Monday, March 30, 2015

Only connect

Audience engagement depends on the electricity generated by the music taking the shortest possible route from performers to listener. Just as E. M. Forster explained how "Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted", so, only connect the music and the passion, and both will be exalted. As in the new CD from the Orchestra of St Paul's conducted by its artistic director Ben Palmer seen above. The headline work on the disc is the relatively familiar String Quartet of Edward Elgar in an unfamiliar but engaging arrangement for strings by David Matthews. Coupled with it is the masterly but predictably neglected Second String Quartet of Malcolm Arnold arranged as a Sonata for Strings by David Matthews, and Robert Simpson's own arrangement of the searing Allegro Deciso from his Third String Quartet. This is fiendishly difficult music for a quartet, yet alone a sixteen-strong string ensemble. But the Orchestra of St Paul's advocate it with an edge of the seat intensity and technical brilliance that contrasts sharply with the 'health and safety' approach favoured by today's 'A list' orchestras. The music is captured in visceral sound - violins are seated to left and right of the conductor - in St Mary's Church, Walthamstow by the production team of independent label Somm, and the CD is enhanced by erudite sleeve notes from Ben Palmer; when did you last find Dudamel, Gergiev or Rattle taking the time to share their musical passions in a sleeve note? Audience engagement is not about superstar conductors, celebrity interviews over lunch at braggable restaurants, cutting through classical websites, or click bait blogs - it is is about the kind of music making found on this new CD.

I bought the new CD from the Orchestra of St Paul's at Prelude Records in Norwich. 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, March 26, 2015

Music beyond the Western straitjacket of twelve notes

That photo was taken in Sidi Ifni during my recent travels in southern Morocco. Prominent on my playlist during those travels were recordings by Ensemble Al Kindi and its founder Julien Weiss. After a period on the fringes of the counterculture, French born Julien Weiss converted to Islam in 1983 and took the name Jâlal. In 1995 he made his home in a 14th century Mamelouk residence in Aleppo, which is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and was, until the recent terrible civil war, an important cultural center. Latterly Julien Weiss was based in France, appearing with Ensemble Al Kindi at many prestigious festivals and making acclaimed recordings for Le Chant du Monde. Despite this the Syrian musicians of Ensemble Al Kindi - but not their French founder - were refused entry visas for the UK to perform at a festival in 2013.

A priceless 2005 interview with Jâlal Weiss quotes him as saying his conversion to Islam was "partly social - I wanted to be more than an outsider and become part of the Sufi community here" and revealing that he was drawn to Arab music because he came to hate "the straitjacket of twelve notes imposed by Western music, where everything is standardised". Peter Culshaw concludes the interview by explaining that while Jâlal Weiss was not the most devout Muslim - expecting a Frenchman to give up women and wine is a tall order - his spiritual path was through music.

The death of Julien Weiss from cancer in January at the tragically early age of 61 passed almost unremarked. However the Sufi Cultural Festival in Fez, Morocco next month includes a homage to him as well as a performance by Sheikh Hassan and his Muhabbat Caravan, who featured in a recent post. Public celebrations of Sufism - a liberal form of Islam considered heretical by fundamentalists - are being targeted by Islamic extremists; as was evidenced by the killing of six Sufis in Afghanistan earlier this month. Despite this I will be in Fez with my wife for the Sufi festival, listening with the ear of the heart.

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Sunday, March 01, 2015

Think on these things

Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with some else’s ability or with the thought 'The monk is our teacher'. When you know in yourselves: 'These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness', then you should practice and abide in them.
With those words of the Buddha from the Kalama Sutta and a photo from my travels on the the Manali to Leh highway in Jammu and Kashmir I leave you to spin again on the wheel of life. Take care but also take risks.

Translation of Kalama Sutta is taken from Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs. 'Think on these things' is both a Biblical quote and the title of a book by Krishnamurti. Photo (c) On An Overgrown Path 2015. Any other 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.

Friday, February 27, 2015

If there is a paradise, it is here, it is here

The area of experience that 'mystical' and 'spiritual' refer to is often not empirically verifiable, that is, a camera can't photograph it, a scale can't weigh it, nor can words do much to describe it. It is not physical, emotional or mental, though it may partake of those three areas. Like the depths of our loving, mystical experience can be neither proven, nor denied
That quote comes from Coleman Barks' introduction to his book The Soul of Rumi. I bought my copy last year in the estimable Full Circle Bookstore that is part of Café Turtle in Nizamuddin East Market near the shrine of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya in New Delhi. But that header photo was not taken in New Delhi; it was taken in Clare Hall, Cambridge last Saturday during an evening of ragas played by the Cambridge Hindustani Trio. It is self-evident that the Hindustani music of Northern India, of which the mystical raga is the apogee, is rooted in Hinduism. But Hindustani music also contains Muslim influences: the dominant Khyal genre absorbed influences from the Qawwali music of the subcontinent's Sufis, and both the sitar and sarod seen in the photo originate from Muslim Afghanistan. In his celebration of the Sufi saint Rumi, Coleman Barks describes how mystical experiences cannot be captured by a camera or in words. Similarly the experience of hearing and seeing the prodigiously talented young musicians of the Cambridge Hindustani Trio* selflessly serving the spiritual music of India cannot be captured in a photograph or words, or in a stream of binary digits. Western classical music should stop chasing impossible dreams of miracle maestros, new concert halls, and thaumaturgic technologies. As the Persian poem inscribed on the wall of the Red Fort in Delhi tells us in an echo of the Sufi fable The Conference of the Birds: "If there is a paradise, it is here, it is here".

* Members of the Cambridge Hindustani Trio are: Left of photo Avradeep Pal playing sarod - Avradeep began playing the sarod at a very young age. He was trained in the Senia Mihar Gharana (lineage) by the late Pandit Kamal Mallick and Gopi Mohan Basu, and has also received training from Shrimati Amina Perera (daughter of the legendary Ustad Ali Abar Khan), Pandit Kartik Kumar and Pandit Nayan Gosh. Centre of photo Parth Gharfalkar playing tabla: Parth has studied the tabla since the age of six, first with Pandit Pankaj Naik of the Punjab Gharana, then from Pandit Rajkumar Misra of the Jaipur Gharana after Parth moved to London at the age of eight. Right of photo Angelina Morelos playing sitar - Angelina has been playing the sitar for more than fifteen years with her teacher the sitar maestro Pandit Manilal Nag. She is a national scholar and gold medal winner in Indian music. My ticket for their concert was bought at the Clare Hall box office. Photo is by Arijita Pal. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). This post is also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

There could be worse ways to start a career

In Amati magazine Jessica Duchen interviews the prodigiously talented young composer and conductor Duncan Ward. In the interview much is made of how Duncan Ward was "appointed as the first conducting scholar of the Berliner Philharmoniker Orchester-Akademie on the recommendation of Sir Simon Rattle", how he is working as assistant to Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic, and how the young composer is writing a piece for Rattle and his wife the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená to perform. The interview comprehensively documents Duncan Ward's very impressive career to date but omits one fact: he is managed by Askonas Holt - see above - as are Simon Rattle, the Berlin Philharmonic, Magdalena Kožená and others namechecked in the interview. If the buzz that is building around Duncan Ward induces déjà vu, it may well be because another young conductor called Gustavo Dudamel was managed by Askonas Holt early in his career, and received similar coverage, including endorsement from Simon Rattle. As Jessica Duchen says on Facebook, there could be worse ways to start a career. Duncan Ward is clearly a huge talent and is certain to go far. When Sir Simon is appointed music director of the Askonas Holt represented London Symphony Orchestra, I expect to see Duncan Ward guest conducting them in the new London concert hall.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Unsurpassed Haydn

The recent sad death of John McCabe cannot be allowed to pass without a mention of his recording of the complete Haydn Piano Sonatas for Decca in the 1970s. His account has never been surpassed and probably never will be surpassed. If somebody had told me ten years ago that I would now listen to more Haydn than any other composer I would have laughed at them. Which just goes to show that my world and my music are never one and the same.

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.

How the long tail is being priced out of the market

Mode Records is a New York label specialising in contemporary music. Their distributor in the UK is Harmonia Mundi, who. like several other distributors, sells direct via Amazon marketplace. When the Mode CD of John Luther Adams' Strange and Sacred Noise reaches Harmonia Mundi in the UK they sell it direct to the public for £16.25 (£14.99 + £1.26 delivery) - see screen grab below - and must be making an acceptable margin in the process. But when the CD makes the short journey to one of Amazon UK's distribution centres, the price increases to £23.18 as in the screen grab above. (Both prices applied on Feb 22, 2015). This represents a 43% (£6.93) price hike by Amazon. This inflated pricing by Amazon is an increasingly common occurrence on long tail titles, and is, presumably, a function of the online retailer's increasingly dominant market position as independent retailers are forced out of business. The large differential between the CD at £23.18 and the MP3 download at £8.99 should also be noted. Yes, this reflects a difference in distribution and stockholding costs. (Although as I write Amazon only holds two copies of Strange and Sacred Noise in stock). But as independent retailers cannot offer the download version, it conveniently hastens the collapse of long tail distribution by independent retailers. Amazon's strategy of using digital content as a route to not only control distribution but also become the owners of intellectual property - more than 500,000 books are available only on the Kindle eBook platform - is a disruptive development that is receiving too little attention. Apple's ambition "to be the music business", which may mean iTunes owning as well as distributing content also has major ramifications for the long tail.

It is unlikely that other UK music writers will be covering Amazon's pricing policies, because don't buy their CDs. But there may be an additional reason: several writers have monetised relationships with Universal Music's Sinfini website, which has now spread its tentacles into Holland and Australia. And Sinfini Music has a monetised relationship with Amazon via a range of Universal Classics compilation albums which are sold as downloads via Amazon, but not released on CD and therefore unavailable to independent retailers. Which should be read in conjunction with the news that Apple is currently looking for a music journalist to manage a team of freelancers writing about iTunes content. The next time someone tells you that classical music's biggest problem is the lack of a designer concert hall in London, please correct them.

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