Monday, October 31, 2005

In praise of ... Hyperion

Hyperion Records has an entire Guardian leader (or should that be lieder?) devoted to their complete cycle of Schubert songs today.

See In praise of ... Hyperion

Image credit - Blue Aran
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Hyperion Records face 'catastrophic' damages bill and Paying the Piper.

The Frauenkirche rises from the ashes

Let's celebrate the rebuilding, and yesterday's re-consecration, of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in Dresden which was destroyed in the aftermath of the Allied bombing of the city in 1945.

Follow An Overgrown Path to Dresden 1945 - London 2005 for more on the terrible events of sixty years ago.

Image credit - BBC
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Moments that take our breath away .....

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away (Anon)

Reaction after performance of Bach's Mass in B minor in Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh on Saturday evening. The Halesworth Festival choir, orchestra and soloists were conducted by Christopher Bracewell.

Picture credit - Musical Group on a Balcony by Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656) linked from Web Gallery of Art
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The real piano man

£33m tax bill for orchestras

'British orchestras face a £33m ($60m) tax bill that, if collected, could "kill them all off in one fell swoop" according to one orchestra insider. "The problem is so gigantic that literally everyone would go bust," said another symphony orchestra source.'

See Charlotte Higgins' article in today's Guardian.

Picture credit - Bernard M. Snyder, one man band
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Is recorded classical music too cheap?

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Striking a bum note

Q: What's a record company?

A: An organisation whose survival depends on suing those who are potentially its best customers.

See John Naughton's excellent article Striking a bum note in today's Observer.

Image credit -
SWREG
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Music-like-water

Over my dead body..............


Problem 1 - Build a new shopping mall in a historic city centre with limited available land.

Problem 2 - A large portion of the available land is consecrated, and used as a cemetery for the late-Gothic parish church of St Stephen's, with its splendid hammer beam roof, tall aisles, and clerestory dating to the late 15th century.
Solution- Build the mall around the cemetery, and put a main access path across the consecrated ground.
Project - Chapelfield Mall, Norwich, UK. Architects Chapman Taylor. Opened October 2005.


Image credits - Pliable's son using Casio EX-52. The picture above is a photograph of the actual notice that has been put up in the cemetery.
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Saturday, October 29, 2005

This quartet is going places....

I've been lucky enough to hear many great string quartets live over the last couple of years, including world class ensembles such as the Lindsays and Borodins. But right up there with the best was last night's stunning performance by the Sacconi Quartet (above) at the Halesworth Arts Festival.

This young British quartet formed when they were students at the Royal College of Music in London in 2001, and have since gone on to win a slew of prestigous awards including the Trondheim and Bordeaux International String Quartet Competitions, and this year's Royal Overseas League chamber music competition. They are committed to music education, and have a programme of recitals in London schools in collaboration with the Cavatina Chamber Music Trust. (I
ncidentally, their name comes from the outstanding twentieth-century Italian violin maker and restorer Simone Sacconi, whose book "The Secrets of Stradivari" is considered an indispensable reference work for violin makers.)

I wrote about last year's Festival performance by the Sacconi which included the gorgeous Elgar Quartet. This year their programme took them into the mainstream repertoire, and their playing just seems to get better and better. The intelligently planned programme traced the development of the string quartet format from Haydn, through Mozart to Schubert. The quartet's sheer technique and musicianship shone through in the fugue in the finale of the Mozart 'Haydn' Quartet in G major (K387), but it was in the finale of Schubert's Death and the Maiden that the young players' combination of precision and exhiliration really took the performance to the heights of greatness. Not a hint of the 'autopilot' performances that we see with increasing frequency from the 'Norwich today, Naples tomorrow' big name quartets. This was spontaneous music-making with a lot of risk taking, and it was inspirational. Particular praise for the beautifully rounded, but not overstated, cello tone of Cara Berridge. This quartet is going places, watch out for them.



The wonderful sound of the quartet as a whole was complimented by the acoustics of The Cut arts centre in the lovely little market town of Halesworth (above) in Suffolk. The newly constructed 220 seat audorium is just 12 miles north of Snape, and follows its illustrious predecessor by being converted from an old maltings. The fortuitous combination of brick construction and a low development budget has left the surfaces of the auditorium in natural materials, producing a wonderfully warm, but clear, string tone. The lively little arts centre also includes a dance and small-performance studio, workshop space, and a concourse gallery (below) with café-bar.


The Halesworth Festival really shows what can be done for the performing arts in a town with a population of just 6000. This week we will have had the delights of...
Tuesday - World Music - traditional music and dance from Ethiopia
Friday -
Sacconi Quartet
Saturday - Festival performance of Bach B minor Mass in Blythburgh Church of Britten fame
Sunday - closing concert by the
National Youth Jazz Orchestra
Beat that for live music-making in a local community!

