Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Songs of innocence and experience


The power of music in the form of Gregorian chant first took me to Le Barroux outside Avignon many years ago and my earliest post about the monastery there was uploaded back in 2004. A number of return visits to Le Barroux and to other Catholic monasteries in France allowed me to explore the links between plainsong and mysticism.


But those visits also brought me face to face with the connection between traditionalist Catholicism and right wing politics. So, after careful research, I published an article on Holocaust Day in January this year detailing the link between the right wing cleric Archbishop Lefebvre, founder of the controversial traditionalist Catholic Society of St. Pius X, and the convicted French war criminal Paul Touvier.


When Decca announced that they had signed the nuns at L'Abbaye de l'Annonciation at Le Barroux in a bid to win the biggest classical popularity contest of all, Christmas number one, I wrote and broadcast in praise of the Gregorian chant performed at the monastery. But I also pointed out the past connection between the monastic community and Archbishop Lefebvre. At the same time I contacted Decca, who follow this blog via Twitter, telling them that I would be in Avignon in November. I asked if they could arrange access to the nuns to discuss Voices - Chant from Avignon. Decca's response was swift and uncomplicated. Nancy Coburn, the nun's point person at the label, thanked me for my interest but explained that the limited interviews available with the nuns were being used for national press coverage.


Which is where this story should reach its happy ending. Voices - Chant from Avignon by the nuns of the Abbaye de l'Annonciation is selling in suitably large quantities and has been number one in the UK specialist classical chart since its release on November 15th, doubtless helped by exclusive national press coverage in the Daily Mail's You magazine, from which this quote is taken:

It is moving speaking to the sisters. Like watching a nativity play or witnessing a wedding, a whisper of your own lost innocence or idealism comes back to you.
But the story does not end there. I too have been moved by the innocence of the sisters. But, unlike the national media, I have also discovered their connections to darker experiences in the past and I wanted to understand how they reconciled this innocence and experience. So I travelled to Le Barroux last week and talked to the monks at L'Annonciation's motherhouse about their connections with Archbishop Lefebvre and his links with Paul Touvier. At this point several things need to be made clear. The monks I spent time with at l'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine Le Barroux know me, they have read my blog and my articles about l'affaire Touvier, and they are aware I am by nature a sceptic. But still they welcomed me warmly even though I was not from the Daily Mail. They were anxious to explain their position, and two busy and highly qualified Fathers spent a considerable amount of time in separate conversations with me, for which I thank them.


Unfortunately another opportunity for a happy ending now passes us by. Extensive discussions at the monastery did not change the well documented facts. Archbishop Lefebvre supported the 'Catholic order' of the collabarationist Vichy regime and the Franco dictatorship in Spain, endorsed the far-right politician Jean Marie le Pen, and was prosecuted for inciting racial hatred. Lefebvre, who died in 1991, was associated with Le Barroux until 1988. While he was on the run for the second time between 1973 and 1979 Paul Touvier received assistance from Lefebvre and his associates, but not, the monks assured me, at Le Barroux. Touvier was arrested at a priory in Nice run by Lefebvre's followers in 1989. At his 1994 trial, at which he was found guilty of crimes against humanity, Touvier was defended by a traditionalist Catholic lawyer and was accompanied by a traditionalist priest. When Touvier died in 1996 a traditional requiem mass was celebrated the chapel of the Society of St. Pius X in Paris.


Which left me to ask the monks the awkward question: if these are the facts how can the past links between Le Barroux and Archbishop Lefebvre be explained? The response was that the monastery was allied religously but not politically with Lefebvre. Doubtless there are many who will accept this explanation. But there are also others who will think of the many instances, including the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Albigensian Crusade, and the Spanish Civil War, where religion and politics have been inextricably linked. And, like me, they will find the explanation that religion and politics can be totally separated both disingenuousness and naive.


This article in not an attempt to poop on Decca's Christmas party. I have said before, and will say again, I hope lots of people buy the nun's CD. But we live in an information age, and I believe the control of information by parties with vested interests has to be countered. Paul Touvier was convicted in 1994 of involvement in crimes against humanity including the killing of seven Jewish hostages at Rillieux-la-Pape during the Second World War. He had close links with the traditionalist Archbishop Lefebvre who in turn had links with the monastery at Le Barroux. And although the community at Le Barroux severed their links with Lefebvre in 1988, the nuns and monks there remain staunchly traditionalist Catholic with the associated baggage. Unsurprisingly, none of this is mentioned on the nun's Facebook page or in other Decca promotional material. So part of the backstory of a high profile classical album is not available elsewhere. Which is why last week I asked the monks at Le Barroux an awkward question and then wrote this post.


Also on Facebook and Twitter. All the photos of l'Abbaye de l'Annonciation are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. My trip to Le Barroux was self-funded and I stayed in the monastery guesthouse at Le Barroux. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Classical music and dumbed down ears

The implication here being that young people simply can’t hear the greatness that is classical music. The music is simply too complex for their dumbed down ears. This sort of statement doesn’t seem to phase the classical audience that will likely be reading it but anyone who’s not already in that circle is probably going to feel, as I did, that this is a bit of a shot at those who listen to popular music.

The intentions in all of this are great. We need more people asking questions about why the classical audience is ageing and trying to find out what will keep this tradition vibrant but it’s at least a little ironic to me that the very people doing this tend to perpetuate some really bad PR. It’s all seems to add up to people asking, “How can we get people to step up to our level?” As opposed to asking, “How can we make ourselves relevant to a world that doesn’t even know we’re here anymore?”
That is audio engineer, composer, and guitarist Josh McNeil's interesting riposte to recent posts from Will Robin and me about how classical music can connect with younger audiences. On Friday I caught a one-off dance performance by the corps de ballet in the Avignon opera house. It was a text book example of how to reach young audiences using music ranging from baroque through pop to techno combined with video images. But the sound, oh dear the sound. The recorded music for the production was played through two large and battered PA speakers either side of the stage and lacked fidelity, slam, dynamics and practically everything else. But the capacity audience, which was almost all youngsters with parents, loved it. Audiophile company Quad Electroacoustics' long standing strapline 'The closest approach to the original sound' positions the concert hall as the sonic reference point. So does music education for the iPod generation mean exposing young ears to the original sound? Or should we be accepting that for young people reproduced rather than live music is the original sound? Is it the classical music community that now has the prejudiced ears? Can we learn from Alan Watts writing about John Cage?
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.
Header image is Illusion's 1974 album Isotope with artwork by Gull Graphics' inhouse designer John Pasche. 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 Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Classical music adds visual slam


"Shouldn't we be making classical music more visual to attract younger audiences?" was the question asked in See the music. When I posed that question last year a marriage between classical music and contemporary visual art was no more than a dream. But Nov 12 brought resounding confirmation that the visual could provide a way forward to reach new audiences.

Aldeburgh Music's innovatory Faster Than Sound project presented an evening of new music in the Britten Studio at Snape. All the compositions were created in an Aldeburgh Residency that explored the relationship between the acoustic and the electric. Spheres and Splinters provided the finale, this Aldeburgh Music commission for MIT guru and composer Tod Machover was played on a hypercello by Peter Gregson accompanied by interactive visuals.

British based collective UnitedVisualArtists (UVA) created the visuals. Best known for their collabarations with rock acts such Massive Attack, Kylie, U2, and Jay-Z, UVA are keen to work with classical musicians. My header and footer images are from UVA's recent installation at V & A in London which used the same light technology as we saw with Spheres and Splinters.

Combining the visual and classical is not as blasphemous as many would think. More than a century ago Alexander Scriabin notated his 1909 symphonic poem 'Prometheus, the Poem of Fire' for the Luxe, a custom designed light projector built by Russian physicist Alexander Moser. In the mid-20th century, as a biography explains, conductor Leopold Stokowski often had lights set up for concerts to cast huge shadows of him on the walls of the concert hall. In the 21st century we maintain the visual convention of dimming the auditorium lights to provide engagement betwen audience and musicians. Light installations such as the one that accompanied Spheres and Splinters at Snape yesterday simply strengthen this engagement. But there is really no need for justification. Because if Joana Seguro of Aldeburgh Music is experimenting with something, it means it is worth watching.

If I was running an ensemble or venue I would be beating a path to the door of UnitedVisualArtists and similar organisations to discuss how they can add visual slam to classical music. Combining visual and classical could press the important hot button for funders, and a little bird tells me UVA may have some speculative work waiting to be picked up by someone quick off the mark in the classical field. Bring on music and movement.


* More about new music and new media at TEDx Aldeburgh. Read the story here.

** The Snape concert used an ambisonic surround sound system masterminded by MIT computer science major and senior student Ben Bloomberg. There are a lot of exciting and important things happening in the audio field right now. Read more about surround sound at MIT here.

*** I will be away for a while:
'The traveller has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end' - Rabindranath Tagore
Do support other free thinking music blogs here, here, and here while I wander through some more outer and inner worlds.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Our excellent value for money £10 tickets for Spheres and Splinters at Snape were bought at the box office. Visuals are from UnitedVisualArtists website. 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, November 12, 2010

Colonial attitudes within Western music

I have never felt comfortable with the economic, social and cultural order that reigns over the field of ‘world music’, that makes Western artists travel to countries in the East and the South that possess rich musical traditions. They collect music, repertories and musicians from there and return to fructify this godsend in the privileged world of the well-off West, where the art market is structured in a sufficiently rational manner to allow musicians to develop their careers and live off their art. None of us find this strange. The audience in those countries rarely have the opportunity to judge the results of our work as it is almost unavailable to them. Perhaps the time has come to reverse this trend. In any case, I feel the need to do so in order to preserve the coherence and balance of my own journey as an artist and as a human being.
Yesterday I asked "Could [the mass market fallacy] also explain why creativity continues to flourish in genres such as world music and jazz which have shed their mass market pretensions?" Surely it is no coincidence that my opening quote comes from one of world music's most creative forces, even if he is uncomfortable with the world music label usually attached to him?

I discovered the music of guitarist, composer and visionary Titi Robin on a visit to Paris last year and he has made several appearances On An Overgrown Path since. The quote comes from the blog about his remarkable new project Three Rivers. No music has been released yet. But I use the word 'remarkable' with confidence because Three Rivers is a remarkable and rare example of a contemporary musician putting his music where his mouth is. It also provides serious food for thought about the continuing colonial attitudes within Western music and raises important questions about the currently fashionable East meets West projects that have featured here and elsewhere.

You can read the full story of Three Rivers on Titi Robin's blog. But in brief, it is a 3 CD project based on the music of India, Turkey and Morocco. Work will take several years and each CD will be recorded in one of the three countries, with Titi Robin playing with local musicians and using local production facilities and a local record company. Each disc will be released first in the country in which it was made by the local record label. At the completion of the project Naïve, 'maison d'artistes éclectique et non conformiste' and the label to which Titi Robin is signed, will release a de luxe 3 CD set in Europe. India is the first part of the triptych and Blue Frog is the production partner in Mumbai. Titi Robin's blog provides a lot more information and videos, it is best read by starting from the bottom and reading up.

It is interesting how these paths keep crossing. Three Rivers has echoes of the 1972 journey that took Peter Brook and a troupe of actors to perform in African villages. In that opening quote Titi Robin said "I feel the need to do [this] in order to preserve the coherence and balance of my own journey as an artist and as a human being." Elsewhere in his blog he talks about listening to the song of a Kalo (gypsy from the south of France) from the San Jaume area of Perpignan. Just a couple of months back I was in that wonderful city of Perpignan. It is where Pablo Casals made many of his legendary recordings, and last week I quoted the great Catalan musician as saying "A musician is also a man". Classical music can certainly learn a lot from both Pablo Casals and Titi Robin about the importance of maintaining the balance between artist and human being.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. 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 11, 2010

Classical music and the mass market fallacy


So much effort goes into trying to find a mass market for classical music, all with remarkably little success. Could it be that there is a large market for classical music, but not a mass one? Could it be that classical music is granular and is made up of lots of connected but different niche markets? Could it be that there is no such thing as 'one size fits all' classical music? Could it be that when classical music is homogenised for the elusive mass market it loses its essential appeal? Could the mass market fallacy explain why so much classical music today is bland and unappealing? Could it also explain why creativity continues to flourish in genres such as world music and jazz which have shed their mass market pretensions?

A perfect example of granular new music exploding into a blaze of creativity is the CD seen above. Dawn of Midi is a collective made up of Pakistani percussionist Qasim Naqvi, Indian Aakaash Israni on string bass and Moroccan pianist Amino Belyamani, see photo below. All the tracks on their debut CD First are improvised, the sound is purely acoustic and the recording was made in single takes. Think free jazz meets French impressionists meets John Cage, and think very understated yet very frontal lobe sounds. All captured with maximum slam by tonmeister extraordinaire Steve Rusch. Nobody was thinking about the mass market when this disc was laid down, which is why it is so good. Do I need to say that First comes from an independent label called Accretions?

More proof of the mass market fallacy comes from the latest UK RAJAR audience figures. There are many subjective views about what is happening at BBC Radio 3. But let's park those for the moment and look at objective data. Radio 3, in response to competitive pressure from Classic FM, has repositioned itself towards the mass market. In the last twelve months this has included broadcasting a classical chart in peak hours.

Audience data has just been released for the quarter ending September 2010, which includes the introduction of the classical chart as well as the crucial Proms season. This data shows that the BBC Radio 3 audience fell from 2.192 million Q3 2009 to 2.145 million in Q3 2010. More significantly hours per listener fell from 6.4 to 6.0 over the same period. This meant that total listener hours (audience x hours per listener) for Radio 3 dropped by an astonishing 8.4% year on year. There is no causal data linking this significant decline to the introduction of a classical chart. But could it be that there is a large market for classical music, but not a mass one?


* In an interesting case study in the use and abuse of statistics the BBC press office manages to spin an 8.4% decline in total listener hours into a success story. They do this by comparing the Q3 2010 audience with the Q2 2010 audience and completely ignoring the massive year on year drop in hours per listener. The Q2 to Q3 trend is meaningless as there is always an audience gain from Q2 to Q3 due to the Proms. The meaningful data is the year on year data analysed above. Bring on the free thinking BBC.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Dawn of Midi's CD First was supplied as a requested sample after a heads up from a reader. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Sarkozy's first CD?


Channel Classics has the scoop. "In fact, no label had issued a (Beethoven) symphonic cycle in three years, and none was likely to do so again" as someone once told us.

My wife points out that President Sarkozy dyes his hair and Ivan Fischer does not. That thread continues here and the French first lady's musical connections are here. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Beyond Katherine Jenkins


sfmike has left a new comment on the post "Classical music tries Californian envangelism":
Hey, don't blame California for these frauds. That's like blaming Wales for Katherine Jenkins.
Quite so Mike. But no need to blame anyone for John Jenkins (1592-1678). That is the Avie CD of his Six-Part Consorts above. It comes from Phantasm who also brought us the Byrd Four Part Mass without voices.

But can I say a word about musicians like Katherine Jenkins? Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

The ministry of silly talks


BBC Radio 3 presenters seem to earn bonuses for the number of times they use certain buzz words. Currently there is a big incentive on the word live. This is presumably in a futile attempt to differentiate the network from its close relative Classic FM which broadcasts fewer concerts.

Just now we had Radio 3 classical jock Sarah Walker telling us that we had been listening to "Wilhelm Kempff live in concert".

How many times have you heard a pianist dead in concert?

RIP the art of the animateur.

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

A musician is also a person

'When you hear the sound of nuns chanting, it's like an immediate escape from the challenges, stresses, noise and pace of modern living. You're given a glimpse of a secret world of peace and calm - Tom Lewis, Head of A&R at Decca Records
My header photo shows the Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation at Le Barroux in France. The quote below it comes from Voices - Chant from Avignon, the official website of the new CD from the nuns of the Abbey. This album was released on Nov. 8 and Decca is hoping it will chart over the Christmas period. To achieve this the label are running TV commercials in the UK, which is very unusual for a classical release. The official Chant from Avignon website provides a great introduction to the album. But there are also some aspects of the nuns "secret world of peace and calm" not mentioned there that deserve to be shared.

The Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation at Le Barroux, which was founded in 1979, is a sister house of the community of monks at the nearby Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine. This was formed in 1970 by Dom Gérard Calvet, scion of the wealthy Calvet Bordeaux wine dynasty, as a reaction against the cautiously liberalising reforms of the Second Vatican Council. For almost two decades the monastery at Le Barroux was aligned with the far right Catholic traditionalists Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of St. Pius X.

A degree of notoriety is attached to the Society of St. Pius X, Archbishop Lefebvre and other elements within the traditionalist Catholic movement. As described here previously, in 1994 France's most notorious war criminal, Paul Touvier, was defended by a traditionalist Catholic lawyer and a priest from the Society of Saint Pius X founded by Lefebvre sat beside Touvier throughout his trial and acted as his spiritual advisor.

Paul Touvier had been on the run in France for a total of 35 years and was sheltered during that period in a number of traditionalist Catholic monasteries, although there is no evidence that he was given refuge at Le Barroux. At his trial Touvier was found guilty of crimes against humanity and was sentenced to life imprisonment. As well as being involved in the massacre of seven Jews at Rillieux-la-Pape in 1944, Touvier was linked to the murder of Victor Basch and his wife Ilona. Basch was the former president of the League of Human Rights which in the 1890s had led the defence of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French army captain falsely accused of treason.

French police had arrested Paul Touvier in May 1989 at the priory of Saint-Joseph de Nice run by followers of Archbishop Lefebvre. Just one year earlier the monastic community at Le Barroux had split from Lefebvre over his decisions to consecrate bishops without Vatican approval. This split brought reconciliation with the Vatican and today Pope Benedict XVI is considered to be an ally of the two monasteries at Le Barroux.

There are many who will say none of this is relevant to a CD released in 2010. But I hold a different view. Paul Touvier's high profile trial took place just sixteen years ago, which is within the lifetime of the youngest nuns at Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation. Yes, the monastic community there had distanced itself from Archbishop Lefebvre six years previously. But today the community at Le Barroux remains firmly traditionalist Catholic and holds views on topics such as homosexuality and religious inclusivity that are at variance with those commonly accepted elsewhere.

In small villages in France where there are traditionalist Catholic monasteries the block voting of the monastics can be an important factor in elections. During the second round of the 2010 regional elections in the commune of Le Barroux far right National Front party leader Jean Marie Le Pen came a close third with 30% of the 339 votes. This video shows another National Front politician Bruno Gollnisch speaking in Le Barroux village in October 2010 in support of Le Pen. Gollnisch, who is part of the Catholic faction within the National Front, has previously been tried and acquitted on appeal for contesting the existence of crimes against humanity and he publicly supports the French Government's move to deport the Roma.

By signing a deal with Decca and by becoming internet and Facebook properties the nuns of Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation at Le Barroux have held themselves up to public scrutiny. As part of this, their music making needs to be put into a wider context than is offered by Decca's carefully orchestrated PR campaign and the resulting fawning mainstream media coverage.

I am not suggesting that the nuns' glorious CD should be boycotted because of their traditionalist Catholic views. In fact, I hope many people buy the disc and go on to appreciate both the riches of sacred music and the infinite possibilities of the spiritual realm. But On An Overgrown Path has always followed Pablo Casals' credo that a musician is also a person. By choosing to become media properties the nuns at the Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation are now people as well as contemplatives. Which is why I have written this article.


* An update on this story here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. 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, November 08, 2010

Classical music tries Californian envangelism


Aldeburgh has a long association with both contemporary and electronic music and my header photo was taken at Aldeburgh Music's 2007 Faster then sound festival. On November 6th Aldeburgh explored a new path with a one day TEDx conference featuring a slew of speakers and musicians from that crucially important area where classical meets contemporary meets electronic meets rock music.

TED stands for 'Technology Electronics & Design' and is the brand of the privately owned not-for-profit Sapling Foundation. Its main activities are networking conferences dedicated to "ideas worth spreading". The TED movement originated in Silicon Valley, California and its events have been held in Monterey, Long Beach, Palm Springs and international locations. Central to the conference format is a strictly enforced 18 minute duration for presentations and speakers have included Bill Clinton, Malcolm Gladwell, Al Gore, Gordon Brown, Richard Dawkins, Bill Gates, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Despite its strapline of 'ideas worth spreading' TED has not been above criticism. Charges of elitism were sparked by the 2006 conference for which the invitation only tickets cost $4,400. The Lebanese economist and authority on the uncertainty principle Nassim Taleb has criticised TED for intellectual superficiality and in a recent attack described the organisation as a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.”

To offset criticism TED membership was changed in 2007 to an annual fee of $6,000, which includes attendance of the conference and other benefits. Since 2006 the 18 minute TED talks have been offered for free viewing online through TED.com and have reached a wide international audience. A more flexible TEDx sub-brand has been created for smaller events. These are clearly identified as independently organised events but contain some mandatory TED generated video content. Aldeburgh Music's event was held under the TEDx franchise with tickets priced at a reasonable £20 for the full day conference.

To give the flavour of TED events three videos shown at the Aldeburgh event are embedded below. I have written previously about the need for classical music animateurs and there is no doubt that these are very professional talks. But, for me, classical music, motivational speak and Silicon Valley evangelising sit together uncomfortably and I am left agreeing with Nassim Taleb's analogy of "circus performers". But judge for yourself, the videos are long but worth watching.


* Israeli conductor Itay Talgam on how to lead like a conductor, complete with interesting footage of various maestros.


* David Byrne on how architecture helped music evolve, complete with a mention of Alex Ross.


* Benjamin Zander on music, passion and Chopin

For me the highlights of a fascinating day at TEDx Aldeburgh were not the recorded talks, or even the live talks by 1990s rock stars who have found a lucrative second wind combining technically dazzling light shows with mind numbingly banal muzak. No, the real stars were the presenters who made live music. This post is already starting to run slowly due to its video payload so I will add links rather than embed more videos. Sarah Nicolls played her extraordinary 'inside-out piano' and programmer Tim Exile contributed an improvised live set, see them both here. Peter Gregson astounded with his electric cello and Imogen Heap's final set made the timing overrun worthwhile.

But the real star was 14 year old percussionist Matthew Farthing. Another presenter made sure we knew he had flown in from Los Angeles. By contrast Matthew, who is a beneficiary of the admirable Aldeburgh young musician scheme and has just been selected for the National Youth Orchestra, came up the road from Ipswich to modestly show us how classical music transcends Californian-style evangelism.

TEDx Aldeburgh was definitely a worthwhile experiment and we will be there again for Peter Gregson's ambisonic set with Tod Machover on Friday evening (Nov 12). But in the end, the event showed that Aldeburgh does live music better than California does live speakers. Perhaps Aldeburgh ought to be spreading its ideas around the West Coast rather than vice versa?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. I paid for my £20 TEDx ticket. 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

Bernstein's lost masterpiece


On An Overgrown Path's server logs recently showed a visit by 'The Leonard Bernstein Office'. When I mentioned this to a friend the following response came back:
In monk terminology from the Middle Ages that could be a long piece recited throughout the day which no one knows Lenny ever wrote...
Lenny's Mass featured here.

Header photo shows Lennie with Robert Corff in rehearsal for Mass. 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 Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Who wears the trousers in classical music?


Anecdotal information leads to an interesting path. I am told research shows that around 95% of readers of Gramophone magazine are male. There are two ways of looking at this. First, and this is the one as a committed non-reader I subscribe to, Gramophone has long ceased to have any real relevance to classical music. But the second explanation is worth reflecting on and revolves around the assumption that the magazine still plays a role in decision making. Classical music audiences are most definitely not 95% male. But could it be that decision making among classical music listeners is still male dominated? Every possibility needs to be considered in the search for new audiences.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. 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

Free thinking BBC?


BBC Radio 3 is having a free thinking festival this weekend. Here is my contribution.

And it is not just me. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter
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Friday, November 05, 2010

Exploited for the symphony-going public

'Eight freedom songs Merton had written a few years earlier had been set to music by Alexander Peloquin for a young black singer who had subsequently disappeared to Ireland to take part in a successful show. In the end Peloquin used the songs in a symphony for Eileen Farrell, and Merton found himself accused of selling out, of using the sorrows of the black race simply as material to be exploited for the symphony-going public' - from The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott
* John Jacob Niles' less accident prone setting of Thomas Merton's The Responsory features in my Chance Music homage to Catalonia. Listen to the podcast here.

