Sunday, June 28, 2015

Music as a bridge between form and the formless

It was only when I stood on the Aswan High Dam and looked south across Lake Nasser that I really understood the tragedy of the Nubian people. Beneath more than 2000 square miles of water lie the Nubian homelands that were flooded when the dam was built in the 1960s, and between the dam and Aswan are the soulless villages that the Nubians were resettled in. Hamza El Din (1929-2006) - seen above - made it his mission to preserve the Nubian culture that was being extinguished by the waters of Lake Nasser. He was born in the Nubian village of Toshka which was flooded when the High Dam was built. After training as an electrical engineer he went on to study Arabic music in Cairo and Western music at the Academy of Santa Celia in Rome before moving to the West Coast of the States. He played at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, recorded two albums for Vanguard, jammed with the Grateful Dead and taught at the the legendary Mills College in Oakland, California. A collaboration with the Kronos Quartet followed an introduction by Terry Riley, and Hamza El Din's sparse and repetitive oud lines are though to have influenced the development of the minimalist style. His two classic albums are Escalay (The Water Wheel) - seen above - recorded for Nonesuch in 1971, and Eclipse, produced by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart in 1988.

The Nubians practise a syncretic mix of Islam and ancient animism, and Hamza El Din was influenced by Sufi mysticism. Dr H.J. Witteveen has written that: "Of all the arts music has a particular spiritual value and meaning, because it helps [us] to concentrate or meditate independently of thought: and therefore music seems to be the bridge between form and the formless. This is why music has always played an important role in Sufism." The Nubian Dhul-Nun al-Misri (830 CE) was an Egyptian hermetic and Sufi who, according to the authoritative British Orientalist R A Nicholson, "above all others gave to the Sufi doctrine its permanent shape". Animistic and shamanistic elements mix with Islam in the Nubian religion, and the anthropologists Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Fred Katz have described how in shamanistic rituals, music provides "pathways and bannisters" between the familiar form of everyday waking consciousness and the formless mystery of higher levels of consciousness. That line of transmission from Hamza El Din to the Minimalists continues through to John Luther Adams. The shamanist rituals of indigenous Alaskans influence John Luther Adams' post-minimalist music - notably in Strange and Sacred Noise - and his best known work Become Ocean has a coincidental but poignant link to the tragedy of the Nubians.

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Conflict cannot exist without agreement

When nations fight they must first agree on something to fight about. Conflict cannot exist without agreement, an agreement more fundamental than the conflict. To fight there must be cooperation.
Those words come from Jonathan Harvey in his 1999 book In Quest of Spirit; such penetrating insight supports the view I expressed at the time of his death that Jonathan had a Bodhisattva mind. Header graphic is Tunisian oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem's ECM CD Le Voyage de Sahar.

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Where have all the meaningful experiences gone?

Don't open the door to the study and begin reading
Take down a musical instrument
Let the beauty we love be what we do
Those wise words are by the Sufi master Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, and the photo shows an original Zuckermann harpsichord kit from 1968. I have recounted here before how during the second half of the twentieth century the harpsichord came back from the dead to reclaim its rightful position on the concert platform. Wolfgang Zuckermann's $150 harpsichord kits, which were launched in 1959, played a major roler in this rehabilitation, which extended beyond early music into the works of John Cage, Elliott Carter and Maurice Ohana. In the 1960s John Cage and Merce Cunningham were neighbours of Zuckermann in Greenwich Village, and the premiere of Cage's HPSCHD in 1969 used Zuckermann harpsichords.

Wolfgang Zuckermann sold his harpsichord business in 1969 and left America in protest against the Vietnam war. He eventually settled in France and ran an idiosyncratic bookshop in Avignon until he retired in aged 87 - I took the photo of him below shortly before he retired in 2008*. My interest in the godfather of the modern harpsichord recently led me to a fascinating account of building a Zuckermann kit like the one seen above. Its author James Gollin explains that "There is a special satisfaction, I admit, in being able to play music on an instrument you’ve built yourself" and quotes Wolfgang Zuckermann as saying "Some [people] actually looked forward to the kind of meaningful experience associated with building an instrument.”

Building an instrument, playing an instrument, making music, even listening to live music - where have all the meaningful experiences gone? Milan Kundera suggests in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that once we lose the ability to express an emotion, the capacity to feel that emotion is eventually lost. There is a strong case for arguing that one we lose the ability to express music, so we lose the ability to appreciate music.

* It is pleasing to report that Wolfgang Zuckermann's bookshop in Avignon continues to thrive under its new owner Camille Vourch, as described in a 2013 post. 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, June 22, 2015

Twelve-tone donkey serenade

That photo was taken by me when hiking in the Samaria Gorge in Crete a few weeks ago. On my iPod playlist in Crete was the Violin Concerto by Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas, in the BIS recording by Georgios Demertzis accompanied by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nikos Christodoulou - sample here. Hans Keller, who knew a thing or two about these things, rated Skalkottas as one of the few great twentieth-century composers of ‘symphonic thought’, and considered him to be the only ‘symphonic genius’ after Schoenberg whose ‘genius’ remains to be discovered. Hans Keller died thirty years ago; but despite the advent of the digital age of plenty, Nikos Skalkottas' genius remains undiscovered.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Thoughts on a modern Greek tragedy

Then those who own a great deal, when they heard this creaking, were frightened. Because they know how to read every sign in detail, and often, from miles away, they can make out what profits them. So right away they put on the sandals of treachery. And half of them on one side and half on the other, they pulled the rest to and fro, saying: "Your deeds are good and fine, and here you see the closed gateway to the courtyard of lambs. Raise your hand and we are with you, and we'll take care of the fire and the iron. Don't worry about homes, don't feel sorry for families, don't ever let the voice of son or father or younger brother stop you. Should any one of you worry or feel sorry or stop, let him know this: his will be the sin, and on his head will fall the fire and iron we brought."
That quote comes the monumental poetic cycle The Axion Esti by 1979 Nobel Literature Prize laureate Odysseus Elytis. The extract is taken from the translation by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis, and in their preface the translators describe The Axion Esti as "an image of the contemporary Greek consciousness through the developing perspective of a first-person persona who is at once the poet himself and the voice of his country". Mikis Theodorakis mirrored Odysseus Elytis' radical prose with revolutionary music to create the eponymous work that is undoubtedly the composer's masterpiece: that is the classic 1964 recording released by EMI Greece below*:

The accompanying photos** were taken by me two weeks ago in the port of Chania on the Greek island of Crete, and I am suggesting that the sub-text of these images together with that of The Axion Esti will provide the impetus for a resolution of the current economic crisis in Greece. Crete lies on the geological and cultural faultline between Europe, Asia and Africa, and this is reflected in the architecture seen in the photos. Seen in the top photo is the Orthodox Church of St Nicolas in the Turkish quarter of Chania. This was built as as an Orthodox church, then converted into a mosque during the two centuries of Ottoman rule; it was returned to the Orthodox faith when the Turks left, but one of the minarets that were added has been left standing. The former mosque of Yiali Tzami on the quayside in the photo below was built shortly after Chania was captured by the Turks in 1645. Turkish forces were expelled from Crete in 1898, but the mosque was used for worship until 1923 when the last Muslims left the island. The minarets were demolished in the early 20th century and the mosque is now an exhibition space.

Crete is equidistant from mainland Europe, Africa, and Asia; it is close to the politically volatile Middle East and North Africa, including the flashpoints of Libya and Egypt. To the south of Crete is the main shipping lane for oil traffic using the Suez Canal. Ten miles east from where my photos were taken is Chania is the military base and airport at Souda Bay. This military base is occupied by the U.S. Naval Support Activity (NSA) Souda Bay. As the official US Military website explains:

The presence of U.S. Naval Support Activity Souda Bay is dedicated to taking care of the fleet and airborne operations in this strategically critical area of the world, which is their primary mission, and to building a new spirit of cooperation with our Greek Allies. NSA Souda Bay routinely functions as a Naval Operating Base, Naval Air Station and Naval Weapons Station. NSA Souda Bay skillfully orchestrated joint U.S. Navy (USN) / U.S. Air Force (USAF) reconnaissance missions and air refueling support for Operations Desert Shield/Storm, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and other joint USN/USAF and multi-national operations.
The Souda Bay base is currenly being upgraded to a multi-role 'hub' "providing crucial air-links for USAF strategic airlift in support of CENTCOM and Africa Area contingency operations". Off the coast of Crete is a NATO missile firing range; one of the main users of this range is austerity advocate Germany, and it was here that the US 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade fired a live Patriot missile for the first time in Europe.

Souda Bay is now the only US military base in Greece, but strategically it is very important. And Greece itself is no minor player when it comes to defense: despite the current economic crisis Greece is the second biggest defense spender among the twenty-seven NATO countries in relation to its GDP. Greece spends more than 10 billion euros a year on defense. 42% of its arms purchases are from the all-powerful US military/industrial complex and 25% from Germany. Neighbouring NATO member Turkey is never far from political meltdown, a beleaguered Greece is cosying up to Russia, and the CIA backed the right wing military junta in Greece from 1967 to 1974. So I predict that the following call will be made to Germany from the red phone in the White House in the next few days: "Hi Angie baby; it's OK to talk because I've told the spooks to turn the phone tap off. Do keep the pressure on those Greek bastards. But remember when push comes to shove we need them as much as they need us. Have a nice day." Or as The Axion Esti tells us: "Then those who own a great deal, when they heard this creaking, were frightened".

* The 1964 EMI Greece recording is very difficult to find outside Greece. Other versions are available: these include a 1982 recording for Channel Classics conducted by the composer. Unfortunately this is, in my view, fatally flawed by being given in a German translation.
** Footer photo was taken from the balcony of our room in the Porto Antico in Chania. My thanks go to Sophia for the hospitality in her outstanding hotel.
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