Tuesday, January 23, 2018

BBC Radio 3's big mixtake

Recent time spent with a DAB tuner simply confirmed that BBC Radio 3's presenter-led daytime programming is an embarrassing disaster. But sadly, hiving off the presenters to Classic FM where they belong is no solution. Because Radio 3's flirtation with presenter-less Mixtapes programmes is an even bigger disaster (mixtake?). Just as the station's dumbing down of presenter-led programmes is a futile attempt to recapture the mass audience low ground from Classic FM, so the cringe-inducing Mixtapes are a futile reaction to the very popular Spotify playlists.

The same disruptive technologies that disrupted the record industry are now disrupting the broadcast media. But Radio 3 refuses to accept this, and instead insists on a fruitless survival strategy of emulating commercial stations and streaming services. This despite having none of their competitive advantages but having many, many competitive disadvantages. I worked for the BBC and Radio 3 provided much of my music education. But, despite this, I firmly believe that Radio 3 cannot and should not survive in its present form.

Radio 3 must surrender the mass market low ground to Classic FM and the streaming playlists. But what it must not surrender is its unique competitive advantage of being a patron of high quality live music via its orchestras and other ensembles, and via the Proms and other concert series. Radio 3's ratings are not responding to attempts to capture the classical low ground, and drastic action is required before the station's life support machine is turned off by the suits. Eliminating cost and restoring competitive advantage by radical action such as the wholesale dropping of Classic FM-cloned programming and replacing it with archive recordings from the BBC's priceless library of concert performances is one way forward. Forsaking FM/DAB wavelengths altogether and emulating the highly successful BBC Radio 6 by becoming an internet-only station streaming live concerts and archive recordings is another.

The livelihoods of five leading orchestras and a choir, and the future of the largest new music commissioning budget in the world depend on the healthy survival of BBC Radio 3. You only need to listen to Radio 3's daytime programmes to understand that the patient's vital signs look very bad indeed, and to realise that drastic surgery is essential to provide any hope of survival.

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Monday, January 22, 2018

Let's never forget that the music is the message

Music journalists are, by instinct, more drawn to something that is good to write about than something that is good to listen to. Marshall McLuhan taught that the medium is the message, and in the classical sphere the music itself must always be the primary message. But today's obsessive contextualising means that the context is fast becoming the message. As an example, it goes without saying that much important work still remains to be done to eradicate gender inequalities. But because the feminine narrative is good to write about and rich in click bait, the female context is starting to become the message at the expense of the music.

Let's consider a provocative scenario. Funders are pressuring an orchestra manager to deliver better attendances. There is a choice between two conductors of equal calibre. One is male the other female. The manager knows that booking the woman conductor will generate much-needed media coverage, and this in turn will boost audience numbers. Which does the manager choose? The distorting prism of the media makes it a no-brainer.

Back in 2006 On An Overgrown Path was one of the first blogs to highlight the gender inequality in classical music, and it is very pleasing to see a combination of sheer talent and positive action allowing Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, Marin Alsop and others to achieve the preeminence they rightly deserve. But there is a crucial dividing line between positive action and positive discrimination, and being led across that rubicon by the media inevitably brings the risk of a damaging backlash.

But let's turn our attention back to what really matters - the music. I prefer the road less travelled. Which means journeying to places that TripAdvisor neglects and writing about very good music that lies outside journalistic comfort zones. Such as the Brooklyn Raga Massive's interpretation of Terry Riley's seminal In C, an interpretation where the music is not only the message but also a way of life - see video below. As this album passes with flying colours the vital test of being good to listen to, I can move on to contextualising. So here to conclude is the backstory taken from the Brooklyn Raga Massive website of this refreshingly paradoxical exercise in big band minimalism:

Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM), a collective of forward thinking musicians rooted in Indian classical music, release Terry Riley In C recorded live in concert with 18 musicians at Joe’s Pub on January 11, 2017. Indian classical music is often a lonely affair involving 3 or 4 musicians at most. Sitarist Neel Murgai identified the canonic minimalist masterpiece as an accessible way for a critical mass of BRM musicians to play together. Terry Riley himself, after listening to an early performance recording, suggested they “use the basic In C form but open it up to solos...based on some of the patterns.” BRM’s arrangement of In C incorporates raga, Indian ornamentation, driving tabla rhythms, improvised solos and an instrumentation of sitar, sarod, bansuri, vocals, tabla, hammered dulcimer, oud, violin, cello, upright bass, dragon mouth trumpet, guitar, cajon, riq and frame drum.
Terry Riley composed In C in 1964, but this release marks the first time it has been performed and recorded by a group featuring so many Indian classical musicians and raga elements. The piece’s basic structure consists of 53 cells of music for any instrumentation, short fragments that each performer repeats, displaces and moves through at their own will. Terry Riley is a long time practitioner of Indian classical vocal music, having studied with Pandit Pran Nath, but he confirmed that “I have never heard an ensemble like this playing In C.”

No review samples used in this 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.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Elliott Carter effect

Thankfully not everyone is purring in their self-reverential reality tunnel. Later this year the premiere of John Cage's Scottish Circus is being replicated in the hall where it was first performed in September 1990. The replicated first performance is in the Concert Hall at the University of Glasgow on June 1st. Scottish Circus was commissioned by composer and activist Eddie McGuire for his group The Whistlebinkies who will perform it in this year's concert alongside student musicians. The Whistlebinkies have also recorded Scottish Circus together with 4'33'' for new music advocates Mode Records of New York for future release.

Scottish Circus was premiered during the 1990 Musica Nova Festival in Glasgow with John Cage in attendance. The Festival was a celebration of contemporary music presented by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) under the direction of the visionary and underrated Sir Alexander Gibson. At the time the legendary recording producer turned orchestra manager Christopher Bishop was chief executive of the RSNO, and some years ago he contributed a fascinating vignette of John Cage to On An Overgrown Path. Below is a short BBC documentary about the 1990 Musica Nova Festival.

A less catty appreciation of Elliott Carter can be read via this link. 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.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Hooked on speed

Why is that mechanic at the Marrakesh ePrix wearing protective clothing? Why is another mechanic poised behind him holding a yellow plastic stick with a hook attached to his colleague's derrière? Have they discovered a swarm of bees in the car? Find the answers is my guest contribution to my brother's Rolling Road blog.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Beware of self-reverential reality tunnels

Georg Solti's interpretation of Berlioz's drug-induced episode in the life of an artist in its original LP release provides the graphic for this post because the veteran conductor was in the audience at the UK music industry's 1994 Brit Awards. During their performance that evening the duo Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty of the band The KLF fired blank machine gun rounds at the audience of record industry luminaries as a PA announcement declared "The KLF have left the music industry" - see this video. Solti's unsuccessful attempt to leave the auditorium during their act - he was persuaded back by his Decca minders - was viewed by Drummond and Cauty as the only reaction from an audience member that showed any understanding of what they had done.

Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty were heavily influenced by Discordianism. This is a quasi-philosophy based on the now scientifically-supported belief that chaos is as important as order, and it pioneered the concept of self-reverential reality tunnels. As we now know, self-reverential reality tunnels are not only the malignant force driving religious extremism, but are also the overriding dynamic of social media and a powerful tool of the music establishment. Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007) was an American futurist, agnostic mystic and author. He was a leading advocate of Discordianism and is best known for The Illuminatus! Trilogy of novels. The following explanation of reality tunnels comes from John Higgs The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned A Million Pounds - band members Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty can be seen burning that million pounds in this video.

This was getting confusing and lesser men would have given up and gone quite mad at this point. Robert Anton Wilson, instead, made one of the most important philosophical leaps of the twentieth-century, although admittedly, it is not yet generally recognised such.
As well as undergoing drug-induced schizophrenia Wilson had been raised as a Catholic and had also been a communist in his earlier years. He had fully accepted these two powerful belief systems before rejecting them both. Thanks to this background, he was able to recognise what he would later call a self-reverential reality tunnel. This was a philosophy, religion or ideology that was complete and satisfying and which fully explained all the details of the world, assuming you did not question its central tenet. This central tenet was an idea - and often an appealing one - for which there was a distinct lack of evidence, such as the idea that there was a judgemental patriarchal creator God or that a property-less communal utopia would be the final stage of society. The surrounding ideology was an elaborate commentary which developed in order to support the central concept in much the same way that a pearl forms around a piece of grit in an oyster.
All the theory and education that is needed to fully understand an '-ism' or religion functioned like a sophisticated defence mechanism which protected this central tenet from crashing and burning on the rocks of reality. The reason these ideological defences were so painstakingly built up over time was because, once inside a self-reverential reality tunnel, you had a model that made sense of the world.
No review samples used in this 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.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Does the colour of our passports really matter?

That photo was taken at last weekend's Marrakesh ePrix. I wanted a shot of one of the local youngsters posing in front of the race publicity material. But being only too aware that photographing minors is frowned on - or worse - in England and elsewhere in the West, I was hesitant to ask. But my preconceptions were, once again, wrong. This teenager could not have been more amenable; his cousins all wanted to be photographed as well and there were numerous requests to not only exchange Facebook and Twitter details but also to share phone numbers.

When I entered Morocco in November the police looked at the very large number of Moroccan stamps in my passport and asked if I was a drug smuggler or sex tourist, to which I replied 'dream on'. When I left Marrakesh last Sunday a policeman at the airport looked at the multiple stamps and asked if I lived in Morocco. I replied 'No, but I wouldn't mind living here', to which he responded 'In shāʾa llāh' (God willing) and waved me through security with a smile. As soon as I arrived home my passport, complete with multiple Moroccan stamps and Egyptian and Indian visas - I avoid America - was sent off for renewal. In the last months I have travelled outside the EU twice and inside once, and in a few weeks my new passport will take me again to the outer reaches of the EU. As someone who frequently crosses geo-political borders, I did not hesitate to vote 'remain' in the UK's EU referendum. But I have become increasingly disillusioned with the head-in-the-sand attitude of the anti-Brexit camp - an attitude that reached its ludicrous apogee in their raucous whinging about the colour of the post-Brexit UK passport.

I couldn't give a damn about the colour of my new passport as long as it facilitates the life-enhancing explorations that I am so fortunate to enjoy. I regret that those explorations may be made more difficult by Britain's exit from the EU. But I also appreciate that whether I live in a Britain inside or outside the EU and whether my passport is burgundy or blue, I am so much more fortunate than the Moroccan youth in my photo. It is almost certain that he does not have a passport, and he knows that even if he did it would be virtually impossible to travel to the role-modelling West which is all too familiar to him from saturation media coverage. Despite this he is making something of his life in a way that puts many of his Western peers to shame. How sad that all those who bombard social media 24/7 with their anti-Brexit rants do not have a more balanced view. And what an irony that the very same people who tell us self-righteously that the colour of our skin does not matter also tell us that the colour of our passport does.

Sincere thanks go to the followers in Marrakesh of the Sufi saint Ibn Al-Habib who provided the contrasting opportunity for me to engage with Moroccan youngsters that helped spark this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Classical music is producing a lot of hot air

That photo shows the New York Philharmonic with Lorin Maazel arriving at North Korea's Pyongyang's Sunan International Airport in 2008. Tours by major orchestras are big business, and tours to the Far East and elsewhere are even bigger business. Just to take London orchestras as an example, in 2018 the London Symphony Orchestra tours China, Vietnam and South Korea, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra tours America, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra has just returned from China. Yes, orchestras need to tour, but the environmental impact cannot be ignored. The car has become the environmental scapegoat while the impact of jet travel is overlooked. Which is wrong, because the aviation industry depends entirely on fossil fuel and consumes a staggering 5m barrels of oil every day; that is 2.5% of total carbon emissions. A plane flying from Europe to the Far East and back generates 4.5 tonnes of carbon, which compares with average per capita emissions globally of around 1 tonne.

A 2010 study by the University of Surrey reported that the UK music industry's activities generate around 540,000 tonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions. Audience travel accounts for 43% of those greenhouse-gases, live venue music events accounted for 23%, and music recording and publishing 26%. Among the major culprits for greenhouse-gas emissions was CD manufacture and packaging, but streaming performs no better. The energy appetite of the server farms that power music streaming and other online services is another environmental blind spot. Technology applications account for around 7% of global energy consumption, with a Greenpeace study identifying Amazon Web Services and Netflix as being particularly inefficient users. In 2014 US data centres consumed about 70 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity; this was 2% of the country's total energy consumption, and that consumption is increasing exponentially as more and more activities migrate to the cloud.

