Friday, November 20, 2009

New music in the paradise garden


Gaston Bachelard's image of an ecstatic paradise garden is linked with the Buddhist vision of the pure land, a state of mind beyond suffering where there is no grasping, in Jonathan Harvey's Fourth String Quartet. Dating from 2003, the Fourth Quartet uses electronics to explore spectralism, the deconstruction and manipulation of sound as an abstract medium to expose what the composer describes as:
'the materiality of the sound itself... the ‘suchness’ – to use a Buddhist term – the ‘thing in itself’: the grain, the richness, the quality of the sound'.
The Fourth Quartet is available in a 2 CD set and audio download of Jonathan Harvey's complete string quartets and trio performed by the Arditti Quartet on the French Aeon label. This survey of the composer's quartets was, in my opinion, one of the highlights of 2009's new releases. The recordings were made in the studios of Südwestrundfunk Baden Baden and the electronics for the Fourth Quartet were provided by IRCAM, an organisation with which Jonathan Harvey has had a long association.


Jonathan Harvey, who turned 70 this year, has no interest in formulaic compositions and continues to develop a unique musical voice that avoids the stylistic stasis that bedevils many of his peers. Development is central to his work, and this can be seen in the evolution from the plainsong inspired Passion and Resurrection of 1981 to the acoustic and electronic mix of the Fourth Quartet. He is a true polymath and combines a deep interest in Buddhism, mysticism and the work of Rudolf Steiner with composing uncompromisingly modern music.

In Arnold Whittall's invaluable biographical book Jonathan Harvey explains how his particular path towards musical subjectivity is a rejection of the obsession with individual identity and suffering found in nineteenth century music and a move towards the pure land visited in his Fourth Quartet:
...but I wanted to solve a problem. To put it very simply, it was the problem of suffering, and it still is. This seems to me the most important problem, in fact the only problem which one should be engaged with: in art as in life, what is suffering and what is the key to alleviating it? It leads back to Buddhism.

Buddha is famous of course for proposing just such a solution and it seems his whole life was engaged in the Bodhisattva mission of alleviating suffering, bringing enlightenment and releasing all beings, all living beings from samsara, the world of suffering. Be that as it may, I certainly felt that this more objective music was in the direction of moving away from this fascinating world of samsara, of suffering, in which we are interminably caught and upon which art endlessly meditates.
There is no point in pretending that all of Jonathan Harvey's recent work is an easy listen, and I am not ashamed to admit that some of his music comes from a point that I haven't yet reached. But if we accept William Goldman's view that 'art tells you uncomfortable things that you perhaps don't want to hear, truths that you may not be comfortable to hear' then there is no doubt that Jonathan Harvey is producing some truly great and uncompromising art.

* ... towards a Pure Land
is also the title of one of Jonathan Harvey's compositions for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It has been recorded on the NMC CD that featured here last year in Body Mandala - a contemporary classic? Follow the middle path for more on the art of Jonathan Harvey.


The paradise garden seen in my photos is the Dashang Kagyu Ling - Temple of a Thousand Buddhas in La Boulaye, France, which we visited in September. The temple, which follows the Vajrayana tradition of Tantric Buddhism, was opened in 1987 in the grounds of a chateau in the Morvan Forest region near to the town of Vichy. Vajrayana Buddhism is also known as the diamond vehicle, and this is reflected in the exuberance of the decorations inside the prayer hall, seen in my upper sequence of photos, and the exterior of the temple, seen in the lower sequence.

* This will be the last post On An Overgrown Path for a while as I am off in search of more paradise gardens. I will be out of computer range so comment moderation will be sporadic. Do support other music blogs while I am away.

In a neat example of interdependence I bought the CDs of Jonathan Harvey's quartets in Saint Dizier on the same trip to France that we visited the Dashang Kagyu Ling Temple on. Arnold Whittall's Jonathan Harvey was bought online. All photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. 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, November 18, 2009

The lost art of listening


'Music for young people. The Art of Listening. Dr George Firth director of Scotland of the Arts Council for Great Britain. Mary Firth (pianist). An Opportunity for those under 35'. This last item, The Art of Listening, was a favourite subject, often repeated. In Sir George Trevelyan's view listening was as active as speaking, neither was to be undertaken casually.
That course, which was organised by Sir George Trevelyan at Attingham Park in Shropshire in 1948, introduces a theme later pursued by Benjamin Britten and others. In 1964 Britten wrote about the 'holy triangle of composer, performer, listener' which 'demands as much effort on the listener's part as the other two corners of the triangle'. But in today's technology obsessed age that holy triangle is so often reduced to a profane duo of composer and performer, with the listener consigned to the passive role of technology jockey.

This is an absurd situation, because music literally cannot exist without the listener. A musical instrument or a loudspeaker only produces a series of air pressure waves, it does not produce sound yet alone music. The human ear and brain work together as a miraculous transducer (referred to subsequently as 'ears' for the sake of brevity) that turns these pressure waves into sound, just as a television receiver turns invisible high frequency signals into pictures. Without at least one pair of ears present there is no sound or music, just pressure waves.

To understand this, let us visit for a moment an imaginary anechoic chamber. We enter the chamber to hear a high quality audio system playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. We then exit from the chamber and close the sound proof door behind us. As the heavy door slips into place there is no longer music inside the empty chamber. The CD continues to spin and the loudspeaker diaphragms continue to move. But all they are producing are pressure waves, because there are no ears present to decode the waves and turn them into sound and music.

In fact, despite the audio system playing O Freunde, nicht diese Töne at full volume, there is complete silence in the empty anechoic chamber. The pressure waves produced by the speakers are simply transitory physical phenomena, just like the humidity and temperature changes that occur in the chamber, just like the binary data encoded in the CD in the player, and just like the printed musical notations in the score of the Beethoven symphony. As Richard Williams has written:
... music exists within silence; only by acknowledging it can a listener become wholly involved.
No ears, no sound, no music leads us down an interesting and important path. Likening the ear to a television is an important analogy, because just as televisions vary in quality, so do ears vary in quality. And just as television sets can be retuned, so can the human ear and its linkages to the brain be retuned. This retuning process can take many forms, such as tuning out our inbuilt preferences for conventional tonality and melody.


There are links to Buddhism here, particularly to the concept of satori, which in Zen is the acquiring of a new viewpoint by intuitive observation, rather than by traditional intellectual and logical understanding. John Cage, seen above, understood this, and in 4' 33" showed how the human ear can create its own music from ambient sounds. Here is Zen practicioner Alan Watts' description of the process:
What may not be generally understood about John [Cage] is that he is an extremely accomplished musician who has, however, realized that we do not know how to listen. Conventional music, as well as conventional speech, have given us prejudiced ears, so that we treat all utterances which do not follow their rules as static, or insignificant noise. There was a time when painters, and people in general, saw landscape as visual static - mere background. John is calling our attention to sonic landscape, or soundscape, which simultaneously involves a project for cleaning the ears of the musically educated public.
In a much more modest way On An Overgrown Path is living proof that the prejudiced ear can be retuned. In the five years that I have been writing this blog my ears have retuned dramatically to appreciate an ever increasing diversity of music and non-music. Just look at the range of sounds covered in my 2004 posts compared with that in recent articles to confirm this. My readers also seem to be able to retune their ears, because as the range of music on the blog increases, so does the readership.

Music appreciation is all about retuning the human ear. Learning to sing or play an instrument is the best way to appreciate music. But if that opportunity is not available, learning the art of listening is the key; which is why it is such a tragedy that music appreciation, along with music education, has virtually disappeared as a taught subject. In my own case I am eternally grateful to the Fitznells School of Music in Ewell for many years ago setting me on the never-ending path to music appreciation.


Great animateurs of the past such as Leonard Bernstein and David Munrow were teachers of music appreciation. That is Lennie above with members of the audience after one of his New York Philharmonic Young People's Concerts which reached a peak of twenty-seven million TV viewers. The article you are reading is influenced by the work of another great and largely forgotten animateur and apostle of music appreciation, Antony Hopkins. You will learn more from one page of Antony Hopkins' books than from one year of listening to the current generation of classical jocks on our 'smooth classics' stations.

Like meditation, music appreciation works best as a group activity, particularly in the early years. As Sir George Trevelyan stipulated it should not to be undertaken casually, and unfortunately most listening to music these days is undertaken very casually thanks to iPods. But in the right circumstances music appreciation can work as a solitary activity, and personally I find listening to sounds beyond what Alan Watts calls 'conventional music' a productive way to retune my ears.

An excellent example of what I think of as 'ear candling music' is the CD below by the Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir which uses electronics to explore the space between rock and classical music. There are some very beautiful and powerful abstract sounds in Without Sinking, but for me this kind of contemporary music ultimately lacks development and argument. Which is almost certainly because my ears are not yet fully tuned to this gentre, rather than any inherent shortcomings in the music itself.

After listening to Without Sinking I immediately turned to Britten's Cello Suites to appreciate once again how beautiful abstract sounds can be developed by powerful musical argument. But the continuing retuning of my ears means it is perfectly possible that in twelve month's time I will have completely changed my view of Without Sinking. Because music appreciation, like music itself, only exists only in constant flux and flow.


* The excellent recording of Britten's Cello Suites seen in my header image is by William Butt on the super-budget Apex label. The 2 CDs are currently selling on amazon.co.uk for £6.98. Which means if you don't have these masterpieces in your collection you can further explore the art of listening for very little.

Opening quote is from the highly recommended Sir George Trevelyan and the New Spiritual Awakening by Frances Farrer, Floris Books ISBN0863153771, but out of print. All featured CDs were purchased by me at retail price. In fact I bought Hildur Guðnadóttirthe's Sinking Feeling at the recent Gavin Bryar's concert. 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, November 17, 2009

Somehow indicative of the times


Drew80 has left a new comment on your post "Here comes ovation inflation":

You are always essential reading, Pliable.

Observing the Dudamel phenomenon has been highly amusing. I have no idea whether Dudamel will turn into a fine conductor—only time will tell—but he certainly attracts the lunatics. Otherwise sane people have gone berserk, praising 250 youth musicians sawing away at “The Rite Of Spring”, a composition that turns into sludge when performed by such a vast number of players.

A conspicuous example of the widespread Dudamel foolishness is a photograph I saw on some website of two goofy-looking concert-goers proudly wearing to a Dudamel concert yellow Venezuelan jackets plastered with Venezuelan flags. Need I add that the goofy-looking concert-goers were not Venezuelan?

It was, at once, cringe-inducing, idiotic, frightening and bizarre—yet somehow indicative of the times.
Another indication of the times here. But more importantly, where is your pie?

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

EMI keeps playing with its Rattle


PR-speak reaches a crescendo in an EMI Classics press release announcing a new exclusive recording contract with Simon Rattle. The president of EMI Classics Global Eric Dingman, whose CV includes almost twenty years with Labatt Breweries, gushes:
'I am delighted about the ongoing partnership with Sir Simon which will continue to produce ground-breaking recordings and projects, adding to the great wealth, depth and breadth of repertoire that Sir Simon is building with EMI Classics.'
Bang on cue the conductor himself joins in the refrain with:
'In a time when recording contracts are rare enough to be an endangered species, I feel both lucky and privileged to be working further with EMI Classics, my loyal and brave partners of more than 30 years'.
One of Simon Rattle's truly ground-breaking projects was his 1995 recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of the Passacaglia, op, 4 (1925) and Ciaconna sinfonica (1936) by the exiled German composer Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-1996). The only problem is these recordings were not made by Rattle's loyal and brave partners of more than 30 year. The conductor was specially released from his exclusive EMI contract to record for more adventurous rival Decca two contributions to their Goldschmidt Album. This appeared as part of Decca's visionary Entartete Musik, a series that truly added to the depth and breadth of the recorded repertoire. Although the Goldschmidt Album is deleted it is still available as an MP3 download and should not be missed.

What makes this story much more than an interesting anecdote is that Simon Rattle once literally saved Berthold Goldschmidt's life. Doubtless the senior management of EMI are hoping the conductor can now do the same for their troubled company. Read how Sir Simon revived Berthold Goldschmidt here.

I bought the Goldschmidt Album when it was first released as a CD in 1996. 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, November 16, 2009

The Tao of music

However, back to the beat - something it seems we must return to with regularity in some form or another, if we wish to cooperate with the natural regulatory forces of existence. I instinctively knew at the age of four that rhythm was the palpable expression, at the deepest level, of the universe in motion...

Understand the rhythm of life - not intellectually but by feeling it in your body - and you understand the rhythm of the way the forces of expansion and contraction, the yin and yang of Taoist philosophy, the zeroes and ones of our present technological reality, alternate with each other. Understand that and you understand the rise and fall of fortune. Understand that and you have a chance of seeing through the everyday game to the eternal state behind it.
Those words come from the newly published The Man Who Drove With His Eyes Closed by the idiosyncratic Taoist Stephen Russell, who was an early exponent of group drumming as music therapy.

Now for a question: which famous musician is flat on his back in my header photo? Let me give you a clue. He supplied the foreword to Taoist Qigong for Health and Vitality, A Complete Program of Movement, Meditation, and Healing Sounds. Yes, that is Philip Glass with his Qigong teacher Sat Hon. The image is a still from Scott Hicks' illuminating, inspiring and highly recommended film Glass, a portrait of Philip in twelve parts.

And talking of Taoism, can you guess who this is speaking?
I discovered the Tao Te King of Lao Tse about five years ago. It's one of the most important books in the history of mankind. We were never able to have a Bible at home, but this was 1987, so Gorbachev's glasnost was beginning to have its effects, and there were unofficial booksellers on the streets. It was a Bible in Russian, and I still have it. My parents thought I was losing my mind.The way yoga changes your perception of the world is amazing. It's another kind of ecstatic experience.'
Interestingly that quote comes from the highly acclaimed principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra Vladimir Jurowski and it appeared in my post Why I am sorely disillusioned with Gergiev. Did someone mention yin and yang?


Staying with minimalism, Steve Reich's classic celebration of the rhythm of life Drumming is on the CD seen above, which featured here last year in The forgotten Lady Atomic. And there is no shortage of rhythm in the disc featured below, Damba Moon has Ensemble Bash playing kpanlogo music, from the south of Ghana.


There is more music of Black Africa here while further east there is a little-known gem for percussion, Lou Harrison's Fifth Symfony.

The Man Who Drove With His Eyes Closed and Glass, a portrait of Philip in twelve parts were borrowed from Norwich library, the CDs mentioned in the post were bought 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

Last music critic standing


Elsewhere there are attempts to drum up interest in a poll to find the last contemporary composer standing. Whatever next - perhaps a poll to find the last music critic standing?

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

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I can see for miles and Miles


We Want Miles is at the Cité de la Musique in Paris until Jan. 17, 2010 and we will be there. Miles Davis in France opens up another music and place path. Miles' Joaquín Rodrigo inspired Sketches of Spain album featured in a post last year in which I asked was Rodrigo was out of step with his time musically and politically? Which has a certain topicality as Rodrigo was born on November 22nd, 1901. Staying with Miles but travelling a few thousand miles east takes us to the new album seen below.

Miles from India is a cross-cultural and very electric (in the volts sense) celebration of Miles' music which brings together leading American and Indian musicians under producer Bob Belden. Joe Zawinul's music also features on the album, and the title track is credited to fusion specialist John McLaughlin, who appeared here recently, as composer, guitarist and producer. No matter where you are in the world, you can have a blue moment.


Miles From India was bought online. All expenses related to visiting Paris are being paid by me. 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

Here comes ovation inflation


At the end last night's performance of The Pitmen Painters in Norwich the gentleman next to us was on his feet applauding almost before the play had ended. Had he seen something I had missed in an evening that for me was little more than an entertaining tableau of class and gender stereotypes devised by Billy Elliot creator Lee Hall with one eye on being politically engaged and the other on the box office? Or was it simply another example of ovation inflation?

Elsewhere I see that Gustavo Dudamel now receives a standing ovation before he conducts a note, while at the BBC Proms applause between the movements is commonplace. How long before standing ovations between the movements becomes the latest expression of reputation inflation?

We paid for our tickets for The Pitmen Painters at the box office. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Duke Meets Darius Milhaud

Two of the compositions introduced on 'Brubeck plays Brubeck' are now recognized as jazz standards: They have been recorded and performed many times by many different artists, most notably by Miles Davis with Gil Evans' orchestral arrangements and by Bill Evans solo piano. My publisher has informed me that at last count there were over 60 different versions of 'In Your Own Sweet Way' recorded by various jazz artists. 'The Duke,' which might be the first jazz composition to have the bass line go through all 12 notes of the musical scale in the first 8 bars, has been a challenge for many musicians. My original title for the piece was 'The Duke Meets Darius Milhaud'.
Dave Brubeck writes in his supplementary 1998 note for the CD release of 'Brubeck plays Brubeck'. Dave Brubeck was a pupil of Darius Milhaud, as were Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Karlheinz Stockhausen. They all put in an appearance in On the path of Stockhausen's teachers.

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, November 12, 2009

Sheet music


What is it about composers' bedrooms? The room in which Robert Schumann was born is here.

Photo sample of Britten House, Lowestoft is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Another UK record store closes every 2.7 days

Rock star Sting has called the X Factor "televised karaoke" and said judges like Simon Cowell have "no recognisable talent apart from self-promotion". The singer, 58, told London's Evening Standard that the Saturday night show was "a soap opera which has nothing to do with music".
This no-punches-pulled story on the BBC website raises some interesting points. Let us forget for the moment that Sting has a new Christmas CD to flog, that he records for Polydor who are the bitter rivals of Sony BMG to which X Factor finalists are contracted, and that the X Factor show is aired on ITV, which is the BBC's biggest rival. Beyond these obvious points there is an even more insidious side to X Factor, and it is one Sting is not going to talk about because Universal Music, who own Polydor, play the same game. Graham Jones, one of the founders of independent distributor Proper Music, who distribute ECM in the UK, takes up the story:
Finalists in the X Factor are all contracted to Simon Cowell's company, Syco, as are all of the writers and producers, and the resultant CDs are all released and distributed through Sony BMG. The X Factor is, effectively, an hour-long television advert for Sony BMG - its artists dominate the choice of guests and, if you listen to the songs covered by the guests, you will find that a very high percentage of the material used in the show is from original recordings by Sony BMG artists.

To reach the widest audience, Sony BMG market X actor contestants through the supermarkets rather than through more traditional outlets. Its CDs will always be in a prominent position in store, often next to the till. To secure these positions Sony BMG will have offered the stores substantial discounts, which are not made available to independent stores who, therefore, cannot match the price offered in supermarkets.

Even more damaging is the impact this has on the reputation of independent stores. If CDs are £4 more expensive in independent stores, customers are likely to perceive that they are being ripped off and so, in the future, their first port of call for buying music is increasingly likely to be the supermarket instead of the independent shop.
Which is also how Sting's If On A Winter's Night CD found its way into your local supermarket. The quote above comes from Graham Jones' excellent new book Last Shop Standing - Whatever Happened to Record Shops and the following extract says it all:
In 2003 I had an idea to write a book. At that time, according to the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA), the body that represents record shops, there were 948 independent and privately owned small chains selling music in the UK. By 2007 this number was down to 408. That equates to one record shop closing every 2.7 days. The carnage is continuing, and I felt it was important that somebody should document the interesting and varied stories behind independent record shops.

Last Record Shop standing is essential reading, and provides a priceless snapshot of the quirky and fast-disappearing network of independent music retailers in the UK. It is more lament for the past than action plan for the future; which means successful initiatives such as Harmonia Mundi's record label owned stores and their merchandised presence in independent bookstores in France, which could also work for ECM and other independent labels, are not covered. My photo above shows the Harmonia Mundi section in the independent Libraire Larcelet, in Saint-Dizier. Also missing is coverage of the turmoil in the distributor/wholesaler sector which is making it increasingly difficult for independent label's to get their CDs distributed to retail outlets.

Yes, I know the death of the independent record store is part of 'progress' and the endgame is online music distribution But, as Lech Walesa once said, it is easy to turn the aquarium into fish soup, but it is more difficult to reverse the process. Last Record Shop Standing should be compulsory reading for every record company executive and artist, including Sting. It was recommended to me, as were many CDs found on the Path, by Prelude - still crazy about classical music after all these years - Records in Norwich, who epitomise everything that is great and valuable about independent record stores. As does the one below.


After Prelude Records told me about Last Shop Standing I asked for a review copy from Proper Music. Flattery will get you everywhere, but I was touched when the book arrived with a hand-written dedication from Graham Jones saying - 'To Bob, a true music man.' Middle and lower photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. 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

Tippett in focus


The neglect of Sir Michael Tippett's four symphonies has been the subject of an interesting discussion on an earlier post. So as today's article is being uploaded immediately after Armistice Day and Tippett was a committed pacifist, I am featuring two LPs of the composer's symphonies as powerful visual reminders of what is missing from the catalogue.

Sir Colin Davis' pioneering 1960s Argo recordings of the first three symphonies have never been bettered, and my 1968 LP of the Second Symphony is seen above. We must be grateful for Richard Hickox's complete cycle with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; but Davis and a top of their game London Symphony Orchestra excel in Tippett's signature sprung rhythms and, as a bonus, are captured in superb anadulterated pre-digital sound.

Colin Davis' interpretations have appeared in various guises in CD transfers, but are currently not available. Which is quite quite deplorable considering they are the definitive accounts of important works by one of the twentieth-centuy's great composers. But that has never worried Universal Music. Interesting typography on that record sleeve. Can you imagine the initials LSO being used on a CD today?

Below is Georg Solti's recording of the symphony missing from the Davis cycle, the 1977 Fourth which was a Chicago Symphony Orchestra commission. The Decca recording did appear on a CD coupled with The Knot Garden, but is now deleted. The LP coupling was Tippett's Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles commissioned by the BBC in 1948 to celebrate the birth of the heir to the throne. I am told by someone who tried to programme the Suite in the royal presence some years ago, that Charles hates the piece. Which must make it very good music indeed.


By royal command - Tippett can still empty a concert hall.
Both LPs are from my collection, so photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The deaths of three young strangers

We forget that the necessary ingredient needed to make the past work for the future is our energy in the present, metabolizing one into the other - Audre Lorde
The 20 year old British commanding officer and 21 year old bomb aimer whose war graves are seen in the montage above were crew members of an RAF Lancaster shot down over occupied France while returning from a bombing raid on Milan in 1943. Five crew members parachuted from the stricken plane, but the young pilot and bomb aimer died in the crash. They are buried in the graveyard of the 13th century church in Vandenesse-en-Auxois.

A few miles away above the village of Créancey is the commemorative plaque marking the spot where an American pilot died when his USAAF fighter crashed into the hillside during the liberation of France in September 1944. Fighting in western Europe had stopped in the first global conflict of the twentieth century at eleven o'clock on November 11th, 1918 following the signing of the World War 1 Armistice at Rethondes, France. This town lies to the north of the Burgundy region where the photos forming the montage above were taken by me this September.

Britain's last surviving World War 1 veteran Harry Patch, who died in July 2009 aged 111, hated war and dismissed Nov. 11th commemorations as "show business". But Audre Lorde's words reminded me of the importance of making the past work for the future, rather than for the duplicitous purposes of our political leaders. To explore how the terrible lessons from the past can work for the future I found myself turning, as happens so often these days, from the jaded imagery of television to the more subtly nuanced language of music. Benjamin Britten's War Requiem is one of the greatest statements about the futility of war. But it was to another composer, albeit one influenced by Britten, that I turned.

Jonathan Harvey's Passion and Resurrection was commissioned for performance as as a diocesan community celebration by local singers in Winchester cathedral in 1981. Texts from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and from the Pashka (Easter) celebration of the Russian Orthodox Church frame extracts from two Medieval Benedictine church dramas, with the audience participating in the singing of two plainsong hymns.

The influence of both Bach's Passions and Britten's Church Parables are evident in Passion and Resurrection. But, despite being written for largely amateur forces, the sung drama is much more about the future than the past. The 85 minute work progresses from simple chant settings to the radiant finale which evokes Messiaen and uses Jonathan Harvey's signature technique of symmetrical inversion with mirrored harmonies radiating from a central bass axis.

Jonathan Harvey is better known today for his Buddhist sympathies, but he says of the composition of Passion and Resurrection - 'That was a wonderful period and the mystical Christ remains with me very much to this day'. The excellent commercial recording of the work seen below was made by the BBC with Sinfonia 21 and the BBC Singers conducted by Martin Neary and is available on the enterprising Sargasso label.


On a day when we must focus on making the past work for the future my links point to the Dresden Requiem for eleven young victims of allied bombing, and an icon in the restored Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, the Madonna of Stalingrad.

* The white poppy symbolises the belief that there are better ways to resolve conflicts than killing strangers. Read more here.

Header montage is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. The original photos together with a translation of the middle plaque can be seen here. My copy of Jonathan Harvey's Passion and Resurrection was purchased online. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Noddy, Big-Ears and the new CD

The books are very much of their time, particularly the titles published in the 1950s. They present Britain's class system — that is to say, "rough" versus "decent". Many of Blyton's children's books similarly reflected negative stereotypes regarding gender, race, and class. The most startling incidence of this type of material to a modern audience might be the use of a phrase like "black as a nigger with soot" appearing in Five Go off to Camp.At the time, "Negro" was the standard formal term and "nigger" a relatively common colloquialism.
Compelling reading from the Wikipedia biography of Enid Blyton. Released this week is a CD of music by Carey Blyton, who was the nephew of the famous author and lived from 1932 to 2002. To be fair Carey Blyton was probably very fed up with being labelled as Enid's nephew, and among his musical credits were a schools cantata, incidental music for three BBC TV series of Doctor Who and many miniature pieces. I haven't heard the CD, but that is the cover above and it is one of several Carey Blyton CD's available on the Upbeat Recordings label. Another relative of a famous figure here, and discover the link between Noddy and Alban Berg 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

Monday, November 09, 2009

I am not a sycophant edition


The musical exploits of the Savall family quite justifiably receive high praise On An Overgrown Path. Two years ago I enthused over daughter Arianna Savall's CD Bella Terra, and that particular album has been a long term favourite on my iPod. So it is disappointing to give a thumbs-down to Arianna's newly released Peiwoh, despite its stellar line-up of musicians which includes Pedro Estevan and brother Ferran, whose gritty album Mireu el nostre mar was one of the highlights of last year's new releases.

In the notes for Peiwoh Arianna Savall acknowledges the influence of the Canadian harpist and singer Loreena McKennitt, whose music I am not familiar with, although I understand she sells shed-loads of records. But having listened to some samples on Ms. McKennitt's website I have a fair idea where this album went wrong. There are some beautiful sounds on Peiwoh, but it lacks the edge and musical development that I need. But if you like your Bach to come complete with Flower Remedies this is one for you.

And while on the subject of taking the rough with the smooth I cannot overlook the letter recently received by a select few Snape concertgoers. I am, of course, a huge fan of Aldeburgh Music whose outstanding work features here so often. But I did chuckle at the opening sentence of this mailing shot for the performance of Britten's The Canticles on the composer's birthday.


Hopefully just a glitch with the auto spell check. Or has someone at Snape been reading the newly published volume of the young Britten's diaries titled Journeying Boy? Find the answer by taking a peep inside the infamous composer's bedroom .

Peiwoh was bought from HMV.com, who are a very cheap source for Alia Vox CDs if you pre-order before release date. 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

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Life is a cabaret, old chum

What good is sitting alone in your room?
Come hear the music play.
Life is a cabaret, old chum,
Come to the cabaret.

'Deutsche Bank will present a free webcast of the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle performing Brahms's Third and Fourth symphonies on Monday, November 9 at 8.00 p.m. EST on its website, http://www.db.com/ The webcast celebrates the start of the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle's U.S. tour that begins at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday November 11, and the recent release of the Brahms symphonies on CD' - Deutsche Bank website.

'Our partnership with the Berliner Philharmoniker has been and continues to be unique, by combining classic music sponsorship with innovative cultural education work. Deutsche Bank is thus fulfilling its commitment as a responsible corporate citizen, by creating social capital – all around the globe' - Josef Ackermann Chairman of Deutsche Bank AG on Berliner Philharmoniker website
'State prosecutors examine Deutsche Bank spy scandal - State prosecutors in Frankfurt have confirmed they are examining evidence handed to them by the German data protection office ... The Wall Street Journal has reported that the review focuses on four separate spying incidents that occurred between 2001 and 2007. One case involved the surveillance of Gerald Herrmann, a former union leader and supervisory board member, who was suspected of leaking sensitive company information to the media. Deutsche Bank admitted to spying on Hermann earlier this month and has since apologized. Other alleged targets are reported to include Deutsche Bank's chief operating officer Hermann-Josef Lamberti, and Michael Bohndorf, an activist shareholder who has been highly critical of the bank' - Deutsche Welle July 2009, and here is a Wall Street Journal update from Sept 2009.
A mark, a yen, a buck, or a pound
A buck or a pound
A buck or a pound
Is all that makes the world go around,
That clinking clanking sound
Can make the world go 'round.

On November 9th, 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, an event triggered by a debt-ridden East German economy struggling to finance pensions and other costs - does that sound familiar? The three exclusive photos of the Berlin Wall in this post were taken by me in 1973, read more about them here. Music history rewritten by the division of Berlin here. Another exclusive photo of the Wall here, while elsewhere an America vice president comes visiting. The final approach to Berlin is here, the city is reborn here, and finally, another nomination for the Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour.

Lyrics are, of course, from the film Cabaret which was based on Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories which were set in the city in 1931. Three photos of Berlin are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. 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

World premiere for post-music symphony


My photo was taken yesterday evening in the darkness of the new Britten Studio at Snape during the premiere of Longshore Drift created by experimental electronic musician Chris Watson. In the foreground and around the perimeter of the studio are the blue-illuminated monitor speakers used for by the third order 64 channel Ambisonics surround sound system which conveyed height as well as lateral information. In the centre of the photo at the system's controls is Tony Myatt Director of the Music Research Centre at York University who built the Ambisonics system specially for the event. My rehearsal photo below shows the layout of the studio more clearly.

Chris Watson's 35 minute soundscape was part of the output of a week long Faster Than Sound residency at Snape which explored the natural soundscape around Britten's Aldeburgh. Birdsong was the staring point for Longshore Drift's, but this was layered with a range of 'found' sounds including the low frequency beat of wind turbines and the the rhythm of the waves breaking on Aldeburgh beach captured by underwater hydrophones. This cornucopia of environmental sounds was reproduced on a sound system the like of which will not be heard again for a long time.

Longshore Drift follows John Cage's path by making music can be made from ambient sounds, and builds on works such as Jonathan Harvey's IRCAM created Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco with its electronic manipulation of the great bell of Winchester Cathedral. In its exploration of spatial relationships Longshore Drift allows us to focus on the neglected relationship between sounds and place, both in the macro context of the fragile Suffolk coast and in the micro context of the soundfield created by the Ambisonic system in the Britten Studio. It also poses many questions, not the least being what is music? Is the continuo of a tuned string instrument any more 'music' than the pulse of a wind turbine?

Aldeburgh Music's visionary residency allowed Chris Watson and his colleagues to create a post-music symphony of great relevance, impact and beauty. Longshore Drift speaks in a language of change both in the musical and the environmental sense, and that is something we desperately need right now.


Photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Our £10 tickets for Faster Than Sound - LISTEN were bought at the Aldeburgh box office. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, November 07, 2009

A radical traditionalist


Good evening, and welcome to this Britten Sinfonia pre-concert event, at which I am delighted to be joined by tonight’s conductor and pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and soloist Tamara Stefanovich.

Tonight’s concert, which has the theme Dialogues, is a celebration of the music of the contemporary American composer Elliott Carter who will be 101 in a few weeks time. We will be discussing his music a little later; but first, and rather perversely, I want to talk about a composer whose music does not appear in tonight’s concert.

Benjamin Britten gives his name to tonight’s orchestra and Pierre-Laurent Aimard is the artistic director of the festival Britten founded at Aldeburgh here in East Anglia. In the speech that he gave when accepting the Aspen Award in the Humanities in 1964 Britten set out his vision of a holy triangle of composer, performer and listener.

Today, particularly in modern music, that holy triangle sometimes becomes a profane duo of composer and performer, with the listener left as a bemused spectator on the touch-line. My objective with tonight's event is to make sure that you the listener are firmly located at the apex of Britten’s holy triangle, and to do that I will be asking Pierre-Laurent and Tamara to include you in the Dialogues by tuning your ears to Elliott Carter’s unique and rewarding sound world.

It is very easy to set the bar too high at events like this. We are very fortunate to be hearing the music of Elliott Carter in Norwich, but we must also remember that for many in tonight’s audience this will be the first time they have heard Carter’s music in a concert hall. Indeed for some it may be their first ever hearing of his music.

We also cannot ignore the fact that Elliott Carter has a reputation for being a ‘difficult listen’. Not unsurprisingly the composer himself disagreed with that assessment and said:

‘One thing I can’t understand is why people have such trouble with modern music. It seems to me to be perfectly intelligible. When I hear one of my pieces again, or listen to the record, I don’t see why people could find this perplexing in any way. Yet audiences can’t make head or tail of it’.

In his development as a composer Elliott Carter became increasingly uncompromising. Early in his career Carter followed the path taken by Aaron Copland and others and wrote music that was deliberately accessible. But Carter’s attempts at writing music that would achieve popularity failed dismally, forcing him to declare –

'I finally said the hell with that whole point of view and decided to write what I really always hoped to write, and what I thought was most important for me. I’ve taken that point of view ever since.

What Elliott Carter always wanted to write was music that was cerebral as opposed to emotional. Just as it is more difficult to read someone’s thoughts than their emotions, so it is more difficult to understand music that is cerebral rather than emotional. Elliott Carter’s music is also atonal, which means the familiar reassurance of a tonic key is absent.

But please do not be too frightened by all this. In many ways Elliott Carter was a radical traditionalist. He rejected the unpredictability pursued by John Cage and his peers, and Carter’s masterpieces conform to the traditional concept of a work of art. This means that, unlike Boulez and Stockhausen, Elliott Carter has written, for instance, a Violin Concerto with a conventional three movement structure.

I have described Elliott Carter as a radical traditionalist. He has always considered himself to be an American composer. He was born in New York in December 1908 of wealthy parents and studied at Harvard where, rather surprisingly, one of his teachers was our own Gustav Holst. Carter’s music benefitted from being championed in Europe in the 1950s by the American Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organisation that was later found to be CIA funded.

But for a radical traditionalist Elliott Carter has had a remarkable impact on contemporary music. His most notable innovations, which we will hear in tonight’s concert, revolve around changes of metre, and now I am now going to ask Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich to help us understand how Carter manipulates musical time ...

This was my introduction to last night's Britten Sinfonia event before their concert of Haydn, Eliott Carter and Mozart in Norwich. The programme of recessional music proved that if you have faith the crowd will follow you, and 43 minutes of Carter's music attracted an audience of 400; although for a university city with a high-profile music department there were disappointingly few young faces among them. Lots of young faces in the band though, but my wife did observe that Elliott Carter's music is clearly more masculine than Osvaldo Golijov's as the female/male ratio among the musicians swung from 80/20 at the recent Britten Sinfonia Eight Seasons concert to 64/36 for Elliott Carter.

There was a fascinating example of old meets new in Carter's Inner Song for solo oboe; Nicholas Daniel used a high-tech digital music stand from MusicReader, but needed a human page turner to push the buttons. Speaking of technology, I have previously written in praise of the Theatre Royal Norwich's CARMEN® digital sound enhancement system. But there was an unfortunate intermittent low frequency intrusion at last night's concert; was it a malfunction in the technology?

But just a minor reservation, and the music and performance were gorgeous with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich behaving like angels in the pre-concert event. The London performance of the Haydn, Elliott Carter and Mozart programme tonight (Nov 7) is being recorded for later broadcast by BBC Radio 3. There is a further performance in Cambridge on Nov 9. This is the future of classical music.

* Listen to a podcast of my discussion with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich here.

My sources included:

* Elliott Carter - A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents published jointly by the Paul Sacher Foundation and Boydell Press. My header image, which shows Elliott Carter with Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein at the recording of Carter's Concerto for Orchestra in New York's Philharmonic Hall in 1970 comes from this inspirational book, as does the lower image.

* A Concise History of Western Music by Paul Griffiths, who was librettist for Carter's 1999 opera What Next?

* Stephen Heinemann's excellent sleeve notes for the CD Early Chamber Music of Elliott Carter on Cedille Records.

Copies Elliot Carter - A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents and A Concise History of Western Music were supplied for review at my request. Two concert tickets were made available by the Briten Sinfonia for chairing the pre-concert event. My CD of Early Chamber Music of Elliot Carter was bought online. 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, November 05, 2009

The art of activism


This arresting print by the young South African artist Nandipha Mntambo uses cowhide moulded to fit the human body to -
'challenge and subvert preconceptions regarding representation of the female body ... to disrupt perceptions of attraction and repulsion'.
Part of a diptych titled Mlwa ne Nkunzi, it is one of the exhibits in Life Less Ordinary at the Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham. This exhibition uses photography, performances, videos and installations by young artists to look at how race-based dynamics continue to shape society in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Earlier this year I discussed William Goldman's wise words that -
'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.'
We live in a time when the boundaries of art and entertainment are being shamelessly blurred. So it was quite a revelation to view an exhibition curated quite expertly by Anna Douglas with the express objective of making the viewer uncomfortable. While visiting Life Less Ordinary I was struck by the use of the term 'visual activism' to describe the art on display, and I wondered who the parallel activists are in classical music. Musical activists of the past are easy to identify, and Britten, Tippett and Shostakovich are just some of the names that spring to mind. But who are today's musical activists in the moral, rather than stylistic, sense?


One candidate for the role of musical activist is the little known composer of the Spiteful Prelude With A Grenade Splinter. Croatian born Josip Magdić wrote this memorably named prelude for piano during the Yugoslav conflict in 1992 to highlight the brutality of war, and the photo above shows him standing in front of a Sarajevo apartment block damaged by Serbian artillery fire. Other examples of Josip Magdić's musical activism are his organ cycle Dominus Conterens Bella /The Lord Who Crushest Wars (1994) and War Picture Postcards of Sarajevo (1993) for piano which portrays the fate of the war-stricken the city.

There are mentions of a Sony CD (SK 66619) of Josip Magdić's music, but I can no trace of it in the catalogue. But fortunately we do to have both the Spiteful Prelude With A Grenade Splinter and War Picture Postcards of Sarajevo in transcriptions for organ played by the composer on an Ad Vitam CD which is also available as a download from iTunes.

In fact the Ad Vitam CD is a work of musical activism in its own right, as well as an extraordinary expression of music and place. It was recorded in the cathedral of Sarajevo in the bitter winter of 1994 during the siege of the city, and the producer Jean-Yves Labat de Rossi brought his recording equipment into the city through the famous tunnel dug by Bosnian volunteers to allow food and humanitarian aid into the city.


The CD is simply and movingly called Sarajevo, and also contains choral works sung by the Trebevic Choir of Sarajevo which was made up of Croatian voices supplemented with those from the warring states of Serbia and Bosnia. The photo above shows the Trebevic Choir returning to Split airport on their way home to Sarajevo in December 1994.


That is the sleeve for Sarajevo above. The story of Ad Vitam records is here, contemporary music in Albania is here, and the embers of chaos are here.

* Writing this post brought back many personal memories. What was then Yugoslavia was my summer pasture of choice when I was a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Dalmatian coast was cheap, hot, hospitable, totally undeveloped, and Tito's benign dictatorship presented an alternative to patronising the hated regime of the Colonel's in neighbouring Greece. I have many powerful memories of Yugoslavia before it was devastated in the name of national identity. These include time spent in Split, where the photo of the Trebevic Choir of Sarajevo was taken, and on the surrounding islands. I remember reading Sartre on the terrace of a disco on the island of Hvar and watching a sunset of indescribable beauty while Led Zeppelin played outrageously loud on the sound system. Pretentious and self-indulgent? - yes, most definitely. But probably no worse than spending my vacations watching what passes for coverage of the arts on TV today. Now please can you hand me my bus pass?

Header image via Art South Africa, other images from Josip Magdić's website and Sarajevo CD booklet. The costs of attending Life Less Ordinary were paid by me. I bought Sarajevo in the shop of the Cistercian Mother House of Citeaux in France. 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