Chance Music will be broadcast/webcast on Future Radio 107.8 FM at 3.00pm UK time on Sunday Nov 7 with a repeat at 1.00am of the morning Nov 7 to 8 - listen here. A podcast will be available here after the broadcast. Photo of Thomas Merton via alexsothblog. 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 Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Another legend passes


Rudolf Barshai died on Nov. 2 aged 86. Above is my 1965 EMI LP of Barshai conducting the combined forces of the Bath Festival Chamber Orchestra and Moscow Chamber Orchestra in Sir Michael Tippett's masterly Concerto for Double String Orchestra. A quite scintillating account which lost its sonic slam in the early CD transfer in my collection. The LP format has gone, that evocative style of artwork has gone and now the conductor has gone. Will the label itself be the next to go?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. 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

His master's assets


Citigroup Wins Legal Dispute Over EMI Group Deal. So, as I predicted in February, there is now a real possibility that EMI will breach its loan agreements causing control to pass to financial conglomerate Citigroup. This could start a firesale of the record company's assets. Do we need an international cultural exception?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. With thanks to Antoine Leboyer for the heads up. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

'A musician is also a man'


So it was that in the spring of 1939 I came to Prades. I could not have imagined at the time that I would spend the next seventeen years of my life in this little town in the Pyrenees. And in spite of the sorrow in me, I found respite in my surroundings. With its winding cobbled strees and whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs - and the acacia trees that were then in bloom - Prades might have been one of the Catalan villages I had known since childhood. The countryside seemed no less familiar to me. The lovely patterns of orchards an vineyards, the wild and craggy mountains with ancient Roman fortresses and monasteries clinging to their sides - these too were a replica of parts of my homeland. Indeed, centuries before, this very region had been part of the nation of Catalonia - from Joys and Sorrows by Pablo Casals

Today Prades wears its Casals connection lightly but proudly. There is no Café Casals in the main square, none of his recordings grace the shop windows and the two houses he lived in are private residences marked only by discrete plaques. In fact sleepy Prades has changed little from the delightful Catalan town described above. But the residents are intensely proud of their adopted son and he is remembered in the one room museum behind the modern mediathèque in the town centre. L'espace Casals is a perfect tribute: it is human in scale and when my wife and I were there recently on a perfect September morning it was just us and the master's recording of the Bach Cello Suites. These are my images of the great humanist who said:
A musician is also a man, but more important than his music is his attitude to life.

My Chance Music programme on Future Radio on November 7 is a homage to Catalonia built around the music of Pau Casals. Here is the playlist:

~ Pablo Casals Ovos omnesDresdner Kreuzchor directed by Gothart Stier (Berlin Classics 0013512BC)

~ Traditional Catalan El Noi de la Mare – Ferran Savall & Mario Mas guitars (Alia Vox AV9858)

~ J.S. Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 BWV 1049 – Casals Festival Orchestra conducted by Pablo Casals with Eugene Istomin piano (Membran 232768)

~ Anon Chant de la Sybille Occitane “El jorn del judizi” from The Forgotten Kingdom – Montserrat Figueras, La Capella Reial de Catalunya directed by Jordi Savall (Alia Vox AVSA9873)

~ John Jacob Niles/Thomas Merton A Responsory – Chad Runyon Baritone & Jacqueline Chew piano (MSR Classics MS1174)

~ Traditional arr. Pablo Casals Sant Martí del Canigó – Prades Festival Orchestra with Pablo Casals cello & conductor (Sony 88697656902)


* Background resources include In search of Pablo Casals for Casals' choral music and background on the life of the great Catalan musician, Early music unplugged for the Ferran Savall track, Are authentic performances a silly convention for Casals' Bach, Against the monoculture of modernity and Rearranging the geometry of heaven for Jordi Savall's The Forgotten Kingdom, Sweet Irrational Worship for the Niles/Merton song and The Magic Mountain for Sant Martí del Canigó.

** My musical homage to Catalonia can be heard as a podcast here.

*** Attitudes have, thankfully, changed since Joys and Sorrows was written forty years ago and I sympathise with those for who my headline may not sit comfortably. But that is how Pablo Casals expressed himself in 1970 and I have framed his words as a quote. My rule of thumb is to use important quotes unchanged despite their anachronistic phrasing.

**** Header quote is from Joys and Sorrows, reflections by Pablo Casals edited by Albert E. Khan (Macdonld ISBN 356030482) - out of print but well worth buying cheaply from specialists.


Also on Facebook and Twitter. All photos were taken by me in L'espace Casals, Prades and are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Any other 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). All CDs, books and travel mentioned in this post were self-funded. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Classical music must put its house in order - 2


The blind leading the blind.

Classical music must put its house in order - 1 is 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 Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Music and movement

The future must bring things which are considered blasphemous like... an atmosphere where people can come and go and even talk perhaps.. and certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it.
That prediction from Jonathan Harvey takes us down an interesting path. One in four Americans over the age of 12 listen to music on iPods and similar digital music players and 37% of those mobile players are owned by 18 to 34 year olds. Those statistics simply confirm what we already know, music and movement are becoming inseparable, particularly among the younger generation. Yet classical music remains an essentially static artform. From the back seat of many concert hall, which is all some young people can afford these days, the musicians are distant motionless dots and the sound lacks slam.

Music and movement go back a long way. Classical music has its roots in medieval dance and David Munrow's Two Renaissance Dance Bands was central to the popular revival of early music in the 1970s. Haydn instructed his musicians to move off the platform during his 'Farewell' Symphony. The title of this post comes from my earliest memories of music appreciation, a class called 'music and movement' at my primary school in the 1950s which was doubtless influenced by G.I. Gurdjieff and Sokol exercises. Chamber music ensemble Domus and other free thinkers have experimented with mobile concert halls. Marching bands continue to combine music and movement. While in the digital age the musicGPS app can capture the mobile soundtrack of your life.

Yet music and movement rarely meet in bricks and mortar concert halls. Surely audiences need to see as well as feel the music? Are there lessons to be learnt from the success of classical music on DVD? Should there be a Jumbotron behind the orchestra and video screens in the seatbacks? Or should the seats be ripped out altogether to allow audiences to experiment with different viewpoints? And whoa! - hold that comment about classical music surviving perfectly well in the past without people walking about, and hear me out.

There is one very successful classical music event that has enshrined music and movement not only in its format but also in its title for more than one hundred years. It is also known as "the world's greatest music festival". Yes, it is the BBC Promenade Concerts. The middle word in that title, and the one which differentiates the annual season from almost every other concert series, is defined as "amble: a leisurely walk (usually in some public place)". Henry Wood challenged silly conventions back in 1895 when he freed classical audiences from the tyranny of the seat. See him doing it here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Image credit Arizona Band and Orchestra Director’s Association. 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 01, 2010

New music for old instruments


There is a neat inversion of yesterday's theme of modern orchestras being influenced by baroque performance practices in the double CD above. About Baroque features the unusual combination of contemporary music and period instruments. It was the product of an innovative funding initiative by the Siemens Arts Program that brought together the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and five leading young composers in a series of workshops and rehearsals that allowed the composers to understand the sonic potential of period instruments. The output from the programme was five new works from Michel van der Aa, Juliane Klein, Rebecca Saunders, Benjamin Schweitzer and Nadir Vassena written specifically for the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. These were captured in concert performances and released on About Baroque in 2006.

Let's make one thing clear, About Baroque is not ersatz early music. It is very contemporary music written for a leading period instrument ensemble. And how well it works. Those very qualities, a lighter but more textured and focussed sound, which Antoine Leboyer fears are undermining the classical and romantic repertoire, open up infinite new possibilities in contemporary music. The combination of new music and old instruments is so successful that I was about to wonder why it hasn't been done before. But it has, and here are just two examples from the shelf next to where I write.

The little known Alia Vox CD Lachrimae Caravaggio is a series of compositions and improvisations by Jordi Savall and colleagues. These are inspired by 17th century sources, but in his sleeve note Jordi Savall says "their musical language and expression are unequivocally 21st century". And the second disc of the groundbreaking The Art of the Recorder by the David Munrow Recorder Consort is devoted to 20th century music by Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Nigel Butterley and Peter Dickinson. Follow the path in David Munrow - more than early music.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All CDs mentioned were purchased by me. About Baroque is on Harmonia Mundi and my copy was bought in their boutique in Arles, which is where the record label is based. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk