Friday, December 30, 2005

A contemporary composer is very lucky ....

Let's play out the old year with a really positive story.

Vanessa Lann (right) graduated from Harvard, and now lives and composes in the Netherlands, check out her excellent web site for a full biography. (Why are there so many exciting women composers around? - I have also written recently about Judith Weir, Jane O'Leary, and Odaline de la Martinez).


Vanessa's compositions include elements of ritual, ceremony or contemplation. She experiments with breaking from the conventional concert-hall approach to the performance and programming of music, and explores alternative ways of sharing sound, media and time with audiences, with the end objective of blurring the boundary between art and daily experience.

Earlier this month I previewed the December performances in the Netherlands of Vanessa's new composition for cantor, choir and instrumental ensemble 'Illuminating Aleph'. So I was delighted to receive today this wonderfully positive and appreciative update from Vanessa on the concerts:

Dear Pliable,

The concerts went really well! I was quite fortunate to work with a fantastic choir (Cappella Amsterdam), as well as an extraordinary cantor from Chicago (Alberto Mizrahi). I attended 5 out of the 7 performances, and it was also interesting to have a different acoustic in each hall, as well as a different atmosphere and expectation from the audiences (for instance, some audiences approached the event from a "new music" perspective, others from a "spiritual"/holiday one). The instrumentalists and conductor, David Porcelijn, were also totally heavenly! I was very, very lucky. These situations don't come around all that often for composers, as you know...


Thanks again for your posting of the info, and for your interest! I really do love reading your blog, by the way. And Happy Holidays!

All the best,

Vanessa Lann



..... let's hope 2006 is as productive and positive for other composers, musicians, fellow bloggers and readers.

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Photo credit - Gerhard van Roon photographer via
www.lann.dds.nl

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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Hildegard comes to Norwich via IRCAM and Darmstadt

Sensational scoop - Elgar was German

More than half of Britons polled do not realise that Elgar was English or that Beethoven was born in Germany, according to a survey for the digital arts and culture channel Artsworld.

In a poll of nearly 1,200 people, Artsworld discovered that more than 85% of those surveyed described their knowledge of classical music as "average" or "worse than average".

Nearly two-thirds were unable to identify Mozart as composer of The Marriage of Figaro. The poll found that only 46.7% identified Sir Edward Elgar as English, with the remainder plumping for German or Austrian.

From today's Guardian.
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Picture credit - San Francisco Symphony
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In praise of Richard R. Terry

Hearing Richard Terry's Myn lyking in Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge recently reminded me that the one hundred and fortieth anniversary of the birth of the father of the Tudor music revival figure is likely to pass unremarked.

Richard Terry was born in 1865, and was appointed to direct the music at the Bendictine school of Downside in 1896. His pioneering work with the choir there revived the liturgical music of neglected 16th century Catholic composers, and led him to uncover the hugely important riches of Tudor polyphonic music. At Downside he was the first to perform in modern times as part of the liturgy music which is, thanks to him, so well known today. His pioneering performances included the three and five-part masses of Byrd, Tye's Euge Bone, and Tallis' four-part Mass and Lamentations.

When the new Catholic Westminster Cathedral (above) was built in 1901 Terry moved to London as organist and director of music. He held this position for twenty-three years, and during that period his performances of Tudor polyphony were an important influence on the emerging generation of young composers. His major contribution was to take early English works for the Roman rite that only existed in obscure manuscripts, and present them from performing editions. Among the important works he revived in this way were Peter Philip's Cantiones sacrae, Byrd's Gradualia and cantiones sacrae, and the cantiones of Tallis and Byrd.

But sadly a prophet is not recognised in his own land. In 1924 he resigned from Westminster Cathedral after coming under considerable criticism for his innovatory programming of liturgical works. Richard Terry went on to follow a career as editor, journalist and academic, and died in London in 1938.

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Image credit -
Westminster Cathedral
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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Masses of early music in summertime Cambridge

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

'The Google Story' searches in vain

What exactly does 'Pulitzer Prize-winner mean? The list of recipients contains a lot of distinguished writers including Annie Proulx, and the music prize's distinguished winners include Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, and just about every other well-known American composer from the second half of the 20th century. But there seem to be an awful lot of Pulitzer Prize winners around, and the writers aren't all up to the standard of Annie Proulx.

David A. Vise has all the right credentials. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennnsylvania, has written four books, won a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for his journalism, and is a staff writer for The Washington Post. His latest book is 'The Google Story' which promises to take us 'inside the hottest business, media and technology sucees of our time.'

The problem with books about online developments is that they are really redundant. You can read it all on the internet anyway, and the pace of change is such that the book becomes obsolete soon after its published. Or in the case of 'The Google Story' redundant even before it is published.

Vise seems to be writing for pre-teen children - "Then they built streamlined computers, stringing them together, stringing them together with software, wiring, and the special sauce that made Google lightning fast" - sauce? Well, culinary topics are strong in the book, and Google's celebrity chef gets a lot more pages than more important subjects such as web censorship and blogs.

It doesn't help that the book is so poorly written - "As Bechtolsheim engaged in dialogue with the students that morning ... " - talked? "What the auction failed to achieve was a dearer price for Google stock" - higher? "He and his wife, a native of Great Britain ... " - British wife?

The book is clearly an irony free zone, as it appears is Google - the parentheses are Vise's: "In war-torn Liberia, Prince Charles Johnson lll, a college-educated driver for a U.N. mission, was able to use Google for most of his class assignments in economics and management while in school. Now he likes to keep up with news about American politics and President Bush. 'I love this guy,' Johnson writes. 'It was because of Google that I knew the entire First Family, Laura, Barbara, Jenny, Barney, Miss Beazley (dogs) and Willie (cat)."


If you think it can't get much worse that that - it does; as is shown by this perceptive passage about the indigenous population of Brazil: "Google CEO Eric Schmidt sees his company's reach ultimately extendijg to every place on Earth. 'When you look at the Amazon and you say, 'Why aren't there any Internet users?' it is because there is no power,' he explains.'And people are working on this. So we'll get them all, even the people in the trees."

The biggest flaw in a book that turns creating flaws into an Olympic sport is the superficial treatment of serious topics. Google's investment in Chinese search engine Baidu.com is simply positioned as another cool success story for the indomitable 'Sergey and Larry'. Baidu's involvement in music piracy and censorship, which I covered in my recent article, doesn't get a mention - which as the book is being published in China is predictable. Google's controversial book digitisation project is not placed in the context of the far-reaching intellectual property debate. Copyright questions relating to Google's image search feature are not aired. And unbelievably the rise of blogging, and Google's weak blog tracking capabilities, receives no coverage at all.

'The Google Story' is an unashamed attempt to cash in on the Google phenomena by a print journalist who simply doesn't 'get the internet'. The web site of the book is no more than print on the web. There are no updates, corrections, or reader debate, and it contains all of four links. (This article contains twenty-eight). The real value of this book about 'cutting-edge web technology' is measured by the fact that in its three hundred and eleven pages there is not one web site URL. This means that neither the book nor the web site carry any information on the biggest Google story for years - their purchase of 5% of AOL on 16th December. There is a double irony in that the Washington Post story about the AOL stake which doesn't make it onto the book web site (or the Post's own booster page for their staffer's book) was written by David Vise.

The Pulitzer Prize web site says: 'The board typically exercised its broad discretion in 1997, the 150th anniversary of Pulitzer's birth, in two fundamental respects. It took a significant step in recognition of the growing importance of work being done by newspapers in online journalism. Beginning with the 1999 competition, the board sanctioned the submission by newspapers of online presentations as supplements to print exhibits in the Public Service category. The board left open the distinct possibility of further inclusions in the Pulitzer process of online journalism as the electronic medium developed.'

Hopefully 'A Google Story' is just an isolated example of a leading print journalist, and Pulitzer Prize winner, failing spectacularly to connect with the electronic medium.

'The Google Story' by David A Vise is published by Random House, ISBN 0405053712. The co-author is Mark Malseed, but he doesn't get cover billing - no Pulitzer Prize perhaps?
Image credits: Header - www.labor.iu.eu
Book jacket -
'The Google Story'
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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

'L'Orgue Mystique' - the music


Blockbuster is an overworked description, but it can be applied with confidence to the extraordinary L'Orgue Mystique composed by Charles Tournemire. This cycle of organ compositions covers the entire Catholic liturgical year, and took five years to compose (1927-1932), It contains more than twelve hours of music, and is one of the largest compositions in western music - running to 1300 pages in the published edition.

Charles Tournemire (below) was born in Bordeaux, and lived from 1870 to 1939. He was a pupil of César Franck, and his influence was acknowledged by Messiaen, who wrote: 'My only organ teacher was Marcel Dupré, for whom I had the greatest admiration and a very great and respectful affection. But I went occasionally to hear the improvisations of Charles Tournemire (a composer of genius, and a marvellous improviser). When Tournemire improvised at a concert, it was good. But the improvisations were much more beautiful during Masses at Sainte-Clotilde, when he had the Blessed Sacrement in front of him. I think I resemble him somewhat in this respect. I improvise much better during a service, on my organ at the Trinité. In a concert my gifts desert me, and my imagination disappears.'

L'Orgue Mystique was composed as functional music. Not all organists are skilled improvisers, and the cycle was composed to provide Roman Catholic organists with suitable music to play during the Sunday Masses and feast days along with the parish choir. All the musical themes are based on Gregorian chants, more than three hundred chants are used in the cycle, with the chants linked to the function of the music (introit, offertory etc).

Although L'Orgue Mystique is functional music, it is also technically brilliant. It shares with Bartok the use of polymodality (Tournemire went on to explore expanded modality, and used techniques from Indian music). The virtuoso writing sounds like genuine improvisations on chant themes despite being contained by a conventional score. The dynamic range suggests Messiaen's monumental organ works from the same period, ranging from the mystical sounds of the quietest stops to resounding Sorties- the postlude played at the end of the service (literally meaning exit music).

Clearly L'Orgue Mystique is inextricably linked to the Catholic offices it was composed to accompany, but this has unfortunately stereotyped it simply as liturgical music. This is unfortunate and the cycle deserves to be heard in a wider context, just as Messiaen's organ music now is. With the current enthusiasm for all things Gregorian the chant origins of L'Orgue Mystique must surely be of interest to a wider audience. There have been examples of the cycle being played in its entirety, including in 1989 and 1990 when some 50 different organists played the pieces in their liturgical context at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis.

Fortunately Tournemire's blockbuster is well served by recordings. George Delvallee's excellent complete cycle is available on Accord, and the set is also available as individual 2 CD boxes. For anyone wanting to sample this remarkable, and rewarding, 20th century homage to Gregorian chant Marie-Bernadette Duforcet's 2 CD set of extracts recorded on the organs of La Sainte Trinité (photo above) and La Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre in Paris is also highly recommended.

