Friday, February 12, 2016

Some things need to be challenged

Seeing that spike in Overgrown Path site traffic triggered by yesterday's post Classical music has more than one glass ceiling reminded me of this quote:
Rebellion is not always bad. Some things need to be challenged. The minority is often right. There is something built into us that should not be quenched - something that won't always go along with the status quo. Creativity is sometimes born of rebellion. Yes, there is the well-known negative side to rebellion; but complacency in the context of abuse or exploitation is unacceptable. And if we constantly squelch in others and within ourselves that quality of rebellion, the results are stunting.
Quote comes from the idiosyncratic self-published memoir God Helped Us Smuggle Hash by Pepper Sweet. No review sample involved 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.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Classical music has more than one glass ceiling

Two things depress me about classical music's treatment of musicians of colour. One is that they are so seriously underrepresented. The other is that there is so little concern about that underrepresentation. Many posts have appeared On An Overgrown Path about this lamentable situation. The most recent was titled Why do we still not believe in Negro symphony conductors? It pointed out that in more than 2500 Promenade concerts in London there have been just three black conductors, giving a 0.002% minority representation. These statistics generated virtually no interest, yet alone righteous indignation. Which contrasts very sharply with the media feeding frenzy that surrounds the appointment of women conductors. And please don't accuse me of political incorrectness. The historic underrepresentation of women in classical music is also a cause for great concern. This blog was one of the first to raise this issue in a post ten years ago titled BBC Proms 2006 lacks the eternal feminine . Since then there have been numerous articles on the subject; including one about the forgotten figure of Antonia Brico who conducted the Berlin Philharmonic back in 1930. Which was fifteen years before the first black conductor took the podium at a Berlin Philharmonic concert. My congratulations go to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla for smashing the glass ceiling at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. But the job is not finished until there is a black conductor at the Last Night of the Proms.

Montage shows Kwamé Ryan with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Kwamé Ryan featured in a 2011 post about musicians of colour at the BBC Proms. 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, February 10, 2016

Classical music has a new audience but nobody noticed

Yesterday's post described how the tanbur master Ostad Elahi was lavishly praised by Yehudi Menuhin and Maurice Béjart, despite never appearing in public or making a commercial recording. There is a strong case for arguing that the power and purity of Ostad Elahi's music came about because of, rather than despite, a lack of commercial exploitation. It can also be argued that Western classical music can learn much from this Persian jurist, spiritual seeker and master musician who died more than half a century ago, and who never performed before a conventional audience.

Art music and its cousin Western classical music evolved from sacred music created by Hildegard of Bingen and other early composers for no audience other than God. Over the centuries classical music morphed from being a privileged means of communicating with the Divine, to communicating with a less-Divine and more human audience. By the 20th century it had become accepted that this human audience would exhibit three essential characteristics: first, the audience would be passive consumers of music, secondly that they would pay for the music they heard, and thirdly, that the audience would be relatively homogeneous in taste and lifestyle. The bloated business model which celebrity classical music operates on in the 21st century depends on this compliant, financially submissive, and monolithic audience, and the failure to understand the rapid decline of that traditional audience - traditional not in age or taste but in behaviour - lies at the heart of most of classical music's current problems.

Western classical music is obsessively committed to exploiting new media; but only in futile pursuit of its legacy audience. Concertgoers are given the concession of applauding between movements, but are otherwise expected to be passive and compliant consumers. Concertgoers are given the concession of free streams of operas and concerts, but are still expected to pay handsomely to enter a concert hall or opera house. And concertgoers from an increasingly diverse society are assumed to all have the same tastes, and consume en masse the same programmes featuring the same few composers.

Why hasn't classical music woken up and smelt the coffee? Listeners are no longer passive consumers: they are active users of new technologies that allow them to customise their playlists very precisely. The same technologies have changed the way people pay for their music, and have also changed the perception of how much they should pay. And the advent of streaming and other selective technologies is making 'one size fits all' concert programmes of established masterpieces redundant. Much has been made here and elsewhere of Britten's 'holy triangle' of composer, performer and listener. That holy triangle is derived from a Newtonian worldview of discrete entities, but we now live in an era of quantum entanglement, where all events - subatomic and musical - are interconnected. New technologies are blurring the boundaries between composer, performer and listener; which means we are fast approaching the point where, to quote another great Persian mystic Rumi "The listener is the performer, and the performer is the listener".

