Saturday, February 28, 2009

Positively 4th Street


Art of the book cover from David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street. Upper image shows Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, the lower Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña. The artwork is by Eric von Schmidt based on his classic poster for the 1964 Baez-Dylan tour. Ironically, the original posters were withdrawn and pulped as Dylan did not like them. Despite this, or perhaps because of, they are now valuable collector's items. As well as beautifully capturing the zeitgeist of the early 1960s Positively 4th Street makes a valuable contribution by reassessing the contributions of Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña, who are usually overshadowed by Mimi's sister Joan and Dylan. The first album by the Fariña's, Celebrations for a Grey Day is well worth exploring, particularly for Richard Fariña's use of the dulcimer. On the day that he died in a motorcycle accident in 1966 Richard Fariña had been attending a launch party at the Thunderbird bookstore in Carmel Valley, California for his first novel Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me. The book is an interesting example of 1960s rites of passage writing that survives in print today as a Penguin Twentieth Century Classic. Now judge Bob Dylan's own artworks here while Joan Baez sings Sibelius here.


Positively 4th Street was borrowed from the priceless 2nd Air Division Memorial Library in Norwich. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, February 27, 2009

Handel in the bland


I have to say I thought Jessica Duchen's article on Handel in the Independent, with it's comment 'Had he lived in the 1980s, his chief rival could have been Andrew Lloyd Webber', was a very silly piece of writing. I blame the Independent more than Jessica. It is common knowledge that for an article on classical music to appear in the Independent or Guardian these days it has to meet one of three criteria. It has to plug a new CD, it has to plug a live performance, or it has to put the knife into someone's reputation. I guess we have Norman Lebrecht to thank for that.

Image credit from Save the Children Australia's Handel fund-raising concert in May 2007 at the Sydney Opera House; it raised over 100,000 Australian dollars. 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). Reporterrors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

I hate Tchaikovsky


Henry Holland has left a new comment on A Faustian bargain:
I think it's unfair to say Pierre Boulez "refuses" to conduct Tchaikovsky, it's like he said in an interview once "I listen to Sibelius and Tchaikovsky for pleasure, but I have no desire to conduct it". I think we've all heard conductors do stuff that they have no interest in and it benefits no one. I simply wish Mr. Boulez had spent his years conducting MORE stuff, instead of staying pretty much with the same core of works + new music, often recording them 2 or 3 times.
Thanks Henry. I based my comment on the following section from Boulez - Composer, Conductor, Enigma by Joan Peyser (Schirmer ISBN 0028717007).
In 1975 Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto was played at Lincoln Center, when Boulez was away. "I am not a fascist," Boulez explains. "I hate Tchaikovsky and I will not conduct him. But if the audience wants him, it can have him".
Ms. Peyser's 'psychobiographies' are not always well received. But I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the quote. Perhaps maestro Boulez's views have mellowed with age? After all, we don't see him burning too many opera houses these days. Photo credit to the excellent French blog Le regard de James. I also used it in Hommage à Pierre Boulez. And, let's be clear, I am a fan.

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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Lost in amplification


We went to hear the Spanish flamenco jazz guitarist Eduardo Niebla last night at the Norwich Arts Centre. This intimate venue is a deconsecrated church that holds an audience of 180 and requires the subtlest of any sound reinforcement, if any. British based Niebla brought a trio in which his own acoustic guitar was backed by a second acoustic guitar and a tabla. That is about all I can tell you about the performance. Other than that Niebla and his two sidemen were heavily amplified (with reverb) through four small PA speakers that were probably brought from Tandy many years ago. The result was the kind of over-loud, compressed, clipped, nasal, sub-hifi sound that we used to listen to in our college rooms in the 1960s while drinking cheap Algerian red wine. We fled at the end of the first half, and listened to Ralph Towner on an ECM CD in the car on the way home to remind ourselves what an acoustic guitar really sounds like.

Oh dear, is amplification the next big thing for classical music?
We bought our £12 tickets from the Norwich Arts Centre box office. Report errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, February 26, 2009

On history's clock it was sunset


So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admirarion. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last.
The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor.
Those words come from Barbara Tuchman's book The Guns of August. It tells how the secret treaty system among the European powers transformed what should have been in a regional conflict in the Balkans into the catastrophic Great War. Shortly after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis the Washington Post published an article describing how Barbara Huchman's book had influenced President Kennedy's decision to negotiate with the Russians, rather than confront them off Cuba. The policy of negotiation had, arguably, averted a nuclear holocaust.
Barbara Tuchman (1912-89) was an influential and best-selling author at a time when the appropriate career for a woman was considered to be as the wife of an author, rather than as an author in her own right. Her teaching appointments included Harvard and the US Naval War College, and she twice won the Pullitzer Prize for general non-fiction. One of her most remarkable, and neglected, contributions is Tuchman's Law. This states The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold. Just as The Guns of August spoke to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, which was written in 1987 and in which she introduced Tuchman's Law, speaks to today's financial crisis:
Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening, on a lucky day, without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena.
Barbara Tuchman's work is one of many threads in another book by a remarkable woman titled The Girl I Left Behind - A Narrative History of the Sixties. This memoir, which I am currently reading, is by the journalist, researcher and speechwriter Judith Nies. She worked with a group of anti-Vietnam congressman in Washington in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was active in dismantling the institutionalised sexism that pervaded Capitol Hill.
The collapse of the old order provides the link to my header image. Elgar's Symphony No. 2 in E flat was written by a Catholic Englishman in 1911. The composer dedicated the work to the late King Edward VII, and the opening Allegro vivace e nobilmente was influenced by the funeral of the King described by Barbara Tuchman in my first paragraph. Tonality dominates the symphony, but it is fluctuating and unsettlingly ambiguous; while the harmony is saturated with the chromaticism that had shocked listeners in Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht nine years earlier.
I know many readers will consider it one of my multitudinous eccentricities that I rank Elgar's Symphony No. 2 as one of the great works of the twentieth-century. In fact I rank it right up there with another masterpiece that speaks of a time when 'On history's clock it was sunset' and with which it is contemporaneous, Mahler's Ninth Symphony. But I am content to be dubbed a maverick. I am reading Judith Nies. I have revisited Barbara Tuchman. Elgar's turbulent E flat symphony in the mighty 1976 EMI recording by Sir Adrian Boult resounds on the stereo. Elgar's inscription from Shelley's Invocation on the score of the symphony says it all -
Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight.
The Girl I Left Behind was borrowed from the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library in Norwich. No other material mentioned in this article was supplied free of charge. My header image shows the original 1976 LP release of the final Sir Adrian Boult recording of Elgar's Second Symphony. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ne Me Quitte Pas




There is an interesting article in yesterday's New York Times about Leonard Cohen. In it novelist Pico Iyer is quoted as describing Cohen's songs as sounding like “collaborations between Jacques Brel and Thomas Merton.” Thomas Merton has featured here many times. But there is also a random path to the Belgian singer-song writer Jacques Brel (what is it about Belgians?) . Last year we were driving north through France to take the ferry home from Dunkirk after spending some time in search of Pablo Casals and hands-free harpsichordists. Our ferry was departing early the next morning and we had not booked overnight accomodation near the ferry terminal. It was a Saturday in June and finding somewhere to stay around the Channel ports proved to be difficult. At last we found a pleasant chambres d'hotes run by a charming middle-aged lady on a small farm a few miles inland from Hardelot-Plage . When we came down for an early breakfast we found the living room decorated with photos and other Jacques Brel memorabilia, and many of his recordings were stacked by the CD player. We talked briefly about Brel with the lady of the house, but no explanation was offered about any family connection. When I returned home I read that the Flemish singer had lived in Paris and had three daughters in the early 1950s. Could it be that we stayed in the home of one of the daughters (or nieces)? Or was our host just a fan? Jacques Brel sings Ne Me Quitte Pas above. While elsewhere, Thomas Merton has a different musical collabarator.

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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Re-envisaging Beethoven



The General - Melodrama: I was one human being
[Egmont: No. 8 Melodrama] By permission Sony BMG


A persuasive combination of Beethoven's music and a contemporary text inspired by the 1994 Rwandan genocide looks like being this year's best kept music secret. Last autumn I added a comment to my post Also sprach the Composer noting that Paul Griffiths had been working on a project that combined the story of the Rwandan tragedy with a composite score drawn from Beethoven's music. Last month a Sony BMG double CD slipped onto the amazon.co.uk website. The title of the CD was Beethoven - Ideals of the French Revolution and the moody study of conductor Kent Nagano on the cover can be seen above. The track listings are only a little more informative than the title - CD1: The General, for orchestra with soprano, choir, and narrator. Music by Ludwig van Beethoven. Text by Paul Griffiths. CD2: Ludwig van Beethoven. Symphony No.5 Op. 67, Egmont Op. 84 (excerpts) and Opferlied, Op. 121B.

A work titled The General with music by Beethoven may be unfamiliar. But Paul Griffiths will be familiar to readers on both sides of the Atlantic through his writings. These include a series of influential books on Boulez, Cage, Messiaen, Ligeti, Davies, Bartók, Stravinsky and Jean Barraqué, plus several authoritative overviews of Western music, and he is the co-author of Horizons Touched - the Music of ECM. Paul has worked as librettist with Tan Dun and Elliott Carter, and his novels have received critical acclaim. He has been chief critic of the Times, a contributor to the New York Times, and was music critic for The New Yorker for four years before handing over to Alex Ross in 1996. I asked Paul Griffiths about The General:

OP - the starting point for The General was Beethoven's incidental music to Goethe's Egmont. Why did you discard Goethe and create a new drama around Beethoven's music?

PG - The idea came from Kent Nagano, who wanted some new, specifically Canadian works for his first season as director of a Canadian orchestra: the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. He was very enthusiastic about the Egmont music but less so about the way it's usually presented in concert, with an actor as Egmont delivering a sketch of the Goethe play. Looking for a new story, and a specifically Canadian story, he asked people in Montréal to suggest a Canadian hero around whom the music could be resituated, and the name he kept hearing was that of Roméo Dallaire, who was head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in 1994. General Dallaire had information that the civil war was about to turn into something far more bloody, and he asked U.N. headquarters in New York for the personnel and the means to intervene. These he was refused. He had to watch powerless as 800,000 people were slaughtered on the streets and in the villages.

Nagano phoned me in April 2005 to ask if I would write something about the Dallaire-Rwanda story to go with the Egmont score. I was doubtful, as anyone would be. Apart from anything else, Beethoven’s Egmont music is strongly affirmative—human feelings and the rhythm of history are joined together in the march towards freedom—whereas the Rwanda story easily conveys an opposite message. I asked Nagano if I could think about the idea for two weeks before committing myself, and during that time I read Dallaire’s memoir Shake Hands with the Devil as well as other books on the Rwandan genocide, and I listened over and over again to a recording of the Egmont score. Eventually I found what I thought would be the key, which was the first word the narrator, in the role of The General, would say. Then I agreed to go ahead.

OP - How much did you base your text Shake Hands with the Devil?

PG - I also drew on two books by Jean Hatzfeld of interviews with people involved in the genocide, as fugitives or perpetrators, and other sources, in print and online. The only image I took directly from Dallaire was that of him driving to the beach, back in Canada, and seeing felled trees piled up by the side of the road.

Of course, Dallaire is The General. He's the hero the piece had to have, because of the character of Beethoven's music - but a hero of a peculiarly modern sort. His situation raises fundamental questions about the world, questions the piece reflects by ending in a series of questions from the narrator, the soprano, and the chorus. As a combination of music and text, The General asks a question as well: whether Beethoven’s music (positive, optimistic, belonging to the world of two centuries ago) can work with the Dallaire-Rwanda story. Of course, I feel it can. But the question remains open for anyone encountering the piece on record or in the concert hall.

OP - The General is built around the Egmont music. But it uses other music by Beethoven. For the concluding section you use his Opferlied Op. 121b but add new words. Why did you use music from other Beethoven scores, and why did you feel the need to replace the original text of the Opferlied?

PG - I introduced other pieces by Beethoven for four reasons. First, the piece needed more slow music. Second, I was fascinated by the possibilities of melodrama, where the speaking voice responds to and is answered by orchestral gestures, as in accompanied recitative. The Egmont score includes one such section, and I was very glad to find another, in the music for König Stephan. Third, I thought I should try to ‘rescue’ as much as I could from Beethoven’s theatre music (leaving aside a lot of boisterous choruses and brash marches). Finally, the piece had to have a finale, and it couldn’t be the ‘Victory Symphony’, reprising the last exuberant section of the overture, that ends the Egmont score. I wanted something more in the nature of a hymn, and the Opferlied was exactly that—it even reintroduced the soprano who has to be there to sing the two Egmont songs. The text was completely wrong, about a young man dedicating himself to art. But that could be changed.

OP - your text makes the story anonymous, neither Roméo Dallaire nor Rwanda are mentioned. Why is this?

PG - There were many reasons not to refer directly to Dallaire or Rwanda. Probably the most important was a wish to remove the story from the aura of T.V. news. Of course, Dallaire and Rwanda will be in the minds of people listening, but if you talk about some person or place without explicitly mentioning the name, the effect can be so much stronger.

OP - The General is a profound commentary on one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of recent times. Yet the graphics for the CD do not communicate the humanitarian theme at all. Is that to do with the decision to make the text anonymous?

PG - My biggest concern over the visual presentation of the recording was not to have a photographic image from Rwanda in 1994 on the cover. But in fact I was not consulted.

OP - How did the recording come to be made - and with Maximilian Schell as narrator?

PG - It was Nagano who found financial backing for the recording, and who encouraged Schell to take part; the two had worked together on other things. I should add that Nagano also persuaded the Bavarian State Opera to give the European premiere, in January this year. That meant convincing a major and highly traditional German institution to perform the single Beethoven-Goethe conjunction with the Goethe part replaced by somebody from Wales.

OP - in 1991 you re-envisaged Mozart to create The Jewel Box from his discarded music. Now you have re-envisaged Beethoven. Is re-envisaging a legitimate art form, and have you a third project in mind to complete the hat-trick?

PG - There’s nothing new in this. It was common in the eighteenth century for numbers out of various operas to be stitched together to make what was called a pasticcio. And there are many examples of people putting new words to existing music: Bach did it often. The point of The Jewel Box is to restore life in the theatre to music that was written for the theatre and is difficult to present in the concert hall. When Mozart wrote a concert aria, he prefaced it with a recitative that would set up the dramatic situation. The arias he wrote as insert pieces, to go in operas by other composers, don’t have this, so that you’re suddenly plunged into emotions with no causes. Also, on the practical level, it’s very hard to programme a trio that needs three fine Mozart singers and lasts all of two minutes. (There is such a piece in the unfinished opera Lo sposo deluso, and in The Jewel Box it effects a crucial dramatic transformation: two ‘dead’ characters come back to life). The Jewel Box I did just because I could see the possibility, and then Opera North took it on. The General, on the other hand, was commissioned, though I suppose the way of working wasn’t so different—a matter of putting together all the pieces, and getting from one to the next by way of spoken text.

I’ve also done a Purcell piece, Aeneas in Hell, to go before Dido and Aeneas, using rarely performed music from some of his many theatre scores and creating a text out of Dryden. And there are other projects that still need some work: Mozart’s Zaide, Debussy’s Sébastien.

The first requirement in every case was to listen to the cues and clues the music provides. In The General, Beethoven's music had to condition the character of the text and - especially in the melodramas - the detail of its construction. Also, I wanted to make it seem - and omitting the specifics of names and places may have helped here - that the two centuries between the score and the story were becoming elided, that this music was written for this narrative. I've mentioned the disparities, but there were also congruences. For example, military music hasn't changed too much in the two centuries since Egmont, so that when the General talks about his troops being withdrawn, the march we hear doesn't sound out of place (or out of time).

OP - the CD of The General is available now. What are the plans for further concert performances?

PG - The U.S. première is scheduled for May, with two performances by the La Jolla Symphony under Steven Schick, better known as an outstanding percussionist. I’ve suggested it to a handful of orchestras and concert halls in Britain, so far without any response. But then, in this world, who knows?
That is the background to The General straight from Paul Griffiths. But the story still has a few more twists. I mentioned that this admirable double CD is available from amazon.co.uk. But that is the only place in the UK you can buy it. After much digging I found that retail release is provisionally scheduled for June in the UK. Sony BMG's explanation for the Amazon stock is that it was imported by the online seller from Analekta in Canada. Which gives Amazon a clear six months to take sales from other retailers. Strange that RIAA stalwart Sony will happily be party to prosecuting youngsters who use file-sharing services, but choose not to stop Amazon undermining more service-oriented retailers.


Marketing the single CD length The General as part of a 2 CD set that includes Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, a work which everyone already has several versions of, is also puzzling. The packaging keeps the contemporary text and its Rwandan origins completely secret. There are two different releases of the CDs; the generally available Canadian version from Analekta comes without texts, and the to-be-released RCA version comes with texts. Which, as the texts are the raison d'être of the project, is somewhat incomprehensible. If one work cries out for an audio sample it is The General. But you will not find one on the Sony website; although you will find one (with Sony's permission) at the head of this article. The only reference I could find to The General on the Sony BMG website fails to mention that the music is by Beethoven, yet alone the text by Paul Griffiths. No wonder Kent Nagano looks so thoughtful on the cover.

It is sad that part of this article has had to be devoted to the foibles of a major record label, particularly as Sony BMG had the vision to make the recording in the first place. But this new release should be receiving better treatment. I listened to The General many times during the writing of this article; each time I heard it I became more convinced that this re-envisaging has created a unique and powerful new work. A quite outstanding performance of Beethoven's music by Kent Nagano and L'Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal is coupled with a sensitive text by Paul Griffiths that addresses contemporary humanitarian concerns. The General deserves to reach a very wide audience. It would be a crying shame if Sony's muddle-headed marketing prevented that from happening.

* Kent Nagano is no stranger to re-envisaging. In 2000 in Berlin he programmed an Ockeghem mass with a Mahler symphony.
A copy of Beethoven - Ideals of the French Revolution was supplied by Paul Griffiths at my request. Thanks go to leading independent CD retailer Prelude Records who helped track down The General. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Dancing about architecture


A comment from Bodie on Beware of the contextual cage reminds us that Elvis Costello said 'writing about music is like dancing about architecture'. Last October I wrote about the Sokol Czech communal exercise movement which continues today with flash events in major UK cities. As part of their Le Corbusier's exhibition the Barbican is presenting outdoor exercise classes over the weekend of March 7-8 to celebrate dance and architecture. Which is very appropriate as Le Corbusier started his day with calisthenics. Above is Le Corbusier's sublime exercise in aesthetics at Ronchamp in France. His pas de deux with Iannis Xenakis features here.

Photo credit Piensalo. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Monday, February 23, 2009

Beware of the contextual cage

I don't like trying to describe music in words, because that always means shutting it up in a contextual cage - Pierre Hamon

Another kind of contextual cage here.
The image is my mash-up, it's (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bring on the iterations


Iterations are the way forward for classical music. In the continuing quest for new audiences the iterative process currently involves new music, new composers, new media, new recorded music distribution models, new performance venues and new pricing structures. Over the weekend Aldeburgh Music contributed another iteration with Tarantula in Petrol Blue. This new opera was performed in Snape Maltings using local youngsters supplemented by professional singers. A first-rate but uncompromisingly modern score by Anna Meredith was coupled somewhat uncomfortably with a populist but surprisingly dark text by children's author Philip Ridley. His lines 'If you do what I say/You can chew my gum all day' convey the spirit of the iteration.

Street cred was in abundance at Snape last night. Arias were sung via mobile phones, skateboards appeared on stage, McDonalds was among the product placements and amplification, which favoured male voices, was the order of the day. 30 year old Bijan Sheibani directed an unduly busy production that often competed with the music. Only in the moving closing scenes did the young director discover that less can mean more. With the on-stage action subdued the sheer brilliance of the score and the sheer commitment of the young performers was finally revealed.

The problem with this kind of iteration is understanding who it is aimed at, other than the young performers. The two post-teen youngsters in our party found the young cast quite wonderful and the music surprisingly engaging. But, ultimately, the whole experience did not 'connect' for them. The elderly gentleman in the row behind us spent most of the performance kicking our seat backs and concluded 'Well, Gilbert and Sullivan have nothing to fear'. Two teenagers in the row in front found their own mobile phones more interesting than those on-stage. As a post-50 new music nerd I found the evening very rewarding. In particular I thought Anna Meredith's score was the work of a real talent, and the young conductor Jessica Cottis was a real hero - watch out for those two names.

Once again Aldeburgh Music has shown that there is life beyond comfort music. (As I write BBC Radio 3's iteration is Robert Russell Bennett's A Symphonic Story of Jerome Kern.) But Tarantula in Petrol Blue also shows, once again, that good new classical music is an acquired taste. Bring on the next iteration.

Our four tickets for Tarantula in Petrol Blue were bought at the Snape box office. Header image is a graphic iteration of the inside of the roof of Snape Maltings which celebrates how music rose from the wreckage at Snape, and is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Walking with Varèse


Avant-garde composer Edgar Varèse and Georges Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, would seem to have little in common. But, during Simenon's five year post-war exile in America, Varèse was one of the few close friends he had in New York, and the two spent hours walking through Greenwich Village exchanging ideas. They were brought together as two Europeans in exile, rather than by a shared interest in contemporary music. Although Simenon said he modelled his multi-layered plots on the counterpoint of Bach's fugues, cited Schubert as an influence, and had moved in the same circles as Georges Auric and Igor Stravinsky in 1920s Paris, he listed his favourite music as Dixieland jazz.

In August 1945 the French Judiciary Police had ordered issued an expulsion order against Georges Simenon. During the German Occupation of France the opportunist novelist had walked a fine line between co-operation and collabaration to allow him to continue indulging his voracious appetite for chateau, boats and women. In 1942 Simenon granted exclusive rights to the Maigret character to the German controlled Continental film studio, and he had previously flirted with right-wing and anti-Semitic thinking. The expulsion order was not needed; Simenon had seen the writing on the wall at the end of the war, and had already fled to North America, where he finally settled in Lakeville, Connecticut. He returned to Europe in 1955 and died at his home in Switzerland in 1989.

Georges Simenon, who is seen in 1979 in my header photo, was a serial opportunist. Born in Liège, Belgium in 1903, he moved to France in 1922. He published 192 novels under his own name (including 75 Maigret stories), around 190 using 24 pseudonyms, hundreds of shorter pieces, and more than 20 autobiographical works. In addition there were numerous lucrative film and television adaptions of the Maigret stories. Simenon's personal life was as prolific as his literary output, and his approach to it was as distasteful as his political views. Married twice, his high profile affairs included one with the 'Créole Goddess' Josephine Baker. In 1977 the 73 year old Simenon gave an interview to the director of the film Casanova, Federico Fellini. The following passage is illuminating, even if the maths do not stand close inspection:
You know, Fellini, I think I've been a better Casanova than you. A year or two ago I figured out that since the age of thirteen and a half I've had ten thousand women. It wasn't a vice. I had no sexual vices, just a need to communicate. And even the eight thousand prostitutes among these ten thousand were human beings, female human beings. I would have liked to have known all females. Unfortunately, because of my marriages I couldn't have real affairs. But the number of times I managed to make love on the run, so to speak, is improbable.
George Simenon's close friends in Europe included André Gide, Henry Miller, Jean Renoir and Jean Cocteau. But, many will say that there is little worth admiring about Georges Simenon except his books, and that these, like the operas of Wagner, are best judged on their own merit. But Simenon the control freak is also worth remembering. As well as a prolific writer he was a very astute and tough businessman. Early in his career he created the 'Maigret machine' to manage and exploit his output. Much of the continuing popularity of his books and media adaptions is due to the rigid control exercised over all aspects, including translation and television and film rights.

Georges Simenon's literary estate is now managed and owned by rights and licensing company Chorion through a subsidiary Simenon Ltd. Chorion also manage the estates of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and represent the Enid Blyton oeuvre . Simenon's son John is retained by Chorion. All this means that slim Maigret volumes written as far back as the 1930s still sell as full-priced Penguin Modern Classics paperbacks. Georges Simenon may only have walked with Edgar Varèse, but today's record companies could learn a few lessons from him about controlling their back-catalogue.

Pierre Assouline's Simenon
is the best biography of the novelist, my copy came from Norwich library. Header photo is from an excellent online survey of Simenon's work by David Howard. The 2002 film Laissez-passer about Continental Studios in wartime Paris is recommended. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Faustian bargain


Are there any pieces of classical music that you would not lose any sleep if you never heard again? There are very few that I can think of. But, I was reminded by a chance hearing on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday that Franz Liszt's A Faust Symphony falls into that category for me. Strange that Pierre Boulez refuses to conduct Tchaikovsky, but opened his tenure at the New York Philharmonic with a season of Berg and Liszt.

Header image is not a Boulez CD. It is the first release by DJ Faust and features 'twenty-seven monsterous (sic) scratching tracks'. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, February 20, 2009

Try this chant-topping CD


The CD above is not a new release. The performers on it are not notably young. It is not new music. The composer does not have an anniversary. It has not recently won an award. But do read on. The disc of Maronite and Syrian chants is sung by the nun with the selling habit, Sister Marie Keyrouz, and accompanying choristers. It was recorded by Harmonia Mundi in L'église évangélique allemande in Paris in 1990. Traditionally these chants, which have their origins in early Christianity, are sung unaccompanied; the exception is on important days in the Christian calendar, when they are augmented by a limited range of metallic percussion. However, this disc follows the more recent practice of adding complementary instruments. The addition of L'Ensemble de la Paix (who are actually Sister Marie's backing band) playing nay, oud, quanoun and percussion, lifts the CD from being a fascinating document of a sacred tradition to a very accessible and enjoyable early music disc with a uniquely Middle Eastern sound. HMV are currently offering it online for £4.99 delivered in the UK. Does it really matter if it is not a new release ......? Or that there are none of the tricks of modern music?

I bought my copy of Maronite Chants in the Harmonia Mundi boutique in Avignon. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Young person's guide to the opera


The colourful ghosts are coming to Snape this weekend. And no, it is not The Turn of the Screw. A new opera commissioned by Aldeburgh Music tells of magic and mayhem on city streets. The composer is a woman, the director is English-Iranian, the score mixes acoustic and amplified electronic sounds, the text is by an award-winning children's author, the conductor is a woman, the production uses a sound designer, the cast includes local teenagers with no previous stage experience, the premiere is at the end of the mid-term school break, the performances include a schools' matinee, and tickets for under 27s are just £5.

Tarantula in Petrol Blue is composed by Aldeburgh alumna Anna Meredith. The director is Bijan Sheibani, the text is by Philip Ridley, the conductor is Jessica Cottis and sound design is by Sound Intermedia. Performances are Feb 21 and Feb 22, with the schools' premiere on Feb 24. Listen to a four minute excerpt from Anna Meredith's score here. Remember, Benjamin Britten showed how everybody can make music.

* Feb 23 - review of Tarantula in Petrol Blue here.


We have bought four tickets for Tarantula in Petrol Blue. Two of our party are under 27, watch this space. Header photo of colourful ghosts is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. It has a musical connection, the street art was created by young skate-boarders in the public area under London's Royal Festival Hall. By the time you read this the artwork will probably have been sprayed over - true indeterminacy . Lower image is the official poster for Tarantula in Petrol Blue, which may just be the least exciting thing about this vibrant new project. Report errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Downloads from the sofa


A double-bill of one-act operas by Elizabeth Maconchy has been released by Chandos. The Sofa and The Departure, which were composed in the late 1950s, were given acclaimed performances in 2007 by Independent Opera at Sadler's Wells. Chandos has recorded the Independent Opera productions, and this is the first ever recording of The Departure. The two operas are on a single CD. They are also available as downloads (including lossless), which, of course, you will have to pay for.

But here, from the sofa, are some downloads which are free and legal. Philip Sheppard is a cellist, professor at the Royal Academy of Music and a composer of film and TV scores. Just as the European Commission proposes to extend copyright on recorded music from 50 to 95 years Philip has written to me saying:
I've just started putting my older albums online as mp3 feeds, as well as dance scores I've written, as I believe that if someone has paid good money to come and see a concert or a theatre piece, then it's good if I can send them something back. I earn my living from film soundtrack commissions, so I'd rather send people tracks for free if they like them...
I was particularly impressed by Philip Sheppard's 18 minue long The Glass Cathedral download which resides on its own elegant web page. It is beautifully crafted and played, and presented as something of value, not as a throw-away file. The Glass Cathedral download is free, the Elizabeth Maconchy operas are on a single full-priced CD. Different pricing models; but both are wonderful opportunities to judge, how important is a composer's music?

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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The other Oppenheimer


Jocelyn Pook’s Oppenheimer mixes Robert Oppenheimer invoking the Bhagavad Gita with a recording of the liturgy of the Yemenite Jews and the text of the Catholic requiem mass, all underpinned with violin, viola and and keyboards. The seven minute long Oppenheimer is one of the sections in Flood; this Jocelyn Pook composition dates back to a 1994 commission from the Canadian dance company O Vertigo, but was revised when two sections were used in the composer's score for Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut. John Adams' Doctor Atomic followed in 2005, there is no known connection between the two very different works. Myths and fears about the end of the world provide the narrative for Flood, which draws on Hindu, Christian, Jewish and Islamic sources. This truly universal music now has a terrible relevance which could never have been anticipated when Jocelyn Pook composed it in the mid 1990s. Find audio and video samples, including Oppenheimer, here. Flood is available on a 1999 Virgin Classics CD, and is currently retailing on amazon.co.uk at £4.98 for 55 minutes of thought-provoking music. If you’re feeling lucky, don’t hesitate. The forgotten Lady Atomic is here as well. As are Britten and Stravinsky.

My copy of Flood was purchased at retail price. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Which lie did I tell?

I am acutely aware that there is a difference between art and entertainment, and it was put rather well by William Goldman, the Hollywood script writer, in a very entertaining book called Which Lie Did I Tell? What he said was this: the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment either tells you lies or tells you comforting truisms that we all know already, and art tells you uncomfortable things that you perhaps don't want to hear, truths that you may not be comfortable to hear.
Header art is by Banksy. The unlikely source of the quote below it is John Rutter. The composer was talking at The Challenge of Contemporay Music, an admirable seminar organised in 2007 by Norwich Cathedral Library. Before anyone raises the question as to where John Rutter's music sits on the entertainment to art spectrum here he is again speaking at the seminar:
I think composers are probably divided into two kinds with all sorts of shapes in between. There are explorers and there are magpies. Explorers are those who are just born to find new sound worlds, new structures, new ways of expressing what they want to say, forging new paths, looking for new directions. At the other extreme there are magpies who just gather the sounds that are in the air around them, put them in their nest and make something of them ... I do believe that I am a magpie; I suppose I never really felt the need to venture into uncharted territory.

I think in the end that you have to speak with your own voice and there is a difference between being traditional and just copying what other people have done. I mean, we all see and hear quite a lot of second-hand music which, as Peter Ashton (see below) has said, is just a pale imitation of what others have done before. There is no mileage in that. I myself however always felt that it was possible to use traditional means in new ways. Schoenberg once said there's an awful lot of good music left in C major, and I thought, well, perhaps I'll try to write some of it.
Peter Aston also contributed to the seminar. He co-founded the Norwich Festival of Contemporary Church Music in 1981, and was head of music at the University of East Anglia for twenty-five years. During the seminar he gave this reminder that writing in C major can be quite effective:
The last time I was in Sacramento in California for the Bach Festival there (does he mean Carmel? - Pliable), I went into a record shop and discovered there were more CDs of John Rutter on display than of any other composer, with the exception of Bach and Mozart.
A bound thirty-three page transcript of the seminar The Challenge of Contemporary Music can be purchased from Norwich Cathedral Library. John Rutter may be a self-professed musical magpie, but he has mixed with some true explorers. While in his teens he was a contemporary and good friend of John Tavener at Highgate School in London. As part of the Highgate School Choir he sung in Benjamin Britten's classic recording for Decca of the War Requiem. Which brings this path back to where it started. The image below is from a prime example of art that tells you uncomfortable things that you perhaps don't want to hear - War Requiem the movie.


Header image credit Tales from the other side. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Monday, February 16, 2009

Not quite Harmonium


Is Naxos product mediocre? 84% of the Overgrown Path readers who voted in the recent poll (and the response was the biggest ever) said no. Which will come as no surprise to anyone other than John Adams. Talking of which, above is the first recording of John Adams' music that I ever bought. It is the 1984 ECM recording of Harmonium made by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Yes, that is a vinyl LP, strange how things go full circle.

The credits for that ECM LP tell an interesting story. The recording was made in Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. John Newton was the engineer, and mixing and editing is credited to Martin Wieland, Manfred Eicher and John Adams at the Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg. ECM founder Manfred Eicher did not travel from Germany to San Francisco for the sessions, a decision that was not taken well by the ambitious young composer. This precipitated John Adams' move to the American Nonesuch label, where he remains twenty-five years later.

Nonesuch was started in 1964 by Jac Holzman, who had previously founded Elektra Records in 1950. His vision for Nonesuch was to make classical music records available to college students with tight budgets. In the early days this meant licensing recordings from European classical labels and selling them at the budget price of $2.50. This classical repertoire was supplemented by the pioneering Nonesuch Explorer Series of world music in 1967, a series which has recently been re-issued on CD. Jazz was added to the catalogue from 1984. The label had some remarkable successes with niche releases, including George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children which sold more than 70,000 units, in a performance by the Contemporary Classical Ensemble (CCE) and featured mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani.

Nonesuch was bought by a predecessor of Warner Communications in 1970, and three years later Holzman took on other responsibilities within the group. In 1983 Robert Hurwitz joined Nonesuch from the position of head of ECM America. Nonesuch continues as a label within Time Warner and still carries Hurwitz's imprint. Its artists today include, as well as John Adams (who has an exclusive contract with them), Richard Goode, the Kronos Quartet, Steve Reich (also exclusive), Dawn Upshaw and Brad Mehldau.

At this point the overgrown path crosses the Atlantic. Nonesuch is also the alternative spelling for Nonsuch Palace, the legendary royal residence built by Henry VIII at Ewell in Surrey, England. Glyn County Grammar School in Ewell has two famous alumni with musical connections. One was David Hemmings, with whom Benjamin Britten had a champagne moment. The other was Barry Wordsworth, a (rare) conductor with integrity. One of the school's many other pupils was me. Which takes this overgrown path goes full circle. It has been speculated that Nonsuch Palace was the venue for the first performance of Thomas Tallis’ sublime 40 part motet Spem in alium. Now playing is the Kronos Quartet transcription of that masterpiece, recorded on … Nonesuch.

What do the following posts have in common? Look no hands, This man is dangerous, Dances for peace, and Requiem for Adam? They all feature classic Nonesuch recordings.
Header photo (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

I love silence


Last Friday evening at the Barbican, the BBC Symphony Orchestra played Supernova by Guillaume Connesson, a contemporary composer who featured here recently. I lamented to Antoine Leboyer, who introduced Connesson's music to me, that the BBC relay of the concert was marred by intrusive announcements by the Radio 3 presenter. Antoine explained that trop de talk is not unique to Radio 3, as this French joke shows:
How do you recognize that you have tuned in to France Musique - the French equivalent of Radio 3 ?

It is the one station where they speak all the time.
John Cage is the famous champion of silence. But the following quote is from Cage's contemporary William Alwyn, and comes from the newly published biography of Alwyn titled The Innumerable Dance.
I love silence. I love the beauty that lies hidden in silence. For silence in music, said Mozart, is of equal importance to sound. I was born in a time when silence could still be heard ...
It is not far from silence to brain music.
Image credit - Silence by Jarra McGrath. Review copy of The Innumerable Dance - the Life and Work of William Alwyn was supplied by Boydell & Brewer at my request. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Out of the Darkness


Gertrud Kolmar was one of the estimated 1.1 million Jews who died in Auschwitz. Born Gertrud Käthe Chodziesner in Berlin in 1894, she is regarded as one of the finest poets in the German language. One of her best known poems is Aus Dem Dunkel - Out of the Darkness. In July 1941 Gertrud Kolmar was inducted into forced labour in a Nazi armaments factory, and was transported to Auschwitz in March 1943. The date of her death is not known.

Composer Julian Marshall has written a new chamber cantata for eight voices, mezzo soprano and two cellos titled Out of the Darkness which sets the poetry of Gertrud Kolmar. Julian Marshall was educated at Dartington Hall School and The Royal College of Music and had a successful career as a rock musician before returning to classical music in the late 1990s. He was a member of the band Marshall Hain whose 1978 hit single Dancing in the City (YouTube clip here) sold more than 2 million copies.

Out of the Darkness is being premiered in Winchester and London in March 2009 as part of a programme that also includes William Byrd’s 4-part Mass and music by by Arvo Pärt and Gyorgy Ligeti. A commercial recording of Out of the Darkness is also under discussion. More details from the project website. A rare performance for a Holocaust opera here.

Collage of Gertrud Kolmar (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. English translation of Out of Darkness here. Report errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A prolific composer for the accordion

Email received: - One of the most prolific composers of accordion music is Sofia Gubaidulina. Her "De Profundis" is a standard in the modern literature. Russia and Ukraine actually have a large amount of accordion players (and bandoneon, etc), as well as composers for the instrument.

The Hex Ensemble in the '90's in Holland had an accordion player as part of the ensemble, and many composers, such as Alison Isadora, Richard Ayers and Geoffrey King wrote for them. Also, the Newt Hinton Ensemble (France, Holland, Germany) had an accordion in the group. There was a Trio Strakke Lucht in Holland made up of three accordions, I believe. And Ananda Sukarlan, a wonderful Indonesian pianist living in Spain, had a duo for several years called Anaki, which generated lots of new works in Spain and other countries. In Norway I heard a really good piece by Sam Hayden for the accordionist Frode Halti during the 2004 Ultima Festival.

Actually, at the Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition (biannual, for the interpretation of modern music) one of the most popular entry instruments is accordion. Maybe there are just not so many recordings of accordion music. Or maybe the instrument is more prevalent in certain regions than in others. For instance, there are many people in Finland who study the instrument. In Holland there is a composer named Marion de Laat who plays the accordion and writes multimedia works for electronics, accordion and even dancers.

Best Vanessa Lann
The same music through different eyes ...
My header montage features Janne Rättyä's recording of Sofia Gubaidulina's De Profundis. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Grateful dead


Last week I posted the following comment on Classical music runs away to join the circus:
Other blogs are making much today of the rumoured 'death' of the Decca label. It is a non-story for me.
More on that non-story here. If a search engine brought you to this post, all is not lost.

Heads-up credit Antoine Leboyer. Image of Grateful Dead concert card for their gigs on January 24-26, 1969 at the Avalon Ballroom, San Francisco from oldhandbills.com. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Composing the credit crunch


Is this the first classical composition inspired by the credit crunch? Last Tuesday the former bosses of two of Britain's biggest banks went through the motions of publicly apologising for bringing the country to its knees. Tonus Peregrinus, who are better known for their Perotin and their Pärt, have recorded a 'mash-up' of the banker's apologies. Listen to it here.

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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, February 13, 2009

Whatever happened to folk music?

Anonymous Soprano has left a new comment on "Music for four accordions":

This brings up the subject of how anything "folk" is perceived by the supposed musical elite -- both music and instruments. See: John Jacob Niles, for instance. The only exception to this seems to be if it comes from somewhere else -- i.e., the performer is always been if they're from a long ways away. "Folk" instruments are respected if, say, they're a Shakuhachi, but not, say, the nearly identical Native American instrument.

I guess it's because the assumption is that "folk" music and instruments aren't "educated" properly, and therefore can't possibly contribute anything to the realm of "proper" music? I don't know. All I know is that the best composers pretty much all appropriated folk tunes and sometimes folk instruments...even Mozart.
AS, it is a good point you make. We are all guilty of overlooking folk musicians. For instance, missing from my recent thread on musicians as novelists was Woody Guthrie, who is seen in my header image. In 1946 the folk singer wrote the 400 page mystical novel titled Seeds of Man. Initially the book failed to find a publisher; but it was eventually published in 1976, ten years after Guthrie's death. As well as writing iconic songs including This land Is Your Land, Guthrie was a major influence on musicians including Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and of course his son Arlo Guthrie.

In the 1940s Woody Guthrie worked with Pete Seeger at People's Songs, whose sponsors included Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Folk music has been a major influence on classical with many composers, including Béla Bartók, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Copland himself. In recent years though rock and increasingly world music have supplanted folk as classical's closest cousin. Perhaps folk music is no longer seen as relevant in the YouTube age, and the only recent collabaration I can think of is Leonard Cohen supplying texts for Philip Glass' song cycle Book of Longing. But, to prove that YouTube hasn't totally passed folk by, here is one of only two surviving brief clips of Woody Guthrie:



Woody Guthrie's approach to life is nicely summed up by the following story which he used to tell. Two rabbits were being chased by hounds. They ran until they couldn't stand it any more; finally they holed up in a hollow log. The hounds bayed, but the little rabbits nestled inside, out of reach. The boy rabbit turned to the girl rabbit: "What do we don now?" Stay here 'til we outnumber them," she answered.

Classical influenced folk musicians making appearances here recently include Ferran Savall and John Jacob Niles.
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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Music for four accordions


Charles Ives, Umberto Giordano, Osvaldo Golijov, Paul Hindemith and Alban Berg all wrote music for accordion. So did Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; in fact he wrote a score that calls for four diatonic button accordions. Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 2 for Orchestra is not as well known as the Suite No. 4 'Mozartiana'. Which is surprising: as they say on Amazon, if you like Tchikovsky's ballets you will like his Suite no. 2. Or is it because, as they say in the music director's office today: - if your score needs four accordions don't expect us to programme it?

I have Michael Tilson Thomas' recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra; which also includes 'Mozartiana'. The performance is excellent as is the sound. The latter is explained by CBS sub-contracting the recording to EMI. The venue was Abbey Road Studio One in 1981 with EMI's Neville Boyling at the mixing desk. My research indicates that this CD of the two orchestral suites is currently only available as part of a Tchaikovsky symphony box. Now read about Wagner rescored for accordion.

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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Every recession has a silver lining


ECM has responded to the chill winds blowing currently blowing through the music market with some unmissable bargain re-issues. No matter what other gems hit the stores in the coming months, the 3 CD box The Codona Trilogy is certain to be among my CDs of the year. The line up for Codona was African-American trumpeter Don Cherry, Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, and Colin Walcott on sitar, tabla, hammered dulcimer, sanza, timpani, and voice. The band took its name from a circus trapeze act of the early 20th century called the Flying Codonas, and this CD re-issue captures the musicians performing their creative high-wire act without a safety net in sight. The Codona Trilogy sets were laid down between 1978 and 1982, and Steve Lake's seventeen page booklet essay tells it far better than I can:
Weaving together melodies and rhythms from everywhere - North and South America, Africa, Asia, Europe - Codona presaged the surging advent of a pan-cultural 'world music': Collin Walcott could see the wave building and worried about it. Recognizing the difference between borrowing and plunder, as well as the dangers of bland homogeneity, the Codona musicians waved banners for the sources they loved and respected. The goal: "To be open and incorporate all we know, without turning the whole world into milk toast - still encouraging the survival of the tradition."

Collin Walcott, who is seen above, was Codona's guiding spirit. He studied percussion at Indiana University; the photo below shows him as a student at Indiana with Allen Ginsberg, and then went on to take sitar and tabla lessons with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha. He worked as an assistant to Shankar, and his tasks included acting as a roadie and transcribing sections of the sitar players autobiography. In his book Ravi Shankar says:
Apart from showing a few of my sitar recitals, the film Raga featured some incidental music by me. There is also a rapid visual collage sequence which reflects all the distortions in that period - Indian music mixed up with rock, hippies and drugs. The music for that section was put together in a modern style with a profusion of electronic sounds by an American disciple of mine called Collin Walcott.
Walcott was a member of the influential Paul Winter Consort, and in 1971 formed Oregon with Ralph Towner, Paul McCandless and Glen Moore. Walcott's brilliant career was tragically cut short when he was killed in a car crash while touring with Oregon in East Germany in 1984. Today Collin Walcott is remembered mainly for the recordings he made with Oregon. But, while these also are essential listening, they do show the early symptoms of the 'milk toasting' that became more evident in the group's work after Walcott's untimely death. (The medium-toasted post-Walcott Oregon in Moscow recorded with the 'Tchikovsky Symphony Orchestra' conducted by Russian jazz oligarch George Garanian deserves an article to itself). If Collin Walcott's work with Oregon was great, the recordings he made with Codona are the real thing. The Cordona Trilogy lets the listener sit in on sessions that changed the direction of music. That is definitely something not to be missed.


I paid £16.98 with free shipping by pre-ordering The Codona Trilogy from amazon.co.uk before its 19 Jan 2009 release date. It is now priced at £19.98. The packaging is all paper and mimics Brilliant Classic's low-cost presentation. For this release ECM have, thankfully, pensioned off their camera with the dodgy lens. Instead, the box uses simple and effective typography which owes more than a little to the Swiss label Hat Hut. A sticker on the packaging says the following - 'Music without borders. Limited edition specially-priced 3-CD set. Legendary recordings of the transcultural process.' But I can find no mention of a 'Music without borders' series on the ECM website. If this really is a limited edition re-issue snap it up pronto.

Another new ECM series does feature on their website. Touchstones feature re-issues of 40 classic recordings which offer 'great music and full-dimensional sound at download price, in cardboard covers with original artwork'. The riches are too numerous to describe here, but they do include several Oregon and Ralph Towner albums. Also highly recommended is the 1992 Conte de l'incroyable amour from Tunisian oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem (photo below). The Touchstones series uses cardboard sleeves and the original artwork. Which is a mixed blessing as my sleeve scan below shows. Wouldn't typography in the style of The Cordona Trilogy have worked better? But don't let ECM's signature vague visuals put you off. I paid just £8 including shipping for Conte de l'incroyable amour from hmv.co.uk.


Staying with silver linings from ECM the gorgeous and essential Granta book Horizons Touched, the music of ECM by Steve Lake (who wrote the Cordona essay) and Paul Griffiths is currently available from amazon.co.uk for £29.25 delivered in the UK. You will not find any MP3 downloads on the ECM website. But ....... I've kept the shiniest silver lining to last:
A groundswell of renewed interest in the analog medium has made it possible to issue selected ECM titles on vinyl once more, and the Rava and Jarrett albums mark a new beginning. They are issued as audiophile-quality 180-gram double-albums, with radiant and warm sound transferred from original masters. Throughout the year we plan to add more LPs – both new titles and older albums newly pressed in audiophile editions. The first of the latter is already available – “1961” by the Jimmy Giuffre 3, with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow. To recap, there are now three double albums in ECM audiophile 180-gram vinyl editions.
You read it first On An Overgrown Path.


Copyright for Collin Walcott photos is with the Walcott Estate. 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 errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk