Monday, January 31, 2011

Never underestimate the public's intelligence

I feel as though phantom coughs, throat-clearings and other bits of audience noise captured in live recordings connect me with fellow music-lovers of the past, making us secret sharers of a kind. In short, I find that the imperfections of live recordings allow for a unique sort of intimacy - not simply with the music itself, but with other listeners who have heard the same music in the past. If I had more time, I would say more about other specific recordings that have done this for me, such as Wolfgang Sawallisch's 1989 reading of Wagner's Ring, which comes complete with stomps, crashes, shrieks, and other noises recorded live on the stage of the Bavarian State Opera during an actual series of public performances of the Ring.
That persuasive response by Joe Koczera is just one many to my recent post Do concert recordings make sound sense? Three things surprised me about the reaction to my criticism of the current practice of sonically emasculating concert recordings to make them sound like studio sessions. First, in an age circumscribed by the 140 characters of Twitter I was surprised to achieve one of the blogs highest ever daily readership figures with a post of 10,474 characters. Secondly, I was surprised to find I was by no means alone in feeling concern about the sonic compromises being forced on CD buyers by concert recordings. Thirdly and most importantly, almost every one of the well argued responses came from a very knowledgeable music lover who was not paid to express their view. In fact the professional music writers have been remarkably silent on the same subject, despite the fact that sonically compromised concert recordings are fast becoming the de facto industry standard.

The silence of the professionals is not very surprising because there are two very separate groups in classical music today. On the one hand there are the professional critics who, with a few notable exceptions, receive free CDs and concert tickets and are paid to write poodle pieces about them. On the other hand there are those who, like the readers who responded to my post, pay for their CDs and concert tickets and then express their views without renumeration simply because they are passionate about music. And there is a very big gap opening up between the two groups, a gap that is important for two reasons. First professional critics are full paid up members of the commercial/intermediary complex and secondly the non-remunerated group is far more representative of the classical music market.

Here are two examples to illustrate my point. The first comes from the responses to my LSO Live Nielsen post. Tam Pollard who writes one of the most widely read non-aligned music blogs Where's Runnicles? commented:
Fascinating post - thanks... I find myself largely in agreement... On a side note, Andrew McGregor speaking on [BBC Radio 3] CD Review described the Nielsen disc as "a well-worked Barbican recording" which had me more or less spitting out my coffee.
Now contrast Andrew McGregor's view with the comments from two CD buying readers:
For my taste the LSO Live series has been one of nearly unrelieved disappointment - a fine orchestra for sure but would anyone say any of that series becomes their reference performance of any work....? Surely not...

I agree with Nick. I have several LSO Live recordings in my collection; most were impulse buys and now gather dust on the shelf.
My second example is topical but not directly related to my concert recording post. Last week the Independent ran a lamentable piece titled Do we really need to sex up opera? At the Boulezian, another leading non-aligned blog, Mark Berry took up the challenge and in a post titled Journalism and the contempt with which our newspapers treat music demolished the Independent's article with forensic precision. A Boulezian reader summed the situation up very well in a comment:
Unfortunately, compared to what passes for music writing these days the article quoted is Erudition Personified.
There is no doubt the quality of professional music journalism is now a major concern. But of even more concern are the hidden agendas that underpin much of its shabby output. Lou Harrison's Gendling Chelsea for gamelan and voices sets aphorisms by Virgil Thomson. One of these is remarkably relevant to music journalism today:
Never underestimate the public's intelligence, baby, and never overestimate its information.
More on Lou Harrison here.

My header image is another product of Wordle, this time using the New Music reBlog feed. 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, January 30, 2011

Milton Babbitt - writing music for our elite


Babbitt was famous for writing for a certain type of listener. He never claimed to write for everybody and this was his undoing - that everybody expected him to write music for them. But he said "Why should music? ... most of us are in universities in the States who are interested in complex music, but maybe we should just write for our elite, the way mathematicians send incomprehensible equations to each other, you know what's wrong with that?" and he has a point, absolutely.

So his reputation has been branded as an elitist. It's totally unfair and in this country [UK] he has been dismissed. In the States as I say, particularly in the university culture, he is held in very high regard in many places.

I hope he will have more of a reputation. I am not sure I really enthuse about his music. I find it fascinating but it is very much a music of structure and a structure that is difficult to hear unless you spend a long time getting to grips with it; it's like the most recondite music of Bach in a way. But [his time] may come, I think it will come actually much more.
Milton Babbit, who has died aged 94, reappraised by Jonathan Harvey who studied with him at Princeton. The extract is transcribed from my Chance Music interview with Jonathan Harvey. This can be heard on demand as a Future Radio audio stream and iTunes podcast, the discussion about Babbitt starts at 13' 40". Header photo shows Babbitt with Igor Stravinsky at a rehearsal for Threni. Milton Babbitt took the role of the Devil in a 2006 Tanglewood performance of L'histoire du soldat.

Text and related audio recording (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. For technical reasons the Jonathan Harvey iTunes podcast does not load on Macs. Users of Macs who want a downloadable version rather than the streamed alternative should contact me. Photo credit is Columbia Records. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Glenn Gould and social media


Glenn Gould was ahead of his time in many ways. It is not widely known that he was an early adopter of social networks. The text of the following draft Personal Ad was found among his personal papers after his death in 1982:
Wanted.
Friendly, companionably reclusive, socally unacceptable, alcoholically abstemious, tirelessly talkative, zealously unzealous, spiritually intense, minimally turquoise, maximally ecstatic loon seeks moth or moths with similar equalities for purposes of telephonc seduction, Tristan-eque trip-taking ... tristan, tristan-eque trip-taking ... and permanent flame-fluttering. No photos required. Financial status immaterial. All ages and non-competitive vocations considered. Applicants should furnish cassettes or sample conversations, notarized certification of marital dis-inclination, references re low-decibel vocal consistency, itinerary and ... itinerary and sample receipts from previous, successfully completed out-of-town moth flights. All submissions treated confidentially. No paws need apply. The auditions for all promising candidates will be conducted to and on Anaton Penisend, Newfoundland.
So how social is your media? And in conclusion this path leads us from Gould to Tristan to Wagner and so back to Glenn Gould.

Source is screenplay of Thirty two short films about Glenn Gould by François Girard and Don McKellar. 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.

Observing all the repeats


More cut and paste radio...
Dec 3 2010 - BBC Radio 3 Classical Collection with Sarah Walker
11.02
Elgar Violin Concerto, op.61
Nigel Kennedy (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vernon Handley (conductor)

Jan 28 2011 - BBC Radio 3 Classical Collection with Sarah Walker
11.00
Elgar Violin Concerto, op.61
Nigel Kennedy (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vernon Handley (conductor)
My frustration with the artwork on the LSO Live CD of Nielsen symphonies set me playing with Wordle. This is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text with the size of the word reflecting the number of times it appears, i.e. number of repeats, in the article. The example above is created from my post about the LSO Live disc. More on BBC Radio 3's Classical Collection here and more repeats, but of a very different kind, here.

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

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The art of the march


Why are marches the poor relation of classical music? Writing my earlier post about the cuts at the BBC World Service reminded me that during my time at Bush House the march Lilliburlero was used as the World Service identity signal. The tune of Lilliburlero (also spelt Lillibullero) is usually attributed to Henry Purcell but probably orginated as an Irish folk melody. Lilliburlero is one of the marches on the LP seen above which was recorded in 1967 for the World Record Club division of EMI by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Other marches on it include John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes and Liberty Bell, the Battle Hymn of the Republic and Eric Coates' Dam Busters. For reasons that totally escape me it appears the only CD transfer was as a Sony release in 1999. Despite the unlikely repertoire this disc is prized by Boult afficionados for its superb performances and sound and is well overdue for re-release. The unlikely combination of Sir Adrian and a black lace bra features here.

* Fact is stranger than fiction - the BBC's recently launched Persian TV service uses a re-mix of Lilliburlero. Listen to it here.

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What price freedom of the airwaves?

Radios sold in North Korea are pre-tuned and sealed to prevent listeners hearing anything but official radio. Kim Jong-il's totalitarian regime keeps an iron grip on the media, and tries to block news from abroad. Several thousand people have been sent to re-education camps for listening to foreign language radio.
That quote from Reporters Without Borders appeared last year in my post Radio and re-education. My header photo shows the BBC coat of arms with the motto Nation shall speak peace unto nation and the BBC World Service is a vital source of foreign language radio broadcasts for those suffering under totalitarian regimes. Yesterday it was announced that budget cuts mean the BBC World Service is to close five foreign language and one English service with the loss of around around 560 jobs. Below is the official BBC photograph taken at the end of the programme operations assistant training course in January 1972 before the participants started their first placement with World Service. I am second from right in the back row. At that time Leonid Brezhnev, Marcelo Caetano and Enver Hoxha were in power and the Russian, Portugese and Albanian services were among the foreign language services I worked on. It was a privilege to be, for a short time, part of the truly multicultural community at Bush House that so successfully used words rather than weapons in the fight against despotism. What a pity our political leaders now value weapons more than words. Radio Kaboul is here.


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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Do concert recordings make sound sense?


Regular readers will know that I revere Sir Colin Davis as a national treasure and that I rate the symphonies of Carl Nielsen among the greatest music of the twentieth century. Which means a post about Sir Colin's new CD of Nielsen's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies is going to be a pretty predictable affair - a triumph, youth is a state of mind, essential for every collection etc etc. So, sorry to disappoint.

In the first few minutes of auditioniong the LSO Live disc it became clear that all was not well sonically. My listening notes include "one dimensional sound lacking front to back depth, not enough of air around the instruments, muddy bass line, a vieled quality, lack of focus, no real slam" and so on. All of which started me reflecting on whether the current move away from studio to concert recordings makes sound sense.

The London Symphony Orchestra is just one of many leading orchestras which market CDs and downloads of their concert performances. Recording a concert as opposed to a studio session has many financial attractions but brings two main challenges. First, with a few exceptions such as Snape Maltings, concert halls make poor recording venues. Which is why the acoustically mediocre Barbican, venue for the LSO Live recording, is rarely if ever used for recording anything other than concert performances. The second challenge for concert recordings is audience noise. As is usual two performaces of each of the Nielsen symphonies was recorded by LSO Live to allow 'patching': this is the editing out of obtrusive coughs and other noises (including final applause) by replacing the problem passage with a patch from the alternative performance or a rehearsal take.

But patching is only of limited use. Which is where the solution known as multi-miking comes in. This involves using more microphones and placing them closer to the performers to capture more music and less ambient noise. Multi-miking has the additional benefit of making the microphones less visually intrusive, which is particularly important if the concert is being video recorded, as are, for example, the BBC Proms. But the benefits of multi-miking come at a sonic cost. In simple terms there is an inverse relationship between the number of microphones and the fidelity of the sound and aural image from the resulting recording. Which is why almost all the great sounding recordings are made with simple microphone arrays. An example is seen below, Antal Dorati's legendary 1959 Firebird with, ironically, the London Symphony Orchestra; this was captured by Mercury using just three microphones.


I was not present at the LSO Live Nielsen recordings so cannot comment on the microphone placement. But the legendary recording engineer Tony Faulkner recently published an important article at classicalsource.com drawing attention to the increasing use of multi-miking for classical recordings. Here is a taster quote:
A typical BBC Prom or a relay from the Barbican Hall uses dozens of microphones all over the stage and with more strung together overhead, being mixed into an unnatural anonymous similar-sounding mush coated with a gloss of digital reverberation.
There is no problem per se with concert recordings, other than the acoustic limitation of the venue. Many great recordings have been made at concerts. Examples which have featured here include the Richter/Gavrilov Handel Suites made at the Tours Festival in 1979 and Bruno Maderna's now deleted Mahler Nine made in in the Festival Hall in 1972 and seen below. Occasional audience noise leave the listener in no doubt that these are concert performances, but their greatness is not diminished as a result. The problem, as highlighted by Tony Faulkner, is the current fashion of making concert recordings sound like studio sessions by technical legerdemain. There is an almost total absence of extraneous noise on the new generation of concert recordings. When have you heard an audience totally silent at a concert? Very rarely I would bet, which means sonic manipulation is being applied as an additional intermediary layer between performer and listener. And that manipulation has been made a lot easier by recent developments in digital technology.


At which point more than one reader will doubtless quite rightly point out that the present meltdown of the classical recording industry means studio recordings are no longer viable in many cases; so if you want a great performance on disc it has to be captured at a concert. So, sorry to disappoint again. I really wanted to love Sir Colin's Nielsen despite the compromised sound, but I just couldn't. For my tastes the opening of the Fourth sounds rushed to the point of being garbled, while, conversely, the Fifth lacks the momentum and muscularity needed to carry this masterpiece forward to its life-affirming conclusion.

Now I am well aware that the views of almost every critic present at the Barbican concerts at which the disc was recorded differ from mine. And I am also aware that those critics are musically far better qualified than me. Which leaves two possible explanations as to why I find this new Nielsen release somewhat extinguished. The first is that my taste in Nielsen interpretations is particularly wayward. Which may well be the explanation, because, as regular readers will know, my taste in other things musical is notably wayward. The second explanation is that Sir Colin's highly personal Nielsen interpretations achieve 100% transmission when experienced in the concert hall but lose their efficacy when heard as a less than ideal recording. Which is an appealing explanation, but is rather negated by the emotional power of sonically far more compromised recordings such as Casal's Bach and Karajan's Hänsel und Gretel.


To try to better understand my reaction to Sir Colin's interpretation I repeatedly switched between the LSO Live disc and the recording of the same works by Theodore Kuchar and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra for Brilliant Classics that I praised here last year. It amazes me to say it, but, for me, Kuchar and his little known Czech orchestra win on virtually every count. The Janáček Philharmonic may not have the refinement of the LSO. But for sound quality and, much more importantly, for sheer ability to communicate Nielsen's visceral and uplifting music they are, for my money, far superior. And, talking of money, at amazon.co.uk Theodore Kuchar's 3 CD cycle of the six Nielsen symphonies sells for £8.99 compared with £5.99 the single LSO Live disc of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies.

There have been a number of other fine recordings of these Nielsen symphonies and in this completely subjective post I am going to highlight a few other personal favourites. Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic's now deleted Fourth for Deutsche Grammophon shows just how good the German band and its long-time conductor could be given the right repertoire. My acquaintance with the Fifth, which for me is possibly the greatest twentieth century symphony, was made through the 1975 EMI LP seen below on which the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is conducted by the grossly under-rated Paavo Berglund. A Google search to see if Berglund's interpretation is still available brings up my 2009 article about it as the first result, so I assume it is long deleted. And my final personal favourite comes from another grossly under-rated conductor, Jascha Horenstein's 1971 recording for the BBC made with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in the Corporation's Maida Vale studio which was released as a commercial disc. This also appears to be unavailable, making it a clean sweep for the deletions and a salutary reminder of just what a sorry mess the record industry is in.


I am not a regular purchaser of contemporary concert recordings. So to compare the sound quality I also auditioned LSO Live's 2005 Má Vlast. This features the same conductor, orchestra, production team and hall as the Nielsen disc. The sound on Má Vlast certainly does not match a good Kingsway Hall or Abbey Road Studio 1 recording, but it does have better definition that the Nielsen. Interestingly the Smetana is not an SACD disc whereas the Nielsen is. All my listening is done using the standard CD format as I do not have SACD replay equipment. (Details of my primary replay system here). It would be interesting to find out if there is more life to the sound in the SACD layer of the Nielsen disc. If that is the case it should not be so as Alia Vox and many others deliver superb sound from the Red Book CD layer of SACD hybrid discs.

So is it the sonic compromises of concert recording that, for me, partially extinguishes the fire of Sir Colin Davis' Nielsen? Or is the problem simply my wayward musical tastes? Ternary thinking suggests the explanation is a mixture of the two. If any conclusions can be drawn from this post it is that concert recordings are here to stay whether we like it or not, but the production teams making them should withdraw more into the background and let both the music and the audience speak for themselves. But in the final analysis I was glad the new LSO Live disc sent me down this path. As Nielsen himself told us, predictability is the enemy of classical music, and it is also the enemy of this blog. As I pressed the play button to hear this new CD of Carl Nielsen's mighty Fourth and Fifth Symphonies for the first time I already had the glowing post outlined in my head. It does us all good to be proved wrong occasionally.

* It is the music not the timings that matter. But the timings do make for an interesting comparison. Sir Colin despatches the first movement of Nielsen's Fourth Symphony in 9' 56" compared with Theodore Kuchar's 11' 08". By contrast the Fifth Symphony to the end of the Adagio takes Sir Colin 20' 57" and Theodore Kupar 18' 21".

** Finally, I was going to comment on the artwork for the LSO Live Nielsen disc. But instead I reproduced the designs for two other discs of the same works above and below. Cut to The art of the album sleeve.


Also on Facebook and Twitter. The LSO Live CD of Nielsen's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies was bought from Prelude Records. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Music as an environment of self-discovery

mrG has left a new comment on your post "Classical music as synchronicitous soup":

heh ... quantum entanglement isn't really needed, the Hameroff-Penrose Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR) theory of consciousness will do, given research that also shows musical ensemble work will synchronize mental states between performers; if, as is seen in the neighbouring instruments (adjascent reeds will sympathetically sync like metronomes on a a skateboard) the cognitive collapse rates phase-lock, the each member in the ensemble would generate a quantum Orch-OR wave that adds by the wave-power equations (exponentially, not additively, hence why Lasers work) to emit a cognitive resonance that will fall off by the distance squared. Thus adding microphones to a performance doesn't really 'reach' any more people than without.

So why then do people like recordings and amplified concerts at all? I hear you ask :) Same reason we can watch Humphrey Bogart in black and white and never be bothered by the greyness of his skin or the flatness of his image; those of us with experience with the Real Thing simply imagine the missing bits, and the less work we need do to imagine the lost data, the less 'warm' the medium becomes (now THERE is a true McLuhanism for you!) which in itself may explain why extreme audiophiles tend to be cold and analytical about their listening :)

The whole-system view is, of course, the only sane view, yet it is the view the concert promoters refuse to acknowledge because they themselves never go to these shows, they don't even know one artist from the next half the time, its just their business to sell units, be they flat bits of plastic or bums in seats. But given the vectors all over the room, from player to audience, but also player to player, audience to audience, people to room, all things every musician knows as true, if we could express the beauty and power of all that in our marketing, that sense that Cage called "an environment for self-discovery" (which is not 'self-actualization') then do you think maybe then people might want to come out of fear they may miss something their dreary lives desperately need?
* Header image shows John Cage and David Tudor rehearsing their compositions Mureau 2 and Rainforest in Bremen in 1972. mrG's powerful last paragraph is all about achieving transmission, which takes us full circle via Zen Buddhism back to John Cage.

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Beware of cut and paste culture


An important wake up call for everyone in the creative industries comes in a policy paper from the BBC's outgoing Director of Future Media & Technology. The paper by Erik Huggers gives the strategic thinking behind the BBC's decision to cut their online budget by 25%, close 170 websites and shed 360 jobs.

Every BBC website has been reviewed using the three criteria of meeting public purpose, meeting editorial priorities and distinctiveness. The latter criteria is defined by Erik Huggers as:
How does it differ from what else is out there in the market; is it distinctive?, and if not - should we be doing it all?
It is this focus on distinctiveness, see diagram above, which should be sending a message far beyond Broadcasting House. Contemporary culture has fallen into the trap identified by Marshal McLuhan back in 1964 of confusing the medium and the message . Binary thinking is part of this confusion as is cut and paste culture which replaces distinctiveness with cloned creativity.

Nowhere is cut and paste culture more evident than in the BBC's own Radio 3. Cut and paste music in cut and paste programmes is introduced by cut and paste presenters and almost every "innovation" is cut and paste from Classic FM. But the problem extends far beyond BBC Radio 3. Record companies release cut and paste discs and concert halls present cut and paste concerts while classical blogs publish cut and paste press releases.

It is all so obvious. Being distinctive gives an audiences a compelling reason to engage. Whereas the cut and paste route, which is rapidly becoming the norm in classical music, gives no unique selling point and no reason for an audience to engage. And then we are surprised that classical music is losing popularity.

Erik Huggers paper is typical of the objective and incisive thinking that comes from the BBC's new media team. The distinctiveness criteria now needs to be imposed on his ego-fuelled colleagues in the BBC's programme making departments. And it should go far beyond that. Everyone in classical music should be applying the distinctiveness test to new projects - how does it differ from what else is out there in the market; is it distinctive? and if not - should we be doing it all?

With thanks to Walt Santner. 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, January 23, 2011

One short post about Glenn Gould


A chance path led to the screenplay of Thirty two short films about Glenn Gould by François Girard and Don McKellar. Reading it caused me to reflect on how towards the end of his career Glenn Gould subscribed to many of the dogmas that are today believed to provide the missing link between classical music and the mass market. He dismissed the concert hall as an outmoded institution, he was one of the first performers to reject the tuxedo, and he was a technology junkie who believed electronic media and not live performance was the future for classical music. Gould certainly achieved mass market success, but this came early in his career with his 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations and this popularity was unrelated to his later challenges to classical music's many conventions. If he is known at all today by those who constitute the mass market it is as a one man musical freak show. It is only amongst a minority of cognoscenti that he is rightly recognised as a peerless pianist and visionary creative artist. Was George Santayana right when he said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"?

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Thirty two short films about Glenn Gould, the screen play was bought in Wells of Southwold. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Music guaranteed to elevate the spirit


Move quickly for a remarkable bargain on amazon.co.uk. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Devotional Songs album is selling for £3.99 including UK delivery in CD format or £4.14 for MP3 download. This 1988 album captures the great Qawwali singer and his party of backing musicians in a programme of Sufi devotional music. But don't be put off by the word 'devotional'. This is inspirational and mystical music created to elevate the spirit and bring the listener closer to God. The former benefit is available to all even if the latter depends on individual circumstances. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan worked on projects with a number of Western musicians. These included a collabaration with Peter Gabriel on Martin Scorcese's film adaption of Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ and working with Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder on a film soundtrack. More sounds of Sufism including a podcast here.

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Mozart end to end detrimental to the music


An interesting twist to BBC Radio 3's recent twelve days of Mozart, during which the composer's complete works were aired, has been provided by Private Eye. The satirical magazine has pointed out the article in the Telegraph in December 2005 which is seen above . In it BBC Radio 3 controller and Proms director Roger Wright says:
Our view is that with Mozart end to end, the overall effect would be detrimental to the music ... The music could wrongly be seen as slightly more chocolate-boxy than it really is.
Which leaves me wondering what to do with this story. If I say anything else my inbox will be groaning with the usual anonymous accusations of another "predictable diatribe" and pursuing an "anti-BBC agenda". But there again, do I need to say anything else?

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Can classical music learn from other cultures?


Classical music is a linear artform. This is expressed in the traditional sonata form of exposition, development and recapitulation. Contemporary Western culture is increasingly dominated by the hypertext based web which has a non-linear structure: this non-linearity is evidenced by Twitter, Facebook, and the iPod shuffle. Which may explain the uncomfortable fit between classical music and contemporary culture.

There are thought-provoking parallels between the non-linear nature of web based communications and Islamic culture. Muslim spirituality is a decentred space which has its roots in the Qur'an as the French ethnomusicologist Jean During explains:
The "chapters", or sūrahs, are not thematic units, nor do they follow any chronology... Thus, the Qur'an appears as multiplex, yet this very multiplicity leads to unity, the key principle in Muslim philosophy.
Islam rejects all mediations between God and man. This manifests itself in many ways including the absence of images in mosques. The physical structure of the mosque, which lacks the processional structure of a Christian church, is another expression of non-linearity. Addition and repetition rather than organic development is central to Islam and this can be seen in the non-linear and non-narrative structure of traditional secular Arab music. It is interesting that addition, repetition and lack of organic development are central to minimalist music, one of the few classical genres that has found widespread acceptance in contemporary Western culture.

Parallels between the structure of contemporary communication and Islamic culture may be coincidental. But the tensions between traditional linear Western classical music and our increasingly non-linear culture are real. Resolving these tensions may be key to determining the future of classical music.

* The Jean During quotation comes his essay for the Ocora recording of Qur'anic Chant from Turkey seen in my header image. All forms of musical notation for the recitation of the Qur'an are forbidden to preserve the Book's transcedent origins [Hamza: 1288] and the recitation must be delivered by the voice alone without instrumental accompaniment. Qur'anic chant is part of the great oral tradition and on the Ocora disc it is delivered by the blind mosque-trained Kâni Karaca who was born in Istanbul. The art of the Turkish mosque featured on another path.

The Ocora CD of Qur'anic chant was bought in the Harmonia Mundia boutique in Marseille. The city has a large Muslim community and is to be the controversial site for France's largest mosque. 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.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Music-lovers have decided to take action.

A growing number of music-lovers unhappy about the way album tracks are enjoyed in a pick-and-mix fashion have decided to take action. The rules are strict. No talking. No texting. You must listen to every song on the album.Classic Album Sundays treat our best-loved records like great symphonies and are being set up in London, Scotland and Wales.
Now pop-up concerts and transmission versus hypermediation become a BBC news story. As my photo shows, what goes around comes around.

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Classical music as synchronicitous soup

From Bell's theorem, which asserts that one subatomic 'object' can affect another such object without even the slightest interval of time or space separating them, to Zen archery, in which archer, arrow, and target are so tied up together that the shot has really been fired before it leaves the bow, wisdom manuals of all stripes bring us the news that everything in life is connected with everything else. Not just connected in a nuts-and-bolts, superficial kind of way, but more deeply and subtly than we can perceive and even imagine. Subject and object, cause and effect, the events of yesterday and of tomorrow: all of these things float in a vast "synchronicitous" soup that we play a part in whether we know it or not.
No apologies for returning to Ptolemy Tompkins' The Beaten Path for that quote. No apologies either for venturing into what some will dismiss as New Age bad science: because, as anyone who has contacted a call centre in India will know, the alternative of post-modern age good science does not provide many answers. So let's accept for the moment that classical music is a synchronicitous soup in which everything - composer, performer, audience, instruments, hall acoustic, physical performance space, climactic and environmental conditions, and beyond - are connected more deeply and subtly than we can perceive and imagine.

This would explain why live classical music is the best form of transmission. It would explain why the pupil/teacher relationship at the centre of music education is irreplaceable. It would validate Benjamin Britten's holy triangle of composer, performer and active listener. It would expain why classical music resists encoding in digital formats. It would reconcile us to the lost art of listening. It would explain why classical music only exists in constant flux and flow. It would also explain why the efforts of the commercial-intermediary complex to water down the synchronicitous soup and sell it in cans are so counter-productive.

Soundtrack for this post is Alain Kremski's Résonance/Mouvements for piano, gongs and large Tibetan singing bowls on the French Cézame label. Early in his career Alain Kremski received an award from the American William and Noma Copley Foundation. His teachers at the Paris Conservatoire included Nadia Boulanger, Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen. At the age of 22 he won the prestigous Prix de Rome for music composition using the pseudonym Alain Petitgard: other recipients of the prize include Berlioz, Debussy and Henri Dutilleux. In the final year of his stay in Italy Kremski was influenced by the controversial Polish-French artist Balthus.

Alain Kremsk is an acclaimed pianist and has made a number of recordings of the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann piano works. In the the theatre and film studio he has worked with Jeanne Moreau, Michael Lonsdale (who synchronicitously appears in the unmissable Of Gods and Men) and arranged the music for Peter Brook's film of G.I. Gurdjieff's Meetings with Remarkable Men. Alain Kremski's path as a composer has led him to writing new music for traditional Eastern instruments and Messian described his compositions as creating "an absolutely new sound world".


Résonance/Mouvements is a multi-track studio production with Alain Kremski, seen above, playing all instruments. The close miked sound is very impressive and if you have the right speakers the bass will turn your innards into synchronicitous soup despite any limitations of the digital format. The work is dance based and is influenced but not limited by the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann oeuvre.

In an illuminating French sleeve note for the recording Alain Kremski categorises Western culture as dualist and limited by the binary notation of 0 and 1 whereas Eastern culture recognises ternary states. He uses Eastern percussion instruments as an example and describes how the binary Western mindset can only accept the two conditions of a gong sounding and silence. By contrast the Eastern mindset accepts a third condition between sounding and silence during which the gong itself has ceased sounding but the resonance can still be felt within the listener. Or in other words the gong and the listener are both floating in a vast synchronicitous soup. Kremski describes this third condition as approaching the ineffable. Which takes us back to the start of this post, because it is this essential ternary or mystical dimension that is at risk when music is heard with a binary mindset or remotely via binary (ie digital) technology.

Some will view the theory that classical music loses its life force when it is pasteurised and Tetra Paked for mass consumption as quackery. They will also doubtless disagree with the idea that encouraging audiences to think outside the binary box is more important than classical charts and Facebook flash mobs. But others will see these ideas as support for the call to move classical music away from hypermediation towards transmission. Both views are, of course, products of the binary mindset. The Eastern mind would seek the ternary viewpoint somewhere between bad science and Eureka!

* Alain Kremski's website with audio samples is here. There was an earlier encounter with him in The great mandala.


* Several paths are floating in a synchronicitous soup at the moment. A Tibetan singing bowl made an appearance in my post about John Tavener's Towards Silence and so did René Guénon's The Crisis of the Modern World. This book champions Eastern mystical culture against Western materialism. Despite being written in 1927 The Crisis of the Modern World is about binary versus tertiary mindsets and is totally relevant to this post. My copy published by Indica Books in Varanasi, India is seen below. More in Towards silence this Christmas.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Résonance/Mouvements was bought at the Harmonia Mundi boutique in Marseille and The Crisis of the Modern World 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, January 17, 2011

Sex, drugs and classical music


Sex, drugs and rock and roll is the familiar adage. But this path explores links between sex, drugs and the music of composers including Igor Stravinsky Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter. Our starting point is the welcome new Beethoven Symphony cycle from the Basel Chamber Orchestra and Giovanni Antonini for the German Oehms Classics label. For those interested in the history of the orchestra their agent Askonas Holt's website explains:
Founded in 1984 by graduates of various Swiss conservatories, the Basel Chamber Orchestra now ranks among Europe’s most highly acclaimed chamber orchestras. The BCO is committed to cultivating the chamber orchestra tradition bequeathed on Basel by Paul Sacher, one of the most important music patrons of the twentieth century.
Which is all rather confusing because Lesley Stephenson's authorised biography of Paul Sacher tells us:
In 1926, [Sacher] achieved his first major ambition: on 4 November his Basler Kammerorchester (Basle Chamber Orchestra - BCO) was officially founded.
Lesley Stephenson then goes on to describe how Sacher's orchestra was disbanded in 1987, three years after the founding of the 'new' BCO, when its patron withdrew his personal funding. But let's ignore the confusing dates and instead dig a little deeper. Paul Sacher (1906-1999) was a conductor and early music champion but is best known for commissioning works from Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Béla Bartók, Bohuslav Martinů, Elliott Carter, Harrison Birtwistle and others. In 1983 Sacher purchased a substantial part of Stravinsky's legacy including original scores and correspondence for US dollars 5.25 million and went on to buy manuscripts of Anton Webern, Elliott Cartet, Lucian Berio, Pierre Boulez and others. These form the basis of the Paul Sacher Foundation which owns one of the most important collections of contemporary music manuscripts.

Towards the end of his life Paul Sacher was reported to be one of the richest men in the world. Sacher had been born into a modest household in Basel but in 1934 he had married the the Hoffmann-La Roche heiress Maja Hoffmann-Stehlin. The pharmaceutical giant's products include Valium and the company has been linked to a number of controversies including vitamin price fixing in the 1970s and the Seveso disaster in Italy in 1976 which caused a large dioxin contamination. In the US Roche markets the cancer and skin condition medication isotretinoin under the brand name Roaccutane and this has been linked to birth defects when taken by pregnant women. Roche Bioscience was created in 1994 following the company's acquisition of Syntex, a pioneer in the development of oral contraceptives.

In a remarkably blunt obituary of Paul Sacher the Economist listed controversies involving Hoffmann-La Roche including how the company relentlessly pursued a corporate whistle-blower in the 1970s, and said:
For almost 60 years, from 1938 until his retirement in 1996, Mr Sacher was an active member of the board of Roche and so only too aware of the controversies that seemed constantly to dog the profitable pharmaceutical group... Yet somehow none of these rows besmirched Mr Sacher’s reputation.
But this path, like drugs, needs to be taken with caution. Hoffman-La Roche's sometimes controversial past must be counterbalanced by the company's continuing contribution to global healthcare. Paul Sacher facilitated the creation of some of the 20th century's greatest music. Despite the unexplained overlap of dates the only link between the 1926 and 1984 Basle Chamber Orchestras seems to be their name and a commitment to Paul Sacher's musical vision. And a new Beethoven Symphony cycle, particularly from an independent label, is always welcome. However the story of Paul Sacher and his Foundation, which today controls, inter alia, the Stravinsky estate, is a thought provoking example of the role of the commerial-intermediary complex in classical music.

* The Beethoven Symphony cycle from the Basle Chamber Orchestra follows recent cycles from Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra, Phillippe Herreweghe and the Royal Flemish Philharmonic and Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Which puts into perspective this prediction from five years ago - 'in fact, no label had issued a (Beethoven) symphonic cycle in three years, and none was likely to do so again'.

** Lesley Stephenson's overtly partisan Symphony of Dreams - the Conductor and Patron Paul Sacher was published in 1992 by the Swiss imprint Rüffer & Rub, ISBN 9783907625101.


Basel (English and German) and Basle (French) are alternative spellings for the same Swiss city. No review materials were used in the preparation of this article. 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 Twitter and Facebook.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lisztomania


Just as the UK decides that a list of the Top 10 classical bestsellers is not a good thing the US decides that a list of the Top 10 classical composers is a good thing.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

The astounding politics of Tunisia


Political unrest in Tunisia following the the removal of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali dominates the world news. One of the best know Tunisian musicians is Anouar Brahem. He was born in the medina in Tunis in 1957 but left the country for France in 1981. He returned in July 2010 for the first time in twenty years for a concert to promote his new ECM album The Astounding Eyes of Rita. There are concerns the unrest will spread to other countries in the Maghreb. My 2010 post about another part of the region is topically titled I am in an even larger prison.

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By-passing the reducing valve

According to Huxley, the mind had what he called a "reducing valve" - the product of its evolution in the harsh realities of day-to-day survival - and that it acted automatically to filter out all the fabulous, super-luminescent suchness of the world as it truly was, leaving instead the bleached, boring, and all-too-ordinary one that I was more used to.
That quote is from Ptolemy Tompkins book The Beaten Path. Ptolemy is the son of Peter Tomkins who wrote the New Age bestseller The Secret Life of Plants. Aldous Huxley's book The Doors of Perception, which the quote refers to, was influential in many ways including providing the name of the rock group The Doors. Huxley's advocacy of mescaline to by-pass the mind's reducing valve is today quite rightly considered unwise. Yet the mass media's chemical-free ways of enhancing the action of the valve so it accepts the bleached, boring, and all-too-ordinary are encouraged. Perhaps this blog should be renamed "By-passing the reducing valve". Keith Jarrett's ECM disc of organ improvisations Spheres was recorded on an 18th century organ in a Benedictine Abbey. He achieved fabulous, super-luminescent suchness by, contrary to accepted practice, pulling some of the organ stops out part way. Which is an excellent and risk-free way of by-passing the reducing valve. The single CD is an edited version of the original 1976 2 LP set Hymns and Spheres. You can still buy the LP set from ECM. But it is a mystery why the label have never transferred the complete original release to CD as, for me, it is one of the best things Keith Jarrett has ever done. Also recommended for a painless reducing valve by-pass is Jarrett's 2 CD set of clavichord improvisations Book of Ways. Despite his 1975 The Köln Concert bankrolling ECM for decades Keith Jarrett has avoided the "one-work performer" tag. But can he avoid the one YouTube video tag? Jim Morrison beyond the doors of perception makes an appearance on another overgrown path.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. All featured discs and books purchased at retail or borrowed from Norwich library. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

Friday, January 14, 2011

An unmediated voyage of discovery


Now that the twelve days promoting the genius of BBC Radio 3 with assistance from Mozart is over the station's homepage has returned to normal. Except there is one difference in today's version. All mention of the classical chart has been dropped. As the station controller and Proms director Roger Wright said just eight months ago:
"The Specialist Classical Chart will be a new and significant part of our Radio 3 programming, providing our listeners with more insights into the classical music recording market.
My own unmediated voyage of discovery has taken me to the music of Iraq and Munir Bashir, genius of the oud. Munir Bashir was born in northern Iraq in 1930 and spent the early part of his career in Baghdad. He left Iraq for Hungary in the early 1960s where he studied with Zoltán Kodály. In 1971 Bashir made a commercial recording for the French national radio station ORTF which launched his career in the West and was largely responsible for popularising the oud with Western audiences. Minir Bashir died in 1997 aged just 67.

The header image shows the CD of the 1971 sessions from the Ocora label. This disc provides compelling aural evidence of why Munir Bashir is known as the "emir of the oud" and couples peerless playing with classic 1970s analogue studio sound and a wonderfully educative sleeve essay from Simon Jargy, chairman of the Arabic and Islamic Studies department at the University of Geneva.. This essay includes the following fascinating explanation of how the maqām system of melodic modes is linked to the mystical strands of Islam and shares common ground with another current thread, dualist doctrines and Gnosticism:
Music then is of divine origin and its genesis is directly linked with Creation and the cosmos: the planets and all the elements of nature form a setting in which music has an integral part. This gives rise to a symbolic vision of the universe, according to which the two principles of creation - the god of good and the god of evil - were both singers and everything is animated to music, which in itself is part of god; the planets which guide man's destiny play a primordial role. Each of the twelve maqām corresponds to one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac. This in turn leads to associations with the four elements: wind, fire, earth and water, as well as with numerals and letters of the alphabet, in a mystical allegory.
Credit should go to the Ocora label for restricting the the CD to the original 41 minute LP programme rather than padding it out with aurally disconnected bonus tracks from other sessions. Ocora was founded in 1957 by composer, pianist and musicologist Charles Duvelle with assistance from Pierre Schaeffer and is now part of Radio France. A 1968 Ocora disc Musique du Burundi spawned the Burundi Beat phenomena which became a UK chart success for Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow and went on to become an underground club classic as well as an example of how copyright for a rhythm is a difficult proposition. And that mention of the charts takes this unmediated voyage of discovery full circle. The invaluable essay for the Munir Bashir disc also contains explanatory musical examples of oud tablature. Or should that be oud charts? More lessons for less lute here.

* An Ocora CD of North Indian ragas featured in a post here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Munir Bashir, The Art of the Oud was purchased 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

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An ocean of shameless kitsch

Mahler wrote his enormous Eighth Symphony in a very short time; its first part is solidly composed, but its second from the first baritone entry, is thrown overboard into an ocean of shameless kitsch from which it is never rescued, least of all in the inflated ending, and it must be regarded as one of his weakest compositions. Such dangers were always liable to trap even the most gifted and intelligent musicians; the higher they aim, the greater the risk of bathos.
That contribution to the current Mahler celebrations comes from Robert Simpson who was no mean composer himself. It appears in Simpson's 1981 book The Proms & Natural Justice which is still available and is essential reading. I hesitate to put words into his mouth, but I believe I am right in saying Bernard Haitink shares Simpson's view of the Eighth Symphony and only conducts it when required to do so as part of a Mahler cycle. Header image is my original 1972 LP set of Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's magnificent account of the same symphony. If you are going to do bathos do it well...

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

While classical music debates nothing changes


'This magic comes only with the sounding of the music, with the turning of the written note into sound - and it only comes (or comes most intensely) when the listener is one with the composer, either as a performer himself, or as a listener in active sympathy' - Benjamin Britten
Recent articles here about whether classical music responds to mass marketing and social media have generated considerable interest. So I thought it worthwhile to create a straw model which summarises the thrust of the articles and that is the purpose of this post. The straw model is remarkably simple and is built around the following four propositions.

1. Classical music engages new audiences most effectively by direct transmission to what Britten describes as as "a listener in active sympathy".

2. Despite this classical music today is characterised by hypermediation, meaning there are more and more intermediary layers appearing between performer and audience.

3. These intermediary layers present an obstacle to the essential transmission process. Therefore hypermediation is a barrier to engaging new audiences.

4. To eliminate this barrier classical music should move away from hypermediation towards direct transmission.

To illustrate this straw model I have constructed two schematics which can be enlarged by left clicking on them. The first schematic shows the increasingly prevalent hypermediation model. This is a pyramid with a few high profile performers at the peak and a range of intermediaries refracting the transmission to the largest possible audience. The problem though is that, as shown by the shading, the transmission is weakened as it passes through the layers of intermediaries.


My second schematic shows the transmission model. This flattens the pyramid and has many performers engaged in direct transmission to audiences with only a limited number of intermediaries involved. As the shading shows this results in a bettter quality of engagement with the audience.


At which point I will doubtless be accused of stating the obvious. Surely very few people will disagree with the proposition that more live music and music education will increase audience engagement? So why is classical music moving at at an ever-increasing rate away from transmission towards hypermediation?

In his 1961 farewell address President Eisenhower famously warned:
...we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.
Classical music has allowed its own version of the military-industrial comples to gain influence. This commercial-intermediary complex inhibits transmission from performer to audience. And in my view, it is responsible in great part for the problems facing classical music today.

The commercial-intermediary complex is an interlinked hornet's nest of management agents, publishers, media companies, concert promoters, and PR and marketing consultancies. Their business model is the re-purposing of mass marketing techniques (PR spin, chart radio, TV talent shows, payola etc) for use with classical music. This despite there being very little tangible evidence that such re-purposing works, in fact there is more evidence suggesting it doesn't.

Rock music is for created for electronic media and translates with considerable compromise to live performance. Classical music is created for live performance and translates with considerable compromise to electronic media. Which does not stop the commercial-intermediary complex treating classical as though it was rock to further their own interests. Similarly text book examples of the transmission model such as El Sistema have been hijacked into the hypermediation model by the intermediaries.

Virtualisation and miniaturisation the currency of mass marketing. Classical music is averse to both virtualisation and miniaturisation because its raison d'être, live performance, cannot be virtualised or miniaturised. Which does not stop the commercial-intermediary complex offering virtualisation and miniaturisation as the solution to almost every problem facing classical music. Gone is pride in the creative process, for as Paul Griffiths said so eloquently in his introduction to the 2010 ECM catalogue:
We live in strange times. Such pride seems not to feature on MBA courses; it would get in the way.
This is a straw model not an academic paper. Inevitably it draws on personal experience and anecdotal evidence. But it also draws on quantitative data such as Google trends and RAJAR audience figures. Some will ask if the views a composer expressed in 1964, when the technological landscape could not have been more different, still apply. As I typed this post a comment arrived in response to another post that drew on a Britten quote, Is the loudspeaker the enemy of classical music? The comment came from California based Richard Friedman who is not only heavily involved in contemporary music but is also at the cutting edge of new technology. Did Richard dismiss Britten's views as anachronistic? No, here is his 21st century view take on classical music:
The solution is more exposure to live concerts. But the concert world has priced itself out of existence. When I lived in NYC (in a previous century) I went to 3+ concerts/week, and they were quite affordable. These days we don't go to concerts at all .. can't afford the $40 and up. And the way concerts are programmed these days, there's rarely more than one piece on the program worth the cost.

Very sad affair. There is nothing that can surpass hearing music live, without domestic distractions. Unfortunately it's becoming a very rare occasion.
I offer this straw model for further debate. Inevitably it simplifies and polarises. But it is my view that the healthy future of classical music depends on a move from disintermediation to transmission. That can only start with the realisation that the commercial-intermediary complex needs classical music more than classical music needs the commercial-intermediary complex. While the debate continues nothing changes. And while nothing changes the intermediaries remain in clover.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Diagrams are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Header quote is from Britten's 1964 Aspen Award acceptance speech. 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). With thanks to music therapist Lyle Sanford whose linked post prompted me to continue down this path. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk