Thursday, July 27, 2017

For every complex problem there is a simple wrong answer

Whatever begins with the criterion, and basic motive of material gain, without having any real feeling, can never be successful, it will never realize its full potential. Music is not made to order, it isn’t just executed, whenever you try and contain it within specific boundaries, to limit it, to play just to make a living, for example, it will never achieve its potential grandeur.
That quote is from the great Cretan lyra player and teacher Kostas Mountakis (1926-91). Among his pupils was the leading exponent of modern Cretan modal music Ross Daly. In Greece today the government's attempt to exit from the EU imposed bailout programme has created a big opportunity for the masters of the financial universe which is causing widespread resentment. This Reuters report explains what is happening: "Big money managers have started buying cheap Greek stocks from banks to lotteries as clouds over talks between Athens and its international creditors gradually clear, anticipating big returns. A deal in May when Greece agreed to more austerity measures raised hopes of possible debt relief for a country that has endured economic hardship for years, resulting in the longest winning streak for the Athens bourse in more than two decades".

This development, together with the financial hardship suffered by so many Greeks and the foolhardiness of imposing fiscal policies designed to benefit urban-centric northern countries on rural-centric southern countries, is completely off the radar of those who salivated over the recent pro-EU gestures at the BBC Proms. This post is not about anti-Brexit versus pro-Brexit. It is about seeing the bigger picture and not just the parts that fit with our own preconceptions. The grandstanding at the Proms and the subsequent social media hysteria simply confirmed H.L. Mencken's assertion that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Mountakis Kostas - Rare live recording is available from the excellent Greek Record Shop in Crete - just one of the countless small Greek businesses that has suffered and continues to suffer from the machinations of the well-connected masters of the financial universe. To learn about Kostas Mountakis pioneering music education the 1999 documentary The Circle at the Crossroads available on YouTube is recommended; it is in German but has English sub-titles. No review sample or other benefits 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.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Schmuck! What do you think you are in?

A watershed moment in the evolution of rock stage-craft occurred one night after Jefferson Airplane had played a three-hour set to an ecstatic Fillimore crowd. Impresario Bill Graham asked guitarist Paul Kantner to go out and take a bow. "Fuck that, that's show business," Kantner responded. Graham's reply was priceless: "Schmuck! What do you think you are in?"
Anecdote is from Rob Chapman's rambling, profuse and only sometimes engaging Psychedelia and Other Colours. Photo shows Jefferson Airplane at 1969 Woodstock Festival. 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, July 25, 2017

Classical music targets a different mass market

An inevitable consequence of classical music's social media obsession is that the big get bigger and the rest get smaller. This is due to the accelerator effect of Twitter 're-tweets' and Facebook 'likes'. Once a topic reaches the social media tipping point it is liked and re-tweeted exponentially, while anything that fails to reach that crucial tipping point is buried beneath the wisdom of crowds. Such as ECM's CD of Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian's Requiem. This important new work commemorates the estimated 1.2 million victims of the Armenian Genocide which took place in Turkey in 1915-16, and it speaks profoundly and movingly of the need for humanitarian ideals and unity between nations and cultures - the very subjects that celebrity musicians put centre stage at recent Proms. But with just a few exceptions - take a bow Sequenza21 - this new release was greeted with a crouching ovation on social media and a total absence of 'Tigran Mansurian for prime minister' blog posts.

In the past I have criticised ECM for not matching the creative flair of newcomer non-classical labels such as the rejuvenated Harmonia Mundi Latitudes and Accords Croises labels. However Tigran Mansurian's Requiem is out of ECM's top drawer and ranks alongside their disc of Valentin Silvestrov's Requiem as one of the label's finest achievements. The forces are the RIAS Kammerchor and M√ľnchener Kammerorchester conducted by Alexander Liebrich, and the sleeve essay by Paul Griffiths is a poignant reminder of the damage done to music writing by online self-publishing. Paul's essay concludes with these words: "There is a fully achieved simplicity that words cannot touch, only the mindful ear". I can add nothing to this other than please do audition this new ECM release.

This review used that most rare of creatures, a requested review disc. Thank you David Fraser who is label manager at ECM's UK distributor Proper Music for flowing me music that matters and not music that needs hyping. 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, July 23, 2017

When criticism cuts both ways

This interview with Jordi Savall in La Stampa Cultura has been causing something of a furore. Forgive me if I don't have the story quite right, but the article is in Catalan and behind a paywall. But it appears Jordi's harsh comments about the state of Western classical music - formulaic, self-serving and lacking creativity - have been greeted with social media ripostes from within Spain that people in glass houses should not throw stones.

Readers will know that over the years I have been one of Jordi's biggest fans, so it saddens me to say that I have sympathy for some of the views expressed by his critics. In recent years I have been uncomfortable with certain aspects of Jordi's work. For instance, his puzzling criticism of the Spanish government's arts policy when he was taken funding from the ethically compromised Abu Dhabi regime, the difficulty of reconciling his humanitarian stance with his concerts in China, and the lacklustre book and CD projects which have repeated the same formula too often and sometimes are patched together from concert recordings made at different venues with varying acoustics. Then there are those audible mastering glitches in the SACD layer of his War & Peace CDs which are still uncorrected, and the unacceptable level of ambient noise and compromised sound on his recently released concert recording of Libre Vermell de Montserrat which is generally inferior to his 1979 EMI Reflexe account.

I treasure many of Jordi's CDs, have wonderful memories from his concerts and look forward to his future successes. But there is no smoke without a fire, and I respectfully suggest that he spends a little more time reflecting on the criticism sparked by his interview, and a little less time mimicking other celebrity musicians by flying around the world telephoning in his performances, churning out boilerplate new releases and making Barenboim-like pronouncements about the sad state of the world. Of course a musician must earn a living. But at the age of 76 I believe it is time for Jordi Savall to find a little more of the inner peace that he has so persuasively advocated. Clarification and comment from my Catalan readers would be appreciated.

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'Spirituality' seems to be the label-du-jour

My photo shows the village of Rocamadour in south-west France. The village is on one of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage routes and pilgrims come to venerate the Black Madonna in the Chapelle Notre-Dame. When I was approaching Rocamadour I was reminded of the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh - see this post - and the interior of the Chapelle Notre-Dame seen below also has similarities to Vajrayana Buddhist shrines.

It is easy and fashionable to view all the great wisdom traditions as just being ingredients in one big spiritual potpourri, and it is a view that I confess to having taken many times on this blog. So it was refreshing and invigorating to come across an alternative view recently in the form of David Webster's book titled provocatively Dispirited: How contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish and unhappy. David Webster is principal lecturer in religion, philosophy and ethics at the University of Gloucestershire where his main work is in Buddhist thought and its relationship to Western philosophy. His thesis provides a bracing antidote to the temptations of syncreticism, so I will conclude by quoting in full the first two paragraphs of his recommended book:

When someone tells me that they are not really religious, but that they are a very spiritual person, I want to punch them in the face. Hard. But I don't; partly because it is a poor way to recruit students, and also because it is probably wrong. And I am a coward who fears retaliatory pain. But it does annoy me hugely. It annoys me because confusion is distressing - and when people tell me this, I really don't know what they mean. I do know what they mean in a socio-cultural sense. They are indicating to me that they don't want me to mistake them for one of those 'crazy' religious people - the sort who believe that they are right and other people wrong, the type who is tainted by extremism and religious fundamentalism. They want me to recognise them, though, not as a shallow egotist with a mere mechanistic world-view, but as someone with depth and sensitivity. In this latter desire, 'spirituality' seems to be the label-du-jour.

But beyond its use as a social-cultural identification, I am unsure what empirical content to ascribe to the 'spiritual, but not religious' statement. Does it mean that the utterer has beliefs, but doesn't practice them in any way? Perhaps not. Maybe they mean that they are some sort of syncretist who follows a path of their own faith-conflations - but I can't be sure. Largely I am confused, as I understand a religion as a spiritual activity, and crucially, see spirituality as fundamentally religious in nature. I would suggest that to be spiritual, you have to be religious.

No review samples used. 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.