Monday, October 30, 2006

Philip Glass - World Music Is The New Classical

‘By the early 1960’s,’ Philip Glass said, ‘the world of new concert music had reached a virtual dead end. By that I mean there were more and more composers writing for fewer and fewer people.’ Glass (left) had worked with Ravi Shankar on film sound tracks in the early sixties and, like the sitar master, was looking to open a door that would bring different sensibilities to Western music. ‘That door turned out to be much bigger that I thought,’ Glass said. ‘I thought it would lead to Indian music. Actually, it led to World Music – and that continues to this day.'

Glass had travelled to India in 1967 and discovered through his mentor Ravi Shankar that George Harrison was already immersed in India’s wisdom traditions, and had understood the impact Eastern music could have on the West. Glass met Harrison shortly after his return, and they agreed that the Indian sound was a much-needed breath of fresh air. ‘We were entering the same door but from different sides,’ Glass said. ‘From my side, it was the world of experimental concert music, and from George’s side it was the world of popular music. It was clear to us that this had historic significance, and that the foundations of contemporary music were going to shift. But I was wrong about one thing. I thought it was going to take much longer, the change happened much more quickly than I expected’
- Philip Glass being interviewed by Joshua Greene in the recently published ‘Here Comes the Sun, the Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison,’ (Bantam Books ISBN 0553817965).

Now playing - Orient–Occident with a stellar cast of World musicians - Jordi Savall, Khaled Arman, Osman Arman, Driss El Maloumi, Pedro Estevan, Siar Hashimi and Dimitris Psonis. For me, Alia Vox is becoming a second ECM with their innovative exploration of unusual repertoire that defies conventional categorisation. The instruments on this superb new release say it all – rubab, tulak, oud (below left), darbouka (below right), def, tambor, pandereta, riq-gunga, tablas, zir baghali, santur, saz, viol, lire d’archet, and rebab. In the sleeve note the great musician, scholar and humanitarian Jordi Savall passionately advocates World Music with these words.


Orient–Occident was born out of solidarity and the wish to share musical experiences with musicians from other cultures and religions, as well as to reflect on those times in the past when we in the West have also been responsible for breeding intolerance and cruelty. Four years on, the Orient – Occident project has finally taken the form of a stimulating dialogue between musicians from East and West, articulated through the instruments and music of Christian, Jewish and Muslim Hesperia, the stampitte of medieval Italy and the improvisations and dances of Morocco, Israel, Persia, Afghanistan and the old Ottoman empire. Forms of music apparently far removed from one another in time and space, music that has often been consigned to oblivion beneath successive layers of modernism, or undervalued because of its uncertain origins. Dances, prayer, songs and laments of rare beauty and intense emotion, whose delicacy of expression frees us from the stranglehold of our deeply embedded roots and avoidable isolation.

And here to remind us what a rich heritage World Music has to draw on is a listing of just some of the festivals from many different cultures that are being celebrated around the world in the coming month of November 2006:

Wed 1 Algerian Revolution Day
1 Antiguan & Barbudan Independence Day
1 Christian All Saints Day
Thu 2 Christian All Souls Day
2 Rastafarian Haile Selassie 1: Coronation
Fri 3 Dominican Independence Day
3 Japanese Bunka no Hi
Sun 5 Sikh Guru Nanak Dev ji Birthday
5 Thai Loy Krathong
5 UK Guy Fawkes Night
Mon 6 Moroccan Green March Anniversary
Thu 9 Pakistan Allama Muhammad Iqbal Birthday
Fri 10 Turkish Ataturk: Death
Sat 11 Angolan Independence Day
11 Polish Independence Day
11 UK Armistice Day
Sun 12 Bahai Baha'u'llah: Birthday
12 UK Remembrance Sunday
Tue 14 Indian Children’s Day
Wed 15 Japanese Shichi Go San
Sat 18 Latvian National Day
18 Moroccan Independence Day
Wed 22 Lebanese Independence Day
Thu 23 Japanese Kinro Kansha no Hi
US Thanksgiving Day
Fri 24 Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur Ji: Martyrdom
Sun 26 Bahai Day of the Covenant
Tue 28 Albanian Independence Day
28 Baha'i Abdu'l-Baha: Passing
28 Zoroastrian: Shenshai Second Gahambar: First day
Wed 29 Albanian Liberation Day
Thu 30 Barbadian Independence Day
30 Filipino National Heroes Day
30 Scottish St Andrew's Day
30 Yemeni Independence Day

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Music as a healing force in Palestine

Today’s Independent makes the vital connection between music and current affairs in both a double page feature and a thoughtful leader praising the work of contemporary composer and human rights activist Nigel Osborne (left). Here is an extract from the inspirational story of how music is helping traumatised Palestinian children: - The Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, and one of Britain's foremost contemporary composers, is somehow managing simultaneously to play the guitar, dance, and conduct a class of 30 children in their lusty performance - in Mandinga - of a West African folk song. This is Balata, a stronghold of armed militancy and the target of at times almost daily Israeli incursions, where 150 Palestinians have been killed since the intifada began six years ago. It is also one of the most densely populated places on earth, home to 30,000 civilians who live in less than two square kilometres of cement-block housing packed so closely together that fat people cannot squeeze into some of the alleys between them.

