Sunday, May 16, 2010

Away in search of thin places

'Donald Allchin, the Anglican writer who is a contemporary chronicler of Bardsey, has referred to the island in one of his books I read before going over as a 'thin place', not in the sense that it is small and insignificant, though of course geographically it is, but rather that it is a place where the barrier between this world and the world of the spirit dissolves' - from The Extra Mile by Peter Stanford.
'Thin places' as defined by Donald Allchin have become something of a leitmotif of this blog. Thinness can be created over the centuries by culture and geography, as in Marrakech where I took the header photo. Or thinness can be transitory, created in the concert hall by Britten's holy triangle of composer, performer and listener. As happened last night when the Theatre Royal, Norwich became a very thin place indeed thanks to the musicans from many countries and cultures who presented Jerusalem - City of the Two Peaces.

Jordi Savall's introductory essay to Jerusalem, which can be read here, is titled The Power of Music and there are no better words to sum up yesterday's Norfolk & Norwich Festival performance. Many attempts have been made to dissolve the barriers between different cultures and faiths using music, but Jerusalem is one of the very few that actually succeeeds. Every one of the master musicans involved deserves the highest praise, but none more than Jordi Savall himself. For many today art is measured by charts and ratings: for Jordi Savall art is not only something you do, but something you are as well.

Jerusalem's ensemble finale is titled Tous les chants et instruments réunis and there is really nothing else that needs to be said. Other than that I am now away for an extended period in search of more thin places and some counterbalancing vin rouge and moules frites. Do support other free thinking music blogs while I am away.


* The lavish 2 CD set and book seen above is, of course, available on Alia Vox, Jordi Savall's independent and musician owned record label. If I were CEO of a major record label I would certainly have learnt something from the rate at which Jerusalem was flying off Prelude Records' concession in the concert hall. What we need are more mad geniuses.

Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Those interested in architecture may be interested to learn that the window is in Marrakech's new railway terminus. It is across the road from the city's unfinished opera house. Fortunately the new railway station was finished in 2008. Our tickets for Jerusalem were bought at the Festival box office, my recording of Jerusalem was purchased from Prelude Records. 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, May 15, 2010

What is a music festival?

At so many music festivals these days creativity seems to be losing out to conformity. A festival should be where you are surprised, challenged, delighted and outraged, not where you feel comfortable. Without serendipity a music festival is no more than a branded concert series, which is exactly what so many of today's high profile festivals such as the BBC Proms have become. Festival programmes should be mazes with many paths to follow, dead ends to encounter and delights to discover. Just like the Norfolk & Norwich Festival programme, which yesterday included the serendipitous delights of Zic Zazou from France.

Zic Zazou are part music, part theatre, part comedy and part engineering with nine musicians making music from a huge collection of 'found' instruments ranging from bottles of red wine to chair legs. It is all enormous fun, but it is also musique savant that follows the path of Lou Harrison and Harry Partch. But don't take my word, watch the video:



From Zic Zazou's 5.00pm performance I wandered across Norwich city centre to the 8.00pm concert at the Theatre Royal. Where I am afraid John Cale backed by syrupy string and brass arrangements left me cold. Rock stars, like Lot's wife, should never look back. But surprise, challenge, delight and outrage is what a great festival is all about. More on Lou Harrison's concerto for violin, violin, 12 brakedrums, 6 flowerpots, plumbers pipe, damped plumbers pipe .... here.

Tickets for Zic Zazou and John Cale were bought at the Festival box office. If you are in Norwich there are two more performances by Zic Zazou today, May 15 - don't miss them. 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, May 14, 2010

We need more mad geniuses


This blog spends quite a lot of time musing on what makes great recorded sound. So it was rather ironic that yesterday evening I found myself musing on the futility of the recording process. The occasion was Jordi Savall's solo viol recital in the church of St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich. As the evening progressed Marais, Abel, Forqueray and above all Jordi Savall took us to the edge of a precipice where the view was spell-binding, but from where you knew there was an awfully long way to fall. It was one of those magical moments that can only happen in a concert and can never be captured by a recording. How right Benjamin Britten was when he said "music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a tape-machine or a transistor radio". How wrong Glenn Gould was to abandon the concert hall for the recording studio. How right Sergiu Celibidache was to abandon the recording studio for the concert hall. Celibidache has been called the last of the mad genius conductors. Yesterday's Norfolk & Norwich Festival recital by Jordi Savall was sold out. Isn't the answer to classical music's dwindling audiences obvious? We need more mad geniuses, not more PR agency parsed 20-something celebrities. Roll on tomorrow's performance of Jerusalem.

Own up when you get it wrong. I was one of several people who expressed concerns about Jordi Savall's recital clashing with Norwich City football club's victory parade. In fact any inconveniences were minor, possibly due to fewer football fans turning out for the parade than expected. But whatever the reason it was a great concert, well done to everyone concerned with the organisation. 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

Castles made of sand


Under a full moon in the hills behind Diabat in Morocco a lilas, a secret spirit-possession ceremony, is taking place to the repetitive rhythms of gnawa music. As the possessed whirl and writhe in an ecstatic trance a jinn materialises in their midst.


This is a very special jinn who in a previous existence wove his own intricate rhythms and spoke of castles made of sand that eventually fall into the sea. Darkness is the natural habitat of the spirits, but as dawn comes the jinn rematerialises at the ruined fort of Bordj El Berod.


The spirit knows this castle made of sand is celebrated as the inspiration for a track on the classic rock album Axis: Bold As Love. But this very special jinn chuckles because he also knows Castles Made of Sand was written in 1967, two years before its writer made his one and only visit to Morocco.


As the African sun banishes darkness the spirit moves to the ruined summer palace inland from Bordj El Berod and looks across to Diabat. 1960s Folklore places this Berber village at the centre of a commune frequented by Cat Stevens, Bob Marley, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa and other legendary figures. But the jinn laughs again because he knows who really stayed at the luxurious Hôtel des Iles in nearby Essaouira for just a few nights in July 1969.


But legends are legends. So the jinn joins others on the pilgrimage to the rock star caravanserai in Diabat.


It is the spirit that counts, even if the date on the wall celebrating the great guitarist is a year out. But why let the facts spoil a great picture? And anyway the jinn is delighted to find that another American player is now being celebrated where once hippies blissed out to the sound of guitars.


Our jinn plays with a Fender Stratocaster rather than golf clubs. So the championship quality course built by professional golf's finest holds little challenge for him. And with an average income of $1310 in Morocco he knows there is little hope of the locals experiencing its challenges either. But forget about the handicap, spirits can flow through chain link. So it easy to check out the view the Berber villagers have of the golf course...


... and the view the players have of the village, which at first the jinn mistakes for a CIA interrogation centre.


That mention of the Star Spangled Banner sends the the jinn in search of the spirit of Woodstock. And yes, it lives on in Diabat. The scent of kif still lingers where the hippies once smoked their dreams, drifting from these shacks for workers building the nearby five star golf resort - perfect for jinn and tonics.


Legends mix uneasily with reality under the harsh Moroccan sun. But a jinn is a creatures of darkness and eventually the sun became too strong. Jimi Hendrix returned to America from Morocco early in August 1969. Two weeks later he closed the Woodstock Festival. He played his last concert on September 6, 1970 in Germany and died twelve days later in London aged 27.
'And so castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually'
- from Jimi Hendrix's album Axis: Bold As Love

Read about and listen to the music of Morocco here. Listen to a webcast of a gnawa spirit-possession ceremony recorded in the Medina at Marrakech, Morocco this weekend.

All photos taken in Diabat and Essaouira, Morocco and (c) On an Overgrown Path 2010. Charles R. Ross' 'definitive' biography of Jimi Hendrix Room Full of Mirrors has surprisingly little information on the musician's visit to Morocco in 1969, so a range of other sources including Hendrix fanzine Univibes were used. Paul Bowles' novel The Spider's House and Hamid Qabbal's The Spirit of a City say more than this path can. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cure for Twitter fatigue

From America JMW ponders on the future of music in our soundbite age. From Pakistan Billoo wants less fusion and more traditional music. From different countries and different cultures musicians are arriving at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival for Jordi Savall's Jerusalem. So to capture the zeitgeist Future Radio is repeating my 2008 programme which features a complete traditional African trance ritual recorded in the Medina at Marrakech, Morocco, see photo above. Forget that 140 character nonsense. This trance ritual itself lasts for more than two hours and is followed by a one hour electro-acoustic ‘minimalist trance’ set from two young DJs from Marrakech. The uninterrupted 3 hour 33 minute broadcast/webcast is going out at 2am UK time Sunday night/Monday morning (May 16/17). Convert to local time zones here and listen online here. The station is looking at a podcast, but the file size presents some technical challenges. For full details and background to the broadcast, which is a partnership with KamarStudios who are based in Marrakech and New York, follow this path.

Photo credit KamarStudios. 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, May 12, 2010

Move over iPod


Here comes the latest in mobile media. Radio Barkas from Holland is playing at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival. Last night we were at La Vie from Montreal based company les 7 doigts de la main which is not to be missed if you can get to Norwich. There are some very exciting things happening where music meets dance meets circus. Is the answer to take classical music to the visual?

All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Early music's poster boy


On Thursday (May 13) Jordi Savall plays a solo viol recital in the 15th century church of Saint Peter Mancroft in the centre of Norwich as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival. Two days later he performs his multi-cultural masque Jerusalem across the road in the multi-purpose Theatre Royal. It is going to be a very interesting three days acoustically as well as musically. The early music legend is familiar with the acoustic of the 15th century church of Saint Peter Mancroft as he performed his Orient-Occident programme there to great acclaim two years ago. But the contrast with the Jerusalem venue could hardly be greater.

The 1300 seat Theatre Royal was rebuilt in 1935 following a fire to a standard design used for Odeon cinemas. Due to its cinematic pedigree the sound in the
steeply raked auditorium was notoriously dry until a 2007 refurbishment. As described here previously the refurbishment included installing the French CARMEN® sound enhancement system. Digital reverberation has transformed the sound and since its installation the Theatre Royal has hosted leading performers including the Britten Sinfonia, Glyndebourne Touring Opera and Philip Glass. But quite what will happen when digital reverberation meets shofars, the Greek text of a Sibylline oracle and a 1950s archive recording by an Auschwitz survivor will be revealed on Saturday.

An intinerant musician's life must be a very interesting one. From a 1935 recycled Odeon cinema in Norwich Jordi Savall takes Jerusalem to the festival of sacred music in Fes, Morocco and the historic fortress of Bab El Makina. But it is a mistake to assume that performers always prefer atmospheric old venues to better equipped modern ones. What We Really Do is an engaging book by Tallis Scholars founder Peter Phillips, and it comes down firmly on the side of modern auditoriums with their better facilities and often better sound. The thought provoking book also expresses Peter Phillips' outspoken views on recording techniques (many Tallis Scholars CDs are recorded here in Norfolk in Salle Church), the Machiavellian style of corporate record labels and much else.


Hear the ambience of Saint Peter Mancroft for yourself, my just in time interview with Jordi Savall was recorded there, while my Britten Sinfonia pre-concert talks were recorded on the stage of the Theatre Royal. Minimalism's poster boy is here, and classical music's poster boy is here.

Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. 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, May 10, 2010

Letter to a young composer

'To dismiss a work merely because it does not fit into the critics' category of what constitutes modernity is a fatal narrowing of vision' - from Edmund Rubbra's 1956 article Letter to a Young Composer.
That quote comes from a book that I have a feeling will be making quite a few more appearances here. BBC Music in the Glock Era and After is a memoir by the former BBC producer Leo Black who is also author of the excellent study Edmund Rubbra, Symphonist. What makes Leo Black's new volume on BBC Music so remarkable is the sheer breadth of music that it embraces. As well as making an eloquent case for Rubbra's music the text ranges from a 1961 performance in Vienna of Schoenberg's uncompleted oratorio Die Jakobsleiter to substantial appreciations of Luigi Dallapicolla, Hanns Eisler, Roberto Gerhard, Franz Schmidt and Hugh Wood. All this plus wonderful line drawings, as seen below, by Milein Cosman who is the widow of Hans Keller and is known for her portraits of Britten, Stravinsky and Furtwängler. BBC Music in the Glock Era and After is a scholarly, readable and generous memoir that firmly endorses the Zen viewpoint that 'Everything in my shop is the best'.


* Lyrita's recording of Edmund Rubbra's Symphonies No. 6 (1954) and No. 8 (1968) is up there in my list of fifty discs to hear before you die. The original 1982 LP release of these two remarkable symphonies (No. 8 is subtitled Hommage à Teilhard de Chardin) opened my ears to this shamefully neglected composer. If any confirmation is needed of the truth of the composer's words from 1956 it is the glorious music that plays from the Lyrita CD transfer as I write. My header image is from the CD inlay which is one of the rare times when the CD redesign bettered the LP artwork. (The similarly underrated Norman del Mar conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in the symphonies, the CD transfer adds the composer's Soliloquy for Orchestra with the Sri Lankan cellist Rohan de Saram and Tod Handley conducting the LSO). These wonderful interpretations are still in the catalogue as a CD and MP3. Not only is the writing for orchestra quite magical, but the 1972 Decca engineered sound is also a revelation. (The excellent CD transfer does not give details of recording dates, location or production team which is a surprising omission). To hear the sound at its best the CD format is definitely the one to go for, unless, like me, you are lucky enough to have a mint vinyl pressing of the original LP release. More Rubbra (and much else) in The Year is '72.

BBC Music in the Glock Era and After by Leo Black ISBN 9780955608742 is published by Plumbago Books. Distribution is by Boydlell & Brewer who supplied a review sample at my request. The CD and LP featured in the post were bught at retail. 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, May 09, 2010

Ondes Martinu


One work that has slipped down the cracks in the current Martinů revival is his 1944 Fantaisie scored for ondes Martenot, piano, oboe and string quartet. The Fantaisie was originally written for theremin but Martinů approved the use of the ondes Martenot as a more practical alternative to the temparemental theremin.

Martinů's Fantaisie is one of the works on the disc seen above. Thomas Bloch studied the ondes Martenot with Jeanne Loriod, who was the younger sister of Olivier Messiaen's second wife. The composers on the CD range from Messiaen to Etienne Rolin (b.1952) as well as including Thomas Bloch's own compositions. This 2004 Naxos disc ticks all the boxes: it showcases rewarding music with wonderful performances, fills some important gaps in the catalogue, is captured in particularly vivid sound and comes at a very affordable price. More on the ill-starred theremin here.

The Naxos ondes Martenot CD 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

Friday, May 07, 2010

Are concert halls the new recording studios?

This could indicate that the center of economic activity in classical music is no longer records but live events. On top, concert halls are the new recording studios and EMI LBO [leveraged buy out] was doomed from the start.
That comments was added by Antoine Leboyer to What price Mahler? Now Antoine is one of the few bloggers still writing what he thinks rather than what big music wants him to think and I can't disagree with his point. But the eclipse of the studio by the concert hall as a recording venue has many implications. Live recordings have been around for ages. But how many of your all time favourite discs come from concert recordings? A quick scan across my well-stocked shelves identifies only two, Richter and Gavrilov's Handel Suites and Bruno Maderna's Mahler Nine.

Just recently a musician friend was lamenting the compromised technical, musical and emotional quality of the new generation of orchestra label live recordings. This guy has good ears and he questioned the ability of these live recordings to withstand repeat listening, saying "Fine as a substitute for being at the concert, but not as a substitute for a great studio recording". It is an important point, how many live Mahler recordings will still be in the catalogue almost fifty years after release?

Except for recordings of live performances concert halls, like for example London's Barbican which is used for many LSO Live recordings, are rarely used for sessions for the simple reason they do not have the unique acoustic properties needed for top quality recorded as opposed to concert sound. (One notable exception is Snape Maltings which Britten created as a dual purpose hall, but it is small as a concert venue). So the compromised sonic properties of concert halls coupled with the problem of audience noise (listen to those Handel Suites) opens the door to close miking, digital reverberation and other trickery - heard that one before? It may just be semantics, but I think my headline shouldreally be 'The recording studio is dead, we are going to have to live with concert halls'.

* Header image tells a fascinating story. It is from a wonderful CD by the vocal group Cantica Symphonia titled Stella del nostro mar - Past and present reflections of the Marian inspiration and it was made for the enterprising independent Spanish label Glossa. The disc is remarkable for its glorious juxtaposition of the ancient and modern, with the latter represented by contemporary composers Carlo Galante and Yakov Gubanov. It is even more remarkable because no engineer or producer was present for the sessions in the church in Colletto, Italy. Engineering and production credits go to the group's tenor Giuseppe Maletto who also operated the recording equipment seen in the foreground of the photo. Let me hasten to add that there is no compromise at all in the quality of the music making or sound. Stella del nostro mar is quite one of the most ravishing discs I have heard for a long time, helped I am sure by the distant position of the microphones seen in the photo and the long takes mentioned in the excellent accompanying booklet . So is it goodbye Concert halls are the new recording studios and hallo Musicians are the new production team?

Now this could seriously disrupt the recording ...
Stella del nostro mar was bought from Prelude Records. 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

Memo to PR agencies

From: Charlotte HJ
To: overgrownpath
Sent: 30 April 2010 10:32:42

To whom it may concern,

We’re working on a project with Opus Arte, a music and arts label that I’m sure you will already be aware of. They’re looking to engage the online opera/classical community with information on the best orchestras, classical music composers, significant dates in the history of Classical music etc. We’re happy to provide you with free concert tickets or free CDs of your choice if you get involved.

We have a video that we can share with you – would be great to hear your feedback and if you’d like to be part of this project. Any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Kind regards

Charlotte – The 7th Chamber
Memo to whom it may concern at PR agencies. Before sending the email read the blog.

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, May 06, 2010

What price Mahler?

'That pricing indicates that with back catalogues stuffed full of excellent Chopin and Mahler recordings anniversary price deflation will be the next life-threatening disease to hit the record industry' - On An Overgrown Path January 2010

'In connection with the 150th anniversary of Gustav Mahler's birth, as well as Christoph Eschenbach's 70th anniversary in 2010, christoph-eschenbach.com in collaboration with the websites of the Orchestre de Paris and Medici TV will each offer a unique free streaming experience of all of Gustav Mahler's Symphonies' - christoph-eschenbach.com April 2010
Is recorded classical music too ....

Mahler coins from the Czech Mint. 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

I am in an even larger prison

~ "In man's attempts to get on well with potential destroyers: gods, storms, wild animals, demons and even human enemies, he has made sacrifices, developed rituals, made up stories, played music, sang songs and danced.

Gnawa music can be regarded as a means of self-expression and communication with spirits. In other words, it is a centre of communal celebration intended for the pleasure and entertainment of both human beings and spirits.

Just as some renaissance painters couched their anti-Christian ideas through apparently Christian paintings, Gnawa, a pagan practice appealed to the possessing spirits through apparently Islamic songs and rituals. This conflict between the Islamic and the pagan, the sacred and profane, the dark and the light has helped this music to create its own context and audience.
~ In a maze of narrow vein-like alleys where houses mushroomed against the rules of gravity and architecture, bottom-bellied and top-tapered like a public display of giant terra-cotta pots, a jerry-built house jutted out, the jagged sand-walled facade looked like a dry nutshell, plain because unpainted, peculiar because unprotected.

The unused door, for want of an upper hinge was constantly ajar. At night when it was locked to keep animals out, a latch string was left out to allow people in. That was how the Gnawa Zawia, a brotherhood of slave descendants expressed their deep-rooted refusal and rejection of chains and shackles: tangible symbols of slavery and servitude...

The door-adjoining room on the right served as a mosque for the sect. Opposite the mosque was another quasi-identical room which housed their recreational rites and rituals ... The 'spirits' room was second on the right. Here they catered for the needs of different spirits in terms of incense, colour and music.
~ The police ignored them; their job was to ignore whatever was not useful to their mission. While two inspectors escorted Said out of the building, the third one followed with a bagful of Said's documents. No case without evidence was the first rule they learnt at the police school. Fake evidence to charge a damned annoying suspect was what they learnt at the police department after they graduated ...

"Don't worry! They don't need me or anyone else to incriminate him. The new terrorism law has decreed that a suspect is guilty till he is acquitted. The main concern is that one may be remanded for months without a fair trial ... Let's hope for a time when power can be exercised over a citizen only to prevent harm; a time when, over himself his mind and body, a person is sovereign. What scares me the most is that before that day is born, and before the dazzling sun of freedom rises, we shall all be prisoners."

Behind bars, he is in a prison.
Outside bars, I am in an even larger prison.
It is called a country and I am called a citizen.

Words and pictures that present a very different image to the one portrayed in the lavish Moroccan Interiors books with their seductive spreads of Marrakech riads. The photos are my own and the three extracts come from a very brave book written in English by a Moroccan author. The Spirit of a City is about the explosive collision of traditional and contemporary cultures that is present day Morocco. Its author Hamid Qabbal is an English teacher in Essaouira and the novel is set in the annual Gnawa festival in that city. To put The Spirit of a City in context here is a quote from Aboubakr Jamai, the outspoken and ex-editor of two leading Moroccan newspapers:
'The [Moroccan] regime likes to think and say it's a democracy, but obviously it's not. A very cursory reading of the constitution would tell you that it's not a democracy. It would tell you that it's an absolute monarchy. We have a political life, we have political parties, a measure of freedom of the press and of expression. But it is not a democracy in the sense that Moroccans have the power to change their rulers, because they certainly can't'.

* Listen to music from a Gnawa brotherhood in Essaouira in a Chance Music podcast. Author Hamid Qabbal lists his favourite music as Sufi music on his blog profile. Hear Syrian Sufi chant and instrumental music in another Chance Music podcast. Read An Overgrown Path on gnawa music here and about Sufism here and here.

* For a contemporary take on Sufi music try Jonathan Harvey's How could the soul not take flight which sets a poem by the 13th century Sufi mystic Meulana Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi. It is on the CD of Jonathan Harvey's choral music which featured in Zen and the art of new music.

* Composer Maurice Ohana (1913-1992) was born in Casablanca. Morocco of Sephardic-Jewish descent. Read about him in Unlocking the music of Maurice Ohana.

* More on the Jews of Morocco and on Moroccan resident Paul Bowles in Jewish music under a sheltering sky.

* Unfortunately there seems to be no easy way to buy a copy of The Spirit of a City. It is published by Sefrioui Editions in Essaouira and I bought my copy in the city. I can find no record of it on internet sellers such as Amazon France. My only suggestions are to email the publisher at editions_sefriouiATyahoo.fr or, even better, take a trip to Essaouira.


All photos were taken in Morocco and are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Aboubakr Jamai quote is from Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden by Morgan Spurlock which was borrowed from a public library. 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, May 05, 2010

Our politicians face the music


1. Tangled Up In Blue, Bob Dylan
2. Ernie, Benny Hill
3. Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd
4. On Wings of Song, Mendelssohn, Kiri Te Kanawa and Utah Symphony Orchestra
5. Fake Plastic Trees, Radiohead
6. This Charming Man, Smiths,
7. Perfect Circle, R.E.M,
8. All these Things that I've Done, The Killers

If the Conservatives win tomorrow's general election that list will be the musical tastes of our new prime minister, David Cameron. He chose those tracks in 2006 for the BBC's long running Desert Island Discs programme. It prompted a wonderful rant from Peter Maxwell Davies who described it as 'musical garbage'.

Gordon Brown appeared on the programme back in 1996 and his choices were only marginally more inspiring: at least there was no Benny Hill and there was Bach, albeit predictably the Suite for Orchestra No 3 in D major. When Nick Clegg appeared on Michael Berkeley's Private Passions programme on BBC Radio 3 in 2008 his selection was notably eclectic if somewhat Western pre-modern. Call me a cynic, but I suspect that this choice of music for a BBC Radio 3 programme by the future Lib Dem leader included an element of tactical voting:

1. Schubert Impromptu E flat minor, Alfred Brendel
2. Mozart Laudate Dominum (from the Vesperae solennes de Confessore, K339), Kiri Te Kanawa, ECO/Barry Rose
3. Chopin Piano Concerto no 2 in F minor (2nd movement, Larghetto,)
Valdimir Ashkenazy, Warsaw PO/Zdzislaw Gorzynski
4. Schubert Erlkönig, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
5. Chopin Waltz in A Minor, op posth, Claudio Arrau
6. Richard Strauss Beim Schlafengehen (No 3 from Four Last Songs), Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Berlin RSO/George Szell

I'll leave it to readers who know their political candidates and their German to decide if Nick Clegg's choice of that particular Strauss song has Freudian overtones. But staying with elections, for one Labour politician size definitely mattered.

Photo of election TV debate via metro.co.uk. 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, May 04, 2010

Echoes of ECM


Pierre Boulez used the term musique savant to describe 'knowing music' that transcends conventional categories. In the same way should we not now be using the term musique sans frontières to describe classical music that transcends the conventional frontiers between East and West?

An excellent example of musique sans frontières is the newly released CD Mantra, seen above. Musical conversations across the Indian Ocean is the disc's subtitle and it brings together The Orlando Concert and Indian forces. Mantra takes as its starting point the mix of Catholic liturgy and Indian instruments heard in the churches founded by Portugese missionaries in Goa in the 16th century. These medieval experiments in musique sans frontières were not notated so the CD is an exercise in conjecture rather than scholarship. Which is not a problem as it is the music that matters and musically this is a very adventurous and stimulating release. If you want to hear what the plainsong Salve Regina sounds like with sitar and tabla accompaniment this is the disc for you.

ECM are one of the main proponents of musique sans frontières and Mantra could well have come from them label instead of Keda Records, a small English independent label. Except for one caveat, the sound. It is not that the sound is bad. But for my ears anyway it is wrong. Production and mixing credits go to Steve Cooper and John Gallen, a duo who have quite a reputation in the rock field. Which probably accounts for why the sound of Mantra is close miked and fails to create a plausible image of the musicians spread between the speakers as they would be on a concert platform.

But the problems go deeper than that. Reverberation has clearly been added in post-production, and its addition favours voices over instruments. Mantra was recorded in Red Fort Studios in Southall, England, and a visit to the studio's website takes us down an interesting path. Red Fort looks like an excellent small studio (50 square metres), but the equipment list is illuminating. Outboard hardware includes the Lexicon PCM70 digital reverberation (echo) unit seen below. Now Lexicon reverb is pretty standard in recording studios, but it is also an essential component of the so-called ECM sound.


Now click over to Rainbow Studios in Oslo, seen in the photo below. This is a favourite ECM recording venue and was used for their musique sans frontières production Ragas and Sagas. There on the equipment list is a Lexicon 960L plus other reverb hardware. As I have said before, standard equipment in top studios. But this comment by Manfred Eicher is very revealing:
I grew up in the analog era and I was sharpening my ears and listening-capacities with analog in mind, including all the drawbacks which were also part of the reality – just think about the limitations of editing. But perhaps that wasn’t a limitation at all because it required a much higher awareness of the recorded material. We always had to ask ourselves if a certain edit is justified. Although, when new recording developments arrived, we were ready to try different microphones and microphone positions. Then, in the early 1970s, came the revolution of the Lexicon reverb, a very good musical instrument and a close friend of mine …
As Manfred Eicher says, the advent of his 'close friend' the Lexicon (and also EMT) reverb unit revolutionised the ECM sound. The difference between ECM recordings and Mantra is that the ECM engineers have learnt the art of starting with the natural reverberation found in warm acoustics and enhancing that with digital reverberation, whereas on Mantra artificial reverb has been used to unevenly enhance a dry sound.


It is an interesting but discursive path and I want to conclude it by making two points. First, the sound on Mantra is not a deal breaker. This is a very rewarding disc. It is a pity that the engineers did not achieve ECM quality sound, but the fact that it has sparked this path is a measure of its merit.

My second point is a thought provoking one. ECM are rightly praised for their 'natural' sound. It is also a fact that digital processing of some form is used in every recording today. But industry folklore has it that guitarist Pat Metheny left ECM because he disagreed with Manfred Eicher over the excessive addition of reverberation to his recordings. The founder of ECM makes no secret of his label's use of digital reverberation to create its signature sound. As he explains in another interview:
'Reverb is used only to draw your final landscape in a mix ... A 'natural' recording just doesn't exist. If sounds and music go through microphones and wires, there might be something mysterious once in a while.'
That is Manfred Eicher below pondering the range of digital processing options available to him. So how natural is the ECM sound? Or is it true "a 'natural' recording just doesn't exist"? With more and more listening being done using iPods and headphones is the ideal of 'a plausible image of the musicians spread between the speakers as they would be on a concert platform' simply redundant? Was it so long ago when the sound really mattered?


* My main listening room is equipped with Bowers & Wilkins Nautilus 803 speakers powered by an Arcam 10 integrated amplifier. Front end sources are Arcam 9 CD player, Thorens TD125 Mk II/SME Series IIIS/Audio-Technica AT-F3 turntable, and Denon TU-260 tuner. Sennheiser HD 580 headphones are available for late night listening, high quality interconnects are used and power comes via a custom built mains smoother. This room is 42 square metres, which is largish by UK standards but probably small in American terms. It is interesting that this listening room is only slightly smaller than Red Fort Studios, Southall (50 sq. m.) which explains the dry sound of Mantra. Rainbow Studios, Oslo has a much bigger footprint of 180 sq. m. but the effective volume, a key metric for acoustics, is many times greater due to the high ceilings. Unfortunately, despite all the clever things that digital technology can do, you can't change the laws of physics which state you need a big space for good recorded sound and big loudspeakers for good reproduced sound.

Mantra 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

Sunday, May 02, 2010

If you like Korngold try this


The programming of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's lyrical Violin Concerto at a BBC Prom on August 10 is confirmation that Korngold is getting the recognition he rightly deserves. But there is still an awful lot of deserving music that is crying out for rediscovery, including that on the newly released CD seen above.

Quincy Porter (1897-1966) was born in New Haven, Connecticut. He studied at Yale and in Paris and then held a series of high ranking academic positions in America after founding the American Music Centre in 1939 with Aaron Copland and Howard Hanson. His Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (now known as the Concerto Concertante) won a Pullitzer Prize in 1954. Quincy Porter was an early advocate of hi-fi sound, and all the rooms of his retirement home in Bethany, Connecticut were networked for audiophile sound.

The 1948 Concerto for Viola and Orchestra is the main work on this invaluable new CD. Comparisons between it and Korngold's Violin Concerto written just three years earlier are inevitable but a little unfair. Quincy Porter's own instrument was the viola and he made an important but now overlooked contribution to the viola repertoire. The Concerto is dedicated to William Primrose and the first performance was given by Paul Doktor with the CBS Orchestra conducted by Dean Dixon, the African-American conductor who featured here in October 2008.

Dorian's disc of Quincy Porter's Complete Viola Works maintains the musicians of color connection as the quite superb soloist is Alaskan born Eliesha Nelson and her accompanist, on piano, harpsichord and the podium with the Northwest Sinfonia, is Grammy winner John McLaughlin Williams.

As I listened to John McLaughlin Williams accompanying Ms. Nelson in Quincy Porter's wistful Duo for Viola and Harpsichord I was reminded of this story from the compilation Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps.
When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

'Give me the best piece of meat you have,' said the customer.

'Everything in my shop is the best,' replied the butcher. 'You cannot fnd here any piece of meat that is not the best.'

At the words Banzan became enlightened.
An enlighted one is a bodhisattva, described by Jeff Greenwald as 'the mindful and mysterious men, women and children who seem to recognize, almost from Day One, their peculiar function on this planet'. John McLaughlin William is a veritable bodhisattva. His peculiar function on the planet is to selflessly champion little known and deserving music. In his view everything in the music market is the best, from Messiaen (which he won his Grammy for) to Quincy Porter.

Thankfully the pursuit of musical fashions and playing the anniversary game is not what John McLaughlin Williams is about. As well as Quincy Porter's Complete Viola Works he has just recorded a much-needed disc of music by another American composer, Deon Nielsen Price (if you like Alan Hovhaness try this), conducting this time the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. There are much easier ways to earn a living and you are not likely to find either of these discs in BBC Radio 3's classical chart. But that is not what being a bodhisattva is about.


Quincy Porter Complete Violin Works and Deon Nielsen Price Dancing on the Brink of the World were supplied as review CDs 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

Meanwhile on the BBC Radio 3 message board

'In short, Mr. Ross's insights are not particularly compelling and he has a fairly shallow vision of classical music' - discuss.
Remember folks this is a heads up, so please don't shoot the messenger or start talking about whining Brits - the writer of that comment seems to be American. But I had to laugh at a comment on the BBC Radio 3 message board about a fairly shallow vision of classical music. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk