cats and art music; this is almost certainly because the condition of synaesthesia - experiencing one sensation (sound) in terms of another (sight) - which is found in many classical musicians, is hardwired into cats. John Tavener was asked by Brian Keeble how he knew if something was going wrong with his music, and could he tell by looking at it whether it was right or wrong. This was the composer's reply:
Yes, I can, and not only by looking at the music. It could be by looking at the cat, which I know is ridiculous, but there is something deeply mysterious about cats. I think they 'know' things that we don't have access to.
Two of John Tavener's pieces for solo piano, In Memory of Two Cats and Mandoodle, are inspired by cats. To cat, or not to cat is the question. To which my answer is that if just one reader of this post discovers these affectionate Tavener miniatures, which are on an excellent Naxos disc played by Ralph van Raat, my use of cats as a benign clickbait is excusable.


Quote is from John Tavener: The Music of Silence edited by Brain Keeble. Any copyrighted materialis 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.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Zen and the art of walking away

'A cat sits until it is done sitting, then gets up, stretches, and walks away' - Alan Watts
Photo taken at Sidi Ifni, Morocco; another cat plays a cameo role in On the road with a Sufi saint. Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for critical analysis only. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Also sprach Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tuni


Dependent arising means that while travelling I have been spending much time with Egyptian Sufi music, particularly with the CD seen above from the master of the munshidin - sacred song - Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tûni. This disc is living proof of the unfashionable view that music is humanity's most direct expression of its better self, and I recommend that readers intrigued, or indeed puzzled, by my preoccupation with the esoteric tradition of Islam should exit their comfort zones and enter its force field. My heavy rotation of the sultan of munshidin is evidence of how far I have strayed from today's "it's 2014, so it must be Richard Strauss" monoculture. Audience data and social media trends show that many others are being disenfranchised in the same way. Fortunately the quaint notion that classical music is more than entertainment lives on, and this week the Britten Sinfonia present Bach's St John Passion in Cambridge, Amsterdam, London, Saffron Walden (in the beautateous new Saffron Hall) and Norwich. I will be chairing a pre-concert talk with soprano Julia Doyle and counter-tenor Iestyn Davies at the Norwich performance on Easter Sunday. In his essay for the Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tûni CD Alain Weber's tells how in a Sufi ritual, the hadra - the moment of collective spirituality when the participants enter into the presence of the Divine - is "an open creative event where a whole range of emotional behaviour is expressed". Which is also a very good definition of Passion, as in Bach.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Refreshing antidote to clickbait music journalism


Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical Wayfarer appears to have been remaindered as new copies are available from the States on Amazon at very low prices. This definitive study of a grossly underrated composer comes complete with a CD of Harrison's music that is worth the discounted price alone. Running to almost 400 pages with chapter headings inclusing 'Music and the Dance', 'Lou Harrison and East Asian Music', 'Sounding off: Music and Politics', 'Harrison, Homosexuality and the Gay World, and 'Not Just Music: Criticism, Poetry, Art and Typography', Composing a World is a refreshing antidote to today's all-pervasive clickbait music journalism.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. No review copies involved in this post. Any copyrighted material 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).