This article is not suggesting that orchestras should stop touring or that music streaming should be banned. But my time at the Marrakesh ePrix - and yes, I travelled by plane - brought home how another leisure industry is tackling the environmental impact of its activities. Environmental awareness should be on the classical music industry's radar, and if that is at the expense of the click baiting scandals that dominate the music news so much the better. The Festival d'été de Québec aims to be carbon neutral by measuring and offseting all greenhouse gas emissions generated by the event. If a rock festival in Canada can do this, why, for instance, cannot the BBC Proms?

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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Electrifying Marrakesh

Crosby, Stills and Nash's 1969 Marrakesh Express famously sung the praises of "Colored cottons hang in air, Charming cobras in the square, Striped Djellebas we can wear at home" and half a century later that image of Marrakesh as a city agreeably stuck in a touristic time warp remains. Which could not be further from the truth. Yesterday I attended the Marrakesh ePrix at which the accompanying photos were taken. This is an international race for cars that superficially resemble their more familiar Formula One counterparts but which differ radically under the bodywork, because they are 100% electric powered.

Formula E, which races in many major cities including Hong Kong, New York and Berlin, is a laudable attempt by motor sport to clean up its environmental credentials. The standard objection that electric cars require fossil fuel to generate their electricity is overcome by using specially commissioned generators that run on glycerine, which is a byproduct of bio-diesel, to recharge the cars. The generators are transported with the cars and associated kit from race to race using transport that minimises the resulting carbon footprint. Other environmentally aware policies include limiting the number of team personnel at races and eliminating the lavish hospitality facilities that are a feature of Formula One. To cap costs and limit competitive advantage many parts are common to all cars, including the chassis (monocoque), bodywork and battery pack. View video of Marrakesh ePrix highlights via this link.

The Noor Ouarzazate Solar Complex in the Moroccan Sahara came on stream in 2016 and when completed will be the world's largest concentrated solar plant with the potential to power one million homes. Marrakesh has a fleet of Chinese manufactured electric buses. Renault and Peugeot both plan to build electric vehicles in Morocco, as does Chinese corporation BYD which has a 13% share of the global electric vehicle market. One of the teams competing in the Marrakesh ePrix was NIO backed by the eponymous Chinese electric, autonomous vehicle manufacturer, while the winning car came from the team of Indian auto and technology company Mahindra - see photo below.

As can be seen in some of my photos, 52% of the Moroccan population is under 25 and they are rearing to go places. Preconceptions about charming cobras in the square and about the perils of majority-Muslim nations need to be ditched before the West is caught napping. And it is not just the President of the United States who is guilty of damaging preconceptions about countries beyond Western comfort zones. While taking these photos a Moroccan boy of about ten tapped me on the shoulder and proffered a bottle of water. I waved him away brusquely, thinking he was an urchin trying to make a few dirhams by selling refilled bottles. But he persisted and finally explained by sign language that the bottle had fallen out of my daypack a few minutes earlier.

Travel to and accommodation in Marrakesh was self-funded. Access passes to the track and pits were provided by a Formula E technology supplier. Photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2018. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

No, no, he's outside looking in

Moody Blues' flautist and vocalist Ray Thomas, whose credits include Legend of A Mind - 'Timothy Leary's dead/No, no, He's outside looking in' - has died aged 76. A Reading University gig by The Moody Blues in my student days ranks up there with my great music experiences, and there have been more mentions of the band here over the years than of any other rock group. They were a signpost on a musical path which five decades later still enriches and, most importantly, still reveals. Here as a tribute to Ray Thomas is a reprise of an Overgrown Path post.

In book Vinyl Adventures from Istanbul to San Francisco lead singer of The Charlatans Tim Burgess recounts how:
I've always thought that I was defined by records. Not just ones I've been involved in recording but every one I've ever loved, bought, fallen out of love with or that has soundtracked a particular chapter of my life. They are like punctuation marks. If I need to think back to an event in my life, it's easiest to do it with singles and albums.
This theme of music as punctuation marks in our lives is taken up by Earle H. Waugh's study of the mystical chanters of Morocco's Sufi brotherhoods titled Memory, Music and Religion, in which he proposes that music functions as a grounding tool by subconsciously reclaiming the past. It is a view I subscribe to, and during the 1960s and '70s albums from the psychedelic rock band the Moody Blues punctuated my life, with their set at my university in 1969 providing a never-to-be-forgotten example of the power of live music. Much emphasis is now placed on attracting a new young classical music audience. But little importance is placed on understanding how the much-derided ageing core audience - of which I am proud to be a member - came to classical music. Music education for young people is vitally important. But also important yet overlooked, is that many - if not the majority - of the current core audience came via rock music and popular culture.

In 1971 two albums spent much time on my Pioneer PL-12D turntable: one was the soundtrack album for Visconti's newly-released Death in Venice movie which introduced many of us to Mahler through the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, the other was the new Moody Blues album Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. But today social media's bubble filters and the internet's infinite possibilities for personalisation have all but eliminated serendipitous cross-genre and cross-media grazing. Gone are the days when Visconti's Death in Venice, Ken Russell's Music Lovers, Martin Scorses's The Last Temptation of Christ and Emerson, Lake and Palmer's Pictures At An Exhibition could add a new diacritic to young lives. Instead the mantra of our digital age is 'more of the same please' driven by the insidious dynamic of social media approval.

As can be seen from the accompanying artwork by Philip Travers, the Moody Blues' albums were a truly immersive experience, unlike today's stripped-of-everything-but-binary-data audio files. So much attention has been paid to decoding their albums' lyrics - including a book from a New Age publisher - that the band's bassist John Lodge composed I'm Just A Singer (In A Rock And Roll Band) for their 1972 Seventh Sojourn album to refute suggestions of hidden meanings. Among those obsessed with these chimerical hidden meanings was American arch-criminal and cult-leader Charles Manson who banned all music in his commune except the Beatles' White Album - notably the Helter Skelter track - and Moody Blues' albums.

That infamous connection introduces the dark side of the psychedelic movement. In the 1960s and '70s an extremist fringe of young people who felt alienated from an increasingly materialistic and arguably decadent Western society expressed their alienation by acts of horrendous violence against innocent people. This alienation spawned the abhorrent terrors of the Manson Family, the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Weathermen and the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski. Philosopher and essayist George Santayana told us that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It is imperative that the roots of the current wave of global terror are identified and eliminated. But crucial to that process is both the eradication of the current hate-filled extremism, and remembering and learning from past terror movements. As the French political scientist and commentator on radical Islam Olivier Roy explains:

...contemporary jihadism, at least in the West – as well as in the Maghreb and in Turkey – is a youth movement that is not only constructed independently of parental religion and culture, but is also rooted in wider youth culture. This aspect of modern-day jihadism is fundamental.
On the track Legend of a Mind from their 1968 In Search of a Lost Chord album, the Moody Blues sing that "Timothy Leary's dead/No, no, no, no, He's outside looking in". In just the same way the root causes of those terror outrages of the 1960s and '70s are not dead, they are just outside looking in as history repeats itself.

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Monday, January 08, 2018

The law of diminishing musical returns

One of the classical music industry's many paradoxes is that contemporary business practices such as marketing and branding are de rigeur, yet elementary economics are ignored and sometimes even deliberately defied. A recent Overgrown Path post linked the economic concept of the tragedy of the commons - when the result of all members of an interest-based community trying to reap the greatest individual benefit from a shared resource results in the degradation of that shared resource - to the detrimental impact of new technologies such as streaming. While an earlier post pointed out the basic rules of supply and demand mean that the grossly inflated supply of classical music to a market with static or even declining demand is an accident waiting for a place to happen.

Another economic law, that of diminishing marginal returns, states that there is a point beyond which the level of benefit gained is less than the amount of additional resource invested. News that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (NYPO) and its incoming music director Jaap van Zweden are to live stream a concert performance of Act I of Wagner's Die Walküre for free on Facebook has been greeted with widespread approval. But that approval overlooks the all too evident oversupply of streamed Walküre in various forms: as an example a YouTube search for 'Walküre' returns around 191,000 results - see header graphic.

The NYPO performance will also be available after the concert as an on-demand video stream on YouTube as well on Facebook and the orchestra's website. The availability on YouTube of Walküre 219,001 means the law of diminishing marginal and musical returns undoubtedly applies. So not only will the benefit gained from the Facebook Walküre be less than the amount of resources invested, but, more seriously, the value of the resource - classical music - is eroded. In a market where supply exceeds demand - and that is the case with music in the digital age - the value, both monetary and perceived, of the oversupplied resource declines. Which is precisely what is now happening to classical music. But it is not the NYPO with its large endowments and loyal subscribers that is hardest hit by the falling value of classical music. As the devaluation trickles down the supply chain it hits the less well-upholstered ensembles and artists at the bottom of the music food chain hardest. So what is the music industry doing to counter the damaging loss of value caused by oversupply? The solution du jour is to further increase the supply by giving valuable resources, such as the NYPO Walküre, away for free on Facebook. Go figure....

The YouTube availability of Die Walküre is undoubtedly inflated by the popularity of the Ride of the Valkyries. But the plenitude of Wagner is small beer compared to the chronic oversupply of Mahler: a YouTube search for 'Mahler Symphony' returns no less no less than 698,000 results. In a thoughtful email* longtime Overgrown Path reader Antoine Lévy-Leboyer highlighted the inconvenient truth of the oversupply of Mahler as follows:
One of the themes that is really important is indeed about the impact of technology on music. I am not talking about the use and abuse of social media nor the quality of new sound formats, I am talking about the fact that music is all too easily and readily available on too many medias. Streaming free or fee services are making of performances, as well as works and artists, a replaceable commodity. There is too much music available these days. Mahler fatigue comes because of saturation. You rightly advocate neglected composers like Nielsen, but we are going to be swamped soon with too many recordings of even these composers. The impact of the opening of Nielsen's Third Symphony will start waning in the same way as as has happened to, for instance, Mahler’s Second Symphony. Soon this will be also the case for Lutoslawski & Janacek".
Antoine concluded his email with these wise words: "So in 2018, my new year resolutions are to reduce listening to music but ensure that if I listen less to music but that when I listen, regardless of where I am, I will concentrate and focus as if I am in a concert hall". Amen to that.

* Antoine Lévy-Leboyer's email has been lightly sub-edited by me in the interests of clarity. 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.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Life is tough on the wrong side of the digital tracks

In 2008 my compulsive exploration of music's overgrown paths led me to present the first and almost certainly the only radio broadcast of a Gnawa trance ritual. This project was a collaboration with KamarStudios in Marrakech which had recorded and released commercially the two hour long ‘black’ section of the twelve hour Nights of the Seven Colours lila - trance ritual - with which the Gnawa celebrate the creation of the universe. My overnight broadcast of the black lila was prefaced by an ambient session from two young Marrakechi DJs which mixed electronic trance and more traditional sounds, a session also released as part of the Black Album package.

The Gnawa practice a folk Islam containing strong elements of animism and consider themselves descendants of Sidi Bilal, who was the first black person to convert to Islam, a companion of the Prophet and the first muezzin in Islam. The Gnawa identify with Bilal because of his colour, because he was a slave and for his conversion to Islam. Gnawa music and the associated power of trance has become something of an obsession for me; so I have kept in touch with Philippe Lauro-Baranès at KamarStudios, and my recent visit to Morocco gave me the opportunity to catch up with him. Kamar is located in a warren of back alleys in the Kennara neighbourhood of Marrakech close to the tourist honey pot of Jemaa el-Fnaa. Philippe and his four partners founded KamarStudios in 1999 and the Gnawa musicians were recorded in the acoustically blessed courtyard outside their studio - see photo below.

That is Philippe Lauro-Baranès in my header photo. He was born in Paris but has lived and worked in Marrakech for 35 years. The recording of the Gnawa lila is his passion and the raison d'être for KamarStudios. The lila is a voyage across the ocean of trance possession and each spirit invoked represents a different port of call on this journey through the night. Between 2000 and 2005 Kamar recorded the complete Nights of the Seven Colours ritual during the hours of darkness over 38 sessions, and all 12 hours of the lila exist as 'clean' masters. As part of the project the first-ever complete translation of the lila was commissioned and included as a text disc in the Black Album package. (The translation of the 'red' segment of the ritual dedicated to Baba Hammu, the spirit of blood, is incomplete as the Gnawa were unable to provide a translatable text for this most arcane and sanguinary rite.)

Although the complete Seven Colours ritual was recorded only the 'black' segment dedicated to the supernatural sons of the forest has been released. This is because Philippe has struggled without success to make the project commercially viable. In fact the financial burden of the Black Album has weighed heavily on Kamar ever since its release in 2006. It is tempting to simply dismiss this financial failure as a case of too much enthusiasm being focused on a niche market, and there is some truth in that diagnosis. But when you drill down deep into the story of the Black Album there are universal truths that apply across all music genres and markets.

It may be niche music, but Gnawa is a substantial niche. It resonates with the current preoccupations with emancipation from slavery and suppression of musicians of colour. Over the past decade Gnawa fusion projects have proliferated and the annual Gnawa music festival in Essaouira is now a major fixture in the world music calendar. The twelve hours of authentic Gnawa music in the Kamar vault is a unique and valuable document in the same league as Paul Bowles' legendary field recordings of Moroccan music. Yet Kamar has been unable to achieve commercial traction with the 2 hour black lila, yet alone with the complete ritual.

Philippe is very pessimistic about the state of the music market. He laments the decimation by digital technologies of the vital infrastructure that in the past supported independent projects such as the Black Album. Prior to the demise of bricks and mortar record stores there was high street display space available and professional merchandisers using that space to maximum effect. When it was first released 1000 copies of the Black Album were sold in just three weeks in the Virgin Superstore in the Champs-Elysées, Paris where it went on sale there through the intervention of a personal contact. But attempts to secure further physical distribution failed because the major distributors are only interested in labels with a range of titles, and Kamar currently only has one. So the Black Album CD set is now out of print; however it is available as a download or stream from iTunes, CD Baby and Spotify*.

Today the Black Album is just one of more than 3 million albums on the iTunes database. So the onus is on Philippe to promote it, and the main promotional vehicle today is social media. Philippe has no appetite for playing the click bait game, stating quite bluntly that "Artists cannot create and promote". Significantly he believes the Black Album would have achieved more success in the pre-digital market where passion and innovation were not subservient to technology, hype and scale. He laments the populism now prevailing in the creative industries, a populism which means the work of KamarStudios is dismissed by today's tastemakers as "too sophisticated, too intellectual and too deep". Compounding these problems is the pittance paid in royalties by the streaming services. As a result many independent artsists are forced to turn to crowdfunding, but others view this as a form of intellectual prostitution.

When asked whether the internet has helped, Philippe has no hesitation in answering with an emphatic "No!" He is not alone in his pessimism. Cretan music legend Ross Daly makes all but his latest release permanently available for free online because he is "really really fed up with the financial side of the recording industry", while rock superstar Neil Young recently announced he was offering his entire music archive free online in hi-res formats for a limited period. Neil Young's pre-occupation with sound quality resonates with Philippe Lauro-Baranè, who believes that the loss of the trance-inducing infrasound - low frequency content - of the Black Album in MP3 format robs the music of its power and purpose. Moreover Philippe believes that Kamar has been the victim of intellectual property theft, alleging that a major music festival has used his laboriously produced translations without permission.

Philippe sees major and overlooked downsides in the hidden economic and political agendas controlling the digital music industry. KamarStudios and its peers are outliers, and he believes that the online gatekeepers are out to kill everyone at the margins. Despite his trenchant views Philippe is most definitely not a luddite: he works in the digital domain using Roland workstations and freely acknowledges the huge benefits of other digital tools such as Emagic's Logic Audio Platinum. In addition to the Black Album project Kamar has created a number of acclaimed transcultural projects using cutting-edge technologies. Just one example is In Between Two Worlds or The Shadow of the Burnt Books, which was created by Kamar for the Marrakech Biennale and evokes the medieval Andalusian polymath and teacher of Islamic jurisprudence Ibn Rushd [Averroes] (1126–1198).

Ibn Rushd was the chief judge of Cordoba, but struggled against the sectarian violence which threatened the pluralism and tolerance of Al-Andalus. He fell out of favour, his works were burned and he was banished to Marrakech where he died. Judged to be a heretic, his ashes were returned to Cordoba. In Between Two Worlds or The Shadow of the Burnt Books draws parallels between the intolerance of the 12th century and our present time using digitised images of the burnt books in Mosul library, of Baghdad's street of booksellers Al Mutannabi destroyed by a suicide bomb, and the Buddhas of Bamiyan destroyed by the Taliban. Sound artist Leif.e.Boman appropriated the geological technique of atomic emissions spectroscopy to transform the faint waves of light in Ibn Rushd’s tomb into audio frequencies. These frequencies were then transformed in the digital domain into music by Khalid Içame and Abderrazak Akhoullil of the Kamar team. Listen to an extended sample and read more via this link.

In economics the tragedy of the commons describes how when all members of an interest-based community try to reap the greatest individual benefit from a shared resource, one result can be the degradation of that shared resource through their collective action. Today the music industry is in denial about the tragedy of the creative commons triggered by new technologies such as streaming. The Black Album's sub-title is 'Servants of the invisible' because the the Gnawa believe that by representing the gods in music and dance the invisible is made visible. The time I spent with Philippe Lauro-Baranès in Marrakech made very visible the problems that independent artists and producers face in today's digital marketplace. No we cannot turn the clock back, and yes, digital technologies have delivered huge benefits. But there is still a very blinkered view of the not insignificant downsides associated with the digital reshaping of music supply. The famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakech, which is just a stone's throw from KamarStudios, has enjoyed official recognition since 1922 as part of Morocco's artistic heritage and today is protected by UNESCO as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Creative mavericks like Philippe Lauro-Baranès are also part of our intangible cultural heritage, and it is a scandal that in the brave new digital age of plenitude - Facebook profits for one quarter $4.7 billion - mavericks like him are under threat.

* Any parties genuinely interested in collaborating with KamarStudios to give their Gnawa project the distribution it deserves and wishing to contact Philippe Lauro-Baranès can do so by leaving a comment below expressing interest with contact details. The comment will be picked up prior to moderation, treated in confidence and not published, but will be forwarded to Philippe.

Resources consulted include The Gnawa and Mohamed Tabal by Georges Lapassade. 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, January 03, 2018

Giving the music back to the artists and to their public

In its early days the Happy Valley School in Ojai, California founded by the Indian philosopher and teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti was supported by the southern California creative community which included Arnold Schoenberg and the pianist Lili Kraus. Igor Stravinsky was a close friend of Krishnamurti, as was Pau Casals who played for him in Rome in 1963, while Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha performed at a talk by Krishnamurti at Brockwood, England in 1975. Krishnamurti certainly moved in exalted music circles; however his teachings are expressed in acerbic prose and are therefore unsuitable for conventional music settings. So as conjunctions of Krishnamurti and music are now rarer than the proverbial hens teeth, an album with a track titled Tales of Krishnamurti is certain to grab my attention.

Maqâm Roads is a new release from Zied Zouari (violin, alto sax), Julien Tekeyan (drums, Armenian percussion,), and Abdurrahman Tarikci (bass, vocals) who are seen above. In his sleeve note Tunisian violinist Zied Zouari explains that the instrumental Tales of Krishnamurti, which has its musical centre of gravity somewhere between India and Tunisia, was inspired by Krishnamurti's book The Kingdom of Happiness. Krishnamrti taught that: "Leaders destroy the followers and followers destroy the leaders. You have to be your own teacher and your own disciple. You have to question everything that man has accepted as valuable, as necessary”, and Maqâm Roads is another notable world music release that eloquently questions everything a risk averse music industry insists is valuable.

Maqâm Roads comes from Accords Croisés, an independent French hybrid that brings artist management, concert promotion and record label under one roof with the the laudable mission of "giving the music back to the artists and to their public".View a taster video of the album via this link and marvel at Krishnamurti's acerbic prose and astonishing 1981 premonition of the perils of social media in the video below.

No review materials used in this 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.