Picture credits:
Quartet -
Sacconi
Gallery -
The Cut
Halesworth - Town web site

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A direct line to Britten

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Brilliant Renaissance Masterpieces

Enterprising Dutch label Brilliant Classics has found a very clever formula. It is being extremely successful in Naxos' core territory of the super-budget market by only offering multi-CD boxes containing some very worthwhile recordings. I've written before about some of them being too good to miss , and while in France a few weeks ago I picked up one of their new releases which I really must share with you.

Renaissance Masterpieces is thankfully not another 'Greatest Hits of Polyphony' package. Yes, there is some wonderful Tallis, Byrd, Lassus, and Palestrina on three of the five discs, but even that is cleverly chosen with no Spem or Byrd Masses. The other two discs contain great delights from two lesser known composers which are worth the very reasonable price of the set alone. Do you know the music of Eustache du Caurroy (French 1549-1609) or Phillipe de Monte - photo above - (Flemish 1521-1603)? If not buy Renaissance Masterpieces, I promise you will not be disappointed. I paid just 24€ (£17/$31) for the 5 CD set which comes with decent sleeve notes and texts, a Brilliant bargain.

Renaissance Masterpieces is beautifully sung by the Choir of New College Oxford directed by Edward Higginbottom in recordings licensed from CRD. Brilliant Classics releases a mixture of older tapes licensed from other companies and their own new recordings. Two of their own new recordings which also come highly recommended at super budget prices are the young Belgium Rubio Quartet's outstanding cycle of the Shostakovich Quartets (5 CDs), and the complete Haydn Piano Sonatas played by five different young pianists on fortepiano (10 CDs). Finally among their new recordings I recommend the Schütz Edition, I have recently really enjoyed Volume 2which includes some beautiful Madrigals. Heinrich Schütz (right) is a composer who seems sadly to have fallen out of fashion, he deserves some vigorous advocacy.

Among the licensed recordings the 5 CD box of Palestrina Masses sung by Pro Cantione Antiqua is very fine, as is the 4 CD box of Renaissance Flemish Polyphonists which I have written about previously. This set is worth the price alone for Antoine Brumel's Missa "Et ecce terraemotus" (Earthquake Mass), if you love Tallis' Spem in Alium you'll love this. Finally for keyboard enthusiasts Federico Mompou's Complete Piano Music played by the composer in a 1974 recording on 4 CDs is a 'must buy'. If you don't know Mompou's piano music with its shades of Satie and Debussy you are missing a great treat.

There is an awful lot of wonderful music on Brilliant Classics. And the good news is that at their super-budget prices they will not break the bank.

Picture credits:
Philippus de Monte -
Klassiekemuziekgids.net
Heinrich Schütz -
Classical music pages

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

György Ligeti's Private Passions

BBC Radio 3's Private Passions is one of my favourite radio programmes. The format is deceptively simple. Personalities from the arts and public life are asked to play the music that is important to them, and explain why. Central to the success of the programme is the presenter Michael Berkeley, who has pretty impressive credentials. He is a well known broadcaster and journalist, son of Sir Lennox Berkeley, was a very successful Artistic Director of the Cheltenham International Festival of Music, and is one of our leading contemporary composers with commissions including a Concerto for Orchestra for the 2005 BBC Proms season. The programme has led me on several invaluable overgrown paths, including those to Swedish pianist Jan Johansson, and Norwegian singer Radka Toneff's sublime interpretation of Weill. You can listen to the latest Private Passions programme with this link.

In 2005 Private Passions celebrated ten years of broadcasting. And to celebrate Faber have published an eponymous book (right) compiled by Michael Berkeley. Again the format is deceptively simple. The musical choices (including recording and catalogue number) for every guest on the programme are listed, together with very brief notes. There is also a fascinating league table of composer popularity. Not surprisingly J.S.Bach is top with 222 airings, John Adams ties with William Byrd and Lennon and McCartney at 15, while Pierre Boulez at 8 playings ties with Rodgers and Hart! The book runs to 386 pages, and makes the most fascinating reading. This is a book to savour, to dip into, and return to time and time again.

So for the autumn On An Overgrown Path is going to include a weekly spot featuring the musical choices of one interesting guest on Private Passions, starting this week with György Ligeti (lead picture) whose choices were:

* Nancarrow, Study No. 3a, Conlon Nancarrow (player piano) Wergo WER 6168-2
* Trad., 'Gending: Dhenggung Turulare', Langen Praja Seven Seas KICC 5184 (Pliable - Javanese gamelan, follow this link for audio files)
* Trad., 'Piere', Etienne Ngbozo (small sanza and voice) / Joseph Sasmba (large sanza) / Daniel Hgadike, Robert Tarapai, Raymond Doko (voice, rattle and percussion sticks) Ocorra c 580008(Pliable - African drumming)
* Trad., Whistle Ensemble, Banda-Linda Ensemble Auvidis/UNESCO 8020 (Pliable - African ethnic music)
* Claude Vivier, Lonely Child, Susan Narucki (soprano) / Schonberg and Asko Ensembles / Reinbert de Leeuw Philips 454 231-2
* Beethoven, Sonata in C minor, Op. 11 (second movement), Alfred Brendel (piano) Philips 446 701-2