We are told repeatedly that the audience for classical music is dying because of the average age of concertgoers. It is true the audience is dying; but because of changing technology and expectations, not changing demographics. Anyone who thinks I am overstating the impact of these changes should use journalism as a case study. New technology allowed newspaper content to be made available free online - just as classical music is being streamed free online. This precipitated a massive shift from print to online content. Publishers have belatedly countered this by offering content for monthly online subscriptions that generate far less revenue than traditional printed papers - Spotify and Apple Music are the classical equivalents. But, despite this, newspapers are hemorrhaging cash. Take the case of the Guardian, the news media equivalent in status and quality of the Berlin Philharmonic or London Symphony Orchestra. In its current financial year the Guardian will have burnt through almost £80 million in cash, and, as a result, is being forced to cut its costs - including staff - by 20%. And, classical music please note, success online does not compensate for failure elsewhere. The Guardian is the world’s second most popular English-language news website. This is an impressive achievement that has failed to solve the newspaper's financial woes; because, unless you are Google or Facebook, it is very difficult to monetise Internet traffic.

Disruptive technology, surplus capacity, and faltering demand are facts of life in classical music. Yet the response of the London Symphony Orchestra, to which Simon Rattle is moving from the Berlin Philharmonic, is simply to press for increased capacity in the form of an expensive new concert hall just yards from a perfectly serviceable alternative opened in 1982. Classical music is far from dead; and if it is smart it will not be playing to empty halls in the future. But it must adapt its business to appeal to the new self-curating, heterogeneous audience, and those changes must be far more fundamental than allowing applause between movements, boosting Facebook 'likes', and building yet more concert halls.

At the root of the problem is the inequality between classical music's superstars and the rest. The top 1% not only enjoy eye-watering incomes, but they are afforded a status by a sycophantic media that belittles the huge number of fine musicians working in the many other ensembles away from major metropolitan centres. The result is that grassroot professional music making has become no more than a training ground for tomorrow's superstars - an invidious process that simply raises financial expectations throughout a fiscally challenged industry. Celebrity classical music is a dinosaur that is feeding off the carcass of the moribund traditional audience. The spotlight needs to be shifted, both in finance and status, to the rump of non-celebrity professional and amateur musicians and ensembles who are better positioned to weather the coming financial storm. Flattening the supply pyramid will also bring the diversity that classical music needs to meet the demands of the new heterogeneous audience. Classical music may not be dead, but in its present form it is a car crash looking for a place to happen. New hands are needed on the wheel to prevent endless rounds of 20% cuts, mounting operating deficits, and closures of grassroots ensembles.

Header photo from Blog Vegas. 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.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Master musician who never performed in public

Any musician whose playing prompted Yehudi Menuhin to declare "Never had I heard anything like it... I could hardly believe my ears", and who was described by Maurice Béjart as "The greatest musician I had ever encountered in my life" deserves our attention. And they are even more deserving of that attention when we realise that this remarkable musician never performed in public and never made a commercial recording.

It was Ostad Elahi who prompted these accolades. He was born in western Kurdistan in 1895, and his father was a senior figure in the Ahl-e-Hagg [Fervents of the Truth]. This mystical order is found among the Perians, Kurds and Turkmen of Iraq and Iran, but is also found as far afield as the Yemen. The order is related to the Yazidis of Iraq, who are currently in the news because of their persecution by ISIS, and to the 'Alawis, to which the beleagured Assad regime in Syria adheres. The Ahl-e-Hagg is categorised as a heretical strand of Islam which shares with the Shiites a veneration for the Prophet Muhammad's cousin Alī bin Abī Ṭālib. However, despite this veneration for the Fourth Caliph the sect has dualist Manichean beliefs that align it with Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism and the heretical Christian Cathars. (The related Yazidi religion is influenced by Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity as well as Islam.)