PC speakers are not going to do L'Orgue Mystique justice, but here as a taster is the Choral Postlude Dimanche Dans L'octave De Noël (N°4) played by George Delvallee -

Now read about L'Orgue Mystique - the images
Picture credits - the lead image is from artist Tom Walker's cycle of 51 5-part pastel triptychs inspired by L'Orgue Mystique. Charles Tournemire - Classical Composers Database
Organ of La Sainte Trinité - University of Quebec
Music stream - Amazon.fr
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Monday, December 26, 2005

Lots of passionate sacred music ....

"This Christmas, my school's choir has been scheduled to carol at Fullerton Hotel for 5 days. Went down to catch one of their sessions and they sang pretty well despite the open acoustics of the hall, not to mention that they are singing more than 10 sessions in total. Besides the joy of meeting friends whom I haven't met for months, the mood that evening was absolutely peaceful and filled with love, away from the overly commercialised environment everywhere else.

It has been such a spiritually and emotionally satisfying Christmas this year, with the close company of God, lots of passionate sacred music, and sensible and matured new friends."

To offset Jennifer's sobering experience of crossing paths with a gunman the extract above is from one of the most uplifting posts on music blogs over Christmas. Live music, love and friends ... it is from Jeff in Singapore whose blog Solitude in Music is worth visiting regularly.

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Image credit - not Jeff's choir! - linked from
Connecticut State Department of Education
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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Let the people sing

Shit happens in the real world

'I was confronted by a man with a semi-automatic handgun. I came out with only a knot on my head and frayed nerves. Yes, I am shaking. Yes, I am going through periods of uncontrollable crying. I was just held up at gun point. That is a first.'

One of the more sobering posts I read over the holiday was an account by fellow blogger and flautist Jennifer of being mugged at gun point, from which the extract above was taken.

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Image credit - Handgun, oil pastel on paper by Matthew Kay from Saskatchewan, Canada. There is some interesting art on his website,
worth a visit.
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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Moments that take our breath away .....

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Bach to normal programmes

BBC Radio 3's Bach Christmas should have been like a long and arduous flight which finally reached a wonderful destination.

Unfortunately I had a problem as soon as the flight started. All around me on the plane I found BBC presenters who insisted on talking all the time. Gratuitous explanations of the music were not enough, they also read out vacuous listener emails, kept plugging the online 'message board', repeatedly played the same Bach sound-bytes from talking heads, and kept running the most excruciating 'commercial' for (and I joke not) 'the late great B minor Mass'.

After three days of this I became desperate and sent an email to the BBC saying please stop reading out listeners emails, just let the music speak for itself. Within sixty seconds of clicking on send the presenter (Sean Rafferty) read out my email.

Sadly by the time my flight reached its destination I was grumpy, out of sorts, and vowing never to make the journey again unless I had different company. (Come back Patricia Hughes, Peter Barker, and renounce your vows Cormac Rigby).

There were some revelatory things in the Bach Christmas, particularly the chorale realisations. But the planners should have realised that the frequency at which sacred cantatas would need to be broadcast was going to present a major problem of listener fatigue. It could just have been solved by studious, sparing and stylish presentation. Sadly it was sunk by the BBC's desperate attempt to go 'inclusive' and 'interactive'.

It was Claude Debussy who said that music is the silence between the notes. On Radio 3 last week the agony was the presenters between the music.

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Image credit -
musicmatz.com
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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Music-like-water

Friday, December 23, 2005

£1 million legal bill rocks Hyperion

'One of the best-loved institutions in the world of classical music is threatened following a legal ruling which may have far-reaching implications for the ownership of recordings of masterpieces. Hyperion record company is facing potentially devastating bills of £950,000 after losing a case focusing on the entitlement to copyright and royalties.

The battle centred on an acclaimed recording of the French baroque composer Michel-Richard de Lalande for the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV. For the recording an expert on Lalande, Lionel Sawkins, was commissioned to edit the scores. Dr Sawkins regarded his endeavour as amounting to a new musical work, entitling him to copyright and royalties.


After suing, he won at the high court, and again at the court of appeal. Hyperion last week settled costs with Carter Ruck, the firm which represented Dr Sawkins, after receiving an invoice for £758,000. The final settlement left Hyperion with a total bill of £950,000, which included their own costs and damages to Dr Sawkins - close to what Hyperion would spend on music-making over an entire year. Carter Ruck described the ruling as "likely to have far-reaching implications for the music industry". Dr Sawkins told the Guardian he had tried to settle with Hyperion and that the legal defeat was a self-inflicted wound. Simon Perry, managing director of Hyperion, said: "What has happened is the equivalent of finding a new Shakespeare play with spelling mistakes and other minor errors. If you correct those mistakes, would that make it a new play, not by Shakespeare?"

From today's Guardian, follow this link for the full story.

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Image credit -
London Criminal Justice Board
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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Paying the piper

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Madonna of Stalingrad

"I spent Christmas evening with the other doctors and the sick. The Commanding Officer had presented the letter with his last bottle of champagne. We raised our mugs and drank to those we love, but before we had had a chance to taste the wine we had to throw ourselves flat on the ground as a stick of bombs fell outside. I seized my doctor's bag and ran to the scene of the explosions, where there were dead and wounded. My shelter with its lovely Christmas decorations became a dressing station. One of the dying men had been hit in the head and there was nothing more I could do for him. He had been with us at our celebration, and had only that moment left to go on duty, but before he went he had said: "I'll finish the carol first, O du fröhliche!" A few moments later he was dead. There was plenty of hard and sad work to do in our Christmas shelter. It is late now, but it is Christmas night still. And so much sadness everywhere."
The German army was trapped outside Stalingrad during the bitterly cold Christmas of 1942. Among the German troops was Kurt Reuber, a clergyman and doctor. Drawing on the back of map of Russian (the folds can be seen on the reproduction above) he used a stick of charcoal to portray Mary holding the baby Jesus in her arms, and shielding Him with her arms. The words above are taken from Kurt Reuber's last letter before he was captured by the Russians. He perished in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp.

His family chose the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin to display the Madonna of Stalingrad, and to pass on the message of light, love, and a sense of protection contained in this moving drawing. A message particularly appropriate at this Christmas time.

Two copies of the Madonna have been sent from Berlin as symbols of hope and reconciliation. One is in Coventry Cathedral which was destroyed by German bombs in 1940, and reconsecrated in 1962 with the first performance of Britten's War Requiem. The other is in the Russian Orthodox Church in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad).

For more on the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church take An Overgrown Path to Music rises from the ruins in Berlin

The full story of Kurt Reuber and the Madonna, from which the quotation above was taken, can be read here. Image credit: Scanned from reproduction purchased in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The perfect ethical, and musical, Christmas present

If you want to give an ethical present this Christmas why not give 'An Unfinished Destiny', the biography of the brilliant harpsichordist Scott Ross whose complete Scarlatti Sonata recordings were my choice as the best thirty-four CDs of 2005?

No nasty corporate publishers or booksellers are involved with this wonderful book. But before buying it you need to read the small print. You will not find the book in your local Borders
or Waterstones, and it isn't on any of the Amazon databases. There is only one way to get a copy. Send 15 Euros in banknotes wrapped in black paper by post to the author (right) who lives in Montpellier in France (lucky man). You may have to wait for your copy, although mine came in four days - which is a lot faster than Amazon. Its absence from the inventories of Borders and Amazon is guaranteed by the lack of a standard ISBN identifier.

The book is available in French and English. This is genuine 'print on demand', but the process is reasuringly technolgy-lite. Both language versions are hand produced in batches of around twenty volumes by photo-copying the 215 pages, sticking in the numerous good quality photographs, cutting them on a guillotine (very French), then folding and hand sewing them into a finished volume. In the past fifteen years around 350 copies of the French version, and 20 of the English version, have been produced this way. So you are getting a genuine hand-crafted limited edition for your £10.20 ($18.02).

Author Michel Proulx (that is a self-portrait above) is as charismatic as his book. His credentials are fine, as an accomplished harpsichord maker he built an instrument for Scott Ross himself. But his CV includes working as a Club Méditerranée animateur, and a lorry driver and a meat delivery man from 1989 to 1991, as well as serving an apprenticeship in violin making, and taking a Master's at the Université Paul Valery in Montpellier. He is also something of an authority on Zen Bhudism.

If all this makes you think the book is going to be a bit cuckoo, you are wrong. This is an authoritative and well researched book, and because it is the only biography of Scott Ross (below), it is by definition the best. Sure, sometimes the English version needs translating - into English, the editing is a little short of Harper Collins standards, and Michel Proulx's way with words falls a little short of Norman Lebrecht's (but I guess his views on Mozart are a bit more acceptable). But don't let any of that put you off, this biography is valuable precisely because it is miles away from the standard record company biogs that are the only real source of information on Ross. There is a bibliography, list of sources, lexicon, and details of Ross' instruments. But what makes this eccentric little book so appealing is the way it takes the reader into the mind of a great, and tragically departed, musician. It is fascinating, for example, to read that Scott Ross was a follower of the 18th century French philosopher and man of letters, Denis Diderot (whose famous quotes include 'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step'), and that his approach to performance was influenced by Diderot's Paradox sur le Comédien (Paradoxes of the Actor).

'An Unfinished Destiny - Scott Ross, Master of the Harpshichord' is not only a wonderful ethical Christmas present. It is also a valuable addition to the resources about this important musician who, in his complete Scarlati Sonatas, left one of the greatest recorded legacies of the 20th century. And it will only cost you 15 Euros - wrapped in black paper of course.

Ordering details for 'An Unfinished Destiny - Scott Ross, Master of the Harpshichord' are available from author Michel Roulx's web site which is unsurprisingly somewhat unconventional.
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Image credits: Self portrait and Scott Ross -
Michel Proulx
Scarlatti Sonatas -
Warner Classics
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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to If you only buy thirty-four CDs this year buy these!

Wikipedia is remix

Fascinating example of remixing, a subject which I've posted about before.

My article on Sunday about Scott Ross and his recording of the Scarlatti Sonatas attracted a surprising amount of attention - which I'm delighted about. Today it appeared, with some amendments as the Wikipedia entry on Scott Ross!

I would add that I didn't put it there - the thought never occurred to me. I know who did, and I am delighted that they were able to remix it, and use it to help spread the word about this brilliant musician.

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Image credit -
Surfnetkids.com
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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Guilty of remix?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

For unto us a child is born


It was a night spent in the basement of a burnt out building.
People injured by the atomic bomb took shelter in this room, filling it.
They passed the night in darkness, not even a single candle among them.
The raw smell of blood, the stench of death.
Body heat and the reek of sweat. Moaning.
Miraculously, out of the darkness, a voice sounded:
"The baby's coming!"
In that basement room, in those lower reaches of hell,
A young woman was now going into labor.
What were they to do,
Without even a single match to light the darkness?
People forgot their own suffering to do what they could.
A seriously injured woman who had been moaning but a moments before,
Spoke out:
"I'm a midwife. Let me help with the birth."
And now life was born
There in the deep, dark depths of hell.
Her work done, the midwife did not even wait for the break of day.
She died, still covered with the blood.
Bring forth new life!
Even should it cost me my own,
Bring forth new life!
by Sadako Kurihara

Sadako Kurihara was at her home in Horishima when the atomic bomb exploded on August 6th 1945. Two days later, in a nearby basement shelter just a mile from ground zero, a baby was born in pitch darkness surrounded by the dead and dying. The seriously injured nurse that delivered the child died, but the baby survived and grew into an adult who sixty years later still lives in the city.

After the trauma of Hiroshima Sadako Kurihara was determined to express her furious hatred of nuclear weapons, and to campaign against their use. Her talent as a poet gave her a powerful outlet for her beliefs. Her most famous work is the story of the baby born amongst nuclear devastation. In Japanese it is Umashimenkana, which translates as Bring forth new life.

For the rest of her life Sadako Kurihara was a staunch anti-war and anti-nuclear campaigner. She published a literary magazine on the theme of the atom bomb attacks on Japan, and circulated an anthology of anti-war poems when discussion of the bombing was restricted by the occupying Allied powers. The author of more than five hundred poems in a writing career spanning more than seventy years, she died in March 2005 aged 92.


International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) is a non-partisan international grouping of medical organisations dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons. They work with the long-term victims of nuclear explosions and accidents from Hiroshima to Chernobyl, and their work has been recognised with the 1984 UNESCO Peace Prize, and 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. For the last 21 years IPPNW-Concerts has been working from its Berlin office with top musicians world-wide to raise funds for their work. The organisation is run by medical practitioner Dr Peter Hauber and his wife, who I had the pleasure of meeting in Berlin recently.

As well as being a fantastic cause there is some music well worth exploring available on IPPNW-Concerts' own CD label, and in co-productions with Swedish label BIS. These are all live recordings of concerts promoted by IPPNW over the years. There are forty-nine CDs in the catalogue with composers ranging from Monteverdi to Elliot Carter. The nuggets worth mining include Furtwängler's Te Deum coupled with Brahms and Hindemith (CD40).

Of particular relevance to this article is Wort und Musik - 60 Jahre nach Hiroshima. This is a live recording made at the March 2005 'Nuclear Weapons Inheritance Project' which mixes readings in German from a range of authors including Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein and Sadako Kurihara with relevent music including the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Shostakovich's String Quartet No 8 and Schubert’s Quartettsatz. On the lighter side there are also a number of jazz recordings worth exploring, including the Berlin Philharmonic Jazz Group playing live in 2004 in the Philharmonie in Berlin with the world-famous baritone Thomas Quasthoff.

IPPNW co-productions with also contain some real gems. My own favourite is a live Missa Solemnis from the Philharmonie in Berlin with Antal Doráti conducting the European Symphony Orchestra, University of Maryland Chorus, and a distinguished group of soloists. Another BIS co-production recorded at the Philharmonie with the New Berlin Chamber Orchestra and members of the Czech Philharmonic and HdK-Chamber Choir conducted by Martin Fischer-Dieskau includes two of Doráti’s own compositions (his Pater Noster, Prayer for Mixed Choir and Jesus oder Barabbas? a melodrama after a story by Karinthy Frigyes for Speaker, Orchestra and Choir) alongside works from Bartok and Martinu. Finally among the BIS co-productions a live Mahler Symphony No 9 with Rudolf Barshai conducting the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra is a rarity well worth investigating. All proceeds from the sale of these CDs benefit those in dire need as a result of war, industrial and natural catastrophe. Need I say more?

Now take An Overgrown Path to I am a camera - Dresden
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Image credits:
Header - Drawing and text, Tomiko Miyaji September 15, 1945, from Hiroshima Peace site
Other images record companies
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Farewell to Stromness


A comment on my Judith Weir article by regular reader Henry Holland quite correctly pointed out that Peter Maxwell Davies isn't really a Scottish composer as he was born in Oldham in England, and studied in Manchester. Henry's thoughtful comment set me off down a few personal Overgrown Paths which I share here, and which will eventually explain the mystery photograph above.

Despite his Lancashire origins I have a particular fondness for Max's more Scottish music, and first heard his exquisite 'An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise', with its memorable part for Highland Bagpipes (below), played in the MacRobert Arts Centre in Stirling, Scotland when we lived there in the 1980's. The MacRobert auditorium on the University of Stirling campus was a regular venue for BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra broadcasts on BBC Radio 3. I remember a very young Nigel Kennedy sitting in the back row listening to the second half of a concert after playing the Walton Violin Concerto in the first half. He was waiting for the orchesta bus to take him back down the motorway to Glasgow. These days a personal helicopter would be hovering outside as the last bars of the Walton died away - if the BBC Scottish could ever afford 'Nige's' fee.

I have to guiltily confess that one of my favourite compositions by Max, in fact one of my favourite pieces of music by any composer, is his distinctly non-avant garde five minute solo for piano Farewell to Stromness. I have put it on the CD player as I write, and yes, it still sends shivers down my spine. The story behind this piece is worth airing. Farewell to Stromness and Yesnaby Ground are piano interludes from The Yellow Cake Revue, a sequence of cabaret-style numbers first performed at the St. Magnus Festival, Orkney in Scotland, by Eleanor Bron, with the composer at the piano, in June 1980. The Yellow Cake Revue took its name from the popular term for refined uranium ore, and the revue was written to highlight the threat of a proposed uranium mine to the economy and ecology of the Orkney Islands. Stromness, the second largest town in Orkney (pop. 1500, photo to right), would have been two miles from the uranium mine's core, and the centre most threatened by pollution. Yesnaby is the nearby clifftop beauty spot under whose soil the uranium is known to lie. Farewell to Stromness also exists as a guitar arrangement, and once appeared in a soft-rock version. It had the questionable distinction of being arranged for strings by Rosemary Furniss (not by Max I note) for the blessing of the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall at St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle in 2005, Max of course being the Master of the Queen's Music, of which more below. Note to any jazz pianists reading this - here are two pieces just waiting to be translated into a jazz idiom. If you do not know Farewell to Stromness or Yesnaby Ground you are missing something seriously beautiful. These links take you to the guitar and piano versions of Farewell to Stromness.

All of which gives me a reason to tell my very favourite Maxwell Davies story. Earlier this year Max was investigated by the police for making terrine from a dead swan found on his property in the Orkneys. The swan had hit power lines, so was dead on arrival in a very Parsifal kind of way. As the swan is a protected species a police investigation followed complete with search warrant. No charges were brought, but if they had been it would have been interesting as all swans in the UK come come under the prorogative of the Queen, who employs an official swan keeper. And the Queen happens to be Max's employer. See this link for the full story.

And yes, I know you are all asking what has the header photo got to do with this story? Well, there are personal connections with the Orkney Islands which explain it. During the Second World War my late father was a gunnery instructor with the RAF Regiment attached to the USAF. He spent much of the latter part of the war in the relative safety of an Orkney Islands training base teaching the American crews of B-17 Flying Fortress crews to shoot-down German night fighters, while my poor mother suffered the worst of the bomb raids in central London where she worked. A string of celebrity air crews attached to the US 8th Army Air Force passed through the Orkney base, and one of them was Clark Gable, star of Gone with the Wind (right) and many other classic films. The previously unpublished photo found among my father's papers shows Clark Gable working on a B-17 in the Orkneys, rather than working on a film set.


Of course Gone with the Wind also has strong musical connections. The composer of its Oscar-nominated score was Max Steiner. He was born in Vienna where his grandfather was a musical impresario, and his godfather was Richard Strauss. Like Peter Maxwell Davies he was something of a child prodigy, and reputedly graduated from Vienna's Imperial Academy of Music at the age of 13 after completing an eight-year course in one year. He took conducting lessons from Gustav Mahler and made his concert debut at 16. After a short time in Britain he emigrated to the United States in 1914. He became a Warner Bros staff composer in 1936, and remained there until his retirement in 1965. Steiner (right) personally scored more than a hundred films, and contributed material to several hundred others. By far his best known work is his 1939 score for Gone with the Wind (my header picture of Clark Gable must have been taken a few years after the film was made).

So here to play this post out in style is Hollywood's answer to Farewell to Stromness - the original soundtrack version of Max Steiner's Tara's Theme, which also still manages to pass An Overgrown Path's 'shivers down the spine' test -

And this, of course, is where the credits roll .......

Pictures - header, copyright On An Overgrown Path. This photo is one of several of Clark Gable taken when he was with the US 8th Army Air Force. I don't think they have been previously published. Any Gable biographers or interested parties should contact me for more details.
Orkney Wedding performance -
BBC
Stromness – Visitorkney.com
Gone with the Wind - Amazon
Max Steiner -
The Columnists
Music - Farewell to Stromness and Yesnaby Ground are on the excellent disc of Max's music
A celebration of Scotland (see, he was a Scottish composer) on Unicorn Kanchana
Audio stream - Maxwell Davies works from MaxOpus, Tara's Theme from
Reel Classics
Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. If bandwidth is a problem with your permission I will host your image.
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Monday, December 19, 2005

Amazon Marketplace - caveat emptor

On An Overgrown Path now achieves an impressive Google PageRank of 6/10, and this means every day a lot of visitors land here as a result of searching for a wide range of music-related topics on Google. A surprisingly large number of these searches are for Caiman USA or Brilliant Classics. The Florida based Caiman is one of thousands of Amazon Marketplace suppliers offering heavy discounts when you follow the Used & New link on Amazon. They have some very low prices on classical CDs, and customers are using Google to check them out before buying. Brilliant Classics is an innovative super-budget classical CD label from Holland who have a poor presence in high street shops, but can be found with big discounts online.

Regular readers will know I buy a lot of CDs. I have used Caiman and other Amazon Marketplace suppliers in the past to buy Brilliant Classics and other labels, and have written about them favourably here. As a lot of people are interested in this information I thought it would be useful to post an update of my experiences.

My report is unfortunately not good. The Amazon Marketplace scheme is attracting many suppliers who are falling below the minimum aceptable standard. To a certain extent this should be self-regulating via the feedback reports, but my recent experiences have shown that this doesn't always work. There is a particular problem with availability. There is no real time link between the Amazon site and the Marketplace suppliers. This means if a CD is shown as in stock by a Marketplace reseller this is no guarantee that they actually have it. Several times recently it has been clear that a supplier is sourcing the title from a wholesaler once they have my order, and my money. And once you've ordered from Amazon Marketplace you can't cancel.

Although Caiman USA remains one of the better suppliers I have recently suffered some long delays in despatching, and several orders disappeared into 'black holes' from which they miraculously emerged when a chasing email was sent. But these experiences are nothing like as bad as Entertainment UK. They are a very large company and music wholesaler who should know better. They recently sent me a 9 CD boxed set (the Hanssler - part of Brilliant Classics - complete Bach Chorale settings) sold as 'new'. In place of the booklet was a page downloaded from the internet annotated with handwriting and a Post-it® note. Other smaller suppliers have failed to deliver, or have missed promised delivery dates by a mile. These problems are not confined to Amazon Marketplace. I have used Play.com extensively, but recently they failed to credit a return until chased by phone.

I have now moved most of my music buying back to 'brick and mortar' stores, led by the excellent independent Prelude Records in Norwich. But unfortunately there are labels such as Brilliant Classics which remain far cheaper, and easier to find, online. I use only the larger Amazon Marketplace suppliers when I have to, and then view each order as a gamble rather than a certainty. I avoid virtually all the small resellers, even when they have high feedback ratings - I have simply had too many problems. Amazon Marketplace now seems to be a victim of its own success. As with any retail transaction it is caveat emptor, and there are still some great deals and service. But sadly the aggravation is starting to outweigh the benefits. And before anyone asks why not buy the recordings as downloads? I would explain that I don't fancy printing out the wonderful 254 page booklet that comes with Scott Ross' complete Scarlatti Sonata set on a PC printer.

How do you buy your CDs and books? Any recommendations for dependable online stores for music and books? Or is everyone other than me downloading their music? And if so how did you get your Scarlatti Sonata booklet? Any nominations for exceptional 'bricks and mortar' stores - either UK or US? Any reader's experiences or comments very welcome via the Comments feature below - good as well as bad please.

Some small print on PageRank and related topics. The leading blog tracking service Technorati now audits 23.4 million blogs and ranks them by importance measured by links. On An Overgrown Path ranks today at 14,421 out of 23.4 million, with 944 links from 104 sites - quite pleasing for a 'serious' arts and music site. Thanks for linking, and virtual champagne all round if we reach 1000 links!

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Image credit -
Basetech.jp
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Sunday, December 18, 2005

If you only buy thirty-four CDs this year - buy these .....


At the turn of the millennium BBC Radio 3 asked listeners to choose the greatest recording of the 20th century. The recording chosen was deservedly, but somewhat predictably, Solti's Ring cycle. The runners up were Carlos Klieber's interpretations of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh symphonies, the Britten War Requiem conducted by the composer, and English String Music conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, which includes Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

One recording that I considered to be a definite contender didn't even make the long list. But now the great news is my nomination has been re-released at budget price, and is easily my choice for the thirty-four best CDs of 2005.

Scott Ross was a musical maverick. He was born in Pittsburgh in 1951, and following the death of his father moved to France with his mother in 1964. He studied harpsichord at the Conservatoires of Nice and Paris, and won the prestigous Concours de Bruges, at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp in 1971. In 1971 he recrossed the Atlantic to begin a teaching career at the School of Music, Laval University, Quebec. While teaching there he made award-winning recordings of the complete Pièces de Clavecin by Rameau. Ross wore the same clothes as his students (even to perform), and his 'granny' spectacles aligned him more with John Lennon than Gustav Leonhardt. For a concert at Laval University, attended by the university chancellor and French Consul General, he wore jeans and a red lumberjack shirt. He was also self-effacing to a fault, explaining - "I started the Goldbergs 'cause I quit smoking and, to keep one's fingers busy, it's better than knitting".

He was a passionate collector of orchids, and his other hobbies included vulcanology, mineralogy, and mushrooms (!). His keyboard interests extended beyond the harpsichord. He played Debussy, Chopin and Ravel on the piano, and accompanied Schubert Lieder. The music of Brian Eno and Philip Glass were among his other passions, and he was a fan of the punk performance artist Nina Hagen. Comparisons with Glenn Gould are inevitable, but wide of the mark. In fact Ross had his own views on Gould, saying: "When I hear Glenn Gould, I say, he understood nothing about Bach. An artist who doesn't show himself in public has a problem. He's so much off-target that you'd need a 747 to take him back".

In 1983 Scott Ross took an indefinite sabbatical from Laval, and kicked it off with a recording of François Couperin's Suites pour le Clavecin. By now he had rented property in Assas, near Montpelier, in his beloved France. In 1984 he signed a five year recording contract with Erato , but also experierienced his first premonition of the illness that would ultimately kill him.

The main fruit of his new contract was the recording project that I consider to be one of the greatest in the history of recorded sound. The recording of the complete keyboard sonatas (555 in total) of Domenico Scarlatti started off as a broadcast project for Radio France to celebrate the composer's three hundredth anniverary in 1985. During the eighteen months of recording Ross (right) knew he had a fatal illness. Despite, or possibly because of, this he produced one of the great musical achievements of the 20th century. His playing is technically stunning, his scholarship is impeccable, but above this is a living, breathing and at times dancing testament. The whole staggering project is enhanced by superb recorded sound from the Radio France engineers, using three different venues and four harpsichords to avoid monotony.

Scott Ross began his recording of Scarlatti's 555 sonatas on 16th June 1984.

Ninety-eight sessions were required, and the last take was completed on 10th September 1985. In all, there had been eight thousand takes.

On 13th June 1989 Scott Ross died in Montpellier's Lapeyronie Hospital of an Aids-related illness, aged 38.

Ross' complete Scarlatti Keyboard Sonatas have been re-issued by Warner Classics in a thirty-four CD budget priced box. In the UK they are selling for around £90 ($160) which is very little to pay for one of the great musical achievements of the last century. In fact last week I saw the set in HMV in London for £50 ($89) - stupidly cheap. Included is an excellent 254 page booklet which includes notes on all the sonatas.

For more Scott Ross resources see harpsichord maker Michel Proulx's
web site where a privately published English language biography is available, from which the quote in my article is taken. Follow this link for my article about this biography. There are also other French resources here.


Image credits: Harpsichord - Alan Gotto, Orchid - Mystic Arts Center , Scott Ross – Louvre.or.jp,
CD pack - Warner Classics. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Instruments of extreme beauty

Cure for sacred cantata fatigue

Sacred cantata fatigue set in from the otherwise excellent BBC Radio 3 Bach marathon this morning, so I took off with my mountain bike to Thetford Forest for the day. The weather here in Norfolk is cold - minus 4 centigrade last night, and just getting above freezing in the day with a light dusting of snow.

All the wonderful singletrack in the forest's Black Route was frozen hard, so there was no mud and the riding was excellent once you warmed up. Information for fellow cyclists, my off-road ride is a Bianchi hardtail with Marzocchi Flylight Air forks upfront. After several hours in the solitude of the forest, and with no sacred cantatas, I could only agree with Claude Debussy who said that music is the silence between the notes

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Image credit -
Mediamushroom, yea I know it isn't Thetford but it sets the scene.
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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Keeping up with Lance Armstrong, or freewheel over to Killer singletrack

Days of future passed ...

"I'm doing teaching practice too! The lectures are mostly complete nonsense and I cut as many as I dare, but I find the school practice itself very pleasant. I'm at Salford Grammar .... four days a week doing music - it's done properly here with General Cert. at ordinary and advanced level. I have lots of 6th form work: I've only been thee a week but the lower 6th had a diet of Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and Bartók, and the lower school from form 1 up have had Bartók. It's surprising how much theory they do - the first two years have one period theory, one period history and one period singing each week, after which theory and history are optional. I find it very interesting to to work with a handful of 5th and 6th form - it gives more opportunity for getting to know individuals and their ways of working, though some of them are clots. The younger boys are great fun .... "
Peter Maxwell Davies in a letter to his school friend Eric Guest in 1957

Pliables notes: Salford Grammar ws a selective entry secondary/high school. 6th form was for 16 to 18 year olds. Form 1 was 11 year olds.

Quote from Max - the Life and Music of Peter Maxwell Davies by Mike Seabrook, ISBN 0575058838, out of print but available from Amazon resellers
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Image credit -
Young America Music Schools
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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to More MaxOpus

Saturday, December 17, 2005

I am a camera - Berlin

In the Battle for Berlin in 1945 125,000 civilians were killed (including 6400 suicides and 22,000 heart attacks). The city was left in ruins after years of bombing followed by street fighting before the Nazi surrender in May 1945. Among the buildings destroyed were the major music venues, including the Philharmonie and Konzerthaus. In July 1945 Allied troops took over the west of the city from the occupying Russians, and the division of Berlin had begun. The famous photograph above of Russian soldiers hoisting the Soviet flag over the ruined Reichstag became a visual symbol of the devastated and divided city.

The composer Arvo Pärt is no stranger to ideological conflict. He left Soviet controlled Estonia in 1980, staying first in Vienna before making his home in Berlin. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and in the following year Pärt composed his Berliner Messe for the German Catholic Days held that year. The Berliner Messe is like Berlin itself - haunted by the past with its references to Plainchant, but equally looking forward to the future with confidence and energy.

I revisited Berlin in November. I knew the city well when it was divided but this was my first visit since reunification. Here are some photos of that extraordinary city in 2005:

Above is the rebuilt Reichstag which is seen in ruins in my header picture. This again became the home of the Bundestag in 1999. Not visible in this photo is the striking new cupola added by architects Norman Foster and Partners. Also out of shot is the one hour plus queue to get in! Photo - On An Overgrown Path

This is the River Spree a short distance from the Reichstag. Pre-1989 the Wall followed the river here, and this was the point where many escape attempts were made, and many lost their lives. I can remember standing at almost this exact point in the 1970s, and looking at the clearly visible communist guards on the other bank. Photo - On An Overgrown Path

The Neue Synagogue (above) was inaugarated in 1866. As well as being used as a place of worship it was a venue for concerts. Albert Einstein played a violin recital here in 1930. Despite rampant anti-semitism the synagogue remained in use until 1940. The building was virtually destroyed by bombs in 1943, and it was not until 1995 that it reopened as a museum and cultural centre. Photo - On An Overgrown Path

Above is the controversial new Holocaust Memorial by American Architect Peter Eisenmann. It was inspired by Prague's Jewish Cemetery with its closely packed gravestones. The memorial comprises 2700 grey slabs. The construction of the memorial was plagued by controversy, including the discovery that supplier of the anti-graffiti paint for the blocks was part of the industrial conglomerate that had produced the Cyclon-B gas used in the Nazi death chambers. The photo is taken from where the Wall once stood, and looks across to the centre of the former East Berlin, Alexanderplatz. Photo - On An Overgrown Path

Finally that classic symbol of Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate. The Godess of Victory (with the Prussian Iron Cross restored post-reunification) on the top is a potent expression of the victory of good over the many dark forces that have gripped this extraordinary city. Photo - On An Overgrown Path

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Image credits:
Header -
Photo by Yevgeny Khaldei from μια φωτογραφία , μια ιστορία
The other five pictures were taken by me on an 'old-school' Nikon F50 SLR in November 2005 using 200 ASA film.
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