Professor Osborne, whose works have been performed by orchestras across the world from the Berlin Symphony to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who has seen his operas play at Glyndebourne and the English National Opera, has come to Nablus to practise what he has preached for more than a decade: the huge potential of music to rehabilitate war-traumatised children. Professor Osborne's belief in the therapeutic and transformational power of music in the most unpromising circumstances is no passing fad. He graduated in music from Oxford in the late 1960s (where as the composer of a Cinderella produced by Gyles Brandreth, he coached Eliza Manningham-Buller, future head of the British Security Service, to sing for her part as the fairy godmother).

He was a music therapist for a spell as a young man but it was as a human rights activist, enraged by the failure of the international community to protect Bosnia from Serb aggression, that he went to Sarajevo in 1993. Horrified by the impact of the siege on children, he devised, with two Bosnian artists, the idea of running creative workshops for children caught up in the conflict. "The idea was just so the children could have a bit of fun," he recalls. "I was surprised how the therapeutic idea emerged out of it." For a visionary who has worked in several conflict zones, including Chechnya and Georgia, Professor Osborne has an unexpected streak of humility. He is careful to distinguish between clinical music therapy and the kind of session he is doing in Nablus, or those he ran in Sarajevo, and west Bosnia, where he was inevitably called - at least by journalists - "the Pied Piper of Mostar". But ever since noticing what he has described as the "palpable wave of energy" emanating from the Sarajevo children, he has believed passionately that "music assists these [traumatised] children, helping communication between individuals and within groups, creating trust joy, safety, cognitive repair and the incomparable self-esteem brought by creativity." Professor Osborne has no illusions that music will somehow stop all young people picking up real guns in the future. But he says: "I hope we can offer an alternative path, a path where human energy can be put to creative, not destructive purposes."

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It's official - music is good for you

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Mahler beats Britten with finale knockout

In the first half we had Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto, premiered in 1940 by Antonio Brosa and the New York Philharmonic conducted by John Barbirolli. The structure of the concerto is three movements with the final Passacaglia marked Andante Lento (un poco meno mosso). Its opponent in the second half was another 20th century masterpiece dating from 37 years earlier, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor, with its Rondo Finale marked Allegro - Allegro giocoso.

The venue for last night's contest was Britten's own magical Snape Maltings, and the orchestra was the BPO. Everywhere else in the world BPO stands for Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, but Aldeburgh is a parallel musical universe where the BPO is the Britten Pears Orchestra, a crack orchestra of young professionals whose spontaneous music-making puts to shame the autopilot efforts of the big name bands. Yes, they do take risks, as the early horn entry in the attaca between the last two movements of the Mahler showed, but give me ten of those for one of the current autopilot performances by the BBC Symphony. Conductor was man to watch Paul Daniel who conjured up memories of Sir Adrian Boult with a crystal clear stick technique, feet kept firmly on the podium, and violins divided across the stage. The outstanding violin soloist in the fiendishly difficult, and exposed, Britten Concerto was Thomas Bowes whose task was made even more difficult as he took over the part as a last minute substitute for the indisposed Janine Jansen.

Britten was, of course, a great admirer of Mahler. He had received the score of the Ninth Symphony as a present from Peter Pears in 1938, and the Violin Concerto is clearly influenced by that great work, ending in a beautiful coda that struggles ambiguously between the desolation of D minor and the possibility of D major. An outstanding performance faded away last night, and the capacity Snape audience hesitated - had the work really finished, or was there another movement to follow to resolve the ambiguity? There were no such questions in the second half, the barnstorming Rondo Finale of the Mahler accelerated to the final bars leaving the audience in no doubt that this was the triumphant conclusion. The audiences responded with an ovation, and it was clear that Mahler had won with a knockout in the finale.

The status of these contrasting masterpieces from two of the 20th century's greatest composers mirrors the reaction of last night's audience. There are few recordings of the Britten in the catalogue (the finest of which remains the composer's own), and it is rarely heard in the concert hall. Searching Mahler 5 on Amazon returns 320 hits, and the work is a warhorse of the auto-pilot orchestras with the peripatetic Minnesota Orchestra riding it into town this summer for a BBC Prom. Why the difference in popularity?


Visconti's 1971 film Death in Venice was the PR dream come true for the Mahler. I still cannot hear the Adagietto without seeing a heavily made-up Dirk Bogarde, and to understand the film's inspiration just compare the photo here of Bogarde as Gustav von Ascenbach with the header image of Mahler. And talking of von Aschenbach the opening work of the 2007 Aldeburgh Festival is a new production of Britten's opera Death in Venice directed by Yoshi Oida with the Britten Pears Orchestra conducted by last night's conductor Paul Daniel. While the Mahler symphony was undoubtedly boosted by Visconti's dramatisation of Thomas Mann's novella, the Britten Violin Concerto is unpopular with today's autopilot soloists who find it difficult to learn and in little demand from the equally as autopilot concert planners.

But is there an additional explanation for the differing popularity of the two works in the form of their finales? Granted there are many examples of frequently played works with equivocal endings ranging from Maher's Ninth Symphony to the Rite of Spring and Gottedamerung. But these are outnumbered many times over by the popular works with rousing and uplifting conclusions, including Mahler's own First Symphony (have you ever heard a performance that didn't get a standing ovation?), Beethoven's Ninth and numerous other examples. So is there a lesson here for contemporary composers? - please your publisher and get more performances by writing a rousing finale.

* A timely reminder that December 4th 2006 is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Benjamin Britten. The composer was a friend of admirer of Shostakovich, and it is an irony that this important musical anniversary looks likely to be overshadowed on the BBC and elsewhere by the current Shostakovich saturation. Britten was a great composer, conductor and pianist, a musical visionary, pacifist and humanitarian whose legacy not only survives, but grows with the work of the Britten Pears Foundation which embraces young performers and composers. Many of Britten's admirers, including me, will be attending a concert at Snape on December 2nd by the Britten Sinfonia and Britten Pears Chamber Choir. This will include Britten's 1948 cantata St Nicholas and Arvo Pärt's Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten. We are also fortunate to be seeing the acclaimed new Glyndebourne Touring production of the Turn of the Screw here in East Anglia in November.

* I mentioned the impact of the film Death in Venice on the popularity of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. We should also not forget that films were important in popularising Britten's music. He composed scores for GPO Film Unit productions including Night Mail and Coal Face in conjunction with WH Auden (pictured together left). And of course Britten's best known work, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (1946), was composed to accompany Instruments of the Orchestra, an educational film produced by the British government, which was narrated and conducted by Malcolm Sargent.

Britten's Violin Concerto was first performed in 1940 with John Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic, now follow this link for more on new music in New York at that time.
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Paul Simon brushes over troubled waters

From yesterday's Independent profile of Paul Simon (left) - He clearly harbours political anger against the Bush White House - especially over the Iraq war - and sounded faintly embarrassed when I asked him about the time he was invited there in late 2002, a few months before the Iraq invasion. He was one of a small number of prominent artists to be honoured that year by the Kennedy Center in Washington - a ceremony that by tradition entails a trip to the White House. At first Simon said, with considerable vehemence, that he would not have set foot in the place for any other reason. But then he changed his mind and acknowledged that an invitation from a sitting president is just one of those things you don't turn down. The White House, he says, was "bigger than the occupant, no matter who that is".

Pliable adds - It is good to see Washington DC and its John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts remaining an irony free zone. Here is the announcement of the winners of the Kennedy Center Honours for 2006 by their Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman: Andrew Lloyd Webber has led a seismic change in our musical theater becoming the most popular theater composer in the world; conductor Zubin Mehta’s profound artistry and devotion to music make him a world treasure; Dolly Parton’s (right) creativity and spirit make her country music’s best international ambassador; Smokey Robinson’s song and voice have created the soundtrack for the lives of a generation of Americans; and Steven Spielberg’s films make him one of the most successful and accomplished directors of all time.”

Now read how another musician expressed his political anger in Lebanon - a war of out time
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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Just a small experimental nuclear device

There was very little interest in my recent article on the use by NATO of Depleted Uranium ammunition in the Kosovo conflict in 1999. Now read today's front page Independent article by award-winning journalist Robert Fisk, from which the extract below is taken, and see if you find my article any more relevant today:

Did Israel use a secret new uranium-based weapon in southern Lebanon this summer in the 34-day assault that cost more than 1,300 Lebanese lives, most of them civilians? Scientific evidence gathered from at two bomb craters in Khiam and At-Tiri, the scene of fierce fighting between Hizbollah guerrillas and Israeli troops last July and August, suggests that uranium-based munitions may now also be included in Israel's weapons inventory - and were used against targets in Lebanon. According to Dr Chris Busby, the British Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, two soil samples thrown up by Israeli heavy or guided bombs showed "elevated radiation signatures". Both have been forwarded for further examination to the Harwell laboratory in Oxfordshire for mass spectrometry - used by the Ministry of Defence - which has confirmed the concentration of uranium isotopes in the samples.

Dr Busby's initial report states that there are two possible reasons for the contamination. "The first is that the weapon was some novel small experimental nuclear fission device or other experimental weapon (eg, a thermobaric weapon) based on the high temperature of a uranium oxidation flash ... The second is that the weapon was a bunker-busting conventional uranium penetrator weapon employing enriched uranium rather than depleted uranium." A photograph of the explosion of the first bomb shows large clouds of black smoke that might result from burning uranium.

Asked by The Independent if the Israeli army had been using uranium-based munitions in Lebanon this summer, Mark Regev, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said: "Israel does not use any weaponry which is not authorised by international law or international conventions." This, however, begs more questions than it answers. Much international law does not cover modern uranium weapons because they were not invented when humanitarian rules such as the Geneva Conventions were drawn up and because Western governments still refuse to believe that their use can cause long-term damage to the health of thousands of civilians living in the area of the explosions.

Which is where I came in ...

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Eric Whitacre download bonanza

My recent article on Eric Whitacre generated a huge amount of interest. Now comes the opportunity to hear an interview with Whitacre (left) telling how he started in choral composing, plus performances of three of his works. (The title of the feature does seem a touch ambiguous though - Stumbling into Choral Music). The generous 16 minute programme comes from NPR and includes complete performances of “This Marriage” and “Go Lovely Rose” sung by Polyphony, under the direction of Stephen Layton, and “A Boy and a Girl” from a concert performance by the Santa Fe Desert Chorale, directed by Linda Mack. Follow this link for the download. Also worth a visit for Eric Whitacre fans is his MySpace site where you can hear more of the Hyperion Cloudburst CD featured in my original article.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

The continuing cathedral choir tradition

The greatest and perhaps most precious anachronism is the continuing tradition of the cathedral choirs ... it tells of a civilation utterly different from the one we seem to be preparing for the 21st century. Such a record as this brings it home. The mastery of our Tudor composers in their choral writing tells of a rich culture, in which the cathedrals were very near the centre; and this mastery is splendidly preserved by choirs like Worcester Cathedral ... it is amazing and marvellous to find them flourishing as vigorously as this one clearly is - John Stean's Gramophone review of Great Tudor Anthems sung by Worcester Cathedral Choir directed by Donald Hunt

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Independent record labels never failed me yet

In a neat piece of wordplay today's Independent newspaper has a supplement in praise of Independent Music. Here are some of the highlights from Michael Church's article:

Gavin Bryars, whose Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, in which a tramp's accidentally-recorded song was put through a labyrinthine series of transmutations, is one of our best-selling contemporary composers. Yet since he began putting out his works on small labels "who were ready to take works from experimentalists like me, who the majors saw as beyond the pale", he has regarded those majors as a more of a curse than a blessing. Jesus' Blood, put out on a branch of Philips in the Nineties, has sold half a million copies, but since the costs of jetting an orchestra round the world were so huge, he hasn't seen a penny in profits. "And if I was recording now with a major label, I'd be lucky to do an album every two or three years. Moreover, the executives of that company would choose the repertoire. I prefer to control my own destiny," he says.

And he now does. Using his own label, GB Records, for which his wife does the design and a friendly American production company helps out, he is now re-releasing existing recordings to which he owns the masters, and making new ones with the aid of licensing deals with Latvian Radio musicians. "I do these records partly to keep things in print, partly to control the output, and partly to invest in subsequent recordings. It's not so much about making money, as ensuring the music is heard."

Simon Perry, who has succeeded his father as boss of Hyperion, sees a different threat from the download phenomenon. "Retail record shops, on whom the classical labels depend, survive by selling pop CDs, but as downloads eat into that market, they may close. We will have to find other forms of distribution, and downloads - which can't carry the liner notes which are what our clientele require - are not sufficient." That is the challenge.


* I'm glad to say that I bought my copy of Gavin Bryar's Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet from the wonderfully independent, and still thriving, Prelude Records in August 1998, and not via the Amazon link on Gavin Bryar's website. Incidentally, Jesus' Blood was originally released on Virgin EG, not Philips as stated in the Independent article. You can check out Prelude's top ten sellers via this link, as I write Sting and Dowland are at number one. Please add your own recommendations of independent record stores around the world using the Comments facility below.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A treasure trove of Stokowski downloads

A Japanese site has a treasure trove of recordings by the legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski ranging from 1917 acoustic recordings to 1953 electric recordings. All were 78rpm shellac releases, and the site claims they are copyright free. There are a lot of very fine things to listen to including two complete Tchaikovsky symphonies, a complete 1941 No 4 recorded with the NBC Symphony in 1941, and a 1940 Symphony No.6 'Pathetique' with the All American Youth Orchestra. Thanks go to US reader and internet sleuth Walt Santner whose research uncovered these, and the Norwegian historic MP3s, for us, and to the unknown Japanese webmaster for making them available.

Stokowski was the role model for today's jet set maestros. Born in North London in 1882, a short distance from what was to become EMI's famous Abbey Road Studios, he started his musical career as organist in St James' Church, Piccadily. He moved to the US in 1905, and ten years later became a naturalized American. He took over the Philadelphia Orchestra (see my article Reflections on the Philadelphia Orchestra), and it was here that he built his reputation as orchestral trainer, contemporary music champion (including the first performance and recording of Charles Ives' Symphony No. 4) , pioneer of new technology, and womaniser. He is remembered for many things, most notably his wonderful recorded legacy, his Bach orchestrations, and his work with Walt Disney on the film Fantasia. Do listen to the audio files that Walt Santner has done us all a great favour by uncovering.

* The biography Leopold Stokowski by Preben Opperby was published by Hippocrene Books in the US and Midas Books in the UK (ISBN 0882546589 & 0859362531) but is now out of print.

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John Peel's Private Passions

DJ and broadcaster John Peel (right) was the champion of independent British rock music for nearly 40 years on his late-night BBC Radio 1 show. He led the way in promoting new acts, from David Bowie, through Joy Division to the White Stripes. During his schooldays one of his teachers wrote “It's possible that John can form some kind of nightmarish career out of his enthusiasm for unlistenable records and his delight in writing long and facetious essays..." which kind of sounds familiar, doesn't it?

As well as his music programmes John Peel was an award winning current affairs presenter on BBC Radio 4 and World Service. His love of classical music was not widely known, but he chose it for the majority of his selections when he appeared on BBC Radio 3's Private Passions programme. Peel asked presenter Michael Berkeley to include something that would surprise him. Berkeley programmed the Conlon Nancarrow's Study for Player-Piano No. 21, and Peel subsequently played it on his rock music programme on Radio 1.

If like John Peel you haven't taken the overgrown path to the riches of Nancarrow's Studies for Player-Piano, here to delight you are two complete studies comprising more than than eight minutes of music courtesy of those wonderful people at Minnesota Public Radio. These two studies are taken from the commercially available Wergo set made in 1988 at Conlon Nancarrow's Mexico City studio, using the composer's own custom-altered Ampico reproducing piano

Study for Player-Piano 3b -

Study for Player-Piano 49c -

John Peel lived here in East Anglia. He died suddenly two years ago today while on holiday in Peru, aged 65. Here are his Private Passions....

* Saint-Saëns, Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22 (third movement, Presto), Cécile Licard (piano) / London Philharmonic Orchestra / André Previn CBS MK 39153
* Allegri, Misere, Choir of King's College, Cambridge / Roy Goodman (treble) / David Willcocks Decca 421147-2
*Gottschalk, Ojos Criollos, Danse cubaine, Vienna State Opera orchestra, Berlin Symphony Orchestra / Cary Lewis, Eugene List (pianos) / Igor Buketoff and Samuel Adler (conds) Vox Box 1154842
*Neil Young,'Rockin' in the Free World', Neil Young Reprise 9352-41406-2
*Conlon Nancarrow, Study for Player-Piano No. 21, Conlon Nanacarrow 1750 Arch Records S1786B
*Bruch, Violin Concerto Op. 26 (second movement), Kyung-Wha Chung (violin) / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Rudolph Kempe Decca 417 707-2
*Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, Michael Tilson Thomas (piano and conductor) / Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra CBS MK 39699

* Programme broadcast on 16th March 1996. Listen to the latest BBC Radio 3 Private Passions programme with this link. Information reproduced from Private Passions by Michael Berkeley, published by Faber ISBN 0-571-22884- 4 Image credit -
Roger Waters Online . Nancarrow examples - Minnesota public radio
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Rhythm Is It! - the new Fantasia?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The eternal feminine follows the musical path

In my wanderings through song and poetry over the last ten years, I have come across stony paths, paths strewn with flowers, pathways across land and sea, and almost invisible trails, where it was very easy to lose my way ... Arianna Savall (daughter of Jordi) describes her own Overgrown Path in the liner notes for her first solo CD, Bella Terra. Now follow this link for an MP3 sample of some of really ravishing music, and if you think Arianna (above) has a beautiful voice remember that not only is she also playing the harp, but all the settings of the poems are composed by her as well.

Meanwhile another eternal femine follows an invisible trail at Covent Garden's Linbury Studio Theatre as the Independent describes: - Dominique Le Gendre grew up around music. "Our next-door neighbour and landlady was a woman called Olive Walke, who was the leader of a choir called La Petite Musicale in Trinidad. My sister and I used to go and sit under her piano at the rehearsals," she says. "There was always a sound of choirs singing Caribbean folk songs." The early exposure to music has served her well. Now 46, Le Gendre (right) is the first female composer to be commissioned by the Royal Opera. The work, Bird of Night, is a fantastical rite-of-passage tale set in 1950s Trinidad and based on the traditions and folklore of the island.

Bird of Night has opened to mixed reviews, but who hasn't? As Arianna Savall tells us it is the journey that is important, and it is great to see Dominique Le Gendre opening up a new Path at Covent Garden.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

BBC Electric Proms premieres new rock opera

Today’s Independent reports: - Two years ago, the BBC's director general Mark Thompson began his transformation of the corporation, cutting 4,000 jobs and promising in return a lean machine fit for the 21st century. The idea was that, with the savings made from the cutbacks, £350m would be ploughed back into programming. While many are still grappling with the realities of the seismic overhaul that has seen the corporation shrink by close to a quarter, the money is now trickling through. With it comes a wave of commissions. Notable among these is this week's Electric Proms, a five-day festival boasting more than 50 artists - among them Damon Albarn, James Brown and The Who - at venues in and around Camden Town in north London. Performances will be broadcast across BBC TV, radio, online and interactive, making the Electric Proms arguably the first tangible realisation of the all the management-speak; an example of Thompson's "360-degree commissioning", where content is just the starting point.

"Radio 1 and Radio 2 play to more than 20 million listeners each week. That's a lot of people who like music," Lorna Clarke of the BBC says. "The idea is that we could raise that to the status of the kind of work that happens in the classical music world. If you are serious about classical music, you absolutely know what the BBC does in terms of that genre. We want a companion to that." This electronic counterpart to the classical Proms that take over the Royal Albert Hall every summer is aimed at a younger audience that consumes media in a different way. "They are starting to watch television online; they are starting to receive content on their mobiles; they don't always compartmentalise everything the way they used to," Clarke says. "People are listening to
1Xtra or the Asian Network via their televisions. The Electric Proms is an event that spans the whole of the organisation, and this is how things are going to be done now." Clarke's aim is to create "new musical moments", allowing artists to do things they haven't done before. "We're trying not to beige out rock and pop."

So The Who are premiering their new rock opera
Wire & Glass, James Brown gets a full choir, and Damon Albarn (photo above) and Paul Simonon showcase work from their new project The Good, The Bad and The Queen. Fatboy Slim plays in what is essentially a pub, and Kasabian and the Guillemots will perform with the BBC Concert Orchestra. "It is ambitious, but you have to recognise that young people need a deeper experience and access to live performances," Clarke says.

For full details of the BBC Electric Proms follow this link. Great to see the BBC actively encouraging access to live music, and equally as great to see the legendary Roundhouse in London, venue of so many ground-breaking Boulez concerts in the 1970s, lovingly restored and once again hosting cutting-edge concerts, all of which gives me a back-link to The Year is '72.

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bill Gates compares Paul McCartney to Bach

I'm sorry, I did say that the I had posted my last words about Paul McCartney, but I just have to share with you these words from today's Observer: - Paul McCartney's entourage is the first to come out fighting, releasing this weekend quotes from a laudatory DVD of McCartney's 2005 world tour. Following reports about his alleged physical abuse of his wife, the former model Heather Mills, his camp hopes that the counter-offensive will help the former Beatle. The new DVD will feature the warmest of praise for McCartney from no less than former US president Bill Clinton, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and various luminaries from the worlds of music and film. In the DVD, called The Space Within Us, Clinton labels McCartney 'an American icon'. He describes his music as a 'unifying force'. Gates goes further, comparing McCartney's work to that of Bach.

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New music comes in out of the cold in Iceland

A thought-provoking article on Iceland by John Carlin in yesterday's Independent. Here is an extract supplemented by my own brief survey of the flourishing contemporary music scene in that remarkable country.

The miracle of Iceland is that so much has been achieved in so little time in a country of only 300,000 people. Whether the miracle can be replicated in a bigger, more historically complex country is another story. Iceland has managed to arrange its society extraordinarily sanely. It has contrived to create an innovative entrepreneurial climate in which the price of failure is not destitution, as it might be in the US, but the guarantee of a social safety net that will feed and house you till the day you die, and take care of your children's health and education to the highest modern standards. A lot of people I spoke to in Iceland agreed that a large reason for the country's success was the absence of the cultural, religious, political and tribal baggage that other nations accumulate over time. Baggage that, as the minister of education observed to me, weighs other countries down, and gets in the way of intelligent, practical, natural solutions to the elementary problems of life.

* Iceland is the only member nation of Nato that has no armed forces, these having been abolished in the 14th century.
* Only a tiny fraction of the country's 679 police officers - an elite crisis unit called the Vikings - carry guns.
* With an annual murder rate below five, the sum total of the country's prison population is 118.
* Iceland legalised gay marriages in 1996.
* Private education and private health care do not exist - the state facilities are so good that there is no demand.
* Icelanders buy more books per capita than any other nation on earth

There is certainly no accumulated baggage getting in the way of an intelligent and practical approach to new music, and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, under its Principal Conductor and Musical Director Rumon Gamba (right) is a model of progressive programming. As well as the completion of a Shostakovich symphony cycle and a mandatory Mozart opera their 2005/6 season includes the premiere of a new orchestral work by Mark-Anthony Turnage which is a joint comission by the orchestra. The season also includes Finn Kalevi Aho´s Flute Concerto, Christian Lindberg’s new Trumpet Concerto from Sweden, and Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, an Icelandic flautist at the Metropolitan Opera in New York is performing American Lowell Liebermann’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra.

There is also a strong commitment to performing contemporary Icelandic music. Among the works performed in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra's 2005-2006 are concertos by Jón Nordal in celebration of the composer´s 80th birthday, the recent Symphony no. 2 by Atli Heimir Sveinsson (the composer is on the right of the group photo), a new violin concerto by Áskell Másson, and new works by Þorsteinn Hauksson, Haraldur Sveinbjörnsson, Eiríkur Árni Sigtryggsson and Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson. Iceland is also, of course, fertile ground ground for rock acts, most famously Björk and the disbanded Sugarcubes (but note the Sugarcubes including Björk are performing one reunion concert in November to raise funds for the future betterment of Icelandic music and artists - nice one). Among the other rockers there are Quarashi, Sigur Rós (who show classical and minimalist influences), Minus and many more. Additions, corrections, and links to composers I couldn't trace for this Icelandic saga, are, as ever, very welcome.

For more facts on Iceland visit the CIA over in Virginia, and by one of those wondrous coincidences that abound here CIA also stands for Centre for Icelandic Art, which is well worth a visit. And all that talk of the CIA also gives me a neat back-link to The Winter's Tale

Image credit: Header Hornafjordur, Hofn via Arctic-experience.co.uk (c) RTH Sigurdsson. Atli Heimir Sveinsson from Notendur.centrum. With thanks to Vanessa Lann whose mention of Bjork (and Pink Floyd!) sent me down this Overgrown Path. 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 .

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Paul McCartney - the last word

Magdalen College, Oxford presumably in the hope of notoriety, commissioned the former Beatle to turn his attention to "the classical end of things" for the inaugaration of a new concert hall. It took him eight years, but it sounds like the work of eight minutes. Melodically the cantata is banal to the point of embarrassment, while the macaronic text, which McCartney assures us tells us what really is in his heart is depressingly feeble. How the time drags. I could have washed up or emptied the bin - next!

Rick Jones tells it like it is in his Times review of Paul McCartney's Ecce Cor Meum.

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Malcolm Arnold and the rock idols



The year is 1969, the group is Deep Purple, and the odd-man out in the suit and tie is Malcolm Arnold. Here is the extraordinary story behind this photo as told by Paul Jackson in his biography of Sir Malcolm.
A few months after the Prom success of his Concerto for Two Pianos (Three Hands), Malcolm Arnold returned to the Royal Albert Hall to conduct a concert that would for many critics show that Arnold as a serious musician was now beyond the pale and without hope. The concert in question took place on 24 September 1969 and saw Arnold conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra alongside the rock group Deep Purple. The concert itself consisted of a performance of Arnold's 6th Symphony, a solo set by the band and finally the premiere of the Concerto for Group and Orchestra by Jon Lord, the keyboard player with the band.

In the 1980s, orchestras willingly collabarated with pop musicians and recorded works by
Queen or the Beatles, or David Bedford's symphonic treatment of Tubular Bells, but in 1969 - with the exception of the Beatles - pop musicians and classical musicians simply did not meet. There was trouble at the first run-through when the (mainly) long-haired group arrived on stage to a chorus of wolf-whistles from the orchestra. Soon into the rehearsal it looked as though the project would be a disaster, the major problem being the balance (or lack of it) between orchestra and heavily amplified band. The first run-through ended badly, mainly due to the performance - or lack of it - of the orchestra, many of whom were not taking the project seriously (though they were happy to take the band's money).

Arnold stepped in at this point, rapped his baton on the music stand and spoke to the orchestra as only one of their own could, saying 'I don't know what you think you are doing! You're supposed to be the finest orchestra in Britain, and you're playing like a bunch of c***s. Quite frankly, with the way it's going, you're not fit to be on the stage with these guys, so pick yourself up and let's hear some b******s ... We're going to make history tonight, so we might as well make music while we're doing it!' This shock tactic worked, the rehearsal went more smoothly and the Gala Charity Concert went ahead.

The performance was filmed and shown in an edition of BBC2's arts programme Omnibus under the title 'Best of Both Worlds.' This showed Arnold and Lord in conversation, together with rehearsal footage and the final performance of the concerto, though in a slightly edited version. Arnold in full evening dress is in complete command of the forces and galvanises the orchestra and band into some thrilling playing. The beat with the right hand may seem a little wayward but it is quite clear, with the left hand clearly indicating entries. It is striking how Arnold's face (right) is never buried in the score but maintains constant and immediate eye-contact with his performers. His energy and commitment are apparent, as is his humility in sinking into the shadows to allow band and orchestra to bask in the applause.
Sir Malcolm Arnold would have been 85 this Saturday, October 21 2006. Happy birthday Sir Malcolm, I'm sure you are hard at work proving that the devil doesn't have the best tunes. Read On An Overgrown Path's tribute here.

* The Life and Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold, the Brilliant and the Dark by Paul R.W. Jackson, from which the extract above is taken, is published by Ashgate (ISBN 1859283810)

* The Concerto for Group and Orchestra composed by Jon Lord and performed by Deep Purple and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Arnold was recorded live at the concert. It was originally released as a Harvest LP, and a video recording of the complete concert was released on DVD in 2003 including the performance of Arnold's 6th Symphony.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Contemporary composers must never be bored


Hi,I really enjoyed discovering your blog through your mention of our CD "Touch - don't touch", to which I (Moritz Eggert) also contributed a piece. Just now I sit in one of the most boring surroundings imagineable, a panel meeting of the Deutsche Komponistenverband, and reading your wonderfully educated and extremely enlightening blog was a wonderful reprieve of this boredom. Many thanks, and a good day, Moritz Eggert (photo above, and follow that link to a website well worth visiting).

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Early music speaks of the human heart

I hope that Mr Sting's record does make people go out and discover early music like John Dowland because it's something I find calms my soul in times of trouble. Unlike later grand musical movements, the romantics and so on, which speak of grand themes of nature and politics and religion, early music speaks of the human heart, and that is the same now as it was half a millenium ago - Words of real wisdom over on Arthur Clewley's Diary, and Saturday took us to a harpsichord recital by Richard Egarr that really spoke to the human heart. The whole programme was exquisite, but the real delight was to hear several works by Antonio de Cabézon live.

The music of Cabézon is rarely heard either in concert or on recordings, although he made a fleeting appearance here a while back. Cabézon was a blind composer and organist at the Royal Court of Spain, and was responsible for the education of Prince Philip and his sisters. He travelled widely in Europe with the prince, and visited London to attend Philip's wedding to Mary Tudor. He is thought to have met Thomas Tallis and William Byrd on this visit. On ascending to the throne King Philip II became his patron, and the King held him in higher esteem that any of his other artists except Titian.

Cabézon made a major contribution to the development of the Iberian keyboard style, and his use of dissonance and chromaticism is well ahead of its time. His style has links with the Tudor composers of Gibbons and Byrd, and his writing is influenced by the sacred music of the time as well as the more common dance forms, and is a splendid antidote to Scarlatti sonata fatigue. He is an important composer who should be much better known, but recordings are rarer than the proverbial hens teeth. My recommendation for starters is an excellent recital of Spanish and Portugese Harpsichord music (that link has some brief audio samples) on Chandos by Sophie Yates which combines seven of Antonio de Cabézon's works with one by his son (Hernando) and others from José Ximénez, Manuel Rodrigues Coelho, António Carriera, and Joan Cabanilles - rare riches indeed and highly recommended.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Pentagon’s manna from heaven

On 7 February 2000, Nato’s then Secretary General, Lord Robertson, wrote to the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan: I can confirm that DU (Depleted Uranium) was used during the Kosovo conflict … during approximately 100 missions. The GAU-8/A API round (left) is designated PGU-13/6 and uses a streamlined projectile housing a sub-calibre kinetic energy perpetrator machined from DU, a non-critical by-product of the uranium refining process … A total of approximately 31,000 rounds of DU ammunition was used in Operation Allied Force. The major focus of these operations was in an area west of the Péc-Djakovica-Pritzen highway … However, many missions using DU also took place outside of these areas. At this moment it is impossible to state accurately every location where DU was used.

Before that admission, Finland’s Minister of the Environment, Satu Hassi, issued a statement: I think the EU should make an initiative: military use of DU should be forbidden. Depleted Uranium is a waste from the nuclear industry. In the industry itself, the handling of DU is strictly regulated and controlled, and waste is kept in guarded areas. But in military use, in combat situations and test shooting, the very same waste is dispersed into the environment, where the spread follows a haphazard pattern. Munitions containing DU are now part of the armament of many countries. I am of the opinion that the use of DU should be banned … It will permanently contaminate the areas where it is used with toxic heavy metal.

DU is seen by the Pentagon as manna from heaven. Nuclear waste costs next to nothing, the supply is unlimited and uranium-tipped ‘tank-busters’ have extra ‘penetrative power’. Therefore when the DU controversy arose after the Gulf war, and refused to go away, the Pentagon became even more secretive than normal. Like all debates which leave the public dependent on the competence and integrity of scientists, this one often generated more heat than light. The topic’s vulnerability to journalistic oversimplification assisted the Pentagon and arms industry, which share a determination to obstruct or subvert DU research. When the US government commissioned a Rand report, in response to growing public disquiet, its authors omitted to mention DU’s most dangerous feature, its transmutations into ceramic aerosols. (Pliable - the senior staff at Rand have included James Schlesinger, former CIA director and pro-nuclear Secretary of Defense, and Henry Rowen, former head of the CIA's National Intelligence Command).

In August 1999 the ceramic aerosol phenomenon was explained by Dr Rosalie Bertell, an epidemiologist with thirty years’ experience of studying the health effect of exposure to ionizing radiation: DU is radioactive waste, and it attains special deadly properties when it is fired in battle. Because of its density and the speed of the missile or bullet containing it, DU bursts into flame on impact. It reaches very high temperatures, and becomes a ceramic aerosol which can be dispersed 100km from the point of impact. Because the radiation dose to te person depends on the strength of the source of the radiation, and the time duration of the exposure, this ceramic aerosol formation is important. Ceramic (glass) is highly insoluble in the normal lung fluid, and when inhaled, this ceramic particulate will remain in the lungs and body tissue before being excreted in urine … Much of the ceramic DU aerosol is in respirable size particles and it stays in the lungs for upwards of two years … Ingested uranium is excreted in faeces, basically never entering into the human blood and lymph system. In contrast, the DU ceramic aerosol released in war enters directly into lymph and blood through the lung-blood barrier and circulates throughout the whole body …Women (because of their radiation sensitive breast and uterine tissue) and children (because their bones are growing, thus able to pick up more DU than adults) wil be more at risk from delayed DU weapon action … DU is also a heavy metal and is chemically toxic to humans … The aerosol can be resuspended in wind or when disturbed by traffic and this inhaled DU represents a seriously enhanced risk of damage immune systems and fatal cancers.

The chilling account above is from Dervla Murphy's 2002 book Through the Embers of Chaos, Balkan Journeys (John Murray ISBN 0719565103). Not happy reading, but essential reading nevertheless.

The 26 member countries of Nato are – Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, and United States – but not Finland, home of Satu Hassi, or Ireland, home of author Dervla Murphy.

Now playing - Peter Maxwell Davies' (below) exquisite five minute solo for piano Farewell to Stromness. Both this piece 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), 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.

If you do not know Farewell to Stromness or Yesnaby Ground you are missing something seriously beautiful. Here linked from the excellent MaxOpus web site are audio files:

Farewell to Stromness -

Yesnaby Ground -

* Dr Rosalie Bertell is is an internationally recognized expert in the field of radiation and has been a Grey Nun of the Sacred Heart for more than fifty years. After the Bhopal disaster in 1984, she directed the International Medical Commission investigating the effects of the Union Carbide chemical spill that contributed to some 15,000 deaths, and after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 resulted in 31 dead and forced the evacuation of 135,000, she helped convene a tribunal to fight for the rights of those victims.

* For more on Depleted Uranium follow this link.

Image credit - Depleted Uranium ammunition round from Wikipedia. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included for "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
For more on the terrible aftermath of Operation Allied Force take An Overgrown Path to The Beautiful Blue Danube - Pancevo, and take this Path to find out about Musicians against nuclear weapons