Ostad Elahi was a child prodigy who was recognised as a master of the tanbur - the Persian lute - by the age of nine. Until he was twenty-one he practised the tanbur in his native village for long hours, and his autodidacticism led him to expand the repertoire of the ancient instrument and develop a new playing technique. When his father died he renounced his ascetic lifestyle and embarked on a career in the Persian judiciary under the reforming Reza Khan. His career spanned almost three decades, and he rose to the position of chief judge of the criminal court of appeal in Tehran, the highest rank attainable in the judiciary. In these roles he became celebrated for his resistance to the corruption in Persia's criminal justice system.

Throughout this high profile judicial career Ostad Elahi remained committed to spiritual and musical development, and this led to his encounters with Yehudi Menuhin and Maurice Béjart during his time in Tehran. His development took him to away from his spiritual and musical roots to develop a synthesis that was more relevant to the mid-20th century. From Ahl-e-Hagg he moved on to advocate a syncretic approach to faith that reflected the perennialism of René Guénon, but which retained its veneration for Alī bin Abī Ṭālib. In the compilation of his teachings The Path of Perfection Ostad Elahi describes how: "Music is a divine creation. Music was created to express and awaken spiritual emotions". To achieve this awakening he advocates the Sufi practice of 'zekr' (or zikr) - the remembrance of God through music leading to ecstasy.

Although Ostad Elahi never gave a concert and made no commercial recordings, numerous recordings were made by his disciples, and for some of these the microphone was in the next room to avoid alerting the master to the presence of a tape recorder. Many of these unofficial recordings have been released on the Chant du Monde label in acceptable sound despite their unusual provenance. As an introduction The Sacred Lute: The Art of Ostad Elahi, a 2 CD overview compiled for the 2014 Metropolitan Museum, New York exhibition celebrating his art and music, is recommended. Samples of his playing and an excellent documentary introduction can be found in a WNYC programme linked to the exhibition. These archive recordings are a million miles from the fashionable world music that Ross Daly describes as “an offshoot of the pop music industry with an emphasis on party music”. Instead they allow us to experience music that Yehudi Menuhin described as "very sensitive, very powerful... and at the same time very precise and pure."

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, February 03, 2016

Wanted - an audience of innocent ears

That is Cecil Lytle in the photo above. In any discussion of the piano music composed jointly by Georges I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann, the focus invariably falls on the mercurial Gurdjieff, with de Hartmann consigned to the role of amanuensis. But in Cecil Lytle's essays that accompany his recordings of the complete piano music of Georges I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann made in the late 1980s while he was on the music faculty at University of California, San Diego, Lytle turns the spotlight on Thomas de Hartmann.

Born in Khoruzhivka, now part of Ukraine, Thomas de Hartmann was a graduate of the Russian Imperial Conservatory of Music, and studied conducting under Felix Mottl in Munich. In 1906 his four-act ballet La Fleurette Rouge [The Pink Flower] was performed in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, and Michel Fokine dancing principal roles. A close friend of Alexander Scriabin, Thomas de Hartmann was also close to Wassily Kandinsky, who he met while studying in Munich. He shared the artist's interest in anthroposophy - other musicians attracted by Rudolf Steiner's teachings included Bruno Walter ando Jonathan Harvey - and synesthesia, and collaborated with Kandinsky on the 'color-tone drama' The Yellow Sound [Der gelbe Klang]. This experimental work was never performed in the lifetime of its creators, but was given a belated premiere in New York in 1982 using a score reconstructed by Gunther Schuller.

Because of the involvement of Gurdjieff - who is bracketed with Osho and Aleister Crowley in a thoughtful book titled Three Dangerous Magi - the piano music of de Hartmann and Gurdjieff is too often consigned to the spiritual freak show pigeonhole. But Cecil Lytle points out parallels between it and the compositions of Ravel, Busoni and Scriabin. As his compelling pianistic advocacy proves, among the voluminous de Hartmann/Gurdjieff oeuvre there is some estimable music that deserves to find an audience of innocent ears.

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.