Friday, December 31, 2010

Sounds ancient and modern


What is the link between the CD above and the monitor speaker below? Well, the obvious one is that the Bowers & Wilkins 803 speaker in the photo is one of a pair used for most of my listening. But there is a more interesting link and it involves a subject close to the heart of this blog, sound quality.


On the CD, which is performed a cappella, the Lebanese singer and musicologist Ghada Shbeir sings ancient ancient Maronite texts that she has set to traditional Syriac melodies. After just a few minutes auditioning the disc two things become very clear. First, this is music making of the highest order, and secondly, it is captured in sound that is astonishingly clear and life-like. The link between the two photos is an acoustic phenomenon that is responsible for the exceptional sound of both the CD and the speakers. And if that is all somewhat opaque let me explain.

A previous post about the Castel del Monte in Italy discussed how reflections generated by parallel surfaces are the enemy of good sound. Which means, in simple terms, the fewer parallel surfaces the better the sound. Bowers & Wilkins have exploited this phenomenon in their top range of speakers by making the cabinet semi-circular in section and by enclosing the tweeter in a teardrop shaped enclosure, as can be seen in the photo of my speaker. This design approach adds complexity, weight and price but results in superlative sound.

A lack of parallel surfaces also explain the superlative sound on the Syriaque Chant CD. It was recorded in the 17th century monastery Our Lady of Tamish in Lebanon. As the photo below shows, the semi-circular barrel vault roof of the recording venue eliminates parallel surfaces and replicates the sonic properties of the computer designed Bowers & Wilkins speaker cabinet.


Ghada Shbeir's CD of Syriaque Chant comes from French independent label Jade who know a thing or two about good sound. Their recent CD of Gregorian Chant from the monks of L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine at Le Barroux was praised here recently for both its musical and technical qualities. Interestingly the sound engineering credit for the Lebanese recording goes to Fr. Marwan Issa. I can find out no more, but could he be a monk of the Lebanese Maronite Order that the monastery is home to? Syriac Christianity, which is a branch of the Eastern Christian Church, uses the ancient Syriac language, this is a dialect related to the Aramaic used at the time of Christ. Lebanon and Syria are on the cultural cusp between East and West and this is reflected in the chants on the disc which are truly multicultural art rather than the currently fashionable multi-cultural artifice.

This outstanding CD was yet another discovery from the monastic shop at Le Barroux during my recent visit. Previous discoveries have included glorious discs of sacred music from Armenia and Mount Athos, and the wonderful recital of Jewish music by pianist Jean-Rodolphe Kars. Quite sensibly Jade decided that a full length CD of solo Syriaque Chant could be too much of a good thing so it comes as a thirty-four minute mid-priced disc which can be downloaded from amazon.co.uk for £6.99.

On the eve of a new year this post has taken us down a particularly fascinating overgrown path. Ancient texts and melodies recorded in a Middle Eastern monastery using the latest digital technology are played back through state of the art speakers sharing acoustic properties with the centuries old recording venue. Which simply confirms there is no such thing as old and new technology or old and new music. All we have are the sounds of the moment, because music exists only in constant flow and flux.

A very happy new year to all my readers.

* Now read about an Arabian passion according to J.S. Bach, and listen to it in a podcast here.

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Instant karma


In 2010 the devastation of the UK music and arts funding infrastructure was met with howls of outrage from the media. The parallel devastation of the UK music and arts broadcasting infrastructure was met with a compliant silence. More instant karma here.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

The sound of no hands clapping


Social media is hot, metaphysical media is not. Which means Facebook has replaced zazen in the search for enlightenment and silence is divorced from its metaphysical companions of chance and impermanence to make it social media friendly.

Zen Buddhism has attracted many musicians including John Cage. Enlightenment, silence and impermanence are central to Zen, as is the concept of transmission. The role of a Zen master is to transmit the dharma, these are the teachings of the Buddha that lead to enlightenment. Transmission is the ritual process by which the dharma is transmitted from teacher to student and it has been likened to an electric current arcing from one conductor to another.

Let us accept for a moment that analogies between classical music and metaphysical media are valid. This is unproven, but previous paths such as the Tao of music, Music exists only in constant flow and flux and Classical music as ritual suggest the analogy is at least worth considering. Accepting parallels between engaging new listeners and transmission as practiced in Zen Buddhism takes us down an interesting path. Transmission is totally dependant on physical interaction between teacher and student. It cannot be achieved remotely and cannot be achieved quickly. Transmission is only possible between two superconductors and the process is halted if intermediate insulating layers come between teacher and student.

Now for teacher and student read performer and listener, and for Zen read classical music. All the dogmas that have developed around reaching new audiences involve adding insulating layers between performer and listener; these range from performance conventions to digital concert halls and virtual orchestras. Yet, if the analogy between classical music and transmission is valid, the process should be reversed. We do not need more intermediate layers. Instead we need high voltages to flow between superconductors (pun not intended) in close promiximity to one another. Which means more live music, physical interaction between audience and performers, music education, music therapy, amateur, youth and scratch orchestras and similar initiatives. And less of an awful lot of things we are getting more of.