Programme broadcast on 22nd November 1997
Listen to the latest BBC Radio 3 Private Passions programme
with this link
Information taken for promotional purposes only from Private Passions by Michael Berkeley published by Faber ISBN 0-571-22884-4 which you are strongly recommended to buy.
Image credits:
György Ligeti - Scena.org
Private Passions book - Faber

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My first classical record

Monday, October 24, 2005

Chanticleer rocks with Sound in Spirit

Concept albums have been at the cutting edge of rock music for decades. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, released by the Beatles in 1967, was the definitive concept album which set the ground rules of a common musical theme with linked liner art, and tracks that sequed into each other. Many other major bands of that era adopted the concept format, notably the Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed (which started as a rock treatment of Dvorak's New World Symphony), S.F. Sorrow from the Pretty Things, and the Who's rock opera Tommy.

In fact concept albums had been around for some time before the Beatles. Frank Sinatra pioneered themed albums, and his 1955 In the Wee Small Hours used linked material for each track with the theme picked up by the liner graphics. Just before Sgt. Pepper the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was conceived as a linked biographical portrait of Brian Wilson, and was a said to be a major influence on the Beatles.

The massive artistic and commercial success of Sgt. Pepper meant that the concept album has remained an important creative format for rock artists, and has become an established way of reaching new audiences and boosting sales. Exponents of the format include the Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall), through David Bowie, Jethro Tull and the Alan Parson's Project, to The Streets, Drive By Truckers, and recently Elvis Costello, and once again Brian Wilson with Smile in 2004.

Recently the classical industry has been desperately trying to find ways to fight declining concert attendances, slowing CD sales, and ageing audiences. Recently the classical industry has been desperately trying to find ways to fight declining concert attendances, slowing CD sales, and ageing audiences. The strategy of choice to reverse the decline has been to make classical music easier to access, and cheaper CDs (with prices driven down by the rise of Naxos) and internet downloads (see MaxOpus) have been the main weapons of defence. But interestingly the classical concept album has never really featured as a method of winning new audiences.

Until, perhaps, the arrival of Sound in Spirit from the Bay Area choral ensemble Chanticleer. This twelve male voice group, which positions itself as an "Orchestra of Voices", has established an enviable reputation for musicality and innovation since its foundation in 1978. Their repertoire ranges from the Grammy winning Colors of Love album, through gospel and spirituals, to both contemporary (including the premiere recording of Sir John Tavener's Lamentations and Praises) and early music (Cristobal de Morales' sublime Missa Mille regretz). Particularly noteworthy is their work in music education. The members of Chanticleer are committed to sharing their passion for singing, and over the years have opened up valuable opportunities for many young singers.

Sound in Spirit is as close to a classical concept album as we are likely to get. Producer Steve Barnett sets out a clear agenda. This is the first Chanticleer album created to be totally recorded and remixed in a studio environment. It was conceived as a conceptual whole with no pauses between tracks. And the album borrows some techniques from outside the classical world, most notably the use of ambient sounds. In an interview Chanticleer's Artistic Director Joseph Jennings (photo below) says:

"People listen to music while driving in their cars, while they are cleaning, while they are busy with lots of other activities. That’s okay – it’s a personal choice. And this CD may work that way. But I don’t think it will have the full impact it is intended to have if you simply hear it in passing. This CD will require some time for contemplation. In fact, you may have to listen more than once to begin to get into the right place for it. People should give themselves the gift of 75 minutes, and carve that time out for themselves. I feel they will be well rewarded. I chose music from many religious traditions – Christian, Buddhist, Native American – all works with spiritual but not orthodox religious connections. The presentation on the album is consistent with the idea behind it. It’s a different type of listening experience.

But let's make one thing clear, this album is not an exercise in dumbing-down. It is a work of serious musical scholarship, for instance several of the tracks use 'overtone singing' either intentionally (Sarah Hopkins' Past Life Memories) or accidentally due to the precise intonation of the ensemble (Joseph Jennings' Sound in Spirit). Overtone singing (also known as harmonic singing) is the technique originating from Mongolia which singers can use to produce more than one note at once. The human voice produces a simultaneous range of overtones, or harmonics. A skilled overtone singer can focus specifically on these discreet overtones.

Sound in Spirit is a mosaic of mosaic of sacred chant, drawing from traditions as diverse as Native American and Japanese, Byzantine and Tibetan, Gallo-Portuguese and native Australian. The composers range from Tomas Luis de Victoria and Alfonso X de Castille to the contemporary voices of Jan Gilbert, Carlos Rafael Rivera, Jackson Hill and Sarah Hopkins. Particularly interesting is Past Life Memories by Sarah Hopkins (see paragraph above on overtone singing) which draws on her work with Australian Aboriginal music, as can be heard in this sample -

Chanticleer has never claimed that Sound in Spirit will reverse the declining fortunes of the classical CD. The projection of the project as a classical concept album is mine alone. But what they have produced is a remarkably stimulating and rewarding musical experience. Superficially it is similar to the Hilliard Ensemble's ground-breaking Officium. But Sound in Spirit is far wider ranging in its explorations. The real value of the album lies in its appeal to both serious choral enthusiasts, and to new audiences. The musical credentials are impeccable, and range from 13th century Spanish polyphony to contemporary composers such as Patricia van Ness and Jackson Hill. Some of the ambient sounds and 'arranging' of plainsong will doubtless send the purists diving for the fast forward button. But my love of Bach is boundless, and it was kick-started in my teens by the arrangements of Leopold Stokowski and Jacques Loussier. If Spirit in Sound can similarly kick-start a new audience into developing a passion for choral music ranging from medieval to contemporary a job will have been very well done.

Photo credits:
Sgt. Pepper - Amazon.com

Threshold of a Dream - Prog Archives
Joseph Jennings -
Earlymusic.org
Sound in Spirit - Chanticleer

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

You saw it here first.....

It is good to see that Janet Cardiff's performance installation Forty Part Motet which I wrote about back in May when it was here at the Norwich and Norfolk Festival (photo right), is now playing at the revamped New York Museum of Modern Art.

The installation uses a specially commissioned recording of Tallis' Forty Part Motet Spem in Alium with forty discrete audio channels (via DAT) for each of the voices. Forty B&W DM303 speakers are located around the periphery, grouped in eight blocks of five reflecting the five SATB voice groupings in Tallis' score.

See this link to my original post which has a lot more information and photos, and follow this one for fellow blogger Jericho's story and photo of the MOMA installation.

Photo credit - Taken by my son on his mobile phone!

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Medieval muzak

I am the first to complain about non-stop music in supermarkets, airport terminals, and doctor's surgeries. So I was rather chastened to find a historical precedent from a monastic order no less.

The acoemeti were 5th century monks who provided non-stop choral singing. This was achieved using a relay system with a fresh monk replacing an exhausted monk every few hours. There is a mention of the Pope having heard the akoimetoi in Constantinople in the late 5th century. The name acoemeti comes from the Greek akoimetoi, meaning sleepless.

So the next time you complain about the background Kenny G as the Starbucks barista prepares your cappuccino grande, remember you may be messing with a fifteen hundred year old tradition.

And mentioning monks and coffee, do you know how cappucino got its name? Well actually no one knows for sure. But the most popular theory is that the name comes from the Capuchin order of friars who played an important role in restoring Catholicism to Reformation Europe. The friars' robes were light brown, and their name came from the long, pointed brown cowl they wore. (Cappuccio is the Italian for hood) The first recorded use of the word cappuccino in English is in 1948, and its origin is unproven. But surely it is no coincidence that a properly prepared cappuccino leaves a brown ring round the rim of the cup which closely resembles the outline of a monk’s cowl?

The overgrown path to the akoimetoi and cappuccino came from the excellent The Know-It-All by A.J.Jacobs (publisher Simon & Schuster, ISBN 9780743250627). For more excerpts follow this link. I have only read the first thirty pages so far, but I've also learnt that the abalone is a species of snail with five anuses. Which presumably means they pick up a lot of literary awards.

Picture credit: Christis

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Friday, October 21, 2005

Terry Riley - Requiem for Adam

Thirty-nine years ago today on 21st October 1966 144 people, 116 of them children, died when abnormal rainfall caused a mountain of coal waste to collapse onto a school at Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. The disaster happened just as pupils of Pantglas Junior School (right) were starting their morning lessons. It took nearly a week to recover the last body. An inquiry found that the National Coal Board was wholly responsible, and ordered them to pay compensation. Both the National Coal Board and the UK Treasury refused to accept full financial resposibility, and the cost of removing the coal waste from the disaster site fell partly to the charitable Aberfan Disaster Fund. It was not until 1997 that the fund was repaid by the UK Government.

The death of a young person is a most tragic and moving event. It is also one of the hardest to express through music. Gustav Mahler set the bar very high with his song cyle, Kindertotenlieder. But contemporary American composer Terry Riley responded to the challenge beautifully with his Requiem for Adam.

Terry Riley pioneered what came to be known as minimalism with his In C which was premiered at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1964. While teaching composition, improvisation and North Indian Music at Mills College in Oakland he started working with the Kronos Quartet who had a residency there in the late 1970s. This was the start of a string of collaborations which resulted in works including the two hour long Salome Dances for Peace (1985).

Requiem for Adam is rooted in another tragedy. On Easter Sunday 1995 Adam Harrington died of natural causes while walking with his family on Mount Diablo, near San Francisco. Adam was the sixteen year old son of Kronos leader David Harrington. Terry Riley knew Adam well, and was moved to write a string quartet memorial. The work is in three movements. The two outer ones are for string quartet alone. The middle movement, Cortejo Funebre en el Monte Diablo, combines the quartet with an electronic soundtrack of horns, bells, electronic percussion and gongs in a moving procession of sound. The superb Kronos recording includes a coda in the form of a solo improvisation by Reilly inspired by Pandit Pran Nath.

Requiem for Adam is one of those works we all wish had never been written. It must have been very difficult for Riley to write, and even more difficult for the Kronos to play. Terry Riley says that he composed the Requiem to resolve the sadness shared with Adam's family, and we are privileged to be able to share in that experience on today of all days.

For a very informative research project on the Aberfan tragedy follow this link
There are some immensely moving pictures of Aberfan today at this link
Picture credits:
Aberfan - Wilson Almanac
Terry Riley and Pandit Pran Nath - Terryriley.com
Album sleeve - Musicweb

For more like this take an overgrown path to Rare Romantic Requiems in Avignon invisible hit counter

Masses of Nelson

Today is Trafalgar Day here in the UK, and we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of that famous famous sea battle. As I drove into work the flag of St George was flying from the churches, the Queen is lighting one of many beacons around our coasts this evening, and tonight's live concert on BBC Radio 3 is Haydn's Nelson Mass.

Trafalgar Day has a particular resonance in Norfolk. Horation Nelson was born here in Burnham Thorpe in 1758, the sixth of 11 children. He was made a Captain in the navy at the age of just twenty. He was given his first command when Britain entered the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793. While serving in the Mediterranean he lost his right arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and the sight in his right eye in the siege of Corsica.

His leadership style was cavalier. In another age he would probably have been chief executive of an Enron or WorldCom. He famously won the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 by ignoring the order to cease action after putting a telescope to his blind eye. He showed himself to be very much the modern man with his extra-marital liaison with Emma, Lady Hamilton. Both partners remained married to others, but a child, named Horatio, was born to them.

The defeat of the French by Nelson's fleet at Cape Trafalgar saved Britain from invasion by Napoleon. But Nelson didn't live to savour the victory. On October 21st 1805 Nelson was killed by a French sniper's bullet on the first day of the battle.

Haydn's Nelson Mass is strongly, but incorrectly, associated with the English Admiral. The Mass in D was written in the summer of 1798, and was named Missa in Angustiis (Mass in time of Fear) by the composer. News of Nelson's celebrated victory at the Battle of the Nile in that year couldn't have reached Haydn until some time after the composition was completed. The Nelson connection was almost certainly not Haydn's, and probably came about because Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton heard it when they visited Prince Esterhazy at Eisenstadt Castle in 1800. The title Nelson Mass was never authorised by Haydn, and the work is also known by Haydn's own description, Missa in Augustiis, as well as the spurious Coronation or Imperial titles.

But don't lets quibble about a name, let's celebrate Trafalgar Day round the world through the wonder of the internet. Here's an excerpt from the Gloria of Haydn's Nelson Mass in the performance by Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert -

Credits:

Lord Nelson picture - Charlestown Shipwreck & Heritage Centre
Audio clip - Amazon

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invisible hit counter

Keep twiddling the knobs Stocky............


The Guardian's arts correspondent Charlotte Higgins on the price of tickets for tomorrow's Stockhausen concert in London....

'I was taken aback to be told the price was £35 ($63) per ticket. After all, it's not much more tha an hour of music. And, though he's a living legend and all that, he's only one bloke twiddling some knobs. It's not like there's an orchestra, a choir and five expensive divas to pay for. '

Photo credit: Soeren Stache/EPA via Guardian

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invisible hit counter

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Spanish Recognitions

'To be alone by choice is one of the great luxuries of the world.'

While I was staying alone by choice in L’Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine at le Barroux last week I read Mary Lee Settle’s book Spanish Recognitions from which the quote above is taken. Mary Lee Settle has never been a fashionable author, explaining: 'I don’t write about being vaguely unhappy in Connecticut'. Instead she produced epic works such as the five novel Beulah Quintet, and her wise and graceful travelogue Turkish Reflections.

Her latest book Spanish Recognitions continues the style of her highly acclaimed Turkish travel volume. The context is unlikely; an eighty-two year old American writer tackles southern Spain armed with a hire car and laptop. But this is most definitely not travel writing in the ‘look at the silly things I did on my travels’ style of Bill Bryson. This is great travel writing equal to the best of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Jan Morris and Paul Theroux. This is travel writing that uses fine prose. This is travel writing that is meticulously researched. It makes you think, and most importantly it makes you want to be there.

Mary Lee Settle’s own reasons for returning to Spain also sum up her philosophy of travel: 'So I yearned to go again, and learn, and be there, if even for a few days, as one who lived, ate, slept, made habits as structures for my stay, however short. I think that is the only way of beginning to know a place, instead of seeing from outside, like a perpetual stare through a window'.

Spain has a unique position in European history. Much of it was occupied by Muslims between the 8th and 10th centuries.
(The picture at the head of the post is the Alhambra in Granada which was built for Mohammed ibn Yusuf ben Nasr in the 13th century). After the Christian Reconquista was completed in the 15th century the Catholic church was not subject to the Reformation that changed the face of northern Europe. Mary Lee Settle’s linking of Spain’s Muslim past to our troubled present is the high point in what is consistently an outstanding book, and is the reason why the volume is subtitled The Roads to the Present.

My own words are inadequate here, instead let me quote the author again: 'No one in the new millennium should ignore what happened in Granada in 1492. Al-Andulas, Analucia, Spain – it was one of the first places mentioned as having been stolen from the Muslims in an early televised Osama Bin Laden (above)
tirade of bitterness and intent. Few in this country knew where it was or what he was talking about. He was using ancient hurts, ancient trials, ancient brutalities to fuel his own modern hatred.'

As
William Faulkner wrote: 'The past is not dead. It isn’t even past'. It just takes an author with the skill of Mary Lee Settle, and a book as fine as Spanish Recognitions to remind us of that.

……………………………………………………………………

I wrote this article in the sun-filled cloister of a Benedictine monastery in France. I didn’t have access to the news media. When I returned to England I learned that while I had been reading Spanish Recollections Mary Lee Settle (right) had died at the age of eighty-seven. Let us not mourn her passing. Instead let us celebrate her talent.

Photo credits:
Alhambra, Granada -
Photo Atlas
Osama Bin Laden - Biografias y Vidas
Mary Lee Settle - West Virginia Humanities Council

If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to Musicians against nuclear weapons

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Mortal defeat for the mob in Paris

The mob is on the loose. The only way to get your symphony performed is to write it as a ringtone. Reality opera is following close on the heels of reality TV. The technorati predict that soon all those troublesome live musicians will be replaced by note-perfect robots. The only use for CDs is as drink coasters, and if you can't download it nobody will listen to it ..........................

Or as Franck Jaffrès writes: 'The internet is transforming our relationship with recorded music and with musicians. The virtual world of the internet shatters the record as an object into sound files of poor quality, ignoring the attractions of a stimulating editorial approach: the high quality of sound recording and its digital mastering, richly informative booklets, original paintings.'

But all is not lost. On An Overgrown Path is delighted to report on a major defeat for the mob in Paris, just a few blocks from that darling of the technorati, IRCAM.

When the 18th century church of St-Louis-en-l'Ile decided to build a new organ they did it in style - 'German' style to be precise. Master organ builder Bernard Aubertin was commissioned to create the new instrument in the style of that composer of masterworks for the organ, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), and his favourite organ-builder, Zacharias Hildenbrandt (1699-1757), who was a pupil of the master organ-builder of the of the German Baroque Gottfried Silbermann.

The collabaration between Bach and Hildenbrandt culminated in the building in 1746 of an organ for the church of St Wenzel in Naumburg. The specification for this historic instrument was the starting point for the new organ in St-Louis-en-l'Ile. Additional stops were added, particularly the so-called 'northern stops' which originated in the late 16th century, but have subsequently dropped from use. The final specification for the new organ called for fifty-one stops.

The original organ of 1745 in St-Louis-en-l'Ile was destroyed, as were so many in France, in the Revolution at the end of the 18th century. But the organ case was left intact by the mob, and for two hundred years sat empty, awaiting the creation of an appropriate new instrument. And
Bernard Aubertin has certainly delivered that. The new organ is completely mechanical, and is built from natural materials. Aubertin applied a simple rule in the construction - materials available in Bach's day were to be used, but 21st century tools could be used to work them.

The resulting organ (above), which was completed in 2004, is a triumph both sonically and aesthetically. And the great news is that you can share in this triumph via a new recording from the innovative new French label Zig-Zag Territoires who have already featured On An Overgrown Path. For the premiere recording of the new St-Louis-en-l'Ile instrument organist Francis Jacob chose J.S.Bach's Clavier-übung III. Bach's keyboard compositions fit neatly into clear groups such as the Partitas and The Well-Tempered Clavier, whereas the organ works are usually categorised by the catalogues from which they are drawn. The exception is the remarkable Clavier-übung III which forms a clear grouping with ten chorales preceeded by a massive opening prelude and fugue. Nine of the chorales are set twice, and one (Allein Gott - see audio sample below) is set three times. Like those two other peaks of Bach's art, the Musical Offering and the Art of Fugue, the context of the Clavier-übung III is unclear. It was almost certainly not intended for liturgical use, and its two hour length means it is hardly practical for concert performance. Bach most probably composed it to show he was not limited by constraints as mundane as practicality, and we should be eternally grateful for that.

Like the new organ itself
Francis Jacob's performance, and the recording by Alban Moraud (Producer) and Franck Jaffrès (Balance Engineer, co-founder of Zig-Zag Territoires, and yes, the author of the quote at the head of this article) is a triumph. Both sonically and musically this CD is quite outstanding, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is also great to see that in today's world of 'here today, gone tomorrow' MP3 files that the packaging, with wonderful original graphics by Anne Peultier (above), is also exemplary, and includes a detailed description and specification of the organ.

There is an awful lot here to celebrate - the vision of the church of St-Louis-en-l'Ile in commissioning this remarkable new organ, the talents of
Bernard Aubin and his team in building it, and the achievement of Zig-Zag Territoires and organist Francis Jacobs in creating this outstanding new recording.

But above all the mob have suffered a mortal defeat in la quatrième arrondissement of the City of Light. Let's all celebrate with J.S.Bach's Clavier-übung III sounding triumphant in downtown Paris.

Join the celebration by clicking on this button for an overgrown path exclusive, and revel in Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr played on the new organ of St-Louis-en-l'Ile....

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With thanks to the monks of the Bendictine Community at L'Abbaye de Sainte-Madeleine du Barroux whose hospitality gave me time to both think and write.

Photo credits:
Guillotine -
BBC News
Organ pipes - Binns organ, Nottingham UK
Organ of St-Louis-en-L'Ile - Zig-Zag Territoires

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

de Young headlines in architecture weekend

A big event this weekend for the visual arts in San Francisco with the opening of the inspirational new de Young museum (right). Originally founded in 1895 in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the de Young has been an important resource for the arts in the city for over 100 years.

Yesterday, October 15, the de Young re-opened in a new state-of-the-art new facility that integrates art, architecture and the natural landscape superbly. Designed by leading Swiss architecture firm
Herzog & de Meuron and Fong & Chan Architects in San Francisco, the new museum provides San Francisco with a superb facility to showcase the museum’s wonderful collections of American art from the 17th to the 20th centuries, and art of the native Americas, Africa, and the Pacific.

Congratulations and best wishes to the de Young from this side of the Atlantic,
follow this link for more information, and a virtual browse through their collections

Staying with architecture it was announced today in the UK that the controversial new Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood, Edinburgh (below), has won this year's Stirling Prize, awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects for the building which has made the biggest contribution to British architecture in the past year. Architect for project was the Catalan Enric Miralles, who died aged 45 before it was completed. The new building started construction with a budget of £51m ($92m), and came in after years of delays and construction problems at a final cost of a whopping£431m ($776m)! The overspend was so massive that an inconclusive judicial enquiry was set up to look for evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Lovely building, shame about the money. But personally I was delighted to see Miralles' inspired, but flawed, public buildling beating the favourite of the architectural community, Foster and Partners' temple to corporate greed and the infernal combustion engine, the McLaren Technology Centre.

And here is a link that is well worth following to sculptor Georgianna Krieger, who also happens to be the wife of fellow blogger and musician Michael Kaulkin who writes About the Composer. Georgianna works in bronze and, more recently cast glass, and works in the Bay Area near the de Young. Her sculptures really are works of extreme beauty, do click on over and view her exquisite portfolio, I really can't do it justice with just the one small visual (right).

Photo credits:
de Young - de Young museum
Scottish Parliament - University of Cambridge
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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Renaissance for the nationality that dared not speak its name

As I write Malcolm Arnold's wonderful First Symphony plays on BBC Radio 3, and CD Review in an hour promises a comparative review of Elgar's masterly Second. And we are celebrating the anniversary year for musical giants Thomas Tallis and Sir Michael Tippett.

Earlier this week Irish author John Banville's novel The Sea won the Man Booker Prize. And the media here is buzzing with the two hot news stories, Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize for literature, and the critical acclaim for the new Wallace and Grommit film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Mark Lawson says it all in Renaissance for the nationality that dared not speak its name in this morning's Guardian:

This new fashionability - indeed even political correctness - of militant Englishness is a consequence of the Iraq war and is what links Gromit with Pinter. Twenty years ago, when the playwright first turned against the British and American governments over their foreign policy, such vociferous opposition to the special relationship was widely considered maverick or treacherous. Now Pinter's vilification of his own prime minister and the US president is broadly mainstream newspaper opinion, with only the Times consistently dissenting.

It doesn't much matter - because Pinter has written at least five indelibly great plays - but paradoxically the politicians he most detests probably helped him win the Nobel. His fierce opposition to Blair and Bush and their Iraq adventures has cleansed him of the stain of colonialism or obsolescence that modern English writers have carried internationally.

In the list of Nobel laureates on the Swedish Academy website, "Harold Pinter" is followed by "(UK)". The Curse of the Were-Rabbit will go down in movie reference books as a US-UK co-production. But that's wrong. Both are utterly and uncompromisingly English and that is what makes their astonishing success so interesting.

Now all we have to do is to get George Bush to eat our beef.

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Image credit: Wallace and Gromit - mario.lapam.mo.it

Messiaen stars in early music festival

The early music festivals at the King of Hearts, Norwich, UK have always been noted for their breadth of repertoire. And the 2005 Festival, which closes tonight, explored new extremes with a concert of 20th century music for flute and piano. Last night (Friday 14th Oct) pianist Peter Hill and flautist Sarah O'Flynn gave an outstanding performance of an adventurous programme including Frank Martin's Ballade, the flute sonatas of Poulenc and Prokofiev, and Debussy's Syrinx.

But the highlight of each half of the concert was a work by Messiaen. In the first half
Peter Hill played the Première Communion de la Vierge from the Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus, and in the second half he was joined by Sarah O'Flynn for one of only two chamber works that Messiaen composed. Le Merle noir (the blackbird) for piano and flute, composed in 1952, is important as it is the composer's first free-standing 'birdsong' work, and was the start of a ten year period of composition inspired by birdsong.

Flautist
Sarah O'Flynn has worked with many leading UK orchestras, but is best known for her work with new music group Chroma. Their recent projects have included working with John Woolrich and Robin Holloway in London, and on The Memory of Colour by Ed Hughes for ensemble, tape and live electronics written in response to an art installation by Teruyoshi Yoshida, and a new work by the leading contemporary Czech composer Pavel Novak.

Pianist Peter Hill studied both with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen. He recorded, with the composer's help and guidance, all the piano works of Messiaen in a 7 CD set. His other recordings include the complete piano music of Berg, Schoenberg and Webern for Naxos. He is also a noted interpreter of Xenakis, Pousseur and Crumb. Next week Yale University Press publish his new book, co-authored with Nigel Simeone, titled Messiaen. The authors were granted unprecedented access to Messiaen's private archives by his widow, Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen. Research uncovered considerable new information, including that, after release from a prisoner of war camp in France, Messiaen worked for twelve weeks for a cultural organisation under the Nazi puppet Vichy government. During that short period he contributed to a patriotic cantata for performance by schoolchildren, the score of which is lost. The new book also debunks the myth that the Quartet for the End of Time was given its premiere in front of 5000 prisoners. In fact records showed that the first performance was in camp hut holding less than three hundred.

The venue for this concert of Messiaen and other 20th century composers,
The King of Hearts, is an illuminating study in how a 'niche' performance venue can consistently attract both international calibre performers, and a loyal audience. The conversion of the city centre Tudor (16th century) building into a superb performance space was the brainchild of the Director & Artistic Manager Aude Gotto, ably assisted by her husband, and master-builder of superb harpsichords, Alan Gotto. The ancient building was converted from a derelict state fifteen years ago, and is run as a charitable (not for profit) community centre for both the visual and musical arts. (The painting above is Evelyn Williams' Mother and Child, and the scuplture is Jiggilipuff by Vanessa Pooley, both from the Gallery's collection).

The gem of The King of Hearts is the music room, This is a medieval complete with beamed ceiling and oak floor. The room is acclaimed for its excellent acoustics and intimate atmosphere, and is ideal for chamber music and solo recitals. It houses both a Steinway piano and double manual harpsichord by Alan Gotto. The music room can only seat an audience of seventy-five, but such is the reputation of the venue and the appeal of the performing space, that top international musicians regularly accept reduced fees to perform there, and return frequently. Among the performers in the 2005 season are Andrew Manze, Richard Egarr, and James Bowman.

The flute and piano recital was the penultimate event in an outstanding week of music-making. I will have had the pleasure of attending all the concerts, which were:

9th Oct:
London Baroque with Lorna Anderson, soprano. Purcell, F.Couperin, Marin Marais and Montéclair.
12th Oct:
Passacaglia baroque ensemble. Dornel, J.S. Bach, de la Barre, Le Roux, Hotteterre, Marin Marais, Blavet.
13th Oct:
Carolyn Gibley, harpsichord. Scarlatti, Handel, Froberger.
14th Oct: Sarah O'Flynn (flute) and Peter Hill (piano). Martin, Poulenc, Debussy, Messiaen and Prokofiev.
15th Oct:
Mitzi Meyerson, harpsichord. F. Couperin, Rameau, Forqueray, and D'Englebert.

The harpsichord used in the concerts, other than the 20th century repertoire, was made in Norwich by Alan Gotto after an original by Donzelage made in Lyon in 1716. The lid painting is by Angie Maddigan after a 17th century Flemish original. This harpsichord is the property of Charles Hoste who loaned it for the Festival.

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