Confirmation of the validity of the transmission approach comes from interesting sources. My recent explorations of Google Trends, which reached a very large readership, indicated that classical music and social media may not be the best partners. And the transmission approach is no more than a variation of Benjamin Britten's holy triangle of three superconductors - composer, performer and listener. Britten's words from his Aspen Award acceptance speech have appeared here many times. So I am taking the extraordinary liberty of misquoting him. Britten's original 1964 text can be read here. As we approach 2011 I offer the following updated version:
Anyone, anywhere, at any time can listen to the B minor Mass upon one condition only - that they possess a computer and iPod. No qualification is required of any sort - faith, virtue, education, experience, age. Thanks to the internet music is now free for all. If I say the computer is the principal enemy of music, I don't mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study. But it is not part of true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding. Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a computer and iPod. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts. It demands as much effort on the listener's part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener."
* For more on transmission read Shoes Outside the Door by Michael Downing. It is the fascinating story of desire, devotion and excess at the San Francisco Zen Centre. Classical music can learn an awful lot from this book, and not just about transmission.

** Cover graphic and soundtrack is John Cage's 36 Mesotics re and not so re Marcel Duchamp performed by Paul Hillier's Theatre of Voices and spoken by Terry Riley. The work is dedicated to the Japanese video artist Shigeko Kubota and includes a quote from the Zen teacher Daisetz Suzuki.

*** Vocal ensemble Exaudi is teaming up with leading sound artist Bill Thompson in a project based on John Cage's Song Books in the Britten Studio, Snape on Feb 4.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The sheer accessibility of Western culture

What seemed to threaten the fundamentalists most, reading between the lines of their rhetoric and behavior, was the sheer accessibility of western culture: the fact that everything a person could want, from consumer goods to emotional highs to sex to spirituality, was public and available to anyone. Nothing was hidden, nothing required serious effort to attain. In the West, anything that must be hidden is suspect; availability and honesty are interlinked. This clashes irreconcilably with Islam as it is practiced in the Middle East, where the things that are most precious, most perfect, and most holy are always hidden: the Kaaba, the faces of prophets and angels, a woman's body, Heaven. The fundamentalists, in their own way, were mourning the loss of legitimately beautiful ideas. They knew they could not make the ritualized, morally appraising culture of traditional Arab Islam - in which one must be worthy of truth, love and God to attain them - more attractive than the lifestyle endorsed in the West. So they demonized attraction itself.
That seasonally relevant quote comes from The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson. This newly published book chronicles a young American woman's conversion to Islam and marriage to an Egyptian. Recent years have seen a rash of conversion memoirs, with most aimed at commercial rather than spiritual reward. But The Butterfly Mosque, despite an unhelpful title and even more unhelpful cover art, genuinely adds something to the debate.

Soundtrack for this post is Moneim Adwan's Once Upon a Time in Palestine. Despite the ubiquitous keffiyeh he is wearing in my header photo Moneim Adwan is far from being a fundamentalist and his previous albums include one of Sephardic Jewish songs with Francoise Attlan. Moneim Adwan lives in Rafah (do follow that link) in the southern Gaza Strip. But Once Upon a Time in Palestine features musicians from the West Bank Palestinian Authority, Gaza Strip and Egypt who could not work together in the Palestinian territories, so the album was recorded in Paris.

Moneim Adwan's settings are of contemporary and traditional poetry from Palestine. The CD comes from Accords Croisés and the Silvio Soave production credit guarantees sonic excellence. Every release from independent French label Accords Croisés illuminates and inspires: the quality is so consistent it is worth placing a standing order for their new releases. Let us be thankful that what G. Willow Wilson describes as 'legitimately beautiful ideas' can still cross political boundaries even if the musicians that express them cannot.


* More independent thinking from Accords Croisés here and here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. CDs were bought at retail, The Butterfly Mosque was borrowed from Norwich Millenium library. All resources used for this. 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, December 27, 2010

A powerful reminder of what we have lost



When Grammy winner John McLaughlin Williams recommends music it is worth listening. So I was intrigued to see John recommending on Facebook Paul Constantinescu's Byzantine oratorio 'The Nativity' which he describes as a "beautiful, mystical work". This is not a work or composer I know and my search could find no current recording in the catalogue. But the piecemeal excerpts on YouTube, see above, suggest 'The Nativity' is a strong candidate for re-release or re-recording. At this time of the year sacred music from the Orthodox tradition is a powerful reminder of the mystery that our consumer culture has leached out of the nativity. More Eastern Orthodox music here.

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Lightning conductor


It is suggested elsewhere that Jiri Belohlavek will leave his position as the BBC Symphony Orchestra's chief conductor after the 2012 Proms to join the Czech Philharmonic. I was going to ask whether anyone will notice that he has left London. But then I realised that the check in desk at Heathrow will.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

The shock of the old


Record companies rely on new releases to boost sales. Which means complimentary copies of new releases flow to reviewers. Which in turn means lists of 'best of 2010 releases' appear at this time of year. Which keeps the record companies happy. Which keeps the review copies flowing for another year. All of which overlooks two points. First, newness is not a guarantee of quality. And secondly the discovery of an album recorded twenty-eight years ago can be just as rewarding as one released in the last twelve months. So a chance comment from a reader prompts me to post again about the Norwegian singer Radka Toneff's 1982 album Fairytales. When I first wrote about Fairytales in 2006 it could only be bought in an expensive Japanese pressing. But today it is available as a standard full priced CD or as a bargain download. This is one of the most entrancing albums you are ever likely to hear. If any more convincing is needed risk a few pence on the download of track 3, Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars. My 2006 article on Radka Toneff is here.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

O Magnum Mysterium

'You know that the success of all religions lies in their mysteries. Once everything has been explained didactically, there are no longer any mysteries, and therefore no reason to return' -Salvador Dali
O Magnum Mysterium (O Great Mystery) is a responsorial chant from the Matins of Christmas that has been set by composers ranging from William Byrd to Morten Lauridsen. My header photo was taken a few weeks ago from the tiny village of Suzette in Provence. Le Barroux is in the foreground and the Gregorian chant from the two monasteries there featured in posts several times this year. In the background is Mont Ventoux and Petrarch wrote about his ascent of the mountain in 1336 in one of his Epistolae familiares. Franz Liszt, a composer we will be hearing often in 2011, set three of Petrarch's Sonnets in his Années de pèlerinage. The elusive Laura prompted Petrarch to give up the priesthood and inspired some of his most celebrated poetry. Petrarch first sighted Laura at the church of Sainte-Claire in Avignon, which is a few yards from where my December Chance Music programme with Jeff Harrington was recorded. Savador Dali contributed my header quote and also provided one of the year's most rewarding overgrown paths. Musical discoveries made writing the Overgrown Path particularly rewarding in 2010. For alternative Christmas listening and new discoveries try my two hour World of Music special. This includes, among other delights, a track from Titi Robin who supplied my CD of the year. The playlist is here, listen to the podcast here.

A very Happy Christmas to all my readers.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Christmas delight that avoids the high Cs


Howard Skempton's music has developed without regard for contemporary fashionable 'isms'. He studied composition with Cornelius Cardew and was a founder member Cardew's Scratch Orchestra in 1969. Skempton's music is characterised by its extreme economy and he has writen a large number of pieces for solo piano or accordion.

Bolt from the Blue is a new CD from the New York based Mode label which was Alex Ross' 2009 label of the year. It brings together Howard Skempton's piano miniatures and music for voices in an intelligently planned and beautifully executed programme. The pianist is contemporary music specialist Daniel Becker whose contribution, which includes the title track, is captured in the piano-friendly acoustic of Potton Hall here in East Anglia. Exaudi directed by James Weeks provide the choral contribution which was recorded in St Silas, Chalk Farm.

This is an outstanding disc of genuinely original and beautiful music. It comes from an important composer who remains outside contemporary music's fashionable inner circle and it would be very surprising if many (any?) of the works on it are already in reader's CD collections. It is also a true Christmas delight that avoids the two high Cs of Cowell (Simon not Henry) and Cage (John not Chris Palko). Need I say more?


* A podcast interview with James Weeks in which I discuss with him Exaudi's recording of Elisabeth Lutyen's vocal music can be heard here.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The orchestra did not particularly like his music

'Mahler was not often played in Berlin and the orchestra frankly confess that they did not particularly like his music - "but," said one of the principals, "Sir John made us love it as much as he did himself..."'
That quote from Michael Kennedy's biography of Sir John Barbirolli dates from Glorious John's 1963 performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic. I was reminded of it hearing Claudio Abbado conducting the BPO in the same symphony on BBC Radio 3 this afternoon. The recording that resulted from Barbirolli's 1963 Berlin visit features here.

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Decca launches classical godcasts


Decca has taken social media to new heights with an online prayer facility on their website for the Christmas CD from the nuns of Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation. Sadly divine petition seems to have failed* as Voices - Chant from Avignon was beaten to the UK Christmas number one spot by André Rieu's Forever Vienna. Will we see Chant Against the Machine released for Christmas 2011? More on the backstory of the nuns' CD here.

* As happens many times, this light-hearted post led to more serious matters. When I started writing it on Dec 21 I spent a lot of time trying to find out which CD was number one in the UK classical specialist chart for the week ending December 18. First I listened to the BBC Radio 3 chart programme on iPlayer, for which I expect many accumulated merits. But to no avail, just a few specific chart CDs were featured and overall chart positions were not given. I then followed the Radio 3 link to the Gramophone chart page which was a week out of date, and remains so as I upload on Dec 22. Finally a visit to the source of the charts found a UK specialist classical chart dated Dec 18. Which presumably is the definitive version. Or is it? My cross-check shows positions in it differ from those given on Radio 3 on Dec 21. So if my facts in this post are wrong I offer this explanation but no apology.

Forget about the difficulties this shambles presents to that increasingly rare animal, the writer who wants to check their facts. Classical charts have become yet another discarded plaything of the self-appointed saviours of classical music. I remain open-minded about if and how classical music should reinvent itself. But increasingly it seems the mass market fallacy holds the key.

Classical music has become like an obese person whose very longevity is threatened by their corpulence. Snake oils, miracle cures, online prayers and the other ministrations of mass marketers do not work, as my dalliance with Google Trends shows. Classical music needs a crash diet to rid itself of the toxins that are poisoning its system. That will be very painful for everyone, but it may be the only way forward.


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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Blues on Bach

Bob: Sometimes New York City still gets it right and ceases to be a city for the privileged alone and resembles something close to the five boroughs I was born and raised in: WKCR 89.9 FM is broadcasting 24 hours of Bach each day for the next two weeks. You can listen on the net at: http://www.studentaffairs.columbia.edu/wkcr/ The undergrads are far better than the pros at WQXR 105.9 FM by letting the music speak for itself. (Plus, they play mostly original vinyl!) Your blog helped me to discover and appreciate Bach; I will always be in its debt. Thanks. Merry Christmas, TMcC
Yes, I have written critically about BBC Radio 3's Mozart fest, but no apologies for sharing that email from an American reader. Back in 2005 I posted about the classical music orgies at Harvard's WHRB and Alex Ross added this comment:
The glories of WHRB's orgies are no secret at www.therestisnoise.com and vilainefille.blogs.com, both curated by former WHRB DJs. I wouldn't be a music critic if it weren't for WHRB. Other station veterans include the late Dale Harris, NY Times critic John Rockwell, and opera maven John Francis. I'll grant John D's criticism that some of the station's DJs aren't always up to snuff, but, hey, it's college kids, what do you expect. I once spent 25 minutes talking about Britten's "Paul Bunyan," and that was before an official recording existed. I'm sure some listeners wished I'd just read the names.
My headline comes, of course, from the Modern Jazz Quartets' 1974 album. Pianist John Lewis was a co-founder of the MJQ but his other work is less well known. His 1988 disc of Bach Preludes and Fugues recorded with Howard Collins on guitar and Marc Johnson on bass supplies my header image. That album was recorded at the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street in New York, which brings this path full circle. More jazz when Bach meets Coltrane here.

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Of mice and music


Relax, it's not yet another post about the Nutcracker. If this blogs celebrates anything it celebrates chance. And it was by chance that I learnt from the WQXR website that the Arpeggio Food & Wine restaurant at Avery Fisher Hall in New York scored eleven violation points in an inspection by the city’s health department in February and is officially listed as 'not yet graded'. This is an improvement over the previous fifty-nine violations of the concert hall's restaurant. But as the WQXR website explains "the violations are still alarming, particularly since they indicate the presence of mice and roaches". Back in 2005 I essayed a post that connected food and music, here is the link.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Classical music - what is hot and what is not


In a few days Google zeitgeist will be telling us what was hot and what was not in 2010. Google's entertaining Christmas PR exercise uses a tool called Google Trends which measures the number of web searches for a specified term. So, 'Twitter' is hot:


While 'Napster' is not:


Before proceeding further let us understand the ground rules. Goggle Trends is an automated tool and some of its limitations are explained in a footnote to this post. But at the best Google Trends provides food for thought and at worst offers a much needed alternative to the shockingly bad Christmas TV and radio schedules here in the UK. To play the what is hot classical music game simply go to the Google Trends homepage and type in your search term. And hey presto! If the trend is uphill it is hot, if it is downhill that says it all.

Here are some examples for starters. Sadly, as measured by Google Trends, 'classical music' is going downhill quickly:


While, by contrast, 'Andre Rieu' is not -


To avoid post inflation I will use words not graphs for most examples from now on, to see the trend just click on the hypertexted search term. In some cases Google Trends confirms what is to be expected; for instance 'Katherine Jenkins' is hot while 'chamber music' is not. But the data does question the direction of some of the posts on this blog, for instance 'world music' shows a clear downhill trend. While more significantly Google Trends puts some of the current classical music hype into perspective. Despite Doctor Who et al searches for 'BBC Proms' did not increase between 2005 and 2010, while 'BBC Radio 3' remains stubbornly earthbound despite the claimed lift-off power of the classical chart. And talking of charts, 'John Cage' is showing only a limited response to the Cage Against the Machine exposure, even when tracked over the last twelve months. Similarly there is only a marginal increase in searches for 'Mahler' despite the massive exposure (over-exposure?) the composer has received in this anniversary year. In fact as the graph below shows, there were fewer 'Mahler' searches in 2010 than in 2006:


Also interesting is the disparity between media portrayal of hot classical music properties and their Google Trends. For instance, it can safely be assumed that 'Dudamel' is one of the hottest search terms. Or can it? - here is the graph:


While 'El Sistema' fares little better:


Compare that trend with this one for the underground music phenomenon of 'dubstep':

So what conclusions can be drawn from this exercise? It is tempting to dismiss Google Trends as only of marginal relevance to classical music, because, after all, there is no link between volume of internet searches and artistic merit. In which case what is hot and what is not becomes a harmless Christmas game. And I must confess that is how this post started. But the more I looked at the search data the more I wondered whether there was more to it than classical music's online equivalent of trivial pursuit.

The most discussed music topic on the blogs and elsewhere in 2010 has been how classical music can reach new audiences. These discussions are always long on opinions and short on data. Which makes Google Trends, for all its limitations, important. Because Google Trends is based on quantitative data, and that is a very rare commodity in classical music. If we accept that search data has at least some validity then things become very interesting. I tried in vain to find any classical music search term that exhibited the upward trajectory of 'dubstep'. 'Andre Rieu' is about as hot as classical music gets, but in Google Trends terms he is little more than lukewarm. This is shown by the graph below which is a composite of the Google Trends for 'Dudamel', 'Andre Rieu' and 'dubstep':


At which point the argument can take one of two paths. The mass marketers will argue that classical music simply has to up its game in promotional terms and become cleverer at leveraging new technologies and social media. But there is an alternative argument, and it is a fascinating one.

Let's stand back for a moment. Gustavo Dudamel is a very talented and appealing conductor: Cage Against the Machine created a lot of buzz: there has been wall to wall Mahler on radio and in the concert hall for the past twelve months: and the BBC has done everything possible to popularise Radio 3 and the Proms. All of which adds up to an awful lot of mass marketing. Yet none of this created a hot property as defined by Google Trends.

Could it be that classical music does not respond to mass marketing techniques? Could it be that because classical music predates the mass media it speaks a language that does not translate into the argot of today's social media? Could it be that, to borrow a term from economics, classical music is mass marketing inelastic? - meaning it only shows a very limited response to mass marketing techniques? Could Google Trends be confirming classical music's mass market fallacy?

Does classical music need more tweets? Or does it need alternatives to mass marketing? Happy Google Trending!

* Methodolgy explanation - Google Trends analyses a portion of Google web searches to compute how many searches have been done for the specified search term, relative to the total number of searches done on Google over time. The result is expressed in the graphs seen in this post. These graphs express the trend of the search volume. The vertical axis does not measure absolute volumes, so graphs can only be used to compared trends, they cannot be used to compare absolute search volumes. Search terms are only meaningful if discrete, therefore searches for 'John Adams' and 'Bach' are meaningless as they cover many non-musical searches. Google Trends is certainly fallible, but it is a lot better than backing hunches. There is a lot more explanation about the methodology on Google's explanatory page which quite candidly says:
We hope you find this service interesting and entertaining, but you probably wouldn’t want to write your Ph.D. dissertation based on the information provided by Trends.
And the same can be said for this post.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Musique concrete


Our route to a concert by early music ensemble La Simphonie du Marais on l'ile de Noirmoutier in western France took us via Saint Nazaire. I knew that the town was infamous as the base for the notorious Nazi U-boats that sunk so many ships in the Atlantic during World War II. But I had no idea what Saint Nazaire was like today. We parked in the unremarkable town centre and walked towards the docks area through a modern shopping mall.

Suddenly the chilling remnants of Hitler's thousand year Reich seen in my photos came into view. Allied bombs destroyed 85% of the surrounding town and killed almost five hundred French civilians. But the U-boat pens, with their seventeen foot thick roofs, survived all the bombing and a commando raid. They stand today across the road from the new shopping mall, exactly as they were built in 1941. They were constructed to withstand a direct hit from a 3.5 ton bomb and are literally indestructible. They will still stand thousands of years from now. At which time future archaeologists will doubtless conclude these strange structures were sanctuaries for a heathen god. Which they were, the god of war.

There is a musical connection to these sanctuaries of war. Above the U-boat pens an arts complex has been built which is the venue for the annual Festival Les Escales. It was at this festival in 2006 that the collabaration between French guitarist and composer Titi Robin and Pakistani qawwali singer Faiz ali Faiz started. From this grew their peerless album of settings of Sufi poetry Jaadu Magic. Once again music rises from the wreckage.


* Soundtrack - Adventures in Sound, an album of electronic music from musique concrète pioneers Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, Edgard Varèse and Pierre Henry. An extraordinary bargain at £7.99 from Amazon UK. As Pierre Schaeffer is quoted as saying in the excellent notes:
We learned to associate the lute with the Middle Ages, plainsong with the monastery, the tom-tom with wild primitive man, the viola da gamba with courtly dress. How can we really not expect to also find that music in the 20th century relates to machines and the masses, the electron and calculator?

* Jordi Savall wrote in his powerful introductory note for The Forgotten Kingdom that "Absolute evil is always the evil inflicted by man on man". The Madonna of Stalingrad provides a seasonal meditation on the folly of war.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

The best kind of foreigner

Most returned, of course, alive and moderately fit from the hippy trail. They may have failed to change the world, but they certainly changed Mykonos. The violinist Yehudi Menuhin had a holiday home on that island which he visited in 1976 after an absence of nine years (he had honourably refused to enter Greece during the military dictatorship). Menuhin was stunned to find Mykonos overrun by 'naked Beatniks of all sexes'. He wrote to the mayor, explaining why he would no longer be holidaying in the fallen idyll, and his letter found its way into the Athenian national newspaper Kathimerini. He spoke of the 'locusts' invading Greece and of Mykonos in particular becoming 'an island of ill fame'. In less than a decade, Menuhin lamented, 'your noble Mykonos, where the visitiors came for its own uniqueness and its proximity to the sacred island of Delos, has acquired the reputation of a place for all and every kind of decadence', a decadence which was 'costing you the best kind of foreigner' -from High Sixties, the Summer of Riot & Love by Roger Hutchinson.
Recent discussions about making classical music more inclusive reminded me of that story. But Yehudi did so many wonderful things we can excuse him a temporary lapse. In the header photo he is, of course, with Ravi Shankar and EMI's budget 2 CD Shankar set captures the two together on disc. Menuhin achieved rather mixed success as a conductor but his late 60s recordings of Schubert's Symphonies 1 to 6 for EMI are a personal favourite, although they are now only available as a download. His later recording of the complete Schubert symphonies with the Sinfonia Varsovia for Warner received excellent reviews and are still available as a budget box, but I have not heard them. But back to Greece and Leonard Cohen on Hydra and Joni Mitchell on Crete.

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Lebrecht weakly


A few days ago I quoted Norman Lebrecht as saying that the late Peter Andry was:
...part of a golden generation of gifted Australians who enriched British life and world culture.
A reader has reminded me that in 2005 Norman wrote:
Little in their [Australians] sunkissed insularity has equipped them for the ethnic and economic diversity of British arts and their focus is so short-term that only the most desperate of boards would, it seems to me, choose a second-string Aussie above a locally experienced, lifelong committed Brit. It makes no sense at all... The arts thrive on merit, and if an Aussie is the best candidate for any top job I'll be the first to put a chilled Chardy in their fist. But the Aussies are currently here mob-handed and mostly for the wrong reasons. Their country needs them more than we ever will. The message to these misfits is: Aussies, go home.
From which we must assume Norman Lebrecht will play a central role in the forthcoming twelve day BBC Radio 3 Mozart extravaganza. For as he also wrote in 2005:
Too much Mozart makes you sick... Mozart is a menace to musical progress, a relic of rituals that were losing relevance in his own time and are meaningless to ours. Beyond a superficial beauty and structural certainty, Mozart has nothing to give to mind or spirit in the 21st century. Let him rest. Ignore the commercial onslaught. Play the Leningrad Symphony. Listen to music that matters.
I claim no credit for my headline.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

These musicians play their very own music

In this session, jazz is not adulterated to Indian music, and neither is the Indian element "jazzed up". Nor do both partners meet halfway in an abstract inhospitable no man's land where they would relinquish their respective characteristics. Each of these musical areas remain respected in their individualities, their purity is left untouched. Everyone of these musicians plays his very own music. Yet, this is really why it is so revealing to hear how musicians of two very widely separated cultures are able to communicate intelligently, how they can play together with superb sensitiveness.
That perceptive quote comes from the sleeve notes of the 1967 MPS LP Jazz Meets India on which a duo of horn players provide the improvisatory thread that ties together a jazz trio and three Indian musicians. And the result is precisely what it says on the packet, or rather sleeve note.

Jazz Meets India has just been re-released on CD and is not to be missed. Heading the Indian trio is Dewan Motihar on sitar; he studied with Ravi Shankar and is one of a number of people credited by music folklore with introducing the Beatles to Indian music. Backing him are tabla and tampura while facing off the Eastern instruments is the pioneering Swiss free jazz group Irène Schweizer Trio, This is led by Irène Schweizer on piano backed by acoustic bass and drums, and binding these two disparate ensembles together are the improvisations of Manfred Schoof on trumpet and Barney Wilen on sax.

The CD re-release comes from German independent Promising Music which has found a niche licensing material from the Universal Music owned MPS label- does that sound familiar? The album's superb pre-digital sound has been re-mastered by Arnold Kasar of Eastside Mastering in Berlin and the result puts recordings made with today's so-called state of the art technology to shame. Packaging, which uses the original 1967 artwork seen above, is also exemplary, as is the documentation. and the 'black' CD which comes in an LP-style inner liner.

Philip Glass, who knows a thing or two about Indian music, once said 'I am not interested in repeating successes'. In 2010 two CDs in particular reminded me of those words. One was Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble's Officium Novum on ECM. I paid very good money for this new release in Barcelona in the summer, but sadly it is high on my 'dog of the year' shortlist - those who do not understand why should read that Philip Glass quote. And, incidentally, while ECM delighted with some 2010 releases, Officium Novum was not the only new disc to suggest the label was also spending periods on autopilot.

The other CD which reminded me of Philip Glass' words was Jazz from India. This, by contrast, does not seek success in an abstract musical no man's land. Instead, as the headline says, everyone of these musicians plays their very own music. This 1967 album is not only an essential purchase for free-thinking readers, it is also yet another wake up call to the major record labels .

* Audio samples from Jazz Meets India are available from the Promising Music website. There are also samples on YouTube, but the sound and date suggest they come from an LP. The CD, like the original LP, plays for a brief thirty-four minutes. But that is a small price to pay for one of the best things to grace my CD player in 2010.

** This article is the result of a heads-up from Belgian reader Bernard Tuyttens, as was the equally praiseworthy First from Dawn of Midi. Coincidentally this is post number 2500 On An Overgrown Path. If this blog has achieved anything over the past seven years it is due to the many ever supportive readers around the world who guide it.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Jazz Meets India was bought from amazon.co.uk for £11.99. 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, December 15, 2010

Towards silence this Christmas


Those who find the prospect of 4' 33" of Christmas silence too much to bear should try the CD seen above. Independent label Signum Classics has just released the world premiere recording of John Tavener's Towards Silence as a 34 minute budget priced (£5.99 UK) CD. Towards Silence was composed in 2007 to a joint commission from The Rubin Museum, New York and The Music Mind Spirit Trust. The latter is a charity dedicated to 'enriching lives through music' and their website is a rich resource for the new work. John Tavener's spiritual path has taken him from the Russian Orthodox Church via Greece towards the East. His recent compositions are influenced by the controversial Swiss metaphysician Fritjhof Schuon (1907–98) who proposed that all the authentic spiritual traditions present in the world today share the same origin and the same metaphysical principles.

Towards Silence, which is scored for four string quartets and a large Tibetan singing bowl, uses a mathematically determined structure of increasing movement lengths. The work is a meditation of progressively increasing austerity on the four states of Ātman, the eternal soul of Hinduism. John Tavener's inspiration came from René Guénon's 1925 book Man and his becoming according to the Vedānta. René Guénon (1886-1951), who was also known as Sheikh Abdul Wahid Yahya, is a little known French intellectual and writer who made an important contribution to metaphysics. He was born a Catholic and embraced Advaita Vedānta and Sufism after an early dalliance with occultism, theosophy, and freemasonry.

One of René Guénon's best known books is The Crisis of the Modern World. This builds on the theory that we are now in the fourth stage of the human cycle (Manvantara) called the Kali Yuga (time of troubles). Kali Yuga is characterized by a remoteness from the principle and source of positive human development and instead exhibits darkness, materialism, and chaos. The Crisis of the Modern World advocates a return to Eastern spiritual values to counter rampant materialism and is disturbingly prophetic for a book written in 1927.

All of which makes this new disc sound rather unapproachable, which it most definitely is not. The paths to esoteric belief systems are the icing on the cake, because, as they say elsewhere, if you like John Tavener's The Protecting Veil you will like Towards Silence. This new work is a triumph when viewed as abstract music. But it is an even greater triumph when viewed as a musical and spiritual commentary on the vacuity of today's X Factor and social media fixated culture. For me there is no disc more deserving to be Christmas number one.

* Towards Silence receives a superb performance by the Medici, Finzi, Cavaleri and Fifth Quadrant Quartets with young music scholar Louisa Golden playing Tibetan singing bowl. The sound from the Salisbury Cathedral sessions is excellent and the Signum Classics disc is a hybrid CD/SACD. I do not have SACD replay equipment but the sleeve notes tell me that a surround mix on the SACD layer places the listener in the middle of the four quartets, shades of Bernstein's 1973 Rite of Spring!

** As Towards Silence is the theme of this post an esoteric comment on the disc programming is justified. The first movement of the work is silent and John Tavener's mathematics indicate a duration of two minutes for this movement. But the producer decided not to start the disc with silence, so it opens with the second movement. This is a much more sensible solution that the eleven minutes of 'black' (ie non-ambient) silence on Simone Mancuso's recent John Cage release. But one small negative, Towards Silence comprises four (with the opening silence) linked movements, but the disc is a single track with no index points for the movements.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Towards Silence was bought from Prelude Records. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A legacy that impoverished classical music

In a belated Slipped Disc tribute to Peter Andry the record company executive and producer is quite rightly described by Norman Lebrecht as "part of a golden generation of gifted Australians who enriched British life and world culture."

Herbert von Karajan's many great recordings for EMI, which included Salome and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, are probably Peter Andry's greatest contribution to world culture. Or as Norman Lebrecht described them in the Independent in April 2008 - "The clapped-out legacy of Karajan that impoverished classical music".

On An Overgrown Path's tribute to Peter Andry is here. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Range against the machine


X Factor excess or a Facebook fuelled silent night are, thankfully, not the only choices for Christmas listening. Despite the best efforts of the social media, range still rules over the music machine and over the next ten days I will be featuring some left field party sounds that have caught my ear during the past months. If gypsy meets jazz meets Yiddish hits your hot buttons my first party disc should be one for you. Tiganeasca comes from long established French ensemble Les Yeux Noirs who take their name, which translates as "Dark Eyes", from the gypsy tune made famous by Django Reinhardt. The line-up for Les Yeux Noirs is brothers Eric and Olivier Slabiak out front on violin and vocals backed by swing guitar, Romanian gypsy cymbalom, drums, bass guitar, clarinet and Serbian and jazz accordion, and there is even a bonus remix from Tunisian mix master Jean-Pierre Smadja. Traditional Judeo-gypsy manouche flavoured with sampling and dance results in some serious fun music and a bonus is the serious fun sound captured by independent label Zig-Zag Territoires, who sensibly opt for the warm acoustic of l'Eglise de Bon Secours in Paris rather than the usual dry studio. But don't take my word, here are Les Yeux Noirs with some samples from Tiganeasca.



For a Jewish Ladino discovery for Christmas take this path.
Also on Facebook and Twitter. Tiganeasca 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

Monday, December 13, 2010

New music saved from corporate dumpster


Some really sparkling gems are back in the catalogue thanks to inspired dumpster diving by independent label Brilliant Classics. Rifling through the bins outside Universal Music's plush HQ has resulted in a clutch of important re-releases from the lean and mean Dutch label of material originally released by Deutsche Grammophon.

The highlight for me is the CD above which captures four late works by Bruno Maderna. The Italian composer, who died of cancer in 1973 aged 51, is usually associated with the Darmstadt group of composers which includes Berio, Boulez and Stockhausen. But Maderna's large output was remarkably varied and included film scores and opera. He also edited early music and was a superb conductor - I have written here previously of how his 1973 performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony was a musical epiphany for me.

Maderna's Quadrivium from 1969 takes pride of place on the disc. Like many of his peers Maderna was fascinated by numbers and Quadrivium is scored for four orchestral groups with four percussionists playing two xylophones, two vibraphones, two marimbas, two glockenspiels and two sets of tubular bells. The composer explained meaning of the title Quadrivium, which literally means 'crossroads, as follows:
'I was thinking of the four liberal arts: arithmetic, algebra, music and astronomy...Also four is a magic number. Four elements...four directions of the compass.'
The performances by Giuseppe Sinopoli and the NDR Sinfonieorchester on the disc are outstanding as is the 1980 Deutsche Grammophon recording while the Brilliant Classics mastering and documentation, which this note draws on, is also excellent. And here is the clincher, I bought the Maderna disc for just £5.99 at independent store Prelude Records. I may be wrong but Brilliant Classics do not seem to offer a download option.

Also rescued from the dumpster by Brilliant Classics is DG's late 1960s set of Hans Werner Henze's first six symphonies with the composer conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. Perhaps dumpsters were a sub-text in Pierre Boulez's infamous quote about Henze:
'Whatever rubbish he puts out he still thinks he is King'
But don't let that put you off. This 2CD re-issue of the Henze symphonies is quite unmissable if you don't already have the recordings from their original release.

And to complete the hat-trick for Brilliant Classics there is the LaSalle Quartet's account of Alexander Zemlinsky's four string quartets. This re-release also includes a rarity in the form of the First Quartet by Hans Erich Apostel (1901-72), a pupil of Berg and Schoenberg, sample it here. As I've said before, buy or live in darkness.

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

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Classical music as ritual


On the question of how to make classical music more accessible I remain a seeker. There are persuasive arguments from the modernists who see the need to cleanse concerts of what they see as silly conventions. But the classicists counter these with compelling explanations of how such conventions are an integral part of the concert experience. Recent posts here have favoured the modernists, but parallel reading has led me to see the arguments of the classicists in a different light.

Zen Buddhism has had a considerable impact on Western classical music. But its more esoteric cousin Tibetan Buddhism remains elusive despite its embrace by Jonathan Harvey and other composers. Buddhism warns against dualism and the possibilities offered by the non-dualistic middle way are evidenced by Jonathan Harvey's questioning so-called silly concert conventions while composing music influenced by Tibetan Buddhist rituals and the highest yoga tantra.

Central to the Vajrayana school of Tibetan Buddhism are the Tantric scriptures and Vajrayana adds group ritual to the core Buddhist practice of solitary meditation. Tantra is one of the most widely misunderstood of Buddhist concepts, largely due to its sexual connotations. In fact tantric teachings propose a way of enfranchising all spiritual energy and transmuting it, as Peter J. Conradi explains in his invaluable Going Buddhist:
"Transmutation, which counts as a high [Buddhist] teaching, is hard to describe, or accomplish. Heightening, intensifying, then stealing and exploiting the energy of an emotional obstacle, no matter how superficially "disturbed", is one description."
That is a pretty good description of tantric practice, but it is also a good description of, for example, a Mahler symphony. There is clearly no simple way to make classical music more accessible. But there may be something to learn from the tantric approach with its dependance on emotional transmutation and group ritual. The controversial view expressed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama' in his primer The World of Buddhism will resonate for many:
Many small Tibetan monasteries are expert in performing these different [tantric] rituals, but one can question the accuracy of their knowledge of the symbolism and significance behind the movements. Also, people generally seem to think of ceremonial masked dances as entertainment, a spectacle. This is, in fact, a sad and unfortunate sign of the degeneration of the tantra.

* Soundtrack - I discovered Per Nørgård's music many years ago on a now deleted Ondine release of his music for strings winningly played by Juha Kangas and the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra. But the Danish composer's opera ballet Siddharta only came to my attention recently when I noticed a copy in Jeff Harrington's apartment in Avignon. Per Nørgård (b. 1932) is one of Scandinavia's most important living composers. Despite this his music remains little known elsewhere; surely yet another example of too much attention being lavished on too few people in classical music?

In the late 1950s Per Nørgård rejected serialism as an artificial construct and instead developed his infinity series in which melodies are created by projecting intervals in a pre-determined order and extending them over ever increasing distances. In addition he uses a rhythmic system defined by the golden ratio found in the visual arts. Despite its arcane origins and uncompromising modernity Per Nørgård's music sounds surprisingly familiar at first hearing, an apparent vindication of his rejection of serialism as an artificial device.

Per Nørgård does not appear be a practising Buddhist and his three act opera ballet Siddharta, which lasts for two hours, only deals with the pre-enlightenment years of the young Prince Siddharta. Composed in 1979 it has a Danish libretto by one of the country's greatest poets Ole Sarvig (1921-81). This is music that needs to be heard to be appreciated, but for those who want a quick and fallible description think Britten's Death in Venice meets Messiaen's Saint Francis. But much better try it for yourself.

The excellent Danish Radio recording on Da Capo with Jan Latham-Koenig conducting the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra with the Wagnerian tenor Stig Fogh Andersen in the title role is seen in my two accompanying images. This 2CD set, which comes with the bous of Per Nørgård's percussion concerto For A Change, is highly recommended with good recording quality, committed performance and exemplary documentation including an essay by the composer. And above all, it shows how classical music defined by in Per Nørgård's case by mathematical as well as performance ritual, can enfranchise spiritual energy and transmute it.

** Further resources - it is impossible to do justice to Per Nørgård's soundworld in a blog post. A good starting point for further exploration is Jørgen Mortensen's website which includes a biography and an explanation of his composing system. Audio samples from Siddharta are available via the Da Capo website.

*** Wagner and the tantric orchestra are here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Per Nørgård's Siddharta was bought online for as were both books referenced. 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